Saturday, 28 November 2009


One of the very few things I miss from England is its plethora of charity shops, which for many years kept me supplied with books and clothes and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, most of which eventually found their way back again to whence they'd come. One of the things I don't miss, however, is the concept of charity that lies behind them.

I don't think of myself as being a particularly uncharitable - as in mean spirited or ungenerous - being. But nevertheless I do have huge problems with the notion of 'charity'. It's divisive: it divides those who have the means to give from those who receive. It creates a distance. It creates inequality, and therefore classes. It sets up a situation where I do something for you, not with you or alongside you; in doing so I fail to offer you the chance to be an equal partner in our encounter and therefore I disempower you. And so it encourages and perpetuates paternalism: something which, however well meant, I find intolerable.

To me the concepts of justice and equality, of exchange, and of mutuality and reciprocity are the crucial ones. So, for example, I don't offer a concessionary rate to therapy clients, but because I see money as simply a form of energy, I do offer the opportunity to take sessions on the basis of energy exchange, as in 'I offer you therapy, you offer me gardening or woodwork or produce from your land or whatever skill you have that I can use'. That way, I don't turn into the magnanimous bestower of favour and the power balance between us starts, and stays, equal. (Interestingly, and to my surprise, very few people have ever taken me up on it, although I'm frequently asked for concessions ...).

And then of course there's the particularly French notion of solidarité. Not the same as the much more political (and oft-maligned) use of the word in the UK, la solidarité is not only a much-used word but also an accepted part of day to day community life here. But what is it? Strangely enough one of the best attempts I've found to define it comes from Martine Aubry, the president of the Parti Socialiste, who isn't, it has to be said, one of my favourite politicians, if using those two words together isn't too much of a contradiction in terms. But she writes:

"Solidarity is first and foremost a behaviour that we can all embody in our everyday lives. It's supporting other people when they need it. But then it's also a collective value. So that we can all live better together, and so that each one of us feels comfortable in our society, we need to help each other on a mutual basis. To be in solidarity with someone is to be 'with' that person; to feel their problems and their pain as if they were our own. And solidarity is also doing our best to live better together as a part of our country; to accept the other person as they are, whatever their origin, their neighbourhood, their differences".

Heavens. You could almost believe she's been reading Carl Rogers ...

And so (finally getting to the point ...), now you'll understand why I was truly delighted to encounter the new espace non marchand - non-trade area - at the market in Saint Girons this morning. Basically, the espace non marchand is a higgledy piggledy collection of trestles, stands and simple tarps laid out on the ground, covered with all manner of goods from books to boots to bottles of apple juice, from surplus produce to craftwork to clothes to tools. And people are also there milling around (it's a very convivial spot) offering their services on the same basis. The philosophy here is that you take whatever you need or want when you need or want it, and/or leave whatever you no longer need or want. Need some new working boots? Take them. Fancy a cup of tea? Pour yourself one. But - and here's what makes it radical - no money is involved. At all. Ever. Period. Nor is a tit for tat on the spot exchange required. It all works on the concept of there being sufficient resources for everybody, and it works on responsibility and trust: it's Freecycle (without the begging emails) and freeganism all rolled into one and then some. You don't have to prove your pitiful income or be a - gulp - 'person in need' to be able to benefit, nor is there any monetary value - even in the LETS / SEL* sense - put onto your giving or your taking. It's all very karmic, in the simplest sense of what goes around comes around. All that's expected of you is your willingness to engage in the process, and with the other people involved in the process, as a person.

Charity it ain't. So if this sounds like your thing ... the last Saturday of every month, at St Girons market. See you there.

* LETS: local exchange trading scheme. SEL is the French equivalent, système d'échange local.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Labels are for jam ...

I have an identity problem.

As the loose-bowelled Pigeon of Time swoops low over the unsuspecting Tourist of Destiny, and the flatulent Skunk of Fate wanders into the Air-Conditioning System of Eternity (anyone else a ISIHAC fan?), I notice that I can at last see the end of the renovation in my distant line of sight, and that means I have to get my act together to start describing and promoting what we're offering at Grillou to the world.

And that's not as simple as it could be. Because the world of guest accommodation seems to be rigidly divided into this or that: self-catering or serviced, gîte or chambre d'hôte. You book a gîte: you arrive on a Saturday, hand over your security deposit, get your keys, make up your beds, do your thing for a week; then a week later you clean up, hand back the keys and go home, possibly having seen nothing of your hosts, who may not even live on site. You book a chambre d'hôte: you spend time as a part of your hosts' household - you talk with them, get to know them, you may eat with them, effectively share their lifestyle for a night or several ... but although you may be invited to share their living area your own space is usually limited to a bedroom and bathroom.

In France, as indeed in England when we lived there, the entire culture of domestic scale tourism revolves around this distinction. I'm supposed to choose which side of the line I fall on and which particular mould I fit, following which it will be decreed what I offer (or not), how I describe what I offer, what I advertise as, how I legally frame and register my business, how I select my tax régime and what expenses I'm permitted to deduct. And therein lies my problem. I don't do labels, I don't do moulds, and I don't do either-or. And so neither I, nor Grillou, will ever sit happily in a one-of-two-sizes-fits-all system.

We've been here before, in our restaurant days. "Are you a vegetarian restaurant?". "Er - no". "But you don't serve meat or fish ...". "Er - no". "So you must be a vegetarian restaurant then ...". "Er - no". (Okay, I wasn't quite as obtuse as that, but you get my drift). And here in France, where things are as they are just because they are, I suspect it's going to be pretty hard to break the mould. It is, after all, no accident that one of the favourite expressions here is "c'est comme ça" (that's how it is), accompanied of course by the famous shrug of the shoulders.

So when you're offering a chambre d'hôte that actually isn't a chambre but a whole tiny house, with its own hallway and a proper salon and a bedroom with a mezzanine, along with a huge two level gîte-apartment where you can arrive any day you like, stay for three days or fourteen, take breakfast or not, and where your bed will be made up for your arrival and your accommodation cleaned every other day ... well, it's pretty hard here to find yourself a meaningful tag. And that's without throwing into the pot the fact that each unit is designed, in spite of its size, for one couple without children (or four adults, if both are booked together) - and that in itself is going to be challenging to many French people, who are happy to cram as many people/kids/dogs as they can find into the tiniest space when on holiday and seem never to travel without at least two blow up beds for just that eventuality ... not to mention the fact that dinner will indeed be an option two or three times a week, but not every day; smoking will never be an option; and we don't take dogs (or cats, or hamsters, or ferrets).

Oh dear. I think I've just pretty much written myself off.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The best laid plans ...

This afternoon was marked up for a Serious Start on the first wash of L'Atelier's walls. With pigment, that is - yellow ochre from Provence, and sienna earth from Italy, if you're interested - not with St Marc, the ubiquitous lessive that cleans everything (except plaster dust, of course) and has been a constant feature of my life over the last two weeks as we've attempted to clean up the chantier. That, however, was before John came in with 3 kilos of Rosé-des-Prés (a kind of posh field mushroom).

Now there's only so much fungus that two people can eat at any one time. Especially when they've just been munching their way through the two and a half kilos he brought home three days ago - but, hey, downshifting is downshifting, and foraging is ... fun, and free food. So while we've set aside some to cook for dinner this week, there was nothing for it but to set to and look at how to preserve the rest.

Bottling, I decided, was out. Too complicated, and seems to involve boiling oil. Hmm. Drying? Well, one of the many projects on my list is to make a drying cabinet, but that will have to wait (to use a phrase that seems to form an increasing part of my vocabulary) until all this is over and life is back to normal again ... Some of the smaller mushrooms I flash fried in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley then froze; the rest I decided to turn into a duxelle.

A duxelle is a glorious thing: while the volume reduces, the flavour and intensity increases. If you've never tried it, do - it's very simple, even if it does tie you to the stove for a while. You simply chop finely, mince or - if, like me, life's too short - pulse in the Magimix a good quantity of mushrooms and around a fifth of their weight of onions; fry the onions first in olive oil until they're transparent and start to take on a little colour; then add the mushrooms and stir it all around. At this point you find you have a pan full of wet, unappetising mush, which looks like this:

What you're aiming to do now is to gently simmer out all the liquid until the mixture starts to 'fry'. This will take - er - over two hours if the mushrooms are very fresh (well, I never said it would be fast, did I?). As time goes on, you need to stir the pan more and more often to stop the mixture sticking and burning; you're aiming to reduce the volume usually by around two thirds. Eventually you'll end up with a sort of pâté thick enough for a wooden spoon to stand up in; now season it, and you're done.

So then what? Use it for stuffing; add it to soups and stews (especially good with Puy lentils); add some chopped parsley, garlic and pangritata, then spread it on bruschetta; make beef Wellington; spread it over the pastry base of a mushroom tart before adding the rest of the filling; drape it around pasta; use it as a relish ...

We haven't, so far, done very well at finding any of the big names such as cepes or chanterelles or morilles or girolles nor sadly (and I say this at the risk of tarnishing my already somewhat ropey reputation) the more - er - magical varieties. But that's because we've not had the time to go out looking for them beyond our own back yard, so to speak. When all this is over ...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mother tongue

I read a fascinating snippet in La Dépêche du Midi the other day: according to the German medical anthropologist Kathleen Wermke, babies cry in the language their parents use.

She and her colleagues studied 60 two to five day old babies, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families. They recorded 2,500 cries as mothers changed nappies, got the babies ready feeding or otherwise interacted with them. Acoustic measures allowed the researchers to identify 1,254 cries (a cry being 'a vocalisation produced with a single breath') that contained clear rising-and-falling arcs. German newborns’ cries tended to start out high-pitched and gravitate to increasingly lower pitches, whereas French newborns’ cries started out low-pitched and then moved higher. And those kind of intonation patterns, Wermke says, characterise words and phrases used by fluent speakers of German and French. Well yes, that certainly has a grain of truth in it. Take the word papa, for instance, found in both languages: the French pronunciation slightly stresses the final a so that the intonation rises, whereas a German will stress the first syllable so that it falls. And so on.

Apparently, in the last term of pregnancy, unborn babies become active listeners. Although the sense of hearing is the first to develop, the baby's sense of hearing while still in the uterus is restricted by the amniotic fluid - but what gets through are the melodies and sense of intonation of the mother's speech.

And although I have to admit to being at best ambivalent towards babies, never having had - or even for one moment wanted to have - one, that's the bit that fascinates the languageaholic in me. One thing I do know is that as a foreigner, it's much easier to make yourself understood if you have a good grasp of the 'music' of a particular language but a poorer grasp of its vocabulary and grammar than it is if you're ace at words and grammar but speak the language with the intonation of your own mother tongue.

For as long as I can remember I've picked up on the melodies of the accents of the areas I've lived in. I'm endlessly fascinated by them, and although I don't do it deliberately it takes me usually less than a week to subconsciously adapt my own speaking style to a local one. My Italian, for example, is despicable, but because I've spent more time in Tuscany than any other part of Italy I'm told that what little I can say I say with the Tuscan intonation. A week in South Shields earlier this year left me singing like a Geordie hinnie; and I can still slip into passable Narfock, Brissle, north Yorkshire, Sheffield and Dorset at a moment's notice given the right provocation.

So - rant coming up - why oh why oh why does the music of language continue to be largely ignored in foreign language teaching? Anyone?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Hat laying

We've been AWOL. Overcome by the sheer and unremitting amount of plaster dust in every crevice, we took off for a few days on the Atlantic coast, to Le Teich on the Bassin d'Arcachon. No, I'd never heard of it either, though I've wanted to get to know the Bassin for a long time. We stayed, courtesy of a Good Deal with, in a fairly new residence de tourisme that just happened to be a couple of minutes walk from one of France's major bird reserves; unlike most of its concrete counterparts on the Med coast, this one had real character, being built in traditional Arcachon style - several 'villas' on stilts, wooden framed and faced with wood in different colours, each comprising four apartments and built in a circle around a pool. We felt at home from the moment we arrived. Life for a week was oh-so-simple: we walked, we cycled, we ate, we swam, we read, we chatted with people we met here and there. And there was no plaster dust.

The weather was kind - more than kind in fact: six days of sun and balmy temperatures up in the late twenties ensured that everyone spent the week in hastily-packed shorts and tee shirts. The bird reserve - Le Parc Ornithologique du Teich - was up with our old favourites of Cley Marshes, Titchwell and Minsmere (if I'm honest I could be pressed to say it even outclassed them). The landscape was stunningly photogenic, especially for a died-in-the-wool Light on Water fanatic like me; not unlike north Norfolk in many ways, though the quality of the light makes it into something quite other.

Early morning mist over Le Teich's bird reserve

The puzzle is to work out where the stick emerges from the water ...

Dusk over the Bassin d'Arcachon on Cap Ferret

We twiddled our way home on the back roads through Lot et Garonne and Gers, which got me to thinking about what it is that draws people to want to lay their hats in particular places. When we first decided to live in France, we put Gers on the 'possibles' list, because it's stuffed full of seriously attractive and substantial farmhouses, and because it has attractive rolling countryside, not unlike Tuscany, with villages perched on top of ridges and lots of mellow stone. But I just couldn't take to it; in fact two days into a week long house hunting trip I was in full blown 'get me out of here' mode. I haven't been back since, until now. This time it took just a couple of hours. We explored a bit of Armagnac country and a few bastide towns before staying overnight in Auch, which so should be a great place ... but - and I'm sorry if you live in Gers and love it, I really am - it just doesn't do it for me. Any of it. I can't feel its heart beating or its soul singing. I simply don't get it.

It's such a strange thing, this energy of place. Being basically a nomad at heart I've lived in (I just counted) 19 different places between leaving my parents' house and moving to Grillou, each one not just a different house but an altogether different location. Most of them I've enjoyed, to a greater or lesser degree; the odd few I've not; and a couple I've felt such a strong connection with that I miss them even now. One is Scarborough, the other - can you believe this? - Acton in west London. I suspect Ariège will be another, should I ever leave it. But why? What is it that makes a place call out to one person while repelling another?

It's clearly not just about natural beauty, as anyone who knows Acton will readily concede. I spent a year living in west Wales, which is as stunning a part of the British Isles as you could wish for - and yet much as I might have appreciated it, I never felt connected to it or welcomed by it. Nor is it just about people: some of the closest and most extraordinary personal connections I've known came when I was living in Norwich, but I'm not mad keen on Norwich either. And it's certainly about about tick lists of what makes a place right.

No, it's clearly something other, something bigger, something more mysterious. As Michael Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we know more than we can tell.