The Art of French Kissing

Ha! Thought that title would get your attention.

I’m settling in quietly here in the Languedoc; treading softly as I find my way around French life and customs – one of which I confess perplexes me a little. The French kiss… not the tongue tickling the tonsils kind and not the fatuous air kiss beloved by many in the UK. No I’m talking about the normal greeting between friends – a gentle buss on each cheek often with the added bonus of a brief waft of perfume or spicy after-shave.

Nothing at all wrong with any of that except that I keep getting it wrong. The question is which cheek to aim for first? My first attempts led to mutual embarrassment when my builder’s eldest Daughter decided to admit me into her circle of eleven year old friends. We bobbed  around each other in approximately the right area, rubbing noses, banging foreheads whilst her mates wet themselves laughing. Finally in frustration she grabbed my shoulders, bade me standstill in stern tones and delivered the required kisses. Meekly I asked her how she knew which cheek to kiss first and received my answer in the form of a hugely expressive Gallic shrug  before she ran off. I was only grateful my first encounter  wasn’t her little friend who wears specs like me. That would have ended up as the clash of the titaniums.

Then again the other problem is one of personal space. How close does one have to/need to get to administer the ritual greeting? Most nationalities have a concept of personal space and I have no invasion plans (at least not yet). So I’ve been  people watching to see if there is any norm. But there again I’ve been betwattled for observations taken so far show wide differences in approach from the crotch-rubbing clinch to the elegant bend forward leaving a discreet and respectful space between bodies. My own attempts have led to an unusual amount of neck-stretching and weaving, rather like a demented goose.

So I am left with the question – is this something that the French learn how to do once they’re out of the cradle? Perhaps it’s part of the primary school curriculum with exams at the end of the year and prizes for the best kisser. Actually that sounds like much more fun than the “posture stripes” awarded by my school to those girls with ramrod straight backs. However, the best advice I’ve had so far is to stand still, pucker up and let the other person do the kissing. Story of my life.






Of Human Interest

Work progresses nicely here as the Old Lady of Petite Rue gets what is turning out to be not so much a makeover as a facelift, tummy tuck and saggy bottom correction. Lots of pins, nips and tucks to support the inevitable downward and southerly shift that affects most ladies of a certain age.

Yesterday in anticipation   of major surgery in the room ultimately destined to be my boudoir I finally got around to clearing away what was once a modest library. Books of every genre graced the shelves; hard backs, paper backs; lurid 1950/60′s covers (oh those beehive hairdo’s…ah yes I remember zem well) and a few sober leather ones.

I could track the development of the collection from the inscriptions on the flyleaves:

“Bon Anniversaire 1954, maman.”   “Meilleurs voeux 1961, Simon”

From Peter Benchley’s Jaws to Stendhal’s Red and Black … who had owned this eclectic lot and why was it  left here to be chomped on by the silverfish and destroyed by damp? I rescued what I could but the rest will have to go to bookstore heaven.

My attention turned to two trunks full of dusty papers. Here again was part of the history of two children Jean-Paul and Justine from starting primary school to leaving at around sixteen, I guess. The wobbly, uncertain handwriting of “Mon premier cahier” (my first exercise book) smoothes out over the years into small neat letters, adorned with curlicues and flourishes. The drawings become more recognisable. Arithmetic was clearly a problem for Justine and I feel an instant rapport with her as I flick through her maths book crabby with corrections in fierce red ink. That was me at age eight too. Scrap books reflect a developing military taste for Jean-Paul and for Justine a pony-mad period followed by fashion and all neatly dated and annotated.  But what to do with this collection, carefully stored, then forgotten and abandoned into the hands of a stranger and a foreigner to boot?

My third discovery really raises the ghosts of the past for me. In a small wooden box I found three items. The first a cheap coloured postcard dated 16 June 1940. On the back was written - “You are always in my thoughts, carry this with my tender love.”  The second item was a tiny calendar and the third the remains of a gift tag on which was written (in the same writing): “11 November, meet me in cafe Bal in Ferriers.”

Who wrote this and to whom? Were they lovers? Mother and child? Paris was invaded in June 1940. Was one of them trapped there?

So much possible drama and romance in three scraps of the past. Did they get to meet at cafe Bal? I’ll probably never know but I’m a sucker for happy endings.

Early Days

My first spring has sprung; almost overnight the fruit trees in the orchard have puffed out in a froth of pink and white blossom. The meadows meandering up the mountainsides are a tapestry of colour with swathes of golden dandelions, pinky-white daisies, creeping buttercups and blue scillas - these are only the flowers I recognise. In my woefully overgrown garden tassels of lavender wisteria trail languidly against the grey stone walls. The air is filled with the hum of insects and in particular the buzz of a particularly busy bumble bee that lives in a wall crevice. From time to time I hear the indignant bleat of lambs up on the hillside as they chase after their mothers who, freshly turned out to graze, are doing their best to hoover up the lush grass at a fair old rate knots.

Would that all was equally delightful within the house as it receives probably only its third makeover in three centuries. The old lady of Petite Rue is getting a rude awakening as drills, saws and hammers attack her leprous plaster and wormy woodwork. By way of revenge she belches out generations of dust from every crack and crevice.

“Don’t worry” Daniel the builder tries to reassure me, “it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

And he’s right. Already, with new plaster and ugly wallpaper stripped off some of the rooms are looking different but it’ll be a long time before I’m lounging in the loggia, a nicely chilled blanquette to hand and a smug grin on my face.






The French Connection

So, did you miss me? I’m back in the UK for a few days after my first taste of La Vie Francaise. Not sure what to make of it yet. My head is stuffed with fleeting images rather than any cohesive stream of experiences. Let me share some.

Take the venerable nonagenarian whose sole companion is Cici a dancing dog of indeterminate birth, sporting a flashy orange neckerchief in lieu of a collar. Cici’s  party trick is, with the encouragement of a biscuit, to pirouette on her hind legs whilst the old lady sings to her. The encore is an invitation for a kiss at which point the mutt slurps a lick and snaffles the biscuit, almost simultaneously. This old gal looks as tho’ she hasn’t a sou to scratch with, lives in a tall stone house that is definitely fin de siecle and probably the denier cri at that time and now looks as tho’ a good puff of wind would blow it over. Yet for all I know she could be la grande dame of the village and swimming in fric. That’s one of the interesting features of these villages… the scruffy git next door with his beat up Renault 4 filled with straw, wood and equally scruffy mutts could just as easily be the seigneur of the place or his feckless handyman. Qui sait? Vive l’egalite.

Signing up for the house felt like another fin de siecle scene.

In the hush of a heavy panelled office there sit the two vendors, one recently risen from his sickbed, the estate agent keen to receive his cheque, myself, big bro and his partner. The Notaire, neat and precise casts a bemused glance over his spectacles at the assortment of humanity seated in a carefully arranged semi-circle in front of his desk. In a rich voice caressing the well-worn legal phrases he reads through the contract of sale, checking every now and then that we lesser mortals have comprehended the full import of his words. With due ceremony he hands me the keys and we have handshakes and “hope you’ll be happy” all round.

Early morning rush hour consists of a man and his three donkeys ambling down the street. Mum donkey in the lead whilst two wayward juveniles frisk after her, stopping now and then to investigate the contents of the jumble of pots, pans and other miscellaneous containers that adorn doorsteps. Occasionally a toothsome bit of greenery takes the donkey fancy but a sharp word from the man and a toss of the head from mum donkey soon draws the young ‘uns back into line

The Saturday flea market in Limoux town square brings a touch of familiarity to the week with stalls of weird and wonderful things with obscure uses, particularly rather sinister looking iron work that looks as though it comes straight from the torture chamber – not that I have any familiarity with Things Like That.

The dusting of icing sugar snow on the mountains; glorious sunshine in the valley coaxing tiny daffies, spears of iris and dog tooth violets to burst into flower. But spring is fickle and not ready to stop flirting with us. The almond, peach and blackthorn blossom is beaten to the ground by sudden rain storms.

The sheer bloody mindedness of the electricity supply staff when arranging to re-connect contrasts with the absolute charm and helpfulness of the guy who actually comes out to replace the essential fuses and gets the whole show on the road again all for 22 euros. Worth it for the smile alone.

What to make of it so far? It’s a question of balance, ying and yang, give and take. The good, the fun and the friendly balanced against the rigid, the awkward and the downright disinterested. Sometimes there’s a sense of defeat and helplessness as I struggle at times with the language and the Languedoc accent. Yet there’s also a sense of positive first steps… I’ve managed to align builder, roofer and electrician… it lacks only Mr Plumber to make up Happy Families. In addition, electricity and water are connected and phone and internet almost available. I’m now the proud owner of a French bank account that took an eon and ten trees worth of paper to achieve.

Back now in the UK  I’ll have time to process it all and perhaps award myself  a little pat on the back, bearing in mind that this has been the dress rehearsal… when I return in 10 days or so…it’s for real.

PS: did you like the nonchalant way I’ve tossed in a few French words… pity I can’t find a way to add all the acute/grave accents for that touch of authenticity!

The Adventure Begins…well almost

So, the big day dawns this week and I’ve packed and re-packed. My dreams are filled with cardboard cartons and the squeal of  brown sticky tape as it comes off the dispenser. This is my last post for a short while as I discover the delights of a left-hand drive vehicle and wend my way to SW France.

I wonder what I’ll really find when I get there. How close will vision and reality meet? but, more to the point, I wonder what my new neighbours will make of me? Hopefully they’ll not find me quite as amazing and outlandish as Colonel Harrison’s Pygmy Troop when they turned up in England in the early years of the twentieth century.

Whilst moving to France is nothing unusual these days, (may even be de rigeur), the  story of the Pygmy Troop is totally out of tune with today’s attitudes and culture. However back then curiosity, ignorance, imperialism and a general sense of superiority over the rest of the world all played a part in bringing this type of entertainment to England. Oh dear that does remind me of some expats I’ve met!

Moving swiftly on, here’s the story.

In 1904 Colonel James Harrison of Brandesburton Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire was travelling through the Congo river basin. This was not as odd as you might surmise since he was not only a soldier but also an explorer and big game hunter. Travelling in darkest Africa is what explorers are supposed to do.

There in the remoteness of the Congo he made the acquaintance of the Pygmy tribe of the Ituri forest. No doubt after a deal of huffing and puffing he persuaded six of his new “little pygmie friends” to return to England with him. So it was that Bokane, Quarke, Mogonga, Matuka, Amurape and Masutiminga arrived in 1905, to take London by storm. Appearances at the London Hippodrome, Olympia and even the staid old House of Commons were followed by a tour of the whole country when all and sundry could pay up and gawk at them.

In their “down” time the group stayed at Brandesburton Hall and went hunting in the parkland there. They made appearances at various venues in East Yorkshire including the coastal resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea where they met with much interest…to put it mildly. During their stay they made a record of their stay, speaking in their native language – I intend to do something similar in writing. Watch this space.

All six survived their English tour and returned to their homeland in 1907/8. Whether I shall eventually follow their example is in the lap of the gods.


The Desperate DoZen

Only twelve desperate days to go before the BIG MOVE. I wish I could say I was in a state of grace and serenity as I glide from my English life to my new French one.  Did I say glide – I mean stagger, lurch and stumble.  The awesome bureaucratic machine that is French administration with its insatiable appetite for papers (preferably bearing the expensive insignia of a notaire or English solicitor) and requests for documents that are currently unobtainable, has already given me a couple of hors d’oeuvres to swallow. I need to open a bank account? I need a utility bill to do this. I can’t have a utility bill until I’m sent one. When will that be? Oh a couple of months and then I must pay by cheque. But I haven’t a bank account. Open one. Need a utility bill. Soooooper.

Still it’ll give me the opportunity to practise for my Zen mastership.

Actually so much is happening at once that I do need that inner calm. My local history book “Close to the Edge” is completed, edited and just awaiting a few permissions for some of the older photos. One of the publishers I approached is making all the right noises but is still havering so I’m looking again at self-publishing, Print on Demand and all that jazz. If anyone who reads this has any experience of using Lightning Source I’d be really pleased to hear from them. The idea of marketing a book from 1000 miles away seems a little daunting but since I’ve got to come back to the UK for day job work every now and again, I’m sure it’s possible.

In the meantime I’m moving on to my next keep-me-in-Blanquette (fizzy wine, local to my new home to those that don’t know) book. I enjoy writing these short quirky history books. My original idea was to develop them alongside fiction that I want to write to help pay the bills. It’s a bit of a cop out in some ways because the non-fiction is easier to write and sell, although not in huge quantities. But I do think that maybe I’m avoiding something here. My track record in fiction writing is limited to a few short stories and a radio play.  Lurking in a drawer I have four half-finished novels where I’ve run out of steam or gotten a bit bored with them. Basically I think I’m a coward and won’t face up to the possibility that I’m a crap fiction writer. My head teems with ideas and I’m pretty good at visualising scenes and situations; dialogue runs well for me too. I often walk on the beach, in character as it were, creating pretty good dialogue (to the amusement of many a dog walker) but the minute I try to write it all down, pouf! The gremlins that live in the dust balls under the bed steal it all away whilst I’m asleep.

So do I take the easy road and conjure up a few more eclectic histories or do I bite the bullet and finish off one of the four unfinished opusses (yes, pedants, I know it’s not the plural of opus)? Perhaps the change of scene will do the trick. There again, perhaps the warm spring airs, the lure of the mountains and the scent of the garrigue will do for me entirely.


A little peep at the new des.res.

It’s Never Plain Sailing

This morning I’m feeling a bit like one of the many wrecks to be found off the Holderness coast so I thought I’d share my pain with you and give you what might be the final tale from these shores. This is a cautionary tale of what can happen at sea even in favourable conditions.

It was just three weeks into the New Year of 1911 when the steam trawler SS Silverdale with nine hands aboard left the Port of Grimsby heading for the North Sea fishing grounds. A few days later, with a full catch in her hold, she began her homeward voyage arriving off Spurn Point early in the morning of 4th February. There she stopped for about an hour and waited for the tide. The weather was fine and clear; the sea was smooth.

Members of the Silverdale crew observed lights from other ships around this busy seaway where vessels made for the ports of Hull and Grimsby. Shortly after getting under way again to complete the last leg of their voyage back to Grimsby, they also heard blasts from a warning whistle and, almost immediately after, a loud crash. The Silverdale shuddered as the trawler Straton struck her amidships.

In the dark confusion that followed the Skipper George Grice shouts at the other trawler that the Silverdale was sinking and to come about for a rescue; Frank Foster, the chief engineer, knocked off his feet in the collision picks himself up and staggers onto deck calling out that the engine room was full of water; he and the mate, John Walling try to release the lifeboat but the stern of the Silverdale sinks quickly, in the space of just a couple of minutes and they find themselves in the freezing waters. The other crew members cling to wreckage, calling for help.

At the subsequent Court of Inquiry, the captain of the Straton, Daniel Jacob Joenson, stated he and his ship were returning from a voyage to the Faroes and heading homewards. When the ship arrived off Withernsea the Captain laid up there until around 4am when he gave the order to get the ship underway again, steaming at slow ahead. As the vessel approached Spurn he saw the lights of the Silverdale some half to a mile off and left the shelter of the wheelhouse to check his own side and masthead lights which he found to be burning brightly.

On returning to the wheelhouse he noticed that the Silverdale lights were showing much nearer and the vessel was on a course heading straight for the Straton. He sounded the warning whistle and, at the same time, rang down instructions to the engine room for full speed astern. However there was only just time to thrust the ship into reverse before the two vessels collided.

After the collision, the Straton re-bounded from the Silverdale and Joenson brought her about to look for survivors; other trawlers nearby steamed to the rescue alerted by the crew of the Spurn Lightship who sent up rockets and fired guns to attract their attention.

Of the Silverdale’s original nine-man crew only four survivors – Foster and Walling together with deck hand Robert Hicks who floated in the water clinging to a lifebuoy and James Wright the steward who clung to a deck fish pound board were picked up.

Of those lost, the Skipper was last seen heading for the wheelhouse and was presumed to have gone down with his ship and the four other crew members clung to wreckage for a short while but sadly succumbed to exhaustion and the dark, icy cold waters of the North Sea before they could be rescued.

The Inquiry concluded that both vessels, to different degrees had failed to comply with the Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea and that the Silverdale was not “navigated with proper and seamanlike care.” Despite some strictures laid upon the captain of the Straton the Court held the opinion that the loss of the Silverdale and some of its crew members was not caused by any “wrongful act or default of the Skipper of the Straton.”