Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Good Life

We’re sitting here in a rustic farmhouse kitchen in beautiful rural France, with the couch pulled up close to the word-burning stove, the fire going full belt and making a noise like a dishwasher on final rinse. In theory, this fire should heat the whole house, but in reality it struggles to get the place into double digits.

The kitchen has an authentic flagstone floor circa-whenever the place was built, and the cellar door, with its questionable hinges, doesn't keep the cold out quite as well as you'd hope. And just when you think the fire is roaring along nicely, all of a sudden it becomes too hot and the pipes start banging with superheated steam, forcing you to switch on a pump, which then dissipates the heat throughout the rest of the system. In a worst-case scenario, if you’ve been burning wet timber for example, or if you’ve been running the fire on low heat for a while and then suddenly stoke it up during a cold snap, you risk igniting leftover deposits in the chimney, and starting a chimney fire.

To Lucas’s naive Australian ways this is all like... “WTF??? Why doesn't this bloody thing just do what it’s meant to do and heat the house? I mean how hard can it be?” But Ann just looks at him with a "When I was growing up in Essex we didn't have central heating, and the curtains used to ice up and stick to the windows." look on her face. As if all this is just completely normal, and you really are meant to sit around the house in a beanie and six layers of clothing, under a thick bearskin blanket.

Lucas has the aforementioned beanie pulled down snugly over his ears, and right now is thinking this little black stretchy piece of material is the most precious thing he owns. Although when he pushes it up over his ears to give them a break, and in combination with his black turtle-neck jumper, Ann says it makes him look like the vicar of the local church, and has started calling him monseigneur. Bitch.

The two dogs are asleep in the corner after their walk this morning, which is about the only time Arthur - the Tibetan terrier - isn't thinking about food (he's probably dreaming about it though).

This is Jack. Butter wouldn't melt, eh?

Today's wood is piled up next to the stove and seems to be getting ever so slightly bigger each day, possibly due to Ann's natural winter hoarding instinct. Or it could be Lucas’s fault, because he's getting better at stacking the wheelbarrow each morning. Or it could very well be the fact that it’s minus ten degrees celsius outside, and has been every morning for the past ten days.

When it hasn’t been minus fifteen, that is.

Maybe this is payback for all those lazy weekends on the beach back in Oz.

The farmhouse is situated in a little commune called St Amand le Petit, which although it has its own church isn’t really big enough to be called a village.

The nearest civilisation is four kilometres away at Eymoutiers (pronounced ee-moat-ee-ay), which can trace its origins back to the seventh century and Saint Psalmodius, a Celtic Christian hermit, whose bones now lay buried by the banks of the river.

By the seventeenth century it had become a regional centre for the tanning trade, with twenty tanneries situated on the river Vienne. One or two survive today, and walking the streets you can still see evidence in the attics of some of the houses in the centre of town. These were used as overflows by the tanneries, to dry hides when business was booming.

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah… fermé, monsieur.” One of the staff at the Super U hurriedly explains to Lucas, on her way down the aisle. She shrugs as she says this, pointing to the trolley he and Ann have spent the last forty minutes filling.

Of course at this point Lucas is screwed, language-wise, and all he can think to do is point to the trolley lamely and say “Checkout?” Even English-challenged Malaysians understand checkout, so he assumes it’s one of those universal expressions.

She looks at him blankly. “Blah blah blah blah blah blah…, monsieur.” Her body-language is completely negative, and Lucas begins to wonder whether he and Ann have just wasted the last forty minutes of their lives, and will be forced to abandon their shopping mid-aisle. He hasn’t owned a watch for thirty-five years, but it seems it’s now 12.25pm, and the Super U is about to close for lunch.

Lunch is one of those sacrosanct institutions you don’t mess with here, and most businesses and government offices close from around midday until two or three o’clock. From an outsider’s point of view, this is either a quaint tradition or a complete pain in the ass depending on your mood, or where you find yourself and what you’re trying to achieve. Like buying petrol with a foreign credit card for instance. Or buying groceries at the local supermarket. You just wouldn't bother keeping track of the time anywhere else, but in rural France you’d best do what the locals do, and head home to your pâté and your loaf of bread.

Fortunately the harangued-looking checkout chick permits us to pay for our shopping, but she’s probably turfed out hundreds of shoppers over the years. So we get to keep our Santa Sack of bread after all, which we’ll add to the freezer-load of bread we’ve already stashed at the house.

Sorry? Santa-what? Freezer-load of bread? What the… ?

Because all the supermarkets here bake their own bread, and because the French seemingly refuse to eat anything that's a day old, there's a lot of wastage. So we've been turning up to the local Hyper Casino or the Super U (not bad, be we still think Florida’s Piggly Wiggly takes the biscuit for the best supermarket name) and grabbing bags of next-day bread for about €3-5. Ho-hum you're probably thinking. But considering the €5 bags must weigh at least 10 kilos and would fill most of a shopping trolley, and we're getting possibly 20-30 good loaves of bread out of one, and considering the rest, maybe a quarter, goes to the sheep and the chooks, well... why wouldn't you?

So we do tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking about what to eat with bread (or even just what to eat, to be honest). Soup, cheese, soup, pâté, soup, eggs, stews, did we mention soup? Inspired a little by Julia Child and a few good internet recipe sites, potatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkin, créme fraiche and of course oven-baked day-old bread have formed the basis of most of our lunches so far.

This isn't just us trying to be a couple of rural French wanabees either, but more a matter of survival, and trying to justify being here when the cost of living is so much higher than Malaysia. But we could imagine ourselves settling here, like countless English have done already, and creating our own version of The Good Life.

Checking out the local real estate listings in Eymoutiers one day, we find that the houses are rated for energy efficiency and consumption. Initially, we’re a bit surprised to see that wood-fired central heating receives the second highest rating, but if you live in the Limousin area it seems to be a real selling point.

Each winter, every household in this commune receives an allocation of timber from their local forest (it’s mainly oak here), which you are then responsible for cutting and carting back to the house yourself. Considering that enough timber to last through winter would normally cost around €1200, a word-fired stove definitely seems the way to go, financially. And, counter-intuitively, environmentally as well.

Apparently, as long as you’re sourcing local timber, from well-managed forests, which are replenished with new growth each year, and using an efficient wood-burner, it seems you’re doing the planet a favour. Well almost. Pollution? In a low-density rural environment like St Amand le Petit (pop. 110) this isn’t really an issue, but obviously if the whole of France substituted nuclear power for wood-burning stoves, the air quality might very well resemble SE Asia during the rice harvest.

There’s also a great system of recycling and garbage collection here, whereby everyone is responsible for separating out all their own garbage and disposing of it at local collection points. It’s all pretty civilised and clean (unlike Malaysia), and if you have animals and a bit of land, most of the organic stuff is recycled as well. In nearly a month we’ve not generated even half a garbage bag full of landfill.

The car we have the use of here probably has a larger carbon footprint than the stove, the household rubbish and everything else combined. It farts and belches copious quantities of particulates from its little exhaust pipe, and has a fuel gauge which seems to drop further every time you look at it. We swear it costs €5 just to start the little beast up.

It does have four doors and a roof which, after spending most of the last three years out in the elements, we initially thought would be complete and utter luxury. But in reality it is sooooo bloody cold! inside, that we’re missing the heated grips on our bikes.

Not that we’re really complaining. The car gives us some freedom, and enables us to make trips out to see Hugo, the ten year old French warmblood, who lives about twenty minutes away. Sue and Gilbert have been after someone to ride Hugo (or at least give him some exercise), because they don't ride themselves. And so over the years Hugo has been getting fatter, lazier and possibly more senile by the day, left in his paddock all by himself.

After some initial “What’s this all about, then?” from Hugo, Ann has him trotting - or lunging if you want to get all technical and horsey - around a ring, normally used for training sheep dogs. It only takes about fifteen minutes to completely knacker him though, and she wonders aloud whether a saddle will ever stretch round his girth.

But after a couple of sessions she still seems keen to ride him, so Lucas decides it might be the right time to let her know that while yes, Hugo was originally broken eight years ago, he's only been ridden once since. She’s undeterred though, and a week or so later decides to see whether Hugo will massacre her and everyone within the local vicinity, by attempting to ride him bareback.

It’s all a bit of an anticlimax when he turns out to be a real pussy.

But here he is looking all manly - almost like a proper horse.

The old Renault 4 coughs and splutters and threatens to die, again, at the stop sign ahead. Apparently the French cops, like their Australian counterparts, have been known to sit at these with stop-watches, eagerly waiting to bust anyone who under stays the mandatory three seconds (or is it five? Shit). As we roll up the hill to the intersection, Lucas alternately brakes and blips the throttle to keep the engine alive, while looking left (or is it right? Shit. No, it’s definitely left) for any approaching traffic, reefing the heavy steering wheel over with one gloved hand and shifting up into first with the other (or was that third? Noooo… goddammit… bastard, stiffly-sprung piece of junk dashboard gearshift… splutter, cough, silence… Fuck.He yanks on the handbrake, which is mounted under the steering column, the process of which threatens to rip off the entire plastic surround, and sneaks a glance behind at the driver of the Peugeot, who has been impatiently sitting on our back bumper for the last three kilometres.

But this isn’t exactly central Paris, and the T-junction isn’t exactly the Arc de Triomphe. There are worse places than Eymoutiers to get the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road again. However there are certain things we’ve been warned about – snow plows for example, and their apparently incomprehensible system of warning lights. And the snow and ice of course.

Ann has been banging on about black ice for years, and after nearly going arse-over several times walking the dogs (who have both gone arse-over themselves) and spending the afternoon trying to hack patches of it off the driveway, it's something Lucas now has a healthy respect for as well.

Something else Ann’s been banging on about, seemingly forever, is chilblains. Well ok, not exactly banging on. More like joking. “Ooh, you’d better watch out, you’ll get chilblains.” Which in Malaysia, is a little like someone warning you about contracting hypothermia. So like The Girl Who Cried Wolf, the whole thing went in one of Lucas’s ears and straight out the other. Apart from which, he’d always assumed it was just some sort of nineteenth century affliction anyway. A bit like gout. Only really affecting the elderly or the infirm.

Oh how wrong he was. Oh how very very very wrong.

And so this post is being typed with fingers which somehow manage to feel like they’re arthritic, and yet suffering from the after-effects of third-degree burns, with all the crazy itchiness that goes along with it, all at the same time. All brought on simply by running cold hands under a hot tap. Chilblains. Who would’ve thought?

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and the temperature in St Amand le Petit has crept up to -8°C.

It’s the sort of weather which makes you feel like opening a bottle of Merlot at ten o’clock in the morning. Consequently, our quest lately has been to find the cheapest bottle of drinkable French plonk - something many of the English do every weekend at Calais. And while the record so far stands at €1.75, the problem is there’s such a turnover, even if you find one you like it’ll probably be gone from the shelves next week. Then again with such variety, it’s pretty rare we feel the need to splash out and spend more than €3.

It’s also the sort of weather which makes the stocking up of red wine in the first place a high priority, especially if you get snowed in.

Because whilst all the roads around here, even the minor ones, are kept well plowed and gritted, the icy little lane leading down from the icy little farmhouse driveway has the potential to cause a few butt-clenching moments for snow-challenged drivers like Lucas.

So while technically we might not actually be snowed-in after six inches of snow, it’s probably safer to pretend we are. Admittedly though, we have seen a guy patrolling the local forest in another Renault 4, and the car seems to eat up the unplowed forest trails like they’re nothing.

In fact, while the UK grinds to a halt every time there’s a coating of snow, France seems to carry on as normal. We’re a fair way out in the sticks here, and yet all the roads seem to be easily passable after it snows. On a recent episode of Top Gear, Clarkson had a bit of a rant about this, and so they converted a combine harvester into a snow plow to prove it could be done... and then did a lot of cocking about.

All very amusing and all that, but the thing is, the local plows here are just JCBs, with a plow attachment up front and a grit spreader hooked up to the back. After the snow’s finished for the year they’ll just revert to being plain old JCBs again.

But anyway...

In case none of the above gives you the impression, we are still pinching ourselves that we're actually here. In France. After everything that's happened these last three years, being here is a completely surreal feeling.

But we do have some animals to bring us back down to earth, and returning home later in the afternoon to feed them, we discover that Arthur (aka Bin Boy) has already helped himself, and is wearing the lid of the compost bin around his neck. It isn't the first time Bin Boy has raided the bin, so we leave The Cone Of Shame on him long enough to get some pics before finally, diverted by their insistent bleating, the sheep remind us it’s time to feed their hungry faces as well…

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