May 1st, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

NSA: Logs, Language, Fires and Flues Part One (Ruins and the Postal Arts)

Although the days were warm that first February, the nights were not. By six o'clock all warmth had disappeared with the sun and a star-lit cold descended upon us.

It wasn't a freezing cold - we weren't in any danger of hypothermia. But it was persistent and always a few degrees below anything approaching comfort level. Spending the evening wrapped in blankets watching your breath steam was not conducive to a happy frame of mind.

We hadn't noticed it the first night. Not that we were in much condition to notice anything that night. We found the door, we found the bed. What else was there?

But as the temperature plummeted on the second night we quickly pencilled in the word 'Logs' at the top of our list for things to buy the next day.

But that's the problem when the sun shines and it feels like summer. It's so easy to think nights will follow the same pattern. Who needs a fire when the weather's like this, we'd said, as we sat outside in our T-shirts, bathed in sunshine and surrounded by flitting butterflies?

We should have known.

We decided Claudine was probably the best person to ask about logs. She had to know the name of the local supplier.

After much discussion, some of which I actually understood, we left Claudine's with a name and directions. Two sets of directions, it later transpired.

I’d walked away from Claudine’s basking in our improving ability to converse in French.

"Do you realise we actually understood a whole sentence of Claudine’s directions," I’d boasted.

"Up until the right turn," Shelagh replied. "I didn’t quite catch the last bit."

"What right turn?"

I stopped. There hadn’t been a right turn. "Tout droit means straight ahead not turn right."

"She never said tout droit."

"Yes, she did."

"No, she didn’t."

We walked up the hill, our footsteps dogged by a stream of ‘dids’ and ‘didn’ts’.

But we did agree on the name she'd given us - George - he was our man. He had plenty of logs and he lived at the second house on the left, straight on at the crossroads at the top of the hill. Or possibly the farm by the cross after the right turn. Or...

"Why didn’t you say something if you didn’t understand what Claudine was saying?" I remonstrated.

"Because I thought you understood what she was saying."

"And I thought you understood. You were nodding."

"I always nod, it’s the only way to make them stop."

Which was true. A well-timed nod and a ‘oui’ was often the only way to extricate yourself from the conversational equivalent of Groundhog Day.

We continued our walk up the hill, resolving to try my route first.

Now, locating houses in the depths of rural France is not easy - no road names, no numbers. And some houses, like George’s, didn’t even have names. How any mail ever gets delivered in the campagne is a constant source of wonder. And a tribute to the rural postman, whose job it was to know everyone’s name and where they were hiding.

If ever there was a cue for a passing postman, this was it. I scanned the horizon. No postman … just fields and trees and a rising chain of mountains.

We walked straight on at the crossroads, past the ruin on the corner and the five goats cudding on the porch. Which introduced another problem. Were ruins counted as houses? Were we looking for the second inhabited building on the left or the second clump of stones?

Yet another problem for people like ourselves untrained in the postal arts. The ever present ruin. A century and more of rural depopulation had left the countryside strewn with abandoned properties. And you couldn’t always tell which were which. We’d strolled into farmyards before, convinced they were derelict, only to be greeted by an elderly couple and their entire extended family.

We passed another ruin, its sun-drenched stone walls gleaming golden in the morning sun, and marvelled. An abandoned building in a town is an eyesore - smeared in graffiti and stuffed full of detritus. But out here they weathered into rocky outcrops - the perfect prop for cascading vegetation and the local wildlife - and they looked so natural. The dry stone construction helped - even the inhabited buildings hardly had any mortar between the stone - giving the ruins a natural cairn-like feel as though they'd been part of the landscape for millennia.

We trudged on, over a rise, watching the Pyrenees slowly fill the sky from east to west. We could see the foothills now in the near distance, rounded green mounds of forest undulating before the sharp grey peaks of the mountains proper. We could see for miles. We could see everything … except George’s house.

Or was that it? Over to the left there was a collection of buildings - or upmarket ruins - nestling at the bottom of a long farm track.

(next instalment: The tallest pair of trousers ever seen)