264 – Souillac: A small town in France

The rain is beating down today like a baton hitting an English football supporter. Hard raps against my window as I look out over a waterlogged road. When it’s sunny here, it’s as good as anywhere. When it’s raining, it’s like North Wales. Grey skies that look like they’re going to fall on you like a tonne of slate. I should know, I grew up there. Oswestry to be precise. Technically English, but Welsh at some point in its Godforsaken past.

There’s a football match on Thursday night involving the two teams (and supporters later on I’m sure). I haven’t got any Welsh ancestry, but I can’t help hoping they’ll win. For the simple reason that England teams are rubbish considering the players and money they have. They pick the wrong players in the wrong positions and think they’re going to win by right because, like all the folk back home supporting the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, there’s still an Empire. We then lose and look for someone else to blame. Normally the Russians. Or the French. Or in the case of the recent violence, both.

I used to watch Forest vs. Leeds at the City Ground when I lived in Nottingham and could never decide who I wanted to win. I’m from Leeds and have supported them since I was a kid. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Forest because of Brian Clough and the great European Cup winning sides of ’79 and ’80. Plus I lived there for nine great years as a student and musician in the 90s.

Sitting in the City Ground waving my red or white flag depending on if I was in the Home or Away ends, I always wanted a draw, with perhaps Leeds nicking a last minute winner in injury time. As it happened Forest won every time, so I always left a little bit gutted, but not as much as if they’d lost to Chelsea or Man Utd – or Derby.

I started writing this post to advertise my latest short film on the little French town where I live and got sidetracked by football and the weather. Two of my favourite subjects, or so I’m told by the hoteliers who I work with here. As though they don’t exist in this part of France.

‘Weather? We don’t have that here. Just blank skies and breezeless days. And as for football. Pah! Nothing to do with us. Only Rugby here.’

Which is why Souillac hasn’t really entered into the spirit of the tournament. There’s a board outside the Grand Hotel next to the Plat du Jour board that reads Match du Jour. One reads France vs. Romania, the other Confit du Canard.  Today is Tuesday, the France game was last Friday, so maybe that’s all I’m going to get during these Euros. A five-day old football match and a plate of reheated duck.

Enjoy the film

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263 – The Curious Case of The Polish Vans

 

polish van

It all started two weeks ago looking out onto the D820 from my bedroom window. A dirty grey Luton van with Polish plates trundling into Souillac. The time was 1020. I know this because I noted it down. I was curious.

Over the following few days I saw more. Same type of van – Renault Master Luton with vinyl canvas body – different colour. Grey, Blue, or Black. Sometimes with a white cab, sometimes with a red cab. The sightings reminded me of Magnus Mills’ novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, which centres on a fleet of identical vans driving around for no apparent reason. I was noting them down for personal interest, maybe I’d write a book as well.

I guessed they weren’t going to Poland. I used to live there and get the coach from London Victoria to Warsaw and remembered how long it took. From the analysis of the times and dates I’d written down in my notebook, which wasn’t comprehensive as I don’t spend all day looking out of the window, it simply wasn’t feasible. Too many vans appearing and reappearing within the same 24 hour time period. Poland is 2000km away, even driving at 200km/h all the way without stopping once for food, water, fag or toilet wouldn’t do it. Nowhere near.

So where are they going? And what are they carrying? Some have refrigeration units on the cab, so perhaps vegetables or meat. But as some of the vans don’t have these, coupled with the fact that thick vinyl canvas doesn’t lend itself very well to temperature control when it’s 30 degrees outside, I’m thinking furniture.

A removal service? But they aren’t big enough. A one man van service, yes. But a whole fleet of small vans when you can just have one big one, no. How about wine? Pots and pans? Clothes? Electronics? Polish food supplies? Books?

In truth, the only thing I’ve come up with is fungus, for no other reason than Poles have a rich tradition in mushroom cultivation. Growing or collecting mushrooms – possibly truffles – somewhere south of here and then driving them up to sell in Paris.

I could be way off the mark, but without stopping and asking them, I’ve no way of knowing. There’s no logo or website on the side of the vans, or any inscription anywhere, not even a name. I’ve discounted the possibly of criminal involvement. For the simple reason that no criminal gang would risk driving a Polish registered van through rural France where even Mr and Mrs Essex Motorhome can get pulled over for having a faulty brake light.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s made life here quite interesting. Sometimes I hear Elizabeth cry from the kitchen ‘Polish Van!’

‘Write it down,’ I cry out from the bathroom stuck in the half French bath since Wednesday. ‘What’s the colour?’

It’s become a bit of a game, like train spotting, although more fun because I never know when or where they’re going to come from. Constructing a timetable from erratic, hit-and-miss sightings. Very similar to deciphering a SNCF rail timetable during a strike. “Your train should arrive today at 1030, but it won’t, it’ll arrive twelve hours later if you’re lucky. Or never. Thank you.”

There’s one now! (a Polish van not a train – that would be pushing it). Direction: Souillac, 1155, red cab, white awning. ‘Write it down! And can you help me out of the bath?’

They’re impossible to predict. I’ve never seen the same van in the same one hour time slot in the two weeks I’ve been watching them. My guess is that they move when the mushrooms are ready. ‘Go Go Go to Paris as quick as possible. Day or night.’ Like Tom Hanks in Castaway before he crashed and got marooned on a desert island for five years.

There is a definite way to solve this mystery though. Wait at the traffic lights in Souillac town centre one evening when they’re on red, climb in the back and hope I’ve got my maths right and don’t end up in Katowice 40 hours later stinking of rotting truffles. Or dead pigs.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. More likely served up in a high class Parisian restaurant as part of an orchid leaf salad.

‘I asked for Perigord diamond truffles, not ass of Englishman. Take him away at once, mince him and feed him to the dogs!’

I could ask them. Flag them down and ask in my best Polish what on earth they are doing because it’s driving me nuts.

‘Mind your own business, Englishman. We’ll do our jobs, you keep practising your canoeing skills, we’ve seen you capsize, very funny. You think you’re the ones watching us? Think again, idyot! Ha ha ha!’

…to be continued.

262 – Things I like about France No. 1: Routes Nationales

road photo - thumb

From my window I have a clear view of the D820, the old Route Nationale (RN) that runs from Toulouse to Paris. For me these represent old France. France before iPhones, prepackaged sandwiches, shopping centres and Renault Meganes. The reason people went to France instead of Spain or Greece for their holidays. Pulling off at an ancient boulangerie in some obscure, unpronounceable town to demolish two or three pain au chocolat in one go, washed down with some heavy, undrinkable coffee.

In 1998, me and some guys drove down to Nice to play in a bar for a week, taking the old routes as part of the trip. It was great, stopping at broken down cafes and bars that seemed barely standing, ordering brie filled baguettes and demis that we topped up with our own supply of lager we’d bought from the supermarket.

It was great. We were young, we were going to play in a bar for a week with free food and booze, plus some cash at the end of it. OK, so the gigs were a bit of a disaster, mainly because the owner of the bar wanted three hours of catchy covers, not 70 minutes of prog rock, as we played. We spent most of the first night learning cover standards like Hotel California and Stand By Me, some of which we played two or three times a night. On the way back, we drove back on the expensive autoroutes because we were tired, arriving back in Nottingham with about 20 quid to spare.

Of course, a lot of the old routes are really busy now, especially around towns or where there’s no autoroute alternative. But there are stretches that are practically deserted, especially in the evenings. Even the D820 outside my window, which is a main route, has periods when I’m wondering where the next car will come from. In fact, towards midnight, you could probably have a picnic in the middle of it. If you felt like it.

The old garages, auberges, cafes and hotels that once lined this route before the Paris-Toulouse motorway was built still thrive, although many now serve tourists rather than salesmen, drivers and travellers.

When people ask me, what do you like about France, Oggers? I say Route Nationales every time. They are surprised. They expect me to say food or wine or scenery or campsites or cakes. But no, the old RNs are always top of my list…

…Well, maybe that’s not quite true any more. I’ve recently discovered an almost childlike penchant for cakes. Especially Flan. A huge oozing mass of eggs, cream, milk and flour cut into slices. It’s like a thick blancmange or concentrated custard put in a pastry base. It’s really cheap and if you find a good patisserie you can really eat a lot. Which is probably why I’m starting cycling again, which is another thing I like about France.

..to be continued.

261 – The Joy of the French Half Bath

 

Being a holiday rep in the Dordogne has many advantages – nice climate, an endless supply of foie gras, lovely scenery, plus free comedy provided by irate English and Dutchmen parking their 40-foot motorhomes in cramped supermarket car parks. However, the best part so far has been bathing in a French half bath.

When we first moved here at the beginning of May, we were a little concerned about the apartment we’d been allocated. The bedrooms smelt of cod, the lounge had the character of a hospital waiting room, and the kitchen equipment amounted to no more than a few chipped plates, an assortment of blunt knives, and a deep fat fryer. All of which gave me the sudden vision of us spending the summer eating calamari and chips at a plastic table.

‘Feels like I’ve just walked into a day centre,’ I said to Elizabeth. ‘How on earth am I going to make salmon en croute using a milk pan and a whisk?’ The only other implements I’d seen.

‘We might have to do a spot of shopping,’ she agreed discovering a rusty fork in the sink before we moved off to inspect the bathroom.

‘Oh my God,’ I yelled once we’d found the light switch, expertly taped up with sellotape. ‘There’s no bath!’

This was devastating. I could live without pans, ham and cheese is fine, but not without a bath. ‘Sans bain,’ I shouted. ‘Or is it sans baignoire?’ I momentarily considered looking at the strange, almost deformed, bath like structure. (La baignoire being the actual tub, le bain being the actual concept, as in ‘I’m going to take a bath.) Either way it wasn’t good news.

‘You know how I feel about showers,’ I started complaining to Elizabeth. ‘I hate showers. You wouldn’t go to a cinema and expect to watch a film standing up, would you? Or have your hair cut? Why should I be expected to wash standing up. Or shave. I always shave in the bath.’

She’d heard this rant before. In each place we’d ever gone in fact that didn’t have a bath. ‘Showers are for morons,’ I’d continue. ‘Imbeciles. I mean who invented showers. A real idiot in my book…’

The fact is I like to bath. It relaxes my mind, my body, my soul. The hotter the better. The best temperature being equivalent to that of a 5-minute old cup of coffee. Cool enough to sip, but still hot enough to burn your mouth if you drink it too quickly. After fifteen minutes of deep immersion at this temperature I feel myself cooking. Poaching myself like an egg ready to be served up with a slice of smoked salmon and toasted brown bread.

I’m not exaggerating either. I get some insane thrill from boiling myself like a lobster and then spending the next hour drinking from a tap desperately trying to prevent massive organ failure due to chronic dehydration. It’s an addiction I’ve had since I can remember and it seems no sign of abating. So the thought of going the whole summer without one was distressing.

So one day last week, fed up with trying to read and shave in the shower, I decided to give the half bath a go. The results were incredible.

Not only was the water super hot (and free), but the bath itself was not just a sawnoff version of a normal bath as I’d originally thought. It had a seat, plus its increased height meant that when filled the occupant is fully immersed like a normal bath. They built skyscrapers in New York along the same lines. If you run out of space, build up. Ditto the French half bath.

I even found I could stretch out my legs by simply moving my backside down towards the front, placing my heels flat on the opposing wall and allowing my shoulders to sink into the warm water.

So if you’re ever in France and your apartment/hotel room is advertised as “with bathroom plus half bath”, don’t be put off. Fill it up, dip in and relax comme ça.

The french half bath
* Serving Suggestion Only

260 – How Not to Capsize a Canoe on the Dordogne

 

‘We’re heading for a tree,’ I cried out to Elizabeth who was at the bow of the Canadian canoe we were piloting down the Dordogne last week. We were on a four-day canoe course so we had the necessary credentials to brief our customers on the basics of canoeing. Steering being one of the absolute essentials.

‘Turn left,’ Elizabeth screamed at me.

‘I’m trying, but every time I steer left, the boat goes right,’ I complained as we careered towards a large overhanging tree lying flat on the water’s surface.

‘You’re putting the paddle in the wrong side,’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘The other side!’

But it was too late to argue about the fineries of ruddering, as moments later the bow crashed into the tree, allowing the powerful current of the river to push the canoe broadside against the solid trunk.

From his boat the instructor kept yelling at us to lean in towards the tree, not away from it. This, we learned later, would have kept the boat stable, allowing us to simply push ourselves away. Instinct however told us otherwise, and we couldn’t help leaning away from the danger, resulting in the canoe tilting towards the rushing water, as my beautifully illustrated diagram below shows.

caneo

There was only one possible outcome. The canoe filled with water and capsized in seconds throwing us into the river like underweight fish discarded from a trawler.

caneo2

The instructor, clearly shaken by this abject display of boatmanship, launched himself into a standard rescue procedure. Which entailed shouting at me very loudly about the importance of listening to basic instructions. Namely, keeping to the middle of the river and away from the banks as I was told.

I’m exaggerating a bit. He was very calm, and simply instructed us to swim to our now upturned boat, grab onto it and wait until he could get to us. When he did, we swam to his boat, while he righted ours (how I’ve no idea). We then got back into our now perfectly waterfree boat and sheepishly paddled to the shore to take stock of what had happened.

Luckily nothing was lost or damaged, including ourselves, and so after we’d changed into dry clothes, which had been kept dry in barrels, I prepared for my explanation into why I’d steered into a tree on a river that is over 100 metres wide.

‘I got confused steering,’ I admitted to the instructor. ‘I have the same problem driving as it happens,’ I then added. The instructor’s eyes widened when he remembered that my job this summer was driving customers round windy mountain passes in a minibus. ‘But I think I’ve got it now,’ I continued picking up a paddle. ‘To go right, paddle left. To go left, paddle right.’

The instructor looked at me blankly, wondering who on earth had hired this buffoon. ‘Err, yeh, sort of,’ he finally answered. ‘There’s a bit more to it than that, but you’ll pick it up – in about a hundred years,’ I heard him quietly mutter to himself.

‘Look, the best thing for you guys,’ he continued, ‘is to stay in the middle of the river. Be careful and pay attention to your surroundings. ‘

He finished saying this just as three local fishermen drifted by in a flimsy wooden boat backwards, all standing up, rod in hand, fag in mouth, chatting to each other as though at a family barbecue. It made a total mockery of what we had learnt and what had just happened. It looked so utterly simple. Monkeys could do it.

Later that evening I asked Elizabeth if she’d been scared. ‘No,’ she replied. Not at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. You?’

I paused, thinking back to the bit where the water engulfed the canoe. The sheer power of the water washing us away downstream like sticks.

‘I was terrified,’ I finally answered. ‘I thought I wasn’t going to come up. I had visions of my foot getting caught in an underwater root or branch, dragging me down. And what’s more, it would have been a terrible start to the job.’

HOLIDAY REP DROWNS IN CANOE ACCIDENT. HIS OWN STUPIDITY BLAMED!

I’m being slightly flippant, but there is something to be learnt from last week’s incident. While the locals can float down it on wafer thin rafts smoking and chatting as though in a bar, I can’t. I don’t understand the river. I went too close to the edge and was made to look like an idiot. Fair game. I can take that.

However, what I will say is this. How many of them have been capsized, washed down the Dordogne for 500 metres and come up still wearing their glasses? Well, I did. Which means I can still read and write this blog, which for some of you I guess isn’t much consolation, and you’re probably secretly hoping I’d got my foot wedged into that underwater root and never come up. Well, tough, I’m still here…

phil in country

259 – Blogley in Souillac

 

Where is Souillac and why am I here? Good question.

Over previous summers, I’ve taught English to earn a few coins. This year I wanted to do something different. Mainly because I’ve retired from teaching, as I was starting to feel self righteous, and I didn’t want to become one of those people who think teaching is the most gratifying job on the planet. It isn’t. It’s tedious and boring and I’ve had enough. Good. I’ve got that out of the way.

Enter life as a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Ferrying folk around from hotel to hotel, giving cycling and canoeing lessons, and dealing with fuming Basil Fawlty type hoteliers.

‘But surely Phil, isn’t that a bit of a step down? Isn’t that what you do in your twenties? Shouldn’t you be thinking of a career?

The answer to all those questions is NO. If I’d wanted a career, I’d have spent my twenties saying ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ to people I didn’t like waiting to get promoted or fired. Now 42, I’ve luckily avoided that phase, and as a result can pick and choose what I do with my precious time. This summer, it’s being a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Next summer, I might be wearing a kangaroo outfit in a circus in St. Petersburg.

I’ve never done this type of work before, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I once worked for a festival company driving and managing a burrito stall over a summer. I guess it’s going to be similar. Only this time I’ll be driving around holidaymakers and canoes instead of boxes of canned chili con carne and tortilla wraps.

Truth is, these types of jobs are like jigsaws. Once you get a few pieces in place – reading a map, telling the time, buying hoteliers bottles of pastis (in this case)  – the rest usually falls into place. Even the tricky leafy woodland part, where all the greens look the same, eventually becomes clear. Unless you’re really bad at them and your beautiful Turner landscape ends up looking like the vomit stained carpet of an inter city nightclub. In which case, it’s probably best to go back to teaching. Or cleaning toilets (of a nightclub?).

So that’s you all filled in. Updated and ready for another chapter of Blogley. Another chapter of A Man in France, which of course you can buy from Blogley Books.cover image