IT'S ALL very hilly in this part of France, and any cultivable land has been wrested from the hillside by building up terraces. The terraces are broad or narrow according to the slope, and usually they're planted with olive or cherry trees, and a
IT'S ALL very hilly in this part of France, and any cultivable land has been wrested from the hillside by building up terraces. The terraces are broad or narrow according to the slope, and usually they're planted with olive or cherry trees, and a local speciality is chestnuts. The terrace walls are built of drystone, and there's plenty of it just lying about.
The area is very complex geologically. It's no use looking for neatly squared-off slabs of sandstone and limestone to build your walls with: mostly the rocks lying about are shapeless lumps of schists and marbles. Local people get round the problem of rocks that just won't fit together neatly and solidly by hoicking stones out of the river Paresse, where thousands of years of river-bed tumbling have knocked off all the rough edges.
The top edge of our new building plot runs just below an old footpath, so overgrown that although it may start at A, if you want to get to B you'd better arm yourself with machete, agent orange and chainsaw because you won't get through otherwise. We felled an ash tree in the middle of the 'path' last year, and counted the rings: 31 years had passed since it first sprouted, 31 years possibly since the last hardy local forced the passage. 31 years, too, since it started putting roots down.
Tree-roots on their own won't do much damage to a solidly constructed terrace wall, but when the wind blows the trees rock, and it's then that weaknesses are exposed. Add the mining activities of worms, moles and other burrowers over 31+ years of disuse and neglect and you can understand why the terrace wall, originally 2-3 metres high, supporting the path and separating it from our plot has crumbled away its entire 150-metre length.
So I'm rebuilding it. It's a point of honour not to use cement. It progresses at about the rate of 30cm a day. Not fast. I expect that by the time I get to the far end, the near end will start to fall down, along the lines of painting the Forth Bridge.
YOU'VE BOOKED your holiday, of course, time off work, ferry or flight, gîte (through French Connections, naturally) and now you're just waiting for the months to roll by.
Maybe you're bound for . . . but I daren't give the name of the hotel, or the spell will be broken. Goodness knows, our French isn't perfect by any means, and we've made some pretty spectacular mistakes in our time, but all the same it takes some finesse of language torture to trot out the pure poetry of their pamphlet:
'. . . this charming domain whose owners shower you with their personal care, is a paradise for lovers of an untouched nature . . .'
Sounds pretty good, though I'm not too sure about the 'untouched' bit. See you there, maybe?
LANGUAGE PITFALLS pitfalls? They're many and well-hidden. The lady mayor of a village called Mousse lived round the corner from us at one time. Wishing to compliment her one day on her very smart appearance, I searched for the right word: 'chic' seemed to fit the bill. Now, as all French Connections clients know, French adjectives have male and female forms, according to the gender of what they're describing, and the lady mayor was nothing if not feminine. So I plunged into the deep litter of my French for the feminine form of 'chic' and came out with 'chiche'. Well, it seemed logical enough . . .
Comme vous êtes chiche! I beamed, indeed showered, all over her. She barely spoke to me thereafter. I know why, now: 'chiche' has no connection with 'chic': it means mean, close, stingy. I'd assaulted the mayoral dignity by telling her what a tightwad she was.
THE OTHER half of this same lady was no Adonis, no oil painting, a beefy man of legendary ugliness, although I daresay his heart was of purer gold than many with better looks. The couple went on holiday to Spain once, where they'd been persuaded to sit for photographs which would later be printed on to his 'n' hers ashtrays. They were so enchanted with the result that they ordered a dozen dinner plates with the same design.
A reasonable cook, she couldn't understand why her cooking skills seemed to have gone to pot after their Spanish holiday. Her dishes seemed tasty enough to her, but whenever people came round for supper, servings of whatever she'd prepared came back untouched, or at least swirled around the plate to hide the horrid vision that lay beneath.
We left the village for a warmer house with a bigger garden soon after, so we never found out how she solved the problem. Did she throw the plates out? Hang them on the wall? Did she produce dishes tailored to match the design?
Maybe, but then her guests would never have known when they'd finished eating their cassoulet or canard aux olives, whether that was a haricot bean or a nostril, an olive or an eye you were scraping at with the edge of your fork . . .
WE'VE REALLY enjoyed a recent revival of Jacques Tati films on French TV. Most Francophiles will know Monsieur Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle (My Uncle), perhaps his best-known film. True aficionados of Tati's brand of helter-skelter, surreal comedy will know and love Jour de Fête and Parade as well.
With the success of Mon Oncle recently behind him, Jacques Tati was invited to a reception at the Elysée Palace. He took his place in the line of distinguished guests waiting to be received by the then President, Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle moved down the line, accompanied by an aide murmuring the name and achievements of each guest into the presidential ear. As de Gaulle reached Tati, the aide whispered 'Jacques Tati: Mon Oncle'.
De Gaulle held out his hand. 'Monsieur Tati,' he said, 'I am glad to have this opportunity to congratulate you on your nephew. He is a fine young man with excellent prospects.' And moved on.
If this story isn't true, it ought to be.