“C’est normal”…

… a frequently-heard phrase in these parts – but it doesn’t mean exactly what you’d think it does. For the French, it’s more a way of saying “of course” or “don’t mention it”. But I hear it so often that it has made me realise that what I hold as “normal” has taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve been here…

After being so accustomed to the hubbub of London, I’m now quite used to the tranquility of Raynaudes (ok, admittedly punctuated by the odd bellowing animal), although the stillness continues to captivate me, even after five months – I could listen to the cicadas for hours at night, their chirruping a continuous, soothing presence that I will sorely miss when I leave. And the bone-chilling, face-numbing, spirit-dampening cold and rain of home seems unimaginable as I am warmed every day by the blazing Occitan sunshine. I can’t imagine how my daily routine used to involve a cramped commute on London Underground into work, where I would then spend most of my 50 working hours a week sitting in front of a computer screen or trying to stay focused during a three-hour meeting. Now, of course, my working hours total more than 80 a week and are mainly spent in an infernally hot kitchen, trying not to give myself third-degree burns or chop any fingers off, but that’s my chosen life now – and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I honestly can’t think of a better day’s work than one that involves cooking the produce I’ve selected from our local market and suppliers with vegetables, fruit and herbs that I’ve picked from our garden to create food for enthusiastic, lovely guests to enjoy. And then, of course, there’s the pool and sunshine to concentrate on for a couple of hours in the afternoon..

But the “norm” around here is not all pastoral, idyllic perfection. Despite the Brits returning from their French holidays full of praise for the more relaxed approach to life taken by our Gallic cousins, they can seem like a bunch of absolute slackers when you’ve got a short amount of time to get a lot done. I’m sure we’d all welcome the idea of a two-hour lunch break every day, with a working week capped at 35 hours, but trust me – it simply isn’t practical. Not an awful lot ever gets achieved around here – and nothing is ever open when you need it. After London’s 24-hour culture, where you can get almost anything anytime, we must now grit our teeth and bear rural France’s more “relaxed” attitude to business. Not only do many shops and restaurants close daily from 12-2pm – as well as all day on Sundays and Mondays – but many don’t open on Wednesdays as French children have the day off school in order to received the religious instruction of their parents’ choice (it isn’t provided as part of the secular school system. Of course, they don’t do anything of the sort – Wednesday is unofficially “teenage-loafing” day around town…) And, on the subject of shops – how on earth did the store-planners for our local supermarket decide that the dental floss belongs in amongst the condoms? The locals might have a good explanation (as did Jude, although I’m not repeating it here), but I’m still trying to figure that one out – and am rather worried about French attitudes to both oral hygiene and contraception…


And yet… if we think the local ways of life are a bit unusual, what on earth must Le Manoir’s guests think when they see Orlando paddling around the lake in a red kayak, hurling white powder all over the surface (and himself) or catch sight of Peter on the back on a tractor being driven around the field? And it’s not every hotel owner who sits down at the piano after dinner to sing “I am 16, going on 17” to the chef while she’s dressed in a candy-pink dirndl, doing her best Julie Andrews twirls? (Yes, there are photos. No, you can’t see them). If you think that’s a bit unusual… well, I never promised you normal, did I?