I'm dealing with my hair horror by using hats and avoiding mirrors. I also only go out if I'm not likely to be seen by many people.
A couple of days ago I attended an anti-pesticide film showing at Jeanne's café - an event put on by Félix, a young man who engulfs his skinny body with big knobbly jumpers, an assortment of scarves and an oversized duffle coat, his face is almost entirely hidden by his dreadlocks and profuse beard.
Félix has a degree in ecology, I invited him for lunch with a view to him working on our project, he brought along his friend who is a spider specialist.
Spider Man is scrubbed very clean, wiry ginger hair scraped into a ponytail, his beige turtleneck tucked neatly into his smartly ironed, high-waisted jeans. Spider Man doesn’t do small talk and Félix is extremely shy. I spent the long silences wondering if we should capitalise on our hair and form a pop group, we could become famous as singers on a chat show. All we need is a catchy name ...
26th January I set off back to The Lovely House in a bad mood having paid good money for a terrible colour job on my hair. Then, keen to make headway through France before I got tired, I found a lovely empty stretch of autoroute – just for me. Too late, I spotted the uniformed men pointing a hairdryer at me, and as I arrived at the peage (toll booths) some policemen were waiting for me and escorted me to a Portacabin. One man laboriously typed out the full report of my misdemeanor with his left little finger, while the other eight officers stood around watching and making wisecracks. Vous etes pressée madame? Sarky bastards Finally back at the Lovely House, I found the cats inflated like a pair of furry Marigolds, they had wanted to run out of my way as usual but could barely move - one had to give the other a push to squeeze out of the catflap.
I’d asked Mrs Druid to pop by while I was away and put a little food out for the cats. As a keeper of sheep, dogs and hens, I assumed she knew something about animals, I hadn’t taken into account the fact that she only started with the druidery and animal husbandry fairly recently when she retired from her job with social services.
Arriving for feeding duty the day after I left, Mrs Druid had emptied an entire sack of cat food into the two hoppers attached to the feeding bowls so the cats could eat continuously. Coming back the following day she spotted the food was all eaten so she went out and bought a supersize sack to keep those hoppers full.
22nd January Over the winter I have been looking for potting sheds; we need two similar garden sheds for the filming. One to put in the kitchen garden to film exteriors and a larger one that could accommodate lights, cameras and people for the interior shots.
I imagined there’d be plenty of ramshackle sheds knocking around in France that the owners would like to replace with a new one and I started asking around. Scary Eena told me that Mr Potato Head was planning to pull one down at the woodyard, so I went to see him. The shed in question was currently housing two large agricultural vehicles, from what I could tell by the prongs and blades sticking out through the piles of newspapers, rags, pallets and plastic bags.
I realised that although I’d registered that there were sheds in the area, the ones around here were quite particular to the region, some had at least one stone wall and many had tiled roofs.
It wasn’t looking good in France and I’m back in the UK for a visit. Someone has tipped us off about a disused allotment that is sited alongside a motorway and is to be built on. Enquiries were made and we have been given permission to take away as many sheds as we like.
A disused allotment is a melancholy sight, the weedy plots still in neat rows and next to each the lovingly customised shed of it’s former gardener. Most of the sheds on this patch had started off with the same basic form but have branched out as successive incumbents added porches, verandah’s and windows. Some of these places looked as though they’d been lived in and it wasn’t hard to imagine the community that must’ve existed here once, annoying each other with their barbeque parties and letting their lots grow too weedy or planting something invasive.
We found a pair of fairly plain ox-blood red sheds one the bigger brother to the other and made an arrangement to come back at a later date and dismantle them.
19th January I've been tagged by A Lady with Bichons in Brittany (finish the limerick and get an extra prize) to put up the 4th image in the 4th folder on my computer and talk about it.
The 4th folder is my filming notes archive, where I keep the stuff I've photographed to record our filming process, this is the 4th image. Close up one of those bits of paper looks like this;
All the programmes in the series are broken down into sequences, the sequences are broken down into the separate shots which are described and a note is made of how long the shot should be, then the cumulative total of the sequence. These notes are printed up and stuck to the wall, at the end of the day/week we add colour coded notes. I think it's self-explanatory but do say if it isn't
18th January The competitive pétanque season will start next month and the club captain is keen that we go forth and win prizes. In order to develop our killer instinct, a tournament was played outside the bar yesterday, with prizes for the winner. Due to lack of talent I played spectacularly badly. My performance was so bad that at the end of the prize-giving ceremony I was presented with a booby prize for being the worst.
The pétanque club are pretty much the last surviving customers of our village bar which is dying a death. The newly married goth couple who are currently running it are fed up and want to go home - they complain that it’s just a village of old people. I’m not sure how they know because they only ever leave their house to get in a car and drive to town – Lord knows I’ve tried to get Courtney to come to yoga with me, when the postlady gets back from maternity leave there’ll be at least one other person under 50 in that class. Neither was Courtney interested in the village charabanc trip to Andorra*, and that was quite a hoot once we’d got everyone who needed lavatories sorted out, then rounded up the ones that had wandered off and got lost during the lavatory chaos.
Kurt has assigned himself the job of chef and lets his wife run the bar. Kurt rarely cooks though, passing his days mostly on the computer while his new wife opens up the bar and sits on her own watching tv downstairs. She’s missing her friends in Denmark and is sad about the marriage. Courtney tells me that she’s not even known her husband for a year yet. He invites his heavily tattooed friends over for poker evenings, the motorbikes parked outside until the early hours tell the villagers all they need to know about the place and Mme Bontette adds speculative layers of salacious gossip.
Kurt is British, his mother and wife (who don’t speak French) both think that Kurt can speak French quite well, but I know that he can’t - which might account for his refusal to be in the bar or write his bar flyers and menus in French. I also know that Kurt’s mother (who owns the place) has decided to come and pay a visit soon to see how they’re getting on. *Andorra is a duty free principality in the Pyrenees. The French get very excited about going there to buy tax-free butter, I was very excited by the lovely big tin of olives I got for half the price I’d pay in France, that plus the big plastic jerry can of 'Port’ for 5 euros.
16th January The optimism of the rural Frenchman in his sexual ambitions is irrepressible;
It is only the totally unsuitable who pursue me, usually very old, sometimes very young. If the man hitting on me is somewhere near my own age I’d put money on the fact that he has never actually been successful in wooing any woman.
I had formed a theory that these men think I will be dazzled by their exotic foreignness. But then I went for lunch at Jeanne’s café with Florence, her pregnant belly resplendent. She is stunning, a more gorgeous version of Audrey Tatou. Not surprisingly I was totally ignored by the gappy-toothed, the boss-eyed and the lame, they were all after Florence who had to fend off several attempts at inappropriate touching and general suggestiveness.
On a dull day before Christmas, Florence and I set out on a walk. When we heard the thump of a sound system coming up behind us, we looked back and saw a fat teenager with a massive boom box strapped precariously in a crate on the back of his bicycle. It was a funny sight and we danced and sang along as he passed. Naturally he took that as an invitation to have sex with him and cycled in wobbly circles alongside us, making encouraging noises and generally trying to tempt us.
Unconcerned, we walked off the road into the forest assuming he’d get lost. Half an hour later we came to another piece of road , it had started drizzling slightly now - Boom Box Boy was there waiting. We crossed the road and went back into the forest walking on for another hour or so ending up back at Florence’s village, it was by now pouring and we were freezing as we squelched our way down the tarmac - boom box man was there, waiting, when he spotted us he started pedalling hopefully towards us.
14th January The Bar and La Salle des Fetes: The rift widened over new year. The Salle des Fetes advertised a St Silvestre Dinner Disco. Kurt 'n' Courtney hosted an evening of New Year jollity with beer and pies at the bar, the bar posters were in English so it was interpreted by the villagers as being an exclusively British event – which it was.
The Pétanque Club: still meets up at the bar for a weekly game – the club has now become registered and official, the first inter-club tournament will be played next month, we are summoned to start training in earnest this weekend.
The Cats: hang out on top of a tall basket full of knobbly ropes in the back kitchen, if I walk in there, they shoot out through the cat hole to the wood shed but Kevin will immediately poke his head back through the hole to see if I’ve got food - he is excessively greedy.
Florence: my friend is roundly and hugely pregnant. Yesterday we visited some thermal baths and wallowed around like a pair of whales then loafed in the Jacuzzi on the roof where it snowed on us. The big hole in the wall of her house has now got a window in it.
Dormant Creatures: are now sleeping in a second fridge plugged in just for their use, currently only ants and butterfly cocoons in residence.
The Director: is still editing last year's material in the UK he is expecting a visit from me next week.
12th January ... On Saturday it was Freddie's turn for cooking, Saturday night is Spaghetti Night.
The Ranch is an extremely organised household - the month’s menu is fixed in advance and they do a monthly shop for everything in one go, this involves 4 shopping trolleys.
I didn’t see much of Nina, she works out a lot in the home gym, she is tiny, twitchy and boyish. Nina also has OCD and there are quite a lot of rules - I think my visit was quite taxing for her.
I got back to the Lovely House yesterday morning, the water fell from the attic which runs along the back of the house into a downstairs room which isn't used during the winter. The water did wash through into the main front room where the fireplace is, the unglazed terracotta tiles are placed straight on the raw clay which was scraped flat to build the house on (no foundations) so the floor is still damp but the fire is going and the weather has really warmed up now - it’s great to be home.
...I’d not even washed my face when I arrived at the dinner party on Friday night, I nipped into the bathroom and washed off the dirt a bit but frankly I looked considerably worse when the full horror of my blotchy swollen face was revealed.
It was decided that Freddie and Nina should take me in for that night and then Freddie would help me sort things out at my place in the morning.
Freddie and Nina live in a huge new-looking house on a hilltop. It is regarded by many as a monstrosity with it’s glossy tan tudoresque beams criss-crossing neatly across a gleaming white façade. Freddie has built it around the skeleton of some farm buildings following Nina’s directions, she explained how they first found the place and the vision she immediately saw for it’s future; It was just a fallen down barn - no roof, Freddie said to me 'This is too far gone for us Nina’ and I said 'Freddie. Look up there, that’s where we’ll have our corner bath’.
Freddie is ex-RAF and quite a bit older than Nina. He is a bit like my Nan and remorselessly hospitable ... would you like 3 or 4 sugars in your tea, or would you prefer coffee, I’ll make you cocoa, look lovely hot milk, are you warm enough, let me make you a hot water bottle...
Freddie and Nina have insisted that I stay at their place until I’ve got The Lovely House dried out. Their house is blazing hot and I couldn’t sleep on Friday night, I had a banging headache and everything ached yesterday morning. I dressed and wandered into the kitchen where Freddie reeled off breakfast options; Do you like eggs? I could scramble you some eggs and I’ve got some lovely sausages, would you like 4 or 5 eggs, you could have 10 sausages, I’ve got loads. Or would you prefer fried eggs, I expect I can find bacon, or maybe you’re a cereal sort of person...
I started giggling at this barrage and then started crying again, Freddie made me a very sweet coffee and patted my shoulder, waiting until I’d dried out enough to make sense.
After breakfast Freddie put some paraffin heaters in his van and drove me back down to the Lovely House. I checked the cats, ants and whatever else is living in the fridge at the moment, then I waited until the electrician came. I spent the day there with the fires going and would have been happy to stay but Freddie had seen in my fridge and insisted that I go back for supper with them and stay at the ranch for a second night …
The freeze went on for a few days and wasn’t a huge problem. I was using the fire for cooking anyway, the ironware fixed in the chimney (the cremaliere) includes a hook to hang cauldrons of lake water over the fire to heat for washing with. A few days ago My Dutch neighbours came by to see if I was OK and stayed for lunch – Kitty is petite and has showbiz pzazz, her voice is a husky purr, her enormous husband has a champion moustache. As they were leaving Kitty told me to call if ever I needed a beer and a warm up with her and the Walrus.
You frozen up then?
Yup Landlord never wanted to pay to wrap up the pipes – happens every year. You got any leaks?
It’s still frozen, I don’t know yet Better go and have a look then
We went into the icy attic and looked where the pipes run along the wall - there was a slow drip from one place, it didn’t look serious but I went and turned the stopcock off, Bruno identified the source with a chalk mark and I left a phone message for the plumber.
Bruno went off and I went back out to work until the plumber came, I got completely lost clearing another area of brambles to feed my ongoing bonfire. I wandered back to the house in a filthy state, starving for lunch, it was much later than I thought. Then I heard a gushing noise as I approached the front door. I ran in, saw the flood, called the plumber - a little more hysterically this time, then set to work sweeping the water out of the house. The plumber arrived quite quickly he fixed the pipe and I continued to sweep the water. It turned out that the damage was in the hot pipe, a whole tank of hot water had emptied into the house.
When the worst of the water was out of the house, I sopped up the last puddles with a big cloth, using my hands to wring out the water into a bucket. The house walls are made from clay bricks mixed with ash, the water was very soapy and I realised that the hot water had washed down the bricks making the water caustic, I didn’t notice at the time because my hands were numb with cold.
I worked manically for hours but it was under control, I couldn’t see any lasting damage, it had happened during the day … could be a lot worse etc.,
It was only when I sat down and waited for a kettle to boil that I realised how tired I was and that my hands hurt. I then discovered that we had no electricity in the main part of the house (the Landlord had done the rewiring here himself because he hadn’t wanted to pay to have it done). Suddenly the house seemed like a cold wet monster and it was dark by this time.
I went into the bathroom with a torch and saw my face in the mirror – I looked like I’d been blasted from a cannon, I laughed at myself – then I started crying. I pulled myself together, had a cup of tea and decided that if there was ever a time to call Kitty for a beer and a warm up - now was it, I picked up the phone;
Hi Kitty are you busy this evening?
Yes darling we have guests for dinner Oh never mind, another time
Is everything OK darling?
I assured her that everything was fine but she couldn’t understand what I was saying through my gulping and snotty hiccupping tears. Within ten minutes The Walrus had come round and made me get in his car.
The dinner party was in progress as I arrived and everyone insisted that I joined them, the other guests were two English couples, I knew them slightly but my disaster bonded us all in a sort of Dunkirk Spirit and soon everybody was fighting over who got to take me home.
I’ve ended up at Freddie and Nina’s ranch and it’s quite funny there …
8th January We celebrated the first yoga class of the new year with an after-class supper, I attempted to take some initiative with this one, proposing that I could contribute a big tart. Mme B, astonished that I still misunderstood the etiquette of these events put me firmly in my place: I will bring a whole salmon, we will have it cold with mayonnaise, Mme Bic can make her salad, Mme Eena will bring rillettes, you bring bread
We decided to hijack the maire's conference room for our meal this time - it has a nicer table, The Bontettes, The Bic Biros, Church Cleaning Lady, The Bank Manager, The Sheep Farmers, Scary Eena, The Instructor and myself all eating Scary Eena's rillettes under the gaze of Sarko. My neighbours are forthright in a way that some people might find rude, mostly I find it amusing. During supper the conversation turned to 'The English’, I’m used to this conversation now, it usually starts with someone asking me a question like; Do the English eat soup? The questions can get a bit repetitive and sometimes I answer in a way that amuses me but my flippancy will always come back to bite me and I will be informed at a later date that 'The English think soup has aphrodisiac properties’ or 'soup is only drunk at midnight in England’.
After the soup conversation we got down to the real business The English certainly do like a drink don't they?
During Sunday's Tart Party, Bic Biro toured the tables constantly with bottles of cider, the village ladies have explained to me that the polite rule here is to accept no more than a glass or two, no matter how much the host insists. English participants, who don’t understand this game and wanting to be seen to join in properly will accept more than the correct amount of glasses - the side effect being that their French improves.
M. Bontette suggested that The English are not a nation of alcoholics they are just Bon Viveurs
Mme B actually snorted at her husband But they are incontinent in all ways … sex, drink, food, it’s all stories of bottoms with them … they don’t know when to stop
6th January My pipes are frozen, I've borrowed and stolen as many buckets as I can lay my hands on and fetched up water from the lake (after cracking through the surface ice). The buckets all have to be in the living room to stop them freezing over, the ants are keeping warm in the fridge. I've been round Mme B's house filling bottles with drinking water (she's properly lagged of course). It's not too bad in the day because I can go off on bracing walks but once in the house I have to wear every item of clothing I own.
The cats are making me laugh though. Julie kills stuff and Kevin steals it, then parades around pretending it's his, this is Kev showing me a bit of the rat Julie just caught.
5th January I took the Director to the airport last night so I was a bit sad and lonely this morning - and then the ants arrived.
Yup, this morning a lovely box full with test tubes of starter ant colonies arrived, here’s the email to explain everything;
Best thing is to put the ants in the fridge, make sure they look like they are hibernating. They might look wrinkled, if they are moving around too much they will need to be cooled down gradually to 5-8 degrees C (don’t let them get affected by the frost). It is important to make sure they have enough water but not too much, most ants don’t make it through the winter because of either drowning or dehydration.
Best Wishes etc
I have been inspecting them anxiously all day for signs of wrinkling or death or life
Before setting off to the airport we had time to attend the annual epiphany tea party at the Salles Des Fetes; on the first Sunday of the new year the Maire invites our village and the two tiny communes next to us to join him for cider and special epiphany tarts, Gallette de Roi. Hidden inside each tart is a ceramic charm, the person who breaks a tooth on one of these charms gets to wear a crown and be king (or queen) for the day. We sat at the white plastic tables while smartly dressed village officials came around with trays of Galletes de Roi, chocolates and cider it is a polite sort of event.
The English man that I have unkindly named Fat Dad was there with his offspring. The French children sat with their parents all dressed in their Sunday Best while FD’s kids careened around like banshees grabbing at chocolates, keeping their mouths full as they shrieked at each other. Fat Dad was beaming as I went to wish him Happy New Year. We don’t allow any sugar or refined or processed food in our house, so this is a real treat for them – aren’t they having a great time
4th January I went to yesterday's market and bought celebrational food. Later, when we were in the bar, The Director asked me what I'd bought: Me: Oh loads of things ... oysters... TD: How many oysters did you buy? Me: I can't remember TD: Did it feel as though you were carrying one cat in the bag or two? Me: Just the one TD: You've only got a dozen then
I was woken with a phone call from the landlord, he tells that he won’t be putting the Lovely House on the market until we choose to leave, and we can stay as long as we want, and yes he’ll put that in writing.
How did that come about you may ask?
After the landlord's call before Christmas to say that the house would be on the market and after I’d got the flames coming out of my nose under control, I deduced that he was hoping that we'd buy the house, and anyway it would be easier to sell while inhabited – and he’d still be getting our rent.
Clearly the man is a No Good Duplicitous Rotter. I asked Mme B. to help me write a letter explaining that due to the security risks of unknown visitors and the disruption ensuing we would have to find other premises forthwith – I now feel so euphoric, triumphant and smug I've just had to hang that dartboard and fling a few darts at this image, which is as close as I can get to a likeness of the landlord.
2nd January We were at the Village Hall for New Year’s Eve. My chum Mme B organised the bash and as she has fallen out with half the French people in the village and, as I'm a bit scared of her, I was press-ganged in to make up numbers. The Director isn’t naturally sociable and he doesn’t speak much French - he doesn’t like staying out late either so I realised that I wasn’t giving him much of a treat when I bought the tickets.
Mme B called me to make sure that we’d be there prompt at 8, this was so we could stand around drinking warm whisky and cheap port for two hours. At ten we noticed that the old people had sat down and were clenching cutlery in their hands, we followed suit and soon the the giblet salads appeared. We were just beginning to think that it might all be ok when the disco started - an elderly swinger in tight white pants and toupee put Agadoo on his decks and everybody got up to dance.
There was at least an hour of dancing between each course. The French people round here really like interactive dancing, Discoman played lots of brass oompah tunes and everyone knew what to do, all the arms in the air at the same time, kicking in unison, I suppose it’s a version of line dancing but I don’t know how to do that either. The funny thing was, how nobody noticed when midnight came, The Director looked at his watch and said it’s 12.30 in an incredulous tone that meant and we’ve only just had soup.
The main course (duck breast) arrived at 2am and still there was cheese, salad and dessert to come, then there would be bubbly and as there weren't many of us in the first place, there was no going home before the frizzante.
I had to sling The Director over my shoulder and give him a Fireman's Lift home. After I put him to bed I went down for breakfast and noticed that the dartboard I gave him two weeks ago is still on the floor behind the chair.