March 25th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Our First Day in Our New Home (continued)

To recap: we'd just survived the 60-hour move from hell and then failed to find any breakfast...

That morning - our first morning in residence and a so far breakfastless one - we sat down and made a list.

It was some list.

It was headed by a car. We had to have one. As we had to have logs, gas bottles, food, a cooker, plugs, telephone, money, a cheque book, hay, straw and fence posts and undoubtedly a thousand and one other things that temporarily eluded us.

And we lived in the middle of nowhere with not a shop in sight. Or a bus stop or a telephone kiosk or a man who knew semaphore. After all, this was what we had wanted - to be away from it all. What we hadn't envisaged was the sheer desperation of our trip down. All thoughts of plugs, food and stopping to phone ahead had been pushed aside, locked away by the certain knowledge that any attempt to deviate from our course would have resulted in unimaginable disaster. Any supermarket we stopped at would undoubtedly have been struck by a meteorite within seconds of us pulling up outside.

But today was another day. Paranoia was living somewhere in Northern France and we needed to find a phone.

So we grabbed a map and took Gypsy for a walk.

Which went down very well with Gypsy, who was enjoying her new life. After all, she'd had breakfast. Like the cats, she didn't need her food heated and we had plenty of tins and no problem locating the tin opener. I think the cats had packed a spare one just in case.

We left the cats unpacking - there's something about large boxes full of screwed up paper that cats find irresistible. They'd be busy for hours.

We thought we'd try Tuco first as it was the nearest village. Well, perhaps not quite a village. With three houses, a church and a road sign, it was large enough to rate a mention on our map but that was about it.

Walking down the winding country lane it was difficult to believe that this was winter. The mid-Februarys that we remembered were the coldest part of the year - with howling gales and biting winds vying with snow and drizzle and thick grey blankets of cloud that could hang around for weeks.

But here, the sky was clear, there wasn't a breath of wind and the sun had a strength to it. Even this early in the morning, you could feel its warmth on your skin. Which made the transition between light and shade the more noticeable. Step into the shadow of the trees and it felt cold - you could feel the frost beneath your feet, hear the crackle on the tarmac. Step into the sun and it felt like spring, the grass was green and the road was dry.

We ambled along the curving lane as it wound down the little valley. A steep-sided wood rose up on our left, another almost as steep on our right. Ahead of us, we could make out the steeple of the tiny village church and beyond that another tree-lined hill marked the far side of the main valley. It was a beautiful spot. Rolling hills and valleys, tiny villages, forests and fields. Just what we wanted.

A few minutes more and our little valley widened out into the larger valley in which Tuco stood. We could see for miles. Tiny white spots of habitation dotted the far hills. Patches of green marked out the growing crops against the predominant browns of wood, ploughed fields and scrub.

It was idyllic.

Until the advance guard of the Tuco dogs spotted Gypsy.

We dragged her past the first barrage of woofs straight into the teeth of the main contingent. Four dogs of various size and pedigree held us at bay while a large black dog harried us from behind. Gypsy was not a happy dog. It was probably the first time she'd seen other dogs since leaving her mother. And these were growling in French.

Then a farmhouse door opened, and out shot a small dark-haired woman alternating shouts and smiles as she tried to chastise her dogs and welcome us at the same time. The dogs ran back inside the yard and lay down, yawning and looking the other way as though whatever had just happened had had nothing to do with them.

Gypsy took this as an opportunity to shout abuse at them from behind our legs - amazing how brave a puppy can be after the danger has passed.

Another figure appeared from a barn, a curly-haired man in his late thirties, wiping his hands on his overalls as he walked up to meet us. There was the usual hand shaking and then ...

It was our first introduction to the local dialect. I had expected it to be a variation on the French we'd heard on the language tapes and schools' programmes. But not this much of a variation. It was unintelligible.

I'd been reasonably confident of my French up until that point. I'd coped with estate agents who couldn't speak English, I'd survived restaurants and hotels. I could usually make myself understood - eventually. And I could normally pick up the gist of what was being said to me - if it was repeated slowly and often enough.

But this was beyond me. It sounded more like Spanish. Perhaps we'd been learning the wrong language. And as my entire knowledge of Spanish was limited to beer, squid and airport, my conversation would be less than inspiring.

The best way to describe the dialect is to imagine French being spoken at speed by a Spaniard who has taken out all the words and linked them together with that rolling Spanish 'r' sound, to form one long unintelligible word. And as my normal method of translation depended on recognising one or two keywords in a sentence and then gradually working out the others from the context, I was stumped. There wasn't room for even the smallest keyword to breathe - everything was so well wrapped up in 'r's.

And if anything the man was worse. He was a lisping version of his mother, adding a liberal sprinkling of Spanish 'th' sounds.

But this was the campagne. What did we expect? If we'd been a French couple knocking on a Devon farmhouse we'd have probably been as lost, meeting a stream of broad Devonian.

I began to suspect that we might not be listening to French or Spanish at all, but one of those ancient Pyrenean languages I'd read about - Occitan, Catalan or some such mixture of old French and Spanish.

But then I started to grasp the odd word - as the woman slowed her speech down and unrolled the occasional 'r'.

Her name was Claudine and Roger was her son. Not the most earth-shattering of revelations, but after ten minutes of total confusion, it was as precious to us as the Rosetta stone. We were beginning to understand.

We then embarked on an attempt to ask them if they could tell us where the nearest telephone was. An ambitious enterprise but we were desperate.

After a considerable effort and many blank looks we succeeded.

"Là," said Claudine, pointing to the kiosk, ten yards behind us.

We turned as one and looked at the very distinctive glass booth with the word téléphone prominently displayed. Ah, that one. I declined to ask if there was one closer.

(to be continued)
International Kittens of Mystery

The Cornish Bungalow

(More househunting stories, this one from deepest darkest Cornwall)

Now, we'd seen old rural properties before and knew the imagination of farmers when it came to building. The most imaginative being a farmer in Cornwall who would never repair a building if there was room to build a new one alongside. I had never seen anything like it. As we drove into the farmyard, the first thing we saw was a long row of wooden barns going gradually downhill - in all senses of the word - each barn in a greater state of disrepair than its neighbour, until the one at the end was barely standing.

We stood outside the original barn, watching it decompose before our eyes. A pool of black water seeped out from under a rickety barn door.

"Don't go in there," the estate agent warned us. "There's lice and ... things."

I didn't like the sound of the word 'things'. Lice were bad enough but 'things' hinted at something far worse - perhaps the farmer's demented son chained and slobbering in the corner.

We didn't look inside.

The next barn was part flooded and stank of mouldy hay which was grey and piled up into the rafters. It must have been ten or twenty years old and just left to moulder. I looked at the standing water and noticed it was seeping through from the original barn.

We were definitely not going in there!

And then I noticed the rusting ice-cream van. Which was standing in the middle of a small paddock. A small paddock next to a larger field with an assortment of abandoned cars, vans and lorries. I looked at the estate agent and he shrugged his shoulders with a 'please don't ask' look on his face.

I didn't.

Opposite the line of barns stood the original house - its doors hung off their hinges, the stairs were broken and the ceiling was shot through with holes. The farmer had obviously given up on that as well and built a new bungalow next door. Which, amazingly, looked perfectly normal.

By this time I really wanted to meet the owner. What would he be wearing? Would he wear clothes until they fell off his back and then buy new ones?

Difficult to tell. The short squat man who opened the bungalow door was wearing overalls. He could have been wearing an even older pair underneath but I didn't dare ask.

He showed us around the bungalow and we couldn't fault it. It looked great. And normal. That is until we reached the back room. "I wouldn't go in there," started the farmer. Oh my God, my mind could see lice, ‘things’ and more chained relatives than a single room could possibly contain. Perhaps there was still time to run for the door?

"We had a bit of a flood last week," he continued, "and we've had trouble with the electrics ever since."

He pushed open the door. A pool of water lay on a new concrete floor, the ceiling tiles above were missing or broken. It looked like a cistern had exploded in the roof. And there, sitting in the pool of water, were two suspiciously bare wires, running from two large freezers in the corner.

We left quickly.

I could feel a new bungalow coming on.
International Kittens of Mystery

The Great St. Vivien's Day Snippet Hunt Answers

Yes, it's St. Larissa's Eve - the traditional day to announce the answers to the St. Vivien's Day snippet hunt. (okay so I live in a fantasy world...)

Here are the clues again.

Red:Think Julie Andrews, think the Hills are Alive. So, if a doe is a deer. What is me?

Let's all sing this together - me, a name I call myself.

Pink is initially Chinese high energy zeppelins

Think initials and you get C H E Z

Blue is someone who went 'Into the Looking Glass' a long time before John Ringo.


Green is the y of the first review (where y is like the third world but less - by about 1.76 pints I'd say)

'Third world' less a litre (1.76 pints). It's cryptic, so think abbreviations of litre and you get the letter 'L' which when subtracted from 'third world' gives you 'third word'

Violet is the nth word of the third review (where n = the atomic number of arsenic divided by the number of flags)

33/3 = 11

Which gives the following url: