ON OUR rare trips to the United Kingdom we try to leave space in the car for goodies unobtainable here in the south of France, things like Marmite, digestive biscuits, porridge oats - but I shan't go on because if I do some reader is bound to grum
ON OUR rare trips to the United Kingdom we try to leave space in the car for goodies unobtainable here in the south of France, things like Marmite, digestive biscuits, porridge oats - but I shan't go on because if I do some reader is bound to grumble that if you choose to live in France you ought cut the umbilical cord, burn your boats, integrate yourself into the local community and settle down to take the whole French experience on board, although how you can take it on board if you've just burned your boats I'm not sure.
Anyway, there we were in an Essex garden centre last November and it seemed to me that it wouldn't be a bad idea to stuff a vacant space in the car-boot with a few bird feeders and some bags of birdseed and peanuts. These are available in the south of France, to be sure, but not everywhere, and the notion of feeding small birds in winter-time isn't one that's really caught on locally yet. Driving the length of France to get back home last autumn I daydreamed about the exotic, multi-coloured southern French birds that would throng the front terrace fig-tree, where I planned to hang the feeders, well out of the way of our cat Pinot. Almost the first thing I did on returning on November 6th was to hang up a seed dispenser.
I wondered at the time if it would be instructive to keep a diary of birds observed and their habits. Instructive? It would have read (we might as well do it in French):
6 novembre: rien
7 novembre: rien
8 novembre: rien
9 novembre: rien
- and so on, for days and days. Not a dicky bird, as you might say. I might as well have hung up a pair of socks for all the interest they took. By the end of the month some of the seed had started sprouting, due I suppose to some rain having got in. In fact it wasn't until 13 décembre that a clearly disoriented great tit discovered what I expect they now call Café Campbell. I rushed outside, threw the mildewed and sprouting seed out and refilled with fresh.
All it took was time. They're there every day now, the regulars, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, a robin and some dunnocks. Hardly exotic, in fact almost exactly the same birds as I used to have when I lived in the north of Scotland. Who said something about taking on the whole French experience?
But there's one exception. A neat little bird comes to the seed dispenser, sticks its head in and pulls out seeds which, far from eating, it then throws on to the terrace paving below for the ground feeders, chaffinches and dunnocks. I had to look it up: it's a marsh tit, a very generous little bird, enormously popular with the groundlings that haven't got the hang of seed dispensers. Its largesse clearly reflects its upbringing in the best tradition of socialist France.
4.20am. The bedside telephone rings. Panic, panic. What disaster's this? Who's died? It's strange how your first thoughts are those of catastrophe when you're woken from sleep in the early hours.
In fact it's an alarm company telling us that the security of a neighbour's (I'll call them Claude et Béatrice, C and B) house has been compromised. Oh lord, not again. Yawn, yawn. This is about the eighth time in two years. C and B's house must register on the alarm company's records as the most burgled house in France. It's a wonder they're still prepared to take it on.
Bundle into old clothes. Find torch and mobile. Preset number to 17 for police. Get in car, drive the 400 metres to neighbour's house. Park ready for quick getaway if necessary. It's a bright moonlit night. There's nothing obviously out of order. There's a car parked by the house, where C usually parks. Local registration. I feel the exhaust: it's cold. I creep round the house, shining my torch at shuttered windows and testing doors, wondering what imbecile idiocy led us to accept C and B's nomination as the first line of defence.
Then it occurs to me that the car with the cold exhaust may actually be C and B's, and that in fact they're in the house tucked up in bed, where I ought to be. Maybe they're lying there, quaking, whispering:
Claude: Listen! There's somebody creeping round outside: I can hear them trying the doors. It's burglars!
Béatrice: Well, go and have a look, then.
Claude: No, you.
Béatrice: What do you mean, me?
Claude: I've got a bad leg, don't forget.
Béatrice: Bed lag, more like. [I don't know how this would work in French, I confess.] I'm not going, I don't want to be knocked over the head.
Claude: Hold on, hold on a minute: why don't you go and phone the police while I put some clothes on?
Béatrice: Listen, they're right outside. There's probably half a dozen of them. We'll all be murdered in our beds. Do something, for God's sake . . .
And by this time I've persuaded myself that the best thing I can possibly do is creep home and see how things are in the morning. When I get in Josephine has made a cup of tea. Wonderful.
In the morning it turns out that there was nothing wrong at all. But there's an explanation: part of the alarm company's deal is that C and B's telephone is programmed automatically to ring the alarm centre at a set time. If the telephone doesn't ring at the prearranged time, it's possibly because intruders have cut the telephone cable.
Now what time would you set it at? Well, C and B set it at 4.15 am, on the advice of the alarm company. Statistically it's the time at which most break-ins occur. Of course, the house-owner has a minor but vital role to play in all this. He has to replace the telephone correctly after its final use the evening before.
So I got abject apologies and Josephine got a lovely bunch of flowers, but I can't help feeling there are limits to what you can do to integrate yourself into the local community.
Last month's competition was won most adroitly by Graham Matthews, who correctly worked out that Durance was the odd one out in a list of French rivers: all the others gave their names to départements. Félicitations!
This month's competition should sort out les moutons from les chèvres: the mother of two sons who became successive kings of England lies buried in Fontevraud abbey, a little south of the Loire. One of her sons lies beside her, another died after eating too many peaches and cream in Newark (Nottinghamshire, UK). But never mind them: what was her name? First correct e-mail to the address below wins.