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WE'VE DECIDED to build a new house. No, we're fairly comfortable where we are, thanks, but our present place is built into such a slope, like most houses in this very up-and-down area, that we spend all day going from one level to another. In fact

WE'VE DECIDED to build a new house. No, we're fairly comfortable where we are, thanks, but our present place is built into such a slope, like most houses in this very up-and-down area, that we spend all day going from one level to another. In fact there are 11 different levels. Just going from the laundry to the airing cupboard with an armful of ironing involves 31 steps, some of them outside. We practically need decompression after the long, snaking trail from the vegetable garden eyrie down to the front gate where someone's hooting just to ask directions to the Maison de Retraite, the Eventide Home up the lane. Much more of this and we'll be hooting outside the Maison de Retraite ourselves, clamouring to be let in.

So a new house it is, before our knees have completely given way, within armful-of-ironing distance of the present one but on a flatter site that we've made out of three separate parcelles of land, a grassy meadow, a cherry orchard and a small jungle as labyrinthine as the planning regulations in this part of the world.

Maybe they're justified. It's such a beautiful area that you have to have some controls. There's a price to pay for living just outside Un des plus Beaux Villages de France. And we have the classic view of it, hilltop bell tower, tumble of old pepper-pink village roofs, 11th-century Devil's Bridge spanning the river Paresse, and the Espinouse mountains behind. It's a champagne view, one that gives you an agreeable frisson every time you sip it.

But there's un inconvenient. There always is. The EDF, Electricité de France, a generally excellent public utility service, monopoly or not, has spattered the view with its usual rash of poles and pylons. One nearby concrete monstrosity, at the foot of the garden, points upwards like a minor prophet's finger, warning us against over-indulgence in earthly delights. This isn't something we want to be reminded about at all. But what can you do?

A WHITE van turned up the other evening, just as we were coming back from our nightly stroll with the dog and the cats. Two figures emerged in the gloaming, opened the back doors, manhandled something large and unwieldy out, stood it up and wiped their hands on their hips.

It turned out to be a cypress tree, one of those tall, pencil-slim evergreens that whisper 'Mediterranean' in the breeze as you pass and which give the local landscape its cachet. I've always wanted one. For years a family metaphor for something unattainable was 'a bay tree in a tub'. We scotched that year or so ago by giving my mother one for her 90th birthday, although the best part of a century seems rather a long time to wait to indulge that particular earthly delight.

And now here were my children - for they were the shadowy figures in the white van - presenting me with a cypress tree for a landmark birthday. Wonderful. We roamed the grassy meadow, the cherry orchard and the mini-jungle looking for the best place to plant it. We agreed on a vacant spot towards the foot of the garden.

Guess what? The chosen site exactly hides the offending EDF concrete finger.

JUST WHEN we thought it was safe to walk into the view, to stroll down to the village, keeping to the sunny side of the street, stopping now and again to shake hands with acquaintances on the way to collect our daily bread from the comfortable, smiling Mme Gosset or the exquisite Rebecca, an earthly delight if ever there was one, little did we guess what lurked in the mail box . . .

But there it was, a cream envelope with a winged-horse logo we'd seen somewhere before, and typed address hedged about with enormous reference numbers and dire warnings if anyone other than the addressee opened it. Inside, amid other trumpery flim-flam, there's a peel-off stick-on label inscribed LAISSER PASSER, and a personalised letter telling us that we're among the 2% of the local population selected for the award of this pass, which we must keep in a safe place until we need it to ensure our admission into some marbled Parisian hall when summoned to receive our glittering prize, if we're lucky, in the next Grand Tirage du Reader's Digest.

H'm. We suppress a childish urge to change the A of PASSER into an I.

LAST MONTH'S competition asked readers to explain the hexagon on the reverse of the French-minted 1 and 2 euro coins. Dead-heating the tape were Tony Brace of London and, not for the first time, Philip Humphries, the boulevardier of Bellingham, Wa. A mint condition ¤1 to both, equal first to come up with the right answer: France is sometimes referred to as l'hexagone from its fancied resemblance to a regular hexagon on the map. You see how it works? From Finisterre up to the Pas de Calais, from the Pas de Calais south-east Alsace, then join the dots Strasbourg - Nice - Perpignan - Biarritz - Brest to end up where you started from. Robin Quinn of Toronto tempered an incomplete though otherwise informative answer with hundreds of low puns: Merci, Robin, and here are a few with French connection, however slight:

Dijon vu - the same mustard as before.
I fired my masseuse today. She just rubbed me the wrong way.
Is a book on voyeurism a peeping tome?
Without geometry, life is pointless.
When two egoists meet, it's an I for an I.

THE CYPRESS tree also marks a rite of passage: I've now retired, officially. In France I'm now retraité. So far so good, but in Portugal, where we spent a few days at Christmas, I would be a reformado, which sounds like a star product of Borstal or drying-out clinic. But they've got it right in Spain, where I actually spent part of my 60th birthday: a senior citizen is un jubilado. Too true, amigos: earthly delights, here I come!