“We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.” [Winston Churchill]. He’s right you know: What he omitted to say was that we’re in fact made of dumplings and steamed puddings. The sort of food that gives you lead in your stomach, wind in your alimentary canal and a kind of doughy outer shell. But these things are an excellent decoy… for our one, true, British, strength – endurance! We have stiff upper lips, we can stand in the rain all day if there’s a good sporting event lined up and we can accept adversity, smilingly. ‘If an Englishman gets run down by a truck, he apologises to the truck’ (Jackie Mason, comedian) And without endurance, I doubt I would still be here (abroad) and preparing to have my Festive dinner on a Continental plate!
It was one week before Christmas, and I had been thumbing through the free advertisements, in a moment of sentimentality. (“Ah, sentimentality..” ) I was also deciding which of them would be any good for lighting fires. Keeping the house warm has become my daily grind and, to be honest, I’ve come to the conclusion that woodburning stoves aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They may be romantic; may bring back memories of my old Gran, on her scalded knees every morning deftly screwing, poking and prodding bits of newspaper and coal around just to make the house warm enough to sit in, and do buggerall in, all day long! But are they really any match for a nice coal-effect electric heater? On the subject of my Gran: Imagine, retiring at 60 and finding you have to spend the next 30 odd years hold up in a house you can’t afford to heat and eating out of tins! Actually, it doesn’t sound too bad if I’m honest. I have fond memories of spam and jam and those little tins of mandarins languishing in sweet, sticky evaporated milk. I have very fond memories of my Gran’s house… beetles, subtle odour of old folk (well that’s what she was.. I’m only telling it how it is!), telly, tins and the odd faggot spitting from the fire straight at my legs. Well, 30 plus years is a long time though… especially if you’re cold and you have nothing left to hope for, except maybe a game of bingo or a family row on some occasion or the other. Or a glass of stout at the weekend.
Back to newspapers: If these advertisers had any sense, they’d all use newspaper instead of that glossy stuff, then at least people wouldn’t chuck it straight in the bin….or wedge the letterbox so just one wafer-thin piece of paper can get through at a time …. …or go on a tirade each time they hear the creak, shuffle, thud-thud, crackle, thud-thud-thud of the letterbox, when its not their birthday. Or even lay in waiting behind the door for the chance to grab the hand of the poor Bulgarian trying to ram half a ton of crap through your polished brass ….’Yes you blighter.. you’re not putting that in here, by jove!’ And of course having seized his hand and seeing that he’s scraped his knuckles, and sensing an impending compensation claim… you quickly release the blood-drained hand and crouch in the darkness of your hallway hoping he won’t have noticed the human part played in this rather unfortunate accident. If he complains you will blame the bulkiness of the delivery for his mishap. “How can one expect a normal household letter box, and yes it is spring loaded but that’s to keep out the cold, to withstand 10 ton of useless advertising?! No wonder his poor little fingers got stuck.”
By the way: When I first arrived in this pretty little Dordogne village, I noticed that many of the houses had notices outside their doors protesting, ‘NO PUB’. I felt the pang of fear at the discovery of this anti-Britishness in what was to be my new home and, not for the last time, wanted to get out of here pronto! I was picturing a fortress between the French and English…. and I began to palpitate every time I took the dog for a walk, which got a few moustaches twitching – “haw, he, haw!”. I was imagining that some brave Englishman must have tried to open a pub here, and these notices were clearly to warn any would-be landlords that they will not be tolerated. John Smith must have been left to his dark fate in the dungeon of our (their) Gothic Chateau. The poor dog would quiver at the grating of rusty chains being dragged across the stone floor and the howling of the oh so sorry publican’s ghostly voice, ‘Je suis desole! I want to go home now’. Now, I don’t especially love pubs; I don’t agree with flying the flag everywhere we go …. And yet, I found myself fast becoming a patriotic piss head: Humming Rule Britannia whenever I was alone and scouring the internet for Union Jack pillowcases. But just as swiftly as the blind panic had arrived, it was over. The anti-pub sentiments I decided were too overtly nationalistic, and I had seen no other signs of the far right around here, (apart from one scrawled bit of graffiti on the back of the road sign as you enter our (their) village which says, ‘France pour les Francaises’), so I decided to step up to the mark and ask what had gone on and couldn’t we just draw a line and move on? So I enquired of the postman, (pointing) ‘qu’est ce que c’est?’. He was bemused…. If I didn’t want to receive junk mail just write No-Pub on my letter box. No Pub? No Publicity! What the heck is the matter with my aged grey matter? No matter. But I could argue that it was an understandable mistake on the part of this frightened English newby, carrying the conscience of a great (once) Empire on her back. I could argue.. but I’m just too tired to bother.
So where was I? Oh yes… browsing the junk mail, I noticed that along with the usual, turkey, beef joint, pork roast on offer for Christmas, (so far all very British) there were some surprising ‘Specials’. Why did the offer of kangaroo meat take me so much by surprise? Am I less worldly than I thought? Afterall, it’s not bushmeat, nor fireside pet. It’s just another living creature that grazes on the earth and no less fair game than a cow or a sheep…. surely? The problem is that to us Brits, all kangaroos are called Skippy! They can understand human feelings and, given half a chance, they would spend their days rescuing babies and puppies from dangerous situations. They would fight predators and pop the babies in their furry pouches, before hopping for days and nights, over hill and under glen, to return them safely to us! Food is very emotive for we Brits… if it doesn’t resemble anything cute or human or strokeable, it’s straight down the gob. But leave a head on it and you might aswell have served up their granny! The French on the other hand just love putting things in their mouths. Doesn’t matter if it cries like a baby or crawls like a dirty great cockroach… it can be made to taste delicieux! And the problem is, it works! If you were blind and you put a piece of ‘ris de veau’ in your mouth, you would think you had on your palate a morsel so fine that the King of Persia would give his kingdom for just a soupcon. (More on soupcons later). But in fact, you would be eating a mixture of thyroid gland and scrotum from a calf that has been taken from it’s mother whilst still sucking on her udder. Sorry if that’s off putting… but I had to go through the torment of eating the poor little cow, so I feel no pangs about sharing it with you! I have now googled this dish, just to be sure I wasn’t having a ghastly nightmare, and I discovered… that we eat the very same thing in Blighty! We call it sweetbreads. Is there anything less appropriate? It’s baby cow’s innards mashed up! Come to think of it… why do the Chinese do the complete opposite to us? They have monkey ear mushrooms, which are a fungus which just happen to look like chimp ears, and they have 100 year old eggs, which are just a few weeks old! I correct what I said earlier: When it comes to popping things into our mouths, we’re all lying to ourselves. Why can’t we just call a scrotum a bollock! Anyway, I plumped for a rather scrawny guinea fowl for le Jour de Noel. Just to be on the safe side.
Now, the day after my day wasted ticking off offers in the junk mail, (wasted because I promptly used them to light the fire), I had an Eureka moment. As I opened my eyes, I squinted hard at the ghostly apparition that had appeared in the funereal light coming through the shutters at the foot of my bed. It was hard to make out at first, this form which was morphing and filling my room with utterances. The utterances were in English, “Get ’em ‘Ome… ‘Ome! Get ’em ‘Ome, for Crissakes!” Just as the spectre disappeared, and my daughter was standing there in its place, holding out a steaming hot cup of tea, I was wide awake now and, sipping, gratefully, at my Tetley’s Breakfast Tea, I realised that what I had just heard was the small voice of reason – for the first time in a long time! Now, I’m not suggesting that what I had was some sort of divine visitation… but hear me out: I have been here for 18 months now and I realise that I do indeed have a reason for being in this land of extreme challenges and incongruities…(and lots of trees). I believe it is my calling to find a way to bring all Brits back home! (And you Dutch if you fancy trying the life of a British gourmand for a change… one of chips, black pudding and pickled eggs). So, I am going to dedicate the winter months to collating escape routes that have been tried in, let’s say, the last decade. (I don’t want to go back too far, lest I rake up sentiments about the war. I have already discovered that there are older residents here who can remember the Germans arriving. There was the local hero, who had worked hard for the resistance, but just as war was over they came back for him .. and his family. They bombed his chateau too. You couldn’t rock up here in a VW without a spare set of tyres. It doesn’t matter if the escapes were successful or not, the important thing is to increase the chances of getting out without having to pay some made up tax or other. If I can find a fool proof method, I will begin my enterprise in the spring, with a view to taking the first party over, through or under the channel by early summer. Look out for details at: http://www.escapedordogne.net. Ideas welcomed…just as long as they aren’t silly ones.