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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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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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.

bloglery-in-france-final

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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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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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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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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.

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Places, Seasons, Writing and Books

240 – The Road to Auty

blog line time

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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Animals, Places, The French, Writing and Books

238 – Blogley in France Part V

By this time next week I’ll be back in France. Where I’ll remain until I die. A wild slashing overly melodramatic statement I know (and almost certainly false) but a forceful way to sum up how much I am looking forward to returning – I’ve even renamed the blog and done a new logo to mark the occasion, and I’m not even there yet. (Still in rain soaked Wiltshire.)

The best part though is the thought of having a permanent bed to sleep in for longer than a week. Over the past four months I’ve had to share my dreams with residential language schools, mud clogged campsites, greasy canal tow paths, patient parents and the threadbare sofas of friends. So it’ll be nice to be finally static after travelling around like some ragged salesman flogging cheap English lessons for glasses of warm lager and diced cabbage. To finally have a place where I can once again concoct my ass blowing curries, cement my cheese/potato top-heavy fish pies into cracked ceramic dishes, kneed and bake my crusty, hard, doughy, luxurious bread rolls. And most of all cook my breakfasts exactly the way I like them – two pieces of fried black pudding topped with two large fried eggs accompanied by fried bacon, fried sausages, fried bread. No beans or tomatoes, washed down with 5 cups of strong thick coffee. Heart food, ready for another five months of chopping logs in rural France in winter.

Yes, at last, me and Elizabeth are heading off on another house sitting caper, this time to the ‘wilds’ of Tarn and Garonne in South West France near Montauban to look after a Château and a cat until next April. It’s the 4th house sit we’ve done and to be frank we could have gone anywhere in Europe this time, inundated as we were by offers in Spain, Morocco, Switzerland and Paris to name a few.

So many in fact that I suddenly realised as I scrolled down the emails, that I’ll never have to pay rent again. I haven’t paid a cent for the last three years, I thought, so why start now. In fact the whole idea of paying rent seems totally ludicrous. Especially when I can live in large country houses and castles for free. Or log cabins in Arcachon. Or sleepy French cottages in Aude. My only regret is that I never thought of it earlier. Like when I was twenty! Instead of handing over my hard earned cash (or my dad’s cash) to greasy, B&H puffing landlords. Since I left home in 1992, I’ve worked out that I’ve forked out about £30,000 in rent. When all the time I could have been living for fuck all. Agghhh! Of course, there wasn’t internet 20 years ago, but I bet there were adverts for house sitters in newspapers and magazines. Probably my fault for buying electric guitar magazines throughout my twenties instead of HouseSits4U…

A naysayer of a friend pointed out to me a few weeks ago that house sitting is in actual fact just glorified serfdom, looking after the homes of the rich. There is a grain of truth in that for sure. But no more, I told him, than being a slave to the banks in the form of monthly mortgage payments or credit card bills. And seeing as our job at the château entails looking after a sleepy cat, turning a few lights on and off, sweeping up leaves, and generally keeping an eye on the place, it’s hardly penal servitude. Far from it as I plan to write four books, a stage play and produce a full length feature film based on Blogley.

Joking aside ( I wasn’t joking about the film though – it’s happening!), house sitting is just another way of living. And one that I happen to enjoy. As I’ve mentioned countless time before, I support the theory that humans are naturally nomadic creatures and not house dwellers. Even if on this occasion, a 17th century French château is going to have to act as my cave for the winter. Naturally after this assignment is over, I’ll be going back to my roots and moving to the Sahara to live with the camels. In the meantime though, I’m going to have to make do with a five star château, from where I’ll be regularly updating my progress in Blogley in France Part V*.

*Click on the ladder styled sidebar icon at the top right hand corner of the page for further posts. There’s lots! Loads in fact! Too many most likely. Unless you’re reading this from prison or hospital, in which case you should have loads of time to wade through four years of Blogley! Or check out the short films in the film section!

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Film, People, Places, Writing and Books

237 – Four Years of Blogley

It’s been four years since I wrote my first post. Which started like this:

After a two-year break, I’ve ended up in France. I’m watching the Algerians below my window holding hands and the Senegalese watching football through the windows of a bar. I live in Guillotiere, which is part of Lyon. A heady mixture of Arabs, Africans, Vietnamese, Chinese and me, crammed into a couple of blocks south of the Rhone. It’s good to be back in France. I have fond memories of my time on a farm 20 km east of Avignon when I was nineteen.’

For those who have never read Blogley, it goes on in the same vein for the next four years. It’s all pretty self explanatory. The only thing that baffles me though about the entire blog is the very first line.

After a two-year break, I’ve ended up in France…’

A break from what? A break from travelling? A break from teaching? A break from working? A break from living? It’s curious, because I’ve never done anything continuously for two years, so how could I be taking a break from it. Whatever it was though must have been worth it, because the blog has grown to 150,000 words covering 237 posts.

In truth, I don’t know why I write it, or even what it’s about. I simply enjoy it. It takes time, but it’s time well spent. Sometimes it gets frustrating because I can’t get down exactly what I want. But that’s another reason to do it. After every post I’m a slightly better writer even if some of the posts are intensely boring, I say that myself. I mean who cares about pool cleaning. Remember those ones?

I could question if the time I give over to the blog is worth it. But then I would start questioning a lot of things. Like watching films, or listening to games of football on the radio. The hours spent cooking meals, worrying about work or being angry about politics. Talking to Elizabeth about story ideas for books and films that will never be  made or written. Running from point A to point B for exercise. Drinking red wine in the evening because it tastes so damn good with Stilton cheese.

If I questioned all of the above, I’d have nothing left except to go to sleep every evening. And even though I enjoy sleeping, I’m not going to make it my hobby. Golf is a hobby. I like getting a bath, but it’s not my pastime. I write because I enjoy it and I think about it all the time. It’s not a hobby.

When I was at the farm in Queaux, I wrote a novel and it was the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done. Getting up at seven every day to sit in a cold room looking out over desolate French countryside writing about a character called The Mighty Quad in a book entitled The Return of the Mighty Quad. I haven’t done anything with it – it’s still in front of me here – but it was worth a year of my time. And I would do it again. The Return of the Mighty Quad II is a real possibly.

Me and Elizabeth are off back to France at the end of October. Best thing that’s happened to me in four months of being in England. Where exactly is still in the pipeline, but there are a number of options under consideration. If things had worked out differently, this would have been Blogley in Milan. But things went wrong at the last minute and so the next destination for year five of Blogley is undecided. Naturally when I know, I’ll write a blog about it.

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Animals, Places

236 – A Four Day Walk Along The Avon Kennet Canal For Absolutely No Reason Whatsoever

There is a gap in my summer posts. In July I went for a walk along the Avon Kennet canal. I was going to write about it after I got back but forgot. Only to be reminded of it a few days ago when I found the shaky film footage of the trip on my camera. Prising the half rusted memory card out of it, I ruthlessly edited it down in a vain attempt to make it look exciting. Which was hard, as nothing happened during the entire four days. Except for a brief run in with a canal boat owner over a dog, sheltering under a bridge from the rain for two hours, and visiting a Long Barrow. The rest of the time I walked, ate, drank a few beers, and slept. Below is a short film of this epic trip.

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Food and Drink, People, Photos, Places

235 – Blogley in Marrakech

This week I find myself in Marrakech teaching English to engineers at a phosphate mine 10kms north of the city. It’s hot. About 35 degrees, but it doesn’t seem to bother me too much. I’ve camped out in enough shitty English weather to appreciate searing heat, even if I have to work in it.

When I got back to my apartment at the end of my first day, there was a selection of dried fruit and nuts laid out for me that I wolfed down in seconds. This was despite eating a massive plate of salad, grilled lamb, steamed chicken, poached fish, gratin dauphinois and crepes for lunch.

My apartment has two floors, three bathrooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge, a courtyard, and 41 lights switches. Which is insane, and is like having a small hotel to myself. When the security guard showed me in on the first night I asked him who else I was sharing with. Thinking of course that I would be sharing with other students or teachers.

He looked at me. ‘It’s just for you, Sir?

‘But,’ I said pointing at the stone steps. ‘Where do the stairs go?’

‘That’s your lounge, kitchen and veranda.’

‘Oh, yes,’ I replied trying to look unimpressed as though I stayed in luxury Arabic villas every week.

He left smiling and I ventured upstairs stepping out onto the veranda area which was bigger than the flat I had in Lyon. I then wondered if they had got me mixed up with a company executive, the teachers’ quarters being in a ditch in the desert where the camels live. But clearly not. This was all mine.

However, I didn’t have time to admire my bedrooms, or lounge, or the ludicrously thick cotton bathrobe. It was nearly half past two in the morning and breakfast was at 7.30. Teaching started at 9 and I hadn’t prepared a thing. I showered, dived into bed, set the alarm and then dived out again five hours later shaking the clock.

‘Are you serious?’ I said to it. ‘Morning already? I’ve only just gone to bed.’

It was a tiring day, but nothing fifteen espressos couldn’t fix. And a swim afterwards in the pool was a nice reward for arguing with 15 Moroccan engineers for six hours over minuscule (and irrelevant in my view) elements of the English language. Back in my apartment I was looking forward to dinner.

The food at the residential teaching college in Wiltshire where I work is good, but this is a step up. It’s the top of the ladder, the bit where you reach the roof and are knocked to your death by a sudden gust of wind. It’s that good. Fine Moroccan lamb, beef, chicken, fish, salads, cakes, sweets, plus hot soup for breakfast.

Yes, hot soup for breakfast, when the temperature is already 27. Great idea. The same concept as drinking tea in hot weather and not cold drinks. The body starts cooling itself down when the soup hits your stomach, so when you go to work you’re feeling cool. And if you’re wearing beige chinos and light brown slip on shoes like me, very cool. In fact if I got lost in the desert, I would never be seen or found again. Just effortlessly blend into the scenery like a camel. Found four years later, the sun dried remains of an Englishman still holding a folder marked English for Mining Engineers.

The city of Marrakech itself is hard to comment on at this point. I had two hours free one evening and was driven there by one of the company chauffeurs and had exactly one hour to look around. I pelted it round the old Medina ignoring the snake charmers, spice sellers, tour guide pushers, watch makers, jewelry vendors, English Premiership replica kit sellers, and took in as much as I could. Then I waited by the main Mosque for the driver to pull up and drive me back to the compound. I’m leading an odd life at the moment, I admit.

Tomorrow I return to England. To Bath. Where I’m told it’s cloudy and rainy. Great.

blogley in marrakech

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Places

234 – Blogley In Wingerworth

Remember the first blog post I ever wrote. Blogley in Lyon. I’ve come a long way since then. To Wingerworth in fact. A place that to my knowledge has never had a blog post written about it. Certainly not a Blogley blog post anyway.

Where is Wingerworth and why is it here? Wingerworth’s Wikipedia entry tells me that it’s three miles south of Chesterfield and 150 miles north of London. Why London has anything to do with it is probably not that baffling when you consider that the capital is ‘only’ two hours away by train for those unfortunate souls who choose to commute every day. There are lots.

Nothing has ever happened in Wingerworth – or in Chesterfield for that matter, apart from that FA Cup semi final against Middlesbrough in 1997 (lost!). But it’s peaceful enough and reminds me of Horsforth in Leeds where I grew up. Both once separate villages that were gradually enveloped by the expansion of their larger neighbours in the post war years. The 1950s, 60s and 70s housing estates slowly forming a concrete corridor between the rural farming villages and the town and city whose wealth and success were derived from mining, steel, textiles, farming and warfare – Chesterfield was once a Roman garrison. If I sound too much like a geography or history teacher, I’ll go and shoot myself immediately.

But before I do that, just let me tell you that the old lanes and paths that once connected the old farms are still here. And provide an idyllic counterpoint to the endless modern estates. Estates that are incidentally still being built. Tetra-Pak shaped houses complete with ten pence sized lawns and bedrooms as big as Ryanair toilets.

Wingerworth was mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086 as Wingreurde meaning King’s Land, and was a community of fourteen freemen. Now it has a Spar, a Chinese take away and a hair dresser. That classic retail recipe for anybody wanting to replicate modern England in their own country. Saying that, I’m actually quite enamoured with the place and the Chinese takeaway isn’t that bad either, considering it looks about as inviting as Trowell Services near Nottingham on the M1.

(I should know, I once had to wait there for five hours trying to hitch a ride to Exeter, finally getting picked up by a guy who took me as far as East Midlands Airport. Which if you know the East Midlands (i.e. Nottingham and Derby) is a distance of about five miles. I said ‘Thanks’ when he dropped me off, but it wasn’t very sincere. I got to Exeter Cathedral Square two days later and two stone lighter: I remember walking most of it.)

So have I fallen in love with Wingreurde? Probably not. Enamoured is probably too strong a word. But it’s a nice place and the countryside south of the village is lovely and within ten minutes you can be on the wilds of Beeley Moor where I used to roam as a teenager, sneaking cans of Fosters from my father’s beer supply, wandering across the purple heather moors wondering if there was any place as beautiful as here.

Since then I’ve travelled a lot and seen many marvellous places. However, even though I’m not from Chesterfield, and have little connection with the area apart from it’s where my folks happen to live (the reason I’m here at the moment), there is something special about the moors that surround it. Whether it’s pure nostalgia from my younger years, or the natural bleakness of the place that I like, I do sometimes think that there are a lot worse places to live than Chesterfield. London for one.

*My fee from Chesterfield City Council tourist board can be paid into the following Swiss bank account. Geneva Bank, Monsieur Blogley, A/C number: 0000001. Thank you.

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Places

233 – Loch Swimming, Canal Walking, Russian Oligarchs, Cardiff Castle and Teaching in Marrakesh

Since my last post I’ve swum in a freezing cold Scottish loch, visited an utterly drab Cardiff, camped out in sub minus temperatures in North Yorkshire (in August), walked along the Avon Kennet canal for four days and four nights for no reason, read the first three Knausgaard books, taught English to Russian oligarchs who live in Geneva under Cypriot passports (très intéressant!), and been brought to my knees with a cold virus from another planet.

If I was a football manager describing his season so far, I’d describe the last three months as mixed. Mid table obscurity. No romantic cup runs. No plaudits. No prizes. No glamour. No style. A very average summer peppered with fleeting moments of joy and intrigue. Like when the Russian oligarch I was teaching told me he’s actually retired from business. A minute before charging out of the classroom on an urgent ‘business call’.

‘Your wife?’ I joked when he returned (we were on good terms by this point).

‘Ha!’ he boomed in his loudest Siberian roar, his large red mouth as big as a halved ruby grapefruit. ‘My wife never phones,’ he continued laughing. I laughed back in my loudest English roar even though I was absolutely terrified.

My return to the UK has had its moments for sure, but on the whole it’s been a big disappointment. Full of Chino Moments, referring to the time I bought a pair of new grey Beau Brummel trousers for my first school disco. And didn’t get a single dance all night. Standing in the corner for four hours clutching a flat bottle of Happy Shopper Coca-Cola waiting for someone to ask me.

Me and Elizabeth have given thought to staying here, renting a place and giving old Blighty another go. Another throw of the Britannic dice. Batten down the hatches and wait to see what the British winter brings. But after much discussion – about a minute – we’ve decided not to. (Warning: Football analogies ahead) For the simple fact that the country has underperformed. Expectations were high at the beginning of the season, but the defence has been porous, the midfield lazy, and the forward line-up greedy and wasteful. Greedy being the overriding adjective. Is there any reason the Roman Baths in Bath cost nearly fifteen quid to get in? Or Cardiff Castle,  no more than a ruin on a pile of mud, twelve. Or a three bedroom house in Chesterfield, over 300 grand. Or train tickets, 75 quid for a mere 86 miles. Or French wine in Sainsbury, 7 quid. Are you serious? Even Wimbledon was crap. And as for the weather! What was that? Summer? More like a microwaved March. Hot at the edges, cold in the middle.

The only things I’ve found cheap here are bottles of Real Ale from Aldi. Black pudding from a butcher in Aberfoyle. Two pairs of trousers from a charity shop in Neston. And a pair of second-hand Birkenstock – which I didn’t even pay for. They were given to me. I’m not the biggest shopper in the world. I try to buy nothing and spend even less, if that’s possible. Reinforcing my title as the world’s tightest man as I was once called by a university friend. Waiting around until people donate stuff to me, rather than me wasting my money buying it.

My close friend Justin recently moved to Barcelona after fifteen or so years of living in London. When I visited him in May, I hadn’t seen him so happy since the day I met him way back in Nottingham in 1997. His line to me was: ‘Phil, this is paradise!’ I replied by saying that after living London, anywhere is paradise. Talking of paradise, I’m off to Marrakesh in a few weeks time on business…

‘Business, Oggers? I thought you were a TEFL teacher. Teachers don’t go away on business.’

Well, I am. I’m going to teach at a phosphate mine for a week on a special assignment. I see myself as the James Bond of the TEFL world. A quick in and out special ops mission to teach the present perfect to a host of middle managers. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been to Morocco and even though I’m not beating a path through the desert on a stolen camel, it’s better than walking along the Avon Kennet canal for half a week waiting for the work to start, as happened in July after a student cancelled at the last minute and left me homeless for four days. It was an interesting few days in the end, and I’m glad I did it. But I really wanted to work this summer, not stomp along a canal in the rain and cold of a British summer. I wanted to ponce around in my linen suit in a conference room full of students who each have their own bottle of mineral water and a company embossed pen set.

There are many things wrong with teaching English as a foreign language – students cancelling at the last minute for one and not getting paid. However, if there is one big advantage, it is – if they don’t cancel – there’s always work somewhere. Always some Russian Oligarch, Moroccan phosphate mine owner, German tyre maker, or some Swiss air conditioning magnate looking to tighten up their vowels.

So that’s been my summer. The blog continues…

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Places, Writing and Books

232 – The Flatlands of Dartmoor

This week I find myself on Dartmoor for the first time in my life. I lived in Exeter and Plymouth for a combined total of five years and never once roamed these moors. Instead preferring the coast path to this bleak barren two dimensional landscape rolling out in front of me.

I say two dimensional because as I was walking yesterday I was unsure at times as to whether I was walking up or down. There were no visible indicators, no trees, fences, crags, or ravines, to show any change in gradient. As though the landscape itself lacked the dimension of depth. It reminded me of Edwin Abbot’s 1883 novella Flatland in which there is no ‘up or ‘down’. Just forward and back, left and right.

Dartmoor is very British. Nothing too fancy. Just your basic mountain. No high peaks, deep ravines, precipitous cliffs, gushing rivers. A few stones or poles to show the way. None of that glamorous Dolomites or Picos de Europa stuff with all those clever pyramidal peaks and plunging gorges.

I doubt I’ll be asked to write the next Dartmoor tourist guide. But then again I wouldn’t want to. And if I did I’d probably supplement it with extracts from Flatland. Which would make no sense to anybody reading it because it’s got absolutely nothing to do with Dartmoor, or hills in general. A fictional work of social satire, mathematics, philosophy and theology written under the pseudonym, A Square.

As I walked yesterday I started trying to remember what the one dimensional world was called in the book. Lineland, I finally remembered, where the only dimension is forward and back. Where everything exists on a single line with men the lines and women the dots. Where if a human existed they would have to eat and defecate through the same hole. Having two holes would mean splitting in two as there is no left or right dimension. I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this or if I was taught it somewhere, but I remember a diagram of a human living in Lineland. Something like this:

linelanderI say human, I apologise, more monster, but my skills of drawing have never been that good. But I think you get the point. The food and waste must go in and out the same hole – in this case the mouth. If the creature above had an anus, it would split in two.

The idea behind Lineland was to show a strict hierarchical society. The King is The King and no matter what you do, you can never be the King because you cannot get round or jump over. Like this:

lineland2After a day’s walking, I found myself back in the village where I’m staying with my friend Richard. Back in the house with all four dimensions restored, I started conjuring up a Reality TV show in my head where the contestants have to wander across Dartmoor for 24 hours blindfolded. A social experiment to see who would keep wandering aimlessly across the moor risking injury and possibly death in the blind hope of finding shelter. And who would simply sit down where they were dropped off, knowing that all they had to do was to wait, endure a day and night of discomfort and hunger, and then get picked up. It then might be possible to extrapolate the results into some kind of social demographic hierarchy based on the Lineland idea above.

The whole thing would probably be highly unethical. But then again, it is TV, plus it might kill off a few people who think reality TV is the path to stardom. I should know. I once auditioned for Big Brother in 2001. The thinking was that I could play my guitar on national TV and be noticed. What was I thinking, I have no idea? One morning in April I caught the train up to Birmingham from Plymouth, participated in some moronic games for an hour, came back, heard nothing and life went on. It seems ridiculous now – absurd even – but that’s what you do when you’re young. Like living in the shadow of Dartmoor for five years and not visiting it once.

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People, Places, The French

231 – Cloud Camping in East Prawle

After finishing teaching on Sunday, me and Elizabeth finally headed down to East Prawle on the South Devon coast for a spot of cloud camping. An oblong fog filled field with an old builder’s portacabin as a toilet block and a hosepipe as a shower. Classy England! This is what I’ve been missing. Muddy fields, piss streaked toilets, rain, blind optimism, drunk teenagers, sausage and beans, high spirits, thick cloud.

The village of East Prawle has a shop and a very good pub called The Pig’s Nose. A pub that hasn’t been ruined by fruit machines, TV screens, oversized dining tables, faux Italian food, magazine racks, muted music and pine floors. It’s how all pubs once were, when the entertainment was provided by people not machines. Wednesday night was no exception when we witnessed some grinding blues and blistering rock ‘n’ roll provided by Frankie Connelly and Ben Gittins. A performance of such intensity and power that it sounded like they had a full backing band behind them. There wasn’t. Just two young guys with two guitars plugged into their music.

The other main draw of the week was being back on the 630 mile South West coast path that winds its way from Poole in Dorset, to Minehead in Somerset. I’ve never done the whole walk, only sections of it over the years, but I’ve always enjoyed being on this thin corridor of wilderness in-between the English Channel and the rolling Devon hills. Tramping along the narrow path that threads its way up and over the headlands that seem to multiply as you walk. Conquering one only to see another fifty appear ahead of you in the distance. It’s hard work walking up and down every day as though surveying the route of a giant roller-coaster. But once the work is done and you sit down and take in the scenery, it’s one of the best places in the UK. Take it from me.

Nearly ten years ago, I walked a section from St. Austell to Falmouth, sleeping in the heathers and ferns as I went. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous or long walk, but it had a big effect on me. It was the first time I’d walked and slept rough, bedding down where I fell as it were. Since then I’ve walked (or cycled) many times in this way.

There were only two other tents on the site this week and with no roads, except a lane down to the lighthouse, no internet and no phone signal, it was incredibly peaceful. Like watching a nature program in bed on a winter’s night with the sound turned down. In fact the only real sound I heard over the four days – apart from the band on Wednesday night – was French radio, which I managed to pick up after failing to find any English channels. It was then I had an idea. An opportunity for the local tourist office.

THE ONLY CAMPSITE IN THE UK WHERE YOU CAN PICK UP FRENCH RADIO BUT NOT RADIO TWO

I’m not sure who it would be aimed at. French people I suppose. Or people who hate Radio Two like me. Or British radio in general. Or Britain?

They used the estuaries at nearby Dartmouth and Kingsbridge for the D-Day landings and it made me wonder where I would end up if sailed directly to France from here (that is if I had a boat). The answer is – as you will have all correctly guessed no doubt – the village of Plougasnou in Brittany, which according to their website is famous for nothing. It doesn’t even have a pub.

I decided to stay put and now find myself back at the residential teaching college in non-reality Wiltshire that I mentioned in my two previous posts. Tonight after dinner, I’m taking my students to the pub in Lacock, which sounds French, but isn’t, where they filmed the Harry Potter films and countless costume dramas. I’ve never been to Lacock, or La Cock as my French student amusingly, albeit predictably, said this morning, so I’m keeping an open mind. I doubt they’ll have a pub as good as The Pig’s Nose. But if they do, never mind a boat, I’ll swim to Brittany. Backstroke.

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Places

230 – The Continuing Non Reality of Wiltshire

This week I find myself in exactly the same spot I was last week. At the residential teaching college near Bath I mentioned in my last post. Me and Elizabeth were both packing up to go camping in South Devon for the week when the boss ran over to us file in hand begging us to stay. I say begging, I mean asking whether we wanted to spend the week in a tent on an overpriced campsite in the rain. Or a week earning cash with as many cooked breakfasts and barbecue dinners as we could eat. Mmm.

I’m all for rough camping, I’ve done it loads of times over the years, but I’m not paying 20 quid for the pleasure of sleeping in a muddy field, when I could sleep under a hedge for free. Or get a room in a Travel Lodge for £39. Needless to say we said yes to the teaching and another week of living in this non-reality of PG Wodehouse’s country house in Wiltshire.

I say non-reality for two reasons: Firstly, I’ve never been so long without ever having to prepare my own meals (all meals, coffee, beer, and wine is provided by starched white uniformed waiters). And secondly, being here bears no resemblance to 21st century England. No supermarkets, kebab shops, betting shops, louts, drunks, litter. And certainly no dogs.

I love it. Love it for the same reason people go on holiday. True, I have to work. But as the work is just an extension of the meal times – chatting to the students over paella and steak frites – I’m happy to be finally finding that elusive place where my work and my life are becoming entangled into one long meandering road. Instead of two straight roads heading in opposite directions cluttered on either side by frustration, anger and fear, both leading to dead ends and the inevitable nervous breakdown.

I’m not quite there yet, but this is as close as I’ve come for decades. For one, I’m not clock watching, or fearing my classes or students. And two, neither do I have to travel to work. It’s not the journey I’ve always hated about commuting. It’s having to deal with reality before I’ve even sat at my desk. Here in Wiltshire there is no reality. I walk ten metres from my room to a massive cooked breakfast and the day begins, finishing 12 hours later over a huge plate of barbecue spare ribs and a barrel of Argentinian Malbec.

The only problem is what on earth am I going to write about over the next few months? Except my increasing weight caused by my fierce appetite and a never ending platter of food and wine. Perhaps I’ll have to wander down to the local pub and create a scene. An episode of loutish behaviour not seen since my days in Nottingham. Pleading to the police as I am dragged away that I only did it for my art.

‘I needed something to write about officer. Honest.’

‘You said that last time, Blogley. We’re not in Nottingham now you know. Or Lyon, for that matter. Get into the van. You’re nicked.’

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People, Places, Seasons, Writing and Books

229 – Treasure Hunt in the House of PG Wodehouse

This week I find myself teaching in a house where PG Wodehouse lived as a child. A sixteenth century country manor seven miles east of Bath deep in the Wiltshire countryside where the dense oaks that cover the surrounding hills create an almost unbreakable green canopy from here to the city. The only noises are the trains picking up speed as they leave Bath before disappearing into the abyss of the Box Hill tunnel and onward to London and the 21st century.

A few months ago I was cleaning swimming pools in Western France, now I’m working in a residential teaching college with four Russians, two Italians, two Germans, an Angolan, and a Japanese woman, in a manor house built before the English Civil War. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner while talking about the Greek situation, the wines of Lombardy, the traffic of Milan, free diving in Sardinia, Siberian food, and the beers of Düsseldorf. How can I explain this?

I know a lot of people who do the same job year in year out no questions asked. I find this impossible. If I don’t have at least three jobs in a year, I consider myself a failure. It’s a good a situation to be in and one that has taken me a long time to perfect from the qualities I have. Which are: patience, resilience, and not giving a fuck.

On Tuesday I was asked by my boss if I would like to organise a treasure hunt for the students in the evening. As she stood in front of me waiting for my answer, my mind was conjuring up images of impeccably dressed Italians scrambling around in the mud searching for a chest full of gold coins, with me dressed as Long John Silver. It went quite well. My questions weren’t hard, but there were a few which were open to debate. One of them asked how many fish were in the pond. A pond half covered with algae and water lilies meaning that the precise number of fish on view varied depending on when you visited it. The correct answer was five and the group that got it right won the treasure. The treasure being a bottle of Prosecco that was shared around equally. Everybody was happy.

Yesterday we went to Bath on the hottest day of the year. Bath with its stone buildings that turned the city into a gigantic kiln. It wasn’t the heat that bothered us though. It was the people. In European cities when it’s hot, life goes on. Things function. Restaurants and bars serve food and drink without a fuss. People go about their business as if it was any other day of the year. Yesterday, Bath was a wretched place to be. Bad tempered, melodramatic, edgy. I heard some young woman complain in a newsagent that she could hardly walk in this weather. Really? Why not? Are you a polar bear or something? An Arctic mammal covered in a thick layer of fur and fat buying a copy of the The Sun newspaper and a massive packet of extra salty crisps. Are you trying to be ironic? Or are you just stupid.

Even my student from Siberia, where winter temperatures he told me regularly reach minus fifty and in summer there are mosquitoes the size of birds, took it in his stride. Admittedly short strides, but nonetheless, he didn’t seem too hot or bothered by the so called Hottest Day of the Year that every newspaper in this country ran on its front page. Today, surprise, SUR-FUCKING-PRISE, it’s raining, which I hope makes everybody happy.

As for me, I have a few days left here, then I sit and wait again for more work. There’s a lot of waiting in this game. But that’s fine by me as I don’t need much to keep me occupied. Especially when Elizabeth’s mother bought me the first three Knausgaard books to be getting on with. Watch out for a Knausgaard post soon.

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Places, Random

228 – On the Wirral

I find myself on the Wirral near Neston, which is close to Chester, a city I lived in before I moved to the house in Chesterfield, which if you read my last post, I left for the last time last week. Two towns that begin with the letters C-H-E-S-T-E-R. A spooky coincidence, or a simple fact that I live on a once Roman occupied small island where you are never very far from anywhere ending or beginning in chester, caster or cester. Manchester, Cirencester, Colchester, Doncaster, Chichester, Lancaster to name a few.

So anyway, after my brief history lesson on Roman place names, I got a call last week from one of the language schools I occasionally work for telling me that I was going to Turin for six weeks. Brilliant I thought. I was suddenly on the move again and very excited. Italy! A place I’ve never been to except a brief visit to Venice once on the way to Slovenia. Turin! I’m thinking of religious relics, cycling in the Alps, hot weather, and lots of rich food. Until the assignment was pulled at the very last minute.

It’s normal in this job. I deal with it and wait for the next to turn up. Hence why I’m on the Wirral staying with Elizabeth’s very generous and patient parents waiting for whatever hand fate chooses to deal me next. Or perhaps more accurately, whatever lily-livered teacher in some part of Europe will soon burn out, falling hideously ill with a twisted intestine and requiring old Oggers here to fly in to complete their courses.

Meanwhile on the Wirral, when the wind eases off and the sun shines, it’s very pleasant. Walking down to the marshland on the Dee estuary just past the Harp pub is like walking off the end of the earth.

Mud, Military Firing Range, Quicksand

DO NOT ENTER (ever)

Reads the sign. Which limits human activity once you get past the coast path here to almost zero. A stark contrast to the interior of the peninsula which is a busy, crowded place that acts as a massive satellite commuter town for both Liverpool and Chester. The marshland on the other hand, is a very quiet and peaceful place, almost like a desert. And just as hot when the sun eventually peeps out from behind the grey Welsh clouds.

It’s been more difficult being back in the UK than I thought. Whenever I visited a foreign country as a child, I always felt anxious: the signs, the shops, the language, the customs, all scary and uninviting. Coming back here after four years in France, that same feeling of unease has returned. I feel foreign in my own country.

To compound matters when I went into the job centre two days ago, I had to do a Habitual Residency Test. It’s not as official as it sounds, it’s just protocol because I’ve been living abroad for more than six months. But I felt like I was no longer part of the British system. As though I wasn’t British any longer. An immigrant with no nationality or place of residence.

The fact is that after three weeks here, I haven’t adjusted one bit and that’s a worry. And the reason the Turin option was so appealing. Everything could therefore be pointing to the fact that my home is no longer here and that this summer could be my final farewell. It feels quite sad writing that down. And it’s all very melodramatic I know, but that’s how I feel. That feeling of being adrift in the country of my birth. As though something has dramatically changed here to make me resent it. The Englishness of England still remains, so does the warmth of the people. But what I craved before when I lived abroad in my twenties and thirties – that feeling of coming home to something better – no longer exists.

It’s possible that my idea of home has changed. A less rooted ideal where the home is not fixed but movable. And a concept that goes back to the fact that humans are intrinsically nomadic creatures and not people who build castles and stick flags in them. I’m not advocating that the whole of the human race suddenly becomes nomadic. I’m simply espousing the idea that home isn’t fixed. On the contrary. When I lived in Nottingham, I used to call the city home. When in Bristol, the same. Ditto Exeter and Lyon.

When anybody ever asks me where home is, I stare at them blankly, as though I don’t understand the meaning of the word. Which is exactly my point. I don’t. When I look at my passport, it says I’m British. But the more I look at it, the less sure I am about what that actually means. It means I’m entitled to the benefits and protection of The Crown offered to all British citizens. But even that is slightly blurred now. I received a letter today telling me that I’d failed my Habitual Residency Test and was therefore not entitled to any benefits of any kind for three months. It doesn’t actually matter as during writing this I’ve received an offer of some work in Bath starting Monday. But the letter does confirm – almost in writing as it were – what I’ve been thinking for these past three weeks. I’m not really British any more.

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Animals, Places

226 – Why I Can’t Have Dogs

As my ten days as a dogsitter draws to a shaky close, I can categorically say that I will not be having a dog.

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

For want of a better phrase. The wisdom they use in advertising campaigns. Free slices of salami or cheese or coffee rationed out in supermarkets by overly eager sales reps dressed in bright aprons. Giving you a taste of Brand X before you become a lifelong follower.

I tried DOG X and said no. Which was a good move because if I had succumbed at some point in my life to buying one, I would have instantly regretted it.

I would have got used to it, but I wouldn’t have particularly enjoyed it. Too much like being a teacher. Making do, but always looking for a way out. Most likely with a loaded rifle, a bottle of whiskey and a long walk. (I’m talking about me, not the dog.)

The worst part of having a dog for me is the forced wake up call EVERY SINGLE morning. Getting woken up by some rat faced mutt breathing offal into my face. I want my weekends back. Which is the shocking truth of having a dog, isn’t it? You don’t get one.

There I was going to bed on my first Friday night here, looking forward to a full twelve hours sleep with a proper lie in. When I suddenly realised that I would have to get up in about seven hours time to walk the stupid dog.

It was at that point that I knew there would never be a dog called Oggers in my house. Not that I would call it Oggers, that would be ridiculous. But if there was an animal called Oggers, it would have to be a cat. Or a fish. Or better still, a wooden horse. Or a duck. Something that doesn’t bark, breathe, shit, smell, wake me up, or steal my sandwiches.

So that’s the dogsit accomplished. Next up is a short trip to Barcelona to visit some friends, then a drive back across the Pyrenees to Bordeaux to pick up some cash, sign on at the job centre, and then hot foot it back to the UK for reasons I can’t even remember now.

no dog

 

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Animals, Places

225 – Three dogs, a Nervous Breakdown and Two Very Good Cups of Coffee

After driving 480km from Taussat on the Arcachon Basin to Alaigne in the department of Aude, 25 km south west of Carcassonne, which included two rain washed nights camping out in the Ariege-Pyrenees, me and Elizabeth finally met up with the three dogs we were going to be looking after for the next ten days.

Two crazed Parson Russell Terriers (like a Jack Russell but with longer legs) and a Golden Labrador with big dark lonely eyes that made me want to give it a biscuit and say everything is alright.

The fun started yesterday on our first walk with the dogs’ owner, when I was towed up a hill by the male terrier called Idéfix like I was attached to a ski lift. He’s only a foot tall, but has the power of a bull. His little hind legs pumping furiously ten feet in front of me ignoring my cries to slow down as my shoulder slowly came out of its socket.

I asked the owner if I could let him off the lead for a minute, but he advised me not to.

‘Not this one. If you do that, you’ll never see him again,’ he said gazing into the distance.

I believed him as well, looking at the lead stretch out in front of me like a fully extended bungi cord, and imagining the dog being catapulted off towards the horizon the moment I let it go.

The other two dogs, Carla (the other terrier) and Holly (the sad Labrador) seemed to be having a nice gentle walk, and it made me wonder if I’d been specifically hired for the task of walking Idéfix because of my abilities as an athlete. I’m good at running up hills and don’t easily tire. Just like a dog. Perhaps in another life, I was a Parson Russell Terrier.

So that’s the deal for the next ten days, plus seven chickens and a cat to look after. And in truth I’m relishing the idea of being up here in the Aude. Dogs, chickens, loads of eggs, hooded priests, dark shadows, hidden skeletons, holy grail and all that Cathar legend stuff.

It’ll probably be more relaxing than the trip here that resulted in a partial meltdown. Not a physical one like blowing a head gasket, or setting ourselves on fire. But a mental one, caused by the realisation that after this housesit, we actually have nowhere to live and have no jobs.

But in truth that wasn’t the real reason. The meltdown was caused by the fact that we arrived at a campsite with no gas. And no gas means no coffee.

I can handle not having a place to live. Or not having a job. But not having a decent coffee first thing in the morning, especially camping, especially in the rain, especially when you’re wondering why on earth you’ve just driven 500 km with a car full of junk, really takes the biscuit. And we didn’t even have any of those either. Just half a packet of damp peanuts. Nightmare!

There’s no need to go into the precise details, but we had the meltdown on a road somewhere in the Ariege. I can’t remember where. It doesn’t matter. Our lives flashed in front of us in great detail and we both wondered how everything could have gone so wrong. But then we were saved. Not by God, or the Cathars, or hooded monks or priests. But by a nondescript roadside café on the main road to Spain near the town of Foix.

It proved once again that it’s only when you’re feeling really down that the simplest things in life are the best. Just when I was considering jacking the whole thing in and going back home, I was saved by the best coffee I’ve had in France in the four years I’ve been here. I’m not religious. But I now understood why people are.

You might think I’m exaggerating the moment for literary effect. I’m not. When I came out after those two mugs of coffee and four croissants, I was truly re-energised. I was ready for anything. I climbed back into the car, fired up the Honda Civic Extra Turbo Power Mark IV and headed to Aude to meet my destiny. My destiny being a two year old Parson Russell Terrier called Idéfix. The story continues.

ide

 

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People, Places

224 – A CV of Sorts

A few nights ago I started thinking about all the jobs I’ve ever done. I got so obsessed with it, that I dived out of bed, poured myself a carafe of wine and wrote them all down.

They say that a league table at the end of a football season doesn’t lie. The best team won and all of that. Ditto my CV. It wasn’t lying either. Sitting on my coffee table at three in the morning staring back at me like a piece of code. An ancient scroll in an unknown language waiting for me to decipher.

‘What does it all mean?’ I shouted. ‘Where is it all leading me?’ Glug glug.

The first thing I thought was, is there a pattern? Not really. The only thing being that I quit teaching English in 2003 and then took it up again in 2011. Most of the other jobs in between have been a mix of menial indoor and outdoor jobs that I’ve either resigned from, got fired from, or left at the end of contracts. Most I’ve hated. The rest I’ve tolerated.

The only ones I’ve vaguely enjoyed were the ones with free alcohol, or where I’ve been left – totally and utterly – to do the job without some dick breathing down my neck. A rarity.

My job history is chequered that’s for sure. But what does that mean? That I haven’t done the same job for a long period. Or that I’m incapable of holding one down. Or that I’m lazy. A loose cannon. Or perhaps it’s just that I enjoy doing lots of things for short periods in different places because it’s the only life I have?

It doesn’t really matter does it? It’s just a CV. It means nothing. Nobody nails it to your coffin at your funeral with a ‘See Me’ written on it, ‘Could have done better’, just as you’re about to be shunted into the fires of eternity.

I’m not worried about my CV in the slightest. In fact I’m quite proud of it. It’s rich and varied. It illuminates my personality, shows off my character, demonstrates my abilities as a human being, not a machine. Whether a prospective employer would think the same is totally and utterly irrelevant. Because the question I’m asking myself is this:

Would Philip Ogley employ Philip Ogley? And as I’m the boss now. The answer would be a definite and conclusive yes.

The CV of Philip Ogley (now aged 41)

 July – Aug 1990 – John Smedley Ltd – Labourer

July – Aug 1991 – John Smedley Ltd – Warehouseman

July – Aug 1992 – Chesterfield Council – Dustbin man

April – Aug 1993 – MAFF, Mansfield – Field researcher (potatoes)

April – Aug 1994 – INRA, Cavaillon, France – Field researcher (peppers)

April – Aug 1995 – Zeneca, Bracknell – Field researcher (barley)

Sept 1996 – March 1997 – Students Union, Nottingham – Barman

July 1997 – Aug 1998 – Boulevard Sound Systems, Nottingham – Sound engineer

Nov 1998 – Mission beach hostel, Australia – Hostel hand

Nov – Dec 1999 – Hockley Organic Restaurant, Nottingham – Commis chef

Aug 2000 – Nottingham Language Centre – EFL teacher

September 2000 – Papa Language school, Trikala, Greece – EFL teacher

Oct 2000 – June 2001 – Cambridge School of English, Warsaw, Poland – EFL teacher

July 2001 – Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham – EFL teacher

Sept 2001 – Jan 2002 – Centro de Lenguas y Estudios, Granada, Spain – EFL teacher

Feb – May 2002 – BRNC, Dartmouth, Devon – EFL Teacher

May – July 2002 – Southgate Hotel, Exeter – Barman

Aug 2002 – Aug 2003 – Globe English School, Exeter – EFL Teacher

Feb – April 2004 – Devon County Council, Exeter – Data Entry Clerk

April – Sept 2004 – Pavani’s Italian, Exeter – Sous chef

Sept – Nov 2004 – La Finca , La Vega, Venezuela – Field Researcher (watermelons)

Dec 2004 – May 2005 – Cafe Rouge, Exeter – Waiter

Aug 2005 – Pizza Express, Exeter – Waiter

Aug 2006 – Bristol City Council – Telephone Clerk

Oct – Nov 2006 – Bristol Novelty, Bristol – Warehouse picker

Jan – May 2007 – The Bristol Advertiser, Bristol – Editor

Aug 2007 – Aug 2008 – The Royal Mail, Bristol – Postman

Oct 2008 – Sept 2009 – The Bristol Flyer, Bristol – Barman

Nov 2009 – Feb 2010 – The Mighty Miniature, Bristol – Bookseller

May – Sept 2010 – Gibbs Catering, Bristol – Driver and caterer

Nov – Dec 2010 – Haines Xmas Trees, Bristol – Christmas tree seller

March – July 2011 – Communicaid, Bristol – EFL Teacher

Sept 2011 – June 2012 – Linguarama, Lyon, France – EFL Teacher

July 2012 – August 2012 – IFIS, Bristol – EFL Teacher

Sept 2012 – July 2013 – Linguarama, Lyon – EFL Teacher

Sept 2013 – Oct 2014 – La Jouachere, Queaux, France – House sitter

March 2015 – Cetradel, Bordeaux – EFL Teacher

Jan – May 2015 – Villa Tosca, Taussat, France – Pool boy

June 2015…?

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Animals, Places, Seasons

223 – Mosquitoes and Lemons

I’ve been fighting a war here recently. Each morning waking up a puckered corpse. Ravaged in the night by an elite squadron of mosquitoes whose only objective is to bleed me dry. So much so that I’ve been thinking of sleeping in a bath of bleach with a snorkel to breathe through simply to get a good night’s sleep.

The towns and villages on the Arcachon Basin are built on tidal swamps. A giant game reserve in which pink faced Homo sapiens are the prey and the red-necked harpoon toting mosquitoes, the hunters.

Luckily, help is at hand.

The old Algerian cleaning lady who I work with – and who I incidentally found four crates of out-of-date Heineken in the cellar with yesterday (coincidence? I think not) – told me to cut a lemon in half and rub it on my body as a repellent.

I did and it worked. Not a bite all day. Until I dived in the pool for my evening swim and got ravaged the minute I stepped out. In agony, screaming and stinging like a freshly pickled cat, I ran into my apartment, downed a can of the out of date Heineken and then pelted it to the shop to buy a crate’s worth of lemons. Plus a bottle of gin to make my blood too toxic for the mosquitoes to drink. A trick my father taught me on a camping trip to South Africa in the 1980s. Gin being cheaper than insect repellent. Or so he said.

I’m normally quite resistant to bites – even in the proper tropical countries I’ve visited. This year though in boring temperate France, I’ve been slaughtered by them. Their persistence astonishing. As is their powers of stealth. Appearing from behind cupboards, curtains and cabinets the minute I step in the shower. A blood bath!

I’m a hot and humid weather kind of guy. A result of someone in my ancestral line picking up some tropical blood from somewhere at some point in the dark distant past. I can sit in humid 35 degree heat all day. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But of course with hot humid weather in swamp land, you get mosquitoes. Millions of them.

I now have a solution though. Lemons. Now I can sit outside all day long and not worry. And there’s even the added bonus that I’ll never run out of lemons again for my gin and tonics. Which is proof – if ever I needed it – that there’s always a satisfactory solution to everything if you put your mind to it.

lemons3

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Places, Random

222 – A Bottle of Wine, a Piece of Meat, a Knife, and a Stove.

My contract as Pool Boy terminates in 15 days time. My services are redundant and I’m moving on again. Jobless and homeless in two weeks. But not concerned.

It’s my long held belief that there’s always work and a bed to sleep in if you put your mind to it. Ask around, see what’s going on. Chances are there’s always someone who needs something doing that they can’t be bothered doing themselves. That’s how economies work. And if there’s no work, you move on. That’s called migration. And if you can’t find work, you sleep on it and see what comes up the next day. That’s called life.

Elizabeth said to me yesterday, ‘You don’t need much do you, Oggers? A bottle of wine, a piece of meat, a knife, and a stove.’

I’m not very good at being in the same place. Too many reasons to get bored. Looking at the walls for instance, wondering what colour to paint them. Eggshell, Sunflower Yellow, Lilac, Emerald. So many options. So many possibilities.

People say that’s why you go on holiday. To have a break. But surely the walls will still be there when you return. Unless someone’s knocked them down, rebuilt new ones, moved your furniture around and hidden your possessions. All in a charitable attempt to make the next year a little bit different from the last.

I always enjoy reading Bruce Chatwin at times like this.

“Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.”

I’ve moved around a lot in my life. I’m not a Nomad in the traditional sense – I don’t have animals for one.  But I do understand the pull of the road and being on the move.

I was born in Durham in the north of England almost 41 years ago (my birthday is in two days) and even though it’s only 1430kms from where I am now, it feels like a million. I only stayed there until I was two, before moving to Leeds. Now 41 (almost), I’m still moving, and as normal, even with fifteen days to go, my plans are vague. Fifteen days though, in anybody’s life, not just mine, is a long time. Anything could happen.

As long as I have a stove, a good Bordeaux, some sausage and a knife, nothing can go wrong.

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Film, Places

220 – Blogley Takes a Break

Today is the last Blogley for a while. No reason. Just fancy a break from the ramblings. Things to do. People to see. Places to go.

I’ve been writing a lot in longhand recently on old fashioned paper and need some time to read what nonsense I’ve written and whether any of it is usable for some project.

I’ve therefore decided that it’s time to let the blog go for a while and concentrate on other things. I don’t spend a great deal of time on the blog, but it’s enough to distract me. And I don’t like distractions.

Blogley will return soon. In the meantime, here’s a video of a trip to the shop I did today with Elizabeth. Call it an intermission: pop corn, ice creams, sodas.

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Food and Drink, People, Places, Sport

218 – Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass suddenly looks possible.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the wine. Even though it’s never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until yesterday. When I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’ I’m already planning my first trip. Probably to a nearby vineyard. Camp out among the vines with my new companion.

It’s certainly made me think that in our world of endless technology and gadgets, where even books are becoming erased by computer screens, it’s so pleasing to know that I can still derive great pleasure from such a simple (and free) thing. So much so that I can’t stop looking at it.

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

‘If only everything was as simple as strapping an old wine box to a bike with an old bungi cord.’ I kept saying to myself yesterday evening.

Now I think about it. Maybe it is.

wine box

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Audio, Places, Random

214 – Beer Cans: Recycling or Rubbish

(this audio blog first appeared in Alexander Velkey’s highly acclaimed Doubtcast on 10 March 2015 – see end of post for further details)

I live in a small cottage by the sea. I’m the caretaker for a holiday villa that caters for people who drive cars that look like chocolate bars. Smooth soft-topped motors designed for fast driving. No roof racks, baby seats, car stickers, tow bars, awkward edges or angles to spoil the view.

I do most of my chores in the morning, so that I have the afternoons off to write and drink beer. I drink a lot of beer, and as a result accumulate a lot of rubbish. Or is it recycling?

It’s good that I can recycle the mountain of cans I see on the floor each morning. Stick them in the recycling box. Out of sight, out of mind. Buy another crate. Get smashed.

I don’t feel too guilty about buying them because they’ve got a green swirly logo on the side that gives me the licence to buy as many as I want. It’s not technically rubbish, is it? It’s recycling. Great! Let’s buy more of it. Let’s get smashed.

Sometimes I use cardboard from cereal boxes as kindling for my woodburner and feel guilty when I do. I should be recycling it. But why? Doesn’t the lorry that take it all away use fuel and create carbon. Cause congestion and traffic accidents. And if I didn’t use the cardboard for kindling, I would only use more wood.

I buy my beer in 33cl cans because it limits my alcohol intake. I could buy the same beer in 5 litre home barrels that cost less and create less waste. But that would create problems. One, I would drink it all. And two, if I didn’t, it would go flat. And I can’t drink flat beer.

In short, the best way for me to save the environment is to drink less beer. Or buy it in bigger containers. But that’s not going to happen. I like the ritual of popping the can. That gratifying metallic snap the ring pull makes.

There’s nothing better is there? Something so precise and conclusive about the sound. Followed by that calm hiss as the beer gently fizzes up to the rim of the can. That is, unless you’ve just carried it back from the shop. Then it just fizzes all over the floor.

The 5 litre home barrel wouldn’t work for me. I’d drink it for starters. Plus the pure enjoyment of popping the can would be lost forever. So it’s something my environmental conscience will simply have to live with.

It’s lucky there’s recycling. Otherwise all my cans would simply become rubbish.

(Listen to the entire Doubtcast below)

Or visit website http://www.doubtist.com/2015/03/10/doubtcast-1-rubbish/ for further details.

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Film, Places

210 – Sometimes You’ve Just Got To Let Go – A Short Film

Yesterday wasn’t a particularly good day weather wise – cold, windy, rainy. When the sun finally came out, I spent it larking around with my video camera that used to belong to my great friend Stan.

My plan was to film something of interest. Something mind blowing. ‘Who knows what lies on this part of the coast?’ I thought.

I found nothing. Winter in a bland seaside town in Western France. I may as well have been fishing for oysters on the moon.

I decided to look harder. ‘There must be something!’ I thought. ‘A bright red stuffed toy that’s been left by a distraught child after being told by the parents that Water World isn’t open in February. Nothing is open. Nothing!’

As I said in a post a few weeks ago. ‘Incredible what you can see when you want to.’ (Blogley 204.)

So by the end of my quiet and occasionally wet saunter up the coast, I had something to make my short film with.

(Music: Fog Lake – Little Black Balloon)

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Animals, Places, Seasons

202 – The Gallo-Roman Villa at Andernos And Other Attractions

It was Sunday and with nothing better to do other than look out of the window wondering whether it was going to rain, I decided to risk it and go for a walk.

I had planned to do it during the week, but with so many unpredictable downpours, as though the entire climatic system of the area had been plumbed into a faulty shower, I kept postponing it.

Until today. When it looked fine (ish). Continue reading

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Food and Drink, Places, Writing and Books

200 – Blogley at 200

When I started this blog I thought it would stretch to twenty or so posts about my year in Lyon. Then I would return to the UK and forget about it. Consign it to the digital graveyard.

Three and a half years later and I’m still writing it. Twenty posts has ended up as two hundred. Two hundred posts on 21st century France with plenty of my ill-thought-out wisdom thrown in for good measure. Continue reading

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Places, Seasons

198 – JG Ballard and the Madness of the Arcachon Basin

I’ve never lived on a beach before. Not that living on a beach is any better than anywhere else. It was just a thought as I wandered down to the sea this morning to breathe in the ion-charged air that blows off the bay and was purported in the 19th century to cure madness. Continue reading

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Places, Running

197 – The Lanton Pancake Run

After five days here, I’ve realised that I don’t live in Andernos-Les-Bains at all. I live in Taussat-Les-Bains, which is the next village up.

And to add to the confusion, I was just about to change the title of the Blog, when I noticed on a letter that my official address is actually in Lanton, another village 4 km down the coast. So I left it as it was. For now… Continue reading

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Places, Running, Writing and Books

196 – Andernos-Les-Bains

The Blogley Roadshow has moved on. Or to put it slightly less dramatically, I simply shoved a few pants into a bag and drove down the D106 to my new home in Andernos-Les-Bains on the Arcachon Basin. Famous for seafood, gentle weather and the setting for countless French films depicting well-heeled Parisiennes sitting around eating oysters, arguing and drinking wine. Continue reading

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Places, Seasons

195 – Goodbye Bordeaux, Hello Andernos-Les-Bains

I’m off again. Off to Andernos-Les-Bains on the Arcachon basin to look after a villa for the winter with some cheffing and teaching work thrown in to pass the time.

‘Not bad if you can get it,’ a friend of mine said.

‘Well, yes, and no,’ I replied. ‘It’s work. It’s by the sea. But it’s also an hour from Bordeaux, a city I really like. It means exchanging some of the best wine in the world for some of the best oysters in the world. Which is great if you like oysters,’ I continued. ‘But I happen to hate them, so it looks like I’ll have to stick to crab and champagne for my lunches.’ Continue reading

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Places

194 – An Hour in Bordeaux – in Photographs

Having failed to write anything of any value or substance today – apart from a recipe on How to Cook Chicken Korma – I resorted to my camera and gave myself a task.

One hour to distil Bordeaux into an attention-grabbing photographic montage. Continue reading

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