People, Seasons

280 – Frozen Swimming Pools, Spoon Making and Cornish Pasties

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

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

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

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

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

frozen-pool3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

french-pasties

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

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

Seen this robot - contact Blogley below.

Seen this robot? – Contact Blogley below

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

Standard
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

Standard
Seasons, Writing and Books

275 – EIBAB

november-blog-final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get them while you can from BLOGLEY BOOKS: HERE.

Standard
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

Standard
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.)

Standard
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

Standard
People, Seasons

242 – Murray Smyth and My Healthy Addiction to Cold Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
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…

Standard
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.

Standard
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

Standard
Random, Seasons, Sport

219 – The Pool – Revisited (again)

The pool still isn’t clean. Despite weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of hard work, it still looks like a silage pit. A deep green vat of algal snot covering every surface like discharge from a gigantic sneeze. The fabled natural swimming pool of the villa, no longer a clear blue green embodiment of ecological modern living, but a huge used Kleenex sunk into a hole in the ground.

However much I clean it, hoover it, deploy the pool robot, skim off leaves with the net. By the morning there’s always a thick layer of green algae creaming every surface like someone went nuts in the night with a Gloop Gun.

The main problem I’ve deduced is the wind. Which has been blowing all sorts of crap into it on which the algae feed off. The human equivalent of bringing a fresh barrel of beer into a student house every evening. Suddenly the music’s blaring, people are dancing and the neighbours are banging on the ceiling. It’s a total disaster. Yet however hard I try, the party just goes on and on.

Tomorrow is April. I should be practising my backstroke by now in the hot sun, not poncing about in my Peter Storm cagoule scraping slime off the sides of the pool like I’m cleaning a communal toilet. It’s really starting to get to me.

Every night I dream of gigantic life size algae with razor sharp teeth eating their way through a mountain of leftover kebabs that have blown in from nearby Arcachon. Gorging themselves on junk, growing bigger and bigger, spreading across the surface of the pool as I lie sleeping. Their horrible evil grins I can see in my nightmares as they destroy everything I’ve worked for over the past three months.

The word ‘Thankless’ often comes to mind. As do the words ‘Litre of bleach’. That would do the trick. That would bring their algal fiesta under control very quickly.

A controlled dose I’ve calculated – say half a litre – might actually work. Kill off the algal blooms but leave the plants intact. The only problem is, I can’t be sure it’ll work. If it went wrong, there would be some difficult questions to answer from my boss.

Namely. ‘Why is everything dead?’ Quickly followed by, ‘Why are you still here? You’re fired. Get out.’

I can’t risk losing my job at this critical stage. It’s not my accommodation or the money I’m bothered about. More my conscience.

I want to leave here on my last day looking at a pool so clean I could boil potatoes in it. Drink from it. Deliver babies in it. I want it to look as pristine as the photograph in the villa’s brochure. So that when people visit, they think it is a photograph.

‘My God,’ they’ll say. ‘It looks exactly as it does in the photograph. Must have a good Pool Boy.’

‘You betcha ass they do,’ the Ghosts of Algal Past will reply. ‘He’s the best!’

pool perfect

Standard
Random, Seasons, Sport

208 – Pool Progress III (final update)

It turned out my boss was joking. I wouldn’t have to clean the pool swimming naked underwater armed with only a garden brush and a snorkel as depicted in my last post (Blogley 207). I was to use the long handled pool broom instead.

brush2

Yesterday morning I got to work. Only to be faced with a big problem. The long handled pool broom was useless. It was too soft. Just pushed all the remaining algae to the edges of the pool as though sweeping up hair in a barber’s shop. Leaving the real dirt stuck to the floor like it was doubling up as a paintbrush.

After a two hour coffee break to think it over, à la Français, I found another brush in the shed that would have been perfect. Unfortunately, as it was the brush used for scrubbing the decking round the pool, it wasn’t long enough for the job.

Maybe I should get in and do it sous-marin – as my boss had originally suggested. Dive in and scrub it clean dressed in my Speedos?

I’m not adverse to swimming in cold waters – I used to swim in the sea in Cornwall in midwinter. But that was for leisure. Or when I was paralytic. To do it during the course of a day’s work, wading round a freezing cold swimming pool with a decking brush, wasn’t what I signed up for. It says so in my contract:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MUST EMPLOYEES SWIM IN THE POOL

So that was out. As was draining the pool.

DO NOT DRAIN THE POOL UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – I WILL KILL YOU!

The long and the short of it was I needed a longer handle to attach to the decking brush.

So I set off to Bricomarche 5 kms up the coast to buy a ten foot pole that I could fashion into a handle using my new Opinel knife I had bought from the Tabac last week. (The Tabac here is fascinating: you can buy fags, beer, wine, lotto tickets, crisps, knives, oysters, fishing rods, even logs.)

I’m glad I went for the walk though. As a kid I always wanted to go pole vaulting. But as it was always deemed too dangerous, or too stupid, I never got the chance. Until yesterday. Click on the picture below.

pole3

I got back in one piece, fitted the pole to the brush and started cleaning. By the end of the day, the pool was spotless, its bottom as sparkling as a brand new mirror.

All I need now is some sun to warm it up and I can go swimming…in the middle of the night when no one is looking. Get in!

Standard
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

Standard
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

Standard
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

Standard
Film, Places, Seasons, Writing and Books

192 – Blogley in Paris

Since my last visit in 1989, a lot has changed. I’m not 15. I’m 40. Which means I can enjoy the finer points of a city. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!

For four days I hared around Paris with Elizabeth taking endless ‘rolls’ of film and drinking coarse wine. The results you can see in the video at the bottom of the page. Continue reading

Standard
Film, Places, Seasons

188 – This isn’t Queaux. This is South Bordeaux, innit!

After eight weeks here, the honeymoon period between me and the city is coming to an end.

I woke up this morning in a cloud. A freezing cold cloud that hid everything except the headlights of the 40 foot long bendy buses that roar along my street.

It’s winter now. And the city is not my friend any longer. Dank, dreary, depressing Bordeaux. Continue reading

Standard
Food and Drink, Places, Seasons, The French

185 – Weather Update (revised), James Dean and Gauloises Cigarettes.

Sitting outside a café this morning sipping an espresso, I wished I still smoked. The figure of a James Dean look-a-like opposite me smoking a Gauloises, reading a book and sipping an early morning brandy almost got me rushing to the Tabac next door.

I resisted. My lungs were wheezing anyway from my first cold in years. The last thing I need was a fag. Continue reading

Standard
Food and Drink, Seasons

184 – Weather Update (Bordeaux)

‘I can’t believe it rains in Bordeaux.’

These were the words I said to the baker on Sunday morning as I handed him two Euros for my loaf of sourdough.

‘It rains more here than in England,’ he replied.

C’est pas possible!’ I said pointing my loaf at him like it was a snubnosed machine gun. ‘I was told the sun shines all year round here. Like in the Costa Del Sol.’

Par un idiot!’ He waved his arms fiercely in the air. ‘In winter it rains here like it rains grapes at harvest time.’ Continue reading

Standard
Places, Seasons

176 – Naked Sunbathing at Le Grand Crohort

Yesterday for the first time in my life I sat naked on a beach.  It was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done.

More liberating in fact than turning forty and realising that all the worry was for nothing. ‘Life is actually damn good,’ I remember thinking. ‘So many birthday cards. Life can only get better. All I’ve got to do is stay alive.’

Well alive I am and so yesterday I drove to  Le Grand Crohort 50 km west of Bordeaux to lap up the fag end of the summer. Despite it being 26 degrees I knew the summer of 2014 was on its last legs. Continue reading

Standard
Places, Seasons

173 – Lacanau Beach

When is a beach not a beach?

When you’re running up and down it in a pair of swimming trunks diving in and out of crystalline water in burning heat in late October.

I was expecting to be trudging up a rain soaked beach yesterday wearing a thick jumper, a cagoule, a weighty woollen scarf and a waterproof hat. A throwback to half terms staying with my gran in Scarborough, I admit. But still a shock to go to Lacanau, 60km west of Bordeaux, to witness a beach still wrapped up in its mid-summer glow. Scorching! Continue reading

Standard
Seasons, Sport

148 – World Cup Heroes and Outdoor Living

Another English World Cup campaign comes to an end (in effect), but the sun still shines here in France. So much so that we’ve moved our lounge into the garden. Everything in fact. Even the coffee table and the horse and cart motiffed drinks coasters. The only thing we haven’t moved is the woodburner (not necessary in 30 degree heat) and the bookshelves (there’s football on). Continue reading

Standard
Animals, Seasons

146 – Marsh Frogs and Dragonflies

It’s half past ten on a Monday morning and I’m sitting by the pond in my deckchair minding my own business. Reading a novel set in Vienna during the war. Sipping treacly black coffee from my ceramic beaker. Lazing on the banks in thirty degree heat. My skin already the colour of bark after a burning week of sun. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

141 – Forty Plus Five

It’s five days since I was forty and things are going well. I’m alive and have returned from Lyon to a wealth of colour at the farm in Queaux. A million shades greeted me on Tuesday as I drove up the driveway. As though the scene had been painted by a painter with a lifetime’s supply of colour. Continue reading

Standard
Photos, Seasons

135 – Spring Selection

After a fashionably dark and damp winter including the never ending wail of the Charente wind in the owl infested chimneys. Mice kept at bay by goose fat plugged in the gaps in the walls. And my resolve to write a novel stiffened by the crippling draughts blowing in from the Vienne River. The sun is now out in pure Technicolor Gold and warming everything in sight. What a relief. Continue reading

Standard
Animals, Seasons

132 – The Great Heron Migration

Flying towards me yesterday evening as I ran down Preau Hill was an army of darkness, the likes of which I’d never seen before.

‘Aliens,’ I cried out as I looked up at the blackening sky.

But it wasn’t a spaceship I saw. It was a blanket of feathers carpeting the sky from horizon to horizon. An impenetrable duvet of death heading straight for me in the form of a massive flock of herons. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

131 – First Day of Spring: It’s Official

Why? Well, firstly, the sun was shining, so that’s a start. Secondly, the pond was crowded to bursting point with herons, great diving beetles, water boatmen, palmate newts and pondskaters, all enjoying the warm golden sun. Clouds of frog spawn floating up from the depths like giant nebulae in the cosmos. Drifting silently to the edges and anchoring themselves firmly on the bulrushes. Daffodils poking through the sodden earth. The grass as green as spinach. The sky as blue as toilet flush. The tiles on the ancient barn, glowing red once again after a winter of gloom. Continue reading

Standard
Places, Seasons

129 – The Little Copse at the Bottom of the Hill

There is a little copse at the bottom of the hill that has been my saviour these past few months. No bigger than a Wetherspoons pub, it has provided me with enough wood for both heating and cooking. As well as a source of constant entertainment for the local farmers who have watched me mercilessly drag huge broken boughs of oak and ash up the steep grassy bank to the barn. A city boy trying to plough the earth with sticks. They’ll miss me when I’ve gone. Continue reading

Standard
Animals, Seasons, Writing and Books

125 – Return to Queaux

Since my return here on Sunday, it’s been unusually warm. Confusingly warm in fact. A tropical breeze blowing against my wintered face as I sit by the pond on the jetty writing this blurb. If I half shut my eyes and let go, I can see myself dangling my legs into warm seawater holding a fishing rod full of clipper and bream on a beach in Curacao. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons, Writing and Books

118 – The First Day of Winter

As I look down the valley towards Gouex, I see the Vienne brimming with rainwater. Its clouds hanging disconsolate above the forest now swept of leaves by the menacing wind that carries the scent of snow to my reddening nose. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

106 – Summer

It hasn’t been a good year for suncream manufacturers. Or for the bar and restaurant industry along the Rhone. Frantic owners sucking on pink gins gazing at the litter blowing around the acres of expensively leased terrace. Feeling like they have been looking at the same rain splattered watercolour forever. Tables and chairs stacked up and chained together. Barrels of beer going sour. Wine corking. A million crates of ice cream going flaky at the edges. Rifle at the ready as the bank manager rolls up in this Merc. Two strong drinks. Two bullets. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

93 – Twenty Days to the Equinox

When I told my students yesterday that ‘Thank the Lord it was spring tomorrow,’ they looked at me as though I was dribbling the slimy filling from a half eaten Ginsters Cornish pasty all over their notes.

‘No, Oggers,’ they said in unison consulting their online agendas. ‘Spring begins on Thursday 21st March not the 1st.’ Continue reading

Standard
People, Seasons

82 – Le Chauffage

As the snows fell over the city on Tuesday morning there was only one madman trying to cycle to work through the blizzard. Everybody else was safe in their houses sipping hot chocolate from giant bowls and gazing contently at the winter wonderland scene outside. The only blemish on the icing sugar dusted Pont de L’universite was an Englishman cycling over it in a dirty orange jacket. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

81 – Winter Sales

I needed some new trainers. The soles of my old ones were so worn through it felt like running in slippers. As I arrived at the shopping centre on Saturday afternoon, I witnessed a human farmyard through the doors. Animals scurrying from one shop to the next laden with bags hanging on their swollen arms. The more they bought the faster they moved. The annual workout for the braindead. Terrifying. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

80 – Greyness meets greyness meets greyness (or weather update)

I once wrote a short story about a disused slate quarry in North Wales. An effortlessly dull place that our housemaster used to take us to on Sunday afternoons to relieve the boredom of school. Sadly, there was nothing much to do at Glen Ceiriog either, except throw rocks down the abandoned scree slope or quietly knock one off in the dense pine forest that screened the place from the outside world. If it was raining we simply sat in the minibus waiting to be driven back for the evening roll-call. Needless to say life’s a lot more interesting now. Except the weather, which reminds me of that gloomy slate quarry: Greyness meets greyness meets greyness was the line in my story. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

76 – Christmas Break

We made it. Another Mayan long-term cycle grinds into gear and I’m wondering where we’ll be at the end of the next? Probably still waiting in five hour traffic jams like the one I got caught up in yesterday driving back from Annonay after a five hour class with people who make dieting biscuits for a living. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

63 – Halloween

It’s amazing how quickly things come around. Like Halloween, Bonfire Night and ‘The shortening of the hands of the clock,’ as one student put to me this week.

I’m off on holiday later tonight. A trip to Provence. On Halloween of all nights, with Bonfire Night a mere toffee apple’s throw away. Not that any of this is celebrated here. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

55 – Equinox

There is a ritual in the French calendar that is almost impossible to miss. A single event that alters your mood from one of dreaming about ever-lasting summers, to one of deep despair at the thought of frost-bitten hands in the months to come. For people like me who are quite happy to let the sun burn us to ashes like onions on an all-night-burger stall, the spectacle I witnessed last Friday morning was highly disturbing. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

37 – Fickle Weather

Weather can be very fickle, but no more than here. After coming down from the mountains last Monday, it was warm and pleasant sitting outside a café early evening enjoying a coffee. By Tuesday morning it had turned into The Cairngorms in April. I remember going on a walking holiday there with my father in spring and it was like hiking in the Arctic. Driving sleet, snow, ice, and hail. The sky as dark as space with a wind blowing at full power from every direction known to man or beast. Quite unpleasant. If it hadn’t been for the food at the hotel and the go-carting, my one and only time in Scotland would have gone down as a disaster. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

29 – Springtime Two

It’s hot for the time of year. Twenty-one degrees if you believe the electronic thermometer above Bellecour. If true, it’s the hottest beginning to March I can remember. We must have had a thirty degree shift in temperature over the past three weeks. In mid February I was running along the abandoned banks of the Rhone with a wind from hell obliterating my once youthful looks. Three weeks later I’m doing the same run trying to avoid the myriad of pushchairs, scooters, bikes, children, dogs, cats, rollerbladers, ice cream sellers, musicians, stoners, alcoholics, and madmen all enjoying the sun. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

27 – Springtime

It was written by me a few weeks ago that the worst of the winter was over and we could look forward to the spring. Naturally as soon as I wrote that and stepped outside, I was knocked down by a gale, frozen solid by the cold, and buried under twenty tonnes of snow from a falling blizzard.

However, today is the first day of Spring. It says so in this blog. It’s official. Continue reading

Standard
Seasons

22 – The Great Thaw

So The Great Thaw has begun. Walking to the Tete D’Or yesterday evening, the sun just managing to stay afloat above the Fourvière, I smelt spring. Finally unfrozen, my nostrils picked up the faint smell of grass. Not the freshly cut kind of a municipal park on Mayday, or the rich, heavy odour of a cow meadow in August. But simply the light scent of sodden grass. Barely alive. Hanging on in there like everything else. Continue reading

Standard