May 2013

What a mine-field the correct form of greeting can be in France– and even after ten years, I still don't always get it right. As a man, when dealing with the male population, things are pretty straight forward; one is introduced, you shake hands, you chat a bit, shake hands on leaving and then, forever after, the handshake is always a part of the routine during subsequent meetings. Only when you know someone very well; or he's a member of your family, does a man embrace and dry-kiss the cheeks of another.

     Sadly, the rules are not so clearly defined when it comes to dealing with the meeting and greeting of French females. Countless words of advice in books and magazines have been written on the subject. Variously, I've seen it written that Parisians always kiss each cheek twice; that a "kiss may just be one brush of the cheek" or "several brushes, alternating right and left" (How many is 'several' for goodness sake?!). Yet another ambiguous piece of advice suggests that, "The custom of which cheek to brush first and how many times to brush varies across the country. Your best guide is to watch what the natives do and mimic their style". Well, thanks for nothing – by the time you've sorted that one out, no end of damage could have been done to the Entente Cordiale.

     In our particular part of France, the wives of neighbours we know seem content to greet with a kiss to both cheeks and a chance meeting in the aisles of the local supermarket is not likely to create a social faux pas... in other situations however, things are not necessarily straight forward and, at her home, one of these otherwise demure ladies sometimes greets me with a huge hug and plants a kiss on the lips. If she did that every time I saw her at least I'd know where I stand – unfortunately, she does not and I'm sometimes left with lips puckered like a fish out of water whilst she simply proffers her cheek for my attention. It's a bit like a first date as a teenager; one never knows what to expect... and all this indecision as a result of the antics of a lady old enough to be my mother.

     No matter, I think I've worked out how to behave when first formally introduced to a French lady. A hand-shake is the way forward... and then, on departing, it seems safe to give the single kiss on each cheek. Whether it is or not, I've not yet had my cheeks slapped as a result of unintentional, inappropriate advances!

     Nonetheless, the expression, "there's a time and a place" comes to mind. Occasionally, I frequent our local bar/tabac of an evening. When I do, the patron shakes my hand in greeting and his diminutive wife steps to the break in the counter so that she can proffer her cheeks (both cheeks, you notice). I went in there at lunchtime recently for my usual packet of cigars – having forgotten to buy some the previous evening – and, because of the familiarities of the night before, I automatically went to greet her in similar fashion.

     I had, however, failed to remember that the tobacco sales counter is at a greater height than the bar and, discovering that I couldn't reach her and she couldn't reach me, she proffered her hand – I took hold and, at the same time, on line for a kiss, unintentionally dragged her off her feet and over the counter-top... will I ever get it right, I wonder?!!

April 2013

Never would I wish to be considered ‘ageist’, or my comments appear in any way derogatory, but I do wish that the ‘Slipper Shufflers’ would stay at home on the days I want to do my shopping.

            In order to set the scene, I must tell you that the French rural elderly are a race of their own. They are extremely knowledgeable on all matters ‘country’ and, if our experiences are anything to go by, make for very friendly neighbours. The most elderly of them were, at some level, involved in the Second World War as, no matter in which part of France they live, they cannot fail but to have been affected by the German occupation (In our area, the Resistance was quite strong and there are public places whose walls still show signs of machine gun fire where dissidents were lined up and shot… a salutary reminder of what today’s elderly could well have seen in their childhood).

            As is the Napoleonic way, farms are handed down from father to son and, long since retired, a summer weekly game of boules and an abundant vegetable garden is the lot of most patriarchs. In the home, their wives still play the traditional somewhat subservient role. At the end of the week, however, all hell breaks loose and these most gentle of people take on a totally different persona.

            “Right” thinks I, first thing on a Friday, “I’ll get out early and be at the supermarket before the rush”. I park the car, I collect my trolley and I wait expectantly for the doors to open. But I’m not alone and before me stand hordes of elderly; all of whom, in similar fashion to the army in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start…”

            The aged rural French are not tall – in fact their elbows are just the right height to rest on the arm of a supermarket trolley (appropriately enough known in the language as a chariot) and, when the doors to the supermarket are eventually opened, they shuffle forward with an evil glint in their eye that totally forbids any overtaking.

            As you follow in their slip-stream, it seems that they, like you, were either in a rush to get to the shops that morning, or there has been a severe outbreak of bunions because nearly all of them are wearing slippers. Attempt to get in front of them though, and you will soon realise that the reason for this is that slippers give better traction on the highly polished floor surfaces.

            Experience suggests that to get along without hindrance, one should avoid both the fresh bread aisles and the bottled water shelves; each of which are, in any French supermarket (and through no logic whatsoever), normally situated at opposite ends of the building. Any attempts at using intimate local knowledge of the shop’s lay-out is doomed to failure as, at some point of your visit, those that first choose the bread aisle will eventually meet up with those who started at the water end – undoubtedly a big excuse for a party.

            Despite being quite parochial, it seems that the village inhabitants surrounding a place that houses any French supermarket all appear to know one another. At this all-important central point, there is, therefore, much meeting and greeting and cheek kissing. Dare to suggest that they move their chariot in order that you may continue your shopping and you will be met by a glare that, like being touched by the Snow Queen in The Chronicles of Narnia, would most definitely turn you into a statue.

            By now you might well be asking why I don’t choose another day on which to do my shopping. I could, and I have…but it was nowhere near as interesting!!    

March 2013

We think our dog ‘Fideline’ might be three this month – I say ‘think’ as she’s a dog rescued from obscure circumstances and we will never be sure.

            Having had a lifetime of them, after our last dog ‘Fletcher’ departed this life, we (or at least I did) vowed never to have another – and certainly not one in the house. Dogs live in kennels and are all the better for it. Or so I thought.

            I had, of course, reckoned without the input of others. In August 2010, we were told of a youngster that had been rescued and was looking for new, caring owners. One on one, I could have coped with any reasoned argument from the distaff side and given any amount of reasons why a dog was not practical in our current situation. What I’d not taken into account was the fact that, when the subject came up, my daughter was staying with us and the two together made a formidable team – Second World War Panzer tank divisions could have learned a lot from both of them.

            It was, it goes without saying, a ‘done deal’; Fideline (and please don’t ask where the name came from…) was soon ensconced at Chez Nous. Within hours, this somewhat less than little bundle of joy was well and truly at home – if by being at home, one means she was given her own sofa.

In between resting in the manner of a femme fatale, her salad days were filled with gardening, trimming the fringes of rugs, recycling paper from the waste bins and giving assistance whenever the washing machine needed emptying. In her excitement for a morning walk she even learnt how to undo the bootlace I’d just fastened – a negative operation if ever I saw one.

            As I worked at the computer she often attempted to join me; almost quite literally, on the desk. Should I ever have been foolish enough to print off a piece of work or an email, she was always ready to file it as soon as it came ‘hot off the press’… quite where she eventually filed it is another matter entirely.

            To be honest, it was worse than entertaining a child and I found myself constantly saying “don’t do that”, or, “why don’t you play with this instead?” I well remember one time when, on a Friday (and it was a really bad one), I even gave her a two euro coin and said, “Off you go; don’t spend it all at once.” I’d like to say that she took herself off and blew the whole lot in the localbar/tabac on a Euro millions lottery ticket, but obviously she didn’t… instead, she chose to go for an ‘instant win’ and came back with only a nine euro profit.

February 2013

It’s February and so, as is traditional, our local farmer will soon be popping round to pay his annual dues for our field which he rents. He’s a lovely man but speaks patois and I only ever manage to comprehend roughly one word in every twenty that he utters. Understanding and speaking ‘ordinary’ French is difficult enough without there being any additional complications.

            The French language has caused me much consternation in the past – and much confusion to many of the French with whom I’ve conversed. There was, for instance, the time I alarmed a neighbour by telling him that, 20 odd years ago, my wife gave birth to a pair of binoculars. I’d actually meant to say that her children were twins, but my brain apparently lost its way somewhere between jumeaux and jumelles.

            On another occasion, my random stabbing at words resulted in a French lady at thebar/tabac looking somewhat startled…and then impressed. I thought I’d been informing her that I’ve been married twice – but seemingly, what I’d actually imparted was the fact that I had two wives.

            Whether that was worse than telling our local farmer friend that our house was currently overrun by cherries I’ve no idea. Although looking like two very different words when written down, the difference between cerise and the French for mice (souris) is not all that obvious when spoken out loud – at least by me.

            Mind you, it’s not just me that makes such linguistic gaffes. A friend once earnestly told his French neighbour that his wife was having problems with a sewing machine - a’ coudre - on her arm (well, you would, wouldn’t you…) Eventually, the very worried recipient of this vital piece of information was able to establish that it was nothing more serious than a sore elbow which was temporarily bent at an angle (coudé).         

          Then there are the occasions when my language flow is going so well that I get carried away and go so far down the conversational highway that I eventually come to a dead-end and leave everyone including myself, totally nonplussed. You’d think that my previous experiences might have taught me to just say only what’s required and then leave well alone… especially as I obviously don’t know my cul from my coude!

                                                                                                                              January 2013

How or why the French are so good at remembering names and faces I’ve no idea. Sometimes recognition is understandable. We used to have a house in the lovely walled town of Richelieu and it was like being with royalty whenever we had reason to walk down the streets with our notaire there. Not only is he the notaire; he’s also the mayor and known to one and all for what he has done for the town over the years. He’s obviously much respected – so much so that his subjects press against the walls or step out into the road to allow him an unhindered passage along the pavements. I swear I’ve even seen a bit of fore-lock tugging and, on one occasion, an embarrassing attempt at a curtsey.  

        However, even for us mere mortals, with the French it seems to be a case of once met, always remembered. Some time ago, we had a change of owner at the local bar/tabac and not long after his arrival, I went in for a packet of cigars. Even though he knew I was waiting at the kiosk, ‘mine host’ remained idly at the bar chatting away to his new friends and made no hurry to serve me so I decided that I’d make my purchase before henceforth undertaking a personal boycott of the place.

        I held out until I got fed up of the inconvenience of my self-imposed sanctions and decided to make a second visit. Despite the passage of several months, I hadn’t even opened my mouth before Monsieur L’ Patron was reaching for a packet of the same cigars as I’d had before. How on earth did he remember?

        Likewise, when calling in to make an appointment, the hairdresser will have opened her desk diary and written my name down in the 09.00hrs slot for the following Friday before ever I’ve uttered a word – it is perhaps sad that I’m so predictable that she knows my preferred day and time, but even so, I am greatly impressed by her instant recall. And, as far as I’m aware, I’ve not ever done anything that might make me more memorable than any of her other clients!

        I’ve recently had a ‘bit of bother at the bank’. All I wanted was a card to replace one that had expired. Can banking be any more simple one wonders? Apparently it can and it actually took five visits and several phone calls to get precisely nowhere. Understandably, the cashier got to know my face and we both got used to me asking if my card had arrived and him saying it hadn’t. Even so, I was most surprised to be one day walking past the bank intent on other errands and being stopped in my tracks by some frantic banging at the window (obviously not alarmed then!). There was my New Best Friend, all wreathed in smiles and giving the ‘thumbs-up’ sign – from which I took it that he had good news to impart and the card had arrived.

        I just hope I never go overdrawn because there’ll be no escaping from that one without first undergoing extensive plastic surgery.


December 2012

Did you know that, as a breed, the French robin has more red on its breast than does its British cousin? No, neither did I until last spring, when I conducted a little bit of research. That might sound terribly scientific… what I actually mean is this. As I make my living as a freelance writer, I spend a lot of time looking out of the window in the hope of inspiration. Inspiration lacking on this particular day, I decided to set up a bird feeding station in direct view of the window: at least that way, I’d have something to watch whilst sitting at my desk waiting for the ‘muse’ to strike. So it was that I discovered the French cock robin has red colouring right up to, and around his face – at least in the breeding season.

It must surely have been financial desperation rather than cranial inspiration which caused me to set up the letter box in full view of the same window. Now, when the postman brings cheques in payment for any articles I might have written, I can be out there to retrieve them as quick as any of the lizards that frequently sun-bathe on the window-ledge can stick out their tongues and whip in a passing insect.

Yes, I admit it; I also watch the lizards when I should be working. There’s my best friend ‘Stumpy Stan’ (who presumably lost the end of his tail in a close encounter of the life-threatening sort), his beautifully-coloured acquaintance, ‘Gilbert-The-Gills’ who, if he were about 10,000 times larger, might just get his membership of the Komodo Dragon Club, and also ‘Francine’ – who has two pendulous growths and therefore gained her name as a result of a local female viticulturaliste possessing exactly the self-same attributes.  

            When the view from the window palls and the lure of the summer sun attracts, I nip out to amuse myself in my raised vegetable beds in much the same way as a child would play in his sand-pit. Salad stuff of all types grow well, but it does attract slugs and snails (fortunately, as yet, no puppy-dog tails).

            Now…I know what you’re thinking – Jeremy has totally flipped – he’s going to tell us that he’s made personal friends with the gastropods. Well, actually, no... I haven’t, and I flick out any undesirables onto the lawn where they are swiftly collected by Thelma and Louise, two female Mistle thrushes who then use the concrete pig sculpture out on the front lawn as a means of cracking open their shells… as to the fortunes of Sidney the Spider who lives in the curtain aside my desk, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait…I’ve got an article to write!

November 2012

When I grow up, I want to be a French road-mender. Not one of those you pass on the péage whose work is announced kilometres ahead by the huge flashing arrows attached to the back of a works lorry and whom you are exhorted to consider on the LED notifications illuminating overhead gantries, but a real rural road-repair-man with a smile on my face and a shovel to lean on.

            Here every single road, no matter how small, is attended to on an annual basis, and the verges and ditches down each side are cut and dug in the spring and early autumn: as a consequence of which, the rain comes down, the roads get wet, the rain runs off – and the ditches take the surface water as far as the nearest stream. Even the farmers’ take advantage of the ditches and, after drilling a cereal field, will sometimes bring a single plough furrow through the field’s lowest point and directly to the ditch so that (with the exception of this last month!) rarely does one ever see standing water on the fields, no matter how hard it has rained.

            But I digress. Let me tell you how things work down our lane. Periodically, there appears from somewhere – possibly from a subterranean cave where they have been gently slumbering – two ancient dungaree-clad men with wrinkled smiles on their faces and an equally ancient tractor. To the hydraulics of the smoke-belching beast is attached a small metal box, into which has previously been deposited a quantity of tarmac and gravel.

            With cheerfulness reminiscent of almost any of the Seven Dwarves, one of the men hauls himself onto the tractor seat and sets forth to do battle. Following behind is the second man armed with a shovel, a toothless grin and a nut berry-brown complexion. The procession sets off at a gentle walking pace until an uneven piece of road is found; the tractor pulls just past it, the walking attendant scoops his shovel into the box of black magic mending dust and flings a liberal coating into the pot-hole. The tractor then reverses and ‘steam-rollers’ it into a firm surface before the two-man cavalcade moves on.

            Now, possibly the best thing about it all is that no prior preparation seems to be required; if there are grass and weeds growing around the hole, or through a crack in the surface, it’s of no consequence, the plants get covered too.

I suppose no-one is ever as happy as they might outwardly seem, but to me, judging from our particular team; it seems an idyllic life – no wonder I have this periodic thought of how wonderful it would be to be ambling along country roads observing nature, taking in the summer sun (no, of course I wouldn’t venture out on wet days!) and occasionally strewing the commune’s highways with a shovel or two of tarmac and gravel.



October 2012

Oh dear. I think I might just have become a mountain biker! Previously I’ve never had much time or understanding for those mad souls whose idea of fun is to career along woodland paths; the only apparent purpose being to get both themselves and their bikes as dirty as possible.

            Any leisure cycling I’ve been doing here in France has been on a racing bike. The roads around us are perfect; undulating without being hilly and even the most rural are well surfaced and pot-hole free.

            The other Sunday, keen for a bit of exercise before getting down to work on the keyboard, I went out to the shed only to discover that my trusty, rusty steed had a flat tyre. Half awake, I couldn’t be bothered to make amends and so instead pulled out one of the mountain bikes originally acquired for the use of paying guests in the days when we ran a gîte. Fortunately, it had been used by someone else not all that long before and its tyres remained pumped full of air.

            On the road and just after calling out “Bonjour Madame Vache” to a friendly-looking house cow (I find it best to keep in with the neighbours), I remembered an interesting track I’d always meant to explore but never had. Deviating from my intended route, I was soon pedalling off-road between vines and pasture. Gradually the track got worse and, slipping down a gear or two, I have to confess that it wasn’t very long before I was actively seeking out rather than avoiding bumps and dips created by dried out puddles; ducking my head as branches flicked my ears and weaving in and out of trees as if I were an Olympic ski champion negotiating slalom poles.

            This mountain bike lark is not as easy as it looks. To maintain momentum over rough ground is quite an art and one particular misjudgement in a stretch of dark, sunless woodland led me to end up inspecting France’s rural flora at a much closer level than I would have ideally liked. Still, my mishap obviously offered some amusement to a Hoopoe bird which flew off uttering a soft, resonant “ha-ha-ha”.

Eventually, faced with the choice of either continuing cross country for more of the same or rejoining the tarmac road, I chose the former option. And do you know what? When I’d reached the end of that track, I went back and did it all again!  

September 2012

At long last we’ve been brought into the modern computer age…well, sort of. When we arrived in France a decade ago, we were told that, as we were the furthest house from the telephone exchange, we would have to make do with ‘dial-up’ but that, in year’s to come, Broadband might just be possible. 

            Imagine the excitement when, upon once more enquiring (doing so has, in the intervening years, become as traditional as Christmas) more in hope than expectation, we were told that, “yes…of course it’s possible for you to have Broadband…”

As a result of this momentous news, plans and phone calls were made; new contract agreements drawn up and, not many weeks ago, we were officially hurtled into the 21st century. Very quickly we were sending previously impossibly-sized photos to all who wanted them (and to many who didn’t), simply because we could. The Internet was explored and down-loaded – an event which rarely happened in our ‘dial-up’ days due to the fact that items of interest took so long to ‘Google’ and appear on-screen that, by the time they did, I’d forgotten what was being searched for and had instead, gone to take the dog for a ten-mile hike or cook a five course gourmet meal in order to fill in the time.

          Now thoroughly updated, all was running amazingly well computer-wise…at least until 24 hours after installation when lights which should have been green on the ‘Livebox’ suddenly turned to red and it was no systems go. Fortunately, although extremely crackly, the telephone line still worked and so calls were made…and various trouble-shooting suggestions were made by some far-distant operator – but all to no avail. It was decided that it was quite probably a fault with the ADSL connection (whatever that may be). “Don’t worry” we were told, “we’ll send a man round to sort it all out”. And true to their word, they did…the very next day.

          I heard a knock at the door and, as is normal in such situations, went to open it. There stood a France Telecom engineer who (and maybe this is more a sign of my age rather than any reflection on his) looked about 12…in fact I was quite amazed to think that his Mummy had let him out to drive big vans, climb high ladders and play with any of the potentially dangerous tools he had strapped around his waist.

         Nevertheless, he soon diagnosed the problem – and, although it had nothing to do with the situation, replaced a faulty resistor in the internal phone connection. His English was also very good (when he eventually moves up from primary to secondary school, I’m pretty sure he’ll soon be fluent!); all of which made his explanation of the fact that, whilst he personally was unable to rectify the fault, he would send a colleague out, very much easier to understand. 

         Two days later, his Grandfather appeared – well, he certainly looked old enough to have been his Grandfather. Unlike his co-worker, this particular France Telecom representative spoke no English at all and at first, I thought he was being deliberately obtuse by pretending not to understand my admittedly, less-than-perfect French (a little game enjoyed by many over here)…and then I suddenly realised that he was quite severely deaf. Only in France could one be visited by an ancient deaf telephone engineer; how does that work, I wonder? One would have thought a modicum of hearing would be essential in such a job.

          Anyway, once the work was done, he rang from the top of a nearby telegraph post to see if all was okay (have you ever tried long-distance sign language?). As he spoke, the line was clear and crackle-free…and, as yet, all seems well with the ‘Livebox’.