Saturday 10 July
Crossing to le Havre on a miserable, wet day. However, in the cafe on the boat we met a pleasant family from Liverpool who have a propriete in a tiny hamlet in Normandy. He was a most unusual man – a working class, self employed builder of false ceilings, who simply liked France, bought his house for a song, and was paying for it by importing French antiques, in particular French stoves. He clearly enjoyed a good relationship with the peasants in the hamlet, who lend his family mopeds, and was taking them a present of an electric saw.
Le Havre campsite full, so we camped as usual on the green overflow area, which is much nicer and quieter than the campsite. Met a retired lecturer of electrical engineering from Portsmouth Poly, on his way to friends in East Europe. Met him, because he nearly caused an accident in front of us by turning a corner and switching to the left side of the road.
Sunday 11 July
Leisurely start. It was raining, so we decided that rather than make breakfast at the campsite we would aim for the pretty village of Anet, where last year we had an expensive but nice breakfast in a cafe looking onto the local chateau. Just before we got there, we spotted a local Sunday market and decided to have a look. It turned out to be a good market and we spent a fortune on what have proved to be an excellent casserole and frying pan – wish we had bought more for home. By now it was lunchtime and we decided to go to the little restaurant next to the casserole stall – chez Annie – where we had a typically good value routier meal, for about 70 francs a head.
On through the intermittent rain to Chartres, where we did not stop but joined the motorway and rushed down through central France,
past Orleans, Bourges, Montlucon and Clermont Ferrand. This motorway is remarkably empty and, as motorways go, scenic. It makes such a difference to what used to be an extremely tedious drive through France.
Each year the motorway gets further and further into the Auvergne, and this time we drove literally to the entrance of our usual campsite at St Flour. Sadly it was rather late and starting to rain – again – so we did not have our usual sit outside before going to bed.
Monday 12 July
Set off – again, in the rain. We were beginning to get a little anxious about the weather; by now it should have been blazing hot. The motorway went almost all the way to Millau, where we decided to do a little detour and take an alternative route to le Vigan over the mountains via Nant, partly because we had been warned of a rockfall on the road beyond Millau.
This was the signal of course for the car to misbehave. I suddenly noticed the temperature gauge swinging up and the red light coming on. We stopped the car, found the engine needed water, waited till it was cool and proceeded with much anxiety on my part. Problems with the water were the first sign we had last year of the troubles which ended with us getting a new engine.
This and the continuing bad weather dampened what should have been a wonderful scenic route.
We limped on cautiously towards le Vigan and decided to take a quick look at our mazet before going on to Yves to collect the key. As we had feared, there was absolutely no sign of anything being touched since we left last year. But even in this cloudy weather, it did look very enticing.
On to Yves and Monique. It was strange turning into the campsite – rather like revisiting a former home. It was and remains extraordinarily empty. In fact the whole area has far far fewer tourists than normal. Most of the shopkeepers attribute this to ‘la r_cession’. Yves was looking elegant and enigmatic as ever. He seemed pleased by his present of whisky and very friendly to us. He was obviously annoyed that the builder, Guy Boissiere had not started work as promised in the middle of June. His wife has apparently had a new baby, but Yves said this was not excuse for breaking a promise.
Monique is looking more relaxed than normal, sadly because there were so few campers. Eric and Michel greeted us with enthusiasm, all the more so after receiving their presents of whisky! Eric and his Portuguese wife, whom we still have not met, now live at la Corconne (she has got work in Ganges). The following day we were to meet Monique’s man of the past two or three years – Johann. An aimable Dutchman, younger than Monique, he appears to roam on his big BMW bike between Holland and France, making money as he needs it as an electrician, but if necessary as plumber, mason or oddjob man. He has built Monique a pretty lily pond next to the lower sanitaire block and has rebuilt the steps on our old site so that nobody need every fall down them again!
Back to our house, wondering what we would find inside. Mice? Anthills? Damp? Dirt? In some ways we were pleasantly surprised: there was absolutely no evidence of mice, there were dead ants round the edges, and very little dust or dirt. It had obviously been cleaned out when we completed the sale last year and from what we could see, the house is weather and vermin proof. There is some slight damp on the west wall – but this is the one with the broken gutter, which will be replaced when the bedrooms are built. The tanking in the new section should also help.
Three major setbacks. There was no electricity, as we had feared, given the failure to get EDF to give us an ‘estimat r_el’ in time, and unexpectedly there was no water coming out of the tap, and we could not find the key to the cave.
We decided to deal with all these problems in the morning. We unloaded the car and set off down the road for a meal at the Yugoslav restaurant near the main road. This turned out to be a weird experience. The owner was a Serb and as mad as a hatter. We were the only guests that night and from what we gathered there were very few on any other night too. The Serb played what I suppose was Yugoslavian music throughout the meal, switching to Scottish reels when he discovered we were from Edinburgh. We tried to keep off politics, after his chance remarks about the musulmans being the cause of all Yugoslavia’s problems.
Then back to our wee house, and to sleep, with the sound of crickets around us and, down the road, some exceptionally loud toads.
Tuesday 13 July.
We had to tackle the problems of the car, the water, electricity and the key to the cave.
First the car. We had anyhow planned to call on M Brunel, to thank him for the help he gave last year (he was the first to spot there was something seriously wrong with our engine) and to give him a tin of shortbread. Chris, who had not met either the old man or his son Patric, was as enthusiastic about them as I am. They are really the nicest garagistes I have come across. Patric said there was something wrong with the water reservoir. He took down details to order the ‘pi_ce’ and said that it was OK to drive the car, provided we did not make big expeditions and kept filling up the reservoir.
Faced with the possibility of the car being off the road, we then went on to the motorcycle shop and, earlier than intended, bought one of the cheapest machines – a secondhand Motobecane 49cc velo, which does not require a driving licence and therefore can be used by Chris as well as me. Its one of those machines you see old ladies on. It has only the one gear and you have to pedal hard to get the engine started.
Neither the estate agent, Mme Roche, nor Yves knew what had happened to the key. So, one of the purchases on our first – of many – trips to the quincaillierie was to buy a ladder, to get into the cave from the trap door in the room above.
We also visited the EDF – Electricite de France – and hit lucky. Everyone told us it could take weeks and weeks to get electricity. Mme Roche had done the preliminary work for us: she had arranged a site visit where a position for the external electricity meter had been agreed and had used her influence to stress the urgency of our need. She told us we now had to pay for the connection – about £500. So off we went for the first of many visits to the EDF. When we got to the front of the queue, I launched into an explanation, but the man interrupted me: ‘But I know you’. His in-laws live in the farm in the valley above Yves and he recognised us from our years of camping and in the past had watched baffled by the lunacy of tourists as Chris built his dams on the river. Success, we were known, and therefore things might happen. It was quite difficult to follow what had to happen as there are so many technical words, but we gathered that first we had to get someone to put a large concrete box – la ‘coquille’ – into the wall of our house and then the EDF would come and instal ‘l’electricite provisoire’.
Once we were home it was back to the water problem. As nobody knew where the key to the cave was, Chris climbed down through the trapdoor from the main room, found a stopcock and turned it on. Still no water. I drove the velo up to the top of our land (drove because the intervening terraces are a jungle – the road route to the top is about quarter of a mile uphill and it was hot and humid). No sign of any water supply, so I knocked on the door of the nearby house (Yves had said he was pleasant and had shown him the water supply). This house is quite the most hideous in the neighbourhood, a large concrete box, standing on a wonderful promontory with views in all directions and horribly conspicuous from the valleys around. The young man – whose name we still don’t know – was indeed helpful, although we could do without his extremely loud electric synthesiser and showed me the ‘comptoir’ which the mairie instals at the outlet to each property’s water supply. It was sunk into the ground and covered in brambles and earth. He pulled all this to one side and reached down to turn the water on. Disaster, the water spouted out of the pipe. By this time it was too late to investigate any further, so we had another waterless night (thank goodness for the water supply in the van).
Wednesday 14 July
In the supermarket in the morning, Chris met the EDF man. What was nice was that he picked his way through the crowded shop expressly to greet Chris and to tell him that he had a team coming into our valley on Friday and if we could get our coquille in place by then, maybe they would have time to connect us.
Then on to Yves’ snack by the river for lunch. How beautiful it is, sitting under the giant sail which serves as protection from the sun (huh!) and gazing down at the river tumbling from pool to pool. We were the only customers and Yves joined us at our table. His girlfriend is here for the summer again. Referred to by the girls as ‘dressing gown’s mum’ (because her son, who is the same age as Kate, used to stroll through the camping site to the showers each morning wearing the most elegant white dressing gown), she is a primary school teacher in the North of France and therefore has two months’ summer holiday.
It is so sad that Yves and Monique are no longer together. Both their new, rather loosely attached, partners seem pleasant enough, but more lightweight. There they are in the summer months, working a couple of hundred yards from each other, with Eric, Michel, Violaine – and us – wandering from one site to the other.
We explained the problem of the coquille to Yves and asked him whether he knew anyone who could do this for us asap, passing on Moniques’ suggestion that Johann might be interested. Yves said he would see what could be done. Yves said he had been in touch with Guy, who would start work on our house on Monday. He launched into a typical Yves statement about how he could not tolerate broken promises, even his own, and how once someone had ordered bread and he had forgotten, and to fulfil his promise had searched in le Vigan, Ganges, and up and down the valleys, looking for a bread.
Chris had a swim – it was far too cold for me, while I took advantage of the campsite’s showers and then worked for a couple of hours on the computer sitting in the salle de reunion, very pleasant.
Back to another delicious meal by Chris, marred only by the onset of mosquitoes and sundry other nasties. The insects are making it quite difficult to sleep at night. We are going to have to think about mosquito netting on the door, window or both. Because I sleep so badly anyhow, I have to get up for pees in the night, but these are pleasant interludes to go and look at the stars and the milky way. We have the portapotti installed in the cave, which works perfectly well as a temporary loo. We have bought a superior spade, and poor Chris performs the task of the nightsoil man every couple of days, digging a large hole at the far end of the first terrace (luckily very soft earth) to empy the contents of the portapotti. A bit of a scare when we found that I had forgotten to bring enough chemical stuff for the loo, but we finally tracked some down in Ganges.
Thursday 15 July
While sitting over a leisurely breakfast, a large motorbike drew up. This was our first meeting with Johann, who had come to fix the coquille. Wonderful! Better still, the first thing Johann did was to fix our water supply: he found a large nut next to the compteur which needed tightening. The luxury of water coming out of the kitchen tap.
It was a hot humid day and Johann sweated away all morning banging a large hole into our back wall. It is quite a difficult task making a rectangular hole out of what is essentially dry stone walling (our walls are about two feet thick!).
Then it was time to put in the coquille. We needed cement and it was after mid-day. At Johann’s suggestion we decided to try to borrow a bag from Jacques, the troutman, who lives a few kilometres away, up towards the top of our valley. His place was looking as beautiful as ever, if somewhat disorganised, and he is obviously making a tidy sum from tourists who pay to fish in his trout pools. Jacques was not there but his new girlfriend (the one who was the mother of the baby who drowned in their swimming pool a couple of years ago split up about 18 months ago) found us a bag of sand, but no cement. She suggested we get it from some friends of theirs – who turned out to be the neighbours opposite us, in the house with the swimming pool and a garden which runs down to the river. She telephoned to arrange this and off we went back home.
The neighbour, who had been at school with Jacques, was not in, but his wife and son were, and provided us with the bag of cement. The wife did not seem too welcoming at this first meeting. She was more absorbed by the question of what would happen to our ‘eaux sales’ than anything, though seemed a little reassured when I said we were having a ‘fosse septique’ built. We talked about the empty field next to her and it turns out that they have bought the first section – hence the pet goat which now lives there – but cannot persuade the old lady to sell the rest. I am glad as she mentioned the possibility of building on it. It is very difficult not to fantasise about buying up more empty land round ours simply to stop people putting up hideous houses.
After an aimable lunch with Johann, we left him to sweat over the task of cementing the coquille into the wall (the whole job took him five hours), while we went off to the campsite for a swim. He joined us later, the work completed (he charged us £20! We upped this to £25, but I still think it was far too little) and we had a jolly drink with him and Monique.
Back to the EDF to tell them the coquille was in place and to ask what should be done about drilling the hole through the coquille into the house. M Chepy assured us that this was the EDF’s job, much to our relief.
When we returned the bag of cement to our neighbours in the evening, together with our usual presentation tin of Scottish shortbread, they were much more welcoming. Mr in particular seems very nice. Both sets of neighbours have now urged us to call if there is anything we need.
Friday 16 July.
Better weather this morning and we sat outside enjoying our breakfast coffee (bread a slight problem as the baker at Breau has the worst bread in France, but we now use a better baker in le Vigan whose bread will last till the next morning). It is lovely sitting out here. The views are breathtaking and it is rather pleasant being close to the road, watching the traffic go by. There are sufficiently few cars for these to be of interest rather than a nuisance. Most of them seem to turn up the hill towards Mars anyway, rather than come on past our house. We are now on greeting terms with M le facteur, the Breau bread delivery van and our neighbours. Friday is also one of the three collection days for rubbish. Instead of having a poubelle, one of those large plastic rubbish containers you see all over France.
As we sat over our umpteenth cup of coffee, oohing and ahing as usual over the view, a gigantic EDF lorry, trailing vast wooden poles, pulled up outside, blocking off the entire road. Amazingly they were coming to instal our supply first rather than last in the day, as we had been led to believe. The bossman was a man of action rather than words. We thought at first that things might go wrong when he said the coquille was in the wrong place: it was facing somebody else’s land and in theory a neighbour could put up a wall and make it impossible for the EDF to read the meter. In practice nobody is likely to put up a wall against what is almost a vertical cliff face – but when a French bureaucrat starts quoting the rules, ones heart sinks. I acted the dumb foreigner and I think he decided it wasn’t worth causing problems. Next they turned the lorry into a stable crane with vast steel legs straddling across the road (every time a car wanted to pass they had to bring the crane down and raise the legs), got a giant corkscrew machine into position, literally drilled a hole in the ground behind our house and then carefully positioned the electricity pole into it. Meanwhile one of the team used the equivalent of climbers crampons to climb up the next electricity pole to connect our cable to the main supply and a third drilled through the coquille and brought the cables into the cave. The whole enterprise, watched by our friendly neighbour as well as us, took less than an hour. The bossman showed me the mains supply, which alarmingly consisted of two wires sticking out of the wall, and how to operate the on-off switch, and the entire team leapt aboard their lorry and drove off.
Meanwhile Madame the electricienne had to go into the quincaillerie to buy what was necessary to run cables and sockets up to our room, enough for a fridge, lights, the electric drill and our computers. As I made my purchases, the shopkeeper kept turning to the other man in the shop for advice. As he seemed to be an authority on these matters, I asked if he was an electrician. Yes indeed, he said, with the EDF! It was just coincidence that he was in the shop, they explained, they were co-organisers of the annual Festival du Rire and were discussing final details when I came in. Our luck seems to continue.
Back at the ranch I spent an inordinately long time setting up the wiring, not helped by the British electricity screwdriver being too large to fit into some of the awkward screwheads and the British wirecutters buckling under the strain of cutting through heavy duty French cable. Never mind,our equivalent of B & Q – Bricotruc – is only a couple of miles down the road. I took so long that the great switch-on did not happen until the next day!
Instead we went for a swim at ‘la plage de Breau’ (Breau is the name of the village on the hill below us). A little track leads down to a large grassy clearing beside the river, with giant poplars for shade and a little pebbly beach, with large rocks to sit on. Not really large enough to do much swimming it sure is refreshing as the river is much colder than the Herault! This was obviously the day for locals to enjoy their plage. There were several groups, one being headed by our neighbour of the eletrical synthesiser. But it was all very peaceful and friendly.
On Friday the first of our larger purchases arrived – a kitchen cupboard. We found this in the furniture store opposite the better supermarket. When we first went in we thought this would be no good, it appeared to be full of hideous, bad taste French furniture at exorbitant prices. But the nice young man chivvied us into looking upstairs, and there we discovered a reasonable range of IKEA/Habitat type fittings and bought a good tall white unit for about £120, delivered to our house.
Saturday 17 July
After our first market trip we went back to the furniture shop to look at mattresses. I had been sleeping on the car seats and Chris on some foam rubber cushions. The young man is a good salesman and persuaded us to look at beds as well. Chris had been going to make bed bases himself but we discovered two single bases each for just over £50 each. Mattresses and beds were delivered in the afternoon and we now sleep in much better style.
Saturday afternoon also marked the arrival of the fridge, a major and wonderful event. After 14 years of warm drinks and everything smelling of goats cheese, it is sheer luxury to reach inside and help oneself to a bottle of ice-cold beer (15p a bottle), a plate of solid butter, and the remains of the chicken which you know is not going off. Interestingly most of the fridges on sale, including ours which was bottom of the range, were made in Eastern Europe.
With lights, a fridge and music (I have brought my portable compact disc player) we feel we are in the height of luxury.
We rounded off this day of good progress by sitting watching the world go by – there seemed to be an endless succession of groups of people strolling past – and then joined them ourselves to walk up the hill to the next village and look down the valley in the fading light of the setting sun.
Sunday 18 July
We started off the day by going to the little market in our local village, Breau. It was much smaller than in previous years and rather disappointing. However, Jacques the fishman was there, so we were able to greet him and thank him for his sand. And next to him was a local potter with some lovely pieces. We bought a dish which Chris thought far too expensive at the time (about £16) but now agrees is a real addition to our house. We shall go back next week to tell the potter how much we like it.
Our way into the village had been held up by two women pushing a pram in the middle of the road, oblivious at first of the fact we were waiting. Then the younger one saw us and said, in English, ‘Oh, sorry, were you waiting for us?’ When we saw them in the market later, I congratulated her on her faultless English and she explained that she lived in Brill, near Thame, and was married to an English photographer! She introduced us to her parents, who turn out to have a house further up the hill than us, although they live most of the year in Paris. He is a professor of biochemistry, she is a lawyer working in the equivalent of the district attorney’s office. After a long, cheery chat in a confusing mixture of English and French, they invited us for a drink on Tuesday evening.
Chris got quite hot starting work on building a table (using the wood which was to have become our beds). So, down to la plage for him to freshen up. There we met a family from Marseilles, up to avoid the heat and mosquitoes of the coast.
And then another little outing to Serres, the village up the road. An old man in the village told us that the road ahead was too narrow (we subsequently found he was quite wrong) so I had to do a nervewracking reverse trip through the village and down the hill. We then continued as planned on foot and walked a little way down our valley on the other side, looking across at our house. This area is littered with little lanes with virtually no traffic and beatiful views in all directions.
A lovely end to the day and most satisfying end to our first week’s holiday. It seemed amazing that in that time we had travelled down through France, sorted out the water, electricity and lock problems, met our neighbours, met some nice people leading to our first social engagement, bought beds, a cupboard, fridge and moped.
Monday 19 July
This morning started with a little more frustration. We waited for the arrival of Guy the mason, and waited, and waited…. Mid-morning I set off to Molieres, his village, to track him down. First I called at the Mairie to find out where he lived and then found his house, down an amazing network of steep alleys. I listened outside the narrow house and could hear his wife, child and baby, but no man’s voice. There seemed no way to get their attention (no bell or knocker) other than calling up, and my courage failed me. So I went back to Breau and phoned instead. He said there had been some ‘petits problemes’ and he would be with us on Tuesday, about 8 in the morning. Huh!
It’s amazing how little projects can occupy so much of the day. I went to the garage to see if our ‘piece’ had arrived yet – it hadn’t. We went to thank Madame Roche for her part in getting the electricity, she was amazed we had managed it in such a short time. We had another lovely lunch beside the river – I had stuffed tomato while we tried to get more news from Yves about when his son Petrus might start clearing our jungle.
Then back to the house, where Chris finished making his table and I clambered through the jungle to see how much land we actually have. It’s incredible, we seem to have about eight little terraces, the first level, in front of the house, being the largest. I climbed up one level using our ladder, as we could not find any steps on the rockface and wall and then got defeated by the brambles. So I took the mobylette up the road to the back of our property and started to work my way down, using the secateurs to cut a way through the bush. I found that most levels had neatly made stone steps down to the next level and there are more trees up there than we at first thought. We seem to have scattered about a number of wild hazelnuts, acacias, a wild cherry, a fig tree – and lots more I could not recognise.
At a particularly embarassing moment when I was negotiating some prickles and trying to get a foothold on the next step, our neighbour – he of the ugly house and too loud synthesiser – popped his head over the wall. He said he had been attracted by the sight of a moving tree, but all was now explained. He offered the use of his tools and waved a particularly fierce looking cutlass as the most efficient for beating the bush. He has apparently only lived there for a couple of years and had to tame an equally intransigent bit of hillside. I thanked him but said dinner called.
Dinner. Yumm! Chris made a particularly delicious coq au vin, followed by raspberries and creme fraiche.
Tuesday 20 July
Up early again for Guy and this time he came – only an hour later than he said he would. He is a young, fit looking guy whom I vaguely remember seeing around. Luckily I can understand his French and he seems intelligent and practical. He set about the work of clearing the site to be built on with a lot of energy and said the compressor, needed to drill away the rock, would be arriving later in the morning. We were out most of the morning. By the time we got back – after midi – Guy had left, and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the day.
In the late afternoon, Chris decided to explore the other side of the valley. I dropped him off at the start of the walk and then nipped home to get the mobylette and surprise him by catching up with him. Somehow or other I actually passed him, so we did the same tour independently before I backtracked and found him. The small road up the other side of the valley is lovely: it passes through mainly undeveloped woodland and pasture with all the time the most spectacular views across the valley including a good bird’s eye view of our property. The fact that there are so many little circular excursions is proving to be one of the unexpected bonuses of our mazet.
It was then time to go up the hill behind us to drinks with our neighbours met at the market – Robert and Claudie Artignan-Morfin (they joined their names when they married, he is Morfin, she was Artignan) and their daughter Isalda. Despite their Parisian background and Parisian sophistico names, they in fact have their origins deep in the Midi. Robert explained his family’s name was originally Morfino, and they were Italian money makers, who moved a century or so ago to the Ardeche. Claudie’s family come from nearer this area. Robert and Claudie, who are the same age as us, met as high school kids in Nimes. He is now a professor of Biochemistry at Paris, she is a greffier in the Paris prosecution system, having trained in law after having her children. They are extremely nice people and very easy to chat to, in a curious mixture of English (which they all speak superbly) and French. Isalda almost behaves more like an English than French young woman, easy going and very open.
The fellow guests for drinks were unfortunately a bit of a blot. Believe it or not one of the other houses on the hill are occupied by a retired Welsh missionary minister and his French wife, M et Mme Williams. Despite having quite a lot in common – he has worked in Nigeria (during the war) and the former Northern Rhodesia, and they have driven the Cape Town to Cairo route that Wenol and I did, they were extremely boring people.
After they left, the A-Ts invited us on a tour of their house. It was well worth it, provided we can manage to keep our pangs of envy at bay. Claudie’s father bought the main plot – to which they have subsequently added bits – about 15 years ago and their first house was one large room with a tiny kitchen and shower room/loo off it. Rather like our mazet in fact, except that it was totally new. Over the past years they have extended the house in three phases, each one on a different level, with the most wonderful higgledy-piggledy stairs, roofs and shaped rooms. Somebody, either they, the architect or the builder has a superb instinct for what is right in the area. What really makes the rooms is the abundant use of chestnut beams everywhere, and indeed the sort of finish we would dearly love, with good quality quarry tiles on the floor, superbly finished steps, pathways and verandahs everywhere and – the final touch – some absolute gems of furniture. Claudie has inherited a lot of mahogany and chestnut furniture, made in the Cevennes and much of it at least 150 years old.
Chris is developing a theory about the French character, basing its roots in a continental Cartesian tradition. Then every so often a secondary, conflicting character emerges, that of the romantic. Claudie and Robert’s house demonstrates the latter trend (as does Yves’ various creations – and ours).
They were very encouraging about our enterprise (which they have not seen yet) and said that we had paid more or less the right price for our property (based on land size rather than the buildings on it) and that we could follow the same development strategy as they did. I don’t think they realise just how little we have to spend, or, despite our relative affluence in British terms, how much less than them we earn. Continental academics still don’t grasp that our salaries are much lower than theirs. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed our tour, and it did give us some ideas of the importance of stone steps and paths and wooden beams.
Wednesday 21 July
Up at seven thirty, just going down to the cellar for a pee, when Guy turned up! He explained somewhat apologetically that yesterday had been a day of preparation and the real work would start today. It did indeed: we had scarcely finished our breakfast before Guy had the compressor generator going and started drilling into the rocks which occupy the space for our new extension.
We escaped the noise shortly afterwards, apart from returning for lunch, but by the end of the day we could see he, and an assistant, had made impressive progress. A large mountain of slate-like rock now occupies space in the middle of what would be our lawn if we could get someone to cut it and the rock which was against the house wall has disappeared. So much so that we tremble somewhat when we look at the ragged surface of what is one of the supporting walls of the house. But Yves says that Guy knows what he is doing, so we must have confidence in him.
The only other rather worrying thing is that Guy is one of France’s many black economy workers (travail au noir), hence his low estimate. There is always the danger of local bureaucrats descending on the property therefore. Our only comfort is that this practice is so rampant and we are relatively small and remote that it is unlikely to happen.
This morning we took the car to have its new piece – something to do with the radiator – fixed. We also asked M Brunel to investigate the nasty clanking noise that has developed. While he did this we took a lovely walk to the nearby hill village of Moli_res. Typical of this area, it is reached by a non-stop uphill road, wandering round the almost conical hill. Then up through winding narrow alley ways to the two main ‘places’, one for the church, the other for the mairie.
Nearby we found what appeared to be a huge, spectacular, derelict building with a magnificent panoramic view over the le Vigan valley. We asked a nice old couple washing their car nearby (or rather she was washing, he was watching) what it was. We should have guessed: it was a disused silk factory which had just been bought by the mairie for the commune. How satisfying and how typical of the smallest level of local government in this area, which always seems to be developing public spaces (like our local ‘plage’), installing seats where there is a view, and planting trees and lavender everywhere.
Back down to the garage where M Brunel and his son discovered the clanking noise was caused by a piece (literally) of broken suspension. They seem to think that if we don’t overload the van, however, we should get back to Scotland OK. Just as well, because replacing the other part cost us 50 quid.
We dissipated the afternoon in a more idle way, visiting the campsite for a shower, negotiating with Petrus to clear the jungle (he will charge us £5 an hour because the equipment has to be paid for as well), watching him giving children donkey rides in a splendid chariot he has just built, and not having any pangs about not being on the campsite (an awful lot of new people, including some rather loutish German and Dutch teenagers).
On the way home I stopped to arrange for the house insurance. What should have been a quick five minute job took the best part of half an hour. Like everyone else in the area the man and woman in the office wanted to have a good moan about the weather which is ‘pas normale’ for a Cevenole summer. (Actually, given that it is no longer so humid and is not actually raining but simply not as hot and cloudless as usual, we are rather enjoying it.) Then they wanted to know about our house and how we managed the journey and to tell me about an English writer who lives in the village next to us, and to congratulate me on my French (more! more!).
I must say we have always found people very friendly here but as we have been coming into more contact with traders, officials and neighbours, we have been overwhelmed by how welcoming everybody is. I can’t think of any office or shop in which we don’t enjoy the contact with the people there. Of course, although there are old, toothless peasants in our valley, with scruffy farmhouses and rabid-looking dogs, they are definitely in a minority and we don’t have much contact with them. Indeed, even the stray dogs who walk purposefully past our house have a friendly, cared-for air about them! Only the insects remain as unfriendly as ever.
Thursday 22 July
Up at sunrise again – I must say it is lovely just sitting outside our little house at 7.30 admiring the view, although this morning it was distinctly chilly. Guy arrived soon after eight to contuine the thankless task of drilling away the rock where our bedrooms will be.
We frittered the morning away. We went to Bricotruc and Intermarche and Chris spent an age in both, forgetting what he had come for, while I spent most of the time outside, watching the world go by.
Chris found Cedimat, the builders merchant and woodshop in town, a bit disappointing, so we went to see M Guibal. We have often passed the rather undistinguished wood shed between Pont d’Herault and le Vigan, but it was an eye opener visiting it. M Guibal was a delight to meet, a courteous gentleman who clearly loves the wood he works with. He buys only the best trees, from afar as the Pyrenees, and cuts and seasons the wood himself. We saw huge trunks of lovely cedar and chestnut. Chris had wanted to make a chestnut table but unfortunately, the way he works is to season the wood once it has been ordered. So we have decided to order some chestnut before we leave, so it will be ready for next year. It is good value – about £12 a square metre (for about an inch thick planks).
Back to the house where Guy and his mate have hit a particularly obstinate rock. Half way through the day another friend brought a larger compressor along, as the first one was obviously cutting out in the heat. At least the cloudy weather is being kind to them.
Chris has been immensely active so far these holidays: apart from his usual heroic efforts cooking, shopping and washing clothes, he has made the table, a clothes line and a temporary barbecue. This afternoon it was my turn to be active: I spent a couple of hourse fighting my way further through the jungle up the hill, beating a path down through our terraces. We have asked Petrus, the most unreliable of Yves sons, to come and give an estimate for clearing the land with his large mechanical debroullaisseur. He said he will try to come at the beginning of next week, but meanwhile we become increasingly frustrated at the impenatrability of our land. The main terrace, where the house is, is rapidly taking on the appearance of a stone mountain as Guy and his mate deposit the stone cut out of the hillside on the grass. The most we can hope to do this year is tidy things up, and start planting plans next year, I think.
As so often, the weather cleared up in the evening, and we had a particularly lovely, though extraordinarily chilly evening eating outside. Chris cooked merguez on the fire. Our neighbours up the road had another of their musical evenings, singing slow sentimental French chansons, which they accompanied on the accordion, trumpet and synthesiser. It was funny at first, but Chris in particular is becoming a little irritated with them. For amateurs they are quite good, but the music is extraordinarily loud. It is difficult to know what to do, because we are only one of two houses probably in earshot.
Friday 23 July
Woke up to an absolutely gorgeous morning – not a cloud in sight. Perhaps our usual July weather is about to start? We got to the Ganges market shortly after nine and Chris had his first leisurely market visit happily buying food, while I sat in the shade in the middle, doing nothing as usual.
We had gone to Ganges because our favourite pottery stall is there, where we bought the blue bowls last year. We bought four more blue bowls for the mazet, two coffee cups and saucers and ordered four plates.
Now I am off to le Vigan to get this printed. I had an entertaining time yesterday in a small photocopying shop which seems to have one of the only Macintoshes in town. It is so new that she was scared by my proposal to attach my machine to hers in order to print this diary, but has agreed if I bring it on a floppy disk I can print it. In exchange I am going to give her a couple of disks – she has not got any yet – and show her how to back up her work. Her architect client who persuaded her to get a Mac is on holiday and at present she feels pretty helpless, so I think she is quite please to find someone who knows about the machine. Only problem, she has not got Microsoft Word, which I am using at present, so I will have to convert this file to Claris Works (her programme, which I have never used), so it will be interesting to see what it turns out like.
Well, that turned out to be another adventure. The photocopying shop was close for annual holidays. Driving down the road, however, I spotted an architect’s office with a Mac in it, popped inside to see if I could print there. At first, as is so often the case in French offices, they were a bit distant. But then one of the two architects helped me print on his secretary’s machine (his secretary turned out to be his wife). It was interesting using a French Mac, with French commands, menus, keyboard etc. I asked the architect about the use of computers in French architects offices and he reckoned that about half had now moved from les methodes historiques (a cheeky aside, I think, for his partner, who was sitting at the drawing board. He showed me a very clever programme he used which produced three dimensional views of any buildings he designed. You could rotate the design to see the building from any position, zoom in on particular features, or look inside any part of the building. These were rapidly replacing the old architects’ models used to present ideas to clients, planning departments etc. As so often in France the world of architecture and planning seems to be a curious combination of old, bureaucratic habits and an enthusiastic embracing of high-tech methods.
Then I showed them my portable and the architect got very enthusiastic and wanted to have a go. He was much taken with some of the software I use and I promised to come back later in the week to show him more.
Just back to the house in time before the Racheters – our Swiss friends – arrived for drinks at six. They were much taken with the house, just as we had finished showing them round and we were settling down for drinks on the terrace, Isalda and her husband Tim walked by. So, a second tour of the house! Luckily at this stage it is only one room, but it is amazing how long the ‘tour’ takes, by the time you have discussed the plans, showed the growing hole in the rock, discussed materials and – most important of all – the location of the septic tank.
The Rachetets had some awful news. Petrus, Yves’ second son, has been in a motor cycle accident and is in a deep coma in a Montpellier hospital.
Saturday 24 July
Nothing special. We went to market in the morning and spent a quiet afternoon. Chris was not feeling very well and was a little grumpy…
Sunday 25 July
We had invited the Morfin household to breakfast before we all went off to the Breau market. It was ironic that this should be the first time every that we could not eat breakfast outside because of the weather. We had had some impressive lightning, followed by rain during the night, and it was still threatening to turn from spitting to something nastier in the morning. However, breakfast was a great success. We somehow sat six adults and one baby round the table that Chris has made.
We then all walked to Breau – about a mile away – to the very small market. Chris and I bought another delightful pottery dish and some goats cheese from a woman who already recognises us and asked after our building works.
Back at the house, the Cauvins (our friends from Normandy) suddenly turned up. Once again the grand tour of the property – or at least the first terrace. Jean-Claude in particular was most enthusiastic.
In the evening I popped up to the Morfins to deliver my office letter for Isalda and Tim to post at the airport on their return tomorrow. Robert and Claudie had obviously been talking about our plans and asked if I minded them making some comments and suggestions. I of course did not and they proceeded to express concern about the two roofs both leading to the same gutter; they were also worried about the lack of difference in the levels of the lavatory and the septic tank. They suggested a fairly dramatic alteration in our plans. Instead of a single story extension as in our present plans:
they suggested a double storey building, with the roof sloping in the opposite direction, with the added bonus of it giving us access (which we dont have at present) to the second terrace. The grey area gives some idea of the alternative building:
Instead of having two bedrooms and a bathroom on the ground floor, as in our present plans, they suggested one bedroom and a staircase and upstairs, another, larger bedroom and a bathroom. They argued that the increase in cost would be much less than imagined because the expensive drilling of rock could be reduced, the ground area of the building reduced and the septic tank not sunk so deep into the garden. Besides, they said, the way French planning permission works, we have five years to finish the building – and find the money for it.
All this threw Chris and me into something of a quandary: we could see the strength of their arguments and were of course attracted by the idea of opening up access to the second terrace. We decided to discuss the suggestions with Guy in the morning.
Monday 26 July
When we talked it over with Guy we were thrown into yet more confusion because he was also attracted by the proposal and said he had already said to Yves he was worried about the central gutter. The alternative plan would cost more, he said, but not dramatically so. However, it would mean the loss of another year, as new plans would have to be drawn up and submitted to the department (the French system takes simply months to process). As he needed to know quickly what we proposed, we decided I should go and see Yves immediately.
At the campsite before seeing Yves I learnt from Monique and others that there was no change in Petrus’ condition, he was still in a deep coma. His mother, who is now married to an American was arriving from the States in about an hour. Talking to Yves’ girlfriend, Christianne, it looks even graver. The doctors have basically put his body on hold for a fortnight, when they will make an attempt to see if he can live independent of the machines. He apparently had gone off to collect his helmet from a friend who had borrowed it (ironic) and hit a tree. His face is smashed in and completely covered in bandages and tubes.
I worried about bothering Yves, but Christianne said it was important for him to be occupied and that he would welcome the distraction. Yves was indeed smiling and genial – but absolutely firm that the plans should not be changed. He acknowledged there was a potential problem with the gutter being blocked by leaves and said we would have to check it at least twice a year, but paying someone to do that would be cheaper than changing the plans. He thought that the alterations would cost quite a bit more and it is true, we are already over the planned limit. Nor did he think there was a problem with the cesspit. But his real objection, I think, is that he thought the alternative design would spoil the appearance of the original mazet architecturally. He is quite right about that. So we went back to the original plans with some relief, but also trepidation, because of the potential gutter problem, and regret because we lose the route to expansion onto the next terrace.
I suppose realism has to prevail at some time. The present building plans, which produce two small bedrooms, one tiny, as well as a loo and shower, are financially very good value – about £12000 in all. But this is still about £3000 more than we have!
Later in the morning Chris had his first attempt on the mobylette. It was not a great success. He found it impossibly cramped – his knees hit the handbars when he pedals – and scary. The problem with these very basic machines is starting them: you have to face downhill, pedal, and when the engine catches, squeeze a handle and turn the throttle at the same time. All a bit depressing.
In contrast, after lunch I took the mobylette on a run up the valley to Mars and into the hills above. It was wonderfully exhilarating. The views were magnificent and I loved the sense of being on a bicycle – without the impossible effort of sweating up a hill.
We were invited for the afternoon and evening to the Cauvins. Jean-Claude’s mother died last year and he has inherited his parents’ house in Peyregosse, the next bit of valley up from la Corconne. The house turned out to be awfully poky and claustrophobic, but the land and outlook was wonderful. They have about an acre of terraces going up the hillside, with beautifully maintained stone walls and lovely trees and a view across the valley to St Andre de Majencoules. Jean-Claude took us on a detailed guided tour with much pride and passion. He would so obviously like to live here; he loves pottering in his father’s well equipped toolshed and looking after the terraces. But Anne-Marie does not like it here and insists on living in Normandy. Impasse.
We then went for a swim in the river below the Cauvins. Because Anne-Marie’s mother is 77, rather than scrambling down the rocks beside the river, we crossed the bridge and went through the orchard belonging to the old farmer (whom Jean-Claude has known since he was a child). The river was lovely, not so deep as the deepest section at la Corconne, but pretty, with a sandy beach and the grass of the orchard behind. We had a lovely, if somewhat cold, swim in the early evening sun and then back for a delicious Normandy supper. I find Anne-Marie very limited (though her mother is much more fun), but Jean-Claude is a sweet-natured, generous man who always seems to enjoy making an effort to explain or show us things. We realised as the evening progressed and he began to speak faster how much he normally slows down his speech for our benefit! What is nice, however, is that we can now spend several hours chatting away with a French family with comparative ease.
Tuesday 27 July
Breakthrough! Chris walked across to the quieter road on the other side of the valley and I joined him with the mobylette for lesson number two. At first much despair, not helped by the mobylette not starting very well for me either. Chris gritted his teeth and perservered. Finally, he could be seen cautiously disappearing round the bend. Then silence, and I began to worry – until a sedate figure suddenly reappeared.
Chris spent the afternoon working, while I went down to ‘la plage de Breau’ for a very brief swim and a long sunbathe. It is very lovely down there. The water is a bit too cold for me, but Chris walks down there for a swim once or twice a day. For a long time there was only one other, quiet family there (turned out to be English!), but when the magic hour of four came, a large number of French families, who had by now waited ‘pour la digestion’, arrived, including a vanload of mentally handicapped adults. For a while I enjoyed watching people enjoying themselves, but then beat a retreat back to the house.
Guy and his mate Didiet (who has a most engaging poodle – well, mostly poodle – called Albert, whose eyes are totally lost in his huge shaggy black coat) have been making good progress with the compressor and the foundations are almost cleared. Yves made a visit to the site this morning and it was agreed by all that we would sacrifice a few more inches in width (let’s hope the beds still fit in!), as otherwise it could cost another expensive week drilling away more of the rock.
Another brief trip to Brico-Truc, where they now greet Chris as an old habitue, and back to the house. As I pulled the car in, there were two old ladies and a younger one watching us. After the usual conversation asking us where we came from (we always say Scotland rather than England, but I think the difference was lost on these peasants) we had a long and aimable chat.
The oldest of the three was a splendid character with just two teeth. She is a great great granny of 90! The others were her younger sister and daughter. They all come from Serres, half a mile up the road. They were most intrigued that we had bought the mazet which has been empty for years. The old lady waxed lyrical about the days when this was a working farm, with peach, apple and cherry trees. The house was used to keep tools in and a donkey lived in it! (We still think that its original purpose was to house migrant, casual labour.) Most of the imediate neighbours appear to be young, upwardly mobile people working in le Vigan, so this was our first meeting with local peasants. They were just as welcoming and friendly as everyone else in the area and we bade enthusiastic goodbyes, with promises that next time they would climb the steps to our terrace and look at what we were doing.
It was a particularly beautiful evening and we frittered most of it away sitting on our terrace, admiring the view, thinking how lucky we were.
Wednesday 28 July
Another gorgeous, cloudless morning, though there was a heavy dew overnight. I got up a 6.45 to take the mobylette over to Aulas to buy croissants for breakfast. The round trip is 7 kilometres, a bit far really to go for croissants, but this is just an excuse, as it is beautiful the whole way. And then we sat eating our breakfast, watching the sun rise over the hill opposite.
Guy arrived almost too promptly at eight, but with the good news that he thinks that is the end of the compressor. He will try to do most of the remaining excavations, including digging the septic tank, with a pickaxe and mallets and chisels.
Chris has just been out on a solo trip on the mobylette! He started it by himself and, braving the main thoroughfare outside our house, pottered up to Serres and back. He is now sitting doing some more work at the computer. I think I will go out and explore the cross country track to Aulas, over the hill opposite and into the next valley.
In the afternoon we went across to la Corconne for a swim and shower. It is amazing that still, even though we are no longer residents, it can take us an hour to get from the car to the shower block. In this case we first met the husband of Madame Yucky, the woman who camped beside us our very first year. She had two children, a ghastly girl called Cendrine and a nice boy a year older than Kate called Stephane. Cendrine is now quite well qualified but unemployed and getting very depressed, while Stephane, who has no qualifications, still has his job as a lorry driver. We again met Mme Yucky (named after her dog – we never did find out her real name) a few years back with her new husband, a simple but aimable electrician. After our (lovely) swim, we were invited to their site for an aperitif. They love coming here, which is nice and unusual: they are one of the few working class French families here.
We also stopped by the Racheters (the Swiss) and invited them over for supper on Sunday and met Harry and Ludween (Marie Jose Mol’s sister) and invited them for a drink on Friday.
Then on up the valley to Valleraugue, for our annual treat of pizza and icecream at the cafe beside the bridge – though I must say it does feel rather strange doing this without any children! We sat at one of our usual tables beside the river. I remarked that the bridge had been restored nicely – whereupon the old man at the next table said (in French): ‘But this is not your first visit here then?’ So began another of those amazing conversations which have been such a feature of this holiday. The old man turned out to own the building which houses the cafe and to live above itwhen in Valleraugue. He is a semi-retired professor of psychology and psychoanalysis at Lyon University. So we started with a bit of a discussion about universities and about the different philosophical approach of French intellectuals. Then I remarked that I seemed to remember that a famous French intellectual had lived near Valleraugue. Ah yes, he said, that was Levi-Strauss, the eminent French anthropologist, I knew him well. It turned out the professor’s father had been something like secretary to the local mayor during the war, when this area was much involved with the Resistance and with hiding French Jews – including the parents of Levi-Strauss (who spent the war in America). After the war Levis Strauss came to this area and bough a house near Valleraugue and the two families met often. Once the professor’s father said: ‘My son has some story about you being an internationally famous intellectual and a member of the French Academy?’ Levis-Strauss put his finger to his lips and said: ‘Oui, mai shhhh!’
Thursday 29 July
A tall man who said he was the plumber who was going to build our drains arrived in the morning before Guy. As it was a very hot day again we invited him in for a beer. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Vous avez un Macintosh.’ He turned out to be a computer freak, who owns several PCs and uses the same architect’s programme as the architect I met last week!
When we came back from shopping Guy said that his friend the plumber had the same reservations as him about our roof and had come up with another alternative plan. We sighed and listened.
The plumber also suggested running on the right hand roof, but then to slope back again, retaining the same slopes as before, but with the gable shifted to the left:
We liked this much more than Robert’s design: although it does not give us the same possibility of access onto the second terrace, it retains something of the scale of the original mazet and, most important, Guy and the plumber said it was not likely to cost much more. The plumber is going to produce a drawing over the weekend, so Guy can given an estimate of the difference in price. Then we would have to tackle Yves again…
The weather was very hot, Guy said it was about 37 in the shade and so we escaped for a mountain trip, to our favourite picnic spot in the forests above Col du Minier. It was hot even there and the foresters had been working on our favourite forest track (destroying all the wild strawberries) and our picnic spot beside the stream had to be abandoned because of mosquitoes. The wet spring this year had made it a horribly insect riddent holiday! Never mind, we found another shady spot and spent a quiet afternoon hiding from the sun. On our way down we stopped at the viewing spot to take our bearings of the landscape before us. Although you cannot see our house from the top of the mountains, you can see our hill, which viewed from above looks like a deep valley!
That night the insects and the heat defeated us: after tossing and turning we got up at 2.30 am, sprayed the house and went for a clammy walk up the hill to Serres.
Friday 30 July
Even hotter and more humid than yesterday!
We took an early trip to the Ganges market where we bought two more cups and saucers and four plates in our favourite blue pottery. Chris worked in the afternoon, after a quick trip into le Vigan to see if I could get my specs (which I have dropped) mended, I sheltered from the heat at the river.
Harry and Ludween came for a drink and were gratifyingly overwhelmed by the beauty of our location. They are going to take pictures and send them to Wim and Marie Jose and our other dutch friends to show them where we have ended up.
They brought with them one piece of sad but not surprising news: Petrus died yesterday. It all seems so unreal when we think of him just over a week ago, with his donkey and a chariotful of children. Monique is sending us an invitation for the funeral. Oh dear.
Harry and Ludween and their two incredibly well behaved children stayed for supper. Towards the end Robert and Claudie dropped by. This was a bit awkward, because we had to speak in English and Harry and Ludween were somewhat overwhelmed. They are quieter and slower than Robert and Claudie. Then they had to take off because the children were bored, so we sat outside drinking coffee and armagnac with Robert and Claudie, but continued to speak in English – very bad!
The insects were out marauding again. We now have insect screens, insect sprays and lemon scented candles. But Robert and Claudie swear by an electrical gadget which disseminates insect repellent round the room throughout the night. I’m off to get one tomorrow.
The clouds had been gathering overhead and scudding across the sky in the most dramatic way. We expected a storm at any minute. Instead the wind got up and blew violently throughout the night. And until about two I could hear bursts of music from Breau, which is starting its three-day fete. Chris slept through it all but I had to keep getting up for pees in the garden!
Saturday 31 July
Up shortly after seven and with one of those complete turnarounds, not a cloud in the sky, not an insect in the air, a pleasant dry breeze promising a perfect day. I was all set to go on the mobylette to collect croissants, only to discover the mobylette had been vandalised. At first I thought someone had just taken the cover off and tossed the paniers under the car, but then saw the damage was more extensive, and as we found out from the garage later it was obvious that someone had tried to steal the engine.
So, the day started with a visit to the gendarmerie, to report the vandalism (no interest at all) and the theft of the insurance label you have to display on motor cycles. Then on to the insurance company to get another insurance label. They were much more sympathetic and told me that it was undoubtedly the work of ‘les jeunes a Salagosse’. I asked what they meant and they explained that Salagosse, the small village at the head of our valley, is a residential centre for juvenile offenders. Much as we dont like the automatic assumption that all crimes can be attributed to the outsider delinquent, there is an awful lot of sense in this and we are going to have to review our security measures (or lack of them). Then on to the motorcycle garage to be told that it will cost £100 to repair. We had understandably only taken out third party insurance.
The motorcycle saga was followed by an abortive effort to get a spare part for the broken door of the icebox in our fridge.
After this rather trying morning we then had a lovely lunch at Robert and Claudie’s. The other guest was a woman originally from Breau who Chris thinks is a friend but I had understood she was the second wife of Claudie’s father. Robert cooked sausages, merguez and red peppers on their magnificent barbecue, and we drank delicious family made vin cuit (an aperitif which tastes like a cross between a good sherry and something from Italy) followed by the local red which Robert buys in bulk in town, bottles and stores in his cave. But what really made the lunch was the view and the Morfins. It is incredibly easy to get on with Robert and Claudie – today we spoke mainly in French. Despite the fact that they obviously have a rather smart Parisian lifestyle most of the year, here they are informal and relaxed in a way which is unusual for the French. They say that they actually prefer the Anglo Saxon to Mediterranean temperament and had they been younger might have opted for living in England and the States. As it is they have an English son-in-law, of whom they are very fond, and what is really their maison familiale in this lovely spot. As they are higher up the hill their views are more spectacular. We looked at more of their garden this time, taking advice on what fast-growing trees to go for (the mur espagnol seems a particularly good bet). We also looked at and agreed to buy Claudie’s father’s mobylette (a more modern version than the one we have) next year, if he agrees to the same price of £300.
Then back to an afternoon and evening of sheer idleness!
Sunday 1 August
We woke to another perfect day (except we had run out of coffee!). After a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the still quite fresh breeze and cloudless sky, I went to Aulas to buy bread, taking the long route round the valley, pausing to take photos.
We then went to Breau for a hilarious local festival event, the rounding up of bulls in the village square by local horsemen. Scheduled for 11.30 this finally got underway at nearly one and took all of five minutes. As we entered the village, which sits high on the hill down the valley from us, we saw the horses, working greys (we havent quite worked out who owns them or what they are used for, but they were stamped with the symbols of different farms), with splendid high sided leather saddles and their riders very much men of the Languedoc: bronzed, muscular, swarthy, rather scruffy. First the pompier arrived – a car in case of fire or accident – and then a couple of officials barricaded off a few of the doors opening onto the square. Then the riders rode into town with a flourished, bowed to the clapping crowd, and rode off again. A few minutes later came the chaotic arrival of two or three huge bulls. The horsemen herded two of them pretty rapidly into a cattle truck in one corner of the square. The third bull didn’t seem to want to go and dug its heels in before the crowd in front of the mairie. Two men pulled it by the horns to no avail. Then somebody gave it a glass of pastis, which appeared to get it going again, and off it went to join its mates. And that was it. The horsemen jumped off, ordered drinks, kissed and shook the hands of their friends and relatives or took little children off for rides, and Breau returned to its normal sleepy summer Sunday market. As we walked down the hill we noticed that virtually all the cars were French: the foreign tourists appeared to have ignored this rather endearing little local custom (which according to Robert used to be widespread in Languedoc towns, and especially in Nimes).
I did my first bit of borrowing of neighbours in the afternoon. We had the Racheters coming to supper and we discovered that we had no coffee left, so I did a hot walk up the hill to borrow a packet from Claudie, and to say goodbye, as they leave in the morning. Supper went off well. As Chris noticed, we can now spend an evening talking in French without too much strain.
Monday 2 August
The day that we were due to get our telephone. We were not inspecting them to turn up at 7.45! Two aimable men arrived an in less than an hour had run a cable from a nearby telephone post (we now have rather a lot of cables straddling across our view), nailed it into the stone walls and given us two outlets, one for our existing room and one for our new wing. But no phone. Everybody had told us that you got a phone with the installation, but the men said this had to be ordered specifically. We found out later that this would have anyhow been an additional rental. So, keen to use our new toy, we set off to find an electro-menager selling phones – only to discover that on Mondays this was one category of shop which quite definitely observed the equivalent of early closing (in this area ‘ferme tous les lundis’). Frustrated I had to use the Breau public box to phone Richmond that evening. The largest currency it would now accept was 2 franc pieces, and as virtually all we had was 5 franc pieces, this made phoning a little difficult.
This was also the day when Albert the plumber brought us his designs for the proposed changes to the new building. He had produced various options, but mainly variants on a single storey and double storey model. We opted for the single storey, on grounds of cost (although even so it is likely to cost more than the existing plans), aesthetics (it varies the least from the existing plans) and probable ease of getting the variation through the planning department. The outline looks something like this:
Albert reckons that August is a good month to do this as with so many people on leave we stand a good chance of the official merely rubber stamping the change.
What to do now? How will Yves react, given his attachment to his original plans? Today is the day of Petrus’ cremation, and therefore not an appropriate time to bother him. We arranged that we would go and see him tomorrow and meet Guy and Albert in the evening to discuss the outcome.
Today was also a non-starter on building works as the engine of Guy’s cement mixer packed up. The problem with using black labour is that not only are they worried all the time that the gendarmes are going to turn up but all their equipment is clapped out. First we had witnessed two compressors at the end of their life, now the cement mixer. Guy says he has to buy a new one every two years, but doesnt want to do so just yet. His car is in a similar state of being past its ‘best by’ date. Then Albert sold Guy a motor which he had bought from his a year or so ago! It did not fit, so Guy said he would have to make some modifications. Meanwhile we enjoyed a building free day.
Time to tackle the jungle. This was to have been done by Petrus. Two problems, who and what with? Other people have quoted us much higher prices for cutting back the jungle – Didiet for example quoted 60 francs an hour and had not got his own machine. It has become obvious that we need a debroussailleuse – a mechanical scythe – and that this is a machine which people are reluctant to lend. But if we buy one we cannot afford to pay someone to use it! Chris believed we should get one and use it ourselves. I still think we will need help in cutting back the jungle above, particularly the vast areas of brambles. Anyhow, off again to the quincaillerie, which had three models, two at between 3500 and 4000 francs and one for just over 2500. The two more expensive ones had the better engine, capable of running all day without overheating; the cheaper one could only run a couple of hours without overheating. But as Mme pointed out, we would not want to do this work for more than two hours at a stretch and she advised us against lending it to others. So we bought the cheaper one together with rubber boots and a vast eye mask, to protect Chris against chipping stones. Later we bought oil and petrol to make the mix from our favourite garage.
All this exhausted us so much that we stowed all the new equipment away in the cave, which now has a respectable mixture of agricultural tools, a stack of firewood, some spare roof tiles, a crate of beer, a rubber boat and motley camping equipment, some of Guy’s building equipment and of course the portapotti, which Chris continues to empty nobly and regularly into holes at the bottom of the garden. Chris retreated to the shade of the house to work and I went for a splosh and read at our local river until six, when our visitors, Gerard and Marion arrived for drinks.
Marion is the Dutch woman who, together with her then boyrfriend, Ron, were camped next to us our very first year. Kate and Judith adopted them and we discovered after some time that the reason we had such nice lie-ins in the morning is that they had gone visiting to the next door tent. We saw them several times over the years, visiting them in Amsterdam three years after our first meeting. Then Ron was replaced by Gerard, an aimable, relaxed, pipe-smoking man, though rather like John Simon, it is somewhat hard to fathom what makes him tick.
They were overwhelmed by our property, which in the kinder evening sun was looking its very best. Gerard and Marion have not changed much over the years, although Marion is obviously very fed up with the strain of her work, as a child psychologist, or something rather like this. Gerard, who works as an economist for a bank seems to be comfortably progressing up a rewarding career ladder.
Tuesday 3 August
The day started with our first lesson with the debroussailleuse, of which we were both a little scared. Chris togged up in the wellies, haarness and eye shield while I prepared the fuel mixture. After an anxious read of the instructions, we buckled the debroussailleuse onto Chris, checked we had all the various switches in the right place and I pulled the starter string. After a few pulls it came to life, we let it idle for a minute or two and then Chris squeezed the accelerator button and the three wicked looking blades spun into action. We have watched people using a smooth, scythe-like movement in the undergrowth and Chris attempted to do the same thing. This first session produced something like a beard attacked with miniature, blunt nail scissors and after half an hour, Chris switched off. Neverthless we raked the grass into a respectable sized hay mountain. A further session in the evening produced much more confidence and expertise and the main terrace is now ressembling a garden lawn (seen through a telescope the wrong way round). It is tough work, though, causing backache and much sweating, particularly in today’s rather sultry conditions. So we are only going to do a short burst each day.
After the morning’s physical labours, we braced ourselves for the visit to Yves. He turned out to be benign and philosophic about our change to his plans, though this may just be that he is in a state of shock after Petrus’ death. There is something very cruel about the way the family has to continue to work at the camping enterprise and postpone the mourning till autumn. Yves does not want to revise the plans and agreed to Albert doing this and submitting the revised proposals to the DDE.
In the early evening Albert and Guy arrived to hear the outcome of our visit to Yves. We told them that we would like to go ahead with the revised plan and to have Albert draw up and submit the plans. Guy will give us revised estimates when Albert has produced the figures for material requirements from his computer model of the the new layout. After they had done some more measuring, Albert sat drinking tea with us and we all watched Guy drilling holes into a metal plate, to fix the new engine to his cement mixer, using – of course – and very clapped out metal bit attached to his drill. Guy doesn’t like mechanical tasks any more than he likes maths, he said, but tackled this with some gusto, since the next stage is starting the actual building.
This was the first evening of our own phone, and we celebrated by phoning Richmond and then Joanna and David. The phone is most peculiar; you have to switch it on to make or receive a call. Chris then phoned Charlie Raab to discuss what had to be done to get the University to agree to allow the recruiting of someone after yet another crucial resignation in the department – Pippa Norris, the Americanist has decided to stay in the States at the end of her sabbatical.
Wednesday 4 August
Off to le Vigan for various tasks. First to EDF, where we were met by the tall guy who had helped me buy cable in the quincaillerie. We arranged to have our electricity bills paid by direct debit to our French bank account. Then, while Chris went off to withdraw some money – and peer at yesterday’s Guardian to see if the franc has devalued yet by any magic chance, I went to Perception (god knows what that means) to give our Scottish address to the people who send out the bills for local taxes. All very complicated, but we basically pay taxes on the land as proprieters – la taxe fonciere – and taxes as the occupiers – la taxe d’habitation.
I went to the rather disreputable motorcycle gararage to collect the repaired mobylette, only to find they had done nothing (no surprise) because they had discovered further problems. Our thieves had stolen the carburettor and they needed my agreement to spending a further 350 francs. The machine probably wont be ready till the end of the week now.
Chris then had a rather exhausting trip to SuperU with ridiculous queues at the cash tills. We must really try to do our shopping at the start of the day, which is a pity, for this is the nicest time to be sitting around doing nothing, or tackling our jungle.
Back to another leisurely lunch in the refreshing cool of our house, and a siesta. Then, while I bring this diary up to date, Chris is working away on his computer doint the bibliography. This is a fairly mechanical task, ideal for the heat of the day, when nothing much else is possible.
We had a lovely drive in the evening to the top of the valley beyond the village of Mars. Wonderful views to East and West. Definitely somewhere to return for a walk and picnic.
Thursday 5 August
Thursday and Friday were dominated by our energetic attack on the jungle. At the end of these two days we had cleared most of the second terrace and the wall above it and started tackling the third terrace. The trouble is that, apart from much more energy than we have, it is now clear that we need a repertoire of tools to tackle to pernicious combination of ivy, brambles, and perhaps worst of all prickly, unforgiving sloe trees (prunelles).
One of the problems is that we are now creating vast mountains of garden rubbish which in Britain one would happily turn into bonfires. Here all garden firest are banned until 15 September and according to Guy in practice people dont burn garden rubbish until much later, when the whole lot has been thoroughly dampened down by rain.
In the afternoon we went to la Corconne for a much needed swim and shower and then had a pre-supper drink with our Dutch friends, Gerard and Marion, sitting under la Tounelle, which was about the only reasonable place to be as the weather was now very hot and sticky. We then all went off for a very pleasant meal at the Auberge Cocagne, the restaurant at Aveze. Gerard and Marion were much impressed by the setting, a shady courtyard in front of the old auberge, facing the woods of the chateau.
We asked about rooms, in case Mum should want to come, and there is a groundfloor room with bathroom for about 200 francs a night (out of season, without meals).
Friday 6 August
Albert came with the new drawings for the house. It is looking very good and we are getting quite excited. We went over details such as how we wanted the ceilings to look (high, sloping, made with chestnut rather than pine), the walls (white plaster) and floor (local equivalent of quarry tiles). We are not having much in the way of windows, mainly to save money, and only hope this will not make the back bedroom too stuffy. The door between the new section and the existing room will have a rounded top and will lead into the central section, a shower and loo. As you walk out of our existing door there will be a rather large blank wall, the East side of our bedroom. We have agreed that in a future year we will break this up with a sloping roofed area
We left Albert and Guy going over the technical details of changing the design. At this stage there will not be much difference, but once we have left, Guy will take off half the existing roof and knock down the wall next to the extension. All a bit scary!
I collected the repaired mobylette after this. It turned out to have needed yet more bits and had cost £150 to repair – half the original price! As it has a new cylinder I am going to have to run the engine in for 100 km, very tedious.
The French telephone directory is arranged in a crazy way: according to commune. If you are not sure which commune someone lives in, you have to know the names of the neighbouring ones in order to track them down. We are in the commune of Breau, for example, but some of the houses on the hill behind us are in the neighbouring commune of Mars. No signs to tell you this, of course. The advantage is that you can nose around the directory and discover the names of your neighbours. This is the way that we discovered that our neighbours across the road are called M and Mme Andre Bourgarde.
I met the youngest Bourgarde child, Orelean (at least, that is how I think you spell his name) in the road. He told us he had his eighth birthday on 4 August (we must remember this for next year) and then asked us why we had not been to use their swimming pool yet! His mother joined him and we invited her up to our terrace for coffee and to inspect what we were doing. She was most intrigued and interested and becomes friendlier every time we meet her. He appears to look after a couple of gites and not much else; she teaches in the primary school in Alzon, on the road to Millau and loves her work. She told us what we had rather suspected, that she and her husband are planning to separate, so she expects life to become financially much tougher. What baffles us is how they can afford to have built such a comfortable house, with swimming pool, and run two cars, one of which is a BMW. Not only that, their daughter, who is 17, goes to a private school in Nimes (because she wants to do film studiesand become a cameraman) and is in lodgings there. A pleasant hour finished with Mme Bourgarde suggesting that we should leave some phone numbers for her to contact if there were any problems with the house.
Saturday 7 August
An uneventful day, spent going to the market and then gardening!
Phone call from Judith, saying she had got all grade ones in her exams – brilliant!
Sunday 8 August
We went to the Breau market, where I bought some lovely pottery for a wedding present for my masseur, Trevor. We have become quite friendly with the potter, who turns out to be a German who has lived for some years in France (in the farmhouse at the top of the hill we visited on Wednesday evening). He also turns out to be a friend of Albert, our builder.
Then what was supposed to have been a quick trip to Aulas to buy some bread turned into another lovely expedition. Instead of turning back, we drove on up through Aulas, up the valley to Arphy and then up the mountain road towards Col du Minier (searching for a stream as I was suddenly desperate for water). We stopped at a bridge and discovered a path leading to a series of magnificent mountain pools, with giant boulders on either side and little beaches for paddling. We sat eating a croissant and drinking the fresh mountain water.
On our way down between Arphy and Aulas, Chris spotted Barbara, the English woman we had met by the river, swimming in a pool. We stopped and discovered this was the pool of an English friend of hers. Built in front of a lovely restored farmhouse, the pool had a spectacular view down the valley. It looked so inviting, particularly after we discovered the thermometer measured the water at over 90 degrees and Barbara explained that the pool was heated – using sunlight.
In the afternoon I did a little explore of Breau on the mobylette. I went to the southern peak, past the huge new building, which Claudie and Robert told us was the new house of the daughter of the mayor… It stands out for miles around. Once up there, I could understand why it and its neighbour had been built. They have spectacular 360û views of the surrounding countryside, gazing up to the mountains of Esperou to the north and the high plateau round Montardier to the south.
In the evening we went to what we thought was to be a drink with Harry and Ludwien, but turned out to be a delightful barbecue (kebabs and merguez sausages and a delicious salad). Remarking on the increased number of Germans on the site led to talking about the war (John Cleese would have been proud of us) and we reflected on the huge impact on our parents’ generation. Harry said his father never recovered from the war: he started as a very young man, scarcely out of his teens who saw the war as an adventure: he had been sent as a forced labourer to Germany, imprisoned at one stage, escaped during bombing of the concentration camp he was in. Then he went on to fight in Indonesia, where he became totally and understandably disillusioned. Harry said he never settled down and made life for his wife and children miserable. Since his death – he shot himself five years ago – his mother had at last found happiness.
One set of Ludwien’s grandparents were German, but ironically whereas they had a hard time because they opposed the Nazis, her father, a Catholic Dutchman, belonged to the equivalent of blackshirts. Ludwien was too young to know all that until she was adult, but her older brother was so embittered and ashamed by his father’s past that he reacted against his conservative, Catholic background, became a communist and wellknown journalist, then lapsed into alcoholism for a while and then a few years ago, in his early forties set off to travel round the world, but committed suicide and died in a military hospital in Bangkok. Due to a total bungle, his family did not hear of his death for six months.
Monday 9 August
We rather wasted today, suddenly aware of the short time left here and also the huge number of things that we have not yet managed to achieve. Chris in particular was feeling restless (hung over??). We made an abortive trip to Ganges, looking for the place to buy trees recommended by Guy – only to realise that it was too late to look at trees because we had still not found anybody to plant them and care for them over the winter. Finding someone to replace Petrus is proving a big problem.
In the afternoon Chris worked, while I idled the time away sitting in my lovely comfortable deck chair beside the river. And now during a rather windy and uncertain evening, I am bringing this journal up to date while Chris does some more work.
Chris has just spotted a little mouse walking through the door and popping into the hole in the floor beside the door (to be filled up when the wall is taken down). We will have to make sure to put anti mouse pellets down there as we are determined not to have a plague of mice over the winter like we had a couple of years ago in the caravan.
On the whole the wildlife has been not very numerous but still quite interesting. After our first entry into the house, to be met by a scorpion and discarded snakeskin, we have since seen a badger (or at least Chris did), hawk, and of course toads and hedgehogs. We have heard an owl literally feet away from our room.