I can’t say I’m sorry.

In fact, I’m very pleased that Awesome Indies has awarded their badge of approval to “I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry”
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As part of the Blackbird Digital Books autumn promotion, this week The Valley of Heaven and Hell and Best Foot Forward Kindle versions are both available to download at 99 cts/77p.

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Click image to buy

Workaway – how did it work?

Early last year, a cycling nutter tweeted me that he’d read and enjoyed my book about wobbling through the Marne Valley. He said he was planning to spend two years cycling around Europe and Wwoofing, and I replied that if he found himself near us, he’d be welcome to a beer, or a bed for the night.

He ended up living with us for over two months, and worked like a Trojan to help re-roof one of our barns. He  was great company and a perfect house guest. I had never planned on having a stranger staying with us for so long, but it worked really well.

Millar

Millar, the cycling madman, and perfect guest in an untypically serious mood

Millar introduced us to Workaway, a scheme to link people from all over the world who are looking to travel and enjoy cultural exchange, living as working guests, to host families. Being possibly probably the world’s worst housewife, with a pathological hatred of housework, I was hesitant. What would people think when they saw the daily coating of wall-to-wall dog hairs, the chewed-up sticks, shoes and yoghurt pots, the bedding the parrot shovels out of her cage, the shaving foam smeared all over the bathroom mirror, the daily burnt porridge pan soaking in the sink, the shredded blankets the dogs drag wherever they go? How would they react to two exuberant, large dogs monopolosing the comfy chairs, the chickens pooping in the house and the disheveled hostess still in her nightclothes at midday? Could our chaotic lifestyle qualify as a cultural experience?

Well, nothing ventured …. I posted a profile on Workaway, and had an almost instant reply from a young school teacher from Switzerland, surely the cleanest country in the world. Still, she seemed very keen, so I scraped down the walls and swept the dust into the corners.

Andrea was the sweetest, most helpful guest we could have hoped for, and felt like part of the family from the moment she arrived. The Workaway terms specify that guests agreee to work for 4-5 hours a day, five days a week, but I couldn’t stop her. After spending the mornings tidying the garden, she spent the afternoons scrubbing the house. Really scrubbing. From top to bottom. She turned out the kitchen drawers and cupboards (mortifying when I saw the state they were in!), cleaned the windows. She said that she loved her job, but it was stressful and she found peace and relaxation in cleaning. She was also a great conversationalist and we successfully sorted out all the world’s problems. A perfect ambassador for Workaway.

Andrea

Lovely Andrea

Our next guest was a charming French gentleman who came to us to improve his English. His friends had teased him about sharing our vegetarian lifestyle, but he tucked in and enjoyed our evening meal. Unfortunately after a day here he had to leave suddenly to deal with a family crisis, but we kept in touch and I recommended him to a friend earlier this year , which led to a very successful exchange for both of them.

This year we had a less than enjoyable experience with our first visitor. There was a chasm of cultural difference, and a personality clash. We are easy going and get on with most people, but this case was an exception, and having a house guest who didn’t fit in was uncomfortable for all of us. We would have asked them to leave ahead of the agreed date, but they didn’t have anywhere to go and apparently no money to support themselves. Dumping them at the railway station was out of the question and so we all soldiered on and sighed with relief when they eventually left.

“No more,” said TOH. “I don’t want any more of them here. We can’t have people living in our house and behaving like that.” I agreed, having found the experience extremely stressful.

“I’ll delete us from Workaway,” I said. Before I had a chance to do so, an email arrived.

It was a dignified message from a Spanish man who was in a very uncomfortable situation with hosts who were using him as unpaid labour in their business. Although Workaway is a voluntary agreement between two parties, with no legal contract, he had undertaken to continue slaving working for them for a further three weeks despite their treatment of him, as their business depended upon him, but at the end of that period he was looking for a new host.

My feelings about Spanish cruelty to animals have never been a secret, nor my contempt for the galgueros, and the stupid elephant-killing king.

If Spain is looking for an ambassador who defines dignity, honesty, kindness and generosity, then I nominate Miguel. What a lovely man. He voluntarily worked long, long hours, always smiling and cheerful. And he’s a fantastic cook – like us, a vegetarian – and most evenings he volunteered to cook for us, which was such a treat. Offhand I can’t think of anything that tastes better than his tortilla. We also shared similar tastes in music, and he restored our faith in Workaway.

Miguel

Miguel smiling up on the roof

We were so sorry to see him leave after his three weeks with us, as we waved him off to his next host. But he came back, to our great delight, a couple of weeks later. It isn’t my place to describe the strange experiences he had with two of his hosts, but I will say that we were shocked, angry and amused by some of them. Workawayers are not slaves; they are temporary family members and deserve and expect to be treated as such.

During his time away, Miguel had met another Workawayer whose situation wasn’t ideal. I’ll only say that her accommodation where she was staying was in a small tent. He gave her our email, and a couple of days later, Lydia arrived, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She had just returned from working as a volunteer in Togo, and entertained us with accounts and photographs of her life there. She also co-opted Miguel and TOH into yoga sessions in the garden. I participated in the role of official photographer.  :)

Lydia

Lydia’s yoga session

Smiling

Miguel didn’t seem totally convinced. :)

Yoga

Tally never did understand what he was meant to be doing :)

So by a wide margin, our experience of Workawayers has been very positive, as has that of several friends, although at least one did find themselves lumbered with a very unacceptable “guest”.

The beauty of the system is that you can read feedback for both hosts and volunteers on the Workaway site, and my advice to anybody considering using the system is to check out the experiences of others before making a commitment.

A final note. Having a number of American friends, among them not one has tasted Marmite without pulling a face and declaring it to be inedible at best, and downright disgusting at worst. Lydia’s initial reaction was polite disbelief that anybody would eat it. However, next day she tried a little more. And by the time she left, she was converted and wondering if she would find anywhere to buy it back home in the United States.

Here are Miguel and Lydia having breakfast:

And here they are at the end of their stay with us. We’d love to see both of them again one day, they enriched our summer and our lives. Thank you both.

Both

PS  If you wondered why we know him as the cycling nutter, have a look at Millar’s checklist AFTER he dispensed with the trailer.  :D

New review

Today there is a very nice new 5-star review on Amazon by prolific reader, blogger, gardener, cook and traveller Jacqueline at French Village Diaries of The Valley of Heaven and Hell – Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette.

She does call me a crazy fool, but then she’s probably right. :D

The Magic of France – free e-book offer

Those nice people at Blackbird Digital Books are giving away a fun little freebie until 12th November at midnight UK time.

The Magic of France is a collection of extracts from my books, recalling some of my favourite experiences as a traveller and resident in France. There’s also an exclusive preview of my next book, Swallows and Robins, due for publication at the beginning of December.

A HUGE thank you to Elle Ford for her brilliant cover image, which she somehow did at short notice in spite of her overcrowded schedule.

 

The Magic of France is exclusively available in e-book format, and can be downloaded now from Smashwords using the following link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/251111  Remember that the free offer ends at midnight UK time on 12th November.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. :)

To keep up to date with all titles from Blackbird Digital Books you can sign up for their newsletter here.

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New book cover …

… in the pipeline.

In the meantime, here’s an interim version at Smashwords and Amazon.com:

I’m thrilled at how the artist has captured my naturally lithe and slender limbs, retroussé nose and determined demeanour. A veritable tour de force. :)

Conques

It was due to the combination of our rebellious teenage daughter and Richard Binns, self-publisher of the very best French guide books ever written, that we enjoyed a most memorable and surreal evening high in the Auvergne region.

Our angelic child had morphed overnight into an unmanageable monster. Willing compliance became steely-eyed defiance. As an example of sheer awkwardness I’ve never encountered anything on the same scale. Under the spell of a spliff-smoking boy called Aubrey, who played the guitar and lived in a squat above an undertaker’s with a group of other feckless young people, the daughter decided she was old enough – at 14 – to make her own way in life and join them. There were tantrums, there were tears, there were threats, and then there was kidnap.

Yes, that’s right, we packed our bags, and one for our darling daughter, forced her into the car, and headed for France, with no plan except to get as far away from Aubrey as we could, for as long as it took to return our little blossom to her former lovely self. Our itinerary was vague, but guided by Richard Binns “French Leave 3,” we found delightful small towns and excellent eateries over the following fortnight as we made our leisurely way to the Mediterranean.

We gave the darling daughter some spending money, which she initially earmarked for a bottle of champagne to take back for Aubrey. But by week two she had changed her mind and bought herself a CD of Simon and Garfunkel, and a fuschia coloured lipstick. By the time we arrived at the Mediterranean it was the first week of August, when the whole of France descends on the Midi, something we had not taken into account, and there was no room at the inn or anywhere else, so we ended up spending a week at a nudist camp at Agde.

By the end of week three, confident that Aubrey was no longer a threat to our domestic harmony, we were homeward bound on a scorching day in a car that had no air-conditioning. Hot, tired, sticky, hungry, in crumpled shorts and flip-flops, we followed a contorted lane up the side of a steep gorge surrounded by wooded mountains, and pulled up outside one of Richard’s recommendations, the Hotel Ste-Foy in the village of Conques.

Hotel Ste Foy, Conques

The hotel foyer was thickly carpeted, the elegant staircase glowing white stone. Through French windows I could see tables set for dinner in a flowery courtyard. Trying to look as clean as possible I hesitantly approached the desk. Dared we presume to sully this lovely little hotel with our grubby selves?

With a graciousness that would have impressed royalty, Madame led us up to a charming low-beamed and spacious room in the attic, overlooking the sacred Abbey of Sainte Foy. No weary travellers were ever more grateful for a cool room, and a warm shower, followed by a perfect meal in the shaded courtyard.

Clean and replete, we wandered around the narrow cobbled streets, lined by ancient half-timbered houses with steeply-pitched slate and tiled roofs, glowing apricot in the last rays of the boiling sun. In this unspoiled medieval village, our 20th century clothing seemed out of place.

Martyrdom of Saint Foy

The sacred abbey of Sainte Foy which dominates the village is a place of pilgrimage, named after and containing the relics of an unfortunate young girl martyred in the 4th century for her Christian beliefs.

While we are not religious, we appreciated its grandeur, the work and dedication it had taken to construct this great building in such a remote and inaccessible place, and the coolness offered by its stones in contrast to the hot evening air. Later we were sitting on a low wall enjoying the beauty and peace of our surroundings. Suddenly a voice rang out, the voice of a young English boy.

“Oh woe is me, unhappy mortal! Tragic victim of a thousand million ills! Listen to me!”

There was a small figure standing at an open 2nd floor window, its arms flung wide.

“Wilt thou take pity upon this miserable wretch? Tormented by fever, debilitated by disease, this festering flesh calls for release.”

A group of people passing by stopped beside us, as the unhappy mortal listed his ailments.

“Diphtheria, malaria, scarlatina, polio, gangrene, asthma, peritonitis, abscesses and fractures, intestinal parasites and fungal infections  …I implore you to release me from my agony.”

The little orator enumerated an encyclopedic list of the problems that could beset the human body, while we listened with growing amusement.

“And so I now take my leave, good people, bidding farewell to earthly toil as I shed this useless body and take flight to the heavens.” Then he lowered his arms to his sides, and gave a small bow.

After a moment of stunned silence his audience clapped and cheered, and the young misery took a bow before closing the window and disappearing. I’ve always wondered what became of him – is he now a stellar thespian?

From our bedroom we could almost touch the bell tower of the abbey, and when the bells struck the hour the sound hung on the air long afterwards, until it faded away to a hiss, and a final gentle whisper.

Although it was long ago, the memory is still clear in my mind. And for that I thank our beautiful daughter, now the mother of an equally beautiful daughter of her own, and Richard Binns, traveller and writer extraordinaire, who has moved to the great beyond to continue his work. Without them, we would never have had that enchanting evening.

Please check out the link below under “Related articles” – the photographs of Conques are superb.

The website of Richard Binns – the man, his work and his life

 Hotel Sainte Foy, Conques

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