Monday, 21 September 2009

The End

This is my last blog posting for MancinFrance. It's almost eight o'clock on our last day and we're exhausted after days of packing and cleaning. Still we managed a final walk to the lake and lunch on the terrace in the sun. In the first posting - back in freezing January, I asked why we were here - [appropriately existentially n'est ce pas?] and so now I suppose, is the time to see if I've discovered any kind of answer. The best I can come up with is that I wanted to change - not too much, but a bit, to rearrange the molecules, to give myself the shock of the new. I think it's hard to change by will, by decision alone, so you have to change your situation, and let it change you.

Has the shock of the new thing worked? Yes, a bit, I think. My French is better - I can now understand about half of what people say to me - as opposed to about 10%. I've had three of four conversations in French in the last few days and didn't panic or gawp, open-mouthed, just carried on blagging Frenchily and hoping for the best. It seems to work. When I walk through the village in the late afternoon, I say bonjour to more people. Dogs still bark but not as loudly. I've written a lot and sent a lot of stuff off to competitions/publishers.I do feel a bit braver, fitter, younger. I've walked hundreds of miles. I've swum in a lake. I've shot lots of rapids on the Dordogne.

Something else I've become more interested in as the year has gone on - nationality. Here I feel more connected to Europe, yet not exactly European. Englishness/Frenchness - what does it mean? If I'm English - and I am - how do I know? If Englishness is about place, home, language, history, familiarity, what can we be proud of? What should we celebrate? What should we love?

And now I'm finding it hard to end - to finish writing - to leave. I hate long drawn out goodbyes. So here it is. A short sharp one.

Goodbye to all of you who've read this - thank you so much for being with us here. If you want to say goodbye too, it would be good to get a final comment from you - to know you were still there. I'd love to know what you think about this Englishness/nationality business.

Goodbye to our petite chatte, Cleo, who won't be coming home with us but who loved it here.

And goodbye to beautiful La Roche Canillac. To all the kind and friendly people we've met.

Goodbye to the trees, the birds, the mists in the valley, the brilliant stars.

- a bientôt.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Endings and Beginnings

It's impossible not to write in clichés. It's September. The leaves are falling. The year is over and we're leaving. Ah, the apple trees, sunlit memories. Sorry. As I said it's impossible. I did warn you.

This is not the last blog, but it is the last but one. As the two or three of you who've kept up with me so far will have noticed, I've slackened over the summer months. Summer visitors, swimming, walking canoeing. But now the weather is really changing - west winds, swallows gone and going. Time to come home. Why, you may ask, indeed as many people have asked, particularly ex-pats and French people. As I said a blog or two ago, French people understand the concept of love of country extremely well, they just find it hard to understand how anybody can love any other country but France. Seulement une petite joke, mes amies. And ex-pats have something to prove. That they made the right decision.
Anyway. We are coming home. Libraries. Films. Radio 4. It's our country. We love it. We speak the same language. Our family and friends are there. It's beautiful. Weather is just weather after all.

We're trying to fit in all the things we've wanted to do and haven't managed - last weekend a trip to Toulouse. Lovely city - sunset on the river - all the students back and rampaging around - begging from idiot tourists [yes we gave them money] because c'est un tradition donner l'argent aux l' etudiants as they are tres pauvre - or, as we say in English - for extra beer money.

A group of students were singing socialist songs [imagine!] in the Town Hall courtyard, in front of an exhibition about Jean Jaurès an academic and politician, who campaigned for peace before the first world war and was assassinated in 1914. The city felt full of energy and radicalism - and also artistic advertising - a field of paper flowers sponsored by Kenzo Perfume. We loved it all.

This week canoeing, more walking, looking out of the window at the turning-brown trees. Saying goodbye- not just to the place, but to this year, the idea of a year as a break in the onward rush, the too-fast pace of a life. One of the odd things is that I feel younger than I did when we came last September. I can't really explain it, but maybe the truth is that I had been beginning to feel old. It could simply that I feel fitter - all the walking up and down hills - or that cities are places where you're constantly reminded of your age. Probably the sun has addled my inner metabolic clock- thingy. A good dose of Manchester autumn and winter weather should knock that right out of me.

However - here's a verse of a poem which kind of links trees and France (Finisterre) and the British Isles. And it's by Manchester's [adopted] own, Carol Ann Duffy. A secular prayer with Radio 4 in it. What could be better. Another reason to come home. A woman poet laureate.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So a woman will lift

her head from the sieve of her hands and stare

at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth

enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;

then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth

in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales

console the lodger looking out across

a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls

a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre

Monday, 31 August 2009

Be here now!

While writing here, I've tried to avoid naming the actual village we're staying in, although probably most people who read this blog know very well where it is. Not really sure why - maybe I had a fantasy that millions of people would read this and be driven to visit in hordes, overrunning the place and changing it from the quiet beautiful place it is into a kind of Blackpool-sur-Doustre. This doesn't seem to have happened yet, so I think I'm safe to risk it now.

The village is La Roche Canillac in south Correze. There are two good local websites where you can access more pictures and information about the village and surrounding area. The first is Doustre-Plateau-Etangs at

The Doustre is the local river, most of the area is a plateau, and there are lots of etangs, hence the rather long-winded name - and as this is the official website for seven communes of which La Roche Canillac is the administrative centre - it was maybe a compromise title to avoid giving too much prominence to any one of the communes.

It's a rich and informative site, part translated into English and regularly updated, it includes a diary of events and activities, photos, local history and classified ads. The house we are staying in is in La Roche Basse, which is [obviously] in the low part of the village, below the plateau, on the side of the gorge, looking out over the valley of the Doustre.

The other good website is La Roche Canillac: Un siècle en images at

This site includes over 400 photographs and 11 films showing life and events in the village from the beginning of the 20th Century. There are photographs of school classes dating back to 1911, as well as weddings, fetes, celebrations and sports all the way through the century. There are some wonderful wobbly videos showing people water skiing in costumes on the local lake, another of the day the cycling Tour de Correze came through the village - and the one I like best is also a bit bizarre, the 1960 annual fete complete with bullring and bull and what look like travelling toreadors and clowns tormenting a bull - check out Course de Torros. It also looks like some of the local lads had a go too, but the main impression is of blokes running about and jumping over fences, while the [quite small-looking] bull gallops about pretending to be fierce. As far as I can see, no animal-blood actually got spilled during the filming of this event, but I'm glad to report that it seems to have got the sharp point of its horn hooked into at least one lad's derriere.

There's a powerful sense of community and shared history in this site, not least because the larger national and international events although implicit, are kept in the background. You only need to remember the history of France in the 20th century to see the classes of 1911 and 1935 - the children's ages ranging from tiny tots to eleven year olds - in a very different light. And yet the ordinary life of the village goes on, and in the class of 1942 while war roared around them, the kids looking as lively, as naughty, as shy, as always - and inevitably there's one with her finger up her nose.

The other thing that strikes most strongly though, when you look at these pictures, this history, is not only the terrible change that war brings, but what has probably been the greater transformation in the last century - depopulation of the countryside and the move to the cities. The photographs and videos are full of fun and energy - showing the pride and beauty of this place - children, weddings, and of course, this being France, a page showing menus from the auberge and restaurant. On the 10th July 1926 they had Polarde Henri IV and Canard aux Olives. But they also record decline - loss. There is an elegiac feel to the photographs and films - look at what we had, they say, look at how we were. There is no auberge now, no restaurant, the school closed a few years ago and the few children are bussed elsewhere.

So the point of this posting is to say Viens ici maintenent! Come here now! Or Christmas. Or next year. This must be one of the loveliest places in France - with plenty of room! The French tourist season seems to last only 4-5 weeks which is a bit silly to tell you the truth, because the weather is good from about May to the end of September. Warm but not too hot, and with the occasional downpour and thunderstorm to keep it green. It may be quiet but it's not isolated - there are plenty of restaurants, markets and supermarkets within a short drive, you can walk, cycle, swim, canoe, or just look at the views and drink the very cheap wine.

In La Roche you can stay at La Clausure - a lovely chambre d'hotel/B&B/gite place in the village run by an English couple, Steve and Jo who are very helpful and welcoming. They speak English [obviously] and French - know all the local places and activities and their house, which is set in lovely grounds, has beautiful views and is walking distance from the lake and the centre of the village. It has B&B rooms, gite apartments for various size of groups as well as a barn gite for bigger groups. They also have hens, horses and friendly teenagers.

See their website at

La Clauzure

Sadly, we'll be leaving soon - but you could come - for a week, a month, maybe even a year!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Whew! Made it back without getting swine flu.

Five days in London and I didn't get swine flu, or a cold, or a dose of England-hating. I did get a lovely new granddaughter and a few days with some of the people I love most, after two weeks here, with some of the other people I love most, which is the best reminder of why, in the end, we will go home.

Re the England-hating, I went to a Vide Grenier [car boot sale] last week, and as I gazed at the French country tat, I overheard English voices behind me. Two couples greeting each other after one couple had been on a visit back to the UK. The following was the gist of the conversation:

'We're so glad to be back. It was terrible, crazy.'
'I know. I know.'
'It's gone completely mad now, the whole country.'
'I know. You're absolutely right.'
'We hate going back now. It's awful.'
'So do we. But you've made it in one piece.'
'Thank god. Whew!'

You hear this kind of thing a lot from ex-pats. I can't imagine French people ever being so negative about France. We need to change the record.

Back in the village, in this summer heat, there is still what passes for a local holiday crowd. There are ten to twenty cars lined up by the lake, people swimming, canoeing, lying on the grass. If last year is anything to go by they'll all be gone in ten days, the campsite will close and the village will go back to its sleepy silences. I used to think it was a bit odd, maybe over-rigid, the way many French people stuck to fixed, holiday periods: Mid-July to mid August - but now I wonder. Perhaps more French people actually like their ordinary lives, their houses and streets, families and friends, and don't need or want to go away for weekends and half-terms and short breaks, as much as the English. I could be romanticising here - it might be money, for instance, and there are probably plenty of other reasons.

Still, the French do seem to like their country and to be proud of being French. Before anybody leaps in, I know there is racism here, and that patriotism et cetera can lead to hatred and anti-foreigners. Of course. But it doesn't have to, and most of the people we've met are as moderate and tolerant as most English people, or at least, like us, they mainly keep quiet about their intolerances. They just seem to like who they are better than we English do. Maybe it's because they [and their media] don't keep banging on about how awful their country is.

Things that are brilliant about the UK:
- The language
- The people
- The countryside
- The rivers and lakes
- The coast and sea
- The books
- The arts
- The food
- Family
- Friends

Of course, most of these are just the same things that French people love about France. That's the point.

A third of France has better weather than we do, I give you that, but only for some of the year, and anyway, not having much, we appreciate the good weather more than the French do. We also have funnier stand-up comics - oh and fish and chips. I knew there was something.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Wild August

This will be the shortest posting yet.

For the past 10 days we have had three delightful teenagers and their Mum here, so it's been full-on swimming, canoeing, walking, barbecuing, mountain-biking, high ropes, computer games, eating and sleeping. The adults have done the first 6 and the teenagers the last 3. Only joking! [a bit]

And today in London our daughter has had a baby girl so I'm off off to London while R is staying here. The village is full of people on holiday. All the houses are full. There are kids and dogs everywhere. The lake is a beach. Life's a beach.

More in the unforeseeable future.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Les Vacances

Things are hotting up here. Not just the weather, the schools are on holiday, lots of the holiday homes in the village are in use and there are people about. Les vacances are finally here. We'd been warned that, after Bastille Day, the roads will jam, the French will leave the cities en masse and descend on the sea, the countryside, the mountains. The Dutch, the Brits and the Germans would all get drunk and fall in the Dordogne. R and I have been nervously preparing ourselves. And yes there are more people about: picnicking, running, swimming, looking at the views. Yesterday I even saw four teenagers in the square looking stylishly bored - probably city types! In the local towns, last Saturday, the volume of traffic meant that there were a couple of twenty second delays at road junctions. But, if this is supposed to be summer holiday madness, it's not happened yet. Maybe it'll kick off in August.

There was a village event on July 14th - a Repas Champetre, which seems to mean a meal in the fields. Actually it was in the square near the Salle Mille, which is a community centre. Everybody brought food and drink. Tables were laid out under a big tree and the Conseil Municipal donated aperitifs and drink. Lots of ex-pats as well as local French people and French holiday makers. Yet again, I was struck by the lack of officiousness, nobody seemed to be in charge, or giving orders, or getting flustered, but the tables and chairs got put out, the food turned up: salads and quiches and pizzas and pies; cakes and flans. It was lovely - we sat between a French couple and an English family on holiday, and managed to negotiate a meal long conversation in two languages. Very enjoyable - all it needed was some music but R wouldn't sing . Spoilsport.

In honour of the holidays we went canoeing on the Dordogne - 20 kilometres from Argentat. We'd been on the water about 10 minutes and R., my very own qualified canoeing instructor [qualification extremely out of date I might add], directed us across the river to a place where we'd avoid weeds. As we headed back towards the main stream, I pointed out that we were heading for rocks. Hitting a rock isn't serious, he said, as we hit it and capsised. We both fell out, into the [quite] fast-flowing water, and then had to man handle the boat, half-full of water to the side. As I am smaller than R, I was in up to my ribs. He nearly lost his paddle. I actually lost my temper and almost my nerve. There were tears. There was shouting. But I got back in. And we had a great day. From now on, he's going to wear his glasses in the boat.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Goodbye Cleo

Just a short post to say that our cat, Cleo, died last Saturday. She had been very ill for a few weeks and although we and the vet tried to keep her going, in the end we had to decide that the best thing was to have her . . . hard to find the right words . . . put to sleep is untrue and sentimental, euthanaised is jargonistic and cold. It was just time to end her life to end her suffering. She was given a sedative and then an injection that stopped her heart. Unfortunately I was away and so R had to take her on his own. I know a lot of people, including many friends, don't really understand about animals, and it is true that they can be a nuisance,an expense, and a tie. I was often ambivalent about having a cat, although R never was. But you learn to love what you care for and over these 15 plus years she had become a friend. The house feels empty, boringly human, although everywhere I look: on the stairs, in front of the fire, in the corner of the settee, on the terrace, I still see her slipping round corners and under tables, a furry invisible ghost. We'll miss her beautiful eyes, her patience and tolerance, her sociability, her unconditional, unwavering affection. We'll leave her here in France, but we'll also be taking her home.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

On Holiday from our Holiday

I haven't been able to post a blog here for a couple of weeks - first we had visitors, and then we've been on holiday for a few days leaving some of the visitors looking after Cleo. We went to the Atlantic coast, stayed at Cap Ferret on the Arcachon basin and also near Hourtin, farther north in the Medoc. I wanted to go somewhere flat and beside the seaside. We took bikes and cycled around forest tracks. We went on a boat trip. We ate ice creams. We paddled and watched the sun setting over the sea. We went to a chateau vineyard and tasted wine and bought a few bottles.

We watched the French on holiday - being together, being organised and being relaxed. No baggy tee shirts or socks and sandals. It was brilliantly sea-sidey and summery and great to get away and to be looked after, but, like all holidays, some of it was hard work. Strange beds, rich food and drink, driving, having to enjoy yourself all the time, sand in your knickers.

It was weird coming back here. I can't say coming home because it doesn't feel quite like home although we were happy to be back to trees and stillness, the empty roads, the telly - we were also homesick for a home to come home to. Our neighbour came out to greet us as we unpacked the car. He said he wondered if we'd gone back to England as there'd been a French car outside our door all week - [ the visitors' hire car}. I felt touched to be known and noticed enough to be slightly missed, but sad that he thought we were the kind of people who could leave for good without saying goodbye.

All the time I've been living here in France, I've been struggling with two opposite inclinations - On the one hand: this desire to compare the French to the English, to search out the differences, good and bad; On the other hand I resist the idea of'Frenchness' or 'Englishness', as stereotypical, over-simplifications, too sweeping, et cetera. For example - the idea that French women are thin is not true: well-off French women may be thin, but poorer women are becoming just as fat as English and American women are - you can see this in supermarkets. The French are a few years behind that's all. Men too: plenty of big French bellies on show on the beach. Also the myth of French people as gourmets and wine buffs: plenty of people buying junk food in Champion; the French couple who shared our Chateau wine tour in the Medoc were just as hopeless as me and him were at tasting and describing the wine. None of us had a clue.

Still, visiting the Gironde, so different from Correze: younger, richer, more urban and urbane,has made me think that there maybe are some aspects of French culture that are shared and, if not universal, at least more emphasised than in England. I don't think this is to do with 'being French' genetically or nationally but in the values and ideas of the whole society. Perhaps it's to do with Catholicism and Protestantism. Or the weather. Or wine rather than beer. Or a bigger country and fewer people. Anyway here's a very tentative list of my perceptions:

1] Happiness and pleasure are human rights - they don't have to be earned.
2] Work is good but only as long as you don't have too much of it. A lot of work goes on here, things are very ordered and organised but it definitely isn't a workaholic culture. This is probably not true for Paris or the other very big cities - but France is not as dominated by city culture as England is.
3]It's OK to feel that your own country is beautiful and the best place to live.
4] Serious conversation is good. To be educated and/or to have ideas is a good thing.
5]Children are people like the rest of us, not aristocrats or royalty. They don't need deference, over-indulgence or false praise.
6] Drunks are not funny but embarrassing.
7] All men can have hair-styles and wear pastel-coloured clothes, not just gay men.

I know a lot of English people believe these things but here they seem embedded in the culture - central not peripheral.
Feel free to disagree.

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