Saturday, 31 January 2009

On being an immigrant

Exactly two years ago today, we were spending our last night on English shores (in a Travelodge in Dover, for heaven's sake!). On the one hand, it seems scarcely credible to me that such a wad of time has gone by; on the other, it's actually quite hard to remember what it was like to live there not here. Tomorrow, a chicken will be roasted and a good bottle of wine opened to honour our 731st day here; today, as I collected up storm-broken branches and swept millions of oak leaves into ever-increasing piles, I reflected on the experience of being an immigrant.

Rumination number one: I am still 100% happy to be here. Indeed I can't imagine that changing, although I have to be aware that it may, at some point in an indefinable future. Our timing was perhaps not the best, given la crise and in particular the collapse of sterling, which for the moment provides much of our income. But then again, had we followed Plan B and deferred for two years, we may not have been able to come at all ... and one of the things I find most difficult - insupportable, even - is the regret that comes from not having done something. 

Rumination number two: I've come to see that in spite of all the time I may have spent in France over the last - gulp - 35 years (and it's a lot: all over the country, at all times of the year, on short and longer trips); however reasonably I may speak the language; however much I may (think I) know about the country and culture ... in spite of all of that, living here - open-endedly and with nowhere else to call home - is a whole different kettle of poisson. For some reason this has rather surprised me. I'm certainly no great Anglophile, feel no particular loyalty to the country in which I was born and grew up and haven't missed England in any way. But the fact remains that it was there that I grew up, not here. And there's the rub.

It's easy to assume that living in France is only slightly different from living in England - a bit like moving to Scotland, say - and therefore that things like disorientation and culture shock don't apply. If I had a euro for every time I've heard an English incomer describe France as being "like England 50 years ago" I'd be doing very nicely, thank you. But, you know, France is really not like England. True, the people may look a bit like us; some of the countryside here is reminiscent of an England-with-more-space. But it also has a very different culture, underpinned by a wholly different way of looking at the world and a highly precise, grammatically regulated language that both supports and is supported by it. (It's no surprise, for example, that the word 'correct' is one of the most used here, in every context from language use to price to behaviour to flavour). The rules of the game are different, from the way people interact with each other to attitudes to work and play; from the role of the family to the purpose and manner of education; from the way cultural minorities are perceived to the way politics is done, both locally and nationally. It really is as though a French person sees the world through different glasses, is moved by different bone and muscle.

And so even if I live here for another 50 years, I will always be different. An outsider, to some degree; one who hasn't absorbed from birth the value system, the educational system, the political system and the structure of society that those systems have created. Never mind the degree to which I may have engaged in French life, been accepted by French people or been assimilated into French culture and ways. I am a stranger - une étrangère. Interesting, isn't it, that that word means both foreigner and stranger?

Now maybe if I didn't speak much French, read English papers, watched English television, made friends largely with other English immigrants, didn't bother myself very much with French life and saw my time here as a kind of extended holiday (yes, it happens), I wouldn't be aware of, or touched by, any of this and France would remain, from behind my rose-tinted spectacles, the kind of mythical olden England of my fantasy. But those of us who've come to be, or at least try to be, a real live part of our adopted society are left with no option but to face the disorientation involved in being, at some level, a perpetual stranger. 

And yet for all the 'how to move to France' guides, there is little if anything spoken or written about any of this. Apparently, around a third of UK immigrants to France return to the UK after just two years; I've even seen figures as high as an 80% return rate after five years. Had I moved to India, or Thailand, or Japan, or anywhere with an outwardly different culture, I would no doubt be geared up for a fully-fledged bout of culture shock. Here, the differences are inner rather than outer. But no less real.

I'm not saying that any of this makes me less happy than I could be. I'm probably as well prepared for it as anyone: I'm an only child with no living family, have moved countless times since the age of 18, lived all over England (and, briefly, in Wales), changed lifestyle, name, work and social circles (and partners!) ... all of which makes me into a bit of a rootless soul, I guess. Since I was a young girl, I, like many people, have always had a sense of being slightly 'different' - of being not quite in tune with the culture surrounding me, of wearing different glasses, if you like. I've always rather liked that; it means not only that I'm a perpetual 'searcher' but also that I'm a sucker for new experience, both outer and inner. So two years on, I'm more than content with the way my life here is developing. Although I admit that a little less plumbing would be nice ...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Les intempéries

I love that word. So much nicer than 'bad weather'. And definitely nicer than the storm that ploughed its way across south-west France yesterday. We were warned: Metéo France put numerous departments on Alerte Rouge - the highest kind of severe 'don't go out on pain of death' weather warning, used only for the kind of rare phenomenon that happens once every ten years or so, the last time being the huge storm of 1999 which brought down millions of trees and killed 88 people. This time, we were once again to expect winds of near-hurricane levels, up to 160 km an hour. Bizarrely, whilst every other department across the south-west, from Pyrénées Atlantiques to Pyrénées Orientales, was on Alerte Rouge, Ariège - which sits right in the middle of the storm's projected path - was only on Alerte Orange, as if the storm was somehow supposed to go round us.

Which it did, in a fashion. It was windy. Very, very windy. But I'd guess that our winds were maybe around 100 or 120 km an hour rather than the 180-odd touched in Landes, Gironde, Perpignan and on the Aude coast. In Aude, our neighbouring department, the Prefect actually decreed at lunchtime that all shops and shopping centres of more than 1000 square metres must close immediately, leaving customers and staff inside 'for their own safety', and banned all traffic from the roads - even the pompiers unless it was a situation of life or death. 

So what of Grillou? Well, we lost electricity at around 10am yesterday morning, phone a little later and mobile phone signal a little later still. We covered the freezer in quilts and blankets, lit the wood burner and settled in for the long haul - we were in France during the aftermath of the 1999 hurricane, when it took three weeks to restore power to every household. Listening on fading batteries to SudRadio's special day-long 'solidarity' programme, I discovered that we were just one of 1,700,000 households without power. We watched as the storm hit; millions of particles of lichen flew around, creating a kind of green blizzard; tree branches broke off and zoomed past the windows. The trees around us bent to unbelievable angles in the gusts; some came down, a few more lost their tops. Our beautiful ancient oaks, fortunately, escaped unscathed. So, but unfortunately, did the five huge leylandii planted (for reasons that escape me, given my lifetime loathing for the things) by our predecessors that are on the A list for cutting down as soon as the weather improves. The trees, that is, not our predecessors.

By five thirty the worst winds had passed, on towards the Mediterranean coast where they inflicted huge damage. We went into camping mode and cooked by oil- and gas-light, ate by candlelight and walked around the house with our LED head-lamps on. This morning, we awoke to find our power and telephone had been restored. It's a gloriously sunny and warm day; the air resounds to the sound of chainsaws (including ours) as everybody sets to to clear land, roads and chemins. Over the course of the the storm, four people died, several more were injured; many, many communes, particularly those close to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean where the winds hit speeds never before seen in France, will be today surveying serious damage; over a million households are still without electricity; some of the worst hit areas are today under flood alert as yet more heavy rain swells rivers that are already in, or close to, flood. We have been lucky.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

French as he is spoke

These days, on the rare occasion when I haven't got some part of my anatomy stuck down a waste pipe or in a hole in the floor (plumbing never was quite my can of beans), I'm often to be found somewhere on the premises waving my arms around, making strange shapes with my mouth and chanting the same syllables repetitively at loud volume. This is called Working on John's French.

Because I went to a so-called 'high-flying' girls' grammar school (we wore berets and boaters and weren't allowed to eat in the street. We were also taught that we were better than anyone else, which is a difficult one when it finally comes home to you that you're not), I learned French from good teachers - often native speakers - from the word go, so I managed to get myself a pretty decent accent even before I spent time working here. John wasn't so lucky. For reasons presumably best known to themselves, his parents sent him to a small private school in Salisbury which was frequented by other boys from farming families and run by the kind of teachers (and I use the term loosely) who couldn't get any other sort of work anywhere else. He tells me that French was indeed on the curriculum for a couple of years, but the only word he knew when I first met him was cocorico. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Hmm. 

John's been ploughing away at learning the language ever since we decided to move here, and especially since we arrived. He goes to a session at the Resto du Coeur, an association that works in all sorts of ways with disadvantaged and disempowered people of all kinds, where volunteer tutors - including our friend and neighbour who has made a bit of a personal project out of John's French! - work with with immigrants for whom French is a second language. There, he's part of an eclectic group which includes a Punjabi Sikh, an Afghan, an Italian, a Vietnamese, several Moroccans, and one other English person. He's already got a decent enough vocabulary, and a reasonable amount of grammar. But, you know, when you're of a certain age, it's tough: your vocal cords are, quite literally, set in their ways, and producing sounds you've never made before is much more difficult than it is when you're eleven. And when you come originally from Wiltshire, then lived for nearly 30 years in Birmingham, and have a tendancy to make two vowel syllables out of every one, it's even worse ... 

The problem is that French - even our local heavily accented French - is spoken phonetically, with vowel sounds that are very clear and distinct and with a particular 'music' that is very different from the much more monotone and mumbled English language. Watch an English person - especially a southern English person - speaking their native language, and you'll see that very often their mouth barely moves. Problem. French requires a much more mobile mouth, which is physically tiring and which, quite frankly, many adult learners find embarrassing. Because they're embarrassed, new speakers often half swallow their words instead of projecting them forward in the French way. Problem compounded.

It's not just about getting it right for getting it right's sake: it's about being understood, for what might sound to us like a miniscule shift in a vowel sound often produces a completely different tense or even a different word, and a blank look. So we've been doing some speech therapy. 

"ai  u  i" I say, loudly, from one end of the room, making an arm movement along with each sound to help anchor it.

"ay-ee  oo  eee-ee" John replies, doing his best to be a ventriloquist.

Me: "est".  John: "ay-yi". 

Me: "bouteille".  John: "bootoiee".

And so on. Endlessly, until his reluctant vocal cords and mouth muscles give in gracefully. Until the next session.

It's getting easier. But after - well, let's just say quite a lot of years of saying sounds one way, it's a bit like a piece of elastic that gets stretched, but then jumps back into default position as soon as you let go. Hence the arm movements, which are a bit of a bodily trick - a way of anchoring the sound physically so that the body, not the brain, is in charge of remembering.

So should you be around and about Grillou or Saint Girons or even Toulouse, and see a middle aged man walking round waving his arms, making faces and yelling vowel sounds, don't be alarmed. No need to call a doctor, or the emergency social services. It's just John, in mid session. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A hole in the ground

Winter has arrived at Grillou. Several centimetres of powdery snow fell yesterday - a day when the other side of the valley disappeared completely from view, and it barely bothered to get light at all before dusk fell again. Today, the skies are still heavy, there are occasional snow flurries, and our highest temperature has been minus 4 degrees. Mind you, that's positively balmy compared to the north and east of France, which is shivering under temperatures of minus 15. Cold air streams from Scandinavia and Siberia, I gather. We've been amusing ourselves trying to identify all the animal tracks which have been left in the snow overnight and which show just how busy things are here when we're out of it all under the duvet. Oh yes, and topping up the birds' food (there are around 40 of them on and around the feeders at any one time today) and breaking the ice in their water bowl every hour.

Knowing that the cold spell was on the way, we'd spent the last few days turning over the new bit of potager. Actually, we've got ourselves into a bit of a hole here, so to speak. Last spring we decided to mulch the whole area (it's an extension of one of our current beds) with left over cardboard removal boxes and straw - sound permaculture advice which we've followed before to really good effect. Huh! When we took what remained of the mulch off in early November, we were faced with a slimy, smelly sea of sludge that you could skate on (when you were bored with alliterating, that is). It bubbled, gurgled, ponged to high heaven and was distinctly not diggable. I remain baffled to know quite what went wrong, but after two months it was still looking decidedly dodgy and Something Had To Be Done. So we set to with the spades, turning over ton-weight clods in the hope that the frost would do the rest ready for us to rotovate in February. All very fit-making. I'm told that one day I may even be able to walk upright again.

This was, as you might have gathered, not a pleasant experience. A treat was therefore in order. So. Bottle of something bubbly? Some posh fish? A nice bit of saignant steak? Nah. I decided to build a fire pit.

One of the things that happens when you've just got so many essential things to do on your house is that only the essentials ever get done, so doing something just-for-the-hell-of-it becomes fun. I've wanted to build a fire pit in the area we call the willow garden for a year now - there's a kind of natural mini stone circle there that's just crying out for a fire in the middle of it, with people to sit round it, and cook on it, and sing, and tell stories. To me there really is something magical about a campfire: people who'd lose interest in a TV programme in minutes are transfixed for hours staring into its flames, and sharing a fire - sharing light in the darkness - is one of the fastest, oldest and deepest ways to create community. I lived for some time in a small community in England whose raison d'être was running alternative camps - dance, song, meditation, healing, celebrating the ancient festivals - and for several months of the year I would smell indelibly of wood smoke, as camp life takes place within circles of tents pitched around fires. Each circle becomes a community within a community, sharing daily life, cooking, stories, support and an incredible amount of relational depth, with the fire holding the space at the centre. I miss it.

So Grillou's garden now has a hearth. If you're inspired and want to build a fire pit yourself, here's how I did it:

I lifted the turf (if this were to be a temporary pit it would be replaced when I'd finished using it) then dug a circular hole, around a metre and a half wide and 40 centimetres deep, and flattened out the bottom.

Then, to help with drainage, I covered the bottom of the hole with some gravel that was knocking about.

On top of the gravel I set down several flat rocks to make a base for the fire, then spread around some old building sand to bed them in. Finally, I built a kind of retaining wall inside and around the circle using some of the thousands (I'm not kidding) of rocks that litter our land. It's not essential to do this - I wouldn't do it on a temporary pit, for instance - but as well as holding the shape it makes for a more attractive pit.

Then, on a chilly but just-about-sunny afternoon, I made a baby fire, and we sat round gazing at it for a couple of hours ... Next step will be sawing up a couple of tree trunks to make some seats, then I can look forward to some smoke-and-song-filled evenings this year and onwards ...

So, a very happy, healthy and (as far as can be) sufficiently prosperous 2009 to everyone. For us this will be The Year of Grand Disruption: the major work on our guest accommodation starts, finally, in spring, ready for all of you this time next year ....