Sunday 5 May 2024

"Quoth the raven, 'Not till September at the earliest'", and why April was the (second) cruellest month

Longer term readers may recall my account of first getting the keys to my French house in the depths of winter in early 2019. I clearly remember it was -2C, and I was able to keep yogurt and Camembert on the decking outside my Airbnb in the run up to the big day. The title of that post began: "January is the cruellest month..." so in case anyone is keeping tabs on the league table of meteorological cruelty covered on Bonkers, I thought I'd better qualify my description of this April as the second cruellest, with apologies to T S Eliot. And to Edgar Allan Poe for that matter, of whom more anon.

But yes, I came back to Corrèze for a fortnight, a little later in the spring than on past visits, but still in time to see the wisteria in bloom that encircles my house like a blossomy girdle. And it was absolutely - and most unseasonably - and almost unbearably - freezing! As in very. very cold, not actually freezing, though some of the locals were muttering darkly about temperatures possibly plummeting further. Additionally it rained hard for about a week, so altogether a rather dispiriting take on spring.

The journey down was dry at least, though not without its challenges: I found myself suffering from double vision when I emerged from the Channel Tunnel in Calais, and had to drive all the way to nearly Paris with one eye shut. The resulting tension from such sustained screwing up of ocular muscles provoked a headache on reaching the halfway point in my journey. Also on the way down, an HGV in front of me in the slow lane suddenly lurched into the middle lane, causing a domino effect of three lorries making violent crab-like manoeuvres, all to avoid half an HGV tyre that was bouncing across the carriageway. Their evasive tactics only managed to flick the offending tyre right under my bumper with an almighty thwack! It was like running over a rubberised small child or a large sheep - quite frightening at the time, but miraculously it didn't seem to damage my undercarriage, or not in a way that affected the drive quality, say.

Source: Moonik, via Wikimedia Commons

Then the following day, driving round Paris on the dreaded Périphérique was even more fraught than expected. (For anyone not familiar with it, this road is a cross between the North and South Circular Roads in London and the M25 - the US equivalent of which might be the Sam Houston Beltway.) For I had another shock when the GPS on my phone plunged me right into central Paris...I have never felt so crestfallen to see a tree-lined boulevard, because driving in a congested area with so many signs in close proximity - and an even more tetchy breed of fellow motorist than usual tailgating you at every junction - takes the pressure of urban driving to a whole new level. Eventually, the satnav spat me out on the Pont de Sèvres, and the sight of the Seine lifted my spirits, as I knew I would soon be leaving the city behind me.

But as is customary during my stays here, I wasn't out of the woods yet...! I typically arrive armed with an agenda of jobs, which is invariably overtaken by more pressing crises or unforeseen incidents. I shall take these in turn, in the time-honoured thematic tradition.

Picking holiday dates without consulting the boulangerie

Who would have thought that the bakery in the village would have chosen the exact same dates as my stay for their holiday? No apple doughnuts, oozing custard-filled choux buns or half a rustic baguette for me then. ;( That will teach me. Luckily the local supermarket was well aware of their closure, and ups its own stocks of baked goods during this period, including a very moreish flan. 

Collecting spectacle arms

On the drive down, I was dimly aware that my long distance glasses had become rather loose. Once I was settled at the house, I realised that the problem was much worse than I thought, with the left arm of the frame splayed out at a wild and ungainly angle. It got so I couldn't bend down without their starting to fall off my face, and even when I was upright they would slide a good inch down my nose as fast as I could push them up again. A visit to a local optician was urgently on the morning of my first full day here, I went to the biggest one in the small neighbouring town of Objat, a branch of a chain like Specsavers. The optician there took my (black) glasses into a back room, and returned with them a few minutes later, having amputated the offending arm and replaced it with a brown and tan one. I am not the sort to stand on aesthetic ceremony unduly, but he also said that he wasn't very satisfied with his workmanship, and having got back in my car, I could see why. The new arm was also splayed out at quite a dramatic angle, and the slippage cycle started all over again.

So within ten minutes it was on to Optician No 2, who was wearing trendy two-tone hexagonal glasses, a bit like a more muted version of eyewear sported by Elton John. I liked his nerdy manner and sprinkling of technical terms into the conversation as he worked in front of me, the other side of a little hatch. I learnt the French for "tapping" and "screw thread", as he solemnly pronounced all the parts of my spectacles to be "défectueux". I still had confidence that he would do a better job, and so it proved. My latest arm was now at the same angle as the other one, and was mostly black, with the addition of purple and blue streaks(!). I was confident that no one would really notice, and that they would most certainly do for now. A couple of days later, I decided they were in fact still a bit loose after all, and threw myself on the mercy of Optician No 3. She was a very young woman, who looked as though she could only have recently qualified. Be that as it may, she was more than up to the tightening task I entrusted to her, and I emerged feeling that apart from the blue and magenta flecks on the new arm, this was a good result, even if it had taken the combined skills of every optometrist in town. ;)

The log fire that never was

On this trip I brought over two big bags full of paper and cardboard toilet roll inners(!) and 16 bricks, with a view to raising up the grate in the fireplace and lighting a fire in it. Despite the fact that the temperature in my house never went above 13C in the whole fortnight(!), I was not able to use the fire at all, for the simple and most unexpected reason that a pair of jackdaws were building their nest in it. The telltale sign of a pile of sticks in the hearth was waiting for me when I arrived, and I soon "twigged" to the fact that I hadn't left them there, but rather that avian miscreants were steadily chucking them down the chimney - every 30 seconds at the height of their construction fervour. 

Caught in the act!

Their method is decidedly haphazard...a chimney is of course a vertical shaft, and they drop the twigs vertically down it, in the hope that they will catch on a brick on the way down and become lodged horizontally, creating a framework for a nest, which will gradually take shape the more they keep shoving stuff down there. It took the whole of my stay before the twigs stopped coming, and in that time I took five full bags of detritus to the tip. I popped to the Mairie to understand my obligations as a home owner towards these pesky corvids, and was told that I had to wait until the end of the "saison de nidification" (nesting season) in September before I can light a fire or have the nest removed and the chimney swept. Which was a bummer, given how cold it was in the house, but there was nothing to be done. In hindsight, I actually think it was better that I was there during this key time - if I hadn't come till high summer, there would have been a veritable tsunami of debris all over the floor!

Before I left, I rigged up an elaborate combination of dust sheet, newspaper, strategically placed bags for life and bits of cardboard in a bid to intercept any remaining twigs, soot, bird poo, moss, or other chimney projectiles, such as a smashed egg that sadly fell down at one point. I dubbed this my "caca-countering cardboard carapace", on the basis that no one had probably said that exact sentence ever.

NB I did learn an extraordinary amount about jackdaws during my stay, for which the French word is "choucas". They are mostly monogamous, with some amusing exceptions, and go on "synchronised dating flights" with their mates. I think I spotted my pair at it...! Or maybe it is just another twig foraging sortie...

Driving on the wrong (wrong) side of the road

On exiting the tip after my first dumping of twigs, I don't know what possessed me but I turned onto the wrong side of the road, despite the fact that over the past 35 years I have driven on the right side of the road more often than the wrong, as in the left. ;) A van suddenly came round a sharp bend and we both swerved. He honked at me, very understandably, and I was mortified at my error. Then I remembered that jackdaws are thought in some circles to be a portent of early death...and it so nearly could have been. I popped to the church the next day and prayed to Jesus on the cross not to have me done for dangerous driving, even though I had conspicuously sinned against the Code de la Route.

The microbrewery based on an obscure namesake

On the second weekend I decided to check out the market in the optical mecca that is Objat. It was busy with locals and the odd tourist enjoying the sunshine and milling around the many stalls, which sold every kind of fresh produce from cheeses, meat and fish to kiwi fruit shaped like kidneys, giant radishes, and vegetable fritters from the Aveyron. 

There were stalls peddling clothes, wicker baskets, plants, paperbacks, jewellery, and even mattresses made of soya. My eye was caught by a man selling bottles of beer with labels featuring a distinguished looking bearded man on them. I asked him who the chap on the label was, and he explained that it was the first President of Brazil, one Manuel da Fonseca, which happened to be his name too. ;) To commemorate his famous namesake, Objat Manuel set up a brewery and started making a variety of craft beers in different flavours. I got him to pick me out a "normal" one without some strange fruity adjunct, and also asked if I could take a photo of him holding the bottle, given his close personal links with the Brazilian government, albeit of yore. "Only if you will be in it too!", he rejoined, and though neither of us like having our pictures taken in fact (and I hadn't even washed that morning ;)), his son did the honours with my phone. 

French farçous farce!

Going back to the vegetable fritters, I saw a man making them, and after a quick and delicious taster on a cocktail stick, I promptly bought a couple. I carried on wandering through the market and chanced across another street food stall also doing them, but different varieties, along with paella and other things. When I told the stall owner I had already bought some farçous he looked really shocked, and said: "How come?", and I replied: "From the guy back there", and he clearly had no idea there was any competition. He asked to see inside my box and quizzed me about what vegetables were in them, and generally looked indignant. "Mine have got spinach!" he exclaimed. I hadn't the heart to tell him there was also some spinach in these. I half thought he might go and beat the other man up. Two farçous sellers in a market in a tiny town like Objat is comparable to two sets of British expats in an even tinier village like Juillac called Hughes, which there also are. ;)

A perfume-linked find!

There wasn't much perfume-related content to my time away...I tended to wear pretty much on rotation the decants or small bottles I keep out in France, namely Kenzo Eau de Fleur de Magnolia, Gucci by Gucci, and Ajne Calypso. Then on one of my forays to the local charity shop (black jeans and a cashmere sweater for 6 euros the pair!) I spied the French edition of one of the "Fifty Shades" Trilogy, called Fifty Shades Freed in the English original. Which I happened to remember was translated by our very own Denyse Beaulieu, and sure enough her name was prominently mentioned on the title page. I had a flashback to the launch of L'Artisan's Seville a L'Aube in Covent Garden, where she first told me about her writing commission, and joked about her variegated hair being "fifty shades of grey". Now I haven't read any of the books in English, and wasn't planning to, and I may never read this one either, but of course it came home with me... In fact all three books in this picture were thrown in for free with my other bargain purchases.

The funfair that was no fun

On my last night in France, at the halfway point in Senlis, north of Paris, I chanced upon a funfair. I promptly regressed about 55 years and, risk taker that I am, went on a ghost train on my own. As in no one else on it, not just no companion. ;) It was terrifying...! They played the noise of a chainsaw and somebody poked me in the back - an actual person or a mechanised scarecrow maybe, but definitely a big figure right behind me wielding a sharp pointy implement. I thought what if he/it runs amok/malfunctions and stabs me properly? Later in the (mercifully short) ride a huge sinister-looking clown waved sparklers next to my head, while laughing maniacally. Whatever possessed me? If I want to be scared witless, give me the Périphérique in rush hour any day. ;)