Most British emigrants to the South of France have been sold the vision of mild winters and hot summers. They have been told that the heaviest garments needed are a light cardigan or a silk shawl to guard against the slight chill of the balmy evenings during the more inclement months.
Sadly we have come to realise that the siren voices of our resident friends extolling the delights of Christmas dinner on the terrace, masked a reality of long cold wet winters and months of night time temperatures well below the burst pipe level.
We have had to evolve new skills, like getting up in a stone igloo without serious parts of your anatomy falling off. In fact getting out of bed has become quite an art since we moved to the South West of France to renovate an old farm house.
It would not be too bad in a well shod house, with central heating, the normal offices and entrances which boasted a drive or even a walkway. It is altogether different in a partly renovated farmhouse, with a leaking roof, no insulation, no bathroom or toilet and surrounded by terrain that would have made the Somme look well paved.
I am at this moment sleeping alone in our double bed in the part of our empire laughingly called the ‘Maison Principal’. No I have not come to terminal relations with the wife; it is just that she is sleeping guard over her ancient mother who is ensconced in another, slightly more comfortable, area of our rambling French domain.
Each morning the alarm abruptly terminates my slumbers for the coming day of toil. I open my eyes, but usually can see nothing; has the biting cold in the bedroom glued them shut? Or is it just that the shutters are closed. To solve this mystery and before I am fully awake I often attempt to sit up; only to be pinned down by the weight of the three duvets, two blankets, sheets and a bedcover that protect me from the polar interior of my bedroom. Brain clearing my Dordogne artic training clicks in.
Flipping on to my side I laterally scramble out from under the multiple eiderdowns and other paraphernalia and with luck end up standing somewhere near the door which leads into the next room.
There are not as yet any light switches near my bed in this un-renovated portion of the empire. Feeling around the door jamb I quickly locate a light switch in the next room, or not so quickly depending on what I was drinking last night. Flicking this on allows enough light to spill through the door way and orientate my next moves. Halleluiah, I do not have ice blindness, but my rejoicing may be short-lived, already the biting cold is knifing through the cheap pyjamas that I bought last week in Leclercs.
The survival instinct is for protection and heat. In one swift movement I grab my dressing gown which has been strategically draped over a nearby chair. I break the arms, if the sleeves have been frozen into any unnatural angles and quickly slide into it. The frozen article is an immediate shock to an already cooling system but I know that eventually it will start to give some protection. I now need to create a temporary haven from where I can sally forth and resurrect the rest of the frozen edifice of the Maison Principal. I can do this by sliding into a temporary office beside my bedroom and lighting a large gas fire in that tiny closet. It will not have immediate effect but within a few minutes it will start to move the temperature from the inclement interior of a deep freeze to the more temperate zone of a refrigerator. Before quitting this temporary haven I usually flick on the Computer screen and watch the emails tumble down the ADSL, well every little bit of heat helps.
By now the well oiled routine is in full gear. The next target is the kitchen, unfortunately to gain that I have to pass through the tundra wastes of the bedroom. This I do in one short dash and having accomplished that, move smoothly into action. First turn on all the kitchen rings, especially those with nothing on them. I live in the hope that my wife never associates the rapid diminution of the gas cylinders with my yearning for bodily comfort rather than purposes of a more culinary nature.
I switch on the pre-filled electric kettle, checking briefly, but none too assiduously, that it is not an electricity red eye day. The kitchen can hold its own for a moment. The next objective is the last room in the house, the lounge. The wood burning stove has burnt out as usual and the room is glacial. I throw open the stove door, furiously dig a hole in the dead ash bed, toss in a handful of Zippos, followed by wood. At this point I usually ruin half a dozen matches as my shivering hands break the all too feeble sticks. At last one catches and I open the ash door, contrary to Jotuls instructions in order to get a roaring furnace quickly established. This is not always a good idea as under certain climatic conditions the chimney cannot take the volume of smoke and it returns to fill up the room.
Having organised all the houses heating appliances I now need to attend to those bodily functions which often make themselves known to one, just after one rises from ones slumbers, even more so after a hectic dash across the polar landscape of indoors Aquitaine. The problem is, as I briefly mentioned before, the MP has no loo. But all is not lost, on the other side of the yard there is a barn which has been partially renovated and even now boasts just such an article
I head for the door, the house has only one. First I must pull on my Wellies, over my pyjamas, and then wrestle with the locked doors and shutters, in order to escape. All the while the overtures of my personal plumbing are becoming more insistent. Throwing open the last barrier I step out into the yard and sink ankle deep in mud. Pulling each reluctant boot alternately out of the ooze I make my ponderous way across the yard in a perambulation which is both urgent and reluctant owing to the apposing forces.
On occasions of snow and fog this voyage is even more hazardous as one falls over abandoned wheelbarrows or slips on the overflow of dripping taps.
On making the barn entrance I need to shed the boots, or she who must be obeyed will make things hotter for me than even I desire at this moment. There is law of Wellington boots; they are always hard to get on but even harder to get off. I struggle and hop around at the entrance to the barn, eventually managing to free one foot from the iron like grip of its rubber thrall; then in a foolish attempt to stabilise myself for the assault on the other limb covering, I put my free foot down to notice that it immediately sinks in the cold sludge of the yard. Throwing caution to the winds I jam the remaining boot against a block of concrete and pull it free.
I now limp slightly soggily across the floor of the putative launderette towards the loo. Strategically placed outside are my reading glasses and a biography of Disraeli which is my current loo reading material. I also know that there is an electric fire permanently on behind that door. I settle in the warm throne room, perusing political events long past, waiting until the heating elements across the yard have done their worst, thinking things are not too bad.
But then I have not yet faced the prospect of that journey back across the yard to the only marginally thawed out Maison Principal.
© John Hulbert 2005. All rights reserved.