Friday, November 28


28th November
I went back to the Gardeners yesterday. The whole cat thing has got me a bit anxious. As a child I went on and on about wanting animals and my parents drummed it in to me that pets are a Big Responsibility, and have a habit of either living for unfeasibly long amounts of time or, conversely, dying just when you’ve got very fond of them.

As an adult I’ve been far too unsettled for pets although years ago I did keep animals that I planned to eat. I loved scratching the pig’s bellies and spent hours watching them make straw nests. My first pig was a very sociable gingery Tamworth called Urquhart. When the time came, I got him in the back of my Morris Minor (my first car) for a trip to the butcher, he scoffed the nuts that I'd put in the car for him then worked out how to push the front seat down and get into the passenger seat next to me so he could look out of the window for the rest of the journey.

I’d asked the butcher to simply halve the dead Urquhart longways, but when I went to collect him his legs were sticking out all stiff, I had to manoeuvre the pig halves into the car diagonally, poking the extremities out of the front window and drive home with my head cocked to one side and Urquhart’s head rolling around in a plastic bag on the back seat.

Now, temporarily here in a French farmhouse, I'm still not settled enough for actual pets but wood pile cats seem an ideal arrangement for all concerned. Being old enough to fend for themselves I’m simply offering them an alternative place to live that won’t involve too much emotional investment on either side (will it?). My neighbours advised me to keep the cats shut in a shed for 3 days when I get them here. There is a pigeonnier and some odd little outhouses next to the Lovely House which seemed a good place to keep the cats initially. The pigeonnier is linked to the house with a tiled roof and a back wall making an open-faced barn where we keep our piles of firewood. There are various openings through the walls and lots of perches and hiding places. I think it must be cat paradise.

This time the Gardeners had managed to stuff a pair of yowling cats into two baskets, which I quickly put on the back seat of my car and drove carefully home, they growled like that girl with the revolving head in The Exorcist all the way. My heart was pounding as I placed the baskets on the new straw in the pigeonnier and left them to calm down for a while.

To release the cats into the shed without having to open the door and risk them escaping, I’d devised a cunning plan of attaching strings to the basket lids which I pulled from the outside through a little hole in the wall, this worked great, the lids flapped open, the cats shot out of the baskets like bullets, there was a very high up window - they bounded up the walls, through the window and escaped like rockets.

I thought that was the end of it and figured the cats would be well on their way home but a few hours later I went to clear away the food and water that I'd put out for them and caught a glimpse of a tail disappearing, I saw some eyes watching me from a high perch this morning - I think they are considering staying - I put out a dish of chopped ducks hearts.

My internets are being taken away tomorrow - who knows when I'll be back online…

Thursday, November 27

Wading Through Cement

27th November
Life has gone all turgid. I’ve been trying to get some quotes to lay a concrete floor so we can set up a studio in the barn adjoining the house. The landlord has agreed to pay half the costs and I want the job done before Christmas. I’ve completely failed to get a French builder to turn up. A very tall English man came, measured and sent me a quote but I need at least one more. The only other person vaguely interested in the job used to be a hairdresser in the UK before he moved here. He made and cancelled several arrangements but finally turned up this morning. Unfortunately he didn’t bring any measuring instruments with him. He seems to have learned the building trade by watching car mechanics - a sharp intake of breath, then gravely shaking his head and telling me what a difficult job it’ll be.

Monday, November 24

The Film Show

24th November
I’m still reeling from going through a year's worth of dramas these last two days. The Director spent Saturday morning setting everything up at the Salle des Fetes – and nothing worked. The speakers were duff, the screen turned out to be puny and the projector wouldn’t work until we figured out how to screw the bulb in properly. Sometime during the afternoon we ditched the tiny screen and wiggled stuff in the right way to make sound happen.

On Sunday while The Director was doing last-minute adjustments I put out some chairs, I wasn’t sure who’d turn up so I put out about 50 and started fiddling around with bowls of pretzels. Our friends set up the drinks table and we realised that Mme Bontette, who is a bit distracted by her new job, had made us a tooth-achingly sweet rum punch so we collected up all the supplies of lemons and limes we could lay our hands on and squeezed them into the mix. Then people started coming - and they kept coming and we were all pulling out stacks more chairs because the hall was filling. The advertised start time was 6.15 but by 6pm there was a room full of people looking expectantly at the bit of wall where the projector was pointing, they weren’t interested in rum punch or Ricard they were just waiting. So we rolled the film which was a shortened version of the pilot with subtitles (thanks Florence!), followed by a series of sequences that we’d filmed over the last few months. At the end everyone cheered and asked to see it again immediately.

Mme Bontette is loving her new job as a reporter for the local paper and has bought a new set of reporter’s outfits which are very glamorous and seem to be mostly furry-edged, she was taking a lot of photos.

Then we cleared up and went down to the bar which was heaving. The Goths had gone to town with candles and drapes and stuff, the tables were put together to make a big U shape and set with pitchers of wine and baskets of bread. Trays loaded with glasses of Cava were passed round. The meal was great: bowls of salad and the famous cassoulet – and they’d even done the crispy crumb thing on top. The really fantastic thing though was that there were people there who’d told me they’d never be in the same room together and there were French women there who told me that they’d never go to a bar because it wasn’t ladylike. Anyway the whole thing went on late and it was a great party. And now The Director and our friends have returned to the UK and I feel completely discombobulated.

Friday, November 21

Cat Fail

21st November
I went to collect some cats from a market gardening couple who moved in to their property recently and discovered an extremely fecund feral cat living in their woodshed. They doped some food and managed to get a batch of sleepy kittens to the vet to be sterilised but the wiley mother slipped away and hid (and then got pregnant again). The cats are now eating all the dog's food and I have agreed to take a pair to see if they'd like to live in my wood pile. When I got there the Gardeners had failed to catch any. We've hatched a plan and I'll come back next week.

Meanwhile I'm waiting for The Director, some friends and a projector to get back from the airport. Then we're all set to do the film show in the village hall on Sunday. I'm having a lesson in making rum punch from Mme Bontette tomorrow, she called this morning in high excitement - she has just secured a job as a reporter for the local newspaper. Our film show will be her first assignment.

Tuesday, November 18

Heffalump Trap Part II

18th November
Early this morning I was washing my hair when I heard loud rapping on the front door. Thinking it might be a delivery I ran to get it and found Old Dad there.
Come early - before midday, I don’t want the postman to know you’re there. We’ll shut your bike in the garage and then I can close the shutters and lock the door and it’ll look as though there’s no one in.
That’s ridiculous
No really if the postman sees you he’ll tell every one
Why would we be worried about that?
Well I don’t want the postman to know
(What are we talking about here?) Well I won’t come then

My hair was dripping and I was caught off-balance. Old Dad just repeated that he’d see me before midday. Then he walked off.

I spent the morning slashing at swathes of thistles and thorns but by noon I was still feeling thoroughly disgruntled. On the way to Old Dad’s house I passed the bar which was open - that stopped me in my tracks. Being a nosey parker I wandered in. A strange young man was sitting at the bar, his hairline has receeded right over the back of his head the remaining strands have been grown long and combed-over. I also think he might have gained weight recently because his clothes don’t meet in the middle. Kurt (up already!) introduced him as 'Ed from Toulouse who has recently moved near the village’.

Last week I put flyers around advertising our upcoming film show at the village hall and the cassoulet supper in the bar afterwards. I learn that the supper is already booked up. The event is this Sunday, I got Kurt talking about cassoulet and it became apparent that he had neither eaten nor made a cassoulet in hs life, I started panicking, then Ed said
I’m from Toulouse I’ll show him how to make a cassoulet

My brain didn’t know what to think then, so I left, and went for lunch, I was late, the postman had been and gone and I insisted we left the shutters open and the door ajar as usual.

I sat down and it was all a bit tense, Old Dad handed me a large tumbler of neat Ricard
Thanks but no, water will be fine – I need to get back to work soon
Glasses of various sorts of alcohol were poured for me over the following long hour, they lined up untouched across my side of the table.

Conversation didn’t flow easily. I resorted to asking him about his upcoming heart operation - he can usually go on about that at length, but today he didn’t seem in the mood to talk about that or his bad leg, or the way he’s a martyr to heartburn.

Finally, as I pushed back my chair and made leaving noises, he said in exasperation
what do women like - how can someone like me give a girl a good time?
I suggested that he pop up the road and ask our lovely neighbour Hélene
Old Dad roared at me
Hélene – she’s nearly 80, what would I be wanting with her?

Sunday, November 16

A Heffalump Trap

16th November
I’m flipping livid - I can’t believe that my spinelessness has led to me getting involved in another weird fib-telling scenario

This village is mostly populated with elderly people - I’m getting to know and love some of them. Funny, saucy women like Scary Eena and her best friend Hélene, the Berts and I’m even getting a bit fond of Bruno the Knob Destroyer.
And then there is Old Dad, I usually see him at the Saturday pétanque games with his long-suffering family who come every weekend to chop his wood, put food in his freezer and listen to his complaints. I was shocked to discover that Old Dad’s chronological age is only the same as my dad (78), I’d put him at least 10 years ahead.

I nearly ran Old Dad over during the week but I braked instead and then he’d seen me, so I had to stop and chat. When he'd finished describing his various ailments he suddenly invited me to lunch with him on Monday (tomorrow). Failing to think quickly enough I accepted. I’d just got philosophical about this, telling myself that it would be an interesting lunch - probably (in a tedious sort of way) and certainly wouldn’t do me any harm, but he turned up a bit later at the Lovely House with a request
If you see my son you mustn’t tell him that you’re coming to lunch on Monday
I protested, but the man wouldn’t go until I’d accepted not to tell.*

The idea of lunch turning into a conspiracy bothered me. At the pétanque game yesterday I chose a moment when Old Dad was standing alone to go and tell him I wasn't coming, then saw that his lip was actually trembling
But you’ve got to come
Sure – another time
What are you doing on Tuesday?
I paused a beat too long - he jumped on it
You’ll come Tuesday then?
I have no idea what’s wrong with me but I heard my mouth saying OK

*In my weedy defense I’ll say that OD uses a lot of dialect, he is very difficult to understand properly - and I started losing the will to live after the discussion had gone on for more than a couple of minutes.

Friday, November 14

Choosing Colours

14th November
The Director has gone back to the UK where our house has become a production office. Over there the bedrooms are now editing suites and the living room is full of people writing scripts and arguing about contracts. I am going to (hide in France) stay here and prepare for next year’s filming. We need a studio to film things that have to be contained (like cockroaches) and slow things like butterflies emerging from cocoons. I’m currently trying to persuade builders to give me a quote to lay a concrete floor for the studio. The outside project is the 'film set garden’, I’ve started clearing a large overgrown piece of land where we will put a shed, fencing, plant flowers and make a vegetable patch. I’m a bit hampered by the all the rubbish the Landlord has dumped here, hacking back brambles I keep dinging into bedsprings and bits of rotten furniture.

For light relief I go and visit my new friend Florence. On Tuesday I took the fabulous chicory tart over to her place. Florence is expecting her second child in the spring. She has recently moved into a small village house that needs some work. We picnicked amid the rubble from a big hole that has just been knocked through the end wall. Turning our backs on the view of a suppurating septic tank in the middle of her garden we perused paint colour charts for the baby’s bedroom.

Tuesday, November 11

The Typing Fury

12th November
I needed help with letter writing a couple of days ago, so I paid a visit to my smart neighbours who live nearby. Mme B. is extremely bossy and when channelled into a project she’s a wonder to behold. If I've got past the phoning stage with French utilities companies, she whips out her typing fingers and fires off tart letters for me.

I have talked about the Bontettes here before (see labels) but since we have become good friends I’m in a mood to recap. Mr. B is ex-military and slightly obsessive about his workouts. Mme B, not wanting to risk being caught sans maquillage has had her eyebrows and lips tattooed on, the eyebrows are a little too high, so she looks permanently surprised. Her nails are frankly terrifying. She also has a major shoe fetish - there is a room in their house full of shiny high heels.

Last month I invited the Bontettes to come and help themselves to the walnuts that were falling off our trees, warning them that the land around the trees was very rough and brambley. Mme B arrived with a lovely big basket, I looked at her bare hands and offered my gardening gloves but she waved them away, she would not be actually attempting to handle the walnuts herself, she explained, merely directing her husband where to find them.

Then I noticed her footwear; not possessing any flat shoes Mme B was wearing slippers, the same lumpen plaid style that the old men wear. A very popular item, worn by many French adults. I’ve eyed up these devil slippers on the market stalls afraid to actually touch them in case I fall under their evil spell.

Last Monday at their place, once my letter was written I was invited to stay for lunch – we ate a tart so divine that I ran straight home and recreated it. Despite my resolution that this would not become a foodie site I will tell you how to do it, just in case you’re moved to have a go.

Chicory and Goats Cheese Tart Tatin:
The whole thing is constructed upside down and turned over to serve.
Coat the base of a quiche dish with caramel, cut some blanched chicory heads in half and place flat side down in a vaguely star-like arrangement on the caramel. Slice up a log of goats cheese into discs and place them evenly over the chicory. Drape a rolled-out circle of pastry over all this, tucking any overhang into the dish (brush a little egg wash around the pastry edges if you want to). Bake until the pastry is cooked. Leave to cool a little and then invert the tart onto a big plate. Add walnuts, herbs or nothing to garnish

Sunday, November 9

Kurt's First Supper

9th November
I went down to the bar for a game of pétanque yesterday. My fellow pétanquers are stunned by the sudden, unannounced disappearance of the senior Stranges. Their replacement by Goth Rockers feels like we’re suddenly extras in a remake of Village of the Damned as directed by John Waters .

Courtney opens up the bar at some point in the afternoon. Wearing a black satin mini-kimono (= instant forgiveness by lingering male population for missing lunchtime) she clears up the remains of the previous night’s party looking a little hungover.

Kurt gets up a bit later, he has announced himself as the new chef and we’re all curious to see what his food’s like. The Director put down his computer to join us for the after-pétanque supper at the bar. The man had made a big effort and it really wasn’t bad at all. After supper we all said it was great, he unscowled and became really rather friendly.

Saturday, November 8

French Markets Are So Marvellous

8th November
Despite the fact that filming is over and we are on a break. I can’t actually prise The Director away from his directing tools - he is still compiling 'selects reels’ (putting key sequences on dvd) to send to the writers. He never remembers that he always works through holiday periods and is perpetually amazed by the work he still has to do. Our parents have got the hang of this phenomenon by now and just as they deal with the fact that they have to visit us in cold, uncomfortable houses, they understand that their son (in-law) will only be sporadically visible.

Overcompensating a bit, I took my in-laws up into the mountains to a market I’d not visited before. It was a long drive, the town was bigger than I realised and the market very popular, finding parking was difficult. Fighting our way through the crowds we were soon exhausted and felt the need to return home, but I couldn’t remember where I’d left the car. When we did find the car, it was blocked in by a bigger vehicle which had been obscuring it from view.

We did finally get home, lit a fire and started preparing the cépes that we’d bought at the market - they were full of worms.

Thursday, November 6

Territory Marking

6th November
My parents went back home to recover and The Director’s parents arrived yesterday so I took them out for lunch. A café in the neighbouring village offers a 4-course lunch with as much wine as you dare drink for 11 euros, it is run by Jeanne, whose elderly father potters around the dining room pouring the leftover wine into fewer bottles, (I didn’t pay too much attention to this until the last time I came and poured a large, purple hornet into my glass). The clientele are mainly blue-overalled men who work for the utilities companies. A lop-sided man is always there, he eats with his friends, clears all the tables and stays to help with the washing up, I think he's sweet on Jeanne despite her alcoholic husband who sometimes turns up to stand behind the bar and steal money from her till.

Jeanne finds the animosity the British residents show towards each other very funny, and tells stories about her English customers getting on each other's nerves. I have now had the good fortune to witness this comedy first hand.

Yesterday lunchtime my in-laws and I sat near another table of English people, they were getting up to leave as we were served coffee. A lady from their group detoured to us and placed a single small cup in the middle of our table, saying,
We didn’t want this so I thought you might appreciate a real coffee

There was something wonderfully ridiculous about the idea of us taking turns to sip at the tepid coffee. I pulled my face straight and asked why her coffee is more ‘real’ than ours.
We come here every day – the owner here spoils us with coffee from the espresso machine, yours will just be from the cafetiere.

The encounter has made my in-law’s visit, with any luck it will obliterate the experience of finding themselves trapped in their room after having unsuccessfully tried to repair their door handle.

Tuesday, November 4

Is There Life On Mars?

4th November
I feel peculiarly isolated out here in my feverish anticipation of the US election results. My French neighbours are not interested in events happening beyond their borders, in some cases this means their garden gate, for the more cosmopolitan the border can be as far as the departmental edge.  The newspapers here have blurry photos on the front page: a car stuck in a car park or some schoolchildren in fancy dress. For most of the population Europe is a fuzzy blur and the US is a sort of gaudy magazine someone's told them about.

I think this might be the case all over France, I was working in Provence on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were hit, I heard the news on my car radio and stopped to ask a few passersby if the news I was hearing was correct, no-one had any idea what I was talking about. I finally managed to find a bar with a telly tuned into a news channel, I was the only person watching the images of planes hitting buildings. That evening I spoke to the man who ran the local taxi company, he hadn’t heard about the events yet. I looked in the national papers the following day, significant coverage only appeared in Le Monde a couple of days later.

I’d got used to all this woolly introspection - then a couple of weeks ago I went to work for some Americans with access to digital tv, commentary on the US election was constant. It jolted me into a world I used to inhabit - it’s very strange coming back to this bunker.

Sunday, November 2

New Blood At The Bar

2nd November
The filming really is done for this year, the Camera Boys have returned to the UK - we are now in visiting season. Since Bruno's August visit we have been without doorhandles - he replaced the original knobs with a set that can’t be made to stay fixed on. My parents arrived here a few days ago. They have known me long enough not to expect much in the way of comfort but I bet they had hoped for door handles. No matter - once given a pair of pliers and a monkey wrench they soon got the hang of getting in and out of their bedroom. My mother hasn’t really got the upper body strength to haul the front door open on her own yet though.

We were also suffering from a smelly drain problem. Our squalid kitchen has a concrete sink with a hole through the back wall. The water, and whatever else you put in the sink, washes through to a concrete gutter running the length of the back of the house. Over the years it has silted up and grown over with weeds, the autumn rains have made the area behind the kitchen swampy and putrid. My repeated calls to Landlord and plumber have been ignored. Mum put her foot down, The Director and my father got out the shovels and a wheelbarrow, dislodging unspeakable hideousness to make a drainage channel.

As a further treat for my parents I took them to the bar for some of Mrs Strange’s gin. The Senior Strange’s have already slipped away. But Kurt the tattooed son has returned from Copenhagen with his wife and turns out to be perfectly good at serving gin with flat tonic in a dirty glass from the iceless bar.

Kurt’s wife, Courtney has translucently pale skin, she has only recently started her tattoo collection, they both dress exclusively in black. They tell me that their band had split anyway and that they are going to liven up the bar with 'live bands, gourmet food and that kind of stuff'. Courtney is animated, she says that Kurt’s great in the kitchen - I’m not sure if she means he can cook. Buoyed up with enthusiasm for their plans (and feeling guilty that I’ve now booked to show our film at the village hall) I suggest that they put on a supper for after the film show - I’ll publicise it on the flyer I’m going to put around the surrounding villages next week. Kurt is a sullen kind of chap, he asks what sort of thing I have in mind,
I suggest casserole-type dishes; a daube, coq au vin … a cassoulet?
I’ll do a cassoulet
Something about his response is not putting me at ease.
Related Posts with Thumbnails