I’d already heard of this book before I started my French project. In the pre-little-man days I used to be able to (whisper it) read the whole Saturday Telegraph! In one day! Shocking, I know, but true. How times have changed. Michael Wright used to write a short column in the Weekend section of the newspaper and it was called C’est la Folie (he may still but it’s a while since I’ve seen a Saturday Telegraph). It was a small snippet about life in rural France, usually involving amusing interactions with the locals or how to round up a flock of runaway sheep. I liked the columns and was vaguely interested in the book, but not enough to buy it at the time. So now, having embarked on the French project, my eye was caught by the title while I was browsing in Waterstone’s for road maps and guides to the Dordogne (more on that later). I remember how I liked the columns, I thought to myself, I wonder if the book is any good. So I bought it.
It is a good tale, very good in fact. It’s much more raw and down to the nuts and bolts than Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, but there are at least 15 years between the books and the settings are two distinctly separate geographical regions. Michael Wright gave up his London life because he felt both it and consequently he were becoming too soft and comfortable, and so he needed toughening up by some real challenges, not just those posed by a daily commute on the Underground (although Heaven knows that is enough to promote the growth of several thick skins). He buys an old farmhouse in need of renovation because it just feels right when he walks in to look round. We’ve all rented or bought properties on that basis, I’m sure; because it just feels right. The book is about his first 15 months or so living in France, organising renovations, learning the language, learning to care for livestock, trying to integrate into the community. The stories are recounted with humour and a sense of the endless possibilities for making a complete plank of oneself. For example the time when Michael tries to engage the newsagent with his fledgling French, but the newsagent cannot understanding and tells Michael, in English, that there are English newspapers for sale. Or when Michael asks one of the local young ladies if she would like to have a drink with him one evening and is met with a frank stare and an emphatic “non”. No beating around the bush there, then! There are several stories involving how a slight change in language can completely alter the meaning of a sentence: for example while flying his small plane tries to tell air traffic control that he has the wind behind him and is coming in to land and to take off again immediately – a touch and go. He ends up sounding as if he’s troubled by last night’s baked beans and is coming in for a quick feel (une touche rather than un touche, I believe).
There are also moments of real sadness, when it all seems likes it’s been a huge mistake, however the book gives little hint of how truly difficult the transition was. For example, at one point he writes that, tired of sitting at the kitchen table with tears streaming down his face, he gets up and goes out. It’s only by phrases such as this that you get any sense at all that the move has been really and properly challenging and suddenly it’s abundantly obvious that the transition was not a walk in the park. This makes the book better, in my opinion, because it is not a long succession of sorry tales of maudlin introspection, but neither is it a falsely happy tale, woven because the reader only really wants to know the good bits. It seems like more of a reflection of real life, in as much as any story can achieve that. Despite the difficulties, Michael reminds himself that he came to France to learn to be tougher, and so he sticks with it.
And of course, gradually things do become easier; his renovations take shape, he joins clubs and makes friends in the local area, becomes more proficient in the language and settles in to his new way of life. The story ends when more than a year has elapsed and Michael Wright is becoming more contented. Only one thing is missing now from his life, a partner to share it with. This is the subject of the sequel, Je t’aime a la Folie. I think I might be buying that one too.