A Ship Arrives…

There is a port on the South Eastern shore of the island of Corsica that is ideal for trade from mainland Italy, from Sardinia, Spain and Africa. It is easy to defend from pirates and other seafaring brigands and so it has prospered. Our story begins many years ago, before there were steam trains or flying machines, when the world was perhaps a simpler place, though not without its difficulties.

A grand trading ship has just docked in the port this evening and the passengers are alighting. See there? That man is the King of Zonza. He has been away to see someone in Marseille on some political business and by the look of his pallor he is happy to be back on dry land. Over there is a grand merchant from Solenzara unloading his wares from the ship and stacking them onto his wagons.

The King looks ready to hurry back to his castle in the mountains. It is said that his fiancé is waiting for him. Indeed, had we been here just two days ago we would have seen a ship under the Royal flag of Spain on this very water.

The King’s men assemble and ready the horses and then they are off, at a sedate pace along the quay. The merchant looks set to be off by sunrise. Only the King dares travel the island’s roads by night. It is said that there is sorcerer’s blood in him and that there is no night creature you care to think of that can make him afraid. But do not misunderstand me; the King is still a man after all.

Now the merchant and the King both have a role to play in our story. At this moment neither is aware of their part in it, nor may they ever meet again, or be in such close quarters as they once were aboard ship. Everything we do, every action we make, or decision we take will add up over time and bring us to where we are. We are a collection of our decisions, good and bad. We can’t help it; it’s the way we move through life, choosing left, or right, up, or down.

Chapter one of Mandorlinfiore
Posted in Mandorlinfiore, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Family History…

Part of the wonder of the human experience is the function of memory. One of the things I find fascinating is how we remember events differently, from our own unique perspectives. When Virginie says, ‘that’s not how I remember it,’ I think she is right of course. How can she possibly be experiencing the world the same way that I do?

Not so long ago when I was visiting my Mother I found her going through some old photographs. Some were of my Father from the years before I was born. Some were from a time when it was just me and my Mother and Father. My memories from that time were sunny moments devoid of detail, apart from one Easter-time when I ate chocolate rabbits on the front doorstep, sitting next to my father. The sun was shining, and there was a black cat. Later that day I threw up the chocolate rabbits all over the back seat of my Mother’s Ford Anglia as we bounced over a hump-back bridge.

Late 1950’s

Dad was certain that he wanted to farm pork. He loved pigs. ‘Wonderful animals,’ he would say, ‘so clean, warm and friendly.’ One morning we woke to find two enormous spotted pigs foraging in the front garden. My Father was dressed and out there in a minute, patting and fussing them before walking them both back down the lane to the farm at the bottom of the hill. But he had been conscripted into the army and posted to Germany where he trained in coach-painting and vehicle mechanics. He discovered a  talent he hadn’t realized was there and so he joined a local garage when he returned from Germany. Eventually, with help from his older brother he built his own workshop, then, one day, he came home with a wreck on the back of a trailer.

The Old Oak Tree…

The wreck was the corpse of an old 1920’s Rolls Royce that had been used as a farm transport vehicle during the War and there really wasn’t an awful lot left of it. It went into the workshop and so did Dad. To be honest, it felt like this obsession, while fascinating and productive, only really served to keep him in the workshop and out of the home. Mum says she had no idea he had any interest in vintage vehicles until that day. He found the Rolls in an orchard, buried under bales of hay and rotting apple crates. “I’d known it was there for years,” he told me later, “I watched it rust and thought, that one day I would have to rescue it.” He paid the farmer £15.00 for it in 1967. Mum was livid. She cheered up when he sold it for thousands a few years later.

Fancy that on your drive…?

I remember sitting in the back of the Rolls with Santa Claus at a fete in East Grinstead. We were Santa’s transport of choice. It was liking riding in a space-ship with a minor deity, because, to a five-year old, that was the reality. That was what I remembered. My Dad knew Santa Claus personally. How cool was that?

Number Five…the 1927 Rolls ’20’…

Dad restored a Silver Ghost, which he drove to Lake Annecy in the Haute Savoie, France. We went in convoy with the Sussex and Surrey Vintage Vehicle Association, which was a motley collection of ancient motors and bewhiskered folks. I remember going to the local market in a red double-decker London bus! One year we traveled in the Rolls Royce to Bordeaux in South West France and had a tour of a local wine cellar. I can still see the wine barrels stacked up, blonde wood in twilight, the sun a brilliant orb kept at bay behind tall oak doors. There is a family myth that great Grand-dad, along with great Grand-ma, escaped the fate of Romeo and Juliet by smuggling themselves to England hidden in wine barrels (but that’s another story).

Barrow Boys

I find this photograph fascinating. My Father is the boy on the left. You can see him thinking. Its 1947, he has grown up in Sussex under the threat of doodle-bugs and other Third Reich threats. His little brother, on the right, was three years old at the end of the war. All my father’s memories of the war were exciting and dramatic, watching the spitfires roar across the sky, hearing the boom of mortar fire, hiding in the Anderson Shelter while bombs fell and sirens sounded far away. In this picture, as far as I can tell, he’s still trying to come to terms.

Riding big brother’s tandem (again, another story)

His adult life was punctuated by spells in London hospitals despite his incredible strength (he was a local arm-wrestling legend). Unfortunately, heart disease, triggered by scarring of the arteries during an adolescent bout of scarlet fever, resulted in an early death at just fifty-seven. He had been taking pills from his early thirties and underwent open heart surgery in his mid forties, later on there were stents,  and promises of further interventions, but it was just a little too late.

Lovely Bloke

It would have been his eightieth birthday this week. We raised a toast at the supper table and his grandchildren demanded stories about Grandad Roy. There are plenty of those to go around…

Posted in Life Stories, Writing | Leave a comment

A Ghost on the Stairs…

Why is it that staircases are so spooky? We know there’s nothing at the top waiting for us, only the cat, if you have one. When I was a boy the staircase was called the ‘wooden hill’, which automatically put the cosy way to bed outdoors. Added to that, the light switch was out of sight around the corner at the top. I would creep up the stairs with one eye on the warm light spilling from the living room into the hall before inching my hand into the darkness, waiting for my fingers to come across something nasty.
But it’s not unusual to find something unpleasant on the stairs. Staircases are places of transition, from one level to another, from one state to another. We had a Victorian villa in England that had the scariest landing you could imagine. Children would insist on an escort even during the day. The cat didn’t hang around by the radiator, and once in bed, there were few midnight excursions to the lavatory.
I would go from the front room and down the hall to the kitchen all the while feeling invisible eyes upon my head. Sometimes, busy in the garden, my eye would drift up to the landing window. What was that? A reflection in the glass of a bird flying by? Did a sudden draft move the curtains, or is one of the family home early?
Evangeline wouldn’t come out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth in the evening if Virginie or myself were not waiting outside. ‘I don’t want him to look at me,’ she explained.

One day I had had enough and decided to clear the bad energy that our fear was reinforcing. If it was a ghost, it was about time it was laid to rest. It wasn’t the first time I had had to remove unpleasant energy from a building, and I am pleased to report it was very successful.
That was a few years ago now. Since then I have helped friends and neighbours with their difficult spaces, and once I tidied up a pavement outside a derelict pub that Evangeline would cross the road to avoid, ‘I don’t like the green man,’ she told me, so I went to have a word with him. It turns out that he had quite a sad story, but that’s for another time.
When I was a small boy, I never found anything nasty at the top of the stairs. The plastic switch was always there, and the incandescent bulb would light up every corner of the landing. I don’t know why we never had a switch at the bottom of the stairs. It was always just one of those things.

I built the staircase in our current house in a space where there had never been stairs before. I made sure there were switches at both top and bottom.

My little boy is nervous about going up on his own late in the evening after watching a movie or an episode of Doctor Who, but that’s only to be expected. When his big sister, Evangeline, was babysitting recently she told him not to worry as she was the ‘scariest thing in the house’, and I guess she should know.

Posted in Life Stories | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Story of Pizza…(From Mandorlinfiore)

At the top of the first mountain pass into the heartlands of Zonza is an inn. It is not an ordinary inn. You can be very well assured that there is nothing ordinary in Zonza. It has been said that an inn has been on this site for three-thousand years, and that Julius Caesar once watered his horse here, and that the current innkeeper has kept the inn since it was first built.

FW V3.12
The last may well be true as the innkeeper is no ordinary host, but is in fact, the King of the Animals. And so all the horses that stay in the stables are very well looked after, although the stable boys are never seen, and the restaurant and rooms for human guests, though sumptuous, are attended by invisible chambermaids, chefs and waiters.

FW V3.12
The pizza at this particular inn is so absolutely delicious that you will never forget it. Whenever you hear the word ‘pizza’, or if someone you love suggests this meal, for ever after the memory of this most perfect example will automatically return. You will be in a top restaurant in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities eating a pizza that has cost your host more than one hundred American dollars, and you will say, ‘great pizza, but I had one in Corsica once, in this little place…’

FW V3.12
No one knows the recipe. No one can match the flavours of the rippled cheese, the scorched tomatoes or the bright black olives, not even the world famous experts in the kitchens of Napoli or New York can come close to this pizza. There is a very beautiful and sad story of a chef turned mad trying, but there is no time to tell it now, for here comes Mandorlinfiore.

FW V3.12
‘Good day innkeeper,’ he said, ‘I need shelter for myself and my horses.’
‘Of course sir,’ said the innkeeper, and took hold of Mandorlinfiore’s lead rein, ‘and you will have pizza.’
‘Thank you.’ said Mandorlinfiore.

 

Posted in Mandorlinfiore, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chestnut Bread…

I had a day off last week. The children were at school, Virginie was working in the home office, so I couldn’t be noisy. No construction work or drum practice allowed. I had to go out for a walk in the woods instead. It’s hunting season over here in France which means that there are practicalities one needs to follow when out in the countryside. Shotguns are quite noisy so its easy to know which way to go when you hear them rumbling away somewhere in the forest. I usually wear a hi-visibility jacket so I don’t get mistaken for a lithe young stag.

But the woods were silent this morning. I guess the hunters around here are mostly weekend guns. The sky was patterned with thin strands of cloud and still warm with a light wind blowing up from the South West. In any case, the time has come when hats change from cotton to wool. The trees are all beginning to change colour. I hadn’t gone too far, perhaps a couple of kilometers, before I discovered a prickly carpet of chestnut casings all over the path. Some had spilled open and their bounty shone in the sun. I put my hands in my jacket pocket and found a neatly folded English supermarket bag. What luck.

Prickly Friends…

Chestnuts are extraordinarily well protected with a hedgehog’s worth of spikes. It would be like trying to peel a cactus, if you weren’t taught by my Grandma how to open them up. The trick is to imagine you are a hungry deer and use your hooves to split the casings apart, then you can simply crouch down, or forward bend to pick the nuts out and drop them in the bag. None of the chestnuts were large like the ones you see in French supermarkets, but the nuts I tried had that wonderful sweetness and they tasted fantastic outdoors in the late Autumn sun. I filled the carrier bag as far as I dared. It can be touch and go with their thin plastic handles sometimes.

Fresh Out of the Oven…

Back at the house I cleaned them up, split the shells with a small knife, then popped them in the oven for twenty minutes. When they came out they peeled easily. Amelie gave me a hand when she returned from school and by the end of the day I had a bowl full of freshly peeled chestnuts. The next morning I put them through the grinder until they had been reduced to a fine powder. I mixed some of it with bread flour, a ratio of one to three and baked a loaf of bread. I don’t do it myself. We have a machine. You probably have one too behind the ice-cream-maker and the fondue set you got for your wedding…

So anyway, that was: 350g of white flour, 100g of freshly ground-to-flour chestnuts, four tablespoons of oil, a tablespoon of agave syrup, a teaspoon of cider vinegar, another of salt and another of xantham gum, 5.5g of yeast in 175ml of water and a sprinkling of chia seeds and an egg (a nice big one), chuck it all in the bread-maker (flour and chia seeds last of all) and wait for the magic-bread-robot to do its thing…

Yum…

In Corsica, they make cakes with chestnut flour. I found some ‘artisanal chataigne’ flour for sale in my local Hyper-U too for a small fortune. My bread came out with a nice dense texture, slightly brown with a malty flavour. The children liked it. It was gluten free too, which was a bonus. I made biscuits and more bread before I ran out of my home-made chestnut flour. Looks like I need to pop out for another walk in the woods…

 

Posted in Life In France | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Five Things They Won’t Tell You About Working In France…

Because from what I have read, in order to prepare myself for the terrifying leap into a local workshop, there are very few Blog writers out there who ever get to do a proper job in France. All they ever seem to talk about is how to start a conversation by the water-cooler, and which is the best restaurant for lunch.

If you are a regular person and manage to get a job at all, because you got chatting with a local manager at the Tabac, or someone at the Pole Emploi knows someone who knows someone else, then there are real rules of behavior that you need to know about. Rule number one, don’t rely on lists of rules, but do get your language hat on toute-suite…

For Decoration Only

Virginie was lucky enough to get a job working for the local authority for a couple of months over the Summer. During this time she met a Director of a metal workshop who agreed to see me for interview. I got the job and started in early September. The first day was a little messy and they kept me busy but slightly apart. No-one spoke to me.

On day two I arrived at the beginning of the early shift slightly dazed. I am no stranger to early starts, but I usually know what to expect. Today was incredibly hard. The metal just kept coming. It felt unrelenting. It dug into my arms and I was bruised and bloodied by the end of the shift. I discovered it was  time for change-over when the new team arrived and began to shake the hand of everyone already in the workshop. When they started to shake my hand I realized my first faux-pas of the week. I did not greet anyone formally when I came in this morning.

A Zinc bath at 450 C is not for swimming in…

On Wednesday morning I made sure to find out everyone and shake their hand. I had not noticed yet that I was the last man in the door, but it was five minutes before the start of the shift. Everyone was already there, drinking coffee, talking shop, bantering. At coffee break I was working with Henri. He was the first to introduce himself and he tried a few words in English. Another man engaged me in conversation in French in the break room. He has worked here for forty years, ‘it’s something to do,’ he explains, ‘easy for me, more complicated for you in French.’

Thursday comes and goes. Everyone is happier as they can see the weekend approaching. On Friday I finally discover two of my colleagues names. Frank and Frederick, I have been calling them Obelix and Asterix in my head in a human bid to label and classify. There is also the dwarf from Game of Thrones here, and a Confederate Lieutenant.

Nearly fin-de-jour!

The workshop culture seems to translate quite well. I don’t suppose there are many great differences wherever you go, whether you are in Europe or America, Africa or Asia, a group of men doing repetitive work on a production line will find similar ways to make the time pass. There are two tribes in this factory and they call out to each other in false-threatening manner, shouting insults and challenges and otherwise seeking to dominate.

I found the local patois difficult until Obelix admitted that he wasn’t actually speaking French, but simply chanting the name of the coffee machine that sits in the corner of the break room.

Sunshine and steel

What have I learned? Arrive early, at least fifteen minutes early so you can get a coffee and a chat in. Shake everyone’s hand, you will get bonjour, salut, ca-va, comment-allez vous and bruh. There will be at least one Anglophile who will enjoy practicing on you with a good-morning or a how-are-you. Smile rarely, and only when something is properly funny. Nobody trusts a smiler over here.

Don’t expect introductions or long chats about house prices or family stuff. You may not get to know the names of many of your colleagues. Prenoms are personal. ‘How long have you worked here’ is a safe starter as is ‘will it rain tomorrow’. The French are private people and their reticence is simply their respect for your privacy. I worked with one man for five weeks. It got to the point where I had begun to think maybe he was clinically anti-social, but then he shared a joke with me and I realized he had simply been taking his time.

In a few short weeks I have gone from ‘this is going to kill me’ to ‘this is okay’, which is nice, and I am a few steps forward on this particular journey. Virginie celebrated when I told her that the workshop foreman offered me a jammy biscuit at break time on Friday. It was a sign of acceptance.

Was that five things? There will be more. There are still things I have to learn. I will discover them in time and share them with you. Bon courage à tous…

Tout va bien xxx

 

Posted in Life In France | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Fingers Bloodied…

Blackberry season is early this year but looks like it might extend awhile as there remain many small green buds on the lower thorny strings of bramble that weave through the hedge. The thorns catch here and there and nettles snatch at my fingers as I dip in and out, in competition with the wasps and moths for the biggest fruit. The ripest berries fall apart before I get them anywhere near the neck of the bottle I am trying to fill. They splatter between my fingers making them sticky and claret red, but I carry on and end up in a proper butcher’s mess by the time the bottle is full.

090

The hedge remains decorated by heavy purple and red berries, lit upon by the butterflies that can access areas way above my head. last year I carried out my step ladder to reach the topmost fruit. Today’s forage was a far more spontaneous affair. I had spotted some sloes in a hedgerow down the lane and had made a mental note to fill my pockets later in the day, but I was here, now, and had found a bottle with the clipped stopper. Who doesn’t prefer blackberries to sloes, I ask? I topped up the bottle with white rum, which, over the course of the rest of the day became a deep red.

130

This morning, when a considerate fellow traveller woke me on the ferry, I had completed my one hundred-and-second crossing of the English Channel since Easter 2017. In that time my ability to sleep anywhere has been tested and proven beyond all expectations. I have bounced across the floor in October storms and sweltered through the summer heatwave. I know the best times to queue for breakfast, and how to avoid hordes of children on their school trips, where to sleep if you can’t get a cabin and how to time your arrival so your vehicle doesn’t get parked up in the gods (so your car isn’t the last one off the ferry).

1706

However, all of these hard acquired life skills are soon to be put away to gather the fond, and strangely bright, dust of memory. All of the sunsets and sunrises, the storms and spilled drinks, the snorers and the books devoured will be replaced by the stillness of living in one place at a time. I am doing my most extreme commuting at the moment, six hours driving interrupted by four hours on a ferry. I made a brief reckoning of the time I have spent at sea between Portsmouth and Caen, Newhaven and Dieppe, and it all adds up to more than thirty days on the water. Quite enough.

115

I am looking forward to keeping more regular hours, and spending time watching television (French television is probably the best in the world!). The cat has missed my lap and the family need my famous jokes and impressive ability to open jam jars more and more, as lids tighten in the run-up to Brexit. I’m not sure what I am going to do but I’m certain something will turn up. It always seems to work out that way.

085

 

Posted in Life In France | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment