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?