One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at local English by local French is that they still buy many things from England.

There are a few reasons for this.

One is that many French products (in our experience) are badly made and break astonishingly quickly. Within minutes sometimes. Or days at the outside.

They are also fantastically expensive, compared to neighbouring countries. My theory here is that the French economy is designed around frequent repeat purchases, but it’s not an economic model I can support on the grounds of sustainability alone.

Another reason is that shops (around here, anyway, apart from food shops) are often closed. In fact, if you want to buy something, the only day you can be pretty sure the shop will be open is Tuesday. Monday is often a closed day, for reasons of booking holidays. On Wednesday, shops close so owners can spend time with children who have a day off school. On Thursday, you should not be surprised by a sign on the door saying “Fermeture exceptionelle”. Friday, being so close to the weekend, is too much of a risk. And on Saturday, you’re almost certain to be disappointed. Sunday is just a no-go area. You knew that, right?

But perhaps above all, English people are used to a certain level of service – that level being any service of any kind. This is not something you are certain to find anywhere, unless you are clearly dripping in money.

Generalisations, I admit, but many people will recognise the truth in them.

Despite many setbacks in the past, we do still try and support local business where possible. Several weeks ago, for example, the belt on my tractor went. So I popped down to my local parts place and ordered a replacement. This, I chased up on the phone a few days later. Then in person. Every few days. For several weeks.

As an experiment, I recently phoned a parts place in the UK. They took my order, emailed a confirmation of purchase, and the new belt arrived a couple of days ago.

I’m still waiting for my local parts place to get in touch. Any contact would be nice – phone call, email, carrier pigeon. I’m not cancelling the order, because I’m curious to know what’s going to happen. I like surprises. But it won’t surprise you that I won’t be bothering with my local parts place again.

I was trundling along the field with a wheelbarrow just now, admitting to myself that I’m starting work a bit late today (even though it’s a Saturday). And I thought, at least I’m not commuting any more (so I’d already saved a potential two hours of travelling). Which led me to wondering how much travelling time I’ve saved by moving to France in August 2007.

So I worked it out: 293 weeks, or 5,860 hours, or 244 days – and that’s assuming no delays or cancellations.

I’m now tempted to start work a little bit late tomorrow, too (even though it’s a Sunday).

Gone are the days when I could walk into a room and ask a brilliant designer or artworker (aka Mac Monkey) to “just add that, will you?” Which is why I spent the first part of this morning wrestling with a couple of programmes I don’t know very well, in an effort to add a French flag to the écovallée homepage.


There are at least two things wrong with what I’ve done, which would take a competent person less than a minute to fix, but will take me well over an hour. So I’ll wait until it’s very cold again before having another go.

The flag links to the website in French, which I’ve built in yet another programme I don’t know how to use. If you’re interested in language, you might like to see how some phrases have had to be changed completely, either because they don’t translate or because French doesn’t have the same playful flexibility of English. (Neither, interestingly enough, does United Statesian.)

Spent quite a tiring day driving a tractor up and down the field using the wrong tool (a “Canadienne”) to try and prepare the ground for some maize we want to plant this spring for next winter’s animal food; with a bit of sand filter work, hole digging and tree felling thrown in for good measure; and a short pause for a fairly healthy lunch in the sun.

But that’s not why I’m putting keys to screen. It’s because…

Just after lunch, I went to a nearby garage to buy some red diesel for the tractor. It’s not a garage I go to much – perhaps twice in three years. I filled the jerry can, told the guy the price (it’s one of those old-fashioned whirring dial things) and offered my debit card. Oh no, he says. Cash or cheque only.

Ah, says I. I’ll have to go to the cash machine. Shall I leave the car?

No, he says. Take the car.

OK, I say. I’ll be back in a few minutes.

And I was.

I’d make a rubbish criminal.

Bob moved on to pastures new today, but not before leaving permanent marks all over écovallée, many of which will never be seen. I’ve got to say, he’s a very handy guy to have around. Because it’s true. Look:

Here, Bob’s hands are applying lime mortar on top of Isochanvre – a carbon-positive, hemp-based insulation product we used to block up a gaping hole under the bathroom window. My mistake. (Note to people ordering windows over the phone in France: They always give the height before the width in this country. Even if you say, ‘115 centimentres side to side’ just to confirm. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.)

As with all Bob’s work – and now his time with us – it was beautifully finished.

This office isn’t like the others I’ve worked in.

Instead of extra-shot lattes, almond croissants and airborne viruses, my colleagues bring in things like eggs from their own chickens, rabbits (dead or alive, for table or children), ducks, turkeys, sausages, an impressive variety of fruits and veggies, and an almost constant supply of meat-free kitchen scraps for our pigs.

I’ve got to say I prefer it this way.

I thought you’d want to know how Daniel the builder’s getting on with persuading our neighbour to sell us her land (so we can build an access road the fire service will approve, so the mayor can give the go ahead, so we can apply for planning permission and get the eversoslightly different ball rolling that might – just might – have a chance of being approved in time for…).

It’s very French.

(All of this was reported to me third hand. I’ll paraphrase to save virtual ink.)

First, Daniel phoned the neighbour and asked if she’d be interested in selling the land.

‘Non,’ she said. She was very emphatic. The French often are.

‘Can I phone you back?’ he asked. (In French. Clearly.)

‘Yes,’ she said.

A week later, he phoned back. A lengthy conversation. Was she interested?

‘Not really. It’s been in the family for years.’

‘Can I phone you back?’


The third conversation (two more than we would have made) went along the lines of:

‘Are you interested?’

‘Well… I’ll have to talk to the rest of the family… Find out how much we’d want for it… Can you call back after August 15th?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

Gotta love the French. (Especially when you have one of them on your side.)

I went into the wine shop down the road last night, walked up to the counter (careful not to let Boy touch any of the Expensive Things) and waited for someone to realise we were there.

We waited for a few more minutes.

Then a few more. It’s not unusual for the owner to be round the corner filling up someone’s car with wine, or having a chat with someone outside the nearest coffee shop.

Eventually, I turned towards the door at the back of the shop and said (loudly): “Bonsoir!”

Then, after a moment or two more, slunk out of the shop, empty handed, a little guilty that I had looked in the corners for the non-existent CCTV cameras.

French riding lessons differ from English ones in two ways.

First, the content:

You have to find your horse…

Collect it…

Using reasonable force…

Where necessary…

Take it to the stables…

Clean it…

Sit on it…

Play tag with it…

Spin on it…

And stand on it…

The second difference is the price:

For two hours of horse contact, including one hour of riding – nine euros, twenty. Remarkable.

(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.)