My Belgian friend, Kim, phoned late on Friday evening to ask me what I was doing the next morning. Would I like to meet up with him at Les Voyageurs in Beaulieu for a cup of coffee? He’d welcome my opinion about a place he’d recently seen.
Beaulieu’s a 25-minute drive up river from here, but I’m a sucker when it comes to a request from a friend for my ‘valued opinion’. Besides, on a wet Saturday morning with my wife away at the coalface in Brive, there are times when – to paraphrase David Byrne – you ‘just want to be with the boys’.
By the time I found a parking space for a car full of shopping, the heavy morning rain had stopped. Kim was there outside the café with John-from-Leeds and a French guy whom I recognised from the local association to which we belong. I joined them for a coffee, croissant and one of my tri-monthly ‘rollies’. I lit and re-lit it with a pocket flame-thrower that John had found in a Bar Tabac, It would serve, he joked, for ‘crèmes chuffin’ brulées’.
I’m substituting here a euphemism I picked up in Sheffield for a rather more common Anglo-Saxon adjective. There was an all-female dance or comedy troupe in the Steel City that went by the splendid name of The Chuffinells. John’s a lovely guy in his early 60s, who wears his long greying hair in a pony-tail. He’s lived in France so long now that he punctuates both his English and his quirky but serviceable French with the Anglo-Saxon adjective. It’s almost like a nervous tic.
While the wafer-thin waitress, with a perma-grin and a back-combed hairstyle that reminded me of Siouxsee Sioux in her pomp, served us more coffee, John talked enthusiastically of wanting to build an earthship in the vicinity if he could find a suitable plot of land and a mayor with an open mind. ‘C’est le chuffin’ avenir, tu sais? Pas une maison en pierre qui coûte une chuffin’ fortune à chauffer…’ I couldn’t agree more and told him how we had been inspired by the earthships of Taos, New Mexico. Re-cycled materials, passive solar heating, re-circulating wastewater… it has to be the chuffin’ future.
We drove off in a convoy of two cars, over the river and up into the hills. Kim explained his idea to me: to buy, under the umbrella of the association, this ruined house he’d seen, do it up with volunteer help, install someone who needed a place to live as a kind of caretaker, use the space for social and educational activities and, in the process perhaps, show people that there is a different way of doing things. It sounded like a nice project.
As we climbed further up the valley side and deeper into the chestnut backwoods, however, my heart grew a little heavier. There were magnificent views, sure enough, but the altitude spelled harsher winters and we were straying into the kind of territory where folk rock on their porches and trade licks on their banjos and interfere with liberal idealists and foreigners. I’d been there, done that and relegated the T-shirt to my bag of rags.
The hamlet was little more than a handful of houses on either side of the road. It didn’t strike me as the kind of hamlet that would welcome new blood and fresh ideas. We parked on the muddy verges and Kim showed us first of all the bread oven that was part of the ensemble. The price, he explained, for house, barn, bread oven and around 4,000 square meters of land was around €65,000. The inheritors of the property would take 45. Thierry, one of the other guys who had joined us by now, suggested that this was ‘correct’.
Kim led us into the main house. The old boy who’d lived here all his life had died at 89 around the beginning of the year. Yet, when I stepped inside, it looked as if the house had been abandoned a decade ago. In the morning room, there was a big fireplace, an old telly on top of an old fridge, some sort of cooker and a table. In the bedroom, a man’s clothes were scattered inside an open chest of drawers, and rusty springs protruded through a mattress that was shedding its innards. It was shocking to envisage the kind of squalid and impoverished existence that the old man must have led. !(upload://gYcFh8bVNZ0FrHF02qDNn4r5wGh.jpg)
Kim explained that he’d calculated around €10,000 euros for the materials needed to turn the place around. I reckoned at least €20,000 and then some, based on the Law of Renovation: that it will cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think. John’s verdict was rather more uncompromising. ‘Je te jure, c’est un chuffin’ trou Africain’. An African hole; a money pit. 10,000 just for the stuff that was hidden. ‘I’ve done it too many chuffin’ times, and I want no chuffin’ part of it. And you know what’ll happen? Everyone will be chuffin’ fired up with enthusiasm at first and we’ll get it cleaned out and have a chuffin’ party and then that enthusiasm will die away. People’ll find some chuffin’ excuse for not coming out here when you need them. It’ll take you five chuffin’ years and when you finish, if you chuffin’ finish, you’ll have a compro-mise. Buy a chuffin’ plot of land and build something that will really chuffin’ enthuse and inspire people. You can specify what you want, build it around your re-cycled doors and chuffin’ windows and you’ll end up with something that’s fit for chuffin’ purpose, takes a fraction of the chuffin’ time and costs less.’
When we looked over the barn, the solution was simpler still. ‘Pull the chuffer down before it chuffin’ falls on top of you!’ A couple of good old boys in hunters’ khaki from across the road wandered past at this point and regarded us quizzically. We muttered our respective bonjours and Thierry suggested wryly: ‘Ils sont pas finis’. The unfinished, half-cooked articles.
God knows what they thought of the motley dozen that we were by now. Most of us had seen enough to reach a verdict. We were fond enough of Kim not to spare him what we believed to be the truth, even though our candour visibly wounded him. Winding back down to Beaulieu, we passed another good old boy in full hunting regalia, cradling a pump-action shotgun by the side of the road. He, too, looked more than a tad unfinished. I glared back at him through the passenger window of Thierry’s car.
He dropped John and me near the mairie. We chatted for a while, mainly about the misadventures of a mutual friend. In searching for a pen in my bag, I found a letter that I should have posted a week ago to pay my retirement tax (by any other name). John promised to drop it into the central post box for me.
It was lunchtime and the place was deserted. As I drove off, heading for the familiarity of home and the prospect of a late and hasty lunch, I felt that, nine years down the line, I’d just about shed the baggage from nearly a decade spent in backwoods not too dissimilar from those I’d just seen.