30th September 2008

So, via a domino effect with the US as the leading player, the credit crunch has finally slammed into Europe. As the eurozone slides into recession, the ECB is coming under intense criticism for keeping monetary policy too tight. The decision in July to raise rates into the teeth of the crisis is now being slammed as overkill by the political leaders in France, Spain, and Italy. Mr Sarkozy - never one to miss a trick - has called an emergency meeting of the EU's big five powers next week to fashion a response to the crisis. It's only now being realised that the EU lacks a single treasury which can move in to deal with things quickly, so our Nicolas is stepping into the breach as current EU Chairman.
All this talk about money made me think of the problems we faced when we moved to France three years ago. Opening a bank account was O.K., but even simple things like writing a cheque was problematical. We learned that the French write the amount on the first line, unlike the English who write the name of the recipient. It was all too much for him indoors, still learning the French numbers. And the French can't even write the numbers correctly: they put a tail on a 9 and a little tick on a 1. They even put dots instead of commas to separate the thousands from the hundreds........I wish! So we decided in the end to have a joint account to simplify things. As him indoors said at the time: 'I know why we took out a joint account...it's because of my sprained wrist!' I bet Nicolas doesn't have this problem with Carla....but about that, another time.

29th September 2008

This week is the 70th anniversary of the day when Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister, Daladier, capitulated to Hitler at Munich. It had marked a particularly turbulent time for France's fourth republic, with successive leaders coming and going with remarkable speed. Before Daladier there was Leon Blum, and after him Pierre Reynaud. Charles de Gaulle had been running between Paris and London to try and broker an agreement as the then Foreign Minister, before both he and Reynaud were ousted at a stroke and replaced by that great appeaser, Philippe Petain*. There was only one direction in which France was then heading - towards armistice with Adolf Hitler - and so it proved.
Remarkable times! What worries me is that the era preceding all this marked a time of considerable economic turbulence - rather like now! Let's hope our current EU continues to do its job in avoiding war. Of course, no-one likes or wants war - how could we with all that blood spilt by innocent victims? But, what are governments to do when every generation or so yet another tyrant pops up in a position of total power? One thing's for sure, if we hadn't gone to war against Nazi Germany, I would not be writing this blog today! So, I think I agree with the Americans when they don't use the word 'commemorate' to refer to wars; rather they use the word 'memorialise'.
Enough said.
*To read more about Petain and wartime France, order my novel 'Je ne regrette rien' - now available to order from walk-in bookstores (ISBN 978-1-84753-366-1), or online: http://www.lulu.com/.

How to buy a dream home in France with very little money

Part 3.
‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ I confided to the agent. ‘We simply must find something on this trip, or we’ll be homeless.’ She looked thoughtful for a moment, before coming up with an idea. I think you’d do better with a more modern property than the ones we sell. Would you like me to introduce you to a colleague who runs an agency round the corner? They have some modern properties that I’m sure would suit you better?’
‘Oh, are you sure?’ foolishly. ‘I mean, aren’t they your competition?’
She laughed. ‘This is France, my dear. We have lots of arrangements like this, where the welcoming agency pays a commission to the introducing agent when a sale is forthcoming.’ She smiled.
‘Oh, I see,’ I replied. ‘Well, yes, of course we’d like to see what your colleague has to offer.’
The agent was quickly on the phone, speaking in rapid French, but with an unmistakeable English accent, making it quite easy to follow. She put down the phone, explaining that the other agency was owned and run by a Dutch couple who were pretty much tri-lingual. She ushered us to the door and pointed down the cobbled street to an orange sign we could just make out in the distance. Wasn’t orange the Dutch football team colour? queried H. Not now, H, not now. The agent closed the door with a flourish, no doubt happy to be rid of us. We walked away, each of us strangely silent as we contemplated what would happen if this also proved a disaster.
The fog which had been hanging over us like a blanket all morning now seemed to be rising, lifting my spirits a little as we wended our way towards the orange sign beckoning to us at the end of the street. We glanced at the large picture window and immediately spotted the photo of a rather pretty bungalow with blue shutters.
‘How much?’ from him.
I peered a little closer. ‘Actually, it’s in our price range.’ Hope springs eternal. We climbed up the steep stone step and pushed open the stiff door. A loud bell clanged in the distance.
‘Enough to wake the dead.’
A tall, smiling man came forward to welcome us. I knew instinctively that this must be the Dutch owner. For one thing, all Frenchmen seemed to be short and this man looked well over six feet.
‘Hello,’ in impeccable English. Yes, he must be Dutch. What is it about all the Dutch and the Germans that even the roadsweepers can argue about the politics of the day or on every subject under the sun in perfect English, whilst we English……
‘We rather like the look of that bungalow in the window. Could we take a look at it?’
He looked at his watch. It was five to twelve, the inviolable French lunchtime, when everything that moves closes for lunch. ‘I tell you what. We’re just about to close for lunch, but I’ve got a leaflet on the property here. Why don’t we meet up at two, right after lunch, which will give you time to consider it in more detail?’
We agreed that was a good idea and shook hands.
‘Bon appetit.’
‘A bientôt,’ we chorused, suddenly cheerful at this new turn of events.

You won’t believe this, but the leaflet he gave us was in Dutch! I think he must have run out of English versions, but that didn’t help us much. I searched my memory-banks for snippets of German learned a long time ago to try to make sense of the thing.
‘De woning is goed onderhouden en is gelegen op een perceel van 2133 m2 aan de rand van een middeleeuws dorp.’
‘Huh? I’m going straight back to tell him what I think of him. Does he want to sell this place or not? How anyone is supposed to understand such double-Dutch I don’t know!’
‘Look. Don’t panic,’ optimistically from me. ‘I think woning means habitation and perceel van 2133 m2 means the number is the land size. That looks good. And in any case, I’ll know straight away if it’s the place for us when we see it. I have a gut instinct for this one. Just trust me…..’
At two-fifteen the pleasant Dutchman returned. We were already learning. Nothing moves fast in France, and especially not after the all-important midday meal.
‘You have eaten well?’
We nodded, not wishing to tell him that after we had eliminated the escargots, the cassoulet (didn’t know what was in it) and other strange concoctions on the lunch-time menu of the local bar, we had dined on a simple pizza.
‘O.K. then. Follow me,’ a black shiny folder underneath his arm.
We followed him out of the agency, with me nearly falling down the steep step onto the cobbles below. Just saved myself from this undignified ignominy in the nick of time.
The fine drizzle and fog of earlier had now given way to a wondrous blue sky with not a cloud in sight. This was more like it. We raced after the agent, our creaking knees no match for his long, lengthy strides until, disappearing suddenly around another one of those sharp corners, we found ourselves in the main Place de la Halle. He marched over to his Renault 5 and our hearts sunk. Were we all to fit into this tiny vehicle? The agent saw our faces and laughed heartily. ‘Don’t worry. There’s room enough for us all.’
‘Yeah. Right.’
There were only three doors, so he opened the passenger side and we struggled into the back, bent double with the effort before collapsing onto the back seat. He clanged the door shut several times before it engaged, then walked around and jumped into the driver’s seat, somehow expertly folding his long legs into the cramped space inside.
‘This is cozy, isn’t it?’
Silence from the back.
He cranked the car into some form of spluttering life and we were off, skidding around the greasy cobbled alleyways until thankfully onto a tarmac road. He raced along at breakneck speed. I couldn’t see the speedometer but felt sure that the speed limits around here weren’t meant to accommodate Stirling Moss. Still, we tried to relax and couldn’t help but admire the wondrous scenery flashing past. This was more like it. Somewhat different from High Street back home. I had a sudden thought: ‘Oh God. We don’t actually have a home right now.’ I suppressed it and stared dazedly out of the window again. Everything seemed so surreal somehow, as if in a dream. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. This was important. I must make the right decision, a decision that would affect the rest of our lives.
‘Oh God.’
Eventually I spotted the name of the village on the Dutch leaflet: Paradis de Quercy, heralded by a red and white sign, with another language printed beneath. Yes, this must be the village, but what did the sign mean? The agent laughed and explained that all signs in the region had the old Occitan name printed underneath. It was a way of preserving the heritage of the region. He cranked up the brake handle before fully stopping the car, throwing us all forward momentarily, whilst he studied the property address again. Then suddenly we were off again, careering around corners and doing handbrake turns before finally, with a triumphant ‘Voilà!’, we were turning into a long shingle driveway. We had arrived.
I scrambled out and gazed up at the house, which was positioned on a rise, slightly to the right of the long, curving driveway. ‘Look,’ I said to my other half. ‘It’s got crépi walls.’
‘I think it looks rather nice.’
We both stood and stared again at the house. I knew instinctively, just as I knew I would, that this was our house. It looked positively beautiful with its Mediterranean blue shutters, rose bushes around the door, and long stone terrace in the front. All around us were numerous variegated trees and shrubs, including plum, apple, oak, balsam poplar and chestnut, interspersed with rolling green grass.
In the doorway emerged Monsieur and Madame, the owners, walking out to greet these strange English people. We all shook hands and said Bonjour, before Madame ushered us inside. My mind momentarily cast back to all the other French houses we had viewed so far, and the dark, crumbling inner décor we had discovered. I held my breath. Inside, I knew at once that this was for us. It had a beautiful natural stone fireplace, complete with insert, which Monsieur explained was a log-burning stove. Set above the insert was a heavy dark oak mantelpiece, rather like a railway sleeper, the sort that everyone craves but rarely finds in England. We walked into the kitchen. Having already made my mind up, I dismissed the lack of facilities, knowing that him indoors would soon arrange something more suited to our English tastes. We completed the tour, noting the house was surprisingly spacious for a bungalow, with its three bedrooms and bathroom.
Monsieur was evidently pleased with the sunken bath. He beckoned to him who knows. ‘Regardez,’ he pointed. I could tell from the response that my other half was already picturing stumbling into that great hole and not being able to get out again. At least he didn’t say he’d look into it. Clearly, the sunken bath would have to go. Pity really. I rather fancied wallowing in Roman splendour, cavorting amongst the billowing soap suds of my subterranean pleasure retreat. Oh well.
Glancing in the mirror above the washbasin reminded me of how, as tall Europeans, we always seem to get caught out by short plumbers. It always seems to be the plumber who fixes the height of the mirror. He will always adjust it according to whether he can see his own face reflected back, forgetting that for ever more the taller owners of the mirror will suffer hernias from constantly crouching to see themselves in it! Why are plumbers always short anyway? And you should always beware of shaking hands with a plumber, or even a gynaecologist, because you never know where they’ve been!
We all walked out through the kitchen door into the back. The view was spectacular. ‘Regardez,’ repeated Monsieur, evidently sure that this would be the only French word we were likely to understand. The view certainly was wonderful and a million miles away from the tightly-packed, graffiti-ridden English suburban views back home. We could see for miles, the view permeated here and there by densely-wooded copses, undulating steadily into the distance. Without actually expressing it, I had been searching all my life for complete privacy such as this, and now we seemed to have found it.
Him whose mind always turns to money took Monsieur to one side. ‘C’est combien?’ Wonderful how his French improves when the need arises.
‘Un cent et quarante-neuf milles euros.’
‘Uh. You take one hundred and forty….?’ hopefully.
‘Non!’ hands facing downwards, one moving forcefully over the other in the international sign language indicating disapproval.
We had often talked about the usually unknown reasons why people sell, so we asked the vendor our standard three questions: ‘Why are you selling, why are you selling, why are you selling?’
To which came the carefully-prepared response: ‘The land is now too large for us.’ (This all sounded eminently sensible, but we later discovered the vendor had bought a new plot of land in the village, double the size of this one!). This all goes to prove that when buying an established house, one never knows the real reason for the sale.
After a further few minutes of kicking our heels in frustration, the agent walked up to us, confirming that the owner definitely would not accept anything less than the asking price. What did we want to do?
There was no question that this was the only house we had seen that had even come close to ‘ticking all the boxes’. It was habitable without doing major structural repairs, had privacy, space for him indoors to crash and bang to his heart’s content, was within walking distance of the village with its Boulangerie (I could smell those warm croissants now), and was within our budget.
We shook hands all around.
It seemed that we had bought our dream house.
Let the future begin!
.........Don't miss the final episode next Sunday

27th September 2008

Despite living in a wonderful place, this has been quite a difficult year. Not only did I break my shoulder, but in January my brother died at 61 from myeloma - cancer of the bone marrow. Cancer is an emotive word, one we all fear. Our lives are the most important thing we have but treatment around the world is such a lottery. In Birmingham, where my brother lived, the ambulance drivers said to him, when he dialled 999 in agony one night, 'we're not a taxi-service, mate!' Words fail me. Here in France the cancer survival rate is one of the best in the world, a clear 20% higher than in the UK. But, before you all start moving over here, there are some things that might make you stop and think. At a hospital in Annecy in the Rhone-Alps, each patient's bed has a multimedia terminal which combines phone/tv with internet access and educational material about their own illness. You may well say that's fine. But, not only will doctors use the terminal to consult the patient's medical notes and write prescriptions, there is also an automated system whereby a robot packages the doctor's prescription and actually delivers it direct to the patient! Bring back matron, I say.
P.S. Don't miss Part 3 tomorrow of the Sunday serial 'How to buy a dream home in France with very little money'

26th September 2008

For weeks those crazy physicists had been trying to bring the world to an end, until him upstairs stepped in and closed down their machinery. But now the financiers on America's Wall Street look as though they're to do the same thing. This will be much more difficult to close down because it involves the way millions of people have been living. The signs were always there: things just couldn't continue. Everyone in the West has been living way beyond their means, based on ever-increasing credit, and governments have been encouraging it for years. Every UK student will tell you: some even have debts amounting to mortgage level by the time they leave university. It's Wall Street 1929 all over again. How the Taliban must be rubbing their hands in glee: the West is doing their job for them in eradicating capitalism at a stroke. Because the US is a super-power, anything they do has an inevitable trickle-down effect to the rest of the West, so what's happening in Europe? Well, the ECB's super-lax policy has already caused credit expansion of 30pc a year in Ireland, and pushed household debt levels to 190pc of GDP. The hangover has now begun in earnest. Apparently next on the EU list for the deepening recession are Germany and Italy. And for France? No-one says much here. I'm personally so glad that I downsized from the UK to France when I did, capitalizing on our assets before it was too late. It's still the good life here where we don't rely much on capital assets. And if all else fails? The sunshine is free, la qualite de la lumiere is free, and what's more, for the first time in our lives we have no mortgage, no debt whatsoever and no credit cards. Hallelujah!

25th September 2008

When you leave Dover for France, the last thing you see is the famous White Cliffs. Then, if you haven't collapsed from seasickness en route, the first thing you sight on approaching Boulogne or Dieppe is similar white cliffs. This means that in prehistoric times England and France were one country. Today they are separated by a channel 18 miles across at the narrowest point. This has proved such a formidable barrier through 18 centuries of mutual invasion that when you land you find yourself in a foreign country, the architecture and language being totally different. And even the roads: the French were the first people after the Romans to make national roads as far back as the 17th century. But, other than that, what else is different? Well, the French seem far more cheerful to me - something that attracts me enormously. So, don't make the mistake of listening to international news too much: too depressing. Those politicians! They are themselves so indifferent to enjoyment that they are sincerely convinced that enjoyment is a disease from which their fellow citizens must at all costs be saved! But for hypochondria: no-one suffers from this more than the average Frenchman. The standard treatment for un crise de foie or liver crisis is the suppository. French doctors love to proscribe it for every ailment under the sun. Of course, the average prudish Englishman (as with the ubiquitous French bidet) would never stoop so low as to actually use it!!!

24th September 2008

They say that a new broom sweeps clean. It's that Nicolas Sarkozy again. He seems to be everywhere. He currently chairs the EU commission in Brussels and has presided over a brand-new innovation: the Blue Card. This will lure qualified workers to plug the EU skills gap. The visas, coloured blue to match the EU flag, are intended to rival the American Green Card by offering permanent residency anywhere in Europe after five years’ work. The card will be targeted at qualified migrants and Sarkozy believes that it will change the image of Europe as a destination mainly for unskilled immigrants. Migrants will also be allowed to move to any other EU country if they find a new job there after two years of residence in the sponsoring country. That won't please Britain's overcrowded island which likes to pick and choose which EU directives it wants to keep. Either it's a member of the EU or it isn't. But, the big problem with this Blue Card thing, as with the EU as a whole, is the multitude of languages. You've seen how me and him indoors have coped with dealing with a new language. I wish someone would wave a magic language wand over the EU and impose one language across all states, like in the US after the War of Independence. My late father used to say that German was very nearly chosen there as the common language! Perhaps one of my American readers can tell me whether that was actually the case, and how the new USA managed to get everyone speaking the same language all those years ago. I can't even get him indoors and me to speak the same language, never mind all the rest! Once I hear from you, I'll pop over to Nicolas's place and let him know.

23rd September 2008

Me and him indoors are going for a walk around the village. Thought you might like to tag along. You won't need a coat as it's still warm outside and the sky's blue. French villages are like no other. Outside of France they would by now have evolved from rusticity to urbanity, but not here; they are content to remain small villages for ever, curiously proud of their tranquil decadence. As we head along our country lane, we make sure that Bruno's away from next-door's gate: don't want a barking confrontation at this time in the morning. Around the corner and across the road; no need to hurry. In fact, we can walk right up the central road line as there's not a car in sight, as we cross over to the ancient 15th C Eglise St-Pierre. The door's slightly ajar so I suggest to H that he take Bruno down to the river whilst I peep inside. The stone walls are damp and the atmosphere chill in here, my breath almost ghosting up in front of me. History has dwelt within its walls awhile and departed. Glad to be back outside again, I hurry past the ancient sandstone castle and its fortified gate into the old cite. Soon I've reached the rushing waters of the Aveyron, snaking its way along before falling down sheer rocks into the lower levels beneath. I anxiously look for H and Bruno. Where are they? Oh no, H and dog are both sitting in the water. How did you come to fall in the river? I didn't come to fall in the river, I came to walk the dog! Safely dried off, we headed home, past the enticing aromas emanating from the boulangerie. I'd like some Russian bread, says H. Oh, you mean black bread? No, ones with the Kruschov! Grr.

22nd September 2008

I've finally finished my physio sessions. Hurray! You know the system: you go to a specialist, he tortures you, then you have to give him money (albeit refundable). But I can report that I have finally reached the pinnacle of achievement: I can now clap my hands above my head. Amazing. It made me think, though, about this whole health and fitness thing. I was interested to see on TV last night all those bike-riders in London, organised by Boris Johnson, the London Mayor. What I like about bikes is that when you get tired, you can stop. In French cities like Paris and nearby Toulouse the people have really taken to heart the latest craze: the Velib, the bike-hire scheme sponsored by JCDecaux. You take out a regular subscription which entitles you to pick up and drop a bike all around the city. Velib has just celebrated its first anniversary with an agreement to extend the scheme into suburbs too. It's been a roaring success, despite the inevitable people problems of vandalism and theft. They've had to introduce new, stronger frames and to solder the baskets onto the handlebars to prevent people making off with them. This whole bike thing made me remember when him indoors went to the doctor with his bad leg. The doctor said 'it's because of your age', but H retorted 'the other leg's just the same age and that one doesn't hurt'. So the doctor muttered something in French, which I translated to the poor patient. What did he say? He says you've to get on your bike! Exactly.

How to buy a dream home in France with very little money

Part 2.
We pushed open the door and walked confidently in.
‘We have an appointment at 10 a.m.’
The phone jangled. ‘Excuse me a moment’. The moment lasted twenty minutes.
Why is it that staff always jump to answer the phone, at the expense of the people who have made the effort to appear in person. Just calm down, calm down and relax.
We walked over to look at some enlarged photos of some very impressive houses in the region. Unfortunately, on putting on our reading glasses, the small-print prices also looked very impressive. Way beyond our agreed budget.
He whispered ‘I thought you said houses in this region were supposed to be cheap’.
‘Shh, she’s coming back.’
She brushed a tendril of hair off her perspiring forehead and apologised for the delay. ‘Sorry about that. It gets pretty hectic in here, as you can see.’ She waved her hand airily around the office, where a harassed assistant was also answering phones ten to the dozen. ‘Now then, what exactly is your budget range?’ She obviously liked getting straight away down to the nitty-gritty.
‘Well, actually, we were rather hoping to find something in the hundred to two hundred thousand euros mark…’
‘Oh,’ followed by a short intake of breath, as she sat down at her desk and began rummaging in the stacks of folders lying haphazardly on her old wooden desk. ‘Well, we do have a range here somewhere. Let me see…..Ah yes, here it is. What I suggest is that you take this folder and go through it slowly over there…,’ pointing to a desk in a dark corner away from the more prestigious house photos we saw earlier.
Obediently, we did as we were told, skulking with some embarrassment over to the obviously lower-priced area of the office. We sat down heavily as the agent’s phone began jangling incessantly once again. We could hear her voice, suddenly transformed ‘Bonjour Monsieur Feret. Ça va? Ooh la la, vous avez choisi la maison grande à 800,000 euros? Bon, très bon!’
I could hear my other half’s teeth gnashing in snarling frustration.
‘Don’t worry,’ I whispered back. ‘I’m sure we’ll find something in here to suit us,’ glancing hopefully at the folder in front of us. I mean they must want to sell these or they wouldn’t have included them in their repertoire, would they?’
I could see a glazed look come into his eyes. We had less than a fortnight to find our house or we were heading for homelessness. The clock on our flat rental back home was counting down, and then we would be out on the streets. No. I was determined that it wouldn’t come to that. Surely one of these houses would suit us?
The agent put down the phone, stood up and hurried over to us.
‘Well, how are you two getting on? Found anything you like?’
I pointed out all the ones that were hovering around the one fifty thousand mark, or rather one fifty thousand euros. She smiled and said ‘Good. I’ll just get the car and we’ll go and take a look.’
We were flummoxed. We hadn’t realised that she herself would take us round every one of them right this minute. I hid my surprise, gathered my large bag and creaking husband and followed her smartly out of the shop and over the greasy cobbles to her car.
Overhead a few drops of fine rain had just started to fall, making our way even more slippery.
‘Probably the only rain all day,’ grumbled him indoors.
‘Stop being like Victor Meldrew,’ I hissed, as we rushed after her disappearing figure as she sharply turned a corner into another tiny alleyway. Looking up, it seemed as though the residents on either side could kiss or shake hands with each other, if they had a mind, so close were their leaning turret windows. Amazing.
‘Here we are,’ she called, as we carefully picked our way after her, trying to avoid the dog mess everywhere.
‘Damn, too late,’ said he, struggling to scrape his shoes on the crépi walls either side.
‘Don’t do that!’ Oh God, why are husbands like children sometimes?
And so began the journey from hell. The agent drove like a lunatic around the winding country roads, obviously keen to keep to her tight time schedule, with me feeling the onset of my usual nausea. I took several deep breaths and opened a window, only to let in a gust of cold, misty air making everyone inside cough. I closed it again and suffered in silence.
‘Ah, here we are,’ the agent said brightly.
We looked out. Was this the first property that looked so impressive in the photo? What had seemed like a place with lots of space turned out to be jammed in the middle of a courtyard. We knew as soon as we saw it that it wasn’t for us, but we dutifully walked around it. She soon saw, though, from our unspoken body language that it was time to move on to property two. This had plenty of space but was so ramshackle that it would take hundreds of thousands of pounds of renovation to bring up to standard. Our faces fell and we started to panic. And so the property tour continued, from one disaster after another, with the best one unfortunately having a stone tomb in the grounds at the front, complete with large cross and rosary beads to the fore. We couldn’t live with a dead body lying in our front garden and couldn’t face being reminded of our own mortality everytime we looked out each morning.
Eventually, after hours of looking, we returned dejectedly to the agency. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ I confided to the agent.
........To be continued next Sunday

20th September 2008

Just ten days ago I wrote about how physicists were 'pushing back the frontiers of science' with its newly-named 'Halo' atom-cruncher. You remember: it started on 10-9-8.......and counting. Well, although we're all still here (surprisingly), there are apparently still more experiments to come. That is, after the physicists have solved the problem of electricity failures! Maybe Him Upstairs is trying to tell them something: stop all this meddling with things you don't understand.
Well, on a more mundane level, I also have problems with electricity failures. It happens all the time around here. Although France's electricity is among the cheapest in Europe, some 75% generated from nuclear power, problems start when you live in rural areas like ours. The lights are always flickering and sometimes go off and come back on almost immediately (just long enough to crash the computer!). So, I went to buy a para foudre to put into the wall socket. This helps to stabilise the power. Him indoors also (wisely) keeps old-fashioned things at the ready: torches and candles, for the frequent 'outages' caused by thunderstorms. Also, it is wise not to try to use a number of high-powered appliances at the same time! It's good round here, innit? And don't even mention those fiddly two-pin plugs and wobbly wall sockets. So, if we find ourselves literally in the dark, we have to fumble for a torch and find the phone, only to be met by those infernal phone jingles at the other end. Still, we know c'est la France and nothing moves quickly. It's as him indoors points out: electricity is part of the 'inertia selling' in France (invented by a Scotsman - 'in Ayrshire')......Grrr.
P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's second episode of How to buy that dream home in France. Not to be missed.

19th September

Ever since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden to search for a better life, man has moved around the planet. In today's world, due to vast inequalities in opportunity, work and wealth , this movement has reached epidemic proportions. The trouble is, with no-one to manage this enormous switch of manpower, anomolies occur.
This week the Office of National Statistics in Britain reported that the number of people living in England is now 400 people per sq km and rising rapidly, already quadruple that in France, where we live. But, as you will have read this week, England has taken its position as the most crowded country in Europe at exactly the same time as economic recession has taken hold. So, what on earth can be done? Not every one can desert their country (as we have done!). People's personal circumstances have to be right to contemplate that.
Of course, the British government is trying, at last, to do something about immigration. But everyone is yelling at them: 'it's 40 years too late!'. You only have to go up in a helicopter and look down at such a tiny island to realise that there are far too many people living there. There's no room to breathe. Now, I'm no expert on population density nor on mobility - although I've certainly tried the latter. But, it seems to me that globally there needs to be a group, be it the UN or similar, who can set up work opportunities in countries that have vast tracts of sparsely-populated land - like parts of Africa/Asia/S. America - offering 'carrots' of work opportunities for people to move from over-crowded places to set up homes in these new areas.
But for me and him indoors? After three years, we have never regretted our move to France. It may not have been for work that we moved, but it certainly has produced a better life. Our new home, though modest, is our veritable Garden of Eden and we wouldn't willingly go back to our former crowded island for all the money in China.

18th September 2008

There is a small French town near Metz which has just voted to change its name. To an English eye there doesn't seem much wrong with the name of Vantoux, but to the 320 households in the affected commune it signified the name 'vandals', with all the connotations thereby. So, by due process, on Tuesday night the new name for the inhabitants was changed by the municipal council to Vantousiens. The nine hundred residents who voted for the change were ecstatic, saying that for too long too many visitors were coming to the town expecting to meet the wrong kind of people. However, there were some residents who were inevitably disappointed; people like the local coffee shop owner had actually been proud that their town's name had been a point of debate, attracting tourists to the region.
Of course, with the current free-flow of people across Europe, with the pot pourri of languages pouring forth, there is even greater scope for confusion and even hilarity. Who could forget the TV programme the other night with Charley Boorman racing across Europe, and his chance encounter with that unfortunate fellow called Farti! No doubt in his native language (was it Turkish?), his name would have been normal, but to an English ear it is hysterically funny. Here in France there are the well-known places causing inevitable humour like Condom - a town near here - and a small town called Optare. Him indoors laughed when asking directions (no, not up-dere...). But the worst example of cross-language hilarity was caused yesterday when we received a leaflet in our mailbox from the local wine merchant. After all, which English resident in their right mind would want to display in his wine cellar a bottle called 'Arse'. I kid you not!

17th September 2008

In writing this daily blog I try to embody some of the cultural and political bonds that link Britain and France. As such I like to think I'm a sort of modern-day Alistair Cooke, who all those years ago used to broadcast via his weekly BBC radio programme 'Letter from America'. He was born in Manchester in 1908 but became a US citizen in 1941. Of course back in 1946 when Cooke first started broadcasting across the globe, he could have had no idea of the technological revolution to come. Nor could he have had any inkling of the difficulties oldsters like me would have in trying to communicate globally from my humble abode here in rural France, aeons away from the BBC expertise that Cooke could call upon. How to find out the French word for some of the keyboard symbols like @ or # ? These sort of things are never in my French:English dictionary. And you all know what happened when him indoors went to buy a computer mouse yesterday! But, petit a petit, little by little, we get by. By chance, I have now discovered that the # symbol is called dieze in French. When I'm trying to decipher an incoming phone message, the French telephone operator leaves her dratted recorded message: '...if you want this, tappez dieze......' So, voila! That's one problem solved. Of course, all of these are the trivial problems of a new immigrant to these shores, but what of the future? Will the current appalling economic and immigrant problems endemic in Britain bring more and more British to France? If so, let us hope that, like Alistair Cooke back in 1946, they learn to integrate by adopting the new culture, despite all the consequent hysterical comedy situations that engenders. After all, by reading my blog every day, you'll have gathered that I should know.

16th September 2008

Every so often we get invited to a congenial party at the home of one of our English friends. On Saturday we went along for a buffet lunch at the home of R..., who was celebrating his 70+ birthday. His home is situated along the banks of the river Aveyron, yards away from the ancient watermill at Le Moulin restaurant. What is always interesting for me is the mix of English and French guests and their different take on life here. Some of the guests were Londoners, over here for just a few days to enjoy the party and sample the delights of the area. We got to chatting about the differences between the two ways of life. 'What brought you here?' is a frequent question. My usual response is to rail against an England which has too many people and too many cars. 'Ah,' would be the quick retort, 'but for me, I couldn't live without all the facilities of London....the restaurants, the theatres, the family, friends etc.' So, what is the answer? As always, everyone has to make a choice on how to live their lives. Each of us is different, with different circumstances with which to contend. All I can say is that for us, at this point in our lives, nothing beats the respect shown by the local French to everyone, even by the smallest children. It takes me back to that post-war English idyll of my childhood, where children would play safely outside the whole day and respected those in authority. But more than that, what really lifts my spirits is la qualitie de la lumiere and the golden sunshine - free at the point of delivery. I can only stand and stare.

15th September 2008

A lady called Dominique runs the local French classes in St. Antonin, 15 km away from chez-nous. Today is the first day of the new term and I'm supposed to be there right now! Trouble is, the autumn mists were all over the valley this morning, it was chilly and the class started so damned early, 9 a.m. sharp. I'll just have to admit it: I'm getting too old for all this. Living here for three years has taught me that it doesn't matter how many classes you attend, you can still get into difficulties. Take last week's physio session. I was told to put my arm au dessous. As usual in these situations I thought carefully 'what did he say?' Eventually I pointed my arm down to the floor. 'Non, non, Madame!' exasperated. He stretched his arm up to the ceiling, whilst carefully mouthing to this idiotic patient 'au dessus....oo...oo.' (Au dessous means 'below' and au dessus means 'above'). I can't believe the French language is so stupid. Fancy having two phrases meaning the exact opposite that sound exactly the same. Just think of the consequences. The same happened to him indoors when he went to buy a computer mouse from a local store. Before he left I armed him with the correct word souris for mouse. He was in hysterics when he came home. 'Whatever happened?' I asked. 'Oh, the assistant couldn't stop grinning. I couldn't understand it. Just like you said, I said 'Donnez-moi un sourire'. Oh no. Sourire means smile!! C'est la France.

How to buy a dream home in France with very little money

Part 1. The estate agency was situated on a quaint cobbled street in a picturesque part of the village. Opposite was the ancient Place de la Halle, which from mediaeval times had housed the weekly market. Today not being the market day, it was filled with school children running and shouting through the pillars and orioles. We stared down the cobbled alleyway in amazement. It really was a wondrous sight. Everywhere were many-storied ancient houses, each one a photographer’s dream, their many windows edged with the colourful cornflower-blue volets of the region. We peered into the window of a private art gallery and were spellbound by the pot pourri of artists’ easels. Everywhere were examples of vivid impressionist landscapes, with their bright splotches and melange of shades, flowers and cornfields. In one corner there was one painting reminding us of a famous Pissarro. With one broad brushstroke it successfully depicted a hushed Sunday afternoon, all verdant vines, crumbling sun-baked masonry and a vision of the future catching the last fading glow of summer’s elusive light.
We walked back to the agency’s window and glanced at the colourful property cards pinned in the window. So many glorious stone houses were for sale, complete with swimming pools, all pictured under navy blue skies. Ah yes; this was what we wanted. We pushed open the door and walked confidently in.
..................To be continued next week

13th September 2008

The Pope is visiting our region of France today. No - not to visit me! (I'm not Catholic). He's visiting Lourdes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a famous apparition. Until 1858 Lourdes was just an ordinary small town of 4,000 people situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, until a 14-year-old local miller's daughter called Bernadette told everyone that she had seen a beautiful lady, who directed her to a mountain spring now said to have healing properties. And now the tiny unimportant town of Lourdes has been transformed into the 'Disneyland' of the area, selling tacky over-priced religious souvenirs to the increasingly gullible public. More than six million - mostly Catholic - visitors arrive every year making it one of France's most popular tourist attractions. Where that tiny town is going to put them all today is anyone's guess as the VIP walks the first stages of the Jubilee Way, a brand-new pilgrim-age route. Of course, the fame of the Pope will clash with the other - he would say greater - VIP. I talk of M. Sarkozy himself, who will be in Lourdes today. Well, our Nicolas doesn't miss a photo opportunity. I wonder if he'll bring the beautiful Carla? The mind boggles at the thought of this particular threesome together. With her (some would say sordid) background, will the Pope shake her hand? But that's what miracles are made of.
P.S. Tomorrow begins a new serial on buying your dream home in France. Don't miss it!

12th September 2008

Eurotunnel has always been my salvation. It means that, when travelling back to the UK from France, I don't have to risk mid-air disasters in our ever-crowded skies, fatal errors by our overstretched air-traffic controllers or the inevitable seasickness on those awful cross-Channel ferries. But it seems that there is no escape for me if I want to travel. Even Eurotunnel has now had its own disaster, the worst in its 14-year history, so what is a poor traveller to do?
Yesterday many people were evacuated from a freight train via the third, emergency, service tunnel as a fire quickly flared up and continued to spread. Temperatures quickly reached 1,000C. Investigators have already discovered that the cause was a faulty brake on a lorry which overheated when the train was six miles from the French end of the tunnel, causing a tyre to explode, which in turn set light to the cab. It almost sounds like a disaster movie when we hear that nearby was another lorry carrying carbolic acid! Can you imagine the consequences? François Malhanche, the director of the Pas de Calais region prefect's office, said there were 30 lorries on the shuttle, including the one transporting the carbolic acid, or phenol, which is used in medicines and as an antiseptic.
I may be foolish here, but in a situation where vehicles and passengers are travelling deep underneath the ocean, should toxic or flammable liquids be allowed through the tunnel at all? I couldn't believe it this morning when I read by both the English and French authorities: "Strict rules have been applied to the carriage of flammable liquids in bulk since the start.They were reviewed after the 1996 fire by the Inter-Governmental Safety Commission. While lorries have diesel in the tank, which is flammable, they should not be part of their cargo....These rules are supposed to have been more strictly enforced.....'
So, it looks like the usual human cock-up. Don't put down to malice what is sheer incompetence.
You couldn't make it up!

11th September 2008

In an old cardboard box we keep at the bottom of the wardrobe I found a photo of myself taken in the 1980s. Other than the fact that I looked a lot younger, with an old-fashioned 'Afro' perm, it was the setting that gave me such a shock. I was sitting in front of a marble statue at the World Trade Centre in New York! I felt quite numb at the thought of what lay right there today. It's now 7 years since that fateful day, but the world is moving on - quite rightly so. And, after the fears of yesterday's experiments in Geneva, what else can we do? But, for the French, life is comme d'habitude. Although they are famous for the liberality of their bodies, their minds are quite another thing. In my experience, they do not like to dwell on their thoughts for fear of appearing ignorant. The French news channels seem to perpetuate this stance, not covering disasters such as 9/11 in anything like the regularity or concentration of English tv or Sky channels. No, French tv trawls across the different departements of France, giving a balanced look at what is happening across the country - sometimes lightweight, yes, but it doesn't matter. Yes, the French channels do include world events, but these do not saturate the news to the exclusion of all else. When in the UK, I try to limit myself to watching the news only once a day. Well, it's a constructive way to beat those depressive thoughts. 'The world might end?', 'a repeat of 9/11 around here?' Non merci. I'm too busy watching how to make champagne.


Is it just a coincidence that today's date is forecast to be the end of the world...10.9.8....and counting? Somewhere deep within the Earth, on the French/Swiss border, lies a monster waiting to unleash a black hole to swallow us all up whole. The physicists tell us that they have constructed a giant atom smasher in a 17 mile circumference underground tunnel near Geneva, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN. Apparently, the project will generate spin off benefits for leading edge technology. Trouble is, I don't like the word 'spin offs'. For doomsday merchants like me, those spinning off will be us! Of course, the scientists say there is absolutely no danger to the world and that their experiments will be a boost for education. It may well, as they say, 'mark a seismic shift in the epicentre of world research in particle physics'. But, seismic shifts make me think of earthquakes, doom and disaster for the whole world. Why can't they leave things alone? Isn't life hazardous enough without creating more things for us to worry about? There have been quite a few sandwich boards along the streets of the world proclaiming "Will the World End on Wednesday?" Let's hope they're not right. We'll hardly be around to tell everyone I told you so! CERN it may be, but I suggest we add the word CON at the front....that would make a lot more sense.

9th September 2008

Did you read about that Frenchman who had invented his own jet-powered wings to fly across the Channel? He told everyone that this was how we'd all be travelling in the future. Couldn't help but wonder where we'd put the children, the dogs and the shopping. The world needs to do something, though, to ease road congestion. I mean, that was the reason we left the UK. - too many people and too many cars. In contrast, here in rural France, if I need to get to a 9 a.m. appointment on a Monday morning, there's not another car on the road. Yes, really. Of course, as with most countries, France's capital city has enormous road congestion. Driving in Paris is the equivalent of hell - it's a beautiful city but should be avoided at all costs when driving. And don't even think of trying to park. There's a place at the top of the Champs Elysees called the Place Charles de Gaulle/Etoile which is particularly bad, being the worst free-for-all in the whole of Europe. It's a vast roundabout where 12 roads converge, all with priorite a droite. Apparently if you have the misfortune to have an accident there, responsibility is automatically shared equally between the drivers concerned, irrespective of who had the theoretical right of way. Similarly, avoid the Boulevard peripherique, which runs around Paris. It's an 8-lane race track with Le Mans delusions. Avoid: unless you've a death wish. To try and help, in June each year the French Ministry of Transport issues a 'wily bison' map (carte de bison fute). Not sure how that can help. (No, you can't wash your hands in a 'bison', H.). What have bisons got to do with it, anyway? When I saw it, I thought I was back in Maine!

8 September 2008

The Sunday market at nearby St. Antonin is famous in this region and in the summer is frequented by hordes of tourists. H grumbled to me: 'I wish all these English foreigners would go home again!' The ancient bridge which spans the Aveyron is particularly picturesque, elegantly spanning the broad expanse of the river. The bridge itself is somewhat famous from when they filmed 'Charlotte Grey', being the setting for a line of rumbling German tanks in one of the wartime scenes. We leaned awhile on the old rough-hewn bridge and admired the many flowering baskets of bright pink geraniums, vying with cascading purple petunias and firebright begonias that adorned the many arches. 'Why haven't they been stolen?' asked the realistic one next to me. I agreed with him. Another world from the urban West Midlands we'd left behind. Before we left the market, H insisted on stocking up on some wine and spirits. I could see his mouth watering at the selection: cognac, Armagnac (a speciality of this region), calvados (an apple brandy from Normandy), and liqueurs like Chartreuse, Cointreau, Grand Marnier and pastis such as Pernod and Ricard which are brewed in the south. Looking around, H whispered: 'I wonder why they call this one here Pissenlit ?'.

Sex a la francaise - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Finale. Much to H’s annoyance, it is not the norm to kiss everyone on sight, especially not all the pretty girls. So, as he says, ‘to kiss or not to kiss, that is the question.’ As with all things, especially when playing snooker, you must take your cue from the French themselves.
When first introduced to an adult, do not faire la bise (kiss) on sight. Listen carefully, H. If a woman expects you to kiss her, she will offer you first her cheek, then if you are lucky…….But remember, men kiss women and women kiss women but men do not kiss men, unless they are very very close friends or called Mark. The kiss is placed high up on the offered cheek, never directly on the mouth. For women, especially, it’s not really a kiss, merely a light brushing of the cheeks. Of course there are always the extroverts of both sexes who plant great wet smackeroos on each side of the face several times. But this is not to be recommended, especially not on first acquaintance.
‘But, which cheek should I proffer first?’
Difficult to say. As with all things, observe what the locals do, as the custom apparently varies from region to region.
‘How many kisses are de rigeur?’
In our region we discovered that three is the custom, much to H’s delight. I had heard that Thomas Cook had actually published a kissing guide, though I had never discovered it in any of the local newsagents. It allegedly states that a single kiss is the norm in the Charente-Maritime region, two kisses are normal in the east, west and extreme south, three kisses in the mid-west and southern central regions and four in the north. ‘When can we move to the north?’ Grr.
Mulling again about that emotive word sex, I thought about the French women I had met so far in this strange alien world. French women don’t seem to have heard of Germaine Greer or feminist mores, enjoying being the object of desire of every passing Frenchman. I remembered a story my mother told me at a time in England just after the war. There was apparently a run on a book entitled ‘What every married woman should know.’ It was eagerly anticipated by girls like her, who had been brought up in a Victorian atmosphere where the word sex was never even mentioned, let alone written about. However, imagine the disappointment on eagerly opening the book to find that all it was was a book on cookery and how to manage the home!
In striking contrast, here in modern-day France all the lingerie stores sell matching bra and thong sets as standard, no Frenchwoman worth her salt feeling dressed without the fillip of wearing expensive, desirable silk underwear. Irrespective of what is worn on the outside, the inner confidence that comes from wearing silk matching underwear is undeniably evident on the self-confident faces of so many Parisians. They like nothing better than to flirt at every opportunity, every girl progressively practising her art to a state of perfection as she matures. For a Frenchman to have a mistress is in itself a status symbol, the absence of which leads to many question marks about his virility, so it is said. The story goes that when a widowed man marries his mistress, this then creates a vacancy!
And French women, too, seem to think it’s comme d’habitude to seek lovers, the very act confirming her desirability on the world’s stage. I have certainly noted that French men think they’re God’s gift to women and often seem steeped in a permanent state of unbridled eroticism.
And now, la piece de resistance:
Could it be, though, that a Frenchman in bed is in truth rather like the French navy: relying much on hearsay, tradition, pomp and ceremony, but when the chips are down, never comes when needed?
P.S. Next Sunday a brand-new serial.

6th September 2008

Woke up this morning to lowering skies and drenching rain. Made me think of starting a new venture: 'Noah's Cruiseline - pets welcome'. Things didn't improve when I saw that the Tresor Public had decided to send me the dreaded avis d'impots - stating how much tax is due to be paid to M. Sarkozy this year. I'm not used to this tax return business because I never had to complete one in the UK. I mean: how many noughts did the PM need to see? I understand that in the US everyone has to complete a tax return, and now I must get used to it as the system is pretty much the same here in France. As soon as the authorities discover that you're actually living in the country, there is nowhere to hide. You receive a form in March each year and that's when your troubles start as it's all written in French. It's difficult enough working it out in English, but I've discovered a cunning wheeze. If you state that your total income is less than the lowest rate published recently in the 'Connexion' newspaper, the autumn avis says the magic words: Vous n'etes pas imposable a l'impot; in other words, nothing to pay. Hooray! However, I don't think this state of affairs can last as on next year's form I can't avoid adding the amount of my UK state pension. Oh well. As him indoors always says when faced with our annual taxe fonciere - it's only 'fonce a year'.
P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's final, gripping instalment of Sex a la francaise.

5th September 2008

This getting older thing - you notice it every time you look in the mirror in the morning. Was that frown-line there yesterday? We try to counter it here in France by mixing with people our own age - preferably a little bit older. That way, we always seem young to them. Luckily, the emigration wave that brought us to la belle France also brought other young-retired people - those who, like us, had reached that 'fork' in the tree of life and decided to do something about it before it was too late. Age is such a comparative thing: at school that teacher of 24 seemed positively ancient, and during those crazy rebellion years of the '60s, people of our parents' age were in their veritable dotage. But now, here we are - in our dotage ourselves (but do we actually believe it?). There's an old Russian story. A well-known Prince used to frequent a famous billiards' club in Petersburg, where the old members were called shlyupiks. The word meant a hard-boiled egg that was wuzzy around the edges from being rolled hither and thither. The old club members were therefore called shlyupiks because, like the egg, they kept rolling into the club, a bit tattered and torn. Well, one day the Prince arrived, feeling young and spritely, and asked Vasily the doorman: 'Are there any shlyupiks here? Vasily replies: 'Well, yes, you're the third one!' So, the moral of the story is: we get older every day, but don't always realise it. Keep young in spirit anyway and enjoy your life.

4th September 2008

After talking about French numbers yesterday, to all those of you who think we should now discuss Letters......No!! (You can read the final extact from 'Sex a la francaise' on Sunday). I know - I've led a sheltered life. They say that my generation has lived through more changes in the last 50 years than any other generation ever. I was born just after the war when English rationing was still in force. Everyone had a little brown book where there was one page for each major item, like tea. All householders had to register with their local shop so that the shopkeeper could then authorise us to buy food by crossing off and subtracting the relevant points used for each product for that particular month. Oh, how times have changed. It was when I hit 13 in the '60s that all hell was let loose. From the time when John Lennon told the London Palladium audience to 'rattle their jewellery', attitudes, perspectives and morals were all transformed. And technology! For original personal secretaries like me, technology advanced at an alarming rate. From those wonderful IBM golfball typewriters, we zoomed ahead through AppleMacs, Fax machines, P.C.s, the internet, i-phones and now E-books. Where will it all end? So, to our daughter whose special day it is today, I'm glad we've survived through it all - even a new language - to be able to wish you Bonne anniversaire!

3rd September 2008

Wasn't it 3rd September that war was declared? Granted: a long time ago. But I've just realised that if we look at the date numbers in the English style, the date was 3939. And, if we add these together, 24, then add these, we get 6 which was the number of years the war endured. Strange. There's something about numbers that give us reality in all its stark realism. Just look at how the terrorists used 9/11 in the U.S. to mirror not only the date but also the US 911 emergency service.
In France I'm finding the numbers quite difficult to deal with in French. The phone is the worst. It took us a long time to realise that the rapid dictating of phone numbers by a caller was in consequence of how they speak. Whereas in the UK we would recite a phone number singly (1-2-3-4-5-6......), in France they recite them doubly (12-34-56......). Bizarrely, le francais seemed to have run out of number names by the time they reached 70. Hence after 60 (soixante), 70 is 'soixante-dix' (literally sixty-ten), 80 is 'quatre-vingt' (four-twenty), and unbelievably 90 is 'quatre-vingt-dix' (four-twenty-ten)! And you think your life is difficult.
So it's just as well we're not millionaires then; we'd never work out all those numbers on our bank statement. Oh well, there's always Sudoku. I can't do French crosswords, so with Sudoku I don't need to speak French, and it's something to keep the old brain cells working while I work out how to increase the numbers in my purse.

2nd September 2008

I see in the news that the UK Chancellor has disclosed that the government's fiscal situation is even more dire than people thought. In contrast, on the French news M. Sarkozy looks his usual urbane sense, exuding and gushing that sort of charm only previously seen in old American movies. However, when I talk to the French locals in la place des halles, they paint an entirely different picture. 'Ah,' they say. 'M. Sarkozy - he says lots of things, but does he actually do any of them?' nodding sagely. It all sounds very familiar to me. Didn't we all say that about Tony Blair? I wonder if M. Sarkozy has his very own Alistair Campbell doing the spinning for him? We'll have to wait and see. All I know is that every month the euros that appear in our French bank account from the UK pension seem smaller and smaller (not in size, but in total!). I open my purse to have a look at the situation and the usual motley collection of coins fall out. The brass-coloured ones are 1, 2 and 5 centime coins, whilst the 10, 20 and 50 centimes are copper. The 1-euro coin is silver-coloured in the centre with a brass rim, and the 2-euro coin has a brass centre and silver rim. The side showing the value is the same in all euro-zone countries, but the other side is different in each country. You can always tell an English person when they start to mention the money over here by how they pronounce the word. 'Yooros', they say. But the French pronounce the word something like 'Err Os'. 'Ah' said him indoors, 'that's appropriate.' What now? 'The French certainly know a thing or two,' he continued. 'Why?' 'Well, they know that the primary reason why everyone's short of cash is because of 'er indoors........'er owes!!'

1st September 2008

It's September already: the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Only here, the temperature is warm, so we're still swimming every day. Our pool is one of those called demi-enterre , half in the ground and half out. The main advantage of this, other than it being cheaper, is that we don't apparently have to instal expensive security fences and alarms which are required by law in France for fully-inground pools. As I laze on my back in my new swimming shorts and tankini top - great for hiding the vagaries of ancient bikini-lines and crepey legs - I suddenly puzzle over why H seems to have fixed a large white security label, the sort with urgent red letters and exclamation marks, right underneath the waterline where you can't read it. I shout out my question to him indoors.
'It's because that was the only place it would stick to the liner without coming off.'
'Oh,' said I, puzzled.
I decided to dive underneath the water to read what it said.
'No Diving!'
For goodness sake.