International Writers Magazine: What I did on My hols:
© Sam North
The idea was
perfect, look after a good friends house in the country for July
whilst they went to Canada.
It had benefits; it's 25kms outside Bayonne in the South West of
France, it's beautiful there and all I had to do was feed the dog,
cat, chickens. I mean how hard can it be? Plus they threw in a car.
I mean, that's a brilliant deal right? Almost a whole month at the
hottest time of the year, all that great food, the wine.
Arrived via Ryanair
- is there any other airline aside from Romanian Airlines with more grumpy
staff? Standsted is a nightmare airport to get to and the lines are horrid,
as are the security searches. Next time I am definitely catching the train.
Unfortunately someone had a nasty bug on the aircraft and within 12 hours
I was hardly able to breathe and spent the first ten days coughing my
lungs up. Nasty and making anyone understand you need drugs that actually
work, -impossible. Pharmacies in France can sell make-up but that's about
it. Meanwhile dogs had to be fed, cats too and chickens.
Ok, Lionel forgot to mention the sheep. Just two, but two sheep still
need care and food and water right. I tried pointing at the green stuff
in the fields but they just couldn't seem to get the idea at all and even
though dog and I got them out of the barn most days, they snuck back and
lay on rotting hay and literally chose to starve to death. (One actually
died). Meanwhile, everyday I got up - dog wants out at 4.55am on the
dot - Cat wants in about the same time, there seemed to be one less
chicken. Heads get bitten off. There is a chicken serial killer loose.
I mention this to the neighbours and they too had four hens killed. Nothing
eaten, just the heads bitten off. Dog and I patrol but Fox is sneaky and
can hear me coughing a mile off.
Went to beach
(30 miles away) to let the famous Biarritz waves beat the infection
out of me. Got sunburned. But hell it was worth it to be able
to breathe again. Biarritz and Anglet beaches are the best in
the whole of Europe, with waves packed with surfers. Swimming
can be a bit tough with incoming walls of water some 10 foot high,
but it's fun and if you can stand the crowds go to St Jean de
Luz further along the coast and there won't be a wave to be had.
As we left
there was some Basque separatist activity with bomb alerts but
don't let that put you off. It is the best area in France to live
meanwhile back in Hasparren, seems I am also, in addition to being vulnerable
the cold virus, allergic to chickens and sheep. Cat is a bit off with
me despite carrying out specific feeding instructions. Cat gets same
as dog, only half portion. This, rather oddly means I have to boil-up
some rice, serve up rice, add dog or cat food, mush it around ( I add
some biscuits as I know this is good for their teeth) and place on floor.
When Lionel and Catherine returned from Newfoundland they were astonished
to see the cat eating rice. Seems I had slightly misunderstood the instructions.
No wonder the cat took three weeks to talk to me. Dog also eats Gateau
Basque (Cream or Cherry), toast, cereal, anything that goes near my
I am now down to one horrid, quite vocal Coq that is lonely, having
spent much time looking for the dead hens. Foxes don't kill Coqs apparently,
particularly this one which is vicious to say the least. Dog and I feed
it corn at a rush.
Living in the countryside also means there is absolutely nowhere to
walk. Seems there aren't any footpaths across fields and no sidewalks,
so you walk dog along roads where French drivers have never seen such
a thing and seem to aim for you, clearly used the game of chicken. Dog
is more agile than I at diving into ditches. There are no Starbucks
or Cafe Nero's in the countryside and to be frank, even when
you do drive all the way to Biarritz to get a decent Café Grand
Creme, it still tastes like mud and they just WONT understand about
lattés. Café has to taste like mud in France and that's
it. They do make exceedingly good cakes though. I reckon one could make
a fortune in Biarritz opening a Cafe Nero and serving UK or US sized
coffees with muffins. You'd need security to keep people in line and
STILL the French wouldn't get it.
Of course the pound and the dollar are completely worthless over in
France and I was paying over three pounds or six dollars for a cup of
mud with a trace element of UHT milk. Dinner for two is around 30 Euros
each at a prix fixe restaurant add wine and you are looking at around
eighty quid a meal. Serious money for moi. I ate at home a lot with
the dog watching the millions of flies swarming outside. The countryside
is full of flies. Who knew? They don't mention this on the brochure,
or the vultures. Vultures circle the farmhouse all the time, they can
smell dead sheep from miles away. Luckily flies sleep at night and here
is where the countryside comes into its own. Dog, cat and I sat on the
lawn staring at the fantastic stars and milky way. Still there, just
like I remembered from childhood. (Not really seen since then). Shooting
stars, the works. Wonderful.
Bayonne was off limits for a few days as they have the annual Fete.
A million people swarm on the city dressed in white and red and drink
wine and eat ham for five whole days. They all look very happy and cars
are parked on every patch of grass everywhere and after a few days the
whole city reeks of pee, but it is all fantastically well organised
and good sprited.
My great plan was to write and to be honest, being ill I took this task
seriously and wrote pretty much the whole foundation for the sequel
to my new book. (Assuming I can read my writing. I handwrite everything.)
It was a very productive three weeks I think, even though I came up
with some glitches in the idea and characters needed more emotional
range. Sequels are tricky. I should learn more from Stephanie Meyer
I think. Fundamentally I also remembered what my old life was like.
Doing this. Writing. Spent a good twenty years just writing, being poor,
often on my own and I also remembered how easy it was in the end to
give up the solitary life. Teaching is frustrating, often makes you
angry and upset, but also is about being around young people and ideas
and sometimes laughing or really meeting a mind that wants to learn
and is excited by what they can do. If anything helped me be happier
about being a teacher, it was being on this farm, at the base of the
mountains and reminding myself that actually being on your own, even
if you are accompanied by an excellent dog, totally sucks. I discovered,
a little late in life, that I am a city boy.
When Kit joined me for the last week, getting off that train in Biarritz
she met a wild man in his faded flip-flops. You have reverted,
she said. 'My god your hair!' Sam in a naturaly half-crazed state. It
was near midnight, we went off in search of coffee. Didn't succeed,
but it was good to have my good friend with me and we spent the last
week on beaches, walking the streets, or even the farmland roads inhaling
the mint filled hay and enjoying Pippas savouring being an English dog
for a brief spell in her life.
PAU - August 2008 - Found this little boy racer near the Castle and
Kit roamed looking for good shots.
We even managed a day out in Pau, where Henry of Navarre was born (eventually
King of England) and there's a pretty bijou Castle to look at. Had a
great lunch in the Royal Square and in the evening saw WALL-E surely
the best and funniest film of the summer. (Even in French).
Pau was once
rich, but is now a little frayed at the edges but worth a visit.
One thing that spoils you in France is the fantastic state of
the roads and the amazing fast trains. If ever a lesson could
be learned by the UK or America it would be to look at how investment
in infrastucture pays off to make a country efficient and pleasant
to navigate. It really puts the UK to shame and when we face the
inevitable debacle of the Olympics in London in 2012, we will
wish it had gone to Paris and so will everyone else. (Having now
watched the spectacular Olympics opening I am even more embarassed
about what we will do in the UK. A pageant about our glorious
history murdering everything perhaps. A pile of bloody bodies,
some horses prancing perhaps, and some spluttering fireworks?
I dread it. (Since learned they faked the fireworks and the little
girl singing and the audiences, so perhaps we could hire Ridley
Scott to do ours in 2012 and we can do it all in a virtual stadium
and we can win all the golds. Everyone can just watch on TV and
save the worlds carbon footprint.)
Pau also hosts a huge University and it is this that probably
keeps the city going, although it is plonked on the outskirts
and must be awkward for the students studying there. The Uni has
just built a new campus in Bayonne for undergraduates in the old
Castle grounds but Pau will still deal with post-graduate studies.
Nevertheless, the buildings look great and I hear the academic
standards are high.
One sad fact of
modern life in France (as London these days) is the amount of graffiti.
I hope they take a lesson from New York and realise that zero tolerance
is the only way. Pau has a drug problem and graffiti seems to be a great
signifier of that wherever you go.
We returned to Hasparren
by the incredibly smooth highway. Not a single cone to be seen. Perhaps
we could persuade the French to build our roads, take over our railways
and nuclear reactors. Be good to have stuff that works for once...
I wasn't popular when my friends returned from Canada. Chickens dead,
sheep dead, flowers wilted (hell I did water them but it was 30C most
days) cat eating rice, we'd nicked the beach umbrella.... we tried to
make amends, bought flowers, a decent bottle of wine, but you could
tell when we left there wasn't that 'see you again' type of conversation
and Sam the Farmer days were over forever. If we could packed the dog,
we would have. Hell might sneak back when they aren't looking...
But a big thanks to Lionel and Catherine for letting me share their
home for a month. Sorry everything died.
Arrived - drank lattés, dived into Wagamama and finally ate a
meal for under twenty quid for two. Two city people back in the comfort
'Canada next year,' Kit said. It had been decided.
* Happy to
see that the October issue of 'In Britain' has a six page feature on
Cornwall by me. Buy your copy now.
Sam North - Editor 2008
Summer 2008 - Mean Tide by
'Extraordinary novel about a child's psychic
Lulu Press - ISBN: 978-1-4092-0354-4
'An engaging, unusual and completely engrossing read' - Beverly
Birch author of 'Rift'
to live with his spooky Grandma by the river in Greenwich, Oliver
(12) discovers a whole world of disturbed people who are probably
even crazier than the ones he left behind. When he finds a dog with
its throat cut on the beach, everything changes.
range 12-16 and adult
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