samedi 26 décembre 2009

It's all abouta toucha culcha for the vulchas

You may very well wonder what we manage to get up to during deepest winter in profoundest Sticksville SW France.

Perhaps, you may think, we spend six dark months arranging our collections of toenail clippings and lifting up the carpets to watch the floorboards warping.

Of course, a lot of the houses here have tiled floors, which meant that not so many moons ago, many of us were left only with the admittedly unappetising toenail option.

Forced to do something to combat rampant cumulative insanity, we have learned peu à peu to create our own entertainment.

For which reason, we shall be off this evening to the Cafédefa for the monthly Jazz Jam Session. This is, of course, why I have chosen to illustrate this piece with a pic (by Martin Castellan) of my mate Stan, in full flight with voice and fretless Fender Jazz bass.

I should make it clear that Stan is a real musician, which is why it's his not altogether straightforward task to extract something resembling music from people like me, who merely turn up to twang things hopefully.

It reminds me of the eternally-droll Sir Thomas Beecham who famously remarked that: "The English all hate music but they quite like the noise it makes."

I'm not sure quite how we ended up having a classy American bassist (and brill electric cello player) from Chicago living in the Haute Vallée de l'Aude but this sort of thing seems to happen dans ce petit coin de la belle France. It's as good a reason as any for living here.

Not being content with making a bloody racket by means of musical instruments, we've also tried our hand at poetry recently.

As I'm a poet, obviously this was all my fault, so I had to organise the Café Poésie evening. Serves me right for having the idea. Actually you can't go that far wrong doing poetry in France because the French love a bit of the old verse and worse, Rimbaud - First Blood etc.

It does however mean talking all your French mates into performing the stuff or no-one will have a clue what you're on about.

Alternatively you can intentionally make no sense at all like my mate Debs (la femme de Stan) did with her wonderful performance of the Loch Ness Monster's Song by Edwin Morgan; an inspired, nay audacious sequence, of barmy, meaningless and thus totally international and EU-approved noises. Great stuff.

Strange and lost horses for missing courses

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me . . . well, this pair actually.

It has to be said that in turtle-dove terms they're distinctly solid and, er, horse-like. Anyway here they are, penned up at the side of the church at Fa and nobody knows who they belong to.

I first discovered them in the deepening gloom last night while trying to take out the ash from the wood burner, and realised that in rather hostile horse language they weren't going to let me get to the wheelie-bins.

Seeing, in the cold light of day just how much I would have trodden in, maybe they were doing me a favour and one should be grateful for small mercies.

So perhaps they were sent here by the raging Furies and fickle winds of mischance and twisted fortune. It's also possible that they were sent by the Anti Smoking Police, because every time girlfriend Claire goes out for a fag, they either make strange and scary ghostly horse noises in the dark or by day they just stare at her intently, pointedly and balefully.

It all has an agreeably seasonal symmetry: No room at inn, hapless gees chucked out to make room in stable, gees fetch up sheltering under wall of church. Alternatively some silly sod somewhere hasn't learned how to shut the gate, though this explanation tends to lack charm, Christmas romanticism or indeed any class and style at all.

Still, it seems to have been a Christmas of minor mishaps all round: Down at the ever-genial Cafédefa, Dave the Underdog (formerly known as Barman) regaled us with the tale of how all his grandchildren's presents ended up in the dustbin.

While making an overnight flying visit to Fa, He Who Was Responsible became over-zealous in tidying up his accommodation and assumed that the handily positioned bin-liner contained crap . . . which all ended up in an SOS phone call, a rescue mission by Dave in suitably seasonal silly Santa hat and a huge dry-cleaning bill from the Christmas fairy, who is apparently also suing for false imprisonment in someone's manky old dustbin.

Actually Dave was still wearing his silly hat while spilling the beans but I think this was only a ruse to look cute and charming while trying to get a Christmas kiss off Claire (he succeeded).

By the way, we succeeded in having another turkey-free Christmas, thanks to Claire's fab saumon en papillotte (salmon steaks with carrots, leeks and mushrooms fried in butter and crème fraîche, deeply yum) for the Réveillon (Christmas Eve) and my own offering of Morroccan-style lamb with coriander, prunes and mushrooms with veg on Christmas Day.

If this latter dish seems perversely multi-faith on my part, well (a) I prefer lamb to turkey and (b) if they had had Crimbo dinner in Palestine in Zero A.D. it's odds-on that they would have eaten lamb rather than a huge, dry, flightless thing from America which would not be discovered for another 1,500 years . . .

dimanche 13 décembre 2009

Stringing up Santa: the perilous art of social climbing

I see it's "String up a Santa" time in SW France again. Already there is a hint of winter in the air and the nascent feeling that the Old Year will peg out on us quite soon.

These particular Crimbo decorations, very popular round here, have always intrigued me. Actually this example (courtesy of my normally dour and taciturn next door neighbour, surprisingly enough) is fairly well made, which spoils the joke a bit.

Here you can clearly see that the old gent is climbing a ladder; with the numerous el cheapo ones, it looks just like Santa has been hanged by the neck in this place of execution until he be good and dead.

Still the art of social climbing was ever perilous; which brings me round (or my round?) to my mate Dave the Barman and the rich, seasoned and seasonal life at the Café de Fa.

For a start it's the Cafédefa these days, because Marie l'adorable chef thinks it looks cool and I have to admit that it does in the cute and exotic typeface that she's found to use on the posters. I hunted around in the crypt-like bowels of my computer and found something quite close, though I'm not convinced that it's a dead ringer.

And while in the spirit of correction, journalistic ethics* and, indeed, right of reply; I am forced to report that Dave the Barman has visited the blog, and whilst in general enthusiastic, expressed himself as disappointed to be known as only Dave the Barman.

This has worried me for some time, because Dave is an all-round bon oeuf and frequent source of inspiration and thus a character of no inconsiderable honour in this humble chronicle (of love, passion, astonishing courgettes, turn-the-handle, village, waffle, blah blah, idiot, etc etc).

I have racked my brains for long and sweaty hours over this conundrum and could get no further than The Dave Formerly Known as Barman, with its slight nuance of a well-known small, moist and eccentric but undeniably talented musician.

However it's been officially decided that he's Dave the Underdog. To explain this title, perhaps I should introduce you to the hierarchy at the Cafédefa.For a start it consists of at least four women, even if one of them is an ancient and cantankerous dog . . . and Dave.

The boss is, of course, Marie l'adorable chef, (française) who owns the place. Dave (anglais) is actually her chap, but don't imagine that this counts for anything in the cut-and-thrust of female world domination.

Then there's Nanou (française) the barmaid and very possibly Of The North as her agreeable chap Eric could well be the Viking and stands to make a lucrative career as stunt double to Hagar the Horrible.

Julia, the chef as in cooking, (anglaise) is a shy and retiring flower who rarely leaves the kitchen, though it was discovered that she's a mean Celtic harp player during an exceptional foray into the public eye. Her occasional substitute is a large and deeply formidable française who I have never risked trying to identify more closely than as Valérie's mum.

Lastly there's Mollie the ancient dog (française) who barks at everything and everyone, especially in situations of zero-risk. The one time they had an actual burglar down in the bar, Mollie remained utterly silent, safely hidden under the bed upstairs . . .

Mollie, having been Marie's exclusive compadre these many years, remains deeply ambivalent about the incomer Dave's place in the scheme of things. I suspect she regards him with the utmost distrust; a fiendish usurper no less of the affections of her mistress.

Thus we have Mollie the Dog so Dave must be the Underdog. QED: C'est la vie.

*English county to the west of London

mardi 1 décembre 2009

A study in epic grandeur or rivers of turnip blood?

I'm great lover of idiom, be it French, English or anybody else's language. Now and again the French come up with a good one like: "Il a du sang de navet", which literally translates as "he has turnip blood" and means someone who always feels the cold.

I couldn't immediately think of an English equivalent. If, like me, you come from Staffordshire, you would of course say "nesh" but it's definitely a dialect word. I don't know how widely it's used but I doubt it ranges far outside the frozen, desolate and possibly turnip-ridden wastes of northern England.

Of course, in speaking of turnips, the prophet may have merely been making a general reference to the producers of all root vegetables, and possibly even onions, but I know exactly what he meant, when the first really cold, dank bone-chilling rain of winter set in this week.

To capture the feeling of the moment, I offer this imposing view of the sun forcing a passage through the late-afternoon mountain murk, hurriedly snatched from the hallowed slopes of Anorakville-le-sacré, alias Rennes-le-château.

I have to admit that I am a devout unbeliever with regard to our local centre for sword/sorcery/hidden treasure/runes/codes/Mary Magdalen/the Holy Grail/and possibly our old friends the Giant Green Lizards who will take over the world in 2012 or sometime definitely, maybe, possibly, never or at least after our teabreak with chocolate digestives.

But if you insist on being gnostic about it, the one Great Truth that I do recognise about our little shrine for the intelligent enthusiast/hyper anorak/casual sightseer/terminally bonkers is that on a wet afternoon in December, it's bloody cold there. Holy Grail? I'd prefer a nice cup of tea.