Thursday, 1 November 2007

Autumn in France

We set off for France in high spirits on 4th October. We did it the leisurely way by driving down with one night in Folkstone, one night in Tours and arrived midday Saturday at the Mill in bright sunshine. It was warm, too, with the trees still green and only the merest hint of orange here and there.
Sunday was a surprise. Gunfire woke us early in the morning when it was barely light. Bill looked out of the window while I stayed snug and warm in bed - "there's a deer running over the field." A moment later, "there's dog chasing it."

"It must be la Chasse," I groaned. We remembered that the rural French are still hunters at heart. The crack and bang of gunshot sounded all morning, sometimes so close that we thought it wiser not to venture outide. We've been told that the hunters shoot more huntsmen than they do game, but even so....discretion, and all that. We passed a small group of three or four as we drove off to LeClerc's for food, and they each bore huge, lethal looking rifles. One small, rather chubby man hugged a rifle that, if it had been stood on its butt beside him, would, I swear, have been taller than him.
We were there as Clerk of Works at the Mill, you might say, for our friends are extending the building. Monsieur Grenee the builder and his brothers roared up at 7.55am on Monday and began work. The weather was brisk, but by 9.30 the sun had cleared the trees and clearing brambles, which is what we chose to do, was hard, sweaty work. Those runners go everywehere. Grab a stalk, pull and the line zips across ten and twenty feet of open land with ease. Branch lines career off in three and four other directions, and among trees, they climb through the trees and root on the other side, pulling the poor little walnut saplings into a deformed hunchbacked thing. After three or four days at work with a rake and secateurs (professional size!) we had a huge bonfire that lasted all day.
By lunchtime it was too hot to work, so we sat on the bolly in the sun. I dragged out the laptop and started work. I felt like one of those famous authors photographed in exotic locations - Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka springs to mind - but found I can't drink wine and do anything sensible on the computer. Sad but true.

I continued with writing on after the rejigging of chapters four and ten I'd done just before we came away, but soon came unstuck. Further down the line the storyline didn't gell. After a huge internal struggle I abandoned the changes I'd made and re-inserted the Black Moment at chapter Four.

After that, the storyline flowed far more easily. I told myself it was a small black moment that threw the participants together, really made them know what they wanted and that there would be a bigger Big Black Moment further down the line. I just hadn't got there yet. Also, I did not realise exactly how much my face reflected the frustration I felt - but the camera does not lie!

At the end of the first week, the mornings grew colder and we woke to find mists streaking down the valley, and frost turning the leaves outside our door crisp and silver. Bill assured me it was warmer outside than inside, and he was correct. We destroyed a lot more brambles, and the afternoon hours were spent in sunshine on the bolly, writing.

The evening became a struggle to light a fire. The Mill has a grande vieille cheminee, the sort you feel you can walk in and stand upright to stare up the chimney. An open fire roaring away, I thought, how romantic! How wonderful! And sometimes it was, once the wood caught fire. But I'd forgotten such a lot, too. As a child we had coalfires at home and I well remember scorching at the front and freezing at the back. So it was here; no matter how high we built the fire, no matter how many logs we burned in a night, two things remained constant - the temperature in the big room barely lifted beyond 3 degrees, and we were rosy-faced and frozen arsed. And when the indoor temperature falls as low as 10 degrees Celcius, every degree matters.
Since the candles were in the candelabra in case of a power cut, I conducted an experiment to see how far I could see with one candle. Not very far, is the answer. I would not be the lady in the flimsy nightie who flits down stone corridors holding one candle aloft in the horror movies or Northanger Abbey. I lit more and more candles and finally concluded that eight or nine candles, spread around a space about eight foot square, produced about the same light as twenty five watt electric bulb.
And the woodsmoke! I must mention the woodsmoke. We came away kippered, and not only our clothes retained the aroma; I opened up a small, empty tupperware box to wash the biscuit crumbs out once I got back home and reeled back from the smell of woodsmoke coiling into my kitchen. Now I am well aware that we didn't have an adequately prepared wood pile. We scouted the woods on the property for fallen logs and dead trees, and soon realised why every French home has an orderly, well stacked and often covered wood pile alongside the house. The wood we burned would probably have been scorned by any Frenchman with a grain of sense, but then, you use what you have. So what if we had to leap up and open the window because a blue fug had filled the room and we were almost crying because our eyes stung?

The other complication is woodworm, beetles and termites. France has them all, and it is recommended that you do not have wood piles, neatly or otherwise stacked, against the house, because termites live in them and burrow from there to the house. We split open some logs that looked wormy, and found some, 'er creatures; since we didn't know if they were the ones to dread, we burned them. I felt guilty, too.

Everything we washed, we washed by hand as the machine was out of action. (Eventually we went looking for a lavarie, and found one in Bergerac, 20 miles away.) Clothes did not dry outside, for there was no wind; the sun dried them, but a day within the house and they felt damp again. I took to ironing things before I wore them. And I filled a hot water bottle every night and wrapped my ankle-length, longsleeved nightie around it before I climbed into bed. All I can say is its the only nightie I own, and I bought it to wear in France
All this made me think how lucky I am, and how hard life was for our parents, grandparents and forebears. At least I still had a fridge, a freezer, electric light, hi fi, computer. Take electricity away and life would become hard grind just to exist. I dreamed every night, because we went to bed early, almost as soon as it got dark, and the dreams were full of childhood, my parents, people who are now dead, almost as if the woodsmoke was filtering into my dreams and making me think of the past.
I really, really enjoyed my three weeks in rural France, strange though that might sound after all the above. We laughed a lot, and had fun tearing those brambles out. We saw Squirrels (deep, rich red rather than chestnut like ours) running down the bolly supports and up and down trees within a stones throw of us, kept track of tiny lizards, hardly the width of my little finger, with incredibly delicate long toes, and nearly trod on one larger lizard with bright yellow stripes along his back when we stepped out late one night to go for a meal at Lou Peyrol. I gathered basketfuls of walnuts that fell from the trees ten feet from the door. We watched the woodpeckers, the kites and the crows and used binoculars to keep track of the bull and his harem one field across, and speculated as to why a single heron night sit alone for hours in the middle of a green field. We found him fishing one day in the stream that borders the Mill, and that's the closest we've been to such a big bird in the wild.
But I was glad to come back to home - and central heating!

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