Now that the first draft of Haircuts, Hens and Homicide is in the bag, I’ve been able to return to part Deux of my memoir of our lives in France, Total Immersion. To whet your appetites here’s an extract from the chapter ‘2012: The Year of the Pig’.

The Big Freeze of 2017 is going on as I write about the Even Bigger Freeze of 2012 so it’s helping to put me in the mood. It’s brought back precise memories of exactly how flipping cold it was.

The year started off harmlessly enough. Once New Year was over, the kids headed back to école primaire (Rors), lycée (Caiti) and fac (Benj) and Chris and I settled into our daily routine of this time of years of jobs around the farm, lake maintenance and our online businesses. However, Chris’s inner swineherd was proving hard to ignore. He’d been becoming more and more interested in getting pigs, and talking about them to such an extent that some returning angling clients of ours gave him a book about pig ownership. Perhaps that was the deciding factor, or maybe he just felt ready for a new challenge as by now, between us, we’d mastered llama and alpaca, goat, sheep and poultry ownership. It was time to conquer another animal species.

Chris did some research and found someone who did pig management courses in Poitou-Charentes, about four hours away. He booked himself in on the next available session and sorted out a night’s accommodation nearby as there was an early start to the day’s training. All he had to do now was wait.

January was ridiculously mild, to the extent that the daffs were coming up, the chickens were laying fit to bust and buds were starting to appear on many trees. What a lovely short winter we’ve had this time, we thought with a smile. But Mother Nature had the last laugh.

Chris set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waved off by me and the two youngest. Once he was gone we pottered around in the warmth, doing the farm chores and getting some fresh air before focussing on getting everything ready for school next day. For Rors this was just making sure there were clean clothes ready and waiting, but for Caiti it was the usual painful process of packing the suitcase for a week of boarding. We should have had it down to a fine art by now, and we had done with Benj, but somehow every week seemed like the first with our daughter. She always left packing till the very last minute, long after parental patience had been ground down. I’ve never been a late night person and since moving to France and taking up a much more physically exhausting lifestyle, then bed starts calling at nine o’clock, sometimes earlier. So things would tend to get fraught on a Sunday evening. But Caiti inevitably produced the proverbial rabbit from the hat and was all ready for the off, although she regularly resembled the proverbial slow snail and reduced me to a nervous wreck on Monday mornings. However, as it turned out miraculously we only ever missed the bus once.

This particular Monday morning was very chilly but with Chris away I had no alternative but to load a warmly wrapped sleepy Ruadhrí into the car to be taken for the ride when delivering Caiti to the bus stop in Clugnat. The road sparkled with frost and it was nippy. One low, hill-bottom stretch of the road was, as usual, particularly cold. We called it the ‘frost bucket’. This arose from a very young Caiti mishearing us using the expression ‘frost pocket’. Well, since ‘frost bucket’ is so much better we adopted that one as a family saying. The car showed a temperature of minus three or so. Brrr.

Meanwhile Chris was getting up to minus five, which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately he’d taken plenty of warm clothes with him as a lot of the training was done outside and the day itself was sunny and bright. He had a wonderful time learning about the finer points of pigmanship with trainers David and Lorraine. They specialised in English old breed pigs and so Chris got to meet Gloucester Old Spots, Berkshires and Oxford Sandy and Blacks. He got to eat them at lunchtime too but not the ones he’d just met, obviously! The whole point of getting pigs was to become self-sufficient in pork. We weren’t going to be a pig sanctuary – we were going into this venture with hardened hearts and a love of sausages.  Chris was immediately struck with how much nicer the pork from these old breeds was than what we were used to eating from the supermarket.

Chris learned about fencing, handling and breeding pigs, and about all the relevant legislation. There was plenty of hands-on experience of rounding up and feeding. He was struck with how intelligent the pigs are. You can interact with a pig. Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep – not so much. The action with them is one way, i.e. from the human, with the creature in question simply regarding you vacantly as The Mysterious Being That Dispenses Food. A pig, though, will come over for a chat. A pig will listen. A pig will scrutinise you and size you up with those shrewd eyes, rather than just gaze dumbly at you. A pig is altogether a different kind of animal from other farm livestock.

Temperatures began to plummet as the day wore on. I distributed extra hay to the animals and took a hat for Rors with me when I walked to Nouzerines to meet him from school. It was the walking-to-and-from school season in the winter, but the rest of the year we cycled him in and out. Despite living the furthest away, and Chris and I being the oldest set of parents by at least a decade, we were the only ones who were able to get to and from under our own environmentally-friendly steam rather than resorting to car or bus. As well as allowing us to feel morally superior to the rest of the world, it kept us all fit and we enjoyed the exercise as a family activity.

Chris got back quite late and reported freezing fog and icy roads all the way. It was by now a good few degrees below freezing, and it was going to be several weeks before it warmed up. The Big Freeze had begun.

It seemed to come out of nowhere. Admittedly we didn’t watch the Météo, weather forecast, regularly. We’d tried and failed to adapt to French television generally. With its love of short and frankly bizarre (‘quirky’ doesn’t come close) vignettes, and its overly-verbose chat and quiz show hosts, it just wasn’t for us. The culturally divide turns into a chasm when it comes to the TV. But we soon started watching it every night. And the news, where ice-bound scenes from around the country filled most of the half-hour slot. However, we were far more concerned with our own ice-boundness, which was dramatic and wholesale.

(The artwork for the cover of Total Immersion is by the incomparable Roger Fereday. The photo is of our own Berkshire pigs, Rosamunde and Oberon.)

I came across this book via Twitter (so take heart, indie authors, it does pay to Tweet regularly about your books!) and I’m so pleased I did. As a keen cyclist I was immediately attracted by the inclusion of ‘peloton’ in the title. Actually, I liked all of the catchy title with its alliteration, rhythm and assonance. The cover is also not a run-of-the-mill romcom cover, with quirky artwork and fancy italics for the typeface. This one is fresh and clear,and also intriguing. Why when we have ‘two’ in the title do we only have ‘one’ in the image? The hint is that this is a resourceful, independent heroine, who’s bound to be interesting. I had to read this book.

‘Peloton of Two’ is a light-hearted romantic comedy set mainly in rural France. Catherine Pringle, a journalist, has the chance to write her own column whilst cycling around France with her explorer boyfriend Nick. The tour will further her career, she hopes, and also improve her slightly shaky relationship with Nick. However, the tour gets off to a shaky start and most definitely does not go as planned. But all isn’t lost for our empathetic, well-meaning heroine. Life has a way of throwing up surprises.

We get to see a lot of France and human nature on the way, and there are many entertaining characters to meet. It’s a super read, well written and thoroughly entertaining.

Available at all the Amazons for Kindle and as a paperback.

I’m a big fan of Paulita Kincer’s novels, and I honestly think this is her best yet. It’s an exciting story that takes us from Florida to Paris and Marseilles as Sadie tries to find her runaway daughter, Scarlett.

Sadie is still healing after an unpleasant divorce and has been neglecting herself and devoting all her energies to her two girls, to try and keep their family life going. Conversely, although she is going through a complete nightmare of worry and helplessness, the experience is bringing her back to life. She teams up with Auguste, the father of the young man, Luc, that Scarlett has followed to Paris. This new partnership benefits them both.

There is such sharp attention to detail it keeps the reader riveted. All those little Frenchisms which, as a visitor to the country, hit you with such force. As an expat in France for ten years, I’ve stopped n noticing some of them, so as I read this book I had plenty of ‘oh yes, that’s so true!’ moments. A couple of examples are how the way of numbering floors is blocks of flats is uniquely French, and how there really is such a thing as ‘the art of French shrugging’.

The characters are so well portrayed. Sadie is in many ways a very typical fifty-year-old mum of growing up, if not quite grown up, children. She’s pretty au fait with social media, and she’s one step ahead of me in being able to store her plane ticket on her mobile phone. Auguste and the minor French characters we meet are so obviously and convincingly French. Scarlett is not quite every difficult teenage girl, because she takes things to the extreme in her flight abroad, but she exhibits many of the traits you associate with her age group. I particularly like the monotone which she reserves especially for her poor mum.

This is a wonderfully written story and it will keep you gripped from cover to cover. I’m already looking forward to Paulita Kincer’s next novel.

The book is available from all Amazon stores in paperback and ebook.

So … no Kindle Fire in France yet, the rumours were false, but we do now have the Kindle Touch at €129 and the Kindle Touch 3G at €189. Until yesterday, we just had the Kindle 4 at €99.

Amazon has always been tight-lipped about how many Kindles it’s sold in any country, but I can only imagine that sales have been good enough in France to justify introducing the new models.

There are now 54,000 Kindle books in French. We lucky expats also have access to the zillions in English that are out there, although we may have to pay slightly more than on Amazon.com or .co.uk, which as you may recall, I have often grumbled about.

From the Amazon website

The French Kindle store is shaping up nicely. There’s a good range of étuis (cases) and housses (covers). Gelaskins have made an appearance too. I think these are fabulous and make a Kindle look very cool. However, I think they’re a bit cheeky shoving lampes à lecture in the Kindle shop, especially as they’re of a rather clunky design. They go better with ordinary books. The covers with built-in lights would be the best thing for Kindles, although they tend to be pricy.

Anyway, the signs are good that France is embracing the Kindle so with any luck there’ll be even more models to choose from soon, and more books to read on them.

 

pic from Amazon.com

There are rumours going around that the Kindle Fire will be on sale in France from this Tuesday, 27th March. Amazon has apparently been sending out invitations to various publishers about a mystery event on that day. Presently only the Kindle 4 is on sale in France, so it’s about time we had more choice! Kindle Fire has been doing very well abroad, with sales of 4.7 million since its launch on 14 November 2011. It’s a good little machine for $199 for those people who are looking for a colour ereader along the lines of an iPad.

However, sceptics say that the necessary French infrastructure isn’t there yet in the form of adequate MP3 and video content, and a thriving market in apps. They also point out that the Kindle Fire sells at a loss with Amazon recouping its costs through the content sales – which aren’t there at the moment.

Who’s right? Well, we don’t have long to wait. But one thing’s sure – Amazon will be announcing something important in France on Tuesday. I’ll be listening!

The French government is leading the world in nabbing orphans. No, not parentless children, but literary works that are out of print and whose authors can’t be traced.  There are between half and three quarters of a million out of print books in France. About a fifth of these are orphans. A law passed at the end of February means that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BnF, can now scan these and make them available for free, whereas other distributors have to charge for them. It’s a five year operation that will be funded by the State, even though times are hard.

But what has shocked people is that as well as orphans, all books that were published in France and out of print before 2001 are to  be subject to the same treatment, unless the author, publisher or other rights holder opts out of having the book sucked into the BnF database. And this applies to books by foreign authors too.

This is a huge rights transfer issue. Even the pro-pirating French Pirate Party  is horrified by it! And France is already working on how to persuade Europe to allow this set-up to take precedence over the forthcoming European proposal on dealing with orphan works.

It seems heavy handed in the extreme. It will be interesting to see how things work out.

This New Year saw all books being made equal in France. Previously ebooks suffered from a much higher level (19.6%) of TVA (= value added tax), whereas dead tree books were taxed at 5.5%. Now both types of book are taxed at 7%. The fall for ebooks is very welcome, although the overall rise to 7% is to be deplored, but is an unfortunate result of the austerity measures we’re currently having imposed on us.

Hopefully this will have a positive impact on ebook sales. French people still don’t really ‘get’ ebooks. They continue to be stuck on the expensive but always well produced printed versions. Ebooks account for only around 1% of all book sales in France. However, the launching of the Kindle store on Amazon.fr in September 2011 and this new VAT reduction, plus the general buzz about elivres, will work in their favour and I’m sure we’ll see the figure rise soon. People are interested in the whole idea of ereaders and ebooks but still slightly sceptical. Native French suspicion at work! That said, the Kindle was the best selling item at Amazon.fr in December, following the same pattern as elsewhere in Europe. Our Caiti’s Kindle 4 was one of them. She is delighted with her Kindle and takes it everywhere, apart from the bath, luckily! ‘Kindling’ has  become a new verb in our house.

So, the only way is up for the ebook in France in 2012. It has everything going for it now. And a further temptation. Perhaps readers will be tempted by one of the 47 ebooks about Nicolas Sarkozy available at Amazon.fr or the 11 on Francois Hollande in this election year, these two individuals being the main contenders!

 

http://www.public-domain-photos.com/travel/paris

It looks the austerity measures announced in France yesterday may give ebooks a boost. Despite the fact that the founder of the fantastically successful Feedbooks is a Frenchman, Hadrien Gardeur, the French haven’t been very quick to take up ebooks. I have my own theory about this. Books from amazon.fr are more expensive than from amazon.com – which is unnecessary and offputting. Being a Kindle owner living in France, I was kindly invited to switch my account from .com to .fr since this would be better for me, apparently. Well, it isn’t. I now can’t get books that are offered free on amazon.com and all the other books cost more. A 99 US cent book costs 99 Euro cents (about $1.20) and others are even more expensive. I’m not impressed and I’m buying most of my books from the brilliant Smashwords.

The official reason for ebook apathy is that publishers aren’t being very enthusiastic about producing them. However, VAT on physical books will be rising from 5.5% to 7% in January, which might help to make ebooks more attractive, for producers and consumers alike.

A last quick word about Feedbooks. This company distributes 3,000,000 ebooks per month. That is mindboggling. And it also offers indie authors the chance to publish their ebooks to be offered free to clients, an offer I shall be enthusiastically embracing as soon as I can.

Back in March several French publishers were raided, including Hachette Livre, Gallimard, Flammarion and La Martinière. It was all to do with ebook pricing. Many of the publishing companies under scrutiny have only recently got into ebooks and haven’t setup a proper pricing policy yet. For now, they are going along with a temporary agency model for pricing, and this is what is causing the problem. Agency pricing is very like the net book agreement that used to hold sway in the UK and Ireland. Under this, publishers set the price at which a book was to be sold, and that was that. Booksellers couldn’t sell it for less. The net book agreement was brought down when supermarkets and the big chains of bookshops challenged it.

A statement from the Directorate General for Competition read: “The European Commission can confirm that on 1 March 2011 Commission officials initiated unannounced inspections at the premises of companies that are active in the e-book (electronic or digital books) publishing sector in several Member States. The Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).”

At the moment France adheres to the Lang Law for physical, i.e. paper, books. It establishes a fixed price for books sold in France and limits the discounts that can be offered on them by booksellers. But it doesn’t apply to ebooks. So publishers are fixing the price in stone and EU officials don’t like it, even though the French Competition Authority said in 2009 that the agency model was “a possible solution” for pricing ebooks. However, by restricting booksellers from offering discounts to promote some of the titles they stock, this goes against some of the objectives of the culture ministry in France.

Recently both houses of the French parliament gave their approval to a law that replaces the Lang Law, and goes further to now encompass ebooks. Under the proposed scheme, French publishers will set a single price for their e-books, and distributors must follow it, no matter where they are based. The EU won’t like it, that’s for sure.

It seems odd that publishers are reverting to this old practice of price fixing and making books more expensive than they need to be. Some pro-electronic publishing forums have suggested that, like cigarettes, ebooks produced by the publishers adopting the agency model should come with a warning along the lines of: Warning: buying this book will support a publisher who wants to increase book prices for all.

Chapter 4: Signing on the Dotted Line

Il faut réfléchir avant d’agir.

You have to think before acting.

Benj in front of the houses - not sure what he's doing!

One night on the ferry and one night in a hotel watching France play Spain in the World Cup later, we pulled into Les Fragnes about midday on the 28th June. Nigel and Philippe, the estate agents, were there to meet us as we rumbled down the drive with our trailer of essential belongings. They were delighted to see us and had laid out a picnic with lashings of wine for the adults and a mountain of crisps for the children. (They’d phoned us a few times during the course of the morning to make sure we were still coming and hadn’t turned and fled en route.) They didn’t have the keys to the houses, though, so we could only peer covetously through the filthy windows. But the buildings were undeniably still there so all seemed well. They discouraged us from walking around too much, saying we needed to get into Boussac in good time. So we took their advice, unhitched the trailer, overindulged and followed them to the town.

Our first stop was at the insurance office. Before we could buy Les Fragnes, we had to have proof for the Notaire that we’d insured it, even though it wasn’t ours yet – one of those chicken and egg peculiarities you learn to live with in France. So Nigel came with me to the GAN office to see M Orsal, the best dressed insurance agent around with a penchant for pointy-toe shoes, and we sorted this out. And on to the serious stuff chez Maître Bouret, le Notaire.

The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986. We went out to check on the kids who were reading happily in the waiting room, and the rest of the cast arrived. First came M and Mme Paray, the vendors. They ran a builders’ merchant’s  in Boussac. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years. To M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so the Pasquets could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic Orlande rolled up next, our translator. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious handshakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.

The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Parays, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in the town, and brought Ruadhri in to fidget and snooze on my lap.

And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. No wonder Nigel and Philippe had kept us well away before the signing ceremony! And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. their few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. And talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our agreement to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.

That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. Just one step up from a mud hut basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by Frédéric, Philippe’s son. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were ‘sain et sauf’ i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis.