Friday, 27 February 2009

Signs of spring

So my dummy-on-the-floor tantrum ("I want spring and I want it now") of last week has paid off; for four days the weather here has been just beautiful - cloudless blue skies, and more than warm enough to work outside all day in shorts and tee shirt. And work we have. Brambles have been cleared, the new potager has been tilled, several tonnes of ivy have been yanked off walls and rocks, and a lorry load of plants has been planted, including three new fruit trees. I can barely stand up straight, but hey, it beats the soil pipe ...

Suddenly, and as if by magic, nature is responding to the onset of spring. Trees and shrubs are springing into bud. Yellow and purple crocuses and bright yellow narcissi are in flower all over the garden. It's impossible to walk across the grass without treading on a carpet of sweet violets. There are lizards, and bright yellow brimstone butterflies, everywhere. We have, after the long months of silence, birdsong: the robins, wrens, tits, finches, thrushes, nuthatches and many others are in full voice as they compete for mates and territory; even the blackbirds, traditionally more reticent in starting their song, are trying out a few of this year's phrases when they think no-one's listening.

But most extraordinary of all: we have nightingales already. Singing nightingales. Just before sunset tonight, as I slumped in an exhausted and undignified heap at a table in the willow garden to watch the sun go down, I heard their unmistakeable song from the woodland just a couple of metres behind me. Having convinced myself that I wasn't hallucinating, and that it really wasn't a thrush impersonating a nightingale (it wasn't), I sat back and enjoyed their performance - there were three of them - for more than half an hour.

The light is returning.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Trees for life

Grillou is, quite literally, lost in the woods. Everywhere you look, there are trees: willow, ash, alder, chestnut, hornbeam, holly, wild plum, apple, pear, oak ... Living here is like being rooted in the heart of the forest itself. It's impossible not to feel a deep connection to the trees, the land, the earth itself. There isn't a point at which Grillou ends and the woodland starts: the trees are a part of us: they are our neighbours, our community, involved in our day to day life.

Trees give our home and land its very particular energy: ancient, knowing, powerful and bizarrely content. They watch over us. They mark the turning of the seasons. They shelter all kinds of birds and other wildlife.

Ancient myths speak of oak tree spirits that watch over those living close by. Our two old oak trees stand like silent sentinels, guardians of the place and its people. Working in the garden today, I couldn't take my eyes off them, or my energy away from them.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

On being Slow

It's occurred to me, given some of my recent posts, that you must think I spend my entire life stuffed halfway down a soil pipe. I admit there is some truth in this. It feels as though we've been rebuilding our downstairs loo now for most of my adult life, and although progress is being made and rumour has it that we may well finish it this year, it's been a painfully slow and tedious job, for all sorts of (mainly) good reasons. 

Not least of which is that at the same time, I'm deeply embroiled in the final details of sourcing and spec-ing for The Work to our guest accommodation. Because yes, I can at last report that artisans have been found, devis have been signed, deposits have been paid; work will be starting in earnest in May, and is anticipated to take 122.5 days (yes, really) - with a break for les grandes vacances, naturally. After more than a year, with not a few false starts along the way, I can barely believe it myself. In the end, and most importantly when we were ready - practically, and psychologically - for it to happen, the process of finding the right person to mastermind the job proved to be a much simpler one than we expected; a relationship was made straight away and my gut instinct just said yes.  

We ourselves are taking on a fair amount of the work. Partly because we want to; partly because we can; and partly, frankly, because we need to to keep within budget. So, for example, amongst numerous other things, John's doing all of the outside work: creating terraces, building paths and steps and all the rest; I'm stripping and sanding and refinishing three floors and four staircases, putting in a new loo (yes, again!), upgrading a shower room with new plumbing and fittings, and tiling nearly 200 square metres of wall and floor; and together we'll be fitting over 100 metres of new skirting board and other woodwork, and putting around 120 litres of paint and limewash on the walls. 

I've become umbilically attached to my project file; even though I may not always know what day it is, I can spout for hours about the precise differences between this shower mixer and that one, or about the r values of different kinds of insulating materials, or about the drying times of hemp plaster. I suspect I'm perhaps not the world's most scintillating company just now, though you'd have to ask other people about that one.

The biggest challenge of all is going to be managing, and doing, all of this without losing the sense of Slow. We're going to be working eight or nine hours a day, probably to the point of physical exhaustion, over six days a week, for at least the next ten months. So how on earth, as a friend said to me recently, can that be Slow? Surely it's an oxymoron?

I don't think it is. Slow, as I understand it, is not literal. It has nothing to do with clock time, or with doing everything at a snail's pace. Rather, it's about doing things at the Right pace - right in the Buddhist sense, that is. It's as much about process as about product - valuing the journey, as well as the destination; being present in it, as well as being able to take time to stand outside and look back in. Put simply, if we're not going to engage with and have fun with the process of doing this work; if we're doing what we're doing just to save money; if we're going to plough through it with hidden resentment just wishing it were finished ... well then there would be no point.

But there's more. Hard to define, beyond a kind of know-it-when-you-see-it 'aha!' moment, but it's something to do with a sense of truthfulness, of authenticity: to ourselves, for sure, to but also to this house, to the land around it, to its history and its pays; to the materials we're using, the skills that we're bringing to the work and those that we're learning from it; to quality, to creativity and to simplicity; to relationship: with the environment, with each other and with those we're working alongside; and not least, to the process itself.

I think we have a choice. We can either look on the next year or so as sheer bloody hard graft, go onto auto-pilot, get everything done as quickly and as unthinkingly as possible, and simply look forward to the day it's over; or we can Slow right down, become a part of the process itself, and live it, with mindfulness - the good, the bad and the plain old indifferent, all lived in the moment, each moment.

A man walking across a field encountered 
a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. 
Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a 
wild vine and swung himself over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above. 
Terrified, the man looked down to where, 
far below, another tiger had come, 
waiting to eat him. 
Two mice, one white and one black, 
little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. 
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.
Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked 
the strawberry with the other. 
How sweet it tasted!

Zen parable.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Who did you say I was?

Several years ago, travelling back from one of our winter jaunts to somewhere in the south, we stayed overnight in a little auberge in the Touraine. Freezing cold evening, tiny village in the middle of nowhere, red check tableclothes, lots of wood, simple room and good food. That kind of thing. After the statutory wander round the village, we repaired to the bar for an apéro, where we we were the only customers apart from a couple of red-faced, pastis-drinking, blue-overalled ouvriers. With my nose buried behind the local paper, I did what I always do: I listened in to their conversation. It went something like this.

"Aaah ouais"

Thirty seconds gap.

"Thursday today"

A minute's gap.


Another minute's gap.

"That'll be Friday tomorrow, then".

A minute's gap.


Thirty seconds gap.


Another minute's gap.

"Market day, Friday".


A minute's gap.


"That'll be Saturday, then, then".

Another minute's gap.

"Ah ouais".

A good two minutes' gap.

"Aaah ouais - the weekend, eh, voila, quoi ...".

I remember this conversation not only because of its sparkling wit and repartee, but because it actually took place on Wednesday, not on Thursday. Oh, how we smiled to ourselves, in that smug and patronising way that metropolitains have when faced with deep rurality ...

Except that now the boot is on the other foot, so to speak. This week I have been so convinced that Tuesday was Monday, and Wednesday was Tuesday, that I have missed an appointment and also failed miserably to contact someone when I promised to do so. I can excuse myself by saying that when your head is down a soil pipe all the days of the week look the same. But in truth, I suspect that living in La France Profonde has got to me at last.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Where's John Humphrys when you need him?

In the UK I was a great fan of John Humphrys, the - how can I put this? - somewhat 'robust' presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Although I'm not a morning person, his uncompromising ten-past-eight interviews with wriggling politicians somehow got through to me even when I was dreaming away in another universe. These days, it's Marc-Olivier Fogiel and the morning programme on Europe 1 that has my allegiance - Nicolas Canteloup's satirical impressionist spot in particular is unmissable, especially now I've been here long enough to get the in jokes - but there are times when I'd dearly love to see a Humphrys-type character on my screen or airwaves.

Last night was one of those times. As a response to last week's demonstrations and strikes, President Sarkozy decided to Appear Before The Nation. This isn't entirely unusual here: sometimes it's a formal state of the nation type address; on other occasions, like last night, it's a staged interview with the news editors of the main TV channels, shown live and simultaneously on TF1, France2 and M6 plus broadcast on several radio stations.

I'm not the type to be generally impressed by politicians or statesmen, but I have to concede that Sarkozy was impressive; mesmerising, even. He spoke for 90 minutes, with great presence, logic, fluency, coherence - and no notes. Okay, not quite an Obama, but very - well, presidential. (And I gather from the French papers that he rather upset Gordon Brown too when he criticised the UK's anti-crise VAT reduction ... hey ho). Amongst other things, he defended his refusal to fight la crise by increasing consumption, put a few new social measures on the table, and made overtures towards the unions. 

His interviewers - four in all - were sadly less impressive. A host of rather predictable questions, one or two half-hearted attempts to challenge something he said or get him to be more precise, and that was that. There was only one person in control, and that was Sarkozy. He played the interviewers off one by one, focusing his attention and eye contact quite deliberately on the weakest, Laurence Ferrari of TF1 (the only woman), whom he addressed throughout as 'Laurence Ferrari' as opposed to the three male interviewers, who were each honoured with a 'Monsieur'. Laurence, unfortunately, seemed stunned into silence and smiled inanely for most of the 90 minutes, occasionally attempting a question which was usually ignored. I was, for a while, embarrassed to be a woman ... All in all it was a masterpiece of psychological manipulation by our president. Fascinating though it was, by the end of it I was longing for a John Humphrys type character to come along and weigh in to the proceedings with his characteristic steel capped boots ... 

We don't have a tradition here of rough and tumble interviewing, especially of the president. Laurence Ferrari's predecessor, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, known as PPDA, had a gentle way of getting under politicians' skins, but he was summarily 'removed' from his role last summer after 20-odd years (some say at the request of the president ...). It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that as Sarkozy takes an ever more Berlusconi-type interest in the media, the ability and/or willingness of broadcasters to ask more searching questions diminishes ...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Let there be light ...

Going ...

Going ...

And (almost) gone!

Oh frabjous day ... the leylandii are no more! A couple of hours on the chainsaw, eight hours chopping and shredding, fifty or so big bags of shreddings hauled up to our woodland and scattered to make a carpet ... and we have light. Although there's still a lot of work to do, it's already transformed that part of the garden - and take note, dear guests-of-the-future: see that huge pile of green on the ground? That is (or at least will be when it grows up) your south-east facing, and now unopposedly sunny, breakfast terrace!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Dream on. Or not.

A couple of days ago, one of those glossy English magazines devoted to the idea of moving to France dropped, out of the blue, into my postbox. Never being one to look a gift read in the mouth I flipped idly through it after lunch today. Pretty pictures, the odd interesting article. After a while, though, I began to feel reality slip away from beneath my feet, and I began to wonder whether I and the magazine's publishers inhabit the same reality. A few random quotations:

Try to visit the area you plan to buy in before you buy.
Hmm. Good idea. Wouldn't have thought of that.

It could be useful to pick up a copy of the local newspaper to see what's happening in your chosen area.
Or that.

France isn't being affected by the economic crisis.
Oh really? Try telling that to the people losing their jobs (like some of those in the paper and textile industries here in Ariège, for instance), or to some of the estate agents here that are closing down overnight, or to those desperately trying to get a loan to buy their first house ... France isn't being as badly affected by la crise, because unlike the UK it hasn't based its whole economy on virtual money. But affected it is. According to an opinion poll yesterday, 62% of French people believe the government isn't doing enough to counteract the effects of la crise, and 61% hope that the unions will call on people to repeat last week's action.

There's a strong chance that sterling will surge against the euro and may well hit 1.40 during 2009.
Umm - no comment. 

Get away from it all.
Enticing, to a degree, maybe. And a good reason for taking a holiday, for sure. But moving yourself lock, stock and barrel to France to get away from everything you don't like in the UK? No way. For heaven's sake come here for positive reasons, not negative ones, otherwise in two years time everything will start to look greener back on the other side of the fence again. And be aware that wherever you go, you'll take yourself with you ...

Live the dream.
I came across no less than five instances of this little phrase (actually, there may have been more, but by now I was fast losing the will to live at all, let alone live the dream ...). I have an irrational hatred of this particular expression, and of the concept behind it. It's so - well, fluffy. It implies a move into a society where life is perfect: where the sun always shines, bureaucracy always smiles at you, there's no discrimination, no poverty, no unemployment, no exclusion, no depression, no suicide, no teenage binge drinking ... Let's be clear here. To live in France is to live in the real world, not in a world of perfect fantasy. Yes, I love it here, but it's not (thank goodness) utopia.  

No, I'd be no good at selling glossy magazines.