Friday, 29 May 2009

We have plumbing, we have hemp, and we have ... landfill

This has been a good week. (Mainly. More of that in a minute).

We've finished destroying two ancient shower rooms, chiselled off more white tiles than you'd need to open a shop, knocked down a wall or two and a few bits of serious concrete, and become very friendly with the guy at our local déchetterie, who now thinks we have nothing better to do than to visit three times a day with a trailer full of building rubble. Plays hell with the fingernails, but it's great for my arm muscles, which haven't been so - er - obvious since the days when I used to unload and dry up 144 heavy white plates from the dishwasher every night.

We had an exciting moment (yes, I know, sad) when a fork lift truck from our lovely builders' merchants in Saint Girons actually made it down our narrow, rocky track (weight limit: 3 tonnes) with a huge pallet of stone for the new terrace (weight carried: 8 tonnes). Oh, and it's coming again next week, twice. Don't tell the local council. Don't you just love France?

Following the complex task of completely replumbing, from scratch, the rooms in our new guest accommodation, Wednesday saw the Ceremonial Turn On: and yes, we have water, we have waste and we have no leaks. Not one. Not even a dribble. I - unlike our uber-perfectionist artisan (it takes one to know one) who spent several nervous minutes pacing and biting his nails before we turned on the stopcocks - expected nothing less. But it was cause for a bit of a celebration nonetheless.

We have hemp. Two thousand litres of it, ready to be mixed with sand and lime to make an insulating plaster for the stone walls in what will be the bedroom of L'Atelier. Now this is really exciting: it's brilliantly environment-friendly, hugely effective, and pretty damned attractive to boot. It's also how I first met The Uber-Perfectionist. Long story.

And finally, after half a millenium of wet weather delay, we've managed to start digging out and preparing the ground for a new car parking area, a dining terrace and a stepped path to L'Atelier. It's backbreaking clod-by-clod work, largely because the ground is so wet, but hey, it's only 69 square metres ...

And here comes the yes-but. Ever since we've moved in I've wondered why there was a strange shaped grassy hummock outside the door of L'Atelier; today I found out. It's a landfill site.

Sand, gravel, big pebbles, small pebbles, bits of broken tile, bits of broken glass, bottle tops, medicine labels, a Belgian franc, a shoe, a belt buckle, bits of skeleton ... okay, the last one's a lie. Possibly. 

Don't you just love France?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Slow Retreats

I've just spent a very Slow, peaceful hour sitting in the garden in complete darkness. It was warm, but not silent: the rhythmic sounds of crickets (grilloux), grasshoppers, bushcrickets and the occasional insomniac cicada filled the air along with owl calls and the usual unidentified scrapings and scufflings of Grillou at night. It was the perfect end-of-day retreat, better than the best chill-out music.

I had an email from Carl Honoré this afternoon. Not that I know the guy personally, you understand (Carl, in case you've not encountered him, is the author of the book In Praise of Slow) - we've only ever exchanged a couple of emails - but I've been a member of Slow Planet since its inception. The email was announcing the 'first-ever' Slow Retreat, programmed to take place in Umbria this coming October: a week in a delicious looking farmhouse offering the chance to "explore and experience the ideas behind the book that defined the international Slow Movement with the author himself; a chance to connect with your inner tortoise, reset your metronome and reinvent your life". Sounds good ... and only £1299, too. Hmmm. Clearly you need to be pretty wealthy to be Slow (for most households around here, ours included, that represents over a month's income ...). 

Readers who've kept up to date with our plans for Grillou, and who dip into our 'proper' website from time to time, will know that for several months we've been planning to offer Slow Retreats here. And indeed we shall do so, though they'll cost you considerably less than £1299. (But there again you won't get a famous author as your mentor - just yourselves, and us, and of course Grillou, which could probably do the business all on its own ...). In case this is all news to you, here's the blurb:

"For people who want to take some time out and discover for themselves how to live more Slowly, we'll be offering Slow Retreats, periods of three or four days during which we'll explore our own relationship with time, and practice the art of slowing down. Good (Slow!) Food and wine, simple meditation practices, Slow Walks and play will form the core of these retreats, with plenty of time for reflection and space simply to be in Grillou's bucolic surroundings. This is a retreat to lift the spirit and (re)discover life's slow and simple pleasures, not one for existential angst or self-flagellation ... but beware, it might just change your life!"

End of Shameless Plug Number 654 ....

Friday, 15 May 2009

Dust to dust

So, at last, and at the exact date and time agreed several months ago, the work to create our guest acccommodation began at the beginning of last week. Life with our artisans is actually - are you ready for this? - hugely enjoyable: good work, good progress, and good company. We have chosen well. Just as well, as we're all going to be working along side each other for four months or more ...

They've brought one or two things with them ...

Oh, so that's what a work bench is for ...

While they deal with Big Stuff like wiring and ventilation and insulation and knocking walls down and hemp'n'lime plastering and creating a new bathroom and 101 other things, I'm spending half my time welded to my project file, half writing cheques, and the other half (yes, the days really are that long) engaged in demolition. And it's truly amazing what a few swings of the lump hammer reveals: a huge bathroom sink surround made of reinforced concrete; cardboard used to fill a gap between an old shower tray and the inlet pipes; strange plumbing that goes in and out and up and down and then in and out again just to get to the same spot it started from. Hmm. (It's true to say that the French are only now beginning to discover that plumbing looks better if you can't see it. And then only if the plumber is under 30).

So, where there were rooms, now is chaos. Where there were floors, now is dust. Where once was slightly reddish hair (okay, okay, it's henna'd, right?), now is white.

My life in a nutshell:


Hey ho.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Feathery tales

For anyone fascinated by birds (and how can you not be?), early May is a particularly awesome time to be at Grillou. The Main Attraction, of course, is the almost continuous song, from dawn to dusk and beyond: blackbirds, thrushes, robins, blackcaps, various finches and warblers, nightingales, tits, wrens and dunnocks are the prima donnas, whereas the chorus is provided by the cuckoos, woodpeckers, turtle doves and hoopoes, and sporadic acts of drama by buzzards, black and red kites, the occasional eagle and other raptors. At this time of year it's all very in your face, to use that inelegant expression: the wrens have a habit of sneaking up behind you and suddenly bursting into energetic song; every morning, from before dawn, a blackbird sings just a couple of metres from our bedroom; and I opened the bathroom windows yesterday morning to be confronted by a nightingale in full flood in the maple tree less than an arm's length away (he just looked at me, grinned, and carried on as if I wasn't there ...). And so on.

A black kite in motion

I've always enjoyed watching birds - caught it, I think, from my mother, who would sit quite literally for hours watching the tits at the feeders just outside our living room window (much to the incomprehension of my dad who could never understand why she didn't want to be 'doing something'). But I'm not a twitcher. When we lived in Cley next the Sea, on the marshes of the north Norfolk coast, we'd encounter endless twitchers, busy with their bird lists and their special pagers alerting them to sightings and more kit than I'd take on a month's camping holiday. It's all a bit close to trainspotting for my liking, and it certainly doesn't do anything to bring you into relationship with particular birds so that you can find out what makes them tick. Because if I've learned one thing from my years of watching birds, it's that birds - like people, or dogs, or horses - are individuals.

Take, for example, one of our male blackbirds - the one who (now) sings outside the bedroom. Whereas most blackbirds here start to sing properly in early March, this one remained resolutely mute, to the point where we decided that he had a speech impediment. While all the others around him were practising what would become this year's fave phrases, he would sit silently and listen: head tilted, mouth open, looking quizzical, as if to say "how do you do that?" One day we found him under a bush, engaged in a hugely complex subsong - an unstoppable under-the-breath stream of twitters, babbles, hums, calls, and good old blackbird operatics. Several days of subsong ensued. Spring advanced. And then finally, as it was getting dark one evening, I spied him sitting in a branch close to the terrace, looking exactly as I remember feeling when I was eight years old and about to jump off the high diving board for the first time. (He did much better than me. I cowered on the top of that board for five hours ...). Sure enough, a few minutes later, he let rip with a song phrase.

An enlightened master

He did the same the next evening, and the next, graduating from one to several bars. After a week, he was unstoppable: he sang from the same tree and from dawn to dusk, his song incredibly complex and varied, barely stopping to find food. But then things started to change. A week ago, he began singing in what I can only describe as an obsessional way, repeating just the same 2 bar, 8 note phrase in a near continuous loop for 15 hours a day: perfect pitch, perfect timing, perfect rhythm. After a day or two it became tedious. After four or five, it became meditative, like a mantra. It's behaviour that you'll never find in a bird book. I reckon he's a reincarnated enlightened master.

I could also tell you endless stories about a manic depressive wren, or a female chaffinch who taught herself over several days to fly up to and cling on to a long-coveted fat ball, or a cuckoo who sings half the night and has such a loud, resonant call that he must surely come equipped with his own echo chamber, or Turdus Tedious, the Most Boring Thrush in the World. But they'll have to wait. Or better still - shameless plug for our forthcoming guest acommodation - come and stay with us in one of our Birdsong Weeks next May ...

Monday, 4 May 2009

An ordinary life

As I was ruminating on my sunbed late yesterday afternoon (yes, it finally stopped raining), I got to thinking about the kind of life that we've begun to settle into here. As you do. Or at least I do. And I realised one thing in particular. We're ordinary. 

For many years living in England, I felt my own sense of What Really Matters becoming more and more out of kilter with the prevailing ethic. As a person-centred therapist, for example, I was - and remain - shocked and angry at, and disturbed by, the ceaseless moves towards statutory regulation of the practice of counselling and psychotherapy. (If you want to know why, you could do worse than visit The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy and watch the video talk by Brian Thorne, who was my tutor and mentor. I can't put it better than he does. Never could, actually ...). As a restaurateur, I was saddened by the general belief that we must be motivated by, and in it for, profit ... and exhausted by continually having to explain that we didn't see things that way. I lost count of how many presumably well-meaning people told us how much more we could earn by opening on more days or for longer hours, or turning tables, or cramming more people in, or using wholesalers instead of small producers, or any number of so-called 'normal' trade tricks; explaining that we were simply interested in creating a life that sustained us and was sustainable usually led to (at best) disbelief and (at worst) pity. And as a person, the things that most inspire me - growing things, creating things, sharing things, community and communities, meditation, nature, creating space for people to be and discover themselves and others, living a simple but not a plain life - were certainly not those that surrounded me on a daily basis. 

Here in rural France, and in particular in Ariège, I'm no longer counter-cultural. As everyone well knows, the French work to live rather than live to work; in spite of Nicholas Sarkozy's best efforts to get everyone to "work more to earn more", the nation remains singularly unconvinced: earning enough is what it's all about. Commuting is rare, and despised - a last resort, to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Almost everybody grows their own vegetables. Credit cards are all but unknown: you want something, you pay for it, now. Houses are bought as homes, not as investments, and mortgages are strictly and legally regulated. The consumer society is muted: shops are closed for two hours at lunchtime, and on Sundays. Cars go on for at least twice as long as they do in the UK, other machinery even longer; there really is no pressure to have the latest equipment or the fastest PC or the trendiest trainers or spend the most on your child at Christmas or dress in the most stylish fashions (if you've visited a rural market and seen some of the clothes on offer, you'll understand what I mean and wonder why on earth the French have a reputation for being elegant ...). In spite of la crise, the essence of daily living continues to be dominated rather more by simple pleasures than by desire or by fear. What Really Matters here is living a life of quality not quantity; living well, and appropriately.

And so, blessedly and with a great sigh of relief, I find myself finally to be living an ordinary life, just one amongst countless others doing the same.