286 – Notes From Copenhagen: The Takeaway Attendant

I’ve been in Copenhagen two weeks. The city is flat and low rise.  The streets are wide. There’s more bicycles than cars and people seem happy. I haven’t totally adjusted to life here, partly because I’m still expecting to wake up and look out over hills, lakes and forests. But any city where you can swim in the harbour and where cyclists get priority over cars, is certainly worth a few months of my time.

I even brought my vintage 1980 Peugeot PK 10 with me so I could try and look as cool as everyone else. Although my street cred took a hammering on my first morning when a lace from my chunky green Lidl trainers (cool?) got wrapped round my front pedal, upsetting my balance on a bike that’s already three sizes too small for me and sent me crashing to the floor like someone who’d just graduated from a tricycle.

I managed to compose myself, pretending it was some mechanical problem caused by shoddy French engineering, rather than my own incompetence. I then carried on to the city centre and witnessed my first ever cycle-jam.

40 or 50 cycles queuing patiently at a red light which made me wonder whether they’ll have to widen the lanes like they do to motorways to take more traffic. The lights went green and we all moved on, all 100 bikes now, for another 200 metres, until the next traffic lights where we all stopped again for another few minutes.  Nothing is perfect I thought. Even Copenhagen.

As for the Danes themselves. They are everything I expected. I went to the jobcentre on my first day here to ask about employment issues (tax, bank, legal status) and it was as though I was visiting an old friend. The man treating me as though I’d lived here all my life and wasn’t some scrounging Englishman looking for an EU passport.

I found him pleasant.  He smiled and got to the point – Danes don’t do small talk I’m told –  telling me to find a job (with a contract) and come back here and we’ll go from there. I left feeling confident that I might find my dream job here in the Kingdom of Denmark.

That was 10 days ago. Tomorrow I start work in an Indian Takeaway. There is a French phrase: faute de grives, on mange des merles, which I learnt when I first rocked up at the cycling club in Caussade on my vintage Pk 10 when everybody else was sporting 3 grand tour bikes.It roughly translates as beggars can’t be choosers or half a loaf is better than none. (*Literally, if you can’t eat thrush, eat blackbird).

In the interview with the takeaway owner he asked me where I lived. ‘Sankt Jakobs Plads,’ I said.

He was impressed. Then questioned me on why on earth I wanted to work in an Indian Takeaway, waving my CV in his hand like a judge pressing a charge. My CV is a schizophrenic mess of short contract teaching and catering jobs spanning most of my life. And he’s probably right, I’m probably over qualified – just.

I thought of telling him that I’ve never worked in an Indian Takeaway before so I’m just filling in the blanks. Getting more experience. Instead I told him the truth. ‘I’m running out of money in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I need a job.’

I’m not sure he was entirely convinced, dressed as I was in a checked Pringle shirt, blue cotton trousers and brown brogues. And as I live in one of the most expensive parts of the city (a flat courtesy of a friend), I looked more like I was a home counties lawyer on a day out at the races, than a man looking for a job as a takeaway attendant.

‘How do I know you’re not going to run off after a few weeks and get a job at Berlitz?’ he asked me.

I laughed. ‘I doubt it, they pay less than you.’

He liked that one. ‘Really! Less than me,’ he said laughing.

‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘Teaching English is notoriously badly paid. Don’t you know. It’s why most teachers end up working in bars and restaurants. Or working in shops. Or dead.’

After becoming serious again, he said I had the job and that I could start Monday. ‘But you must learn the menu over the weekend,’ he said pointing to it. ‘Tuesday’s going to be busy. Gun’s and Roses are playing.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, genuinely perplexed. ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses, as in the American rock band?’

‘At the stadium. Just there.’ Pointing to the national stadium which is literally over the road.

‘The original lineup?’ I asked.

Now it was his turn to look confused. Perhaps thinking I was referring to his menu rather than which burnt out rock stars were reuniting because they were skint fresh out of rehab. ‘As in Slash, Duff, Izzy?’ I said.

‘Just learn the menu,’ he said curtly. Clearly not a fan of classic rock.

I said I’d see him Monday and spent last night learning Indian Menu codes while drinking generic Carlsberg lager that’s half the price of The Best Lager in the World. I only got as far as Chicken Madras 228, Lamb Spinach 333 and Fish Tikka 447 because I couldn’t help thinking of Guns and Roses.

I’d seen them (the original lineup) in 1993 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Driving down from Nottingham and parking my ancient metro in some industrial estate on the outskirts of town (if Milton Keynes is a town). Then walking 5 miles to the venue. Getting there at 11 o’clock in the morning and waiting until 10 at night with nothing to eat or drink (just a few cigarettes) before they came on.

That was 24 years ago and as I tried hard to remember vegetable curry codes, I couldn’t help one of those stupid questions people always ask filtering into my head:

‘Hey Oggers, if I said that the next time you hear Guns ‘n’ Roses play live you’ll be taking orders in an Indian Takeaway in Copenhagen, what would you say?’

‘I’d say, don’t be so fucking stupid. How would that ever happen?’

(to be continued)

282 – 99 Reasons Not To Buy This Book!

cover image

My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:

“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”

“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”

“As informative as a piece of wood”

“As boring as Sartre”

“Blander than French coffee.”

“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”

To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.

  1. It’s factually inaccurate.
  2. It’s not really a guidebook at all.
  3. Most places I’ve mentioned, don’t actually exist.
  4. I wrote most of it on the toilet.
  5. It goes off on tangents and never comes back.
  6. It’s not really about France anyway, it’s about me.
  7. It’s years out of date.
  8. Prices are still in Francs.
  9. Half of the characters are animals.
  10. The other half are dead.
  11. There’s no violence in it.
  12. Definitely no sex.
  13. There’s no famous people (except me).
  14. There’s no happy ending.
  15. There are no free apps.
  16. Or video games.
  17. Or maps.
  18. Or photos
  19. Or newsletters.
  20. Or special offers.
  21. Or dedicated fan sites.
  22. Or anything else much of interest.
  23. Roman Aqueducts are featured a lot.
  24. There’s too many references to baguettes.
  25. And crap coffee.
  26. Mosquitoes.
  27. Flies.
  28. And cheap lager.
  29. There’s no plot.
  30. No dialogue.
  31. Very little action.
  32. No direction.
  33. Certainly no heroes.
  34. Paris isn’t even in it.
  35. Nor is anywhere else.
  36. It’s absurd.
  37. Obscure.
  38. Ridiculous.
  39. And stupid.
  40. And that’s not even 99 reasons, which says it all. Rubbish!

However, if you still want a copy,  it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.

So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.

(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)

croissant-99p

280 – Frozen Swimming Pools, Spoon Making and Cornish Pasties

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

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

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

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

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

frozen-pool3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

french-pasties

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

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

Seen this robot - contact Blogley below.
Seen this robot? – Contact Blogley below

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

270 – Life as a Holiday Rep

When I was 12 I went to Benidorm with my father on a package holiday. I remember the rep meeting us at the airport along with 50 other red-faced Brits, most of whom had already got burnt walking across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal building.

Once outside he started doing a roll-call from a list of names stapled to a Thomson Holidays emblemed clipboard. He was wearing a vomit yellow polo shirt plus matching baseball hat and seemed to be having trouble pronouncing the names, even the simple ones like Smith and Lewis. When he came to our name, Ogley, he pronounced it ‘Ugly’ and everybody laughed, including me and my dad, who corrected him telling him it was actually OGLEY.

‘As in…’ he started, but couldn’t finish the sentence because as we’d realised many times before OGLEY doesn’t rhyme with anything, except Flogley or Bogley, which aren’t real words. The rep ticked our names and moved on to some other names he couldn’t pronounce like Cleugh, Coughlan and Cluister, finally allowing us to get on the furnace-hot coach to the hotel about ten hours later.

Things didn’t improve. Just after the WELCOME TO THE COSTA BLANCA sign a few kilometres from the airport, somebody a few seats behind me was violently sick. I remember smelling the fetid stench of half digested airplane food mixed with cheap sparkling wine and asked my dad how far it was to the hotel. He said a couple of hours and I wondered if I’d make it before I ejected my own personal offering of airline beef lasagne over the folk in front of me.

Luckily, my stomach held up and I was delighted to pull up outside our hotel. The Hotel Regenta, a 25 storey concrete rectangle pockmarked with a hundred tiny concrete balconies, which made the whole building look like a giant advent calendar. But instead of scenes of the Nativity behind every patio window, it was crammed full of lobster red humans plastered in After Sun lying on their beds either dying of heat exhaustion, sunburn or alcohol poisoning. Or all three.

Once inside the hotel foyer that smelt of chips, the rep started waffling on about the week’s entertainment program. This consisted of fancy dress competitions, barbeques and dust-to-dawn drinking with musical accompaniment supplied exclusively, or so it seemed, by Black Lace. Everybody appeared incredibly content until the happy-go-lucky, soon to become the not-so-happy-go-lucky rep, came to his final announcement.

‘Due to unforeseen circumstances, the pool is out of action until further notice.’

The rep tried to hold his smile for as long as he could, perhaps hoping that everybody might be content swimming in the sea. Until someone threw a brick into his face. A metaphorical brick of course – this wasn’t the Middle Ages – but the level of abuse aimed at the poor soul was equivalent to a lorry load of breeze blocks tumbling down on his head from a great height.

He tried to appease them as best he could, telling them they were working on the problem. But the insults and threats kept coming and no amount of half hearted gestures and promises were going to get the rep out of this one. Or for that matter, remove the stagnant mass of raw sewage that was filling the pool.

It was at this point that I vowed never to work as a holiday rep. Never would I put myself in a position where I could be subjected to such foul mouthed abuse from members of the public. Never as long as I lived.

Thirty years later, I became a holiday rep on the Dordogne.

Luckily most of my customers arrive by train or in Volvos wearing Berghaus gaiters and Karrimor waterproofs bought in the 1970s. If I had to tell them the pool was closed, they wouldn’t be that bothered. ‘We’re here to walk, not lounge round the pool, if we wanted to do that we’d go to Benidorm.’

This is the rep job you get when you’re 42. The Berghaus Rep as I’ve coined it. The rep job where you spend half an hour each evening with customers discussing route notes over a glass of Monbazillac. Route notes that were written thirty years ago by a rep who used the Bayeux tapestry as a map and who hand wrote the notes out on parchment. But of course you don’t say that. No point in alerting them before they set off. Simply wait for the inevitable phone call.

‘Oi, rep! Where the fuck am I? It says here there’s a vineyard on my left, but all I can see is a supermarket.’

Gone is the polite chatter from a few nights ago, replaced by harsh words and bile, as I try to explain that the vineyard may have been there in the Middle Ages, only now it’s a branch of Lidl. ‘It’s called progress dummy!’ I shout. Then turn my phone off and go out for a few days.

From my experience, these things tend to resolve themselves. They eventually find out where they are and by trial and error end up at the hotel. Sometimes the wrong hotel. But a hotel all the same.

What I’ve learned from this job is that people are going to complain no matter what I do. But that’s OK by me. That’s their problem not mine. If people want to go on holiday looking for trouble, looking for things to poke at, looking for a fight. Then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can only do my best. Which is what I do. And if I’ve done my best and it’s not enough, then the best thing I can do is lie down somewhere warm and go to sleep. See you in Italy. Ciao.

sleeping

(For more Philip Ugly adventures, why not read A Man in France, available at Blogley Books.)

269 – Mangez, Buvez, Bougez

 

pizza_service_order_pizza_pizzaSo what’s happening? I haven’t written an entry for a while because in truth I haven’t been arsed. I did start writing one a few weeks ago about surviving the last three years on very little money. But it ended up being so self-righteous, clichéd and boring that I canned it. Smug, sanctimonious snippets like “I always have money, because I don’t buy anything” littered the page like the discarded scribblings of a Guardian journalist.

I have been writing though. Some stories based on the guests and hoteliers I’ve been working with this summer. Other people far more interesting than myself, especially the hotel managers who order their guests to go to bed at 10.30 sharp, forbid them from having aperitifs before mealtimes, lock them out of their hotels, scold them for arriving early, turn the air-conditioning off in 40 degree heat, refuse vegetarians coffee and dessert because they didn’t eat their fish and then charge them extra for bread. Hotel owners who make Basil Fawlty look inept at being rude.

And then there’s the guests.

“It’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too wet, too windy, the food’s too rich, too frothy, too meaty, can I have some chips, the bath’s too small (it’s not a bath, it’s a shower), why do we have to walk to the restaurant, where’s my luggage, why didn’t you answer my call, nobody speaks English (it’s France), the canoes are the wrong shape, the hills are too steep, the bicycles aren’t like the ones in England (they’re English), we paid a lot of money for this holiday (yeh, well you should have read the brochure first!), can we have a cup of tea (No! Fuck off back home).” And on and on.

I could write an entire series entitled Excess Baggage – a post-Brexit analysis of how Brits go out of their way to find something to complain about. Or failing that taking their angst out on each other in enormous rows.

Take the couple I saw fighting in their gigantic cinema-sized campervan a few weeks ago. A real set-to that was, thrashing about in their portable cottage, fists flying, noses bleeding, cupboards splintering. True, the thermometer was pushing nearly 40 degrees that day, and the empty 24-pack of high strength lager probably didn’t help, but for the group of campers looking on, it was great entertainment.

‘Nothing like a holiday to let off a bit of steam, eh?’ I said to the guy next to me who’d started taking bets on the winner.

And if there isn’t the excess mental baggage, there’s the excess actual baggage. The mass of suitcases, holdalls, rucksacks, vanity cases, trunks, handbags, wheelie bins, kitchen sinks folk insist on bringing. All for a week’s canoeing, walking or cycling. Trips up Everest require less stuff. The Moon Landings I bet needed less physical matter than the average holidaymaker these days.

I don’t understand it: it’s boiling hot, the night temperature rarely falls below 20 degrees, surely shorts and T-shirt is all you need. Why are you bringing dresses, suits, shoe boxes, jumpers, coats, walking boots, scarves, hats, jewellery cases? One guy even brought a kilt! And wore it. To a restaurant. In France. In summer. Can you believe that?

Luckily, there are exceptions. Some people do bring one bag each. A rarity I admit, and normally the same people who congratulate me on how much they’ve enjoyed their activity holiday. It’s a relief I can tell you.

Most people think an activity holiday is walking to the bar and back. Where in actual fact it consists of engaging the quadriceps muscles of both legs and placing them one in front of the other whereby the torso moves forward at a rate of knots comparable to the speed of the legs. I’m being mean, but I can’t emphasise how much some people fail to grasp this simple premise.

Mangez, Buvez, Bougez* always comes to mind when I’m taking calls during my breakfast from people stranded in the ‘Perigord Desert’ after 4 kilometres of walking and need picking up. (*Eat, drink, move. A slogan used by the French government to encourage people to exercise more and not fill up on sugary drinks and pizza.)

Talking of pizza, we’re off to Italy for six weeks at the end of September to look after a campsite somewhere near Pescara. I’m dead excited as well. As except for a day in Venice years and years ago (possibly the most tedious day I’ve ever had, following 100,000 other folk all armed with two thousand pound Nikon cameras round a ruined city taking pictures of monuments and statues covered in pigeons, was not my idea of fun), I’ve never been to Italy.

We’re off to a mountain village in the Majella National Park where they apparently still have bears and wolves. There are a couple of restaurants in the village, a butcher and a shop. I’m already learning Italian, so I think it’s going to be a month and a half of Mangez, Buvez, Bougez. Roll on October.

(Like this? Check out my short story collection The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd available @ Blogley Books here)

 

267 – Souillac to Groléjac: En Canoë

canoe souillac

My last post concerned a paddle down the Dordogne from Meyonne to Souillac. This one concerns a slow meander down the same river from Souillac to Groléjac (see map above).

I say meander because somebody upstream has turned the river off. I mean this quite literally as there is a great big dam up at Argentat with some EDF engineer sitting behind a huge control panel munching on egg filled baguettes wondering how low he can make the river go without it officially becoming a stream.

There couldn’t have been enough water in the river during June, now in July with temperatures soaring into the mid-thirties, there’s hardly enough water to flush a toilet with, and the canoers I’m supposed to be instructing are getting pissed off.

We had clients from Oregon last week complaining that they’d booked a canoe holiday, not a paddle-along-a-long-lake holiday. I told them to try and enjoy it and forget about all those worries back home. ‘Pretend you’re a twig on the back of a mighty river,’ I said, half-quoting Planes, Trains and Automobiles. ‘Go with the flow.’

‘But that’s the problem,’ he declared, ‘there is no flow!’ Clearly missing the point of the line from the film, and most probably the point of the holiday itself.

‘It’s just a puddle,’ Mr. Juicer from Oregon continued (He wasn’t called Mr. Juicer at all, he was called Paul Mango, but I’ve adopted this childish habit of giving my clients pseudonyms to make the job more interesting). ‘We were promised canoeing on the mighty Dordogne. It says it in the brochure for Pete’s sake!’

‘It doesn’t say anything of the kind,’ I reminded him. ‘It actually says,’ and I started quoting from the brochure I’d delightfully digested one evening on the toilet before I came here, ‘Enjoy a gentle paddle down one of France’s most famous and longest rivers.’

I looked smug and advised him that there were plenty of other holiday destinations more suited to adventure if that’s what he craved. ‘Like The Congo, for example.’

‘Why would I want to go there?’ he asked.

‘Exactly,’ I replied. ‘Hence the reason people come to the Dordogne to laze around on a canoe all day, eating large lunches at the numerous riverside restaurants without the fear of being eaten alive by crocs or shot by South African mercenaries mistaking you for Islamic State fighters.’

That seemed to shut him up and off he went silently floating down the mirror-like Dordogne thinking of lobster lunches and relaxing more. Good.

Fact is, the river is too slow at the moment, I agree on that. It’s like being promised the thrill of bombing round a race track in a Ferrari, turning up and being given the keys to a Fiat Panda. Disappointing to say the least, so I understand the customers’ frustrations even if there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Except kill the EDF engineer up at Argentat, steal his egg sandwich, and turn up the river to full.

On the other hand, there’s very little chance of capsizing, which means you can simply relax, crack a beer and float gently backwards. As the video below demonstrates. And if you don’t like the look of it, go to The Congo. Or stay at home.

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

More films @ https://blogley.com/blogley-films/

Books @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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.

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

258 – Au Revoir Chateau Dumas

I told the gardener yesterday that I was leaving. ‘This is my last week,’ I said as we spoke by the dead oak tree that’d been struck by lightning over the winter.

He looked at me blankly. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘Six months,’ I said. I’m le gardien – the caretaker.

He shrugged. ‘I didn’t realise,’ he replied. ‘I thought you were on holiday.’

I laughed, but he didn’t seem to see the funny side. Probably because he’s been strimming and mowing the grounds every Monday morning for the past six months, while I’ve been watching him from my warm room drinking coffee and eating hot toast – Monday mornings having been particularly wet this year.

I explained why I was here and what I’d been doing these past six months, but he didn’t seem bothered and said he needed to get back to work.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What with all the rain and heat this week, the grass needs a really big cut!’

It came out wrong, of course. I knew as soon as I’d said it. ‘I mean I’d do it myself if I could,’ I quickly countered. ‘I love strimming, in fact I used to cut the grass for a local business when I was a kid, you know, for a bit of pocket money.’

He looked at me intensely. ‘Why do you like France?’ he finally said.

I hadn’t expected the question. I thought he was going to growl at me and slice my leg to pieces with his strimmer.  ‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘Perhaps, it’s the weather,’ I said looking up at the gathering rain clouds.

‘Or the wine,’ he gestured over to the stack of empty bottles outside my door.

‘That too, but the wine’s a bonus – like free soap when you stay in a hotel.’ I saw the hint of a smile on his face. ‘I like France because of the peace and quiet. It’s a very quiet country you know. Spain’s too noisy – I once lived there. England as well. Too overcrowded, too many people. Here, I can sit for days, weeks even, and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.’

He was nodding in agreement. And then his face broke out into a full Gallic smile.

‘Except on Mondays,’ he said gripping the starter cord on the strimmer and revving it up to full power.’

‘Except on Mondays,’ I repeated as he walked off to cut the long grass.

I’ll miss the place, I admit. Being able to write and think in the peace and quiet. Cycling with the crazy Caussade Cycle Club on Sunday mornings. Shopping for garlic and pork in the hectic throng of the Caussade Monday morning market. Reading books from the old library shelves that I’d never even heard of. Walking round the sweeping grounds of the estate on a moonlit night. Freedom to roam.

Au revoir Chateau Dumas.

dumas photo

257 – Blogley Rolls On…And On…And On

I once watched a Status Quo documentary entitled Roll On…And On…And On. They kept going on tour because they didn’t know any other way of life. In two weeks I’ll be on the road again. This time to Souillac, about 100km north of here, in the Dordogne. Why? Well, Elizabeth and I are going to be spending the summer giving cycling and canoe tours to holiday folk.

It’s very difficult to know whether this is the right line I’m taking. The line of constantly moving around, doing lots of different jobs while trying to forge a writing career. I’ve lost count of the amount of places I’ve lived in and the jobs to go with it. But it’s probably well over a 100 now.

I have friends and family who’ve stayed in the same job all their lives in the same town. I can’t imagine that life. Not because that life wouldn’t be good – it probably would – but simply because never having led that life, it’s hard to envisage what it’d be like, if you get my drift.

In fact I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to live in the same town where I grew up, do the same job week in, week out, playing footy on a Sunday, downing pints on a Saturday night with the same people I played tiddlywinks with at school. I can see a version of myself in that life, a murky dreamscape of a life in Leeds. But then it vanishes and I’m back to where I am. Which is normally stuck out in the middle of nowhere in France.

The truth is though, going to another town to do another job seems as natural as eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Even if my cycling colleagues in the Caussade Cyclo Club think it’s totally whacked out to eat eggs for breakfast. A long discussion then ensues over the benefits of the croissant versus the fry-up until they eventually come round to the realisation that they are wrong and I’m right, and we finally get to go cycling.

I’m not quite sure how I arrived in this state of transience (and Elizabeth neither), but we did, and while it’s sometimes unsettling, it’s become a way of life. I recently posted on Twitter (@Blogley1) the following:

I’d never used the term travel writer before, but seeing as I move around a lot and I write quite a lot, the term travel writer seemed appropriate. I had a moment of doubt as to whether I deserved the title, until I concluded that I can call myself whatever I like. ‘Travel writing as you’ve never seen it before…’ it says on the back of my book. So what the hell!

This period in Auty in southwest France has been the best housesit we’ve done. But I think it’s as far as we can take the looking after other people’s houses malarky. We’ve had loads of time to think. It’s been free. I’ve managed to write three books, two of which I’ve published. The other, my novel, is still being worked on. However, the novelty has worn off a bit and it’s time to embark on other things. Like taking canoe and cycle trips in the Dordogne, for example.

I’ve never done it before, but it sounds great, and I even get paid for it. And I can write about it too. I’m thinking the Man in France series might outlast Status Quo. Why not?

A Man in France celebrates his 70th birthday on a canoe in the Dordogne.

 

A Man in France cycles across the Massif Central on a tricycle aged 80.

 

A Man in France flies across the Pyrenees in a paper airplane aged 100…

 

I’ve realised these past few years that I’m capable of more things than I thought I was.  And so on we go to Souillac…and on…and on.

 

phil in country
A MAN IN FRANCE

256 – Amazing Coincidences and Incredible Lookalikes At The Caussade Monday Market

I was once told by a friend that beetroot makes your pee go pink. ‘Of course, it doesn’t,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been eating beetroots all my life and never once had pink pee. You must be ill.’

Turns out he wasn’t ill, just low acid stomach levels. But that’s totally unrelated to what I want to say. What I want to say is that the man at the Caussade Monday Market who sells me beetroots, is also one of the guys I cycle with every Sunday morning. And I didn’t even know it.

It was only this Sunday, as we passed through the village of Monclar-de-Quercy, that I realised who he was.

‘Oh fuck, it’s you,’ I cried out, nearly cycling into one of the four-foot deep drainage ditches at the side of the road. ‘The beetroot guy!’

‘Ah, oui,’ he exclaimed. ‘L’Anglais, the one who’s always fiddling around with his loose change while a thousand customers wait behind him.’

I laughed. ‘Yes, that’s me. Well, you know what they say, pennies make pounds.’

He hadn’t heard that one before. Probably because he was riding a 5000 euro Pinarello road bike, a bike that would take me a thousand years to buy with the one centime coins I find outside the bar in the village where I live.

I’ve got a pretty good memory for faces and situations – HD quality in fact – but on this occasion I could be forgiven for making a mistake.

At the Monday market everybody wears checked shirts, jeans, boots, hunting caps. On the Sunday morning bike ride everybody wears lycra, streamlined fibreglass helmets, shades, plus lots of snot running down the sides of their faces. It’s the same people, just in costume.

Jean-Paul is no longer the beetroot guy dressed in thick trousers, a wooly jumper and a sturdy coat. He’s Jean-Paul the time trial specialist dressed in luminous skintight lycra and an insect shaped helmet. 

He told me he thought the same. How was I to know that this gibbering imbecile of an englishman who picks coins out of his purse like they’re dead flies was the same guy riding beside me on a thirty year old gold bicycle dressed in a lycra jumpsuit?

‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ I told him. He agreed and we carried on.

The other curious thing about the Caussade Monday Market is that the other guy who sells beetroots looks exactly like my old guitar teacher from Nottingham, Gary Fraser Lewis. So much so that when I first saw him, I was tempted to ask him about that E minor 6th chord I’d always struggled with.

I kept my mouth shut and asked him what the small lightbulb shaped vegetable he had on sale next to the beetroots was.

‘Ah, rutabaga. Very good.’

I’d never heard of them.

‘Sauté au beurre. C’est délicieux,’ he recommended.

‘I’ll take some,’ I said putting five in my basket. ‘And these?’  I asked holding up a black vegetable that looked like a piece of burnt wood.

‘Ah, radis noir. Fantastique, avec du beurre,’ he said, throwing me a big smile into the bargain.

‘Incroyable,’ I said. Incredible. But not the radish. The resemblance to my old teacher in Nottingham was quite astonishing. He started telling me that rutabaga was eaten in WW1 as it’s nutritious and filling,  and it got me thinking that perhaps there was a war connection between the two men. Same grandfathers? Great uncles? Not impossible, surely?

Anyway, that night I took his advice and sauteed the rutabaga and served them with local pork belly and homemade applesauce. As well as red cabbage from Jean Paul the vegman/Tour de France time trial specialist.

‘Wow!’ me and Elizabeth said simultaneously after we’d finished licking our plates for the third time. ‘That was pretty incredible.’ Incroyable, in fact.

And it was. Possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. A meal full of coincidence and uncanny lookalikes. A meal I’ll never forget. Just like I never forget a face (most of the time).

caussade market

255 – The Caussade Cyclo Club’s Road To Hell

I’ve done a lot of feats of endurance over the years – cycling from Birmingham to Bristol half drunk in the dark was one –  but my third outing with the Madcap Caussade Cyclo Club last Sunday, was possibly the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done.

I asked the guys halfway round when we were stopping. ‘You know for a biscuit, or a chocolate bar, or even a piss?’

They looked at me as though I’d just asked them for oral sex. ‘Nous sommes le Groupe à Grande Vitesse,’ Michel (the leader) reminded me. ‘We’re like the TGV! We don’t stop. If you want to stop, go with the girls.’

I wished I had. 55km to go and I was already totally knackered. True, we’d just climbed 500 metres in less than 30 minutes, but I was definitely feeling it today. More so than the other two outings with them.

I’d seen a nice roadside restaurant in the village of Milhars just before the climb and wondered why we couldn’t stop and take five. Or even an hour, accompanied by a couple of pichets de vin rouge and a few plates of steak frites. Cycle back to Caussade in style, tanked up on the local Malbec. I mean, why not? It’s not as though there’s any traffic and as for the police. What police? And it’d certainly take away the pain in my legs.

I remembered French cyclist Jacques Anquetil’s famous quote from the sixties, ‘Only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride from Bordeaux to Paris in a day on just water.’

He had a point. Unfortunately, I only had water and a couple of cereal bars, which I had to eat en route as we sailed down the other side of the hill we’d just climbed and on through the vineyards of Gaillac. It was very nice and by the time we got back down to the river valley I felt that my legs had reattached themselves to my torso.

We did a nice 30km along the D964 towards the famous hilltop village of Bruniquel, until the real pain kicked in, about 20km from Caussade. The guys were on the final push now, salivating at the mouth as they thought about their Sunday meal. Either that or they were terrified of getting a whipping from their wives if they were late back. It was probably a bit of both by the speed they were going. Laying down a fierce 35kph pace through the scenic Aveyron Gorge as though approaching the Champs-Élysées on the last day of the Tour.

I was keeping up. Just. I’ve watched the Tour de France on telly since I was a kid and until now never realised how important the group (or peloton) is. The difference is incredible. Cut adrift even for a few seconds, especially in strong wind, and you’re pedalling backwards. Like cycling uphill in a wind tunnel on a road covered in grit. Bloody hard. But when you’re tucked away in the middle of the group, it’s like cycling on a tandem on a still summer’s day along a pancake flat road.

Michel had told me at the beginning of the day to keep in the peloton, save energy. ‘Even if you have to work hard to get back, it’s worth it, otherwise you’ll get cut loose and today is going to be hard.’

I’d said I would try. And now I was trying, but every time I caught up with them, they seemed to speed up as though playing a trick on me. They weren’t, I suspect they were just hungry.

By the time we reached Montricoux, 10km out from Caussade, I’d found some energy from somewhere – probably the massive pork belly I’d eaten the night before – and finally took up the front position in the peloton. ‘Actually doing some work now, Anglais,’ Michel joked as I passed him.

‘Je me sens bien,’ I said. I feel better. I even thought of offering him out for a sprint finish at the end. I decided not to. The guy was 61 and had been cycling all his life. Funnily enough, he looked like the roofer I used to know in Nottingham years ago, drink hammered face, overweight, smokers neck, sunken eyes. I forget his name now. Roy? Ray, maybe? The comparison stopped there though. Michel would mince me in a sprint, plus I didn’t want to overdo it. I’d done well. I’d done over 100km in four hours over hilly terrain. I didn’t want to ruin it all by trying to be some dumbass English superhero and give myself a heart attack.

After Montricoux, we gently ambled back into Caussade, and as always, everybody quickly disappeared back home for their gigantic Sunday nosh-up. Maybe one day, I thought, they’ll all stay behind and we’d go for a couple of jars and a bite to eat. Discuss the ride, talk about this hill and that hill, taste the salt in our mouths and wonder why we all race around on 9kg cycling machines every Sunday in freezing cold wind and rain, grouping together like geese on a voyage to the North Pole.

Cycling
After The Cycle

253 – The Caussade Cyclo Club

 

It couldn’t have been a worse day yesterday for my first group tour with the local cycle club. Hammering rain, droplets the size of marbles, the moment I stepped outside my house. Swirling dirty grey clouds overhead making the sky look like the palette of an artist who hates colour. A real shitfest of a day that would make death by firing squad more preferable to cycling 85 km in freezing cold rain.

I love cycling. I could cycle anywhere, any distance, at any time. So long as it’s sunny. Or at least vaguely warm. Even cold is bearable. Just not rain or wind. Yesterday morning, I had both.

But I couldn’t let the team down or myself. Especially as I’d gone all the way to Caussade on Friday evening to attend their monthly meeting so I could get the go-ahead from the club secretary to join them on Sunday.

That was a fag in itself, especially as I’d got the wrong Salle de Reunion and ended up gatecrashing a Mixed Martial Arts demonstration instead. When I asked a tough looking teenager where the cycle club met, he looked at me as though I’d asked him out on a date. Eventually telling me after releasing me from a Korean headlock, that he didn’t know and didn’t care. He was a fighter not a poofy cyclist.

I thanked him for his time and wandered out onto the street looking for clues. I saw a woman carrying a tray of crepes wrapped in cellophane, so I followed her. Not because I have a weak spot for crepes (although I do – dripping in creme fraiche, lemon juice and brandy), but because I remembered the cycle secretary telling me on the phone something about there being crepes at the meeting.

The woman I could tell was terrified about being followed by a guy dressed in a grey hoody, black gloves and blue trainers, but after 15 minutes we arrived at the correct Salle de Reunion, where I explained to her who I was. It turned out she was the secretary I’d come to see.

After a brief discussion about crepes and the weather she told me I could come on Sunday. ‘Nous partons à huit heures,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘I misheard you.’

‘We leave at eight o’clock,’ she repeated in English.

‘Yes, I understand,’ I continued in French. ‘But you said, eight o’clock. On a Sunday. Are you serious?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘You don’t have children, do you?’ she asked.

‘Not the last time I looked, no,’ I replied. ‘I like my sleep.’

She smiled, ‘In summer, we leave at seven…’

So there I was outside my house yesterday morning straddling my bike saddle that felt like a lump of wet clay, getting ready to cycle the six kilometres to Caussade for Le Grand Depart.

When I arrived in the town to meet up with the team, they laughed as I approached. ‘Il est en short!’ I heard (He’s wearing shorts!). I replied by telling them that I didn’t feel the cold. Two hours later, I was absolutely freezing and they suggested I should buy some longjohns. I said, ‘I was fine. Next week will be sunny and warm.’ They all laughed again.

Doing leisurely cycle tours as I’m used to, with a carafe of red wine wedged in the bottle holder, is a million miles away from road cycling at speed with fifteen others on a slippery wet road. One lapse in concentration and you’re cycling into somebody’s back wheel, waking up in hospital four days later after a surgeon has pinned your mangled body back together. (Read Blog 65 on Frederic Moreau’s accident for more details on that).

The day was hard for sure, but exhilarating. And I didn’t disgrace myself one bit. I even impressed them by taking the climb up to Mirabel by the scruff of the neck and proving you don’t need a two grand bike to perform well. My vintage 1985 Peugeot PK10 serving me well throughout the day, and when we got back to Caussade after 85 kms of rain soddened cycling, we said goodbye and disappeared as quickly as we’d arrived. Until next week.

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247 – The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd and Other Stories

The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is a bizarre and enjoyable journey featuring an unforgettable cast of characters in some of the strangest situations imaginable. An angry postman in Bristol. An elderly couple addicted to bad French food. A boxing match on a cricket square between two public servants. A very unhealthy freezer shop in rural Devon. A wino who lives in a bandstand with a guy called Jeff. The hapless romantic who buys a 40-tonne boulder for his wife as a birthday present. The man trapped in a bookshop over Christmas. The holidaymaker who takes sunbathing to the extreme. Plus many more, taking you on a fascinating journey through the curious imagination of me, Philip Ogley.

Nomadic, zany, poignant and funny. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd is definitely worth a read in any weather. (Just don’t leave your sunbed at home.)

Click on the sidebar or below to buy your copy.

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242 – Murray Smyth and My Healthy Addiction to Cold Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

240 – The Road to Auty

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I’m a resident of Auty, a village 80 kms north of Toulouse on the border of the Tarn et Garonne and Lot départements. I’m looking after a château and a cat for the winter with Elizabeth. Two weeks ago it was 24 degrees, now it’s 2. I’m sitting in the château writing and I can barely see the end of the drive because of the fog.

This is classic rural France in winter. Vintage in fact. To my right I can see the blue swimming pool that looks about as inviting as smashing my gonads together with bricks. I’ve swum in the sea in Cornwall in winter and in the upper reaches of the Ardeche in April. That was cold, I even got in three times to remind myself how cold it was. I take cold showers every morning, but I can’t bring myself to swim in the pool. And I don’t have much time left as it’s soon going to be covered up once I’ve finished fishing out all the leaves.

There are no pool duties here as such, we’re really just here for security. Watching out for intruders and for leaks and burst pipes. Making sure the mice and weasels don’t make off with the chocolate and biscuit supplies. Or gnaw through the cables and wires that will plunge this 17th château into darkness for days. Without the moon here at night, it’s one of the darkest places I’ve ever been. Like being in a cave where you can’t see your hand.

The scariest place is the boiler room, which is in the basement. Here you can still see the 12th century foundations on which the current château is built on. There’s a tunnel that leads down even further into the ground. I don’t know where it goes and I don’t intend to find out. I’m le gardien not Indiana Jones.

If you were reading this when I lived in Queaux on the farmhouse (see posts 114 through to 164), it’s a similar set-up, except that it’s like the Super Size option in a fast food joint. We’ve upgraded from House Sit Lite to the Super Deluxe. Instead of four bedrooms to sleep in, we’ve got a choice of fifteen. Before one kitchen to cook in, now we’ve got three. Two bathrooms to bathe in, now we’ve got eight. A small skylight to admire the surrounding countryside from, now we’ve got a turret. A small patio for barbecues, now we’ve got a terrace the size of a tennis court. And on and on.

If you’ve read Les Grandes Meaulnes by Alain Fournier that I talked about in Blogley 187 and 189, it’s like the Lost Estate described in the book. All my childhood memories are here: Woods, fires, chopping logs, foggy fields, cycling along deserted roads, cooking, long sleeps, hot chocolate, fresh air. No school. Perfect.

I’ve got some serious writing to do here. A project I started back in 2004 when I lived in Devon, in Starcross, a village near Exeter up the Exe estuary. I even called it The Road to Starcross. Since then it’s grown and I’m not sure what I’m going to call it now. I thought about The Road to Auty but that sounds ridiculous, so I need to think about it some more. I’ll keep you posted from the turret…