How to make friends with French neighbours: Donna Kerridge draws on her years of experience as an expat in France…
I arrived in France mistakenly thinking that I spoke French. A few weeks in and I was further hampered by the strong northern dialect (known as Ch’ti) of the area where I now live. It became obvious that a few successfully ordered restaurant meals on holiday did not constitute conversation. What’s more, it did not include the vocabulary required to explain the strange noise our car had started making…
When we arrived in France to start our new life, we ensured that everyone we encountered got a huge smile and a hearty Bonjour to reassure them that we came in peace. It was easy to bond with the couple across the road – they ran the village bar, and much friendship can be cemented over a cold Ricard after a day in the garden. Still, it was months before the elderly couple opposite would venture past returning our daily greeting.
The first step was when we were working in the street one day, replacing old boards on our barn; our 78 year old neighbour watched us for hours before plucking up the courage to wander over. A menuisier himself, he was delighted to comment on our choice of timber and tools. With the aid of a pencil, he scribbled lots of numbers on the unpainted boards and we learned his age, when he had married, bought his house, how old our barn was and so on.
A few days later, his elderly wife appeared at our doorstep; a diminutive 4 foot nothing in her colourful tabard, it was an effort for her to climb the 3 steps that lead to our door. “Pour votre dîner” she said, waving a brown paper bag at me, the sort that I would associate with Starbucks. Indeed my mouth started to salivate before my brain could process the situation and conclude that it was unlikely to contain a White Americano and a Strawberry and White Chocolate muffin.
Peering inside, with an interested smile rigidly fixed in place, I gazed at three fully plumed and recently deceased pigeons. She repeated several times that they were old and I must cook them slowly. Knowing what an honour it was to receive this gift, I thanked her profusely and only slumped in horror after she had left.
Not one to be down and out for long, I reached for my precious Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall River Cottage cookbook… flicked to “P” in the index, and joy of joys, several pages on pigeons; how to age them, pluck them and cook them. I already knew they were old so following Hugh’s advice word for word, I plucked them, removed the breasts (for marinating in oil and onions) and roasted the remaining carcasses for stock. Over the course of the afternoon the stock was reduced from a pan of liquid covering the pigeon bodies and vegetables to a trickle of sticky jus to accompany the pan fried breasts.
Unbelievabley delicious! Now one of my favourite dinners and I shamelessly drop pigeons into conversations with the locals, in hope of more… and sometimes it works.
Taking a little longer to thaw, our first encounter with the man who owns a field adjoining our property was a discussion over boundaries. Bringing along his son (because he had apparently learned English at school), he proceeded to explain that there is a 50cm “no man’s land” either side of a shared fence line. Thus, our recently rescued and stacked roof tiles (actually leaning on and pushing over the fence, in a hasty and not-thought-through move by us) were breaching the rules. He then huffed off and we worked all afternoon to move the offending tiles. Such instantaneous action by us must have impressed him, because a few weeks later, his “English-speaking” son arrived on our doorstep gesturing and explaining that his Dad had been concreting and hadn’t used all the ready-mixed cement in the lorry, and did we want it? It seems they had noticed that we had started but not finished a cement storage area outside our barn. I gave the young lad the thumbs-up gesture and ventured outside to await the lorry. 40 minutes passed and finally my neighbours arrived but no sign of the cement company. As two drop-offs were not part of the deal, they had got the spare cement poured into the back of their flat-bed truck and driven it around to our previously disputed fence line. In the drizzling rain, for the next hour, they shovelled cement off their truck into a wheelbarrow on my side of the fence, which stumbling and slipping in newly forming mud, I moved and poured into our boxed-off area – almost crying with relief when my husband got back from town and took over.
Offers to pay for our share of the cement were met with horror – so the exchange was repaid with a cold beer in the aforementioned bar.
On the other side, I have a dear neighbour with whom I have many conversations over our adjoining fence line – of the type, where we both lean on our spades and discuss our respective gardens and families. Or at least I think we do because despite my growing grasp of the language, he insists on speaking in the local dialect and I only understand about 50% – but I have grown extremely adept at smiling, frowning and belly laughing at the right cues. His first gift to me was a bunch of delicious leeks, “le roi des legumes” as he said at the time. He now gives me the tiny leek seedlings so that I can grow my own.
We love repaying all these gifts once a year when we slaughter our home-reared pigs and our boat really does come in.
We haven’t spoken to the neighbour at the bottom of our garden, but he actually gets top marks as he has never mentioned the hole our goats have eaten in his hedge…
Donna Kerridge is part Kiwi/part British and moved to France with her daughter in search of a simple life. She managed to complicate it with a new partner (Potter/Sculptor Nik, part British/part German), a draughty old farmhouse and a menagerie of cats, dogs, goats, chickens and pigs. Find out more at: www.farmhouse.fr