Thursday, March 31, 2005

Now I wonder...

Yesterday's poser about where the women are has led me to wonder about three that I have met here. I'm pleased about that.

The pre-occupying focus of the day has been writing a business plan for a B&B that we've found for sale in the area. This afternoon, we saw one of three banks we're going to talk to about it, and met with some reticence. Not about the project, but about what their terms of business are likely to be. I felt like a boxer circling the ring with an opponent, both trying to suss out the opposition. Seconds away, round two tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

There's a woman in it

I have to apologise about the title - it's an in joke that probably only my sister would get. BUT, it does capture the essence of the post, so I don't feel bad about it.

Looking about places I've lived, which is Wales, England, Scotland and France, and others Ive visited, I became aware over the past few days that some of them have a more visible, what's the word ... ancestral, female presence than here. Native Americans, the Aborigines, and other societies have well-defined, well-known, strong female dimensions in their societies. Even in Wales, at least within living memory, the Welsh mam was a force to be reckoned with. In Scotland, or at least parts of it, the matrilinear tradition, and the often female seers are not lost in the mists of time. My experience in England doesn't have the same kind of traditional/ancestral memory to it, and I'm not sure what to make of that. But here in France, after nearly two years, I'm beginning to wonder where that female and feminine strand is in this society.

In some ways the rural Massif Central would be one place to expect to find a strong or at least a memory of a strong female role, but either I'm blind to its subtility here, or I'm not meeting the right people, but it just seems to be missing. And I'm now curious enough to open my 'eyes' and see what I can 'see'.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

There I was feeling liberated from the snow and full of energy with the spring, but you should have seen this lot go. What with the weather over the past couple of months, yer farmer tends to keep his dairy cows inside most of the winter. And when they get let out for the first time, do they go for it? Yes they do. The whole village gets out its walking sticks and takes up strategic positions at track junctions and farm gates to guide the gals towards their new spring grass. I don't know if you can image what a herd of hippos doing some wild Irish step dancing (a la Riverdance) might look like, but if you can, that will give you some idea of yesterday's spectacle. It's a bit scary. Posted by Hello

Saturday, March 26, 2005


I decided to go for it after a period of immersion in the material and opportunities. Now I also find myself with an energetic spring in the step. So I am spending my weekend immersing myself in my garden, where I find it easy to free my mind to wander around the more important, deeper things like focus, personal expression, passion, and the lifestyle we are creating here. My expectation is that this will help me to plan next week and ensure that spending so much time away next month is time well spent and well-focused on the important things in life.

My pleasure gardens are pretty much laid out, and the basics like soil preparation are done. So I've moved on to the potager round the corner. I made a good start yesterday, with a little after-school help from our bundle of joy. I doubt I'll have so much time today, since her little flower friend is coming over after the Saturday morning school session for an Easter egg hunt. And at the moment all the eggs are on top of my wardrobe. Our bundle of joy has also requested a treasure hunt style, so I've got to work out some clues too.

It's a pleasure to play, and I find it lifts me out of my ruminations in funny, unexpected and beneficial ways. I think next year, I'll see if someone else can set up the hunt, and I'll play the game too.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Spring in the garden, spring in the step

The full moon today marks another milestone in spring's advance. A time, according to my gardening calendar, to plant root crops. It's also the right time to cut wood for certain things, and to cut hair so it will grow either more or less quickly, I forget which. Here the phases of the moon guide many many people in their everyday lives. I intend working my garden by the moon this year. My hair, well, I just cut it when I get around to it, usually when it starts to resemble a sheep just before shearing.

We've seen through another winter. It doesn't seem much, but it feels great. Now that the snow and cold is but a distant memory, the strength of feeling just gets stronger. It's a veritable eruption of energy and optimism. My garden, my partner in crime's new business, and the appearance of houses and farms for sale. Maybe our Project will take its next big step soon...

There is a time ...

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Swings and roundabouts: or a balanced life

In know you think about it; not because I know everything, but because I don't yet know anyone who doesn't. This is the work/life balance story. Do you work too much and regret not being with your family, or with your kids more as they grow up? Are you unemployed or retired, desperate to work, to have a role, to do something worthwhile outside your family and your lesiure time? Most people seem to be at one end of the see-saw or the other.

Living out here is part of my search for a balance. The vision I had and we developed together into The Project started many years ago while commuting. Its roots lie further back than that, but I don't plan on getting into a session of analysis. We started with a lifestyle; in detail, it was our perfect day, week, and year. And then we laid out the milestones. And now we're on the road. We seem to be nearing the end of that road, and the next road is forming out of the mist as we do so. And that's why the balance at this moment seems a little unfair.

I planned on working at home roughly three weeks a month, and being away working for the other week. And when we first arrived, it worked out pretty much like that. Only this winter I've been no-where, (worked out fine given the amount of snow); and now I'm going to see that balance flipped in April. Yup, I'm leaving my little corner of paradise for most of April, and will be here I reckon for about 7 or 8 days in the whole month. And it's unsettling.

I've been following my own advice, (well, General Slim's really, credit where it's due). Being bold. I am, as they say, going for it. And having made the choice, I am going for it. I love and the time I have with my family in this place too much to choose to spend time idly elsewhere. And if these bold choices prove to be unworthy of the sacrifice, then the impact will be significant. I will choose differently, even if as boldly, next time. Bold choices help me discriminate between important and unimportant.

I have chosen to travel to build our balanced vision, not for glory or cash. And if this separation doesn't take us further down the road, then it will not have been worth it. Now committed, I intend to do my utmost to make sure it is worth it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

And it all finishes with the cheese. A beautiful top-quality, hand-made organic cheese. There's a lot between the lambs and the cheese, mainly a lot of hard work! Posted by Hello

Quality local food is hidden away in many nooks and crannies around the region. Taking a trip out to find some of your favourites is an important part of many peoples' lives. Whether that be 'saucissons', bread, wine or cheese. Our fine French friends (FFF) have a start to finish organic cheese-making farm. And it all starts around the end of October with the lambs.
 Posted by Hello

Friday, March 18, 2005

Scrum halves and sloping shoulders

I was talking a little while back about French bureaucracy's breathtaking ability to avoid responsibility. I've had another experience this morning that instantly clicked with the idea of world class scrum halves. (With the rubgy 6 nations super saturday coming up, and Wales in with a chance of first grand slam since 1978, my mind is full of rugby words.)

Phone any official office, and if you can make it through the automated menus, the limited and occasionally bizarre office hours (which between them have taken me three days), you might just get the chance to speak to someone.

Now I have learned that you need to be absolutely sure that this person IS ABSOLUTELY the right person, and that takes either research OR luck OR persistence, and ususally a hefty mix of all three.

Because the first thing this person will tell you (usually extremely politely and helpfully) is that it has nothing to do with them. They will then give you another agency/office/phone number and wish you a pleasant afternoon. They are so good at this, that you may feel that you have had an exemplary customer care experience, and even having mistakenly contacted this person, they have been very helpful. They will pass you on like an oval ball at speed, without you even noticing.

Naive beyond measure. In fact you will realise when you put the phone down that you have just witnessed the best off-load of a pressure ball you are likely to see all season. And our bureaucratic scrum half, not a hair out of place, can carry on filing her nails, making coffee, or gossiping until the next passing opportunity comes up.

I've noticed the adverts in the papers for 'concours' (competitions) for recruiting new 'fonctionnaires' (civil servants); I wonder if these events involve rugby balls at all?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The garden of peace and ideas

'I've been in my garden, working.' Not quite. Urm. 'I've been working in my garden.' Nope. How about... 'I've been working; in my garden.' Well that'll have to do!

Do you remember 'The Good Life'? BBC programme with Felicity Kendall and Richard Briars from the 1970s I think. Barbara, (Felicity Kendall) had the habit of going into the garden when she needed to think.

I can't do it just the same way as Barbara. I can't just think. I need to be doing something, even if it's just pottering about. And then it's magic. My garden is where my mind is free to reflect gently on whatever comes up, whether that be work, life, play, family, dreams, or whatever...

That's one reason why I love my garden. In fact I think of the pottering as loving. I go out and love my garden, which sometimes means just looking, smelling, listening, touching, and what the hell, yes, even tasting. And other times means a bit of tidying up, snipping, planting, or even a bit of a job like building a new stone wall. And I've noticed that if my garden looks neglected, then I'm probably not feeling quite myself. If it's looking loved and cared for, then that's the way I feel too.

And it is a place where I do 'real' work too. The thinking, wondering, and imagining that I do there almost always leads to progress when I get back to my desk. Whether that be writing, planning or resolving a problem.

Curt Rosengren was talking about this this morning as moodling. I've never heard the word before, but loving my garden is where it happens for me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

My favourite sign of spring is the snowdrop, hitherto spotted much earlier than this. It's only tiny and looks a bit worse for wear after being buried in snow for two months, but a joy to see. Posted by Hello

While running to seek cover from the bee, I spotted this butterfly warming up. The bee left it alone, but the cat had several minutes of amusement before the plucky butterfly wandered off. Posted by Hello

Well the thaw continues, but the last patches of snow are finally disappearing. I managed to get out into my garden for the first time in two months and finish digging over vegetable plot number 1. The number of insects that have appeared almost overnight is amazing; I even spotted a bee attacking a cat! Posted by Hello

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Wild food and local food

Mushrooming is a common French pastime. Some people are very very protective of the knowledge of good places to hunt during the right seasons, and there are many many good stories to be told. But 'tis not the season, not now, so I'll talk about them another time. It's just that mentioning the mushrooms yesterday reminded me of the resurgence of interest in good local food, which increasingly means organic food.

Some of our closest friends are 'The Rascals', who farm organically nearby. They have about 130 sheep, which they milk twice daily most of the year. And then they convert the milk into several types of cheese and yoghurt, using very labour-intensive processes. Their cheeses are not just organic, but hand-made. They also sell direct to the likes of you and me at markets within about an hour's drive, and indirectly through the numerous organic shops in the area.

It's a fascinating and hard life, but the big thing for me is realising just how much dedication goes into producing hand-made organic food. Sure the price is higher, but just look at what I get for it! I know that the food is top quality, I know that the sheep are happy and well-cared for, I know that the land they work is healthy and clean, I know the healthy, happy life-style their family has; in short, I know exactly where my money goes.

There are more and more small producers of quality food, something France has been bettr than the UK in preserving. But even here many artisans have been under threat or disappeearing due to the economic pressures of large-scale food retailing. The rise of the farmers' markets in the UK, and increasing organic food production there, is also being followed by similar developments in France.

One of the key parts of 'The Project' is to source as much of the food we serve our guests and ourselves from producers like The Rascals. Not only that, but as personal friends of many of them, we will be able to informally take our visitors over to see the places and meet the people who's food and wine they've been enjoying. How's that for getting to know a place.

We believe that our visitors will enjoy the opportunities for a deeper understanding of the land and its social fabric, as well as enjoying the weather, the landscapes and the food. Are we right? What do you think?

And let me know if you're interested, and we'll keep you in touch with developments.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Here's the mushrooming scene from last autumn. Brings a tear to yer eyes don't it? Posted by Hello

Manon des sources

It's a wonderful wonderful feeling; the snow is melting, the sun is out and the birds are singing. After six weeks of snow and cold, it feels like spring is around the corner.

So I'm now finding my mind free to reflect on the few difficulties over the past few weeks. One of which was frozen pipes and so no water for 4 days. As I walked up to our marvellous neighbours' house to fill up my buckets, I was suddenly hit by a memory from one of those two superb Claude Berri films starring Gerard Depardieu - Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, based on the Marcel Pagnol novel. This is about a man from the city setting up house with his wife and young daughter in the French countryside, looking for 'l'authentique' - authenticity.

Following some devious deeds by the neighbours, yer man runs out of water for his great project, and has to trek miles to a spring and carry water back for his farm. The image of him struggling back after many many trips was the one that sprang to mind as I tried hard not to fall on my arse in the snow and cover myself in icy water. Now, I haven't consciously followed in his footsteps, but I will say that our little bundle of joy does have a middle name, and it does happen to be Manon, and it is so because of these films. It's also true that I have moved here in search of some kind of authenticity.

Really, I came looking for closer contact with the seasons, you know, snow in winter, sun in summer, that kind of thing. We've certainly found that. But I was also looking for some semblance of community, and in that too we've been very lucky, certainly compared with Jean de Florette and his small but perfectly formed family. This is a lovely small place, with the colour and warmth and flaws and difficulties that make it real and human. I feel very lucky to have found it.

Another image that springs to mind is one of last autumn, when my partner in crime and our bundle of joy went mushrooming in the fields next to our house. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the pure joy of this simple pleasure was almost unbearable. It felt good just to be alive, and there's no better feeling...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

This is the picture we're building our image for 'Les Sources' around. It's a petal from one of our sunflowers, and looks great when applied in a number of different ways. Posted by Hello

This is THE perfect place for 'The Project'; at least until we find one we can actually buy! Posted by Hello

So what are we doing here?

All this malarkey about estate agents and other rantings may lead you to pose the question, so what are they doing there?

Well, the photos give a bit of the up-side. But that wouldn't, in itself, be enough. Well, I don't think it would anyway. The reason we're here being tortured by estate agents is 'the project'.

'The Project' now has a name and a little logo element that is helping to develop an image. The name is Les Sources. And I'll post the logo just above this post. The plan is to develop an oasis of calm and simple pleasure in the heart of the French countryside. A beautiful but unpretensious chateau, maison de maitre or substantial farm in half a dozen acres of intimate gardens; just five or six small suites for our guests; relaxing massage, reflexology and acupressure available without leaving the building; superb organic and local food prepared to both traditional and international recipes; diverting activities like painting workshops and walking; opportunities to visit the farms or vinyards and really discover where our food comes from. And above all, just relax... We even plan to look after your kids for a while to give you some time to yourselves within a family holiday. And I hope to add creative problem-solving and teamwork sessions for small professional groups too.

So that's why we're here. So far, my partner in crime has surmounted the formidable barriers of French bureaucracy to set up her own business as a releaxation therapist. I've carried on earning a crust working as a consultant from home and travelling not too much. And we've visited dozens of properties. In fact we found what I consider to be THE perfect place (photo above too), but found ourselves about 200,000€ short of a business plan. I though about attracting a partner or two; by creating a 2/3 bed appartment available to the partner(s) for a commitment of the cash for something like 3 or 5 years. But we haven't found anyone that's gone for it. Yet...

So we're still looking for the right place; or the right partner(s), and it's that that helps us cope with the estate agents. Wish us luck!

Are estate agents the same everywhere?

I remember from Britain the occasional humourous item translating what estate agents say into what they actually mean. Examples that springs to mind is 'compact and bijou', for which read 'not enough room to swing a cat'; and 'in need of a refreshing coat of paint', for which 'no roof' would be more to the point.

Similar liberties are taken with the French langauge on a daily basis, at least for 90% of the properties we have been conned into visiting. But there seems to be a distinct difference in the type of liberty.

Here, there is less a flagrant transformation of the facts into something more palatable, and more a flagrant attempt to focus on a good point, in the face of sometimes insurmountable bad points about a particular feature. This can sometimes have good comic potential, unfortunately not appreciated neither by my partner in crime nor me. Our sense of humour having been compromised by the distance travelled and the temperature, and the totally inappropriate property itself. Let me give you an example.

'Un beau volume', means that the (usually) barn is very spacious. This is usually undeniably true. However it is usually not the most significant feature of said barn, which has acres of roofing in need of about 10 years loving care and attention by an artisan, should you be able to find one.

Do you see what I mean? Another story we've heard, jaws on the ground, is that a farm is 'au calme'. Again undeniably true. Ten miles from the nearest road is quiet, with just one other property within ten miles. BUT, that just happens to be a saw mill. So the farm is 'au calme' but not really, well not at all, actually quiet.

You begin to get the picture. Another feature of French estate agents is their absolute conviction that given half a chance, following an introduction to a seller, a buyer will thank the agent and then enter into clandestine negotiations directly. No commission. They are not paranoid; they have this fear because this is what the French actually do. Avoiding fees, taxes, NI contributions, entry charges, in fact any payments at all, is one of the French national sports. Second only to strikes. So when you see a 'for sale' advert, it will give the name of a town or village. This generally has only a vague relationship to the property's actual location, to avoid the above scenario.

Now for us, if not for most people, the location is pretty important. And if it's not right, we don't want to go and visit it, especially if it means 150km each way in the middle of winter. But you just can't get anything out of the agent any more precise than the advert; you arrange to see it, you arrange to meet in front of the church, Mairie, bar tabac etc., and then get trailed off up to 25km in any direction to the secret location. Which of course turns out to be rubbish.

This doesn't strike me as good customer service. It is not the only example of bad customer service, but I will spare you the complete catalogue. I did though think about why the service is so bad. I came to the conclusion, in a eureka moment, that of course it's because the buyer isn't the customer! Obvious! The seller is the agent's customer. now, there may be different ways of looking at this, but the important way is the way the agent looks at it. And they view the seller as the customer, especially when demand is rising well beyond supply as in this area. So they have no qualms about using potential buyers to develop their relationship with their customer, and then casting them aside like so many used Johnson cotton buds. This explains the fact that no agent has ever called us back; agents have paraded us for their sellers so many times it's not true; and why estate agents have such a lousy reputation and everyone, now including us, will go to great lengths to ensure they never see a penny of our hard earned cash.

People used be hanged, deported, or imprisoned for less not so long ago...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Sloping shoulders

The school bus service around here has been the source of much anxiety since we got here, and some of my early posts explain why. The most recent moments of complete incomprehension are not surprisingly related to the weather. But the reason they cause anxiety is because of the ubiquitous and very impressive ability of French public services to devise ways of avoiding any responsibility should something go wrong.

A number of people have needed assistance to get their vehicles out of ditches over the past couple of weeks. This led one motivated parent to enquire of the driver of his son's school bus whether his minibus was equipped at least with snow tyres, if not chains. The answer was an amazing no. So Mr motivated French dad contacted the owner of the minibus. He was told that the drivers were all issued with snow tryes for their vehicles, but that it was up to them whether they fitted them or not. Which neatly leaves the owner out of the picture in the event of an accident.

He can join the serried ranks of public servants who would legally avoid any responsibility in the event of the death or injury of a child on the school bus.

The Council of the 'Departement' has a contract with the owner of the minibus. The law allows children to be counted as half people when assessing the capcity of these vehicles. This means that they can carry two children for each seat. So at least half, and often more than half, of the children, some as young as 3, are unable to wear seatbelts. We already know what the now EC transport commissioner Jaques Barrot thinks of that. The law absolves them of any responsibility under these absurd circumstances.

The allocation of routes and vehicles is organised by the 'Community of Communes', but these organisations do not appear to have any contractual relationships in this respect, and therefore any legal responsibility for the service. And even if they did, the law also absolves them.

So, a school bus, heaven forbid, goes off the road and an unattached child is injured. Who is responsible? You can bet your bottom centime d'euro that no-one mentioned above, individual, post or organisation would be. And this absurd law is behind it all. Seat belts are increasingly mandatory, even in France. But this is an exception to public/school transport law purely designed to save money.

If any of them even thought about passing to pay their respects or make an apology, I wouldn't give much for their chances of getting away unscathed.

But believe me there's more...

The school bus drivers mostly arrive at school early. That is beacuse they deliver to two schools by 9:00; the primary and then the nursery. The teachers arrive outside the school to take responsibility for the children at 8:50, whether the bus arrives at 8:40 or not. If something happens to a child between 8:40 and 8:50, who do you suppose is responsible?

Right again, no-one...

Only in France?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Finally finally. Following a little-used path down towards civilisation will take you past a lovely little stream jumping its way down a few steps like this one. The water has built up into fantastic shapes each time the temperature has fallen low enough for long enough, and this is the most recent creation. It's also a pretty magic spot in summer.
 Posted by Hello

Finally, our plum trees, waiting patiently (I suppose) for the spring. When the sun comes out, I can just about remember what it's like... Posted by Hello

Of course there are some of us in the hamlet that have a harder time than others with the snow. Biscuit, our adopted cat, has been pretty robust really, tackling not just the cold and the snow, but also the daily patrol of the gang of dogs that live here too. Posted by Hello

There were a couple of days when the sun came out in the afternoon. Temperatures rose to about 0C for an hour or two, before plummeting at night. This sequence produced some spectacular and pretty icicles, including these modest ones. The longest I found were 2m long, and part of a series of three parallel rows rather like shark's teeth. Posted by Hello

This shot shows our hamlet, if you look carefully, just to the right of the tree in the foreground, sitting snugly in its place. other settelements are there to be found too. Posted by Hello

This is one of Chloe's choices. She spotted the tree and its shadow and dragged me down there to take this. Posted by Hello

The hardest winter

The hardest winter for nigh on 100 years, depending on who you speak to. It's certain that pretty much everyone's had enough now. Snow fell on 21st January, and here we are on 8th March, and it' s still there, with all that's fallen, melted, re-frozen, and been blown about since. And it's been cold.

Personally this is just my second winter here, so I can't give you any comparisions over time. I can say though that it beats grey damp southern England. It may be cold. I may have had to abandon my car to the snow a couple of times. But by God it's beautiful. The hardest thing is to stop wandering the countryside with my camera.

The main thing that strikes me every time I go out is the way most of the buildings and even the villages and hamlets sit in the landscape so perfectly. And it's not a subversive posture; it's one of comfort, of belonging. It's the feel that a superbly landscaped garden has. It's the sort of feeling I get when I'm working in my garden; something I'm missing at the moment, and for which I'm building up considerable enthusiasm for. When the spring comes, it really will be time for a celebration.

What I haven't managed to capture quite so successfully with my camera yet is the same feeling about people in the landscape. (This is something I'm going to work on for my next project, come the spring. There's not much in the way of movement out there for now!) I wonder if it is still there in every day life, even here. I did witness that same belonging during the 'Balade' last July, but that was a retrospective, living history event. I can tell you about that another time.

Anyway, in the meantime, I've got a small selection of winter photographs for you, just so you can keep up with the views.

PS I've also added some thumbnails to my consultancy pages at