I Think Therefore I Spam

Oh what joy it is to be home, if only for a few days. My tanks are filling with that long shadow/warm sun mellow ecstasy which still lives on this far south. We arrived back in France to find that a friend was moving house today. The affair had been in the wind for a while and suddenly the dam of expectation broke, the lawyers dipped their quills and the peasant mob moved in to finish the job. It’s only when you live in France that you realise just how anal the Anglo Saxons are about everything. Here, one day things will unfold. No one knows which day but everyone lives and hopes. By the time it happens there are dozens of people who share the expectation. When the time comes, everyone moves into gear and somehow everything is achieved. No one is allotted any duty and no one is in charge. In rural France most people have vans. Those who do not have vans have trailers. This obviates the need for any furniture removal businesses. In fact, when you think about it, most of the services we think we need and have to pay for only exist because folk don’t know one another. Gilles gave a hand rebuilding beds and I suggested that I cook dinner since there would be plenty else going on. Sometimes things go wrong…….

At about 1 o’clock I was about to put a chicken casserole in the oven to cook slowly for a few hours. The guests appeared at the door. Yes – you spotted the problem. They had come for lunch, thinking that when an English person says dinner, they mean lunch – because everyone knows that the English get it wrong. Accordingly they had double guessed my supposed error. I had single guessed that they knew I did not make that error. Look – this is no problem. You take some tagliatelle, a tin of Spam, a jar of Dolmio  pasta sauce, a tin of chopped tomatoes, some garlic, some Parmigiana cheese and a baguette. In 15 minutes a dish of  Spamastia Fantasia a l’Anglaise was served. Very few people have served Spam to the French. The meal disappeared and plates were cleaned with bread. I kinda felt that my life had not been in vain. 

Later, I took a ride on my bike. There is a field nearby still filled with wild flowers. These days I can no longer do poetry. Life has kicked it out of me and the jingle jangle of road traffic, commercial pop radio, hair dryers, mobile phones, work schedules and world noise blunts me down to a stub. It does this to all of us and we call it getting by and survival. Writing Romance is a different state of mind. It is about escape. You have to see that from which you wish to escape. So, I went to the field of flowers. The sky was a perfect blue and the heavens a dome of azure over my head. Under that  same dome all things lived in the only ways they could. A hawk hovered, a mouse scurried and the flowers ….well, the flowers simply blew in the wind as the world turned and the vacuums drew in the pressures and the strong sowed the seeds of their failure in the defeat of the currently weak. And when all the hour glasses are turned again and all the cards are shuffled, the flowers will blow in the wind. I took a short video which is a kind of a poem. It says nothing but itself.

Emma thinx: Make a deal with time while you can still negotiate.

Tongue tied

It’s that result time of year. I have never tried my hand at many exams  and so as normal I am rattling on about something about which I know nothing. All the same, I did learn a couple of foreign languages and over the past few years I have coached various students in the UK in French. This year I have heard from my little brood who have all received A or A* grades. Now, of course I am very pleased but just imagine how much more pleased I would be if they could actually speak French! The fact is that at GCSE(The main UK qualification at 16years) and to a certain extent, A.S. levels, the whole thing is about hoop jumping. Huge chunks of the oral exam are learned by heart and regurgitated. I encounter students who cannot pronounce the simplest common words and could not tell you their mother’s name. Little or no attention is given to “freestyle” skills and it is utterly frustrating to have to cram the poor souls with pre-digested parrot food so that they can pass the exam. In many ways I think it would be best to re-name language exams as “Linguistic cultural studies” and have a whole separate subject called “Getting yourself a burger in Boulogne studies”. All manner of extra grades, stars and medals could be awarded. Government supremos could be given whole departments. It is also widely believed that only girls are capable of learning foreign languages. What is actually true is that boys are much more self conscious about getting things wrong and being mocked by their peers. Teachers (I believe) in all subjects fail to understand males and the whole educational process becomes a series of humiliations. Language teaching in schools is appalling and very very few students end up with any worthwhile language skills. THEY ALSO FAIL TO ENGENDER ANY LOVE FOR OR PLEASURE IN THE SUBJECT SO THAT STUDENTS WANT TO CARRY ON IN REAL LIFE.

So – there are no simple answers. Parents and teachers want systems that measure and award. Quite simply there are no prizes for any kind of freestyle. Jump the hoops, get the grades, get the university, get the top job, get money, get kids,get the kids to jump the hoops…… Who said you were supposed to enjoy it? Language teachers hated me.It was mutual. None of us learned anything.

I have a big big problem with cat excrement. The biggest part of the problem is that I do not like it. I imagine that cat loving folk do like it. Maybe it can be processed into soap or candles for Christmas gifts. About 7 pet cats regard my little garden as a public toilet. I have spent hours obtaining flat stones and placing them on all areas of exposed soil. Now the cats leave their delicate whiskered feline parcels on the shallow stones of my path. A walk down the garden is likely to leave me festooned with shit. The aroma of herbs and roses is lost in the reek of shit. I don’t want to be hated as an anti-feline and I think they’re quite sweet but am I supposed to like this?

Emma thinx:  Law -the codified failure of kindness. 

Eat Shit – Dog’s Breath!

It’s over. Gilles was off work today and finished La Terrasse. The feeling is a bit like the ending of the Tour De France. In some ways I just can’t believe it’s over. A full meeting of the Tribunal de Terrasse took place. The newly planted grape bush (VIGNE) was applauded. I felt re-accepted into the community. Visitors piled in, including the local Angel of all beasts. “C’est formidable! – what a job – oh yes- when you said ten days I discussed it with my husband – he says ‘no way’- he knows of zeese mattairs”. A lot of kissing and hand shaking followed with advice about soil for grape bushes and something called “cépage”. A neighbour muttered about new plants being close to his wall. 

It’s just not like England you know! Now – I am a Francophile. This is why I am here. However, anyone not French thinking of living in France must accept that this is an entirely different culture. In a sense you are interfered with in a manner beyond all normal Anglo Saxon boundaries. Your speech, behaviour and gardening are matters of public debate and concern. However, all manner of other stuff is secret and private. All kinds of disputes and dis-likings are hinted at but never explained. One neighbour mentioned another resident and asked if I had an opinion. I had very little to say. “He is an old Schnook” she informed me. Later on I saw them chatting. He was saying that the new road works might affect her drains and that she should join him in talking to Monsieur Le Maire. She shrugged and glanced at me. This is how you deal with Schnooks. The point of this ramble is that here you are somehow public property, but locked in to a secret society of alliance and opinion. This is France.

Amongst all the gardening advice came much guidance on the civil disorder in the UK. ” Army commandos – yes this is the thing. Shoot them dead. All this stuff of no job etc – this is a pretext. Yes – shoot them dead and guillotine the others. It is interesting to me that as yet no one has defended the action of the rioters and looters. I don’t suppose they care, but this is a street politics society. No sympathy here guys!

My neighbour’s dog wandered in to the garden and ate a lot of the cat shit. To be honest I’ve never been very sentimental about animals. I would like to dress this up for you but you cannot deny bald facts. I must build it in to my next super swoon love Romance. He has a dog. She has a cat. They meet over a dog’s dinner. It’s about mutual need…..C’mon all you movie guys – this has to be the blockbuster of all time!

Emma thinx: The truth can be revolting. No revolution can change it.


Bats – in St Savinien we have some very rare and endangered species. They live in the old quarry caves that pepper the town and also in our Préau (Charentais rustic car port/barn).   Last night I sat in the garden being buzzed by dear little bats. Somehow the flap of their wings just inches from my face felt like a privilege. I just sat there, feeling the current of air created by their wings of stretched skin. It seemed like I was part of Nature. Then I went indoors to watch the world news. I felt that Nature was part of me and that I wanted to reject it. Kids under 10 years old out  looting at 2am in Manchester UK. Tribal groups in Pakistan murdering each other when their enemy is poverty and lack of opportunity. I went back to the garden to see the bats and the stars. 

Talking of stars – I woke up at 3 am and looked out of the window. In St. Savinien, Charente, 17350, there is very little light pollution. The sky at night in rural France is the most fantastic floor show. I remember it from mon enfance- before the cars and the madness of it all. Obviously it’s just a dome with holes pricked in to keep us fooled. All the same, I had to reflect on the painting by Titian in the National Gallery in London of Bacchus and Ariadne (Check it out here). I won’t bore you with the arty farty guff but it is a painting crammed with love and passion. Bacchus throws the crown of Ariadne into the heavens and above her it burns as an immortal constellation. If you’re able – go and see it. IT’S FREE. You don’t have to loot it or steal it. Several times a day you can get a free guided tour of selected works in the gallery. A deeply intelligent person will chat to you about the paintings. You will feel humbled and ashamed that you know nothing. At the end you will know more than you thought you could know.  As a poor scum bag from darkest London with an average IQ destined for the honourless, wealthless  drudge, I started to go see this stuff. It didn’t change the world but it changed me. Educators! Stop just jumping the kids through the hoops, then turning your back when they fall. Batter and discipline them until they know what they are worth! Just remember all those free tours and the sweet folk who lecture to anyone- ABSOLUTELY ANYONE – are part of civilisation and a law abiding world. 

And finally a few words about La Bise – this whole Euro kissing thing but also taking in the hand shaking thing. If you were  young and you were expected to kiss older folk and expect them to address you in a caring yet senior manner would you then go and smash up their home/shop/car/business? I tell you – you would not! Parallel so called communities have no hope. Community means everyone. Not this community or that community -teenage looters, ethnic rapists and Nazis are communities. In France the word has slightly more meaning…….but erosion and diversification do their work here too. Kiss before you smash. – Vive La France. 

Emma thinx: Search for your darkness and see the stars.

Besame Mucho

Give a Frenchman a bath and what does he do with it? C’mon it’s obvious – he turns it into a wheelbarrow and keeps his grapes in it. The above photo was taken at La Foire aux Vins which is happening in St. Savinien this weekend. This guy was demonstrating an old fashioned method of distilling spirit from grapes that have already been crushed for wine-making. We stopped to speak to him and what a gent he was. His 50 year old tractor, his 25 year old Renault full of hand cut logs, his wooden clogs and bathbarrow all spoke of a pre internet age of toil and improvisation. No viruses in his hard drive. No inflammation technology. This was pure hardcore fixing things up. And here’s the sting – this ain’t no museum piece.  Eat your heart out City dealers – this is real life. I know you can flick a button a millisecond before some other trader or hide some crumbling lie to cheat your friend and score a million. Not much profit in talking with patience and passion to an idiot Femme Anglaise who asks stupid questions. How the hell France survives I just don’t know. But we should all be thankful that it does. The merciless machine and the greed are here but the folk resist with a kind of passive militancy. Aux armes les citoyens!

Going out takes a long time. You are bound to meet all kind of folk who will want to kiss you, shake hands or even both. We did meet several sozzled citoyens. The tradition is that you do the cheek kissing the first time you see someone that day. Then you have done it and you can just wave, nod or merely get on with business. At La Foire Aux Vins  you encounter several folk who simply can’t remember if they kissed you – or even who you are! Accordingly many multiple kissings have to take place. Not to kiss would be a kind of accusation of drunkenness or memory failure. It’s so nice to be wanted so often! One sweet guy had lost all powers of recall except that I was English and would be looking for pints of Guiness. “No Geeeenessss here.” He told me several times. In fact my own tipple is Pineau…and if you’ve not tried it- what the hell are you doing with your life?

In 1589 a wine-maker accidently stored some grape juice in a barrel containing brandy. The result was a fortified wine something like sherry, but utterly superior (at least if you live in Charente). It is smooth and more-ish. We bought a few bottles for Chateau Calin and for gifts to UK affectianados. All your Sainsbury and Tesco buyers appear to ignore it. We met some friends at the Pineau stall. “Oh yes – it is wonderful. No ‘ang ovairs. You wake up and you ‘ave no head pain. You look at your partner in zee bed and you say – oh yes- I spent the night with a film star. This is Pineau!” Now- if I could bottle that…..trouble is someone already has. Kisses followed. I felt like a film star. Check out Andrea Bocelli  “Besame mucho” here. Slug a Pineau avec. 

Emma thinx: Consume with moderation. Enjoy with every passionate shred and tendon of your soul!

Etiquette to ride

Of course- it is the holidays at last and it is pouring with rain. Gilles and I went to Saintes to see le monument historique of the Carrefour hypermarché. One day these places will need guided tours and tourists will send by mind mails to their 10,000 friends on brain book by just swivelling their eyes. Remember where you heard it first. However, no shortage of tourists today. I reckon about a quarter of the shoppage was being done by peeved Brits. I spot them and then saunter up to check see if my detectors are correct. I loiter like a dispossessed store detective to catch a snatch of their conversation. I’m rarely wrong. I always wondered how waiters in Paris restaurants knew you were a Brit before you spoke. I still don’t know but it’s something to do with a kinda pressed clothing and over casual formality. The French are casually formal since they are shrugging people living out a book of etiquette. The Brits are formally casual since they are stiff people living without etiquette. You may need to read this twice – but it is true. Today in Carrefour we spotted 2 guys who live quite nearby. In the UK we might have waved or just given a nod. To a Frenchman this is impossible. They came over to us at the check-out since we were in mid conveyor panic mode and could not meet half way. People waited behind us while kissings and hand shakings were carried out. An exchange of news between Gilles and the lads had me glancing at the till operator and the waiting queue. In Peckham or Bermondsey (proletarian parts of London) there would have been uneasy shuffling and even some verbals. Everyone shrugged. Some things are necessary and have to be done. It is expected.

The same situation applies to French car driving. It is anarchic and pushy. All other drivers are fools who have to be defeated. Simply, driving of cars came after the main social etiquettes were formed and also in a your own tin box you cannot kiss or shake hands. Personally I would equip them all with very small cabriolets so that their normal impeccable etiquette would triumph over human nature as they came close enough to open their default behaviour mode.

Now for cuisine advice. You may recall my plan to cook curry on Sunday. Well, I did so and decided to use French curry powder in my lentil dahl. This was an expensive experiment at at about £2.50 for the normal sized jar. In UK ASDA I would pay about £1 at most. It was pale and weak. If you’re coming on holiday bring your own curry spices. There’s more tickle than massala. 

Emma thinx: When you get home – put the car in you away.

Ex Patio

What a day! Look – it’s not that I nag – I just want things to be better for all of us. So we have commenced project patio, that most English of traditions. To a Frenchman the soil is a living entity. To me it is weed bed that has to be controlled. At the side of the house there is an expanse of soil. Gilles can see lines of beans, peas and possibly a few chickens. What we actually see is weeds. Well, he is a busy man and I am saving him trouble in the long run. If you are an ex pat reader of this blog you may be planning similar projects. Many things are better to buy in the UK and many things are best bought in France. Certainly bring your paint from the UK. On the other hand budget kit wheel barrows  for 23 Euros M.Bricolage could not be bettered anywhere. We are lucky in having a branch of VM Materiaux near to us at Saintes. I can thoroughly recommend these guys. On a couple of occasions I have been there when Gilles has not been available and exposed my complete lack of building site vocabulary – no not that sort of vocab’! I mean things like – sharp sand, ready mixed concrete and all in ballast and ornamental stone. However, on each occasion I have been treated with kind incomprehension and eventual success. Poor Gilles is no better since he does clever marketing and world manipulation for a living. Luckily half the town of St. Savinien is being dug up and I pocket a few samples of stuff that I see and take it along to show the sales guys at VM. I suspect that the mad Englishwoman on a bike with pockets full of sand and stones is something of comedy. They never let on. By the way the guy who brought all the stuff today was a real pro and a gent.

At least I have been able to help a little and see Gilles shirtless looking muscular and shovel wielding. One of the problems for Romance writers is that in reality business type billionaires are unlikely to have flawless six packs and pulsating pecs. They might work out in the gym whist watching Bloomberg money TV and flicking their little fingers to score another few million, but they’re unlikely to be like some tough kid who digs the roads and carries railway sleepers – not that I look at any of those sort of guys! Perish the thought.

I can’t help but follow the Tour De France. Tommy Voeckler is still in the yellow jersey. He fought and fought today. I’m gonna light a Buddhist candle for him. C’mon – you can do it – for France and for me.

Emma thinx: Try making foundations without sand. Stone your prejudices.

Oh Oh Seven!

In a few minutes time I will be at the wheel of my 14 year old car and taking the do or die auto route to the coast. Luckily the cruise out of control system still works. I set it at 80 mph and point it North. When I first arrived here I was worried about having a right hand drive UK car. My neighbours shrugged and said “Well – here we drive in the middle of the road, so it doesn’t matter”. I keep the vehicle taxed, insured and tested in the UK. I had hoped that Gilles would be able to come with me but he has to work poor soul. Do you think I feel any disquiet that several French ladies have offered to look after him while I am away? OF COURSE I DO NOT! At least none of them cook rabbit.

Look – I live in France and sometimes I don’t always catch what they say on the radio. I thought I heard that the Beckhams have called their child Harper Seven. The French don’t seem sure how to pronounce it. I must be hearing things.

At last a Buddhist hero. The cyclist Johnny Hoogerland was knocked off his bike by a car driven by journalists in the Tour de France.This bike race has always seemed to me like a bike rally that somehow got caught up in a car race. This poor guy hit a barbed wire fence at 40 mph. When interviewed he said “Well, these things happen – no one meant it to be this way – I feel sorry for the guys who did it because they will feel very bad.” Now – these remarks left me feeling utterly inadequate. He has acceptance, mercy and wisdom. He went off to receive 30 stitches weighed down with absolute respect of millions. I just hope that the ambulance chasing lawyers are careful not to knock him off again.

Remember I advised you to keep an eye on the Steroid-EPO team in the Tour. The cats pounced on a minor mouse today – well, sadly no surprise. Look all you Mr Gogetitnows- what sporting world do you want for your OWN kids? Write to me in confidence. I really want to know.

Emma thinx: What name would your child give to you?

The Other Side of le Coin


You always know the houses of the English, even if they transmit that practised French aura of noble dilapidation. The give away is the shutters. On hot or cold days the English open their shutters. If you have motored around France you will be sure to have rolled through many closed up villages with no one in sight. The English house is the one with music coming out of opened shutters. Often there will be a large imposing 4X4 and a balding man wearing boy scout shorts, a stomach overbite T shirt and sandals with socks. In the heat of the day Les Français will be lunching quietly in a crepuscular cool. Only the English mad dogs will be visible. The French mad dogs need a siesta.

There is an expression in France. It is “du coin”. Literally this means “from the corner” and translates as “local”. At a social gathering I’m given to asking folk if they are “du coin”. I do this for two reasons 1) It’s easy and 2) I think it makes me sound cool and kinda savoir faire française.  However, the answers are sometimes unexpected. “Are you from round here?” Long pause with an expression of horror. “Non! not at all – I am from the next village – nearly 2 kilometres away!” Well, that told me didn’t it. At a party I asked a lady if she was from the corner. “Non – absolument pas! I am from the North – La Rochelle.” Must have been at least 50 kilometres. I just tell people I’m from London. It is another coin of the universe.

We do not have piped gas. This has created a massive bottled gas industry. Caravan types will know all about this. In St Savinien I get my gas from the Intermarché. The vendor is the same guy who operates the petrol pump forecourt. He is a man of absolute sang froid, calm and helpfulness. If ever I am on a plane where the pilots have died and a calm passenger is needed to take over, he will be the man.  He is a Gallic shrug on legs. I admire him tremendously. He is a Buddha of Butane, a Priest of Propane. Intermarché fuel is popular and there is often a queue at the pumps. Once you have mortgaged the house and sold one of the children you can fill up and drive to the payment hut. At the same time a customer arrives wanting a new gas bottle or to exchange his empty one. My hero nods in accord, locks the hut and proceeds to the display of gas cylinders. Drivers wait. No question is too difficult and no answer is too long. One may discuss gas regulators and rubber tubing, the various current offers and the pros and cons of the entire gas business. Now, this is not the road raged streets of London. Petrol pumping ceases without anger (I think England is a very angry place these days) and Madame gets herself re-gassed. He goes back to the hut, smiles a little and the great hydrocarbon wheel rolls on towards extinction.

Emma thinx: Don’t wait to live. Live while you’re waiting.