Location France

It’s the sheep’s fault – accidentally working on my day off.

sheep

The wood was in the wrong place. Not that we urgently need it, but should the heating system fail again, we’ll want it. Someone therefore had to fill up the empty wood shelter close by the wood burner.

I worked two hours on Tuesday and three hours on Wednesday moving wood from one pile to the other pile with the help of the digger and my little electric car. No surprise my arms and back ached afterwards. Logs are heavy. However, there’s something intrinsically rewarding about building a log pile. You start with a few logs on the ground, and slowly it takes form until you end up with a neatly stacked pile. It’s taller than me.

As Grand-mère and Grand-père were very grateful for all my hard work, today was pronounced as a day off (with the sole exception of feeding the animals, a task which Grand-père offered to help out with).

Because everything I own is already covered in sawdust, I was wearing a skirt and leggings.

It was raining. And due to a mixture of laziness and stupidity, half the sheep escaped into the neighbouring field. Whilst counting the sheep that remained, Grand-père realised that he was standing over one young boy and I was standing over the other. This was a great opportunity to separate the young boys from the herd. Five minutes later I’m hauling a wet, heavy lamb across the field by its forelegs.

The escapee herd wandered of their own accord through the gate of the next field which is prepared for sheep. So we followed with the two young boys in the trailer, Grand-père in the tractor and me riding cross-legged perched on the tractor wheel as if going side-saddle with my foot out of the door. We pulled close the gate.

Life here never fails to entertain.

Acrobatics with my ego

farmyard acrobatics

My reading, and basking in the sunshine on a blanket on the lawn, was interrupted by the seven-year-old asking if I could do a handstand.

While I certainly could once do a handstand, it was when I was her age, and even then I wasn’t all that good. A couple of summers ago, I gave a cartwheel a go and sprained my foot. I couldn’t walk properly for three weeks.

So the seven-year-old offered to teach me.

I thought:

  • I’d most definitely make a fool of myself.
  • Was I really going to think I could act like a child
  • I’m too old
  • Injury was inevitable
  • There would be pain
  • There was no chance of actually achieving a handstand

And that in life there are only results and excuses.

Was my ego so fragile that it couldn’t stand a little foolish fun? Do I really judge people for being able to play? Did I really consider myself weak because I’m just so incredible old? Could I perhaps risk an injury? Was I really likely to encounter pain other than embarrassment? And was achieving a perfect handstand the actual goal?

So, I tried, and failed. And kept trying and failing. Then I went to get my trainers because the grass was dry and prickly. On my return I tried some more and eventually the seven-year-old decided we could move from instruction on getting the legs up in the air to instruction on finishing nicely.

Then she decided that Grand-père needed to be shown the efforts of her teaching. And so could the painter.

I won the battle with my ego and did as I was told.

Mumbling even before the wine

wine

I’m really bad at saying ‘yes please I’d like a glass of wine’.

I’m also really bad at clearly saying ‘no thank you’.

I seem to find all sorts of ways of saying yes or no that don’t clearly state my preference. If you’re good at reading my body language, or you know me well enough to predict my appetite, you don’t need much of a signal to know what I want. On the other hand, if you find my alcohol consumption confusing and unpredictable, you’re going to struggle.

I tell you yes in such a way as to suggest that I’ll drink only if you really think I should, because I wouldn’t have helped myself as that might suggest a need where there is none and it doesn’t quite fit with the dainty feminine impression I’m trying to give out. Like I need to permission to have a drink?

I tell you no as if I’m trying to say that you have wonderful, lovely wine, and I really enjoy your wine, and I respect your culture to drink more than I would typically drink, and yes, I do know cheese and cake and venison and anything else you might suggest tastes better with wine, but I’m odd so I don’t want any right now.

I hadn’t realised I was so confusing. So much conflict to say a simple statement.

Why such a reluctance to forthrightly engage with the question?

And where did I pick this up from?

Harvesting potatoes

potato harvest

Grandpère worries about me. He worried about me damaging my clothes, or my shoes, or that I’d get dirt under my nails. I try to explain that my clothes are not so precious, especially those already with holes in. I tell him that I’ve had the same shoes for years, and I’d much prefer to be wearing something I’m comfortable in. And as for the nails, I just looked at him in despair.

Often it’s my hair he worries about, as if washing out the twigs, dirt and dust is somehow a challenge for me. He’s particularly concerned about me getting dust in my hair. Maybe he doesn’t realize that having my hair in a chaotic and dusty state gives me an extra excuse for standing in the hot shower. It’s a gift to my aching muscles.

The concern bemuses me. Perhaps he thinks that I take ages to shove my hair in a bun, pony-tail or loosely plait it. I won’t deny that there’s a lot of hair to manage. I’m blessed with a surplus of long thick hair. But I’m not the sort of person to spend hours in front of the mirror.

His delusion reminds me of the Japanese lady I met outside Tutmosis III’s tomb in the valley of the kings, who was horrified when, after plucking up the courage to ask how I managed to make my hair look like a rose, I yanked out my bobble to demonstrate.

It’s genetics not skill.

For unknown reason, the potato harvest caused a sudden worry about the dirt and my nails. There’s dirt involved whatever you’re doing on a farm, not just the potato harvest. Oil and dirt covered my hands when I was cleaning the plough. We pulled out the twigs, grass and wire that the mechanism had caught, using knives from the 1800s because apparently such knives are better. When watering the poly-tunnel I pick up the yellow pollen which makes everything you touch yellow, which to me is much worse than simple dirt.

Anyway, to the important activity of harvesting potatoes. It’s quite a self-explanatory activity.  Potatoes live in the ground and you have to dig through the earth until you find them all. We used a digger to break up the earth. Then we picked up the potatoes with our hands getting dirt under our nails.

Potatoes are special though. You can’t just chuck them in a basket though. Before storing the potatoes, you have to lay them in the dirt for a few hours so that any insects go down into the earth rather than finding a home in the potato store. With three of us working together the harvest didn’t take too long. It wasn’t a big harvest, but it was sufficient to please Grandmère. The local potato harvest hasn’t been great and she knows people who haven’t got any potatoes this year.

When we were done, I magically (with the aid of a nail brush) managed to remove the dirt from my face and hands. Grand-père inspected my clean nails and seemed pleased no damage was done.

On a night so clear you could see the milky way

sheep

It was a clear night. The dusty track of the milky way swept across the sky, making me grateful for the quiet that comes from living deep in a national park. The stars never fail to make me believe in magic. They glittered, entrancing me to such a degree that I didn’t care that I was sitting on the cold stone slabs that pave the path by the vegetable garden. My camera taunted me. Could I remember how to take pictures in the dark?

Eventually I walked back to my bedroom, climbed between the sheets and fell asleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee and toast, I asked Grand-père for the morning’s agenda. He wanted to work a little on his cello, and so suggested, to my joy, that I could tend to the animals. It delights me every morning when I take the little electric car out, load it with the animals’ breakfast and drive out through the fields to have them gallop towards me with an enthusiasm that’s rarely matched in human kind.

Yet, not all rural farm life is so idyllic. Grand-père didn’t look up at me when he mentioned we’d also need to collect her body. He knew I was apprehensive.

He said, if I wanted, he would do that, because he knew I didn’t want to.

“I’ll go,” I said, not knowing where the sudden determination to be the one to bring her home to be buried came from.

He repeated that I didn’t have to. I said nothing.

Sheep, are fragile creatures; lambs especially so. We’d moved her two days before to a quiet, sheltered spot to die when Grand-père had said the end was inevitable.

I didn’t go to her straight away. Instead, first I filled my buckets and ventured out to the herd. The sheep were their usual crazy selves, focused only on the grain, seemingly oblivious of our loss. As usual, I shouted and pushed in order not to have my toes crushed by their stiletto like hooves. The smaller sheep scattered over the trough, whilst fearless others launched themselves at my knees. The donkeys watched on wearily as they always do. The goats had wandered off and I had to search through the woodland and grassland and rocky caves. I found them ravaging a sapling.

Then I drove the little electric car back up the driveway, and across into the field beyond.

“Fear of death is fear of what we might experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Translated by Gregory Hays)

She lay on her side with the eye that faced up to me half open. I wanted to close it, but I didn’t want to touch her face. I took my time, first to gaze upon her, second to touch my hand to her curly wool and feel the residual warmth within her, and then to wrap my hands around her legs, rigid and cold, and haul her up into the air.

She was much heavier than I’d expected, and her head hit against the car as I struggled to lift her inside.

A countryside breakfast: Mon petit déjeuner avec du lait

Milk from French dairy cows

I drank coffee with milk at breakfast.

Perhaps, this seems like a small and unimportant fact to you. But for me it was a big deal.

I’m lactose intolerant. This isn’t a disaster, but means that if I want to drink coffee with milk I need to first take a lactase tablet. Lactase is the enzyme which my body no longer naturally produces. On a typical morning, I drink my coffee black and eat my toast without butter. I save my lactase tablets for occasionally eating bread and cheese, which, as this is France, accompanies both lunch and supper, or for eating any other food involving milk, such as a creamy coffee éclair from the bakery. For me, drinking coffee with milk for breakfast is a special treat.

Just before dinner, the night before, we went to the dairy farm. I said ‘hello’ to the cows and ‘bonjour’ to the dairy farmer, a friendly young man with a dark green apron. It was milking hour so the farmer was already quite busy. He took our milk pails and tapped off the fresh milk which was coming straight from the cows.

I was as excited as the three year old grandson who saw a red tractor. He really likes tractors.

When we arrived home, Grand-mère poured the milk into a huge saucepan and slowly heated it to the point where it expands to fill the pan. Very nervously, I watched over it. My instruction to shout when something happened. Just as it hit boiling, Grand-mère switched off the heat, put on the lid, and left it overnight to cool – this was my brief lesson in pasteurisation. By morning, the cream had risen to the top, ready to be scooped off into a separate jug.

And so I chose to drink milk with my coffee for breakfast, and it was heavenly.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

dawn dordogne

Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d done a right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad – I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sometime in the Spring I downloaded a selection of out of copyright books onto my e-reader. A few of these books I have started but got no further than a few pages. They have a foreboding stodginess. They’re weighted down with words that my e-reader’s inbuilt dictionary can’t handle. Others have shocked me. Who knew Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis would be readable but boring? I was expecting difficult but profound. And who expected that Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, would actually turn out to be My Fair Lady and have an extensive but entertaining afterword that was mostly about the relationship between Professor Higgins and his mother, Mrs Higgins. I think I may well have been more delighted by the afterword than by the play itself.

Which just goes to show how many ideas I have about books before I’ve read them. I know names of authors and titles of books and think I know whether or not I’m going to like them before I begin reading. Quite often, I am wrong.

I liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more than I’d imagined. I assume The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes first, and I’m sure when I’m next doing a binge download of the classics I shall take it, but what I had downloaded was dear Huckleberry Finn.

At first, the language caught me as a little coarse. Wading through the dialogue slowed down my reading. Finn’s speech soon showed its rhythm, but throughout the book I found his friend, Jim, to have a more challenging dialect. This didn’t stop me enjoying the story. If anything it added the flavour that made Finn’s character. His philosophising had a clarity to it that I couldn’t help but adore, even if I found myself shaking my head at some of his conclusions. And Finn’s arguments with Jim reminded me of Simba, Timon and Pumbaa discussing the composition of the stars.

In the story, each mini adventure unfolds and then concludes with Finn narrowly avoiding both great fortune and misfortune. Whilst I found the curious characters and mannerisms of Finn’s America entertaining, it is the the moment after the mayhem that I love the most. This is when Finn arrives back on his raft, breathes a sigh of relief and reflects on how good it feels to be free. A gift he knows to appreciate. I love how Mark Twain managed to give this emotion, in Finn’s voice, a beautiful honest elegance .

Each morning I open my bedroom door and look across the vegetable garden. Beyond are fields and woodland. The sun lays low in the sky, pale and wrapped in mist. Here, before I join the chaos of the family breakfast, Finn’s quiet moments on the riverside seem close by.

Like Elizabeth Bennet, walking through the gates of Pemberley for the first time

Dordogne grape vine

18/09/2016

The room I live in was once an outbuilding, but is now my bedroom and en-suite. You can sit on the windowsill and look beyond the warped wooden shutters out over the vegetable garden. Usually you’ll find a kitten climbing a washing line pole, a chicken scratching at the dirt, or the dog wagging his tail. Small arched holes remain in the thick stone walls where birds entered, before they were sealed with clear plastic. They let the morning light in. I wake at dawn and step out of bed onto a floor of hard, cold tiles.

There’s something reassuring about the room. I’m surprisingly comfortable, despite the lack of curtains or decoration. It’s a plain room, but practical. It’s not overstated, which matters because the house to which this outbuilding/farmhouse belongs is a statement – the sort of elegant house that one might slow down as one passed to take a better look. Un Chateau.

It’s not the size of the house which makes me so much in awe of it. There are larger and more elaborate properties in the world, but this one is temporarily part of my life. Amazingly, right now, it’s where I call home.

There’s an unexpected joy to finding myself with such a privilege. It reminds me being invited for lunch in a converted monastery in Italy. A tipsy gentleman pointed out the original Napoleonic frescos with great pride as he poured me a drink. I ate the dinner, drank the prosecco, and temporarily touched that pride. Later, when I thought about it, I struggled to integrate the experience with the normal day to day of my life – which often, at that time, involved sleeping in a tent and driving down bumpy Italian lanes in an old green Rover. There was something beautiful about the experience, but at the same time, it was like peeping through the window into someone else’s life. I can’t help contrasting the rich food of the monastery dinner to the simple cuisine of its previous inhabitants.

Twice this weekend have I ‘dropped in’ on relations of my French family. The first was a castle. The sort with spiral staircases, turrets and holes in the walls through which an archer could shoot down the enemy. It had a trampoline upstairs in one of the barns and a big view from the terrace of the French countryside. The second was a chateau. A huge house. I strolled through the vegetable gardens, along the walkway where the grapes hung and counted the swimming pools. The children played with a go-kart, but in the yard which was so far away I could rarely hear them. I felt like Elizabeth Bennet, walking through the gates of Pemberley for the first time. Une bière?

Until, sitting beside the sink in the kitchen, I saw a plastic bottle of LIDL washing-up liquid. The twin of the one which sat by the sink in my hovel.

A rainy Friday afternoon in France

A mystical foggy morning, France, October 2016.
A mystical foggy morning, France, October 2016.

Grand-père: Do you want to take…

Me (thinking): a shower

Grand-père: …an aperitif?

It’s raining. The afternoons here – at least for me – tend to be an easier affair than the mornings. It’s what comes of having wine at lunchtime (and today an aperitif as well because in Grand-mere’s words ‘TGIF’), before taking a break for a siesta. After sleeping, I read a children’s book on giant vehicles.

Slowly.

I’m turning the page only every half an hour because it’s in French and there are flaps to lift. I’m also learning new words in English, like ‘hopper wagon’. It’s an informative book. The author and illustrator is Stephen Biesty who also created a wonderful children’s book on Ancient Egypt which I have at home, in English.

Anyway. While I try to understand the structure of an A380, Grand-père repairs a violin. He goes about his work with an air of calm focus, occasionally whistling in tune with his classical music playing to the room with which is playing with some gusto. With his magnifying glasses, his bright desk lamp and the sound of careful sanding, he reminds me a little of Geppetto.

The house might have double glazing and electric lights, but its wooden beams, tiled floors and thick rugs make it feel like we’ve stepped back in time. A big wooden dresser stands at one end of the dining room, and decorative plates and copper pans gleam on the walls. Grand-mère insists you need a proper copper pan for making jam. A brass candle stick holder sits at either end of the long wooden table. Fresh white candles stand in place ready for dinner. A chandelier hangs above.

I write from an armchair in the living-room. The natural focal point here is the large stone fireplace and cluttered mantelpiece. People pass though on their way to the kitchen, the bedrooms, or out the side door towards the swimming pool. In an ordinary house, I would typically call such a room the main room, but this is the first time I’ve really paid it any attention. A portrait of a lady smiling demurely, a smaller picture of Jesus dying and a tapestry of a child unimpressed by a swan decorate the walls. A neglected television peers out from the corner.

I’m secretly mesmerised by the part of the room hidden behind a floor to ceiling curtain. This is Grand-père’s workshop. Pieces of cello lay on the workbench. The shelves above are stacked with violins. Beneath them is a shelf of old cake tins with peeling handwritten labels which I guess contain spare parts. My French vocabulary is not so broad as to include such technical terms. Bows rest on the windowsill, hair loose.

I think I’m learning more than just French.

The morning dawns in rural France

A four-month old lamb in rural France
A four-month old lamb.
France, September 2016.

We start with a bowl of coffee. Mine’s black. The children, even the littlest, have milk with just a splash of coffee, it’s off-white but sweet. The grand-parents* drink theirs with milk and sugar.  I spread the jam on my bread with a teaspoon and balance it precariously on my saucer. This is apparently how things happen here. Grand-mère dips her toast in her coffee, I don’t.

Once breakfast is cleared up, I let the chickens out the hen coop and check for eggs

Only one today. Grand-père checks his emails and then we start on clearing up the land after last night’s terrific storm. I drag the leaves from the swimming pool and we stash the ping pong table in one of the barns before going to tend to the vegetables. The tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes need watering and those that are ripe need picking. I conduct a taste test as I go along.

We drive out to go check on the sheep

Giving them a couple of buckets of grain and moving branches that have fallen in the storm on the way. In the field, one sheep stands separate from the herd, and in the charge for dinner, she falls down. Grand-père is quick to pounce and pull her aside. He’s worried.

I drive back in the little electric vehicle we use for getting around the estate, Grand-père sits beside me clutching the sheep. I try and fail to avoid the worst of the bumps in the ever so bumpy road.

Back near the house, I take hold of the sheep whilst Grand-père prepares some antibiotics

She’s only four months old. I hold her upright whilst he injects her with the medicine, hoping we’ve been quick enough. Her head lolls against my knee. Sheep, Grand-père says, die easily. He’s known them to catch fevers, to drown, and almost impossibly, to hang themselves by getting one of the pieces of string that tie up the hay bales stuck around their throat and then jumping off a rock.

We take her down to the woodland, where the male sheep are living, and guide her into an enclosure beside the boys. We want her to be safe from them, but not alone. She needs keeping close to the house so that we can keep an eye on her, but she still needs the company of other sheep. Loneliness and depression kill.

Back at the barn, we collect more grain and a bucket of water to take to the lamb

This done we go in search of a suitable shelter in case there’s rain, finding, at last, a plastic wendy-house that the children have deserted. It’s the perfect size and fits on the back of the little electric car. I shove hay inside to make the lamb a cosy bed.

And then we pick figs for dinner before taking another drive to go check on the donkeys and the goats. Perhaps goats aren’t fussy eaters, but these goats have no chance at getting the stale bread. Watching the donkeys chasing away the goats I realise I have significantly underestimated their ferocity.

And only then is it lunchtime.

*Not mine.


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