Saturday, August 30

Things That Swim, Things That Fly

30th August
Last night, when I opened the door of our white-tiled bathroom, the light was on and the room full of moths; they coated the walls, the white porcelain, the soap. There's a broken pane where they've come in. Beautiful but a bit unnerving. I switched off the light and backed out without cleaning my teeth. This morning there were still a few who’d refused to go home – hiding determinedly in the lavatory bowl

A neighbour's child came to visit, I took her to the lake to meet the fish. Bribed with bread, little roach come in big shoals and swim around our fingers. A gloomy perch lurks near the feeding frenzy. The child was so absorbed by the event that, squatting in the shallow edges of the lake, she’d ended up sitting on her teddy bear which became soaked and muddy, unconcerned she held him close and sucked at him all the way home.

Thursday, August 28

Mud Pies and Sandcastles

28th August
Fat Dad brought his boys round to see me yesterday morning. Keen to prove that he’s not grumpy all the time he stuck a veneer of joviality on his dogmatism. He has lots of opinions, the top ones being : Schools (bad –he does the education at home), Food (bad unless homegrown or 'foraged from the earth') and The Rural French (marvelous specimens of authenticity in this bad, corrupt world). His boys are demanding and I'm soon tired of them. Sensing my growing irritation, Fat Dad assured me that social skills will go on the curriculum next week – that’s OK then.

In the afternoon when I walked past their yard I was treated to the alarming sight of a trouserless Fat Dad (he’s not naked - a true Englishman he is still wearing his socks and sandals). He tells me that he’s decided it's time to start potty-training the four-year-old. Fat Dad is going without trousers too so that his son doesn’t feel embarrassed. As he chatted happily to me over the gate the boy, playing behind him, squatted in his sandpit and excreted a neat curl of poo as he continued to pat his sandcastle.

Wednesday, August 27

Village of the Parasitic Wasps

27th August
Our current big filming location is Wasp Village, a prairie-like area along the banks of a big lake not far from the Lovely House. A complex network of wasps and other bugs live here and do thrilling things.

The Sand Wasp (ammophila) for example; She drags a juicy caterpillar that she's paralysed, to a site she likes the look of, then digs away at the sandy earth like a demented terrier. Hole dug, she grasps her prey, gives it another sting to keep it quiet, hauls it down the hole and lays an egg on it. She then goes to a lot of effort to close up the hole, finding a stone to fit the hole entrance and kicking the excavated sand around it. Then she presses her head against the stone and uses her body as a pneumatic drill, vibrating herself to settle the sand in firm around the stone. Finally she kicks a bit more sand around the site to make it invisible and prevent penetration by her competitors.

Bee City revisited

We've also been filming down at Bee City, a community of solitary bees with some wasps and other creatures that live in the sandy area by the car park at the Salle des Fetes. They survived all the cars driving over them during the village fete last month and are thriving. There about 3 or 4 different species of bee here including the Leaf Cutter Bee who steals other bees homes. Around the bees live a host of other tiny insects that you can only really see by watching the rushes after macro filming.

The Ruby Tailed Wasp is particularly wonderful - in her sparkly red and green outfit she looks like an escapee from a glam-rock band. This tiny wasp watches for a particular wasp (cerceris) to go into a hole with a paralysed Leaf Cutter Bee, the larger wasp lays her egg on the bee and flies off. Ruby Tail nips in quick, before the wasp comes back to seal the hole, and lays her own egg on top, Ruby's larva hatches first, eats the other egg and lives on in the (still live) bee that was caught by the first wasp. A parasite’s parasite if ever there was one.

Monday, August 25

I find out where all the sausages come from

25th August
A woman who the French would describe as costaud cycled into our yard this morning, I've passed her place and watched agog as she worked; wielding a chainsaw, hefting sacks of animal feed and tending an impressive potager.

Today Mme Costaud mumbled something about whether I'd like to look at her cobwebs and I pedalled with her back up the road to look at a great barn hung with huge webby drapes. I now don't know whether to feel better or inadequate about our cobwebs in the Lovely House.

Mme Costaud, has very badly fitting false teeth, the little she says is virtually incomprehensible, she gave me a tour of her smallholding. She keeps a few of every kind of beast including hares which are set free when they reach maturity, to make up for the ones she shoots when she's out hunting, she also raises pigs for other villagers and when the time comes... she showed me the pulley and hook where the pig is hoisted, throat cut, the blood is kept for boudin noir. The body is carted off by it's sponsor to be turned into chops and charcuterie. I happen to know that Scary Eena always has a couple of the Costaud pigs and is famed for her rillettes. Remembering that the sideboard in the Lovely House is actually a pig scrubbing trough with a board over it, I asked whether I could pay to keep a pig at her's for next year, Mme Costaud was blunt on the issue and responded simply, non.

The Costaud family were against the construction of the Salle des Fetes and, until recently, have all boycotted the place. Her son has now become a double agent visiting both the Bar and the Salle - the family is riven, father and son are no longer on speaking terms.

Let the good times roll

Bic Biro is the pointy-nosed dynamo who runs our village with help from Mme Bontette. The actual Maire prefers to be left alone with his bees and is entirely happy with this arrangement. Once the graveyard is tidy, and if we don't need another road sign, the main task at the Mairie is to organise the events that take place in the Salles des Fetes, an activity that Mme Bontette throws herself into wholeheartedly. But Mme Bontette is considered a foreigner because she's from a town 40 miles away and not from the actual village, so naturally there is much scurrilous gossip about her. She tells me that there will be gym and yoga classes starting at the Salle next month and a coach trip is being organised to stock up with cheap booze in tax-free Andorra as well as monthly dances. Bic only got voted in at the election by the narrowest of margins - I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to vote for this 'Good Time' party?

Sunday, August 24

Dirty tricks

24th August
Old Landlord (see Fish Pomade)stories are getting darker, I have now understood that he was a scrap merchant. Buying and selling anything that could turn a profit: including textiles, scrap iron, old bathroom fittings … Animals too but applying the same ruthless business sense. One year he decided to keep geese for the Christmas market - as did everybody else, so the market price dropped. Old Landlord burned his barn down with the geese inside.

When the women in the village mention Old Landlord they shudder - and I’ve picked up some good vocabulary here too. At village dinners one of his party tricks was to put stuff he didn’t want on his neighbour’s plate (gristley bits of chewed fat, gnawed bones etc.).

I’m also starting to get a picture of the social rifts in the village. Grievances with roots so far back that no one can remember why they fell out in the first place. Elections are the earthquake zones where new faultlines are created and old ones deepen. The Salle des Fetes was built some years ago amid bitter controversy, half the village didn’t want their taxes used this way and when it opened the Young Turks of the village set up rival events at the bar as a spoiler to anything going on at the new place. The incumbent Maire was ousted at the next election because of his support for the building. Earlier this year when two groups put themselves up for the local elections (a list of about 12 people is put forward to support whoever wants to be Maire), it became apparent that there were more than one set of fathers and sons opposing each other.

The village has less than 100 souls in residence, the elected council has the power to tidy up the graveyard, plant flowers, put up a road sign – and that’s about it. In the face of not needing to have policies the candidates indulge in personal mudslinging, rumours of torrid affairs mostly, but the main slogan against the Bontettes was: THEY HATE OLD PEOPLE. Elections are won on the basis of who is considered less evil by more people - thus it has always been the case that one half of the village will have nothing to do with the other half.

Friday, August 22

Scary electrics

22nd August
The zeppelin-shaped electrician who lives nearby is my biggest challenge yet in the comprehension stakes. He talks incessantly in a strong southern accent while managing to simultaneously laugh and wheeze. I asked him to drop by the Lovely House to see if he can sort out a dodgy socket. While he’s here I persuade him to look at the leaky shower. He took one look at the shower and told me to get the original fitter back (I have now left at least a dozen phone messages for the original fitter). I pulled out the festering raffia flooring a few days ago and burned it - so at least it's not smelling now.

Once I’ve got the hang of zeppelin-man’s idiosyncrasies he's a mine of information, mainly village gossip but I also learn that the fuse box and electric meter for the Lovely House are locked in a bunker on the other side of the big lake – yes, and see how the wooden pole holding up the electric cable that leads from the bunker to our house is bending alarmingly towards the water.

Fabulous day yesterday, perfect for filming demoiselle damselflies. There’s a narrow canal running through a nearby wood, vegetation hangs over the water and the air is thick with flappy blue-black aeronauts. It’s the usual story; the lads stake out bits of territory and show off to the girls trying to persuade them to have sex. The girls look on unimpressed - but every now and again someone takes pity on one of them and gives it a go.

The Homing Mouse

Unbelievable - the half-tailed mouse is back in the trap, despite being deposited three kilometres argument with The Director ensued about my assurance that I left mousey many, many miles away, so I've checked distance on Google Earth away at the beginning of the week. I’m so impressed that I give him a bit of apricot before putting him out in the garden. Mousey, not The Director

Wednesday, August 20

Desperately seeking ants

20th August
On the filming front - we need ants, Wood Ants in particular and something we thought would be common around here, we've been searching - they are not. Wood ants are a large species which makes them easier to film and they make nice visible nests out of pine needles. You can buy ants online, someone will send a starter colony that you can set up where you like and we will be doing this with other species over the winter but right now we need a well established colony.

There’s an abundance of fruit ripening here now, so I've been busy preserving. I gathered green walnuts for pickling back in June but despite consulting Jane Grigson on the matter my pickled walnuts are inedibley salty, I think I went wrong on the measuring side of things. I’ve now also bottled and jammed plums, made pear tarts and tried out various cakes using fruit. It was M. Bontette’s birthday recently so I popped round with one of my creations (will I ever stop torturing these people?). Mme B commented afterwards with words to the effect that it was quite a ‘ribsticker’, a quality one might not be looking for in a summer cake.

Tuesday, August 19

National angst

19 August
The flood of Northern Europeans, particularly the Dutch and British, into France is a well-documented phenomenon. France has every kind of beautiful landscape, great weather, good food and above all space. Us Northerners who are fed up with being cramped, cold and damp are pouring into this country in our millions.

The French are worried about the dilution of their culture and lots of other issues.They don’t want the damp, decrepit old properties that the Northerners love. But they do love the price foreigners are willing to pay for these 'money pits’, they take the money and run off to buy a new build on the edge of a town then complain that their young people can no longer afford to live in the country. Any French person I meet who's wanting to sell a house will ask me if I know an English person who'd like to buy it.

The Dutch seem to be completely at ease on the issue, but the English are full of angst, loudly declaiming against the bad sort of English who are just here on an endless cocktail party behaving badly with their compatriots in bars and refusing to speak French (I have not yet found this particular party - must get better contacts).

This tension can become especially hilarious at the local café. Rural bars are closing all over France, mainly because of drink-driving law enforcement but also because a lot of French people consider it 'inappropriate’ for women to drink. Older French women are very conscious of this, but they don’t like their men going out drinking without them - unless there’s footie on the telly and they’d rather have them out of the house watching it.

So our bar is mainly patronised by foreigners. The Strange Family who run the bar really don’t like the English. They tell me they would like more French customers, I think that if they put on the sort of things French people like to do: Belote (card) evenings, Lotto, Food French people might come. I also think they'd get more local custom if they wrote their advertising flyers and bar notices in French rather than English.

Monday, August 18

Grumpy old man

18th August
Fat Dad from next door turned up this evening as I was taking a handful of crickets to feed the praying mantises. He tells me that he feels too grumpy to stay for a drink but thought he’d better let me know. I made resigned-but-understanding noises while the crickets tried to escape through my fingers. He didn't seem to want to go and be grumpy with his family though, he grumbled on for a full half hour about how fed up he is to find himself living in an area with so many other 'Brits'. He plans to not socialise with any non-French people so he can integrate properly with the ‘real’ populace. I encouraged him in this plan.

The half-tailed mouse was back in the trap this morning I put him in the car and drove him miles down the road to let him go

New neighbours

Yesterday the English man who recently bought the property next to the Lovely House turned up in a battered camper van towing a trailer. I was out by our gate as he arrived and it seemed rude not to go over, say hello and suggest they come by and join us for a beer the following day. He is of retirement age, very overweight and has two boisterous young children. He also seems quite grumpy. There's a scared-looking wife but as she hid behind the van when I walked over I can't really say much about her yet.

Sunday, August 17

Supper at the village hall

17th August
We're usualy too tired to go out in the evenings but last night The Director and I went to the Salle des Fetes to join in with the annual summer dinner party. Bic Biro, the Bontettes and Scary Eena were there, and Bruno the Knob Destroyer, drunk, he simultaneously sprayed me with the cracker he was eating while bashing my left breast as he gesticulated. The dumb smiley girl I washed bottles with last month was also there with a man I took to be her twin brother until she introduced him to me as her boyfriend. I watched The Director gradually nodding forward as the evening wore on, he straightened up with a jerk now and again until he finally gave in and dropped off. His snoring drew a bit of attention but not as much as I would've expected, no one pointed and laughed like they do in England.

My humane trap stayed empty for a couple of days, then yesterday, sitting happily in the cage with a walnut in his hands, was a half-tailed mouse. Clearly none the worse for Thursday's adventure, this time I took him a good mile up the road to let him out.

Saturday, August 16

Horizontal vs Vertical meals

16th August
The days have started falling into a sort of rhythm now. Breakfast happens around 7ish. Then kit is packed for the day's filming. There have been some trips up into the mountains looking for ephippigers (a chunky sort of cricket the size of a big thumb) and grasshoppers, in which case a picnic is packed. When filming is close by we have the picnic here, under the lime tree if it's nice enough (weather is not great at the moment). Plates are piled high and massive multi-layered sandwiches are constructed. We’ll have a coffee then head straight back out to work, the whole event turns around in about half an hour

By contrast in French homes and lunchtime cafés, the elements of a meal are spaced out. A bowl of soup is followed by a plate of tomatoes then paté and pickles. The main dish is something like steak or casserole. Then dessert, coffee and back to work having had a two-hour break.

After lunch we will work until suppertime, I often light a fire outside near the lime tree and cook there because our scullery kitchen is damp and squalid. Something like grilled meat, new potatoes and whatever vegetables are looking good at the moment. Then cheese and salad or dessert. After eating, people might call partners, play cards, continue talking and drinking. The filming plan for the next day is made before bed.

Thursday, August 14

Mice and men

14th August
Spotted Bruno hanging a bag of lettuce on my gate this morning, he was too unsteady on his bike to make a get away before I caught him up to thank him, he behaved like a schoolboy found smoking behind the bike sheds.

France Telecom now say that the road outside the house will have to be dug up. we are apparently scheduled for the operation next week.

There is clear evidence of wildlife activity in the Lovely House; scrabbling sounds, footprints in the frying pan and someone is eating the soap. I've been leaving humane traps and catching a field mouse most days. I take it to the furthest limits of our land to let go but it has occurred to me that it's the same mouse coming back so I have decided to mark it by clipping off a bit of it's fur. Today's effort was a big failure, I put on rubber gloves and removed the mouse from the trap, I tried to hold it still so I could snip it's fur but it wriggled free and ran off leaving half it's tail in my hand - it was horrific. I'm worried that it's bleeding away somewhere and will die a long smelly death under the floorboards.

Wednesday, August 13

Garden Envy

13th Aug
I have become afflicted with garden envy. Not for the leisure sort of garden with grass and flowers because most examples of that in the area are rubbish. I want a potager like my neighbours have. Great lush ranks of artichokes, beans, courgettes and potatoes flourishing next to high, burgeoning tresses of tomatoes. Bright lettucey things in neat rows and big bushy herbs lining the paths. The potager at the Lovely House has not been looked after for many years and is full of nettles and brambles. Digger Man tearing it up to fill a hole in the dam earlier didn't really help either. I've repaired the worst of the damage, cleared the weeds and started a compost heap, but apparently we're supposed to be making a film, so I’ve had to be content with gazing longingly over Mr Bert's hedge on my way to the phone box to call France Telecom (sigh, still no landline), watching him pick leaves off things and tie-up stuff.

I'm still picking mystery vegetable packages off the gate, Mr Bert claims no knowledge of who it might be.

If I go in the other direction towards the bar there are other gardens but I have to stand on my bicycle pedals to see them over the hedges as I wheel past. Arriving at the bar today people are playing pétanque outside, Mrs Strange is behind the bar, she tells me that some Dutch people have set up a pétanque club.

Monday, August 11

Mystery presents and mantids

11th August
Someone has been leaving plastic bags of garden produce hung on our gate. It just started a couple of days ago, lovely knobbly tomatoes and beetroots.

We are currently filming praying mantises, they are solitary, territorial creatures so they are housed in divided up aquariums, I catch crickets, moths and flies to feed them. For filming the mantids are put out on some grass and we hope they will do something interesting; stalk prey, mate, or threaten another mantid (a mantid's threatening thing is to spread her wings and make a sound like a sneezing cat). They may or may not perform but they do tend to fly off when they’ve had enough.

Our biggest mantid, one who we hope will become our 'star’ has a special set made up of long stalky grass stuck in a large flower pot in a sheltered place outside. We’re hoping that she’ll started thinking of it as 'home’ and stay there, but as a precaution against escape, Happy Camera Boy spent yesterday sewing up a net curtain into a sort of soft cage to drape on a framework over the pot.

Sunday, August 10

The second supper event

10th August
Keen to make up for last month's debacle when I treated the Bontette's to a charred yet semi-raw dinner, and wanting to prove that the English do in fact know a thing or two about food, I invited them to join us for supper last night.

My sister wanted to make a Tiramisu for dessert and got started with laying out sponges and mixing creamy stuff before realising that we’ve run out of coffee, so she improvised.
One thing I’m starting to notice about the French is that they’re quite particular about certain recipes and can argue for many hours about the exact proportion of, for example, flour to milk for a pancake or exactly which cheese must be used in a quiche.
I decided to play safe with the main course and prepared chicken thighs roasted with lemon, honey and thyme, slapped it in the oven and went on my evening search for crickets to feed the mantids that we are keeping in the newly cleared studio.

The Bontette's arrived in all their usual glamourousness. We did a tour of the 'improved' premises, I'm not sure what impression the use of a spanner to enter a room gives, but the 'fingertip-grip-then pull' technique on a strip of metal screwed to the front door in order to leave the house didn't go down well. Mme B shows me how this is not possible with a French manicure.

The Director showed our rushes and I forgot about the chicken, by the time we're back at the table there's an acrid smell coming from the kitchen. But the guests might not have noticed because we're suddenly busy trying to find non-lethal seating. I've noticed that the chairs bend alarmingly under the stress of people-weight on all those woodworm holes so I open the doors to let the smoke out of the house and do a bit of chicken rescue work while the men search the attic for more furniture.

Once we're settled, supper is animated and goes swimmingly. It's time for the finale, dessert is served. Mme Bontette exclaims 'Ah superbe une Charlotte’, my sister corrects her

no, not a Charlotte - it’s a Tiramisu, but with fruit and jelly instead of coffee and chocolate

Saturday, August 9

Hammer Horror Hotel

9th August
The leaking shower had become apparent during my visit last month. I tried calling a plumber recommended by the Landlord without response, I finally called the Landlord directly last week. It is a bit frustrating that his response was to send me Bruno. We have all taken it in turns now to try and secure the new door handles and failed, resigning ourselves to using pliers, monkey wrenches and spanners to get in and out of our rooms. My sister and her husband have arrived to stay for a few days, what with the smell of the rotting raffia stuff on the bathroom floor and the door handle thing, I don’t really feel that I’m offering an ideal holiday experience.

I am also questioning my linguistic abilities and wonder whether there are words in French for 'plumber’ and 'knob’ that sound similar and I am unaware of them.

Friday, August 8

New door handles - Hooray!

8th August
Yesterday an elderly man with a corrugated face and a bag of knobs turned up on the doorstep, sent by the Landlord to change all our interior door handles - I had no idea that we had door handle issues. Bruno is of Italian origin and has a drink problem - and strong political views.

We're clearing out a disgusting barn to make a lovely studio for filming. It is full of rotten furniture, rat-soiled piles of newspapers, bottles of veterinary medicines and rusty sharp things. Glass aquariums are set up to accommodate our growing captive insect population.

I can't get into my bedroom without a spanner now because the new handle has dropped off.

Thursday, August 7

Fish Pomade - mmmm

7th August
It’s taken all day to unpack the van which should have gone back to the UK this morning. Last night we noticed it wouldn’t start so I headed to the cafe to see if I could borrow a battery charger. A football match was on tv there with all the local men watching. I’ve realised by now that you can’t just kiss hello to the people you know, you have to greet everybody. By the time I’d gone round the whole crowd I'd forgotten that I had a mission and got embroiled in drink and gossip. It wasn’t until the Director came looking for me that I remembered about the charger.

Despite securing a charger the battery still wouldn’t work, so this morning the van was declared dead and towed away which is a good thing because now we don’t have to drive it back to the UK.

In the bar last night I started finding out about our landlord’s father. He bought the Lovely House in 1943 in pristine condition and, according to my companions, set about destroying it. His main farming activity was pigs but he diversified. I had noticed how the once rather grand carriage house had been carved up by concrete divisions with an enormous feeding hopper bursting through the ceiling. Old Landlord was famous for his meanness and lack of hygiene standards. Stories abounded, how he set traps and ate whatever fell into them - cats, hedgehogs, crows... One of my companions told how had turned up at the Lovely House one day to see Old Landlord using a knife to eat sardines from a tin. Fish finished, he poured the oil from the tin into his palm and slicked back his hair with it.

Wednesday, August 6

The kit arrives

6th August
The van arrived late last night with the two Camera Boys. As well as lights, cameras, lenses etc. there's a lot of computer stuff to set up so material can be digitised as we go along.

Tuesday, August 5

Out manoeuvred

5th August
We still don't have a phone line so I drove to the nearest France Telecom 'Boutique’ where a slab-faced girl told me that there had been a storm and no-one has a line. I confronted her with the fact that all my neighbours have functioning lines. She reluctantly turned on her computer, thought for a bit and decided to tell me that there is indeed a problem, but just with my house, and someone was on their way there now to sort it out, but if they found no-one at the house they would have to leave it until next week. Her tactics defeated me, I returned to base camp.

The bar reopens

5th August
The local bar has recently reopened after a long period of being closed. A British family have taken it over. I find their decision to open a bar, given their open hostility towards most of their fellow humans, strange – have they come to punish us? Mother and father both dislike the English, They have a Goth/rock'n'roll son with a lot of tattoos and a neo-Nazi/closet-homosexual son who hates women, foreigners and middle-aged people. The Goth will marry his Danish fiancée here in the village later this month. He tells me that if they got married in Denmark all their friends would come wanting a free meal.

Monday, August 4

Social conventions

4th August, France
We got to the Lovely House late on Friday and have been preparing for tomorrow's arrival of kit and personnel. Beds are made, fridges filled with food, and we’re planning the best places to make sets for inside filming.

I’m still fumbling my way around local social conventions. In this village at least, I'm greeted with kisses rather than a handshake at first acquaintance. This apparent intimacy is combined with the fact that most people continue to address me using the more formal vous. No-one asks personal questions and, not wishing to inadvertently cause offence, I'm letting them direct the conversation. So far the favourite subject seems to be National Habit Comparison, I’m often asked how the English do things. This is a typical exchange:
French Person: 'Do the English eat soup?’
Me: 'Yes we eat soup’
FP: 'Soup like our soup?’
Me: 'Yep, pretty much the same sort of stuff’
FP: 'What time of day would you eat soup?’
Me: 'Breakfast usually'
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