Monday, 24 December 2007

Have a seriously good Christmas. Just not too serious.

Unable to find my woolly headgear, I walked through town this morning wearing a Santa hat that's only a little bit too small for me.

No one smiled.

Even the local beggar looked at me like I have no self respect.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Day of Rest

You can read all the books you like on fencing (my own preference is one), but at some point (as with all things) you've just got go to up there and do it.

Which is why I spent several hours yesterday, after my now-habitual tractor yoga, up a stepladder, carefully heaving a four-kilo sledgehammer onto the ends of several two-and-a-half-metre fence posts the previous owner had stuck in a Most Inexplicable Place.

The orchard/chicken is being enclosed.

Today, my formerly soft office-worker's hands are feeling slightly crampy as a result and the rest of my body is feeling just a tiny bit stronger. Good thing too, as I also have a large veggie plot to enclose with even more serious fencing, before installing a couple of rotivating pigs in January.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Tractor yoga

For this exercise, you will need: one Fordson Major (1963 model or thereabouts), a grass-cutting attachment and a field of long grass sloping steeply behind you.

Warm up
Press the little wossisface on the side of the engine and climb onto the machine. Make sure the gearbox is in neutral and the attachment is disengaged. Push the thingummyjig and press the button to start the engine. Then sit for a moment, inhaling the diesel-infused air, taking the time to appreciate the beautiful scenery, the peace of which you have just shattered. (This is a good moment to put on your ear defenders.)

Yoga it must be
Engage the grass cutter, put the engine in reverse and release the clutch, then pull the gizmo to lift the attachment off the ground for the journey uphill. Turn around, placing one hand on the rollbar, and guide the tractor up the hill in an unnecessarily straight line. At the top, reduce the engine speed, drop the attachment, stand on the brake and engage first gear, bearing in mind that leaving it in neutral could send you hurtling to your death. Release the clutch and trundle gently down the hill, relieved that you are in gear, occasionally turning around to watch the long grass spewing out of the side of the attachment. At the bottom of the slope, slow the engine, brake, engage reverse and turn to the other side, ensuring an even development of the back, neck and knees. Repeat for one hour, or until the engine stalls and will not re-start.

May help weight loss as part of an intensive outdoor lifestyle.

How's this for a school dinner?

It was the last day of term at the daughter's school today. To celebrate, the canteen provided:

Foie Gras

Duck with pommes noisettes


Not bad for just over two euros.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Day of the Orchard

Installing the orchard/chicken run has given us the perfect opportunity to test man (and woman) against machine.

Four-metre trench using pick-axe, selection of shovels and calories: four hours.

Remainder of 80-metre trench and 13 big holes using JCB and fossil fuel: two hours.

Machine wins. (You don't get that at the movies.)

Monday, 17 December 2007

Another day, another meeting.

When I worked in advertising, I used to enjoy meetings.

As a "creative", you don't go to many. And the ones you do attend tend to break up the monotony of staring at a layout pad or computer screen, pouring your energy into coming up with original and inspiring ways to sell largely uninspiring products to people who would generally be happier to live without them.

In those meetings, you learn that the other (often intelligent and articulate) people you work with have an even less fulfilling time of it than you. Which is why, I guess, most people I know in the business spend most of their spare time getting completely shitfaced. It's a coping mechanism. (And a digression.)

Today, we had a meeting with two intelligent, articulate and, I think, sober people in which we learned:
o The department of agriculture did not see our land before saying they did not like our project and could therefore be won around.
o The people of water could be won over with a little more information from us and a case study of other reed beds systems in use today in France.
o The mayor is unlikely to be won over and we'd best wait until the new one comes along. In March.
o There's a good chance that we won't be opening for business in April. Or indeed, 2008.

But that wasn't the first meeting of the day. Oh no. We'd come fresh from seeing our friend Claude, who we paid for putting a rollbar on the tractor and booked to bring his JCB along tomorrow morning.

Work starts at 10.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Someone else's blog

I've spent the last week entertaining my parents on a pre-Christmas visit. And being frustrated by reports coming out of Bali.

But so you don't feel your click was wasted, here's an interesting article from someone else:


Friday, 7 December 2007

An Alex of Hope

There's someone I haven't told you about. But to save being accused of introducing them at the last minute like a character in a bad detective show, I will tell you a little bit about her now. Her name. Alex.

Alex works for a French government organisation that is actively supporting our project. She is, as I write, working in the Corridors Of Power to help us find the "Oui" we so desperately need. And not as a janitor.

Yesterday she sent me an email, urgently requesting a copy of a document I did not have.

Almost immediately, I drove to Bergerac and spoke to the Woman in Planning. She took out the document. She turned it over in her hands. She made a phone call. And she told me I couldn't have a copy.

It was masterful.

Apparently, the Maire (mayor) made some comments on the form that I am not allowed to see until after a "Oui" or a "Non" has been issued.

Me: So it's not a "Yes" or a "No" right now?

She: No.

Me: (EMPLOYING THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING) And I must wait until after a "Yes."


After a slightly longer pause, in which I discovered the social security office was already closed, I drove to our excellent estate agent. Although snowed under with work (the price of excellence or estate agency - you decide), he dug out a copy of the document, which I scanned and emailed to Alex last night.

So now I wait in hope.

It's the same kind of hope you experience while waiting for a response to a script/treatment you've sent to an agent/producer. Although if you're the one writing all those bad detective shows, please stop.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A nice, relaxing coffee

So we saw our Notaire (French solicitor) yesterday.

He loves the project - especially with the new angle. (I'm beginning to see a pattern here - it's only the bureaucrats who aren't wildly enthusiastic.) He says the Maire's objection is groundless, but it's probably worth waiting until the new Maire is elected. In March. He said he will fight for us, and is happy to present our case to the Senator, who has an office just round the corner (of course). He also said there is nothing in law to stop us putting our yurts up on the land right now because... a yurt is not a caravan.

So we left the meeting feeling a little better and went to Kathy's Place, overlooking the square in Beaumont. After a stressful few days, we could relax. We could just get on with our lives. They were nice, relaxing, coffee-filled minutes. Albeit without a biscuit.

Then we saw our excellent estate agent, a few metres (yards) away. He also wants to fight for us and took us to the Senator's office to make an appointment. While we were in reception, the Senator came in. He likes the project. He said we should wait until the elections and get the new Maire on our side. And he said that if we put our yurts up on our land, the Maire could have us arrested.

You know, the irony of all this is that I've always wanted to open for business in April 2008. And despite all the objections officials are trying to put in our way, that could still happen.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The day before the day after today

We've been taking it in turns to have a crisis.

Clare went first, around the time of our meeting with our estate agent. Which inspired two evenings of focused discussions, culminating in a brilliant development of our original idea that, in an ideal world (which let's face it, is exactly what we're trying to create), should have the authorities begging us to accept their permission.

I don't want to tell you too much right now.

In fact, I may have already said too much.

After a couple of days and a meeting with our architect, it was my turn. Which inspired two evenings of focused screen watching (Part Troll by Bill Bailey and Part Uruk-Hai by JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson), separated by days of listlessness, despondency, negativity, a slight cold and some tractor yoga.

It's a female-male thing.

I think I'm getting over it now, just in time for our next and probably most important meeting. With our solicitor. Which is tomorrow.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

One of those moments

Just before the ad break, comes a moment like this. A moment when you go: "How are they going to get out of that?"

The mayor was not surprised to hear that he did not approve of our project. Our land is not in a constructible zone, he said. ("But the previous owner had permission to build?" I said.). The department of agriculture objects because there is forest, he said. ("Yes, but..." I said.) In France it is Yes or No, he said. (In French.) They also object because there is a steep slope ("...?"). A woman from Planning objects to the compost toilets, he said. And nobody wants yurts.

The big cliffhanger is the thing about not being in a constructible zone. How did the previous owner get permission to build? Was there anything underhand? Did we buy the land under false pretenses? Is it worth less now than it was when we bought it? What will our brilliant estate agent say tomorrow? What will our solicitor say next week? What solutions will we come up with after several glasses of wine? And will we remember in the morning?

In the meantime, here's an advertisement for French schooling. It's the menu for Monday and Tuesday this week at the daughter's school. An education in food - which costs us about €15 a month.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Let the games begin

Tired of waiting for a letter, we went to see Planning this morning.

I didn't understand everything the woman told us, but she said it wasn't good news. Among the reasons given (as I understood them) were:

o the previous Planning Permission for a three-bedroom home has expired and we are no longer in a constructible zone (I'm still trying to see the logic here)
o someone has declared all "tourist villages" involving yurts will be refused
o the mayor does not approve (news to me)
o the department of agriculture does not approve
o the water people do not approve

Me: Really? The water people?

She: Yes.

Me: That's strange - they told me they would approve.

She: (PAUSE) You could always apply for permission to build a house.

I felt the meeting could have gone better. Not unexpected, this "Non". Just not worth waiting five months for. With a light lunch still stewing inside, I went to see the water people. It went something like this:

Me: Why didn't you approve?

He: But I did approve - look. (SHOWS PROOF. REACHES FOR PHONE. INTO PHONE) Where did you get the impression I didn't approve?

She: (ON PHONE) Who said you didn't approve?

He: (INTO PHONE) The English man. He's with me now.

She: (ON PHONE) The department of agriculture doesn't approve. Because they will cut down too many trees.

Which leaves me bemused in several ways. Here are two of them: why did she tell me the water people did not approve, when they did; and where did the department of agriculture get the idea from that we would cut down a load of trees?

If they bothered to ask, they would have found out we'll cut down a couple of saplings for each yurt (and there will be only three yurts in year one) which will be amply made up for with a 13-tree orchard, half an acre of ash and willow coppice, 20 blue spruce and a verdant hedge.

On top of this, we're giving 10% of our profits to reforestation schemes globally in an effort to ensure continuity of life on this planet (to get slightly politico-spiritual for a second).

Other questions pop into my head with regularity. Like: If she chose to be flexible (or even double-jointed) with the truth concerning the water people... What did the mayor really say?

I'm going to ask him tomorrow.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Wake up to water power

We just got this clock, alarm clock, timer and thermometer from the CAT online shop, for £14.75.

Not because of the way it looks (clearly), but because of the way it's powered.

Literally a few drops of water every couple of months will keep the battery (which is about the same size as an AA) running for two years or more. "As all the components of the H20 water battery are recyclable the benefits over traditional batteries are countless", claims the box - a statement that shows the company also saves money by not employing a copywriter.

All power to them.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Fence post

After a last-hour rush at the Poll, it seems 60% of voters want me to fence 40,000 square metres of grass and woodland against wild boar and deer.

That's not going to be as easy as it sounds.

The most appropriate fencing is one strand of barbed wire at ground level, then four feet of stock fencing, topped by another strand of barbed wire, with a fence post every two metres (yards). Almost all of it through dense woods.

I used to say it was impossible (an argument based on not wanting to carry tons of wire where tractor or horse cannot go). Sadly, as I looked for the boundary one day, I found one of our neighbours had done exactly this. The good news: there are 100 metres I don't have to fence. The bad news: there are only 100 metres I don't have to fence.

You and my poll were my last hope. "If people don't want the fence, so be it!" I was going to say.

The people have spoken (or clicked). The hunt for a post rammer begins...

Thursday, 22 November 2007

We've gone nuts

Many people have said it over the years. No doubt, even more have thought it. But I am happy to confirm that, three weeks ago, we all went nuts.

The final straw was when, in the search for planet-friendly shampoo, soap, washing-up and washing liquids to give our future yurters, I went into our local eco-boutique. The Very Nice Woman Who Runs The Place pointed to a range very similar to Ecover, then asked if I'd ever considered going nuts.

Well yes. I'd thought about it. Who hasn't? Even picked up a bag at the market. But never taken the plunge.

She told me I should. She showed me how to use them (break a few in half, put them in the little pouch, and use twice at 40 degrees or once at 60). And she gave me a bag. Gave it to me!

Here it is:

We've used them on normal clothes and nappies. They work. They're cheaper than washing liquid (even when you pay for them). And they're compostable.

The shampoo and soap are also excellent, and the Very Nice Woman is getting us some prices for shiatsu and normal massage, although the guests will have to pay for those (what do you think we are, insane?).

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Not So Great Wall of China

Two Sundays ago, we went to Issigeac. Not to visit the market.

Or to admire the beautiful Medieval streets.

Although it doesn't do any harm to look.

No. This time we went to talk solar panels with an English guy who'd overheard me asking a balloon artist who's currently cycling to Greece with her busking, flame-throwing partner if she'd be available to entertain the kids at écovallée. (She would - but not until 2010.)

I'd taken a look at the English guy's website and seen some VERY attractive prices. Prices that cut our projected solar shower budget in half. Which is why we had to meet.

It was all going really well (apart from the trying to control Two Small Children in an increasingly busy bar), until he mentioned that his hot water cylinders were sourced in China.


Not the best news to someone who's spent the last several years trying to persuade production departments in various advertising agencies to source their Clever Gizmos and Tricksy Plastic Crap locally. "That's all very well," they tell me. "But I can make loads more money if I have the stuff made on the other side of the world, in factories where Health and Safety or Minimum Wages are not an issue, then flown back here and..." You know the story.

"But these are really cheap," the solar guy said. "That's great, isn't it?"

"Not so great," I said. "I'm going to have journalists from The Guardian down. I'm going to be saying this is the greenest, most up-to-date, low-carbon yurt camp in Europe. Perhaps, momentarily, the world. I'm going to need to defend every aspect of the site. Cost is not the issue. We need a 100% green, ethical chain of supply."


I've asked some friends. Now I'm asking you. If you know about any solar water and electrical panels NOT sourced in China, please tell me.

We don't need to meet. An email will do.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Pepito joins the family

We bought a horse yesterday. He's 15. He has years of experience pulling gypsy caravans. And carriages for weddings. (Should have no difficulty bringing suitcases from the car park to the guest yurts.) He's very gentle. And beautiful. And called Pepito.

This is not a picture of him.

Nor is this.

At least, not in the foreground. These are the horses Pepito is currently sharing a field with. They're a bit young and feisty for our needs.

This is Pepito.

More on him, later.

Friday, 16 November 2007

The third Thursday in November

A few days ago, I went to the local wine shop (cave) for our regular box of Bergerac rouge (five litres for €14 - and very nice it is too).

While I was there, the owner invited me to his Beaujolais Nouveau soirée. Which, of course, I accepted. "Is it any good this year?" I asked. "Well," he chuckled knowingly, "it's not Margaux."

(I'd love to know what he meant.)

Yesterday being the third Thursday in November, I went along.

And tasted the new wine, accompanied by free soup, nibbles and this man...

It was easily nice enough to bring back the most expensive bottle for the evening - a slight extravagance at €5.65 for 75 cl.

It certainly wasn't the Margaux. I left that in the shop, with its €42 price tag still attached.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Feeling a little shaken

Yesterday, two things were impressed upon me by the guys that sold me the tractor.

The first was: Never, ever, drive down a hill in neutral. A tractor is big and heavy. You'll never get it back into gear. You could die.

The other was: Don't drive it for more than an hour. It's bad for your back. And your head.

Today, I did both of those things. In the background is the slope I drove down in neutral:

Note the clever use of an opposing slope to take the edge off the runaway tractor. Thereby neutralising the danger of death. (To be fair, I thought I was in gear when I let go of the brake.)

Next, here is me after cutting the grass for about an hour and a half:

Note man at ease with machine; man not realising that he'd been shaken so much that it would take many hours before the brain and body would function again as one.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Blue is the new red

I don't know if you're the same, but every time I'm sacked, made redundant or constructively dismissed, I pick up a pen (and usually a piece of paper to make sense of the pen) before I walk into my final meeting.

I'd like to say it's my idea.

But I'd be lying.

The first time I saw it was in Nottingham, in 1994, when one of the most talented art directors (and creative directors) I've ever worked with, received a phone call from the Managing Director at the end of his first day back from paternity leave.

Paul picked up a pen, went downstairs, and was canned. (But allowed to keep his company car for two weeks. See? Advertising's not all bad.)

So when I picked up a cheque book before leaving the house this morning, to go and "look at" a tractor, I must have known, deep down, what was coming.

I was pretty determined not to buy it.

Even though the guy selling it was a few hundred metres (yards) away from our land.

"Not a coincidence," I said. (There's no way that qualified.) We'd dismissed the idea of a tractor, anyway. We were going to buy a horse. In the Spring. The grass would just be cut and the fallen trees removed... somehow.

I turned left, and left again. Then along the road, following directions given over the phone. I turned right. And realised I'd been there before. A couple of weeks ago. The guy selling the tractor is the direct neighbour of a new friend of ours.

"Not a coincidence," I insisted. (Though this came pretty close.)

The guy looks a lot like a friend of ours from Brighton. (There's no way that's a coincidence.)

I followed him a couple of hundred yards (metres) down the road. There's the tractor.

It's blue. (If you've been reading, you'll know, before the horse idea, we were looking for a red tractor. Antique, like this one. Cute, like this one. But red.)

It uses red diesel. (Doesn't count.)

It's English. (Pah.)

These guys both know the previous owner of our land. (Such commonplace coincidences leave me untouched.)

I ask if there's a grass-cutting device that fits it. And I'm shown one, along with a price tag of 500 euros. (They're 1,000 euros new.)

I drive the tractor. A slightly terrifying experience. (Easy when you're going along, but did you remember how to make it stop? It's not like a car. Ask anyone.)

I borrow a pen (times have changed - I'm not in advertising now) and use my cheque book to buy tractor and cutting device.

They are delivered, as one, this evening. And there are beautiful (BEAUTIFUL, I tell you - after so many months of waiting) swathes cut through the field. Long grass chewed up and spat out, already decomposing the way nature didn't exactly intend, but is OK to go along with.

We have a tractor.

We are very, very happy.

We have drunk Champagne (Champagne so excited - like us - half of it ended up on the floor of the kitchen).

We are looking forward to a day, this week, when écovallée will look the way we have in mind.

We have done this, which should keep sceptics everywhere happy, without any unarguable coincidences.

Except this one.

The original budget for tractor to cut grass was £1,300.

We paid €1,800 euros for tractor with tondeuse (cutter).

At today's exchange rate (it's bad - but the Americans have it worse), it's the same thing. Give or take the cost of the Champagne now evaporating off the kitchen floor.

It's official: Tuesday doesn't bother anyone

The results of the first devolutionary reader poll are finally in.

For the record, the question was: "When would you rather check in for a one-week holiday?"

Sunday and Thursday came third, with 12% each.

Tuesday came second, with a respectable 25%.

And "Not Bothered" stormed into first place by a mathematically impossible 87%.

Which means I can announce with absolute conviction that 102% of people, who expressed a preference, are either happy, or not particularly unhappy, about checking in on Tuesday.

Who knew?

(I love that this ties in with our idea of giving everyone a simple five-course meal on Wednesday evening - to demonstrate the facilities of the yurt kitchen - and Thursday is market day in Lalinde, 300 yards away. Which means everyone can stock up on the latest seasonal goodies not available from our allotment/polytunnel. So, to those who voted - thanks for bothering.)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Unwanted building work

There is a glaring omission from the "Current Projects" sidebar that has kept me occupied for the last several days. It's something I could have done without - and something that has already proved indispensable.

It's called: Building a Dossier.

As you may or may not know (if this doesn't cover you, let me know how), the French love paperwork. Many people (most of them French) see it as backward, tedious and unnecessary. Coming from a world of voice recognition and computerised call centres, I see it as refreshing, charming and very forward looking.

For example: a few weeks ago, I wanted to know when our planning permission had been submitted. I went into the Mairie and asked the woman on reception. She reached for a book, flipped a few pages and - voila! - I had my answer. It was quick. Easy. And to use a French word, "exact". (As far as sustainability goes, I'll put money on that book outlasting every hard drive in existence today).

In contrast, a couple of weeks ago, there was a fire in nearby hotel. The electricity for the whole block was out. (It was that nearby.) Our accountant, who has an office next door, was on the street. Lost. Unable to work. (For a man who routinely arrives at work before seven, either because he's very good or very bad at his job, this must have been mortifying.)

But I haven't been building a dossier for fun.

I've been doing it because, many weeks ago, a friend handed me a piece of paper. A few weeks after that, I called the number on that piece of paper and spoke to someone also called Alex. And she asked me to bring a dossier to the meeting we had yesterday.

Which is why I spent too much time in front of this screen in the last week, typing and re-typing, copying and pasting images like this:

and this:

And phoning, and driving around, getting costs for industrial A+ rated washing machines, fridges, integrated solar panels and more, until I had something vaguely impressive.

The meeting went well. I think she was vaguely impressed.

Then today, I found myself getting costs for business insurance. They were asking me all kinds of questions about prices and values, and I was trying to think...

And then I said: "Hang on. I've got a dossier."

"Ah," said they, as I whipped out my pen drive. "A dossier. That's alright, then." They liked it so much, they asked for a copy.

And I went back to the land and helped Clare with some dry stone walling. Which was much more fun.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Current projects illustrated

I remembered to take the camera yesterday, and thought you'd like some visual reference to the "Current Projects" sidebar on the right. First, a shot of Clare's drystone wall, at the entrance of écovallée.

This didn't come out as well as I'd hoped. Her wall is the bit on the left and is much more beautiful in real life. The bit on the right is stone rubble piled up by the previous owner, augmented temporarily by me.

If you squint and look 18 metres further down the hill, you'll see the second bit of wall Clare's working on, which is just spectacular.

Meanwhile, down where the yurt kitchen, outdoor seating area, solar shower and compost toilet will be, here is a shot of my current office.

And, turning round on the spot, the view from my desk, across the still-waist-high grass towards where the kid's play area will be.

Which beats staring at a brick wall.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Low-key Halloween

Apparently Halloween's not a big thing in France. Clare and the daughter made some decorations anyway.

Carved some pumpkins.

Then we all went to the square.

Watched the face painting.

Sat down.

And enjoyed the show.

I wonder what it would be like if it caught on?

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The (not entirely unexpected) coincidence of a man and a workhorse

If you’ve been following this blog lately, you’ll know we’ve been looking for a tractor.

Not just any tractor. That would be easy.

We’ve been looking for an achingly cute antique (red) tractor that can cut grass, drag fallen trees, and (eventually) transport guests’ suitcases from their car to their yurt.

And we’ve failed.

True, we’ve been offered an excellent John Deere. We’ve answered a few classified ads for 1950s Masseys. We’ve been to the tractor garage a few kilometres (couple of miles) away. Twice. But they all wanted more euros than we were happy to part with.

If you know anything about coincidences, you’ll know that if they’re not happening, something needs to change.

So we changed our minds - and returned to another of Clare’s ideas that I dismissed early on (I really must stop doing that). It's an idea called horse.

Here are a few of the advantages of horse over tractor (in alphabetical order, for no apparent reason):
More sustainable
Produces emissions we can actually use

Besides, what could be cuter than arriving on holiday and watching a horse clomping up the drive to collect your stuff?

Having made up our minds, I just asked a man about a horse. A man who runs the Pony Club where Clare and the daughter have their lessons (see below - "on riding" which, in retrospect, should have been called "on horseback").

Coincidentally (other than knowing the previous owner of our land), this man has several horses that are suitable, for sale, five years old, with years of experience towing gypsy caravans. For 500 euros less than our tractor budget.

Which might be enough to buy the cart.

There's one for sale in this week's free paper.

But I'm not sure we should be getting the cart before the horse.

Monday, 29 October 2007

On blogs

For the last couple of weeks, apart from clearing woodland, trundling wheelbarrows full of rocks/soil up steep driveways, having the occasional bonfire (or should that be "goodfeu"?), wrestling with a borrowed strimmer, and person-handling twentysomething fenceposts out of the ground, I've been tentatively exploring the blogosphere.

I started with the Other Blogs section of my excellent and insanely talented friend Café del Nightmare (check out the archives for ceaseless interest) and, through RockMother, found interest and amusement at long-term bloggers Patroclus and Grammar Puss.

Interestingly (to me), a name I recognised kept cropping up in the comments sections. Last time I saw him, he was on Mastermind. (Although that's not listed in his Wikipedia entry.)

Yesterday, I added "smallholding" to my profile, clicked on that, and have discovered an even newer world of blogs that include Hedge Wizard's Diary and Self sufficient 'ish'.

I've got to stop. I've got so much to do.

Friday, 26 October 2007

On riding

French riding lessons differ from English ones in two ways.

First, the content:

You have to find your horse...

Collect it...

Using reasonable force...

Where necessary...

Take it to the stables...

Clean it...

Sit on it...

Play tag with it...

Spin on it...

And stand on it...

The second difference is the price:

For two hours of horse contact, including one hour of riding - nine euros, twenty. Remarkable.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Le 20th. Le mois prochain.

Our local eco-minded builder (who is Belgian, wiry, has seven children and sports an excellent moustache) did give me something for nothing.

It was advice.

And it went like this: I must go and see the Service Des Eaux. It is important. Fantastically important. I must go before any plans are drawn up. While we are waiting for our first-stage planning permission (CU). Serious ennui is certain to follow any failure to do this (which my dictionary translates as "problem" as well as "boredom"). I should go at the earliest opportunity.

The earliest opportunity was the following morning.

At the Service Des Eaux, a very nice man listened to my talk of yurts and compost toilets, reed beds and solar showers. Then expressed surprise that our CU had been submitted in July. He said he should have had a copy. And clearly, he hadn’t.

A very nice man of action, he phoned the Planning People immediately and spoke to the woman dealing with our case. She told him that someone from Planning had been to our land and said they were not favourably disposed to the project.

Not good.

But not a no.

He then assured me that, when he receives his copy of the CU, he will tell Planning that he is favourable (eau yes). He then suggested that I go and see the Maire (mayor), and get him to push our project.

After some to-ing and fro-ing, I have just returned from the Mairie, where the Maire isn’t, again, this afternoon. They phoned the same woman at Planning, who said she’d just had our estate agent on the phone with the same question.

Perhaps because the pressure from us is now sufficiently great, the woman at Planning revealed she is waiting to hear back from several people (including the Service Des Eaux). And we should have our answer by the 20th. Of next month.

A date that has appeared on this blog before.

The first quote

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a local eco-minded builder (who also runs one of the two local ostrich farms) to come and look at the work that needs to be done before we open.

In brief, this includes:
o digging out a six-car car park (for “écovallée parking”, as my friend Café del Nightmare suggested)
o improving the driveway down to the field (so it can actually be used)
o terracing about an acre of land for our poly tunnel and organic crops
o digging out a large pond for use by the fire service (that will eventually become a natural swimming pool)
o constructing a 60 x 40 foot deck on a steep slope (for our four-yurt home)
o and three platforms for the guest yurts (including recycled floorboard interiors)
o and another one for the yurt kitchen
o constructing a building for our Swedish compost toilets
o and another one for our solar showers and sinks
o digging a big hole for the septic tank(s)
o and a trench for the horizontal-flow reed beds
o burying the mains water pipe that currently swings from the trees above the drive
o creating a kids’ playground with a strong Peter Pan theme (ship, beach with palm tree, living willow crocodile etc)
o fencing 40,000 square metres of land against wild boar and even wilder hunters
o and other odds and sods

I’m a little worried.

Not by the amount of work that needs doing. No. (We still hope to open in April 2008, though this may slip for want of planning permission.) What worries me is the quote he gave me for cutting the waist-to-neck high grass in the field: 500-600 euros.

You can buy a tractor for that.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Speak French like a native: Lesson 1

You won't find this in any of our dictionaries:

When you've been out and seen one of your townsfolk (eg, the owner of the Petit Casino where you went for milk and orange juice), and you've said "Bonjour"... and you see them later (when you go back for the butter you should have remembered) don't say "Bonjour encore"... Try: "Re-bonjour" (pron: rrrub-o[n] jour).

Wild tree chase

For the last couple of weeks, we've seen a lot of posters advertising the Tree Fair in Le Bugue. Being photocopies, these posters all said the same promising things about trees, an exhibition of antique tractors and duck fishing.

With a hedge and orchard to plant in the next two months, and a tractor to find, this was clearly the Fair we'd been waiting for.

Yesterday was the Big Day. We went out to Le Bugue. Drove past the big sign that said Tree Fair (in French). Through town. Over the bridge. And stopped at the mini roundabout in the centre. With no further signs for the fair (incomplete signage no longer comes as a surprise to us), we turned right. Drove past the aquarium, past a yurt that, for some reason, forms part of a prehistoric exhibition. And past the back of another big sign for the Tree Fair.

We turned round. Went back into town. And drawing on tactics developed while playing 1990s video games, turned right again. Drove out of town. Came back in. Past the tiny Flower Fair (complete with full-colour signs) and parked.

After a short stroll around the Flower Fair, I asked an exhibitor where the tree fair was. "This is it," he said. "So, where's the tractor exhibition?" I asked. "It should be over there," he said, pointing behind a small copse of fairground attractions. "But it's cold," he added, with a shrug.

The kids had a short-but-expensive go on the strange Disney inspired merry-go-round thing (next to the duck fishing stall). And, following a lunch in Les Eyzies where (in need of a coincidence) we sat next to our architect, we went here instead:

Which we've wanted to do for ages - even longer than the tree fair. If you're interested in French website design, you can find out more about it, here.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Check out the new feature

As you can see (if you're looking), I've added a poll to the blog.

Please take a second to help us create the Family Friendly Yurt Eco-campsite with the widest possible appeal, by answering the question. Today it's: "When would you like to check in?"

Initially, we were thinking Sunday. It's a great day to drive in France. (Great for guests.) But it's also one of the only days we get to spend as a family. (Bad for us.) It's also bad for people who choose to fly, as the fares are higher.

Looking forward to seeing the results...

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

All work and no pay

There are two reasons why I haven't blogged for a while:

1) I've been working.


2) I've been working.

Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, tired of waiting for any kind of permission from the DDE, we started working on the land.

Day One saw me, medieval-style slashing weapon in hands, pruning saw in belt holster and secateurs (sécateurs) in pocket, clearing space in the woods where the guest yurts will be. If you find yourself doing this, I recommend cutting the small trees as close to the ground as you can - to save cutting them again when you discover the tripping hazards you've just created.

After a few minutes, I was interrupted by the thundering of hooves.

Hunters, I thought, already wary about being shot at (not wearing orange, on unfenced land, unprotected by "Hunters will not be invited to dinner" signs).

The noise got closer. The ground shook. Then several adult deer, including a stag with serious antlers, burst out of the woods about a hundred yards (metres) away, charged across the field, and disappeared into the woods on the other side.

Our field, I thought. Our woods, I thought. It was a perfect moment.

And one that definitely beats staring at a computer screen (he says, staring at a computer screen).

Now we have become more organised, me and Clare take turns to spend half a day working on the land, and half a day looking after boy (I don't know which is harder). Leaving the rest of the time for chores, although many evenings have been spent indulging in Season 3 of Greys Anatomy, recently bought from UK ebay.

Wednesday afternoon (which, if you've been paying attention, you'll know is no-school day) and Clare has taken the daughter to her riding lesson (more on this later, with pictures), a load of nappies is being treated in our washing machine (all our stuff arrived from England recently - more on this later), and I'm about to spend some time staring at a computer screen.



But there are two reasons why this is better than the copywriting I was doing before:

1) It's about some kind of climate-control device, translating from the French into English for an Indonesian audience. (I know.)


2) I've already been paid. (A whole bottle of wine.)

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The F in number plate

It wasn’t so hard.

All we had to do was go into the Tourist Information Office in Bergerac, get directions for the Préfecture and pick up a form.

Which had to be completed and submitted along with another form from the Hôtel des Impôts, on the other side of town. (“Impôt” is French for “tax”. I love the idea of a hotel for taxes. Gives you the impression you can check in to pay any time you like.)

And a valid Contrôle Technique (if you’re British, the French equivalent of an MOT).

Which necessitated a rendez-vous (meeting) with our local Renault garage, a good 300 metres (yards) from our house.

Where our car got a “CT” sticker on its windscreen, and an invitation to return in two years for another one. (I have no idea how much this cost, as the garage seems unwilling to give us a bill.)

Which meant I could go back to the Préfecture and hand over the completed form I got from them. And the one from the Tax Hotel. And the CT. And my passport. My proof of address (this is called a “Justificative de Domicile” – with a soft “J” – took me about a week to say it – you try). And the British Registration papers. And the car’s first registration paper, which was from the Charente, just North of the Dordogne.

All of which was carefully photocopied and handed back to me, along with my Carte Grise (French registration) tantalisingly partially filled out.

Then I waited.

Until someone called me over to say that the Préfecture in Charente had no idea the car had been taken out of the region, let alone the country.

I should return when this was sorted out.

Which I did. And, after handing over the same documents for further photocopying, walked away with a completed Carte Grise - and the impression it takes 48 hours to make a number plate.

Fortunately, as I picked up the daughter from school and mentioned my success, another English parent said I had to have the number plate made within 48 hours. Or face a fine.

Needful to say, I went to a garage near our house and had the plates made. Which took about 48 seconds.

I’m glad I went.

Turns out the woman that works there is our neighbour from where we’re going to live. What seems more bizarre is that she didn’t know Dominique - the previous owner.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007


We lost the tractor.

Turns out Mandy's husband bought it 'cos it was such a bargain at 500 euros.

Telling me.

Now telling you.

Men of STIHL

We never knew exactly how much land we had in Brighton (something like 366 x 274 cm – give or take an inch).

Half of it was wood and the other half tiles. And to clean it, we needed half an hour, a stiff broom, a bucket, some warm water and a splash of washing up liquid.

Similarly, we don’t exactly know how much land we have now – around 10.47 acres. We looked for the boundary markers the other day, and discovered we need to employ the local géomètre-expert (who has an office behind our house).

Again, half of it is wood (although untreated and mostly vertical). And to clean it, we will need this:

Question is: How does someone who’s spent 18 years sitting in front of a computer, where the only breeze comes from a dodgy air-conditioning system, make an informed decision about outdoor machinery?

First, you accidentally walk into a chainsaw and strimmer shop, while looking for a quad bike.

A few weeks later, you go into the local B&Q equivalent (which is over 200 metres away!) and stand in front of a selection of chainsaws ranging in price, size and brand, while your partner tries to stop your son climbing on all the lawnmowers, while saying: “tractor”.

Searching for some kind of guidance, you return to the first shop and find yourself looking at a wall of STIHL, where the cheapest would be the most expensive in the B&Q. “Why the one brand?” you ask the sales geezer, who reminds you a lot of Kevin from Minneapolis.

“Because that’s the brand we sell,” he replies truthfully. “And it’s the number one brand in the world.”

Convinced by his confidence and the offer of seamless aftersales service, you turn again to face the two-dozen seemingly identical weapons of woodland warfare and say: “But which one?”

After a few more questions, it’s obvious. The ones on the left are too small. The ones on the right are too large. The one pretty much exactly in the middle (pictured) is just right.

An instore demo, some free lube, a top-up, a free chain, second pair of leather gloves and 100 euros off and the deal was done.

What, you may be thinking, no ridiculous so-called coincidence? Surely the sales geezer knew which bit of land we had bought, had even been there, and knew the previous owner, who used to work in that particular chainsaw and strimmer merchant?


To all of the above.

Relating this tale to our esteemed estate agent in Le P’tit Loup the following day, he says: “STIHL. I have a STIHL. It’s great. It used to be my father’s.”

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Normal service has resumed

France Telecom has come finally through.

Which means you'll be hearing a lot more from me from now on.

Moo-ha-hah-harrr. Et cetera.

Once upon a time, there was a tractor

A few weeks ago, in the Brighton paper, I saw a caption for a photo that read like this: “The winner of the beauty contest was [Name of girl] (pictured), aged 13. When she grows up she wants to be a forensic scientist, or a hairdresser.”

Here, surely, you’ve got to blame the TV. There are obviously far too many shows (“Cutting it”, “10 years younger”, “Queer eye”) giving young people the impression that a career in follicle management is for anyone. They should stick with Applied Maths and be happy.

That said, in our search for a man with a tractor to cut our waist-length grass, what better place to start than the local coiffure?

You’re right, the local café.

I also mentioned it to the parents at school. The accountant. The Notaire. And pretty much anyone else I found myself speaking to throughout the day.

It became a bit of a mantra: “We need to find someone with a tractor. Our grass hasn’t been cut for a year.” Sometimes I also said: “The guy we bought the land from had a tractor, but he sold it.”

Which is how I mentioned it to Mandy – the mother of one of the daughter’s friends – on Sunday. “Oh, there’s a tractor in the shed over there,” she said, waving her hand over there. “I think it’s for sale. You can see it later if you like.”

We did like.

And later, after a walk past the pool, through the barns, around fishing lake, the spare cottage (we never even went round the house) all swapped for a British B&B a few years ago, we opened a shed roughly the size of a hangar for a Learjet and saw, sitting slightly forlorn in the gloom...

A little red tractor (not pictured).

Straight out of a story book.

Or a kid’s cartoon.

Practically perfect in every way.

As boy (whose favourite word is “tractor”) sat at the steering wheel, too blissed out even to make “brrrrum” noises, and I wrote “sold” in the dust on the top, Mandy remembered something.

“This was Dominique’s tractor. It came from your land.”


Apparently, the sale of the tractor fell through and it’s been sitting there ever since. Waiting for us.

It’s a (so-called) coincidence so massive, even we are finding it hard to believe. Enormously affirming, after so many days where nothing much seemed to be happening.

Apart from the drinking of coffee.

And a haircut.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

The English-speaking accountant

(It’s market day today and an eclectic mix of music from the 60s, 70s and 80s is being piped around town through these:

Speakers where you’d expect to find CCTV cameras – if you were English – I’ve yet to see a CCTV camera in this country.)

Next on the list of People To See was an accountant. Or Expert Comptable, as they say in these parts.

I went to the nearest one, on the other side of our lounge wall, and announced our Englishness. That’s fine, the receptionist said smilingly – he speaks English. Come back in half an hour.

We came back, armed with questions about income tax, social security tax, offsetting set-up costs, rates for yurts, expenses, definitions of gîtes versus chambres d’hôte.

“Hello,” he said.

I still don’t know if this is the full extent of his English. But after we explained, in French, what we are going to do, he picked up the phone and spoke to a French-speaking English accountant, and arranged for a meeting in a couple of weeks. (I can see a pattern here...)

In a typically generous gesture, when told about our continued lack of Interweb access, he invited us to use a spare office whenever we want. It has a computer, phone – all that early 20th Century workplace stuff. And once again, we came away wondering at the superbness of small town French life.

(Muzak included.)

Our first guests

Last week, we had Clare’s sister, her fiancé and their daughter staying nearby (we’re supposed to be in a yurt on an organic farm, remember?).

Which was an excellent excuse to show off places we know (Bergerac old town, Le P’tit Loup), discover new ones (the incredible view from the Belvédère at Marqueyssac), and find out why they chose to stay where they did (a family friendly place with comfy chairs, a pool and a barn full of toys.)

They chose a good week for it – 29 degrees and sun pretty much every day.

But we’ve seen the TV shows. We didn’t spend the whole time sitting by the pool. We tried to Get Things Moving by Speaking To Someone About Our Big Green Idea.

Our options were: our estate agent, who had already offered to take us to the local planning office, our architect, our Notaire (solicitor), someone with a tractor (more on this later), or an accountant. We needed to see them all. The question was, who first?

After much debate, we chose the notaire and took in our largest dictionary, only to discover he has excellent English.


During a very long (and, so far, free) meeting, he told us to see the local planning office. Before Friday, because they were to close for two weeks after that (obviously – it’s been ages since the August holiday). He also told us to see an accountant – and the one next door to where we are living would be fine.

So I went in and saw planning. Without our estate agent. Which, as I sat down opposite a slight (and slightly intimidating) woman who could have the power of life and death for the rest of our project (no pressure, then), I thought may have been a bit foolish.

Turns out it isn’t her. And I’ll have to go back again in a few weeks.

Next time, I’ll take the estate agent.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Picture post: Lalinde

Thought I'd show you a bit more about where we live - a few doors down from this Off Licence:

Which is a few doors down from the patisserie:

Which faces the square:

Near the tourist info office:

Which overlooks the bridge:

Near the chateau:

Not very far at all from our favourite restaurant:

(As opposed to the ice cream place next to the posh restaurant):

About 80 metres (yards) the playground:

It's not exactly Streatham, but we think it's all the better for that.