French letter


Spring it has sprung, bringing with it the usual mixed blessing of warmer afternoons, lighter evenings, longer grass and a panoply of things that don’t work.



I had satellite telly fitted in the Maison d’Amis three years ago – a Freesat package of English channels graciously supplied by Murdoch, but which doesn’t involve me paying the old Beelzebub anything. I also have a lot of tall trees which, while tiddlers when I came here, reach “clear up to de skyee” as they sing in Oklahoma. This is not a good combination in the age of Satellites.

Every year since the installation, I’ve had to get the supplier to come round and add another metre or so to the dish’s stem, to ensure a view of the orbiting technological miracle uninterrupted by wholly inconsiderate obstacles like branches and leaves. When the leaves fall in Autumn, the reception is barely affected; before March gets anywhere near its Ides, however, everything on the telly is jerky-stop-start (like Asian p2p streamed footie) and then by the end of April, we fade to black with the exception of…..Sky News. Just fancy that.

Clearly, if I continue the extension strategy, by 2023 the contraption is going to resemble Jodrell Bank, so this year the installer will investigate shifting the dish from one end of the gite to the other. He will arrive, pull a face and call the situation “un gros problème”; this is a standard amdram wheeze adopted by French technicians to justify a large bill. But I can’t allow May to arrive with no reception of the Cup Final. It’s a question of standards. And the cheapest estimate I got for felling and logging the offending tree was €2400. This is one big mother of a tree – a Redwood of a tree which, if not attacked soon, may one day pull the Earth out of its orbit.

Two weeks ago, we had a brief hot spell that convinced French media the seasons were about to disappear in favour of a year-round inferno. The rain that followed calmed them down, but also made the grass grow. Out came the tractor-mower beast from its winter hidey-hole. I’d drained the tank over the winter, and therefore poured in some gas before trying the starter. There are no flies on me.

There was also no sound at all of functioning electronics. The sit-on monster gave a sort of ‘click’. So I got out the car’s jump leads, pumped some charge into the mower battery, and then started her up. And Bob est ton oncle, it started first time. I’d ploughed up and down three strips of the jungle that had once been a lawn when the engine died. The petrol tank was empty. Either the mower was doing 40 metres to the gallon, or there was a problem.

The snag was a large hole in the petrol feed pipe. It bore all the hallmarks of mindless rodent munching which, after a few years of existing in the countryside, one comes to accept as part of the rich tapestry of rural bliss.

Monsieur Tonon the mower man arrived the next day, declared the battery “bougarred” (an increasingly popular word learned from English expats – as in, buggered) and took the vehicle away for closer examination.


Even the most miniscule hamlet in France has a Village Starer. This is an old bloke who sits on a bench towards the edge of town, and glares at every passing vehicle unknown to him as if it might be a Nazi tank. (I’m not being sexist – it’s always a man: older women have more important things to do, like pouring grain down the throats of geese, bottling the fruit harvest and shopping for ever-darker shades of black to wear.)

As far as I know, becoming The Starer is not an elective process. I suspect that, every now and then, a slightly younger octogenarian shuffles into the bread shop one morning, and the owner says, “Have you heard, Bertrand? Michel ze Starer is dead”. And so Bertrand takes over from Michel.

It’s a pretty harmless activity….which is more than can be said for the Village Gasbag.

This local official is instantly recognisable by the distillery-derived odour that precedes him, and an unequalled talent for serial bigotry. VGs hate the middle class, taxation, foreigners, everyone under sixty and their neighbours. They also tend to have an impenetrable accent further impaired by the ability of midday shots of armagnac to run five words into two.

Villagers will jump into dustbins, hide under cars, reverse direction on a centime and shimmy up the nearest plane tree to avoid the Gasbag. Unfortunately, his default HQ is the local bar-restaurant – and most right-thinking folk wind up there at some point in the day.

The standard defence is to arrive with a newspaper and affect profound interest in the content; but this is not a guarantee of freedom from harassment. The following is not untypical:

“Pah! Why are you reading that shit? It is written by arseholes who spout nothing but lies. Look at the price of it – two euros fifty: that’s 25 francs. TWENTY FIVE FRANCS! You are obviously an intelligent man – why waste what time you have left on such things? Here – have another drink, no – c’mon, have another drink, don’t be a wimp…we’re all better drivers with a few drinks in the belly, and as for the mayor, don’t get me started on that pipsqueak, his father was a cockroach and he is made of the same stuff tell me something, do you have enough to live on? Eh? Eh? You’re what – Dutch? English? Well then, you know what I mean…all these Portuguese and Poles and Italians – sure, they’re here now because there’s work. But you just watch them scuttle off when the wind changes. Men of straw. The whole world is mad, have you seen the menu here today? I thought I might try the moules, why not join me…..where are you going?”

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the Gasbag is that I find myself agreeing with every third thing he says. But admitting to that verbally in his presence is to attract a sentence of death by slow root canal pain. Retreating on the grounds of having something in the oven at home is the only honourable escape.