Denmark, Food and Drink, Jobs, Sport

288 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

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Denmark, Food and Drink, Jobs, Places

287 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier

My job in the Indian takeaway lasted precisely 25 minutes. Beating my other record for staying in a job by a full 20. Forty-five minutes being the time I did a job in Exeter cleaning commodes and soiled bed covers for Devon County Council’s geriatric department.

That turned out to be a clerical error on the part of the temping agency I was working for. I was meant to be doing data entry but some admin joker thought that if somebody can do one shit job, they can do another…(Great humour!)

I walked out of that job and didn’t say goodbye. This one though was more mutual. The takeaway owner letting me go 25 minutes into my shift, citing that I was too qualified and would probably leave anyway. Which was true. I had planned to leave. Just not so soon. But after almost half-an-hour of standing by a silent telephone looking at faded photos of India on the wall, I was mightily relieved when he stepped in and fired me.

Sauntering back up Osterbrogade that slices east and west Copenhagen in two, I started thinking about what I would do now, seeing as my only job so far had come to an abrupt end. My plan on coming to Copenhagen was to find a job as quickly as possible. Something interesting, something different. Three weeks down and I was still cessantibus. Which according to the Copenhagen jobcentre is latin for unemployed. (For the record unemployed in Danish is arbejdsløs.)

As fate would have it though, as I turned onto Nordre Frihavnsgade – a super cool street lined with diners, bagel bars, cycle shops, vegan takeaways and yoga rooms – I noticed a cycle courier piling burgers into a large square pink styrofoam box the size of a WW2 field radio.

‘That’s my job,’ I said to myself noting the company.

A week later, I had the job complete with my own pink box which has enough space for a family sized buffet, wine, beer and ice.

I don’t look very happy in the photo but that’s because it was my first shift. I was phenomenally nervous owing to the fact that my knowledge of Copenhagen was limited to the bakery, supermarket and beer shop near where I live. I had a smartphone with Google maps on it, but that turned out to be as useful as a chessboard without any pieces.

Half an hour into my first trip my phone started beeping. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Another order!’

Only to discover moments later that it was my battery, which promptly died, sending me into a spasm of pure panic. Without a phone, it was impossible to do the job. I was as good as lost. And would have had more chance finding my destination blind drunk using that good oldfashioned paralytic global positioning system employed by millions of drunks daily in their fight to get home.

With a steaming pizza on my back I rushed home, plugged my phone into my laptop and threw the whole ensemble in my box hoping I had enough power to last me until eight o’clock. Luckily, it did. And the next day I bought a huge 14 megawatt phone recharger powerpack. Just in case.

In the past I imagined bicycle couriering to be a glamourous affair. Whizzing round the city like some modern day beat poet. Crazy, aloof, cool. A rebel for the cause. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re just another jerk on a bike delivering pizza. Or bagels, or Indian, or Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Russian, or Greek, or Turkish. Or any other food type from around the world. Even Danish, believe it or not.

I got through my first week and enjoyed it immensely despite the occasional meltdown from an overload of orders. My legs are like iron, my brain like a walking atlas of Copenhagen and I know every takeaway in town. Except the ones where the signs and street numbers have been obliterated by years of heavy rain and violent winds. Copenhagen in case you haven’t been, has the climate of Newcastle.

Below is yesterday’s delivery route (click to enlarge)

And the day before

It looks like the drunken meanderings of a man after 20 pints desperately trying to get home. And if I’d had this technology when I lived in Warsaw it may have been an accurate representation of a typical Friday night there. Rub out Copenhagen, write in Warsaw and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I generally work between 3.30pm and 8.30pm and receive my orders via my phone. There’s a line in The Bourne Identity film where the hitman played by Clive Owen tells the hitman played by Matt Damon: ‘We always work alone.’ This sums cycle couriering up for me.

  • We never see who gives the orders.
  • We never see another cycle courier.
  • We only ever see the target when they open the door.
  • There’s no boss breathing down our neck wafting some hideous aftershave or perfume over us.
  • No colleagues discussing my performance in front of the cleaning staff.
  • No gossip.
  • No boring chitchat.
  • No small talk.
  • No speaking.
  • No office parties.
  • No photocopiers.
  • Just me and the road. (And the 3/4 million people who live here. But I can deal with them because they’re normally just a blur in my side vision.)

In short, it’s the perfect job for me…Almost.

The cycle culture in Copenhagen is great from an ecological standpoint – less cars, less pollution, less noise. On the other hand it’s a nightmare for a cycle courier. This might sound odd – almost demented coming from someone who rides bikes around the city all day. But it’s true. Ask any taxi, bus or delivery driver on the planet what would make their job better and they’d reply, almost unanimously, ‘Get rid of all the commuters, day trippers and joy riders!!’

Cycle lanes are a good idea for sure, but like roads, the more you have, the more they are used. To the point when they become clogged. Copenhagen is famous for lots of things. Jazz, opera, fish. It’s also famous for cycle jams. Lots of them.

The key to a successful cycle courier career is speed. The more orders, the more money you make. As a result you’ve got to move fast. Which means avoiding clogged up cycle lanes. Just like you might avoid the M1 or M25 at rush hour. Choose your route. Know the city. Be cool. Don’t get killed.

(to be continued…)

For more Blogley in Copenhagen, see Notes from Copenhagen #1

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Denmark, People, Places

286 – Notes From Copenhagen: The Takeaway Attendant

I’ve been in Copenhagen two weeks. The city is flat and low rise.  The streets are wide. There’s more bicycles than cars and people seem happy. I haven’t totally adjusted to life here, partly because I’m still expecting to wake up and look out over hills, lakes and forests. But any city where you can swim in the harbour and where cyclists get priority over cars, is certainly worth a few months of my time.

I even brought my vintage 1980 Peugeot PK 10 with me so I could try and look as cool as everyone else. Although my street cred took a hammering on my first morning when a lace from my chunky green Lidl trainers (cool?) got wrapped round my front pedal, upsetting my balance on a bike that’s already three sizes too small for me and sent me crashing to the floor like someone who’d just graduated from a tricycle.

I managed to compose myself, pretending it was some mechanical problem caused by shoddy French engineering, rather than my own incompetence. I then carried on to the city centre and witnessed my first ever cycle-jam.

40 or 50 cycles queuing patiently at a red light which made me wonder whether they’ll have to widen the lanes like they do to motorways to take more traffic. The lights went green and we all moved on, all 100 bikes now, for another 200 metres, until the next traffic lights where we all stopped again for another few minutes.  Nothing is perfect I thought. Even Copenhagen.

As for the Danes themselves. They are everything I expected. I went to the jobcentre on my first day here to ask about employment issues (tax, bank, legal status) and it was as though I was visiting an old friend. The man treating me as though I’d lived here all my life and wasn’t some scrounging Englishman looking for an EU passport.

I found him pleasant.  He smiled and got to the point – Danes don’t do small talk I’m told –  telling me to find a job (with a contract) and come back here and we’ll go from there. I left feeling confident that I might find my dream job here in the Kingdom of Denmark.

That was 10 days ago. Tomorrow I start work in an Indian Takeaway. There is a French phrase: faute de grives, on mange des merles, which I learnt when I first rocked up at the cycling club in Caussade on my vintage Pk 10 when everybody else was sporting 3 grand tour bikes.It roughly translates as beggars can’t be choosers or half a loaf is better than none. (*Literally, if you can’t eat thrush, eat blackbird).

In the interview with the takeaway owner he asked me where I lived. ‘Sankt Jakobs Plads,’ I said.

He was impressed. Then questioned me on why on earth I wanted to work in an Indian Takeaway, waving my CV in his hand like a judge pressing a charge. My CV is a schizophrenic mess of short contract teaching and catering jobs spanning most of my life. And he’s probably right, I’m probably over qualified – just.

I thought of telling him that I’ve never worked in an Indian Takeaway before so I’m just filling in the blanks. Getting more experience. Instead I told him the truth. ‘I’m running out of money in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I need a job.’

I’m not sure he was entirely convinced, dressed as I was in a checked Pringle shirt, blue cotton trousers and brown brogues. And as I live in one of the most expensive parts of the city (a flat courtesy of a friend), I looked more like I was a home counties lawyer on a day out at the races, than a man looking for a job as a takeaway attendant.

‘How do I know you’re not going to run off after a few weeks and get a job at Berlitz?’ he asked me.

I laughed. ‘I doubt it, they pay less than you.’

He liked that one. ‘Really! Less than me,’ he said laughing.

‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘Teaching English is notoriously badly paid. Don’t you know. It’s why most teachers end up working in bars and restaurants. Or working in shops. Or dead.’

After becoming serious again, he said I had the job and that I could start Monday. ‘But you must learn the menu over the weekend,’ he said pointing to it. ‘Tuesday’s going to be busy. Gun’s and Roses are playing.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, genuinely perplexed. ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses, as in the American rock band?’

‘At the stadium. Just there.’ Pointing to the national stadium which is literally over the road.

‘The original lineup?’ I asked.

Now it was his turn to look confused. Perhaps thinking I was referring to his menu rather than which burnt out rock stars were reuniting because they were skint fresh out of rehab. ‘As in Slash, Duff, Izzy?’ I said.

‘Just learn the menu,’ he said curtly. Clearly not a fan of classic rock.

I said I’d see him Monday and spent last night learning Indian Menu codes while drinking generic Carlsberg lager that’s half the price of The Best Lager in the World. I only got as far as Chicken Madras 228, Lamb Spinach 333 and Fish Tikka 447 because I couldn’t help thinking of Guns and Roses.

I’d seen them (the original lineup) in 1993 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Driving down from Nottingham and parking my ancient metro in some industrial estate on the outskirts of town (if Milton Keynes is a town). Then walking 5 miles to the venue. Getting there at 11 o’clock in the morning and waiting until 10 at night with nothing to eat or drink (just a few cigarettes) before they came on.

That was 24 years ago and as I tried hard to remember vegetable curry codes, I couldn’t help one of those stupid questions people always ask filtering into my head:

‘Hey Oggers, if I said that the next time you hear Guns ‘n’ Roses play live you’ll be taking orders in an Indian Takeaway in Copenhagen, what would you say?’

‘I’d say, don’t be so fucking stupid. How would that ever happen?’

(to be continued)

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Blogley, Film, People, Photos, Sport

285 – Pyrenean Cycling, Vikings, Lego and Copenhagen

It’s that time of year again. End of the winter, end of looking after the chateau. Time to move on.

First stop is Spain to which me and Elizabeth are cycling to in a few weeks time. Me on my ultra modern road bike, Elizabeth on her 1970 Peugeot Randonneur. The bicycle equivalent of the Ford Econoline van used by travellers and musicians in the 1960/70s. Lots of bells, chrome fittings, lights and racks. Perfect for a cycling trip in France and 1000 times more stylish – and comfortable – than my 21st century posing pouch.

We are going to be following part of the Chemin de St. Jacques to sling shot us down to St Jean Pied de Port and then catapult us over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do since I was there a few summers ago on a camping holiday (Read Blogley post 139 if you can be arsed)

In the Pyrenees 2014

After that it’s back to Auty, then the long drive back to Double Brexit – sorry I mean the UK – to sort out a few bits and pieces. Like assassinate all the politicians and burn down the House of Commons. After I’ve done that it’s onward to Denmark via Essex (Also known as Stansted Airport).

Going to Copenhagen for three months feels almost exotic. Not in a Radox-blue tropical sea sense. Exotic in a Northern sense. Mysterious. Edgy. Cold. Vikings, longboats, herrings and plastic building bricks that get stuck in your foot.

I once saw a film when I was a kid in which a Viking chieftain is cremated on a longboat. The ship gently sailing out into the harbour fully ablaze until it caved in on itself and sank into the bay. A glorious send off. None of this black tie funeral parlour stuff full of straight faced vicars and washing line thin pallbearers receiving weak silent handshakes from relatives they’ve never met.

I remember the Viking funeral being spectacular, full of passion, death, honour and glory. Sending the warrior to a new life sitting at the high table next to Oden, a voyage over the waves, through the clouds and into eternity. Stark contrast to what happens to most of us: burnt in a cheap wooden box and then tossed into a rose bush or kept on the mantelpiece for the next 100 years like a ornament.

I said to my father after I’d watched the film that I wanted to be buried like a Viking. To which he replied while reading yet another dismal writeup of Leeds Utd’s latest demolition, ‘You’ll get buried like anyone else. In the ground. Here in Leeds. You’re not a Viking, Philip.’

‘Oh. Aren’t I?’ I replied and wandered off to research other burial practices from around the world. Parsi was my favourite: the corpse left on a high tower to be baked in the hot sun and then ripped to pieces by vultures.

(**Memo to my father: If I die in Copenhagen, I have the right to have a full Viking funeral. Longboat, flames, honour and glory – The Works.)

One Christmas I remember a quiz question from one of my sister’s board games. It asked, ‘Name three Danish brands?’

Most people would probably say what I said, ‘Lego and Carlsberg.’

I tried Danish pastries but that didn’t work. I could have said Bang & Olufsen (TVs), Netto (supermarket), Prince (fags), or Arla (cheese). Good to know now though.

I only other thing I know about Denmark is that it’s flat, which might be a welcome break after the ascent of the Pyrenees in a few weeks time. It’s also – or so I’m told – stylish. Which is where I may or may not fit in.

Style for me is drinking good coffee, not pretending it’s good just because it’s been squirted out of a ludicrously expensive Nespresso machine like a dribble of warm tar. Feeling good on the inside as opposed to obsessing about what I look like on the outside. It’s why I’ve been in the middle of rural France on and off for the past four years. I can dress in a hemp sack and there’s no one here to say, ‘What are you wearing a hemp sack for? You hippie!’

In Copenhagen I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘It’s not hemp, it’s brushed Japanese cotton. Seriously, you think I’d be wearing hemp. That was so last season!’

In a few weeks we’ll leave Chateau Dumas for good. It’s been a very pleasant year (2 x winters) and I’ve done lots of things. What, I’m not sure, but now it’s time to move on to Danish ‘Arla’ pastures new.

I’ll leave you with the last ever short video made here, featuring me trying to head a red football into the cold outdoor swimming pool accompanied by Beethoven. Au revoir and Bye!

More silly stories about my time in France can be found in A Man in France: Available in Books

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Blogley, Writing and Books

284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here

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Food and Drink, The French

283 – How To Tap Walnut Trees to Make Syrup

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I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.

The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.

1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.

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2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!

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3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.

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4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.

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5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.

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6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.

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7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.

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8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!

9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.

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10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.

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11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.

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OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!

12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.

 

For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/

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Blogley, Food and Drink, The French, Writing and Books

282 – 99 Reasons Not To Buy This Book!

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My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:

“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”

“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”

“As informative as a piece of wood”

“As boring as Sartre”

“Blander than French coffee.”

“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”

To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.

  1. It’s factually inaccurate.
  2. It’s not really a guidebook at all.
  3. Most places I’ve mentioned, don’t actually exist.
  4. I wrote most of it on the toilet.
  5. It goes off on tangents and never comes back.
  6. It’s not really about France anyway, it’s about me.
  7. It’s years out of date.
  8. Prices are still in Francs.
  9. Half of the characters are animals.
  10. The other half are dead.
  11. There’s no violence in it.
  12. Definitely no sex.
  13. There’s no famous people (except me).
  14. There’s no happy ending.
  15. There are no free apps.
  16. Or video games.
  17. Or maps.
  18. Or photos
  19. Or newsletters.
  20. Or special offers.
  21. Or dedicated fan sites.
  22. Or anything else much of interest.
  23. Roman Aqueducts are featured a lot.
  24. There’s too many references to baguettes.
  25. And crap coffee.
  26. Mosquitoes.
  27. Flies.
  28. And cheap lager.
  29. There’s no plot.
  30. No dialogue.
  31. Very little action.
  32. No direction.
  33. Certainly no heroes.
  34. Paris isn’t even in it.
  35. Nor is anywhere else.
  36. It’s absurd.
  37. Obscure.
  38. Ridiculous.
  39. And stupid.
  40. And that’s not even 99 reasons, which says it all. Rubbish!

However, if you still want a copy,  it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.

So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.

(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)

croissant-99p

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Italy, Sport

281 – Egg and Spoon Races on the Tour de France

Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys,  grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.

This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.

tdf__route

Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)

st_antonin_gorges1

I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.

However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.

If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.

It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.

But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.

This is what Strava does (more or less).

Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.

An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)

I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.

‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’

Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me.  Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!

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And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.

screenshot_2017-02-13_at_5-59-06_pm

I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard. 

Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…

vincenzonibali-800x528

Vincenzo Nibali

For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here

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People, Seasons

280 – Frozen Swimming Pools, Spoon Making and Cornish Pasties

I received a text last week from the guy who manages the pool here at the chateau telling me he’d come over that morning to work on it, but I wasn’t in. I found this strange because I’m always in.

Anyway, not thinking too much of it, I wandered down to the pool to have a look at what he’d done. Which was nothing. Everything was exactly the same. Except the leaves…millions of them at the bottom of the pool.

When I arrived here in November there was a highly efficient pool robot that scooted around the bottom sucking them up. And then one morning it was gone. Mysteriously vanished as though it had packed up and left for Spain. ‘Too cold here mate,’ a message inscribed on the floor in dried leaves. ‘See you in Torremolinos!’

It could have been stolen. But by whom? Things don’t get nicked round here because most houses have dogs and most of the occupants have guns. So I phoned the pool guy and left a message asking him if he knew where the robot was. I never heard from him. That was in November.

This morning the swimming pool was frozen. Solid as a rock. Deep enough to skate on. Somebody had turned the filtration pumps off that keep the circulation going. Baffled I phoned the pool guy to ask why he’d turned the pumps off last week when he visited when it’s minus 8 outside. Plus where the fuck is the pool robot? And when is he going to collect all the leaves from the bottom of the pool. But unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in. I left a message. The saga continues…

frozen-pool3

Other news. My friend from my Falmouth days, Richard ‘Rich’ Barker, recently visited for 10 days. We drank beer and ate lots of meat and spuds and he taught me how to make spoons from the mass of wood we have at the chateau.

It’s funny, isn’t it? (or perhaps not) but I’ve been burning all this wood simply to keep warm. Never once occurring to me that all this walnut, oak, ash, cedar, apple, pear could be used to make something. Like a palace for example there’s so much of it. Talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

Now I use it to fashion implements to stir my porridge with in the morning, ladle my soup with at lunch, and eat my curry with in the evening.

So far I’ve made four spoons, three spatulas and a set of chopsticks. I’m a cautious man so the implements are chunky and crude. Richard on the other hand told me he doesn’t possess any spoons because he’s a perfectionist. He whittles them down to the limit. Then they break and he starts again.

It’s a good test to examine two people’s character. Give them some spoons to whittle down and see who has a full set by the end of the day. Those who don’t and who have a pile of broken moon shaped pieces of wood on the floor are the ones who seek perfection. Those who do, simply don’t have enough cutlery.

By the time I leave here in May, I’ll have so many spoons, slices, forks, bowls, and spatulas, I could probably set up a shop. A museum’s worth of curiosities that look like they date back to the stone age.

Talking of food. The other major thing this month is the discovery of the Cornish Pasty in the barren desolate wastelands of rural France in winter. One morning a few weeks ago, me and Rich were making spoons when we were called into the house by Elizabeth.

‘Lunch is ready,’ she cried, a large smile on her face.

‘Whoopee,’ we both cried out like children, wood chippings clinging to our hipster beards like shavings of parmesan. Our faces red and raw from the freezing fog like slabs of meat.

Hungry, we rushed in to witness this marvel before our eyes.

french-pasties

Our eyes nearly popping out of our heads as we stared at this gorgeous platter cooked up by Elizabeth from the steak and potatoes left over from the night before. Both me and Rich have lived in Cornwall and yet never have we tasted such Cornish heaven. With baked beans as well. And a can of Coke each! Life doesn’t get any better.

Afterwards, we trudged back out into the freezer to resume our spoon making, warmed inside by hot meaty pasties. A moment later, I saw a van pull up and for a minute thought it might be the pool guy making a shock appearance with the pool robot. But no such luck. Just a ghost. The wait goes on.

Seen this robot - contact Blogley below.

Seen this robot? – Contact Blogley below

For more anecdotes read A Man in France available @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01D1H7D62

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Photos, Places, Seasons

278 – The Christmas Woodpile

chateau_dauty-1I’m the winter caretaker of this 17th century Chateau in South Western France. If you’ve seen or read The Shining this is as close as it gets. In summer the chateau is used as a hotel, in winter it’s closed. Cue me and Elizabeth who are here to make sure it doesn’t fall down, bills are paid, intruders shot. For five months of the year, I’m Jack Nicholson.

It’s good for a number of reasons. One, it’s free. Second, it’s pretty. Three, it’s big. Four, it’s quiet. Five, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Six, there’s shit loads of wood. The entire estate being surrounded by an endless supply of pear, larch, cedar, ash, oak, hazel and lime. A lot of which ends up on the woodpile below.

logs-pile

Good, eh?

This is actually the New Woodpile and is located on the northern edge of the estate near the village church, whose bells chime at seven o’clock twice a day. Once in the morning, this doesn’t bother me as I’m asleep. And once in the evening, a useful signal to crack a beer and start cooking (if I ever needed one…).

For the record The New Woodpile superseded The Old Woodpile (below) as it simply wasn’t big enough.old-woodpileAs you can see it was also Christmas then. Although I can assure you the logs were real and not superimposed onto the photo like the trees in the background were. (I don’t know where the reindeer, stockings or candy canes came from.)

Last year I split the wood with an axe. As shown in the video below.

This year I’ve upgraded to an electric log splitter. It’s about as romantic as eating your evening meal in McDonalds, but I’m giving it a go due to back problems and the fact that I’ve got an incredible amount of logs to split.

Another guilty admission is that last year I transported the logs from one part of the estate to another in an old wheelbarrow.

wheelbarrow

This year I use this

car-logpile

It’s terrible I know. However, I can transport five times as much wood, which gives me more energy to carry it upstairs to the apartment where we live and add it to the Indoor Woodpile ready to burn. After that I sit in front of the fire with a glass of port and a whopping great plate of cheese.

happy-xmas

*Smile not included  ** Not all items may be real

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Sport, Writing and Books

277 – Death of a Vintage Bicycle

Last Sunday I completed my 10th cycle with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo-Club. My best so far, mainly because I was riding a new bike. Dispensing, rather regretfully I have to add, with my vintage Peugeot PK10 (below).

PK 10

For those of you who know nothing about cycling or bikes. The Peugeot P10 series (PK, PX, PU, PN, PL) was one of the standard racing bike models of the mid-to-late 20th century. Their heyday being in the 60/70s with cycling legends such as Eddie Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thevenet riding them.

Brought out in the 1930s the design remained almost unchanged up until the mid 1990s when the surge in cycling gave way to new ideas, materials and accessories. Cycling had become cool and the bikes (and of course their riders) had to look the part. The old classic racers became unfashionable, unused, and disliked. The grinding gears of the vintage models gave way to slick urban road bikes mounted by lycra clad, hi-vis wearing commuters who could be seen in every UK city sharing the miniscule piece of road left for them by a million angry motorists. The upside to this was that the old PK10s ended up on eBay or on Gumtree for enthusiasts to pick up for the price of a pint.

1930-catelogue

Peugeot 1936 catalogue

So I slightly stunned myself last week when I bought a brand new slick urban road bike, the likes of which I used to hate. It was my first new bike since my father bought me a PUCH “Sprint” Racer for Christmas in 1986 and cost me ten times what my PK10 did.

triban

Triban 520

It’s not bad, is it? True, it looks like it was designed by a kid on his iPhone, and would have the greats of the past who used to cycle up the Col Du Tourmalet on their 10 speed PK10s, turn in their amphetamine soaked graves. But at least I can now keep up with my riding buddies on their 39 speed Shimano Ultegra, £3000 carbon frame Pinarello bikes.

On my previous rides out with the club – the other 9 – I could keep up for about 60 kms, then my legs would buckle, like my wheels, and I’d watch them disappear off into the distance leaving me searching for another gear on my ancient Simplex shifters.

Saying that however, the great advantage of this year long battle on my unreliable and (relativity) heavy PK10, is that it’s hardened my legs and expanded my lungs to almost professional level. Or so it felt like on Sunday. Breezing over the finish line wondering where everybody else was. True a few had got lost somewhere near Cahors due to a vintage French road intersection (ten roads meeting in the same place with no signs in sight). But the transformation from the week before when I’d limped home feeling like my legs had been shattered with a pickaxe was astonishing.

Technology wins. If not for style then efficiency.

Further proof of this was on Monday when me and Elizabeth went for a quick ride. Me on my PK10 for old time’s sake, Elizabeth on her even older ‘Tour De France’ vintage racer (below).

nuttys-bike

1970s custom made racer. Origin unknown. https://www.instagram.com/wildbeebeauty/

After the mandatory chain-falling-off episode, which always plagues old bikes, she seemed to get on fine. Gliding up and down the steep pie-shaped hills of the Tarn-et-Garonne like a female reincarnation of Jacques Anquetil. I, on the other hand – the so-called new Chris Froome as they called me on Sunday – felt like I was riding a tractor. Clugging away up the hill to the village as though I had mounted a pedalo by accident.

When I got back home I threw the PK10 in the garage, cleaned my new bike (again) and hugged it like the cat. I feel bad about letting the it go, but sometimes things no longer serve their purpose. They have to be retired. Put out to seed. Or simply left in the garage to rust.

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Me after Caussade Cyclo-Club Ride No. 1

*For more cycle stories plus other exciting anecdotes of my five years in France, take a look at A Man in France: a series of offbeat journal entries, short anecdotes, observational pieces and travel articles from the dark side of the wheel of camembert. Available in ebook or paperback format. Click photo to order.

brand-new-cover                                                    Paperback

cover image                                                       Ebook

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Sport, The French

276 – Back in Auty

Auty, Tarn-et-Garonne, France

GPS coordinates: Middle of Nowhere
Altitude: 219 metres
Population: 80
Amenities: Café (open Wednesdays 15.30 – 18.30), Church (Sundays)

 

I’m back. Looking after a 17th century chateau over the winter plus a Tonkinese cat called Pookie. His real name is Ventura, but we call him Pookie. Although in truth you could call him Shitface and he wouldn’t kick up much of a fuss.

Like wall hangings, Pookie is just there. Like a sponge. Soaking up the bird noises and the odd car horn from the village, or me speaking to myself. Then reprocessing it into whatever nightmarish dreams cats have. Waking up to the discovery there’s no food in his bowl. Or that his balls have been cut off. (Sorry old chap, had to be done. Village isn’t big enough for more than two cats.)

Whatever he dreams of they generally last between 12 and 15 hours depending on how hungry he is. Or how wet it is outside. At the moment the entire village is shrouded in a thick fog accompanied by light drizzle, so he’s fast asleep in the spare room on a swirl of old duvet covers he uses for a bed.

It’s good to be back in the peace and quiet of Auty though, even if it hasn’t stopped raining since last Friday. And to think I left England to escape the weather. On Sunday I went cycling with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo Club who I wrote about in Blogley 253 and 255 – The Caussade CycloClub and The Caussade Cycloclub’s Road to Hell.

I’m now officially a member the French Cycle Federation. I even got a card that gives me medical assistance and/or funeral arrangements (true) if I tumble off on one of their harebrained descents down into the Aveyron gorge. Being a member though doesn’t guarantee decent weather.

Last Sunday’s cycle was the worst weather I’ve ever cycled in. Slashing rain, hail, thunder, lightning, fog, zero visibility – weather fit for zombies and members of the Caussade Cycloclub. So awful that we cut the ride short by 50 kms. Managing only 55 out of the planned 105.

I was so wet and cold when I got back home that I thought about diving into the outdoor swimming pool just to warm up.  Instead I lit a fire using the wood from the violent storms that felled half the trees on the estate last year. A woodpile the size of a house, all neatly cut and polished by the tree surgeons who worked all summer to clear the debris.

I’m hoping for a very cold winter. A strange thing to wish for, but one that might save me, Elizabeth and Pookie from being roasted alive like slices of pork belly while trying to burn up all the wood by springtime.

Talking of pork belly. That’s what I ate last night (oh and the night before, and the night…). It’s one of the things I’ve been looking forward to. Fresh from the local butcher, slow cooked and served with braised red cabbage, Swiss chard soaked in pig fat, all washed down with a few litres of the bowel-clenching Ganape I wrote about in my last post. The perfect tonic to a dreary French night.

Talking of long nights. While I’m here I’m going to be working on another selection of short stories.

*Cue. Massive sigh*

My current one (The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd – TSOMT. *Currently available for 99p in November from Blogley Books*) has sold so well that I’m working on another one called The Seven Lives of Jed Geller.

*Cue. “The Seven What? Really????”*

This one will feature more in-depth detailed stories rather than the long-short, stop-start nature of TSOMT, which left the reader (or so I’m told) with the feeling that they’d wandered into a funfair where all the carriages on the rides felt like they were about to fly off into space at any moment. The reader never quite sure where the story was going or how it would end. Which I think is quite positive.

My new book will be more ordered. The stories longer and more boring. I’m writing one now about an anti-salesman. A man who rejects all known marketing theory by promoting his products like they were mere turds on the side of the road. Negative-Spin he calls it.

The new book will be very arduous and very difficult to read. Full of side issues, tangents and dense analyses of post-Brexit Britain and the collapse of civilisation. A real pageturner. An under-the-coffee-table borathon that a man in solitary confinement would pass over in favour of The Bible.

I’m joking. The Bible’s a real good read. But the The Seven Lives of Jed Geller (or TSLJG) will be better. A real rollercoaster. A fairground freak show featuring the whole gamut of morons, assholes, losers, drunks, failed musicians and writers I’ve ever met. If I’ve met you, you’re in it.

Watch this space.

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Seasons, Writing and Books

275 – EIBAB

november-blog-final

It’s November. So it’s time to start thinking about Christmas…

I’m in Auty again. Holed up deep in the French countryside and about as far away from Christmas shopping scrumdowns and sloshed-on-sherry carol singers, as Icarus was from reaching the Sun. If indeed that’s where he was going.

I’m not going anywhere. Here for the silence. A special upgrade on my platinum gold card supplied by Mothernature Corp, a reward for a million hours of driving noisy holidaymakers around the Dordogne all summer. Time to cool off. Wake up to the sound of nothing every morning. The closest to what you’d hear I guess if you were dead. No cars, planes, people, dogs, mopeds, toads, mosquitos, or flies. Just a big cat. And he doesn’t say much, except a low pitched meow when I burn his kippers.

Christmas is great here. Everything stops. There’s no harvesting going on because there’s nothing to harvest. There’s no ploughing because you can’t plough frozen fields. Time to sit back and celebrate the season. And what better way than going down to the Caussade Monday Market and getting drunk on brandy at half-ten in the morning while stocking up on cheese, pork bellies, cabbage, wildfowl, potatoes, and ham. Plus a couple of crates of gut rotting Domaine des Ganapes for a Euro a litre from up the road in Realville.

We make our tree from conifer fronds under which we put our presents. Five each. Five for me. Five for Elizabeth. Then we get on with the eating, watch MXC (Muppets Xmas Carol), eat again and then crack open the Ganape. Toilet roll on standby. The perfect Christmas.

It would be therefore discourteous if I didn’t offer my own Christmas gift in the form of EIBAB. Or The Annual Blogley Books November Sale – TABBNS for short. This year we have two choice offerings on sale. Offerings I’m sure the three kings would have enjoyed on their long trip east.

  1. cover imageA Man in France – My lively, philosophical insight into 21st century France through the eyes of a cheese loving, wine snorting Englishman. A journey through the lesser known parts of the Republique. The dour plains of Poitou-Charentes, desolate Queaux, featureless Arcachon, crumbling Souillac, fog shrouded Auty. As well as some sharp and witty observations on the more well known cities of Lyon and Bordeaux.

  2. cover image3The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (Short Stories) – A bold leap into the plodding twilight world of the dead end job. The postal depot, the chain restaurant, the retail unit, the discount store, the office space, the factory floor. Those terrifying social landscapes inhabited by dreamers, do-gooders, yes-men, romantics and the deluded. The sort of people you’d rather shoot than speak to.

Both books are at a special EIBAB price of £0.99 for the ebook (compatible with all Kindles, tablets and smartphones). Or £3.99 (+p&p) for the paperback version (compatible with old fashioned eyes).

Get them while you can from BLOGLEY BOOKS: HERE.

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Italy, Writing and Books

274 – Jehovah’s Witnesses in Serramonacesca

It’s 10.38 am and I’m lying in bed fast asleep after attending the Night of the Dead carnival in Serramonacesca where I’m currently staying. I’m asleep because of the oceans of red wine consumed at the party. The party consisting of the whole village turning off their lights, putting candles and pumpkins outside their doors and getting smashed on Vina Cotta, a kind of port tasting sherry.

This is why I’m asleep. Perfectly happy in my dreams, my head on a soft pillow, my body spread out on the Italian linen like a man who’s died in his sleep. Relaxed. Content. In Southern Italy. In the mountains. What could possibly go wrong?

Knock knock knock!

I’m ejected from my dreams like I’ve been thrown out of an aircraft, hitting the solid concrete on some abandoned wasteland in Essex with a huge splat.

‘Hello?’ I say opening the door, almost gagging into the prayer book a young man of about 17 is shoving in my face.

He smiles at me pleasantly like a young boy seeing his mother after the first day at school. Kind, caring, affectionate. I look to my right, straining my eyes against the sun which is boring into my head like a raygun. Another boy. Younger, 13 perhaps, smiling, standing smartly dressed in white shirt and black trousers as though waiting for a medal. To his right is another, older, a lot older, maybe 50, looking divinely at the two boys like a shepherd watching his sheep.

‘You’re a bit late for Trick-or-Treat,’ I want to say. ‘About 12 hours in fact, but I’ve got some half opened Montepulciano if you want a slug on that?’

But I don’t say it. Instead my mind is working. Who the hell are these people? And then I get it. Of course. How utterly stupid of me. I’m halfway up a mountain on an old pig farm that’s been converted into a campsite. Who else should I have expected? Campers? Climbers? Walkers? The obvious choice. But no. I should have guessed. The old JWs right there on my doorstep.

The older of the two boys smiles at me. ‘Were you sleeping?’ he says in perfect English.

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I was reading.’

‘Are you OK?’ he then asks looking concerned.

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘I was only drinking strong wine till three o’clock in the morning. Apart from that I’m fine.’

I look at him blankly and realise his prayer book isn’t a prayer book at all. It’s an iPad.

‘Can I show you a short video?’ he says arching towards me.

This is crazy. ‘Sure!’ I want to say. ‘Why don’t we get it on the big screen. What have you got? Trading Places. Airplane. Rocky. Rambo?’

But I don’t because it’s at this point that I decide to end it. I’m not a man for slamming doors in people’s face. I’ve had that myself trying to sell Scottish Gas door-to-door on a council estate in Plymouth in 2002.

I tell him I’m not well and touch my head. But he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a hangover and forces the iPad in my face again.

‘I’m alright, mate,’ I say sounding like Don Logan from Sexy Beast and close the door in his face. Gently.

I then tell Elizabeth and we laugh loudly listening to them walk off up to the next house about four miles up the road. A family of devout Catholics. Talk about a wasted trip.

It’s funny because at about this time last year, I wrote about the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Caussade Monday Market in South-Western France (Blogley Post 241) and how unusual it was to see them there. But here. Up a mountain. On a campsite in Southern Italy on 1st November, All Saints Day. You couldn’t have made it up.

Well actually you could. All of it.

In a thousand years people will be knocking on the door of my descendents reading out sections from Book II, Verse 34, Drinks Please, taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (my own collection of short stories). Although of course it won’t be called The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd anymore. It’ll be called The Bible.

You may laugh. But that’s how these things get started. Some buffoonish Englishman writes a book and years later people start believing it. Taking stories that were purely fictional, for the absolute truth. The word of God.

Waking people like me up at quarter to eleven in the morning to retell some ridiculous story written centuries ago. All because they need a few more good guys to help them fight Satan. When everybody knows if you want to fight the armies of darkness, you summon up Gandalf and Viggo Mortensen. It’s in the book by that buffoonish Englishmen, JRR Tolkien. Everybody knows that.

My advice to you people is this (and it applies to all religions/cults/sects):

GO HOME AND STOP WASTING MINE AND EVERYBODY ELSE’S TIME. I’M NOT INTERESTED. THANK YOU AND GOOD BYE!

*The Bible is available from Blogley Books now. Click here.

(In memory of my great friend Stan Mellema who hated all of this stuff as much as I do – See you in hell Stansislav!!)

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The French, Writing and Books

273 – Three Recent Books

hemming-book-cover

 Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast

This is the book everybody told me I should read. Well I finally read it and immediately wanted to move to Paris. Why not? I thought. I already live in France, speak the language, have a bank account, so a move wouldn’t be that difficult – I could do it tomorrow.

I’ve been to Paris twice in my life. Once as a schoolboy and once as an adult two years ago (see Blogley in Paris). I really enjoyed it I have to say. Spending a few days wandering the streets doing nothing in particular. I didn’t even see the sights. I’d already seen them as a schoolboy and remembered the crowds. Queuing for hours and hours to walk up the Eiffel Tower even though I was terrified of heights.

But could I live there? That’s the question. The answer is yes. Of course, I could live there. Why not? I’ve lived in worse places. Bracknell for one. True, I probably couldn’t afford to live there and have money left over for sitting in cafes eating oysters and drinking white wine like Hemingway. (Montauban near Toulouse where I currently live is more my budget. Confit du canard + 50cl pitcher of red wine – 10 Euros.) But I could find a way.

I thought the book was great. Very simple, very direct, very real. By the end I knew Paris, but without an expanse of unnecessary detail that would have made the city complex and inaccessible. For much of the book I was there too, sitting in cafes, arguing with poets, conversing with writers, watching my money, drinking, walking the streets, while at the same time giving myself a chance at writing in this splendid city. Hemingway suggests that if you can’t write here, you’ll be hard pressed to write anywhere. It’s probably not true, but it might be.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The end of the world has always fascinated me. This stark and yet beautiful notion that you’re (finally) alone. No one to tell you what to do. No one to hurt you. No bills to pay. Free sweets.

Of course, it rarely turns out like that. There are always others out to steal your candy. Other humans, other animals, other aliens (depending on the genre). But the idea still holds huge fascination for readers and writers alike. I even tried it myself, once writing a story called The Final Memoirs of the Last Man on Earth. Rather Back-to-the-Futureish comic book fare I admit, full of clichés like ‘Finally he was able to drink as much beer as he wanted – if he could find it.’ But I enjoyed writing it all the same, and if I hadn’t introduced a cat into it, it might have gone somewhere. As it was, it fell away after the opening paragraphs and I scrapped it after 2000 words.

Point is I love this idea and when you add into this well-trodden narrative a writer as good as McCarthy, it’s going to be good. And it was. Too good almost and one of those books where you wonder why anyone else bothers to write. If you haven’t read it, I suggest reading it, even if you’ve watched the film. You might have Viggo Mortensen imprinted in your head all the way through, but he’s not a bad actor to have in the title role. Imagine if they’d cast Colin Farrell?

Ian McEwan – The Children’s Act

I read this immediately after The Road and while I really enjoyed it, McCarthy, in this instance, knocked him for six. It’s not that Children’s Act was bad, it’s a fine book about the decisions a High Court judge has to make and the consequences they have on her own life. It’s just that The Road was so good. So raw, so stripped, so full of emotion, so intimate. The simple story of father and son played out on the most terrifying stage of all. The end of the world.

I read these books one after the other just because they happened to be on the shelf of the place where I’m staying at the moment. I’ve just started reading Point Omega by Don Delillo. A book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Tough competition though Donny boy. Good luck on that.

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Blogley, Italy, Places, Seasons

272 – Blogley in Serramonacesca

I’ve been here three weeks now tucked under the remote Majella mountains in Southern Italy looking after a campsite for my friends. They told me not to expect too many visitors while they were away on holiday. ‘Highly unlikely you’ll see anyone at this time of year.’

Cue a carload of Germans the second they leave. Questioning me about routes up the mountain thinking I was an Italian sheepherder raised on mutton and goat’s milk who knew the valley better than anyone else alive.

I explained to them that I was from Leeds, and raised on dripping and iced-buns and the only exploring I’d done was cycling up to the 1400 metre ski station at Passo Lanciano on my third day here. They seemed pretty impressed and asked if there was a route up there on foot instead of by bike. I said I didn’t know, vaguely pointing up to the bleak, brooding mountains above the campsite. Had I a map they asked. No I replied.

That was three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for them to return. I’m kidding of course. One did make it back and then spent the next two weeks in the pouring rain trying to find his friends.

‘Good for business though,’ I joked with him at the end of his ‘holiday’ as I charged him a full two weeks camping. ‘I’m sure they’ll turn up. When the snow’s thawed,’ I added. ‘And you must come back next year,’ I finished, handing him a loyalty card.

He thanked me for my generosity and left, just as the sun exploded out from behind the thundery clouds, giving me and Elizabeth the perfect opportunity to finally explore the local sights.

The Pennapiedimonte valley being one. A fine example of the perfect rugged gorge if ever there was one. In fact, I must send a memo to a Mr. S. Spielberg of Hollywood Studios saying something like: Stevieboy, if you want to make a new Indiana Jones film combining all the great shots from the others into one spectacular panoramic swashbuckling masterpiece, you could do it here. Signed. Philip Blogley. Pennapiedimonte, Italy.

I say this because as we were walking along the track cut into the sheer face of the gorge, I said to Elizabeth, ‘Do you think this is where they filmed The Temple of Doom?’

She looked at me blankly. I knew what she was thinking. Everywhere we go, he thinks it looks like a scene from Indiana Jones. She cleared her throat. ‘Which one was that?’ she asked warily.

‘The one where all the bad guys fall into the gorge and get eaten by crocodiles in the river below.’

‘What like that!’ she said motioning me over towards the precipitous edge knowing I’ve got the head for heights of a mole.

I looked down into the nothingness below. ‘Yes, exactly the same,’ I croaked, edging towards the safety of the path wall, even though I knew at any minute I could get crushed by a boulder cascading down from the steep gorge walls above.

Earlier on in our walk we’d trekked up to 4000 feet and had our sandwiches at a mountain refuge. Later we found a series of giant caves along what was once – about 500 million years ago – an old river bed, but which were now stranded over 1000 feet above the present one. Enormous entrances and high ceilings that made modern cathedrals, even the really old ones, look like models.

Not so long ago shepherds used them for sheltering sheep and goats, bricking up the entrances with stones to form natural pens. The one we found actually seemed to be in use, the smell of dung floating across the clean mountain air and hitting us like we’d walked into a public toilet on the Champs Elysee. Although I have to admit nothing quite as stomach clenchingly foul as a French squat toilet on Bastille Day.

The other highlight of these past weeks – apart from just enjoying the mountains and cooking rich goulash and arborio rice puddings on open fires – is swimming in the pools down by the benedictine abbey a few kilometres outside Serramonacesca where the campsite is located.

Created by the river that runs down from the Majella range, the pools are deep, blue and extraordinarily cold. Both me and Elizabeth have swum in some cold rivers and lakes on our travels, but these take cold bathing to another level. So cold in fact that it only hits you once you get out. Then you feel your legs splinter and crack like they’ve been doused in liquid nitrogen. Your head feels like it’s been mummified in cold ice cream and your hands have no recollection of ever being attached to your arms.

I’ve realised that the only rational thing to do is to quickly get in again. And again. Three times is perfect to get the heart racing. And after that you’re so cold you can’t feel anything anyway so it doesn’t really matter. The only way to warm up is to pelt it back on foot to the campsite and get into the open fire. I’m not joking either. I actually was half inside the fire in the living room when Elizabeth charged in and tried to rescue me.

‘I’m okay,’ I cried out. ‘Just trying to defrost. I’ll be alright in about two hours!’

‘Well don’t be long, we need that for pizza later.’

And she’s right. The open fire in the living room has a pizza oven built into the back of it and got me thinking that when they built houses here there must have built them round the pizza oven like you build a church round an altar. How practical is that?

You build your fire, let it get up to temperature, slap in your pizza, uncork the 10 litre flagons of wine they sell round here, put on your favourite film, say just for example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you don’t even have to leave the room.

And if you get too hot, you just dash down to the pools, immerse yourself, run back up and do it all again. Three times in fact. Raiders of Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade. Love Italy.

The Majella

Blogley on the Pennapiedimonte Gorge

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Food and Drink, People, Places

271 – Blogley in Italy

pexels-photoWaking up at Kokopelli Camping this morning was like waking up in a dream I’d forgotten existed. A dream where there’s no falling off cliffs or into holes, or being mown down by out-of-control lorries. A dream that starts slowly, gently gathers pace, meanders a bit through soft clouds and chocolate eclairs, then without any sudden death or injury, quietly finishes. No horror, blood, or pain. A seamless shift between sleep and reality where the reality is better than the dream. What most people call a holiday.

I arrived last night after an evening spent with the locals in the town hall of Serramonacesca eating pasta and quaffing wine at an event organised in aid of the recent earthquake. I hadn’t expected it in the slightest, I’d expected to spend a quiet evening with my friends nibbling on water biscuits and pecorino cheese.

Instead I was thrust into the madness of mountain village life, sitting on long benches chatting with local farmers trying to remember the Italian I’d learnt from my phrasebook. On the stage a local diva sang some opera, then some karaoke, then someone else told a story in a dialect that sounded like a cross between Russian and Chinese. Soon after a DJ started banging out Italian techno as I struggled on with my Italian, while men I’d never seen or met before brought me more wine.

It was a great baptism into Italian rural life, but it was also nice to go to bed and even better to wake up to mountain views, olive groves, fresh coffee, an outdoor kitchen, plus a couple of very small kittens clawing at my foot.

I’m here with Elizabeth to look after a campsite for six weeks for some friends while they holiday in Sardinia. Tucked below the mountainous Majella National Park and a couple of kilometres from the village of Serramonacesca, Kokopelli offers carefree camping with magnificent views of the raw countryside where bears and wolves still roam. It sounds like I’m writing their holiday brochure. I’m not, I’m just writing what I see. As I mentioned in my last post – write what you know.

What I know is that apart from a day in Venice years ago, this is my first time in Italy. And after hauling bags filled with lead weights round the Dordogne all summer, it’s a very welcome change. No more driving round the Perigord with a van full of indestructible coffin-shaped Samsonite suitcases big enough for the owners to be buried in. No more violent arguments with irate hoteliers. No more pretending to be polite when really I’m fuming beneath a painted-on smile. As the photographer Justin P Brown said to me after he’d moved to Barcelona after twelve smog-filled years in London, ‘This is paradise.’

After being shown the ropes of how the campsite works by my friends and waving them off to Sardinia in their Landrover, I was left to my own devices.

‘Now what do I do?’ I thought. As normal a million things rushed into my head, not wanting to waste a single minute of my time here. I wanted to do everything all at once: cycle up the mountains, swim in the river, hike up to the hermitage, cook spaghetti, write a novel, eat wild boar, learn Italian.

Instead I did nothing except cook some eggs, drink coffee, look at some maps, have another coffee, stoke the fire, and gaze blankly out at the scenery remembering that I was actually on holiday. A working holiday true, but the holidays I like best. Work to be done, but at my own pace. Slow down. Breathe. Relax.

Later I thought about dragging the bike out to see what the hills were like, but the urge passed and I made another coffee. ‘I wonder how much coffee I can drink?’ I thought. Probably quite a lot.

Whenever I go to new places, they’re always totally different to what I imagined. I once went to County Kildare in Ireland for a week and had to give myself a real talking to after I returned. I thought Ireland would be like England: dreary suburbia interspersed with the odd pocket of beauty. It was nothing of the sort.

I remember going into a pub for the first time. Where are all the trinkets and bodhrans hanging from the ceiling? The Oscar Wilde quotes, the Guinness adverts, the wooden confession boxes? The thick curtains and low lit lighting? This wasn’t right. This was just a room with brightly painted yellow walls. The tables and chairs were chrome and the only trinkets were a fire poker and coal shovel next to the fireplace which was real and alight.

I wasn’t going to poke my finger through a wafer thin partition wall here to reveal the breeze brick walls of a shopping centre. Its foreignness was real, not contrived or made to feel like somewhere else, like a Red Lion pub on the Costa Del Sol, selling egg and chips and pints of Fosters under the gigantic sunlamp of the Spanish sun.

I ordered a pint of Guinness even though I hated the stuff – ‘tastes of soot’ I once told a friend. But what else was I going to drink on my first visit to Ireland. Budweiser? Probably, because that’s what everybody else was drinking. I was the only one drinking the fabled Black Stuff while the rest of the pub – full blooded Irishmen and women – sat around drinking American lager.

Last night in the town hall in Serramonacesca, I had another ‘Irish moment’, where once again everything I’d thought I knew about a country came crashing down on my thick English head. I didn’t imagine for a second that everybody would be prancing about in Gucci suits and Prada heels drinking campari and sodas, I’m not that stupid. However, I certainly didn’t imagine techno, opera and karaoke on the same night, served up with stodgy ragu on paper plates, all washed down with red wine sloshed out shakily from giant 10 litre flagons like it was floor cleaner.

Never second guess. That’s what I’ve learnt so far from my 42 years on this planet. Never think you know anything about anything until you’ve seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. Countries, cultures, traditions, customs, languages and food all need to be experienced at first hand before you can make any sort of judgement. Otherwise you end up making a tit of yourself. Like drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub in Ireland. Or asking for Spaghetti Bolognese in an Italian restaurant…

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Places, Seasons

270 – Life as a Holiday Rep

When I was 12 I went to Benidorm with my father on a package holiday. I remember the rep meeting us at the airport along with 50 other red-faced Brits, most of whom had already got burnt walking across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal building.

Once outside he started doing a roll-call from a list of names stapled to a Thomson Holidays emblemed clipboard. He was wearing a vomit yellow polo shirt plus matching baseball hat and seemed to be having trouble pronouncing the names, even the simple ones like Smith and Lewis. When he came to our name, Ogley, he pronounced it ‘Ugly’ and everybody laughed, including me and my dad, who corrected him telling him it was actually OGLEY.

‘As in…’ he started, but couldn’t finish the sentence because as we’d realised many times before OGLEY doesn’t rhyme with anything, except Flogley or Bogley, which aren’t real words. The rep ticked our names and moved on to some other names he couldn’t pronounce like Cleugh, Coughlan and Cluister, finally allowing us to get on the furnace-hot coach to the hotel about ten hours later.

Things didn’t improve. Just after the WELCOME TO THE COSTA BLANCA sign a few kilometres from the airport, somebody a few seats behind me was violently sick. I remember smelling the fetid stench of half digested airplane food mixed with cheap sparkling wine and asked my dad how far it was to the hotel. He said a couple of hours and I wondered if I’d make it before I ejected my own personal offering of airline beef lasagne over the folk in front of me.

Luckily, my stomach held up and I was delighted to pull up outside our hotel. The Hotel Regenta, a 25 storey concrete rectangle pockmarked with a hundred tiny concrete balconies, which made the whole building look like a giant advent calendar. But instead of scenes of the Nativity behind every patio window, it was crammed full of lobster red humans plastered in After Sun lying on their beds either dying of heat exhaustion, sunburn or alcohol poisoning. Or all three.

Once inside the hotel foyer that smelt of chips, the rep started waffling on about the week’s entertainment program. This consisted of fancy dress competitions, barbeques and dust-to-dawn drinking with musical accompaniment supplied exclusively, or so it seemed, by Black Lace. Everybody appeared incredibly content until the happy-go-lucky, soon to become the not-so-happy-go-lucky rep, came to his final announcement.

‘Due to unforeseen circumstances, the pool is out of action until further notice.’

The rep tried to hold his smile for as long as he could, perhaps hoping that everybody might be content swimming in the sea. Until someone threw a brick into his face. A metaphorical brick of course – this wasn’t the Middle Ages – but the level of abuse aimed at the poor soul was equivalent to a lorry load of breeze blocks tumbling down on his head from a great height.

He tried to appease them as best he could, telling them they were working on the problem. But the insults and threats kept coming and no amount of half hearted gestures and promises were going to get the rep out of this one. Or for that matter, remove the stagnant mass of raw sewage that was filling the pool.

It was at this point that I vowed never to work as a holiday rep. Never would I put myself in a position where I could be subjected to such foul mouthed abuse from members of the public. Never as long as I lived.

Thirty years later, I became a holiday rep on the Dordogne.

Luckily most of my customers arrive by train or in Volvos wearing Berghaus gaiters and Karrimor waterproofs bought in the 1970s. If I had to tell them the pool was closed, they wouldn’t be that bothered. ‘We’re here to walk, not lounge round the pool, if we wanted to do that we’d go to Benidorm.’

This is the rep job you get when you’re 42. The Berghaus Rep as I’ve coined it. The rep job where you spend half an hour each evening with customers discussing route notes over a glass of Monbazillac. Route notes that were written thirty years ago by a rep who used the Bayeux tapestry as a map and who hand wrote the notes out on parchment. But of course you don’t say that. No point in alerting them before they set off. Simply wait for the inevitable phone call.

‘Oi, rep! Where the fuck am I? It says here there’s a vineyard on my left, but all I can see is a supermarket.’

Gone is the polite chatter from a few nights ago, replaced by harsh words and bile, as I try to explain that the vineyard may have been there in the Middle Ages, only now it’s a branch of Lidl. ‘It’s called progress dummy!’ I shout. Then turn my phone off and go out for a few days.

From my experience, these things tend to resolve themselves. They eventually find out where they are and by trial and error end up at the hotel. Sometimes the wrong hotel. But a hotel all the same.

What I’ve learned from this job is that people are going to complain no matter what I do. But that’s OK by me. That’s their problem not mine. If people want to go on holiday looking for trouble, looking for things to poke at, looking for a fight. Then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can only do my best. Which is what I do. And if I’ve done my best and it’s not enough, then the best thing I can do is lie down somewhere warm and go to sleep. See you in Italy. Ciao.

sleeping

(For more Philip Ugly adventures, why not read A Man in France, available at Blogley Books.)

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Food and Drink, Places, The French

269 – Mangez, Buvez, Bougez

 

pizza_service_order_pizza_pizzaSo what’s happening? I haven’t written an entry for a while because in truth I haven’t been arsed. I did start writing one a few weeks ago about surviving the last three years on very little money. But it ended up being so self-righteous, clichéd and boring that I canned it. Smug, sanctimonious snippets like “I always have money, because I don’t buy anything” littered the page like the discarded scribblings of a Guardian journalist.

I have been writing though. Some stories based on the guests and hoteliers I’ve been working with this summer. Other people far more interesting than myself, especially the hotel managers who order their guests to go to bed at 10.30 sharp, forbid them from having aperitifs before mealtimes, lock them out of their hotels, scold them for arriving early, turn the air-conditioning off in 40 degree heat, refuse vegetarians coffee and dessert because they didn’t eat their fish and then charge them extra for bread. Hotel owners who make Basil Fawlty look inept at being rude.

And then there’s the guests.

“It’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too wet, too windy, the food’s too rich, too frothy, too meaty, can I have some chips, the bath’s too small (it’s not a bath, it’s a shower), why do we have to walk to the restaurant, where’s my luggage, why didn’t you answer my call, nobody speaks English (it’s France), the canoes are the wrong shape, the hills are too steep, the bicycles aren’t like the ones in England (they’re English), we paid a lot of money for this holiday (yeh, well you should have read the brochure first!), can we have a cup of tea (No! Fuck off back home).” And on and on.

I could write an entire series entitled Excess Baggage – a post-Brexit analysis of how Brits go out of their way to find something to complain about. Or failing that taking their angst out on each other in enormous rows.

Take the couple I saw fighting in their gigantic cinema-sized campervan a few weeks ago. A real set-to that was, thrashing about in their portable cottage, fists flying, noses bleeding, cupboards splintering. True, the thermometer was pushing nearly 40 degrees that day, and the empty 24-pack of high strength lager probably didn’t help, but for the group of campers looking on, it was great entertainment.

‘Nothing like a holiday to let off a bit of steam, eh?’ I said to the guy next to me who’d started taking bets on the winner.

And if there isn’t the excess mental baggage, there’s the excess actual baggage. The mass of suitcases, holdalls, rucksacks, vanity cases, trunks, handbags, wheelie bins, kitchen sinks folk insist on bringing. All for a week’s canoeing, walking or cycling. Trips up Everest require less stuff. The Moon Landings I bet needed less physical matter than the average holidaymaker these days.

I don’t understand it: it’s boiling hot, the night temperature rarely falls below 20 degrees, surely shorts and T-shirt is all you need. Why are you bringing dresses, suits, shoe boxes, jumpers, coats, walking boots, scarves, hats, jewellery cases? One guy even brought a kilt! And wore it. To a restaurant. In France. In summer. Can you believe that?

Luckily, there are exceptions. Some people do bring one bag each. A rarity I admit, and normally the same people who congratulate me on how much they’ve enjoyed their activity holiday. It’s a relief I can tell you.

Most people think an activity holiday is walking to the bar and back. Where in actual fact it consists of engaging the quadriceps muscles of both legs and placing them one in front of the other whereby the torso moves forward at a rate of knots comparable to the speed of the legs. I’m being mean, but I can’t emphasise how much some people fail to grasp this simple premise.

Mangez, Buvez, Bougez* always comes to mind when I’m taking calls during my breakfast from people stranded in the ‘Perigord Desert’ after 4 kilometres of walking and need picking up. (*Eat, drink, move. A slogan used by the French government to encourage people to exercise more and not fill up on sugary drinks and pizza.)

Talking of pizza, we’re off to Italy for six weeks at the end of September to look after a campsite somewhere near Pescara. I’m dead excited as well. As except for a day in Venice years and years ago (possibly the most tedious day I’ve ever had, following 100,000 other folk all armed with two thousand pound Nikon cameras round a ruined city taking pictures of monuments and statues covered in pigeons, was not my idea of fun), I’ve never been to Italy.

We’re off to a mountain village in the Majella National Park where they apparently still have bears and wolves. There are a couple of restaurants in the village, a butcher and a shop. I’m already learning Italian, so I think it’s going to be a month and a half of Mangez, Buvez, Bougez. Roll on October.

(Like this? Check out my short story collection The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd available @ Blogley Books here)

 

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People, Places, Sport

268 – Climb From Le Roc

For a professional cyclist, the climb from Le Roc would be like a fully grown adult clambering over an assault course designed for a toddler. A mere bump in the road that might heighten the heart rate a couple of beats, but nothing more.

On this year’s Tour de France, stage eight went up the Col de Saint Antonin Noble Val near to where I lived last winter. A series of tight hairpins curving their way up the rugged slopes of the Aveyron Gorge, an ascent I cycled up many times with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo Club (see Blogley Posts 253 255).

I was planning to watch this stage in person as the small town of Saint Antonin Noble Val is only 100km away from Souillac where I now live. Unfortunately, that tedious commitment known as work got in the way and I was unable to make it. However, with wall-to-wall coverage on French TV, I was looking forward to seeing how the professionals fared on the St. Antonin climb, hoping they’d find it as gruelling as I did.

What was I thinking! When they finally got to it, the commentator on TV hardly mentioned it as I watched the riders glide up the slope like their wheels had got stuck to pieces of chewing gum some teenager had thrown onto a large conveyor belt that just happened to be going the same way.

By the time I’d got comfy on my holiday rep plastic issue sofa, eating my Official Tour de France ice cream – A Walls Cornetto (true) – the riders had ascended the unmentionable hill and were on their way to Montricoux and the finish line at Montauban.

Mildly disappointed but not too dispirited by this blatant lack of respect from the pros for my cycling efforts, I donned my cycling vest and shorts and headed out for Le Roc to prove I was still the best.

The village of Le Roc, 7 km outside Souillac, is named (I’m guessing) after the 200 foot high slab of limestone that rises out from somewhere behind the church. Whoever first settled here didn’t have to look too far for inspiration in choosing a name.

‘If we don’t think of anything by teatime,’ I imagine the chief saying to his laymen, ‘we’ll just have to call it The Rock. I’m not spending precious time and money hanging around drinking wine while thinking of trendy, pretentious names like that Saint Antonin Noble Val down the road, when there’s more important things to be done like building a road around this massive rock and up the valley so we can get out of here when the valley floods.’

Good advice indeed, as this is the road I cycle up to relieve the anxiety of dealing with wealthy middle class families from Southern England on activity holidays. Even if the word ‘activity’ is used erroneously in my view, especially when I hear complaints that the 1.8 km walk up to the hotel is simply ‘out of order’ or ‘an outrageous thing to be expected to do…’

‘On what,’ I murmur to myself. ‘An outrageous thing to be expected to do on an, ermm, err, ACTIVITY HOLIDAY!’

I say nothing obviously, I’m still too private school, but underneath my soft flabby exterior I’m cooking them alive on a grill the size of a swimming pool with a couple of aubergines stuffed in both ends to keep them quiet.

But anyhow, The Climb from Le Roc, as I’ve coined it, keeps me sane. A sliver of time in the day when I’m not a holiday rep in the Dordogne lugging heavy suitcases around for the Waitrose generation. Instead I’m on a madcap breakaway up Alpe D’huez on my way to claiming my first Maillot Jaune. Jacques Anquetil on the 1967 tour doped up to my eye balls on amphetamine wondering where all my opponents have gone and how high I can go on this vintage Peugeot PK10 racer.

Luckily, my only drug is thick treacly coffee I take beforehand, plus the acidic bile in my stomach caused by 1001 complaints I receive daily from folk moaning about the weather, the walking or the food. But once I get back home to Souillac, I’m feeling myself again and get on with the job in hand of telling people that it is actually possible to walk 1.8km, even up a hill.

‘It’s what legs are for,’ I tell them. ‘Being the bipeds, hunter-gatherers, walkers we are.’

There’s normally some anger or confusion at this point, but they eventually come round to the conclusion that I’m right. ‘I’m the rep,’ I remind them. ‘I’m always right, just do as I say and we’ll get along fine,’ I finish pulling out a bag of giant aubergines just to let them know I’m serious.

(Climb From Le Roc – in detail)

le roc2

PS. The Blog will return in September…

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Places, Sport

267 – Souillac to Groléjac: En Canoë

canoe souillac

My last post concerned a paddle down the Dordogne from Meyonne to Souillac. This one concerns a slow meander down the same river from Souillac to Groléjac (see map above).

I say meander because somebody upstream has turned the river off. I mean this quite literally as there is a great big dam up at Argentat with some EDF engineer sitting behind a huge control panel munching on egg filled baguettes wondering how low he can make the river go without it officially becoming a stream.

There couldn’t have been enough water in the river during June, now in July with temperatures soaring into the mid-thirties, there’s hardly enough water to flush a toilet with, and the canoers I’m supposed to be instructing are getting pissed off.

We had clients from Oregon last week complaining that they’d booked a canoe holiday, not a paddle-along-a-long-lake holiday. I told them to try and enjoy it and forget about all those worries back home. ‘Pretend you’re a twig on the back of a mighty river,’ I said, half-quoting Planes, Trains and Automobiles. ‘Go with the flow.’

‘But that’s the problem,’ he declared, ‘there is no flow!’ Clearly missing the point of the line from the film, and most probably the point of the holiday itself.

‘It’s just a puddle,’ Mr. Juicer from Oregon continued (He wasn’t called Mr. Juicer at all, he was called Paul Mango, but I’ve adopted this childish habit of giving my clients pseudonyms to make the job more interesting). ‘We were promised canoeing on the mighty Dordogne. It says it in the brochure for Pete’s sake!’

‘It doesn’t say anything of the kind,’ I reminded him. ‘It actually says,’ and I started quoting from the brochure I’d delightfully digested one evening on the toilet before I came here, ‘Enjoy a gentle paddle down one of France’s most famous and longest rivers.’

I looked smug and advised him that there were plenty of other holiday destinations more suited to adventure if that’s what he craved. ‘Like The Congo, for example.’

‘Why would I want to go there?’ he asked.

‘Exactly,’ I replied. ‘Hence the reason people come to the Dordogne to laze around on a canoe all day, eating large lunches at the numerous riverside restaurants without the fear of being eaten alive by crocs or shot by South African mercenaries mistaking you for Islamic State fighters.’

That seemed to shut him up and off he went silently floating down the mirror-like Dordogne thinking of lobster lunches and relaxing more. Good.

Fact is, the river is too slow at the moment, I agree on that. It’s like being promised the thrill of bombing round a race track in a Ferrari, turning up and being given the keys to a Fiat Panda. Disappointing to say the least, so I understand the customers’ frustrations even if there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Except kill the EDF engineer up at Argentat, steal his egg sandwich, and turn up the river to full.

On the other hand, there’s very little chance of capsizing, which means you can simply relax, crack a beer and float gently backwards. As the video below demonstrates. And if you don’t like the look of it, go to The Congo. Or stay at home.

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Places, Sport

266 – Meyronne to Souillac: En Canoë

A few evenings ago, after a tedious day lugging bags and bikes around for two-grand-a-week holidaymakers, me and Elizabeth decided to go canoeing.

We’d been meaning to go for weeks, but had been foiled by the seven foot high waves hurtling down the river ever since the collapse of the dam 50 km up the river at Argentat. Granted that may have been part of a dream caused by excessive cheese consumption, but the incessant rainfall during June did make the river too dangerous for safe canoeing, especially after the last incident involving a large tree and some bad navigation. (See Blogley 260 – “How not to capsize a canoe on the Dordogne”.)

The 18km section from Meyronne to Souillac we did on Friday evening is  fantastic for two reasons. One, it finishes where we live – handy. And secondly, paddling along the Dordogne next to 200 foot high cliffs is a feast for the eyes and the senses as good as anywhere I’ve ever been.

At one point near the hamlet of Meyraguet the cliffs plunge into the water like giant icebergs freshly calved from the Arctic Ice Sheet. Enormous slabs of limestone that in places look like they’ve been glued together with putty, create this fabulous gorge that cuts deep through the Perigord like an axe slicing open the bowels of an Englishman during The Hundred Years War.

High up in the rock wall, rounded grooves mark the level where the river once flowed in some ancient time. Buzzards and eagles now perch on these wide ledges and peer down at mankind making their way downstream. For millennia they’ve sat here watching the slow progression of human evolution flow forward from wooden boats to steamboats to plastic canoes.

It’s taken the river hundreds of millions of years to carve these gorges and set itself at its present level. This is where I was on Friday evening, paddling down the river with a cold beer wedged in-between my thighs thinking of nothing. Witnessing the peaceful and beautiful scenery unfurl around me like I was burrowing up the stem of a rose that’s about to blossom.

Until we hit the Toulouse-Paris motorway that crosses the river 5kms from Souillac at Pinsac, when I could feel my mind revert back to the 21st century. Not that it was too unpleasant either, the viaduct is a great feat of engineering, similar to the gigantic walls I’d just passed. One created by the brute force of nature, the other built by its delicate hand. The hand of humans. Both equally stunning in their own way.

As we neared Souillac I could smell my pot-au-feu I’d left nicely cooking in the oven before we left. It was half past nine and still 28 degrees but we were both looking forward to a big hot pot of beef stew and a flagon or two of deep red wine to celebrate the fact that this time, we’d made it down The Dordogne in one piece.

meandre_de_la_dordogne_a_lacave2

Read more about my adventures in A Man in France. Available @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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People, The French

265 – King Boris, Bike Racks and Brexit

Someone asked me today as I was trying to fit a bike rack onto a van with an assortment of ancient French tools made for a tractor, if I’d now be going back to the UK.

I replied quite quickly, ‘I voted remain, so I’m staying here.’

That was the end of the conversation and I went on my way carting bikes around for the retired English middle class. It was probably just a genuine question. But I couldn’t help thinking as I spun my (French made and owned) Renault Trafic round the tight corners of the Perigord, that the question had more to it. Loaded with disdain that I was swanning round France, living and working without a care in the world. As though I should join the masses back home under a governing class who want to force a real life re-enactment of the Hundred Years War. Join Citizen Boris in his crusade to be King of England. Why not? He’s bent over backwards to be Prime Minister, destroyed his chum Dave in the process, and taken his country out of a cushy trade agreement and into an economic abyss.

The Queen looks dead already so Boris must have eyes on the crown. If only because it matches his hair colour. With the Royal Family being the longest comedy act in history, another clown would fit in perfectly. Not that Boris Johnson is stupid in the slightest. His buffoonery, as everybody knows, is merely an act to fool people into thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I should know, I do it all the time. Today for example. Scrambling around in 35 degree heat trying to fit a bike rack onto a van while being egged on by four retirees who were taking it in turns to add their own bike rack fitting wisdom into the equation.

‘Don’t do it like that! Do it this way! That’s not the way! I thought you said you were a bike mechanic!’

‘I am a bike mechanic, ‘ I replied laughing, grease and sweat running down my face like a demented clown. ‘Doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.’

We all laughed inanely and just when I thought I’d done enough to get a free lunch – “Hapless bike mechanic earns free lunch from wealthy baby boomers!” Ha Ha Ha – I got hit with the question: ‘So I assume you’ll be going back now?’

Cue my rather curt response, Fuck off!, which ended all hopes of an afternoon munching lobster and sipping sweet Sancerre. We all then went back to being serious in true English fashion, talking about the weather and agreeing pickup times. I drove off and left them to get on with whatever retired baby boomers do on holiday. Which from listening to the majority of them since I’ve been doing this job is being amazed about how welcoming and pleasant the French are.

So there we go. We’re out, I’m in and Boris Johnson is King. Bonne soirée.

 

Boris-johnson3

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Places, Sport, The French, Writing and Books

264 – Souillac: A small town in France

The rain is beating down today like a baton hitting an English football supporter. Hard raps against my window as I look out over a waterlogged road. When it’s sunny here, it’s as good as anywhere. When it’s raining, it’s like North Wales. Grey skies that look like they’re going to fall on you like a tonne of slate. I should know, I grew up there. Oswestry to be precise. Technically English, but Welsh at some point in its Godforsaken past.

There’s a football match on Thursday night involving the two teams (and supporters later on I’m sure). I haven’t got any Welsh ancestry, but I can’t help hoping they’ll win. For the simple reason that England teams are rubbish considering the players and money they have. They pick the wrong players in the wrong positions and think they’re going to win by right because, like all the folk back home supporting the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, there’s still an Empire. We then lose and look for someone else to blame. Normally the Russians. Or the French. Or in the case of the recent violence, both.

I used to watch Forest vs. Leeds at the City Ground when I lived in Nottingham and could never decide who I wanted to win. I’m from Leeds and have supported them since I was a kid. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Forest because of Brian Clough and the great European Cup winning sides of ’79 and ’80. Plus I lived there for nine great years as a student and musician in the 90s.

Sitting in the City Ground waving my red or white flag depending on if I was in the Home or Away ends, I always wanted a draw, with perhaps Leeds nicking a last minute winner in injury time. As it happened Forest won every time, so I always left a little bit gutted, but not as much as if they’d lost to Chelsea or Man Utd – or Derby.

I started writing this post to advertise my latest short film on the little French town where I live and got sidetracked by football and the weather. Two of my favourite subjects, or so I’m told by the hoteliers who I work with here. As though they don’t exist in this part of France.

‘Weather? We don’t have that here. Just blank skies and breezeless days. And as for football. Pah! Nothing to do with us. Only Rugby here.’

Which is why Souillac hasn’t really entered into the spirit of the tournament. There’s a board outside the Grand Hotel next to the Plat du Jour board that reads Match du Jour. One reads France vs. Romania, the other Confit du Canard.  Today is Tuesday, the France game was last Friday, so maybe that’s all I’m going to get during these Euros. A five-day old football match and a plate of reheated duck.

Enjoy the film

More films @ https://blogley.com/blogley-films/

Books @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Writing and Books

263 – The Curious Case of The Polish Vans

 

polish van

It all started two weeks ago looking out onto the D820 from my bedroom window. A dirty grey Luton van with Polish plates trundling into Souillac. The time was 1020. I know this because I noted it down. I was curious.

Over the following few days I saw more. Same type of van – Renault Master Luton with vinyl canvas body – different colour. Grey, Blue, or Black. Sometimes with a white cab, sometimes with a red cab. The sightings reminded me of Magnus Mills’ novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, which centres on a fleet of identical vans driving around for no apparent reason. I was noting them down for personal interest, maybe I’d write a book as well.

I guessed they weren’t going to Poland. I used to live there and get the coach from London Victoria to Warsaw and remembered how long it took. From the analysis of the times and dates I’d written down in my notebook, which wasn’t comprehensive as I don’t spend all day looking out of the window, it simply wasn’t feasible. Too many vans appearing and reappearing within the same 24 hour time period. Poland is 2000km away, even driving at 200km/h all the way without stopping once for food, water, fag or toilet wouldn’t do it. Nowhere near.

So where are they going? And what are they carrying? Some have refrigeration units on the cab, so perhaps vegetables or meat. But as some of the vans don’t have these, coupled with the fact that thick vinyl canvas doesn’t lend itself very well to temperature control when it’s 30 degrees outside, I’m thinking furniture.

A removal service? But they aren’t big enough. A one man van service, yes. But a whole fleet of small vans when you can just have one big one, no. How about wine? Pots and pans? Clothes? Electronics? Polish food supplies? Books?

In truth, the only thing I’ve come up with is fungus, for no other reason than Poles have a rich tradition in mushroom cultivation. Growing or collecting mushrooms – possibly truffles – somewhere south of here and then driving them up to sell in Paris.

I could be way off the mark, but without stopping and asking them, I’ve no way of knowing. There’s no logo or website on the side of the vans, or any inscription anywhere, not even a name. I’ve discounted the possibly of criminal involvement. For the simple reason that no criminal gang would risk driving a Polish registered van through rural France where even Mr and Mrs Essex Motorhome can get pulled over for having a faulty brake light.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s made life here quite interesting. Sometimes I hear Elizabeth cry from the kitchen ‘Polish Van!’

‘Write it down,’ I cry out from the bathroom stuck in the half French bath since Wednesday. ‘What’s the colour?’

It’s become a bit of a game, like train spotting, although more fun because I never know when or where they’re going to come from. Constructing a timetable from erratic, hit-and-miss sightings. Very similar to deciphering a SNCF rail timetable during a strike. “Your train should arrive today at 1030, but it won’t, it’ll arrive twelve hours later if you’re lucky. Or never. Thank you.”

There’s one now! (a Polish van not a train – that would be pushing it). Direction: Souillac, 1155, red cab, white awning. ‘Write it down! And can you help me out of the bath?’

They’re impossible to predict. I’ve never seen the same van in the same one hour time slot in the two weeks I’ve been watching them. My guess is that they move when the mushrooms are ready. ‘Go Go Go to Paris as quick as possible. Day or night.’ Like Tom Hanks in Castaway before he crashed and got marooned on a desert island for five years.

There is a definite way to solve this mystery though. Wait at the traffic lights in Souillac town centre one evening when they’re on red, climb in the back and hope I’ve got my maths right and don’t end up in Katowice 40 hours later stinking of rotting truffles. Or dead pigs.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. More likely served up in a high class Parisian restaurant as part of an orchid leaf salad.

‘I asked for Perigord diamond truffles, not ass of Englishman. Take him away at once, mince him and feed him to the dogs!’

I could ask them. Flag them down and ask in my best Polish what on earth they are doing because it’s driving me nuts.

‘Mind your own business, Englishman. We’ll do our jobs, you keep practising your canoeing skills, we’ve seen you capsize, very funny. You think you’re the ones watching us? Think again, idyot! Ha ha ha!’

…to be continued.

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Places, The French

262 – Things I like about France No. 1: Routes Nationales

road photo - thumb

From my window I have a clear view of the D820, the old Route Nationale (RN) that runs from Toulouse to Paris. For me these represent old France. France before iPhones, prepackaged sandwiches, shopping centres and Renault Meganes. The reason people went to France instead of Spain or Greece for their holidays. Pulling off at an ancient boulangerie in some obscure, unpronounceable town to demolish two or three pain au chocolat in one go, washed down with some heavy, undrinkable coffee.

In 1998, me and some guys drove down to Nice to play in a bar for a week, taking the old routes as part of the trip. It was great, stopping at broken down cafes and bars that seemed barely standing, ordering brie filled baguettes and demis that we topped up with our own supply of lager we’d bought from the supermarket.

It was great. We were young, we were going to play in a bar for a week with free food and booze, plus some cash at the end of it. OK, so the gigs were a bit of a disaster, mainly because the owner of the bar wanted three hours of catchy covers, not 70 minutes of prog rock, as we played. We spent most of the first night learning cover standards like Hotel California and Stand By Me, some of which we played two or three times a night. On the way back, we drove back on the expensive autoroutes because we were tired, arriving back in Nottingham with about 20 quid to spare.

Of course, a lot of the old routes are really busy now, especially around towns or where there’s no autoroute alternative. But there are stretches that are practically deserted, especially in the evenings. Even the D820 outside my window, which is a main route, has periods when I’m wondering where the next car will come from. In fact, towards midnight, you could probably have a picnic in the middle of it. If you felt like it.

The old garages, auberges, cafes and hotels that once lined this route before the Paris-Toulouse motorway was built still thrive, although many now serve tourists rather than salesmen, drivers and travellers.

When people ask me, what do you like about France, Oggers? I say Route Nationales every time. They are surprised. They expect me to say food or wine or scenery or campsites or cakes. But no, the old RNs are always top of my list…

…Well, maybe that’s not quite true any more. I’ve recently discovered an almost childlike penchant for cakes. Especially Flan. A huge oozing mass of eggs, cream, milk and flour cut into slices. It’s like a thick blancmange or concentrated custard put in a pastry base. It’s really cheap and if you find a good patisserie you can really eat a lot. Which is probably why I’m starting cycling again, which is another thing I like about France.

..to be continued.

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The French

261 – The Joy of the French Half Bath

 

Being a holiday rep in the Dordogne has many advantages – nice climate, an endless supply of foie gras, lovely scenery, plus free comedy provided by irate English and Dutchmen parking their 40-foot motorhomes in cramped supermarket car parks. However, the best part so far has been bathing in a French half bath.

When we first moved here at the beginning of May, we were a little concerned about the apartment we’d been allocated. The bedrooms smelt of cod, the lounge had the character of a hospital waiting room, and the kitchen equipment amounted to no more than a few chipped plates, an assortment of blunt knives, and a deep fat fryer. All of which gave me the sudden vision of us spending the summer eating calamari and chips at a plastic table.

‘Feels like I’ve just walked into a day centre,’ I said to Elizabeth. ‘How on earth am I going to make salmon en croute using a milk pan and a whisk?’ The only other implements I’d seen.

‘We might have to do a spot of shopping,’ she agreed discovering a rusty fork in the sink before we moved off to inspect the bathroom.

‘Oh my God,’ I yelled once we’d found the light switch, expertly taped up with sellotape. ‘There’s no bath!’

This was devastating. I could live without pans, ham and cheese is fine, but not without a bath. ‘Sans bain,’ I shouted. ‘Or is it sans baignoire?’ I momentarily considered looking at the strange, almost deformed, bath like structure. (La baignoire being the actual tub, le bain being the actual concept, as in ‘I’m going to take a bath.) Either way it wasn’t good news.

‘You know how I feel about showers,’ I started complaining to Elizabeth. ‘I hate showers. You wouldn’t go to a cinema and expect to watch a film standing up, would you? Or have your hair cut? Why should I be expected to wash standing up. Or shave. I always shave in the bath.’

She’d heard this rant before. In each place we’d ever gone in fact that didn’t have a bath. ‘Showers are for morons,’ I’d continue. ‘Imbeciles. I mean who invented showers. A real idiot in my book…’

The fact is I like to bath. It relaxes my mind, my body, my soul. The hotter the better. The best temperature being equivalent to that of a 5-minute old cup of coffee. Cool enough to sip, but still hot enough to burn your mouth if you drink it too quickly. After fifteen minutes of deep immersion at this temperature I feel myself cooking. Poaching myself like an egg ready to be served up with a slice of smoked salmon and toasted brown bread.

I’m not exaggerating either. I get some insane thrill from boiling myself like a lobster and then spending the next hour drinking from a tap desperately trying to prevent massive organ failure due to chronic dehydration. It’s an addiction I’ve had since I can remember and it seems no sign of abating. So the thought of going the whole summer without one was distressing.

So one day last week, fed up with trying to read and shave in the shower, I decided to give the half bath a go. The results were incredible.

Not only was the water super hot (and free), but the bath itself was not just a sawnoff version of a normal bath as I’d originally thought. It had a seat, plus its increased height meant that when filled the occupant is fully immersed like a normal bath. They built skyscrapers in New York along the same lines. If you run out of space, build up. Ditto the French half bath.

I even found I could stretch out my legs by simply moving my backside down towards the front, placing my heels flat on the opposing wall and allowing my shoulders to sink into the warm water.

So if you’re ever in France and your apartment/hotel room is advertised as “with bathroom plus half bath”, don’t be put off. Fill it up, dip in and relax comme ça.

The french half bath

* Serving Suggestion Only

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Places, Sport

260 – How Not to Capsize a Canoe on the Dordogne

 

‘We’re heading for a tree,’ I cried out to Elizabeth who was at the bow of the Canadian canoe we were piloting down the Dordogne last week. We were on a four-day canoe course so we had the necessary credentials to brief our customers on the basics of canoeing. Steering being one of the absolute essentials.

‘Turn left,’ Elizabeth screamed at me.

‘I’m trying, but every time I steer left, the boat goes right,’ I complained as we careered towards a large overhanging tree lying flat on the water’s surface.

‘You’re putting the paddle in the wrong side,’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘The other side!’

But it was too late to argue about the fineries of ruddering, as moments later the bow crashed into the tree, allowing the powerful current of the river to push the canoe broadside against the solid trunk.

From his boat the instructor kept yelling at us to lean in towards the tree, not away from it. This, we learned later, would have kept the boat stable, allowing us to simply push ourselves away. Instinct however told us otherwise, and we couldn’t help leaning away from the danger, resulting in the canoe tilting towards the rushing water, as my beautifully illustrated diagram below shows.

caneo

There was only one possible outcome. The canoe filled with water and capsized in seconds throwing us into the river like underweight fish discarded from a trawler.

caneo2

The instructor, clearly shaken by this abject display of boatmanship, launched himself into a standard rescue procedure. Which entailed shouting at me very loudly about the importance of listening to basic instructions. Namely, keeping to the middle of the river and away from the banks as I was told.

I’m exaggerating a bit. He was very calm, and simply instructed us to swim to our now upturned boat, grab onto it and wait until he could get to us. When he did, we swam to his boat, while he righted ours (how I’ve no idea). We then got back into our now perfectly waterfree boat and sheepishly paddled to the shore to take stock of what had happened.

Luckily nothing was lost or damaged, including ourselves, and so after we’d changed into dry clothes, which had been kept dry in barrels, I prepared for my explanation into why I’d steered into a tree on a river that is over 100 metres wide.

‘I got confused steering,’ I admitted to the instructor. ‘I have the same problem driving as it happens,’ I then added. The instructor’s eyes widened when he remembered that my job this summer was driving customers round windy mountain passes in a minibus. ‘But I think I’ve got it now,’ I continued picking up a paddle. ‘To go right, paddle left. To go left, paddle right.’

The instructor looked at me blankly, wondering who on earth had hired this buffoon. ‘Err, yeh, sort of,’ he finally answered. ‘There’s a bit more to it than that, but you’ll pick it up – in about a hundred years,’ I heard him quietly mutter to himself.

‘Look, the best thing for you guys,’ he continued, ‘is to stay in the middle of the river. Be careful and pay attention to your surroundings. ‘

He finished saying this just as three local fishermen drifted by in a flimsy wooden boat backwards, all standing up, rod in hand, fag in mouth, chatting to each other as though at a family barbecue. It made a total mockery of what we had learnt and what had just happened. It looked so utterly simple. Monkeys could do it.

Later that evening I asked Elizabeth if she’d been scared. ‘No,’ she replied. Not at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. You?’

I paused, thinking back to the bit where the water engulfed the canoe. The sheer power of the water washing us away downstream like sticks.

‘I was terrified,’ I finally answered. ‘I thought I wasn’t going to come up. I had visions of my foot getting caught in an underwater root or branch, dragging me down. And what’s more, it would have been a terrible start to the job.’

HOLIDAY REP DROWNS IN CANOE ACCIDENT. HIS OWN STUPIDITY BLAMED!

I’m being slightly flippant, but there is something to be learnt from last week’s incident. While the locals can float down it on wafer thin rafts smoking and chatting as though in a bar, I can’t. I don’t understand the river. I went too close to the edge and was made to look like an idiot. Fair game. I can take that.

However, what I will say is this. How many of them have been capsized, washed down the Dordogne for 500 metres and come up still wearing their glasses? Well, I did. Which means I can still read and write this blog, which for some of you I guess isn’t much consolation, and you’re probably secretly hoping I’d got my foot wedged into that underwater root and never come up. Well, tough, I’m still here…

phil in country

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Places, Writing and Books

259 – Blogley in Souillac

 

Where is Souillac and why am I here? Good question.

Over previous summers, I’ve taught English to earn a few coins. This year I wanted to do something different. Mainly because I’ve retired from teaching, as I was starting to feel self righteous, and I didn’t want to become one of those people who think teaching is the most gratifying job on the planet. It isn’t. It’s tedious and boring and I’ve had enough. Good. I’ve got that out of the way.

Enter life as a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Ferrying folk around from hotel to hotel, giving cycling and canoeing lessons, and dealing with fuming Basil Fawlty type hoteliers.

‘But surely Phil, isn’t that a bit of a step down? Isn’t that what you do in your twenties? Shouldn’t you be thinking of a career?

The answer to all those questions is NO. If I’d wanted a career, I’d have spent my twenties saying ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ to people I didn’t like waiting to get promoted or fired. Now 42, I’ve luckily avoided that phase, and as a result can pick and choose what I do with my precious time. This summer, it’s being a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Next summer, I might be wearing a kangaroo outfit in a circus in St. Petersburg.

I’ve never done this type of work before, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I once worked for a festival company driving and managing a burrito stall over a summer. I guess it’s going to be similar. Only this time I’ll be driving around holidaymakers and canoes instead of boxes of canned chili con carne and tortilla wraps.

Truth is, these types of jobs are like jigsaws. Once you get a few pieces in place – reading a map, telling the time, buying hoteliers bottles of pastis (in this case)  – the rest usually falls into place. Even the tricky leafy woodland part, where all the greens look the same, eventually becomes clear. Unless you’re really bad at them and your beautiful Turner landscape ends up looking like the vomit stained carpet of an inter city nightclub. In which case, it’s probably best to go back to teaching. Or cleaning toilets (of a nightclub?).

So that’s you all filled in. Updated and ready for another chapter of Blogley. Another chapter of A Man in France, which of course you can buy from Blogley Books.cover image

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People, Places

258 – Au Revoir Chateau Dumas

I told the gardener yesterday that I was leaving. ‘This is my last week,’ I said as we spoke by the dead oak tree that’d been struck by lightning over the winter.

He looked at me blankly. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘Six months,’ I said. I’m le gardien – the caretaker.

He shrugged. ‘I didn’t realise,’ he replied. ‘I thought you were on holiday.’

I laughed, but he didn’t seem to see the funny side. Probably because he’s been strimming and mowing the grounds every Monday morning for the past six months, while I’ve been watching him from my warm room drinking coffee and eating hot toast – Monday mornings having been particularly wet this year.

I explained why I was here and what I’d been doing these past six months, but he didn’t seem bothered and said he needed to get back to work.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What with all the rain and heat this week, the grass needs a really big cut!’

It came out wrong, of course. I knew as soon as I’d said it. ‘I mean I’d do it myself if I could,’ I quickly countered. ‘I love strimming, in fact I used to cut the grass for a local business when I was a kid, you know, for a bit of pocket money.’

He looked at me intensely. ‘Why do you like France?’ he finally said.

I hadn’t expected the question. I thought he was going to growl at me and slice my leg to pieces with his strimmer.  ‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘Perhaps, it’s the weather,’ I said looking up at the gathering rain clouds.

‘Or the wine,’ he gestured over to the stack of empty bottles outside my door.

‘That too, but the wine’s a bonus – like free soap when you stay in a hotel.’ I saw the hint of a smile on his face. ‘I like France because of the peace and quiet. It’s a very quiet country you know. Spain’s too noisy – I once lived there. England as well. Too overcrowded, too many people. Here, I can sit for days, weeks even, and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.’

He was nodding in agreement. And then his face broke out into a full Gallic smile.

‘Except on Mondays,’ he said gripping the starter cord on the strimmer and revving it up to full power.’

‘Except on Mondays,’ I repeated as he walked off to cut the long grass.

I’ll miss the place, I admit. Being able to write and think in the peace and quiet. Cycling with the crazy Caussade Cycle Club on Sunday mornings. Shopping for garlic and pork in the hectic throng of the Caussade Monday morning market. Reading books from the old library shelves that I’d never even heard of. Walking round the sweeping grounds of the estate on a moonlit night. Freedom to roam.

Au revoir Chateau Dumas.

dumas photo

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Places, Seasons, Sport, The French, Writing and Books

257 – Blogley Rolls On…And On…And On

I once watched a Status Quo documentary entitled Roll On…And On…And On. They kept going on tour because they didn’t know any other way of life. In two weeks I’ll be on the road again. This time to Souillac, about 100km north of here, in the Dordogne. Why? Well, Elizabeth and I are going to be spending the summer giving cycling and canoe tours to holiday folk.

It’s very difficult to know whether this is the right line I’m taking. The line of constantly moving around, doing lots of different jobs while trying to forge a writing career. I’ve lost count of the amount of places I’ve lived in and the jobs to go with it. But it’s probably well over a 100 now.

I have friends and family who’ve stayed in the same job all their lives in the same town. I can’t imagine that life. Not because that life wouldn’t be good – it probably would – but simply because never having led that life, it’s hard to envisage what it’d be like, if you get my drift.

In fact I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to live in the same town where I grew up, do the same job week in, week out, playing footy on a Sunday, downing pints on a Saturday night with the same people I played tiddlywinks with at school. I can see a version of myself in that life, a murky dreamscape of a life in Leeds. But then it vanishes and I’m back to where I am. Which is normally stuck out in the middle of nowhere in France.

The truth is though, going to another town to do another job seems as natural as eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Even if my cycling colleagues in the Caussade Cyclo Club think it’s totally whacked out to eat eggs for breakfast. A long discussion then ensues over the benefits of the croissant versus the fry-up until they eventually come round to the realisation that they are wrong and I’m right, and we finally get to go cycling.

I’m not quite sure how I arrived in this state of transience (and Elizabeth neither), but we did, and while it’s sometimes unsettling, it’s become a way of life. I recently posted on Twitter (@Blogley1) the following:

I’d never used the term travel writer before, but seeing as I move around a lot and I write quite a lot, the term travel writer seemed appropriate. I had a moment of doubt as to whether I deserved the title, until I concluded that I can call myself whatever I like. ‘Travel writing as you’ve never seen it before…’ it says on the back of my book. So what the hell!

This period in Auty in southwest France has been the best housesit we’ve done. But I think it’s as far as we can take the looking after other people’s houses malarky. We’ve had loads of time to think. It’s been free. I’ve managed to write three books, two of which I’ve published. The other, my novel, is still being worked on. However, the novelty has worn off a bit and it’s time to embark on other things. Like taking canoe and cycle trips in the Dordogne, for example.

I’ve never done it before, but it sounds great, and I even get paid for it. And I can write about it too. I’m thinking the Man in France series might outlast Status Quo. Why not?

A Man in France celebrates his 70th birthday on a canoe in the Dordogne.

 

A Man in France cycles across the Massif Central on a tricycle aged 80.

 

A Man in France flies across the Pyrenees in a paper airplane aged 100…

 

I’ve realised these past few years that I’m capable of more things than I thought I was.  And so on we go to Souillac…and on…and on.

 

phil in country

A MAN IN FRANCE

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Food and Drink, People, Sport, The French

256 – Amazing Coincidences and Incredible Lookalikes At The Caussade Monday Market

I was once told by a friend that beetroot makes your pee go pink. ‘Of course, it doesn’t,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been eating beetroots all my life and never once had pink pee. You must be ill.’

Turns out he wasn’t ill, just low acid stomach levels. But that’s totally unrelated to what I want to say. What I want to say is that the man at the Caussade Monday Market who sells me beetroots, is also one of the guys I cycle with every Sunday morning. And I didn’t even know it.

It was only this Sunday, as we passed through the village of Monclar-de-Quercy, that I realised who he was.

‘Oh fuck, it’s you,’ I cried out, nearly cycling into one of the four-foot deep drainage ditches at the side of the road. ‘The beetroot guy!’

‘Ah, oui,’ he exclaimed. ‘L’Anglais, the one who’s always fiddling around with his loose change while a thousand customers wait behind him.’

I laughed. ‘Yes, that’s me. Well, you know what they say, pennies make pounds.’

He hadn’t heard that one before. Probably because he was riding a 5000 euro Pinarello road bike, a bike that would take me a thousand years to buy with the one centime coins I find outside the bar in the village where I live.

I’ve got a pretty good memory for faces and situations – HD quality in fact – but on this occasion I could be forgiven for making a mistake.

At the Monday market everybody wears checked shirts, jeans, boots, hunting caps. On the Sunday morning bike ride everybody wears lycra, streamlined fibreglass helmets, shades, plus lots of snot running down the sides of their faces. It’s the same people, just in costume.

Jean-Paul is no longer the beetroot guy dressed in thick trousers, a wooly jumper and a sturdy coat. He’s Jean-Paul the time trial specialist dressed in luminous skintight lycra and an insect shaped helmet. 

He told me he thought the same. How was I to know that this gibbering imbecile of an englishman who picks coins out of his purse like they’re dead flies was the same guy riding beside me on a thirty year old gold bicycle dressed in a lycra jumpsuit?

‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ I told him. He agreed and we carried on.

The other curious thing about the Caussade Monday Market is that the other guy who sells beetroots looks exactly like my old guitar teacher from Nottingham, Gary Fraser Lewis. So much so that when I first saw him, I was tempted to ask him about that E minor 6th chord I’d always struggled with.

I kept my mouth shut and asked him what the small lightbulb shaped vegetable he had on sale next to the beetroots was.

‘Ah, rutabaga. Very good.’

I’d never heard of them.

‘Sauté au beurre. C’est délicieux,’ he recommended.

‘I’ll take some,’ I said putting five in my basket. ‘And these?’  I asked holding up a black vegetable that looked like a piece of burnt wood.

‘Ah, radis noir. Fantastique, avec du beurre,’ he said, throwing me a big smile into the bargain.

‘Incroyable,’ I said. Incredible. But not the radish. The resemblance to my old teacher in Nottingham was quite astonishing. He started telling me that rutabaga was eaten in WW1 as it’s nutritious and filling,  and it got me thinking that perhaps there was a war connection between the two men. Same grandfathers? Great uncles? Not impossible, surely?

Anyway, that night I took his advice and sauteed the rutabaga and served them with local pork belly and homemade applesauce. As well as red cabbage from Jean Paul the vegman/Tour de France time trial specialist.

‘Wow!’ me and Elizabeth said simultaneously after we’d finished licking our plates for the third time. ‘That was pretty incredible.’ Incroyable, in fact.

And it was. Possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. A meal full of coincidence and uncanny lookalikes. A meal I’ll never forget. Just like I never forget a face (most of the time).

caussade market

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Sport, The French

255 – The Caussade Cyclo Club’s Road To Hell

I’ve done a lot of feats of endurance over the years – cycling from Birmingham to Bristol half drunk in the dark was one –  but my third outing with the Madcap Caussade Cyclo Club last Sunday, was possibly the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done.

I asked the guys halfway round when we were stopping. ‘You know for a biscuit, or a chocolate bar, or even a piss?’

They looked at me as though I’d just asked them for oral sex. ‘Nous sommes le Groupe à Grande Vitesse,’ Michel (the leader) reminded me. ‘We’re like the TGV! We don’t stop. If you want to stop, go with the girls.’

I wished I had. 55km to go and I was already totally knackered. True, we’d just climbed 500 metres in less than 30 minutes, but I was definitely feeling it today. More so than the other two outings with them.

I’d seen a nice roadside restaurant in the village of Milhars just before the climb and wondered why we couldn’t stop and take five. Or even an hour, accompanied by a couple of pichets de vin rouge and a few plates of steak frites. Cycle back to Caussade in style, tanked up on the local Malbec. I mean, why not? It’s not as though there’s any traffic and as for the police. What police? And it’d certainly take away the pain in my legs.

I remembered French cyclist Jacques Anquetil’s famous quote from the sixties, ‘Only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride from Bordeaux to Paris in a day on just water.’

He had a point. Unfortunately, I only had water and a couple of cereal bars, which I had to eat en route as we sailed down the other side of the hill we’d just climbed and on through the vineyards of Gaillac. It was very nice and by the time we got back down to the river valley I felt that my legs had reattached themselves to my torso.

We did a nice 30km along the D964 towards the famous hilltop village of Bruniquel, until the real pain kicked in, about 20km from Caussade. The guys were on the final push now, salivating at the mouth as they thought about their Sunday meal. Either that or they were terrified of getting a whipping from their wives if they were late back. It was probably a bit of both by the speed they were going. Laying down a fierce 35kph pace through the scenic Aveyron Gorge as though approaching the Champs-Élysées on the last day of the Tour.

I was keeping up. Just. I’ve watched the Tour de France on telly since I was a kid and until now never realised how important the group (or peloton) is. The difference is incredible. Cut adrift even for a few seconds, especially in strong wind, and you’re pedalling backwards. Like cycling uphill in a wind tunnel on a road covered in grit. Bloody hard. But when you’re tucked away in the middle of the group, it’s like cycling on a tandem on a still summer’s day along a pancake flat road.

Michel had told me at the beginning of the day to keep in the peloton, save energy. ‘Even if you have to work hard to get back, it’s worth it, otherwise you’ll get cut loose and today is going to be hard.’

I’d said I would try. And now I was trying, but every time I caught up with them, they seemed to speed up as though playing a trick on me. They weren’t, I suspect they were just hungry.

By the time we reached Montricoux, 10km out from Caussade, I’d found some energy from somewhere – probably the massive pork belly I’d eaten the night before – and finally took up the front position in the peloton. ‘Actually doing some work now, Anglais,’ Michel joked as I passed him.

‘Je me sens bien,’ I said. I feel better. I even thought of offering him out for a sprint finish at the end. I decided not to. The guy was 61 and had been cycling all his life. Funnily enough, he looked like the roofer I used to know in Nottingham years ago, drink hammered face, overweight, smokers neck, sunken eyes. I forget his name now. Roy? Ray, maybe? The comparison stopped there though. Michel would mince me in a sprint, plus I didn’t want to overdo it. I’d done well. I’d done over 100km in four hours over hilly terrain. I didn’t want to ruin it all by trying to be some dumbass English superhero and give myself a heart attack.

After Montricoux, we gently ambled back into Caussade, and as always, everybody quickly disappeared back home for their gigantic Sunday nosh-up. Maybe one day, I thought, they’ll all stay behind and we’d go for a couple of jars and a bite to eat. Discuss the ride, talk about this hill and that hill, taste the salt in our mouths and wonder why we all race around on 9kg cycling machines every Sunday in freezing cold wind and rain, grouping together like geese on a voyage to the North Pole.

Cycling

After The Cycle

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Blogley, Writing and Books

254 – A Man in France

cover imageAfter the phenomenal success of my short story collection, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (or TSOMT), there’s been quite a few enquiries as to where The Ridiculous Ramblings of a Man in France went to.

For those in the dark, The Ridiculous Ramblings of a Man in France (or TRROMIF) were my favourite blog posts shoehorned into a book and flogged on the open market.

Some people (who’ll remain nameless) argued it was a bit cheap, shoddy even, charging for a book that was blatantly ripped off a free-to-read blog, albeit his own.

I agreed with them. It was shoddy. But you’ve got to try these things for God’s sake! And anyway, you try navigating round four and a half years of a man’s life on an old PC with a slow internet connection. Not easy, huh? Best pay for the pleasure of it being nicely bound up in a book for your consumption. Think of the cost as a service charge.

The truth is, I originally did it for my own pleasure, a sort for personal memento. A souvenir, in case I died and didn’t have anything to show for it.

Luckily I lived, so I decided to sell it, calling it The Ridiculous Ramblings of a Man in France, for no other reason than it was quite ridiculous. It sold quite well. But then my subscription to the e-selling website ran out and I decided to pull it off the market.

However, I can now proudly announce that TRROMIF is back and completely updated to include my adventures in Bordeaux, The Arcachon Basin and South West France. 71 rip-roaring journal entries, anecdotes, observational pieces and travel articles spanning four and a half classic years in France.

If you’re planning to renovate a farmhouse in Provence, or set up a cheese farm in the Ariege, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for something a little more offbeat, unique even, this is it.

Informative, rich and at times quite bizarre, this is travel writing as you’ve never seen it before. And better still, it’s not called TRROMIF any more – too long. Simply AMIF. A Man in France.  Available as an ebook or paperback (click links to order).

Ebook (£1.99)

Paperback (£4.99)

Or visit Blogley Books

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Sport, The French

253 – The Caussade Cyclo Club

 

It couldn’t have been a worse day yesterday for my first group tour with the local cycle club. Hammering rain, droplets the size of marbles, the moment I stepped outside my house. Swirling dirty grey clouds overhead making the sky look like the palette of an artist who hates colour. A real shitfest of a day that would make death by firing squad more preferable to cycling 85 km in freezing cold rain.

I love cycling. I could cycle anywhere, any distance, at any time. So long as it’s sunny. Or at least vaguely warm. Even cold is bearable. Just not rain or wind. Yesterday morning, I had both.

But I couldn’t let the team down or myself. Especially as I’d gone all the way to Caussade on Friday evening to attend their monthly meeting so I could get the go-ahead from the club secretary to join them on Sunday.

That was a fag in itself, especially as I’d got the wrong Salle de Reunion and ended up gatecrashing a Mixed Martial Arts demonstration instead. When I asked a tough looking teenager where the cycle club met, he looked at me as though I’d asked him out on a date. Eventually telling me after releasing me from a Korean headlock, that he didn’t know and didn’t care. He was a fighter not a poofy cyclist.

I thanked him for his time and wandered out onto the street looking for clues. I saw a woman carrying a tray of crepes wrapped in cellophane, so I followed her. Not because I have a weak spot for crepes (although I do – dripping in creme fraiche, lemon juice and brandy), but because I remembered the cycle secretary telling me on the phone something about there being crepes at the meeting.

The woman I could tell was terrified about being followed by a guy dressed in a grey hoody, black gloves and blue trainers, but after 15 minutes we arrived at the correct Salle de Reunion, where I explained to her who I was. It turned out she was the secretary I’d come to see.

After a brief discussion about crepes and the weather she told me I could come on Sunday. ‘Nous partons à huit heures,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘I misheard you.’

‘We leave at eight o’clock,’ she repeated in English.

‘Yes, I understand,’ I continued in French. ‘But you said, eight o’clock. On a Sunday. Are you serious?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘You don’t have children, do you?’ she asked.

‘Not the last time I looked, no,’ I replied. ‘I like my sleep.’

She smiled, ‘In summer, we leave at seven…’

So there I was outside my house yesterday morning straddling my bike saddle that felt like a lump of wet clay, getting ready to cycle the six kilometres to Caussade for Le Grand Depart.

When I arrived in the town to meet up with the team, they laughed as I approached. ‘Il est en short!’ I heard (He’s wearing shorts!). I replied by telling them that I didn’t feel the cold. Two hours later, I was absolutely freezing and they suggested I should buy some longjohns. I said, ‘I was fine. Next week will be sunny and warm.’ They all laughed again.

Doing leisurely cycle tours as I’m used to, with a carafe of red wine wedged in the bottle holder, is a million miles away from road cycling at speed with fifteen others on a slippery wet road. One lapse in concentration and you’re cycling into somebody’s back wheel, waking up in hospital four days later after a surgeon has pinned your mangled body back together. (Read Blog 65 on Frederic Moreau’s accident for more details on that).

The day was hard for sure, but exhilarating. And I didn’t disgrace myself one bit. I even impressed them by taking the climb up to Mirabel by the scruff of the neck and proving you don’t need a two grand bike to perform well. My vintage 1985 Peugeot PK10 serving me well throughout the day, and when we got back to Caussade after 85 kms of rain soddened cycling, we said goodbye and disappeared as quickly as we’d arrived. Until next week.

cycle blog

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People, Writing and Books

252 – The Final Supermarket Trip of Jesus of Nazareth

hussein's mini mart2

‘In the name of Jesus Christ. Stop!’ Judas heard a voice cry out behind him as he entered Hussein’s Mini Mart for his daily shop.

‘Oh hi, Jee,’ replied Judas turning to greet his old friend and picking up a basket. ‘What’s up?’

Jesus popped a fig into his mouth from the free-to-taste section, swallowed it and spoke. ‘There’s word on the grapevine that you’ve been saying the wrong things to the wrong people.’

Judas looked troubled. His eyes scanning the shelves trying to decide whether to buy pasta or rice. He was having a few friends over later and couldn’t decide on risotto or tagliatelle.

‘It wasn’t the Pharisees was it?’ continued Jesus.

Judas was astounded at the range of products on offer these days in the town’s supermarkets and in truth wasn’t paying attention to his irate friend. ‘It was the Romans actually,’ Judas finally answered, dropping a packet of Mr. Pharaoh Arborio rice into his basket. He had decided on risotto.

‘The Romans!’ cried Jesus. ‘Do you know what they’ll do if they catch us?’

Judas wasn’t bothered. ‘Look Jee, to be honest, I’ve got rather a lot on today,’ he said heading towards the deli counter with a bedraggled looking Jesus in tow.  ‘Can it wait until tomorrow?’

Jesus stared at Judas in disbelief. ‘Well I hate to be such a crushing bore old chap, but no it can’t wait until tomorrow. This!’ exclaimed Jesus, holding up a three minute boil-in-the bag salmon and chive tortellini, ‘could be my last meal.’

He’s right, thought Judas. Maybe it should be pasta. We had rice last Friday. A creamy mushroom tagliatelle infused with a few lightly roasted peppers plus a few olives on the side might go down better than a heavy risotto, especially in this heat.

‘Jee, old buddy,’ said Judas facing Jesus. ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t you stop by for supper this evening and we’ll talk about it over a few light ales and the odd bottle or two of red wine. What do you say?’

Jesus stared at the unappetising three minute pasta meal in his hand. The thought of eating plasticky tortellini again for the fifth time that week made him almost gag.

‘What time?’ asked Jesus unenthusiastically.

‘Oh, say seven to seven thirty,’ replied Judas smiling.

‘Can I bring somebody?’

‘Of course. Bring whoever you want. Bring that bird you know. Or those hippie dudes you hang about with. The more the merrier, eh?’ said Judas slapping Jesus on the shoulder before disappearing off to the booze aisle to look for some good red wine. Leaving the Son of God holding a bag of salmon and chive tortellini, wondering if he should have simply said no to Judas and stayed in and watched the golf.

(Taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, available from Blogley Books as an ebook or a paperback.)

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Film, People, Writing and Books

251 – A Critic’s Response to The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd

Today I received the following video footage from a well known book critic who I sent my book of short stories to for review. This was his response.

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Writing and Books

250 – A Final Word on The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd

To celebrate 250 posts of Blogley, I’m pleased to announce that there is now a paperback version available of The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. This is probably the last time I will talk on the subject, so if you have no idea what The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is, read this:

The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is a collection of 24 stories by Philip Ogley influenced by 15 years of dreadful jobs, strange adventures and extraordinary people. A madcap journey through the modern world featuring an unforgettable cast of characters in some of the strangest situations imaginable. An angry postman in Bristol. An elderly couple addicted to bad French food. A boxing match on a cricket square between two public servants. The man trapped in a bookshop over Christmas. The holidaymaker who takes sunbathing to the extreme. Plus many more bizarre tales taking you on a fascinating trip through the curious imagination of the author. Nomadic, zany, poignant and funny. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is definitely worth a read in any weather. (Just don’t leave your sunbed at home.)

To order the print version click below:

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To order the ebook version, click below:

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Writing and Books

249 – Why Kindles Are Great!

I never thought I’d buy or use a Kindle. I once ran a secondhand bookshop and have always loved the ancient feel of books. So it came as a shock to me this Christmas when I opened my stocking Santa had brought me and found a Kindle tucked away next to a satsuma. Since then, it’s been great. Here’s why:

1. When I write a story (or any prose), I can send it to the Kindle and read it instead of printing it out. I can’t proofread on a computer – my eyes go blurred – so this is a valuable aid. Sounds geeky and boring, but true.

2. I can read French books and look up tricky words quickly. Lazy perhaps, but incredibly useful.

3. I live in the middle of nowhere in rural France. If I want to read any book, I can. Again, useful.

4. I move around a lot. I have limited space. Books weigh shit loads. Obvious point.

5. I can read in the dark. No more reading under the covers with a torch! (‘You’re not at school, Oggers!’) OK, good point, but what I mean is, you don’t need the light on to read in bed, which might disturb other people around you (partners, children, dogs, cats etc…).

I’m not giving the thumbs up to Amazon, in the same way I wouldn’t give the thumbs up to Bill Gates or Dell Corporation, just because I use their operating systems or laptops. I’m simply stating a fact. The Kindle is a good invention, partly because it isn’t a tablet, which means you actually read and learn something, rather than wasting your time surfing the internet.

Anyway as I said, this isn’t a plug for Amazon. But it is a plug for my book, which in case you’ve forgotten goes something like this (extract from the Amazon website):

“The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is a collection of 24 stories by Philip Ogley influenced by 15 years of dreadful jobs, strange adventures and extraordinary people. A madcap journey through the modern world featuring an unforgettable cast of characters in some of the strangest situations imaginable. An angry postman in Bristol. An elderly couple addicted to bad French food. A boxing match on a cricket square between two public servants. The man trapped in a bookshop over Christmas. The holidaymaker who takes sunbathing to the extreme. Plus many more bizarre tales taking you on a fascinating trip through the curious imagination of the author. Nomadic, zany, poignant and funny. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is definitely worth a read in any weather. (Just don’t leave your sunbed at home.)

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Places, Writing and Books

248 – The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd: A Short History

I first started writing short stories in 2003, the result of my six part sitcom, Crushed Soup, being rejected by the BBC comedy department. Gutted by their total lack of vision and foresight, I decided to shun script writing and pen short stories instead.

The first one I wrote, Capital Household, was about a father who ran his house like a business, employing his children to do chores in return for food and water. If they refused, or were sick, no dinner!

I sent it off to the Bridport Prize thinking it would win, such was the simplicity and brilliance of the story. It didn’t. Not even a mention.

However, not too perturbed, I wrote another story, and another and another. Two years later, living in an old house in Starcross near Exeter, I had the idea of putting them together into a collection. Maybe ten stories and call it The Road to Starcross. I even had a cover, a picture of me at the railway station in the village.

I did nothing with it and instead went off to waste a year studying writing in Falmouth. A year when I could have been writing more stories for my book, instead of listening to lectures about writing. But such is the mind of a thirty year old who’s only just started shaving.

After Falmouth, working as a postman in Bristol, I continued writing stories, but totally forgot about the collection idea. When I moved to France in 2011 to schlep my ass around Lyon as an English teacher, my short story writing career was in effect over, as the only thing I wrote during this period was this blog – see Blogley posts 1 to 113.

The idea only resurfaced last year when I started writing some new stories. I enjoyed it and after some coaxing from Elizabeth’s mum and Elizabeth herself, I decided to rekindle the idea and publish it as a Kindle (book). Why not, I thought? Every other fucker is doing it! The Road to Auty (where I now live), perhaps? As a kind of belated homage to Starcross.

In 2005, I had about 20 stories written. Ten years later in 2015, I had about 120. I couldn’t publish them all, the reader would die of boredom by number 31, so it was a case of narrowing the list down to 20 or 30. This was the difficult part. I wanted a balance of old and new, straight and weird, funny and sad. I had all of these, but which ones should I leave out? Some were too personal, some were too nuts, some were simply rubbish.

I got my longlist down to 40 and started re-editing them. This took ages. Ten years ago, I found writing incredibly difficult. I still find writing incredibly difficult, but back then it showed and the old stories needed a lot of work.

By mid January 2016, I had a short list of 25 for the final collection, which I cut down to 24 the day before my self-imposed deadline of 1st February.

I decided not to use The Road to Auty as the title for the book in the end as it sounded silly. Instead plumping for the much saner sounding title of The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Hope you enjoy it.

Drinks Please! (2004)
The East Street Massacre (2008)
The Need to be Nice (2015)
The 25th Bookshop Escape Plan (2003)
Smokers World (2005)
Lunar Whites (2015)
The Merrill Diet (2004)
The Supermarket (2006)
Reality At Last (2015)
The World’s Greatest Writer (2007)
Lotto (2009)
Shop Until You Drop (2003)
The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (2006)
Six (2005)
The Mailman Milkman Affair (2010)
Four Knots and Back (2005)
The Last Christmas Tree On Earth (2010)
Paperweight (2005-6)
The Great American Bookshop (2009)
The World Famous Señor Domingo (2005)
The Writing Room (2009)
The Final Supermarket Trip of Jesus of Nazareth (?)
Postman Bastard (2007)
Where’s the Fish? (2008)

The book is available as a Kindle download. Click the cover below to buy it.

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Blogley, Writing and Books

247 – The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd and Other Stories

The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is a bizarre and enjoyable journey featuring an unforgettable cast of characters in some of the strangest situations imaginable. An angry postman in Bristol. An elderly couple addicted to bad French food. A boxing match on a cricket square between two public servants. A very unhealthy freezer shop in rural Devon. A wino who lives in a bandstand with a guy called Jeff. The hapless romantic who buys a 40-tonne boulder for his wife as a birthday present. The man trapped in a bookshop over Christmas. The holidaymaker who takes sunbathing to the extreme. Plus many more, taking you on a fascinating journey through the curious imagination of me, Philip Ogley.

Nomadic, zany, poignant and funny. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is definitely worth a read in any weather. (Just don’t leave your sunbed at home.)

Click on the sidebar or below to buy your copy.

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Film, Writing and Books

246 – Book Publication: The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd

Despite being very busy writing the final draft of my collection of short stories, I found the time to film this short public announcement about the forthcoming book.

 

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People, Places

245 – At the Chateau with JP Brown

What the 17th century chateau Elizabeth and I are looking after doesn’t provide is a selection of board games. So it was a shock to my friend – self confessed game addict and Barcelona based photographer Justin P Brown – when I told him that we were totally Cluedoless. We didn’t even have a pack of cards, I explained when he came to stay this week, meaning we were condemned to making our own games up. Enter the world of famous actors, ageing gameshow hosts, fictional characters and dead singers.

The timeworn Rizla game where somebody writes a name on a cigarette paper (or normal paper now we’ve all quit smoking) and sticks it on your forehead. The rules being you have to guess the name by using only YES or NO questions. It was the best we could come up with given the limited resources of our imagination, but it worked well, whiling away those dead hours between the end of dinner and bedtime.

Last night’s game was hilarious though, taking almost a whole night of haplessly threading our way through the whole gamut of sixties, seventies, and eighties TV characters to find our names. Mine was Dracula, but I had to go through Mr. Blobby, Kermit the Frog, Father Christmas, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, The Snowman, Postman Pat, Astérix, and Rod Hull’s Emu to arrive – two hours later – at the name.

Justin fared little better having to go through Jim Bowen, Hughie Green, Russ Abbott, Les Dawson, Leslie Crowther, Noel Edmonds, Jimmy Saville, Dusty Bin, Russell Harty, Jimmy Tarbuck, and Bruce Forsyth to get to the late 70s game show host Larry Grayson. (For non UK readers, this probably makes no sense, but you might get the picture if you substitute in all the dead, champagne slurping, sexually overactive TV presenters from your country).

Elizabeth to be fair was the best taking a mere fifteen minutes to arrive at James Brown, leaving me and my old band buddy, Justin Brown (from the band Jamshakcle I wrote about in Blogley 20), to obliterate the evening with our wild guesses on British TV’s bygone era.

It was a fun night fuelled by fine cheese and wine and strong Abbey beer. We did actually have a TV in the room with access to all English channels, but it was clearly more fun to reminisce about the old days when TV was intentionally naff rather than turn on today’s expensively produced turgid nonsense.

Justin’s visit did unfortunately coincide with a week of torrential rain and cold winds. A world away from sultry Barcelona and the previous two months here that were nothing but sun and spring like days. But I dragged him to a few desolate deserted French hilltop villages where we stood and wondered what it was like in summer when it wasn’t so cold and miserable.

The town of Cahors was good though. The sun came out for an hour which gave Justin time to shoot the famous Pont Valentré that crosses the Lot to the west of the city. The rest of the time we wandered the streets looking at the chilled faces, bought a few postcards and headed back to the Chateau at Auty.

And that was the visit of Justin P Brown. Opened, set free for a week in rural France, wrapped up again and sent back to Barcelona with memories of Mr Blobby, Postman Pat and Larry Grayson etched on his mind forever. Au revoir mon ami.

Ogs in Cahors2

Blogley somewhere in Cahors. (Justin P Brown Photography)

 

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The French, Writing and Books

244 – L’étranger

camus

“Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : ‹‹Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués›› Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.”

The first paragraph of L’étranger, a book I read years ago after finding it in a pile of my maternal grandfather’s belongings after his death.

Since then I’ve read it three times at different stages in my life, and each time been mesmerised by it. The haunting routines of the protagonist Meursault. His functional lifestyle and lack of concern about anything, even the death of his mother. A man whose days, routines, acquaintances, family, work, hold little or no value.

Je me suis fait cuire des œufs et je les ai mangé à même le plat, sans pain parce que je n’en avais plus et que je ne voulais pas descendre pour en acheter.”

(I cooked some eggs for myself and ate them out of the pan without bread because I’d run out and couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs to buy some.)

I keep coming back to this line. It sums up the character. The minimum is always done. Eating the eggs out of the pan is enough. He would like some bread with the eggs – he is hungry, we know this – but he lets it pass. It’s not important.

The book continues in this style for its 182 pages almost devoid of description, which I like. I’m drawn into Meursault’s world, a world free from unnecessary distraction. He lives in his mother’s flat (his mother is in a home two hours away), he goes to work in an office, he smokes, he reads, he goes swimming, he has occasional sex, he goes to the cinema. All without feeling particularly anything for any of them.

The reason for this post is that Elizabeth very kindly bought me the French version for Christmas, having only previously read it in English. I was excited. I can speak and read French, but I’m not proficient. If ever I was going to start reading French novels, this was it.

I had started reading Saint Exupery’s Courrier Sud over the summer, but had got lost somewhere in his ramblings about his lost love Genevieve. I’d actually read the book in English years ago, and remembered it was pretty boring then, so a bad choice. L’étranger on the other hand was a guaranteed winner so I embarked on it on Christmas Day just after our traditional Christmas lunch of poached egg on toast (we had stuffed Turkey later).

I was engrossed from the start:

Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the home: “Mother dead. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faithfully.” It means nothing. It was yesterday.

And from here the story unfurls. A story of how a man should react to the death of his mother. A man overcome by grief, crushed by the loss, unable to partake in normal life. But this is not the case. Meursault gets on with life from the very first day. He goes swimming, goes to the cinema, has sex. It’s these small, almost irrelevant, actions that are ultimately Meursault’s downfall.

There is another strand to my quiet obsession with this book. When I was eight, I too was told that my mother had died. Not through a telegram, by my father. I remember the time, the place, the day, even the weather (overcast and warm), as though it was yesterday. And yet, like Meursault, life carried on as though nothing had happened.

I understand Meursault completely. I am (or at least was) him, an outsider looking in on the world. Indifferent to events around me and happy to plod along doing whatever is necessary to get through it. Murray Smyth, my housemaster at school, who I mentioned in Blogley 242 saw this. Describing me one afternoon as I was busy minding my own business away from everybody else, as insular. I didn’t know what it meant at the time so I looked it up: ‘Island like’, was part of the definition that stuck in my head. ‘Island like,’ I thought. ‘Like a boarding school.’ I didn’t understand the meaning of irony at the time either.

I think differently now. I’m not separated from other people or cultures, new or different ideas. I enjoy life and the world. I enjoy chopping wood, lighting fires, running, cycling, books, languages, food, animals, fresh air. I even like other people. But there’s part of me that can’t help thinking like, or wanting to be, Meursault. The Outsider.

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People, Seasons

242 – Murray Smyth and My Healthy Addiction to Cold Water

At my boarding school in Oswestry we were given cold baths by our housemaster Murray Smyth as punishment for petty misdemeanours such as being late for roll call, talking after lights-out, or pillow fighting. Minor transgressions that should have – at worst – received a detention or lines.

Instead we were made to lie naked fully submerged in a freezing cold bath until we were told we could get out. Or forced to dash outside into the cold December air still soaking wet because he’d set the fire alarm off for a drill.

A nasty piece of work Murray Smyth, a cruel twisted teacher who enjoyed nothing more than stabbing young boys in the chest with the blunt end of a Biro. Knocking them down onto the razor sharp dormitory carpet because they’d done nothing more than say Boo! to his fat red face. A man who enjoyed punishing young boys whose only crime had been the misfortune of getting sent away to school in the first place by their selfish parents. A hardman, a toughman, an arsehole. A man I have nothing good to say about. Except that while I certainly didn’t like his cold baths, it’s never made me forget how incredibly refreshing cold water is. Even in winter.

When I lived in Falmouth, me and my friend Rich Barker used to swim every Sunday in winter at Maenporth Cove. Dive into the breath sapping water, dressed only in our Speedos and swim until our feet, hands, legs and arms were as cold and as stiff as frozen baguettes. We would then drag ourselves out on our stomachs like seals and reach for the mulled wine that the café on the beach used to serve to bring us back to life. It did and we felt brilliant. So good in fact that we often thought of going in again to see how far we could take it. I even wrote a story about it called Survival in Cold Seas.

When I lived in Lyon, me and Elizabeth went on a wild swimming holiday to the Corbières region, which I wrote about in Blogley 103. (Or see a video here of me in the Ardeche). After the holiday I started taking cold showers every morning as the perfect way to wake me up before a tedious eight o’clock class at the language school where I worked.

On the farm in Queaux I continued this tradition (see Blogley 153) by having a cold outdoor shower every morning to aid my writing when I had a block. It worked. At the villa in Taussat on the Arcachon Basin the following year, we had the famous natural pool which I regularly dipped in, even though that too was absolutely freezing.

Now I’ve ended up here on a château in South West France and so it seemed only natural to continue this great tradition of freezing my nads off every morning by erecting another one. Outdoor cold shower deluxe, complete with paving slab floor, towel rack, adjustable spray head, soap holder (a rock) and a privacy screen in the form of a garden bench. So Murray Smyth, this is your legacy, this is the sum total of your educational efforts, a garden hose strung up on a tree. Like a noose. Enjoy the film: (with music)

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Animals, Food and Drink, Places, The French

241 – God, Garlic, Christmas Turkeys and Dried Sausage at the Caussade Monday Market

The best part so far of being in Auty is the Monday morning market in nearby Caussade. A six kilometre drive takes me to this rural working town where they once made straw boaters (canotiers) for Europe’s dandies. Nobody wears them here any more, unless you’re on holiday from Kentucky, but Les Caussadaises do wear their berets with pride in this charming, if seemingly half demolished (in places) market town.

Like all French towns, the weekly market holds great significance for the people and the local economy. Caussade on a Monday morning is packed with people buying and selling live poultry, vegetables, meats, oils, cheese, wine, garlic, herbs, spices, furniture, bread, coffee, books, pots, pans. There’s even a Jehovah’s Witness stand parked rather incongruously next to the saucisson sec stall. No prizes for guessing which is busiest…

While there are ample supermarkets in the town (there are four for a population of only 7000), most people come here on a Monday to buy their groceries. And at around ten o’clock the town is so packed you’ve got to be careful not to get trampled to death by the hordes heading for the discount garlic stand.

This is my favourite stall: an old lady standing in front of a table of garlic stalks and bulbs so tightly tied together that they look like emaciated prisoners-of-war awaiting the firing squad. All labelled up in 5, 3, 2 or 1 Euro bundles depending on the size of the bunch. I normally take the two Euro one (about 12 bulbs) and say something to her about the damp weather and how garlic is good for the bones. She looks at me blankly and says it’s nice in a casserole as well.

Next I head to the cheese van up the road to order whatever is cheapest. This week I walked away with a nice stash of Emmental, Cantal and Brie, all for a fiver. Next I go to the butcher, after that the veg man, then the egg lady, the wine lady, the salad boy, the sausage counter, the fruit guys, the bread stall, the herb kiosk, and finally Bar des Amis, a tiny bar that serves nothing but coffee and pastis.

There me and Elizabeth sit down to eat our pain au chocolat we buy from the bakery and plan what we’re going to cook for the week ahead with our day’s haul. It’s more work shopping at the market than at a supermarket, I understand that now. I have to queue and wait – not my strongest points – but I enjoy the company and the ritual, talking about the weather and the produce. It’s all very real as well and makes all the trendy farmer’s markets that spring up in expensive middle class areas in the UK look rather contrived and fake.

I now look forward to the market, when before I was a dyed in the wool supermarket boy. I still go to Lidl to buy things I can’t get there like washing up liquid and cheap beer, but I don’t enjoy it half as much as the market – if at all. I’m even plucking up enough courage to buy a live Turkey next week ready for Christmas. Put it in the woods in the château, feed it up a bit on all the walnuts that are lying around and then slaughter it in time for our Christmas feast. The whole meal from the stalls and tables of Caussade market. That would be something. I could even get a Jehovah’s Witness in to say a prayer…or not.

bar de amis

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Places, Seasons, Writing and Books

240 – The Road to Auty

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I’m a resident of Auty, a village 80 kms north of Toulouse on the border of the Tarn et Garonne and Lot départements. I’m looking after a château and a cat for the winter with Elizabeth. Two weeks ago it was 24 degrees, now it’s 2. I’m sitting in the château writing and I can barely see the end of the drive because of the fog.

This is classic rural France in winter. Vintage in fact. To my right I can see the blue swimming pool that looks about as inviting as smashing my gonads together with bricks. I’ve swum in the sea in Cornwall in winter and in the upper reaches of the Ardeche in April. That was cold, I even got in three times to remind myself how cold it was. I take cold showers every morning, but I can’t bring myself to swim in the pool. And I don’t have much time left as it’s soon going to be covered up once I’ve finished fishing out all the leaves.

There are no pool duties here as such, we’re really just here for security. Watching out for intruders and for leaks and burst pipes. Making sure the mice and weasels don’t make off with the chocolate and biscuit supplies. Or gnaw through the cables and wires that will plunge this 17th château into darkness for days. Without the moon here at night, it’s one of the darkest places I’ve ever been. Like being in a cave where you can’t see your hand.

The scariest place is the boiler room, which is in the basement. Here you can still see the 12th century foundations on which the current château is built on. There’s a tunnel that leads down even further into the ground. I don’t know where it goes and I don’t intend to find out. I’m le gardien not Indiana Jones.

If you were reading this when I lived in Queaux on the farmhouse (see posts 114 through to 164), it’s a similar set-up, except that it’s like the Super Size option in a fast food joint. We’ve upgraded from House Sit Lite to the Super Deluxe. Instead of four bedrooms to sleep in, we’ve got a choice of fifteen. Before one kitchen to cook in, now we’ve got three. Two bathrooms to bathe in, now we’ve got eight. A small skylight to admire the surrounding countryside from, now we’ve got a turret. A small patio for barbecues, now we’ve got a terrace the size of a tennis court. And on and on.

If you’ve read Les Grandes Meaulnes by Alain Fournier that I talked about in Blogley 187 and 189, it’s like the Lost Estate described in the book. All my childhood memories are here: Woods, fires, chopping logs, foggy fields, cycling along deserted roads, cooking, long sleeps, hot chocolate, fresh air. No school. Perfect.

I’ve got some serious writing to do here. A project I started back in 2004 when I lived in Devon, in Starcross, a village near Exeter up the Exe estuary. I even called it The Road to Starcross. Since then it’s grown and I’m not sure what I’m going to call it now. I thought about The Road to Auty but that sounds ridiculous, so I need to think about it some more. I’ll keep you posted from the turret…

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Random, The French

239 – The Need for Bikes after Paris

I was going to write a blog today about my new bike. A 1985 gold Peugeot PK10 ‘Record Du Monde’ in almost perfect condition that I bought from a guy down the road for the princely sum of 50 sheets. But then I saw the attacks in Paris.

France is a great country. I’ve lived here for four years and continue to do so. I’ve never been scared to walk the streets and will continue not to be. However, I was in a cafe today in Montauban, a town 40 kms north of Toulouse, and for the first time in my life, felt that these things do not just happen to other people, they could actually happen to me.

‘This is real,’ I said to Elizabeth.

It’s unlikely to happen in Montauban, because Montauban, with all due respect to Montauban, is off the map, but if people can waltz into restaurants and concerts in Paris, they can do it here if they want to. Which is probably why I like living in the middle of nowhere. Just in case.

I’m not particularly political, but I do understand that the reasons for these problems go back many years and are the result of various actions by Western countries, including France. What’s to be done about it? I’ve no idea. Stop invading countries, stop being greedy, get on your bikes. Literally. (I said I wanted to write about bikes.)

Bikes don’t need much oil to operate them or make them, even less so if they are thirty years old. It would at least start to reduce our dependency on oil, which – unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past twenty years – is a big factor in this mess. And I doubt anybody, except Tony Blair and George Bush, would deny that.

Bikes won’t solve the world’s problems, but they’re fun, healthy, cheap, and don’t require foreign oil. And better than driving around in an air polluting VW Golf all day. And if you get one as sexy as this, you’ll look very cool indeed. Allez France!

PK 10

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