September 2007

France Telecom has come finally through.

Which means you’ll be hearing a lot more from me from now on.

Moo-ha-hah-harrr. Et cetera.

A few weeks ago, in the Brighton paper, I saw a caption for a photo that read like this: “The winner of the beauty contest was [Name of girl] (pictured), aged 13. When she grows up she wants to be a forensic scientist, or a hairdresser.”

Here, surely, you’ve got to blame the TV. There are obviously far too many shows (“Cutting it”, “10 years younger”, “Queer eye”) giving young people the impression that a career in follicle management is for anyone. They should stick with Applied Maths and be happy.

That said, in our search for a man with a tractor to cut our waist-length grass, what better place to start than the local coiffure?

You’re right, the local café.

I also mentioned it to the parents at school. The accountant. The Notaire. And pretty much anyone else I found myself speaking to throughout the day.

It became a bit of a mantra: “We need to find someone with a tractor. Our grass hasn’t been cut for a year.” Sometimes I also said: “The guy we bought the land from had a tractor, but he sold it.”

Which is how I mentioned it to Mandy – the mother of one of the daughter’s friends – on Sunday. “Oh, there’s a tractor in the shed over there,” she said, waving her hand over there. “I think it’s for sale. You can see it later if you like.”

We did like.

And later, after a walk past the pool, through the barns, around fishing lake, the spare cottage (we never even went round the house) all swapped for a British B&B a few years ago, we opened a shed roughly the size of a hangar for a Learjet and saw, sitting slightly forlorn in the gloom…

A little red tractor (not pictured).

Straight out of a story book.

Or a kid’s cartoon.

Practically perfect in every way.

As boy (whose favourite word is “tractor”) sat at the steering wheel, too blissed out even to make “brrrrum” noises, and I wrote “sold” in the dust on the top, Mandy remembered something.

“This was Dominique’s tractor. It came from your land.”


Apparently, the sale of the tractor fell through and it’s been sitting there ever since. Waiting for us.

It’s a (so-called) coincidence so massive, even we are finding it hard to believe. Enormously affirming, after so many days where nothing much seemed to be happening.

Apart from the drinking of coffee.

And a haircut.

(It’s market day today and an eclectic mix of music from the 60s, 70s and 80s is being piped around town through these:

Speakers where you’d expect to find CCTV cameras – if you were English – I’ve yet to see a CCTV camera in this country.)

Next on the list of People To See was an accountant. Or Expert Comptable, as they say in these parts.

I went to the nearest one, on the other side of our lounge wall, and announced our Englishness. That’s fine, the receptionist said smilingly – he speaks English. Come back in half an hour.

We came back, armed with questions about income tax, social security tax, offsetting set-up costs, rates for yurts, expenses, definitions of gîtes versus chambres d’hôte.

“Hello,” he said.

I still don’t know if this is the full extent of his English. But after we explained, in French, what we are going to do, he picked up the phone and spoke to a French-speaking English accountant, and arranged for a meeting in a couple of weeks. (I can see a pattern here…)

In a typically generous gesture, when told about our continued lack of Interweb access, he invited us to use a spare office whenever we want. It has a computer, phone – all that early 20th Century workplace stuff. And once again, we came away wondering at the superbness of small town French life.

(Muzak included.)

Last week, we had Clare’s sister, her fiancé and their daughter staying nearby (we’re supposed to be in a yurt on an organic farm, remember?).

Which was an excellent excuse to show off places we know (Bergerac old town, Le P’tit Loup), discover new ones (the incredible view from the Belvédère at Marqueyssac), and find out why they chose to stay where they did (a family friendly place with comfy chairs, a pool and a barn full of toys.)

They chose a good week for it – 29 degrees and sun pretty much every day.

But we’ve seen the TV shows. We didn’t spend the whole time sitting by the pool. We tried to Get Things Moving by Speaking To Someone About Our Big Green Idea.

Our options were: our estate agent, who had already offered to take us to the local planning office, our architect, our Notaire (solicitor), someone with a tractor (more on this later), or an accountant. We needed to see them all. The question was, who first?

After much debate, we chose the notaire and took in our largest dictionary, only to discover he has excellent English.


During a very long (and, so far, free) meeting, he told us to see the local planning office. Before Friday, because they were to close for two weeks after that (obviously – it’s been ages since the August holiday). He also told us to see an accountant – and the one next door to where we are living would be fine.

So I went in and saw planning. Without our estate agent. Which, as I sat down opposite a slight (and slightly intimidating) woman who could have the power of life and death for the rest of our project (no pressure, then), I thought may have been a bit foolish.

Turns out it isn’t her. And I’ll have to go back again in a few weeks.

Next time, I’ll take the estate agent.

Thought I’d show you a bit more about where we live – a few doors down from this Off Licence:

Which is a few doors down from the patisserie:

Which faces the square:

Near the tourist info office:

Which overlooks the bridge:

Near the chateau:

Not very far at all from our favourite restaurant:

(As opposed to the ice cream place next to the posh restaurant):

About 80 metres (yards) the playground:

It’s not exactly Streatham, but we think it’s all the better for that.


After only several trips to furniture stores and garden centres (all valuable research, mind), we bought this excellent metal garden table and chairs.

It’s our first purchase – and a major step up from this uncomfortable arrangement:

On Friday, we also found a wooden bed at a nearby Brocante (the French equivalent of an antique shop). Didn’t even need to make an appointment – they were open!

It’s taken ages to find something with the right look. All the modern stuff is too new, too expensive and very un-eco. So it was heartening to find exactly the right thing at a very good price.

We didn’t buy it, though.

Because a few days ago, I said what we really needed to find was a hotel or restaurant that was closing down, so we could buy the furniture from them. Very reasonably, Clare said she didn’t think that would be so easy. What with being new to the area. And English.

We’ve also been on the look-out for dog(s) and cats, with chickens and maybe pigs to follow. The excellent thing about having very specific needs (I hate that word – it’s so… needy) is that you can manifest them quite quickly. It’s something that some people like to call coincidence (more on that, later).

At the market on Thursday, we saw a couple with a lovely dog and asked what breed it was. They looked at us blankly and I suspected I’d chosen the wrong word, but actually their chosen language is English. The Dartmouth Yachting Club T-Shirt was a bit of a giveaway, but you can’t be too careful. The dog was a lurcher cross whippet, I think. Very sweet.

However, they told us about some kittens that were going free from their local café in a village a couple of miles up river. On Saturday we went to their house with a stout cardboard box. It’s a big house.

Used to be a hotel.

With a restaurant.

We’re going back soon to look at all the furniture they don’t need any more.

Here’s a picture of our two very happy cats, Snuggly and Feisty:

WARNING: This post contains words unsuitable for vegetarians. (And most meat eaters.)

On the whole, our French food experiences have been, as they say around here, “super”. Whether we’re trying out a three-courses-for-12-euros menu in a Bergerac Brasserie. Or a dodgy sounding salad in our local favourite restaurant (Gizzards? What the hell are gizzards? Apart from seriously tasty.) Or eating at home, using ingredients from the two weekly markets, butchers or Petit Casinos.

Until last night.

Our nearest butcher – a very nice man – has been excellent. Being a charcuterie, he has an impressive selection of cooked dishes, and all the classic cuts. Including sausages.

We tried the Toulouse the other week, which were delicious. And yesterday, Clare came back with two long, slim chipolatas for the kids, and a couple of real monsters for us.

The chipolatas I did on a griddle on the hob. But the big buggers, I decided, needed the grill in the oven. It’s electric. I’m not a fan. But needs must.

Cooking was long and slow, using the Gary Rhodes non-piercing method picked up from a TV ad years ago, and helped along with an organic wine box from the Thursday market. And I wasn’t particularly surprised when the skin on one of the sausages split. I watched what looked like chunks of apple ooze onto the tray underneath. Or was it garlic? Clare didn’t know what was in them, either.

But it was bound to be good.

After half an hour, and because everything else was ready, I judged the sausages probably cooked and served up. We sat on our camping chairs in an empty lounge (belongings remain in Brighton till the end of the month). Clare sliced into hers, which wasn’t easy, thanks to an unexpected mattress-like quality. She opened it to reveal nothing but the potato-like slices you get in a Cornish Pasty. Pork fat. All of it. Not a gram of meat in the biggest sausage I’ve ever seen on a plate.

It was disgusting. Grim. Chokingly unpleasant. Enough to make you want to reach for a fresh salad.

The meal wasn’t a complete disaster, however. We still had an excellent salami from the Sunday market in the fridge.

Our heaviest dictionary tells us that the sausage, called an Andouille, is “made of chitterlings” and should be “eaten cold”. I think this definition should also add, “or not at all”.

Our local supermarket is called the Petit Casino.

I don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because you put your money in and win whatever you want. Or maybe because, when it comes to being open, they’re a pretty safe bet. I’d say you can shop there from 7.00 or 7.30 until 12.00 or 12.30 and 2.30 or 3.00 until 7.00 or 7.30. Four days out of seven.

It’s the other shops that are a bit of a gamble.

What you expect to be grown-up shops (technology, insurance and the like) may be open from 10.00 to 12.00 or 12.30. Then 3.00 until 7.00. But there’s an equal chance you’ll find a note on the door saying: “Closed all day for a meeting” or “Closed Monday morning”. Or “Closed Wednesday”.

If those hours fit with when you’re in town (which for us, is only 50 metres away), or you don’t actually want to buy anything, it’s charming. Enlightened. Almost Spanish.

But sometimes you really need something…

If you’re about my age (I just turned 40. Excellent, thanks for asking – discovered a very good restaurant about 70 metres away and why a bottle of Pécharmant can be well worth opening), you’ll remember Sunday afternoons before the shops were open. This was when there was nothing on all three channels of TV.

For children, it taught the meaning of boredom. For parents, I suspect, preparedness. I suspect this because, on Sunday, we ran out of nappies.

As you’ll know from an earlier post, boy has been taking antibiotics. And as you’ll probably know from smoking-related chest infections, antibiotics can have an explosive effect on the digestive system.

Now, normally, this would not be a problem for us. Like many people, we’ve used the same set of re-usable nappies (Mother-Ease – highly recommended) for both children. Saved bags of cash and even more in landfill. But because we spent Sunday morning traipsing round three markets in search of gems with which to decorate our guest yurts (no joy – nearly bought a metal garden table and three chairs for 80 euros – should have laughed when invited to pay 200 for a 70s table worth ten times less than that – and would have had kittens in the stunningly beautiful town of Issigeac, but our litter tray is still in storage), we forgot.

So I spent much of Sunday afternoon driving round looking for an open supermarket, pharmacy, garage – anything – listening to an insane re-interpretation of Beatles hits on a French classical music station. We ended up making do with a single nappy discovered in the back of the car, before winning a whole new packet in the Petit Casino the following morning.

While in Issigeac, we saw a possible guest bed in an antique shop. Wise to the ways of French shops (or so I thought – this was minutes before the Great Nappy Famine), I asked the owner if he was open this week.

That would be ridiculous, he told me. Then he gave me his mobile phone number on the back of a business card and asked me to make an appointment.

Bong. The daughter went to a school this week where all the lessons were French. Bong. Boy had a taste of his own medicine. Bong. And we have a new phone number – but no new phone.

One of the reasons for moving here in August was so the daughter could start school at the beginning of term. Which, following days of excitement, happened on Tuesday. It’s a little school in what will be our local village, with ‘loads’ of kids in classes of mixed age-groups, and a big mural on the playground wall. The days are long (9.00 to 4.30), with ‘loads’ of playtimes, and the canteen serves three-course lunches that would make Jamie Oliver weep into his fresh tagliatelle. There are ‘loads and loads’ of other English kids in the school and a day off every Wednesday.

Very civilised. No one should have to work three days in a row.

If you know her, you won’t be surprised that she’s already found a new best friend and she’s already been back to her place on a play date.

Meanwhile, boy got an ear infection. That’s the opinion of a very serious docteur (doctor) we found through the Pages Jaunes (Yellow Pages). After making the pedestrian 50-metre journey for a 27-euro consultation (same-day service – only had to wait an hour), we came away with a prescription for his first every course of antibiotics. Which must taste nice, because he loves it.

Phones, over the last few weeks, have been a bit of a talking point. Before we left Brighton, I switched my contract to a Pay as you Go with 02. After spending an obscene amount of money in a very few days, I phoned up to find I’d been paying 99p a minute to make and receive calls, with equally high costs for texts. And I wasn’t even entered into a Prize Draw! Although the charges have now been reduced, I remain an unhappy customer.

We’ve been in to see France Telecom (who’ve been bought by Orange – and it doesn’t seem long ago since the company was even born), and have seen various deals for phone, Interweb (up to 8Mb!), TV and all that. But in our local Orpi, Sonia came to the rescue and secured a pretty good deal. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be getting phone and Interweb for 30 euros a month, plus unlimited UK calls for an extra seven euros. And no connection fees. Not bad.

And now the weather: We’ve seen highs of 39 degrees (which is pretty bloody high, I can tell you), but mostly it’s been English – cloudy, with some drizzle, or morning mist clearing to give blue skies with temperatures in the low 20s. I said to the guy in the Interweb shop the other day: “It’s not normal for August, is it?” And he said: “What is normal nowadays?”

Tune in later to see how we get on in the search for beautiful furniture for inside and outside the guest yurts, in tomorrow’s markets in Lalinde and Issigeac.