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WE'VE GOT the builders in just now. They'd been booked in for months to repair some rotten woodwork in the eaves.

We're lucky. There's a boom in the building trade at the moment. Popular wisdom says this is caused by the thought that come J

WE'VE GOT the builders in just now. They'd been booked in for months to repair some rotten woodwork in the eaves.

We're lucky. There's a boom in the building trade at the moment. Popular wisdom says this is caused by the thought that come January 1st all those legendary tax-shy francs hoarded in uncounted French mattresses and hearthside hidey-holes won't be legal tender any more with the advent of the euro. What the French call bas de laine, woollen stockings, after another traditional home banking system, one that had me puzzled when I first heard it from somebody with a cold, because I understood madeleine, which is a kind of cake. One had heard of sixpences in the Christmas pudding, but this was an altogether novel concept . . .

But how to get rid of them without troubling la fisc, the tax man?

Why, invest in new building. That's the answer. Transfer your equity from papier to parpaings, from brass to breeze-blocks, while there's still time.

So Monsieur Mosé - no doubt anxious to mix some legit. business with the mattress emptyings - and his merry maçons turned up the other day, put up some stout scaffolding, stripped the edge tiles and started on the crumbling, worm-eaten eaves. It wasn't hard. Lumps and flakes of green-painted woodwork came away at the first stroke of the pick and showered down on to the terrasse below.

Presently a worried-looking M.Mosé tapped at the door, accompanied by his foreman, a slender, wiry woman called Nadine. He didn't want to worry us, but did we know our roof timbers were infested with capricorns? He'd cut an inspection hole through the voliges (the roof boarding beneath the tiles) and he could practically hear the larvae wishing each other bon appetit. Some of the rafters were so chewed that a fall of snow would cause immediate and catastrophic collapse.

Capricorns? This was something new. We'd never heard of them, except as a birth-sign. Ah, they were very interesting, capricorns, M.Mosé said, understandably warming to something that obviously put thousands of francs into his pocket every year. They came from the United States, he said. They'd crossed the Atlantic in 1944, at the time of the Normandy landings, in wooden munition boxes and armament cases, which the allied armies abandoned as soon as they were opened. In the wake of the Allied advance a tide of temporary war-damage repairs as well as countless lean-tos, sheds, outdoor loos and especially hen-houses swept through Normandy. As the troops advanced, so did the capricorns.

And now here they were, getting on for sixty years later, in the deep south.

So we sighed deeply, took a deep breath and agreed to have the whole roof replaced, our Christmas present for this year and many years to follow. Hardly had M.Mosé gone away to price it than one of the storms which occasionally ravage the Languedoc tugged and bit at the tarpaulins and tore us from sleep as the heavens opened, and far from the capricorns doing their worst it was the aquarians that had it in for us. We passed a wet night inside and out.

With a virgin roof in tuiles vieillies (pre-aged tiles, factory-mottled to give the appearance of great age) M.Mosé arranged for the infected timbers to be taken up to the local dump for burning, the only sure way to combat the spread of capricorns.

The working week's last lorry load left at about 4.30 on a Friday afternoon, leaving on the front lawn a few final planks and beams, showing green where they'd once formed the eaves, to be disposed of the following Monday. At 5.00 a small van passed coming down from the dump, its roof-rack grotesquely overladen with newly-dumped planks and beams. Green-tipped, of course. Some dump-scavenger hadn't wasted his time. Before nightfall someone else knocked at the door. He was desolated to disturb us, he said, but he was building a new hen-house. If nobody wanted those old planks there on the grass, could he perhaps . . . ?

Then we found a stash of boards under the box hedge, neatly camouflaged with their dark green paint. We raised an eyebrow: what were they doing there? Oh, said Stan - an unlikely name for a French builder, you might think: his brother's called Oliver, apparently. This explains as much as it defies explanation - Oh, said Stan, they're mine. Builder's perks, Monsieur. You don't mind, do you? I'm building a hen-house, you see.

SOME WEEKS ago we opened a tin of chicken-based cat-food and dished some out for our feed-on-demand cats Pinot and Merlot. They're French cats, but that doesn't stop them being as sniffy as cats from anywhere else about what they eat. They left quite a lot of their poulet aux légumes, which I suppose you could translate as chicken 'n' veg.

But they had reason to turn their noses up. When we looked closely in their bowl, the green leavings turned out to be chips of green-painted wood. More lurked in the tin. We could only suppose that into the giant maw of the pet food processor had gone everything, chicken carcases, neck, crop, bones and hen-house too.

At least this happened before work started on our new roof. I hereby abdicate all responsibility for the onward march of capricorns.

MOST SATURDAY nights we go along the road to Gilbert's, whom sharp-eyed readers of this column will recognise as chef de cuisine at Le Châtaignon, our much-loved restaurant in the next village, and the even sharper-eyed will remember him as guitar accompanist to our choir, Le Choeur des Hauts Cantons.

When the tramontane whistles down from the icy heights of the mountains flanking our valley to the north, when you clutch your collar more tightly about your neck, when you yearn for those balmy summer days of T-shirt and shorts, when you ponder wrily on the poignancy of 'damart' being one of the classical Greek words for 'woman', then's the time to bask at Gilbert's fire.

He builds it on a hearth 2 metres by 1, with a cast-iron fireback and firedogs supporting metre-long logs of beech or sometimes vine, gnarled and knobbly, slow-grown to release the concentrated heat of the many summers that ripened past vintages. On the spit there'll be a leg of lamb or pork or wild boar, maybe a haunch of venison or even a pair of ducks. Gilbert will be there, holding in the fire a flambadou, an ash-grey implement like an inverted candle-snuffer with a small hole in the apex of the cone. When it's red-hot he fills the cone with basting fat; it melts almost on the instant, spurting a stream of liquid fire over the meat. Magical. You never tasted such meat.

I expect we'll be there on Christmas Day. We'll lift a glass to you. Happy Christmas!

SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!

There are four signs of the zodiac, obvious or cunningly concealed, up there in the story about the new roof. If you find any more it's through my inadvertence.

First e-mail quoting all four wins L'Almanac de La Poste, the French Post Office calendar, absolute tops in le snobisme francophile. Go to it. Allez-y!