Back home, we had just about given up on the idea of obtaining logs locally when a car pulled up - a battered Citroen 2CV with an equally battered occupant. A stocky man in his early forties climbed out, his face tanned and weather-beaten but with lines that suggested a face that knew how to smile. And huge hands that suggested a life of hard manual labour.
We exchanged a few words which neither of us understood and shook hands. Then we smiled, attempted a few more sentences and decided to fall back on the hand-shaking.
He didn't use as many 'r's as Claudine or repeat everything we said like 'He who might have been George.' He even spoke slowly but...
We just couldn't understand a word he said. The cigarette fixed between his lips didn't help. He sounded like a Gallic version of Marlon Brando, with smiles and a wheezy laugh punctuating the mumbled dialogue.
But had I heard the word bois?
I seized upon it. "Bois de chauffage?"
"Oui," he nodded. And added several other words which trailed off in a haze of cigarette smoke.
After several abortive attempts to re-direct the conversation back to logs, I resorted to sign language – giant elk or no giant elk, I was desperate. I hoped I conveyed the fact that we needed logs for our fire. I may have ordered a dozen head of wildebeest.
As he drove away, I wondered if we'd ever see him again. I think he said something about returning but whether it was today, tomorrow or sometime next week, I hadn't a clue. I hoped it wouldn't be long, the thought of another fireless night was not a pleasant one.
An hour later he returned. This time, he had company. It looked like he'd brought his father. We exchanged bonjours and shook hands and then I launched into my prepared script.
I'd spent the last hour reading through all the adverts for firewood in the local paper and translating them with the help of our dictionary. I'd learnt that logs were ordered not by the ton but by the stère - a cubic metre. I'd also noted down a number of likely woods and the going rate. It seemed that most of the wood for sale locally was oak, chestnut or acacia. I had them all jotted down and my ears trained to listen out for them.
I opened with a request for a stère of logs. The father replied with a yes. This was a good start. I then asked the price - 250 francs. What type of wood was it? Oak. Could they deliver it? Yes.
This was brilliant. This was what it was supposed to be like. I was having a conversation in French!
It was then that the 'father' turned to his 'son' and said, "I don't know what the bloody hell I'm doing here. He speaks French."
"You're English?" I said, amazed.
"Welsh," came the reply with a speed that conveyed the almost certain probability that I'd just delivered a terrible insult.
But I was impressed. Not only had our log man called round to see if we needed anything but he'd returned within the hour with an interpreter. And he could supply fence posts as well.
This was a man we could do business with.
We ordered three stère of logs and fifty fence posts. Which would be delivered the next day. In the meantime, we had to keep warm. We were not going to spend another night wrapped in blankets.
So we scavenged the outbuildings for wood. We combed copses and dragged the underbrush, staggering back to the house with long branches of rotting wood over our shoulders. If it looked flammable we took it. Nothing was going to stop us from having a fire.
A few hours later we all gathered around the lounge fireplace. Gypsy and the two cats vying for the position nearest the fire.
The kindling caught, the flames rose. And then ... out came the smoke and there went the animals. Three worried faces stared back at us from the safety of the hallway.
We quickly closed the fire doors. Our fire was supposed to have two glass doors but one had been broken and replaced with what looked like two scraps of aluminium welded together. It didn't look good but at least it kept the smoke in.
We returned to our settees and waited for the heat to hit us.
So we opened the fire doors to load more wood and a wall of smoke shot out and enveloped the mantle piece.
Ah. We opened the windows to clear the air and then tried again.
The same result.
Perhaps if we kept the windows ajar? Sometimes it helps the draw.
It helped the smoke.
This was ridiculous. We couldn't get at the fire without filling the room with smoke.
And the grate was far too small. We couldn't stack the fire, throw in a match and then close the doors for the night. There was barely enough room for a ten minute blaze.
But, strangely enough, it did keep us warm that night - in a lateral fashion. The continual getting up, opening windows, closing windows, fanning the air with the door and fighting Gypsy off as she fastened her teeth around our ankles kept us remarkably active.
Perhaps that was how this fire worked - by providing aerobic exercise for the owners. And I could see exactly what had happened to the missing glass door. I felt like kicking the other one in myself.
(next instalment: Zen and the art of French Fire Design)