Setting up house in rural France when one speaks little French and normally resides 16000 km away, is a voyage of discovery. Although fraught with difficulties, (a head on car crash, a few trips to hospital, falling through a rotting floor, trying to deal with my elusive and swindling Man on the Ground….), when reflecting on the positive experiences, the negative ones diminish in significance.
One of my greatest joys has been meeting the colourful characters who reside, temporarily or permanently, in our corner of France. With a tendency to be shy, I had to put aside my foibles and take the initiative to talk to people in painfully poor French. As a passionate flâneur, opportunities naturally arose to make acquaintances as I meandered through the village. One such person was Toby. I had passed Toby’s maison secondaire on the edge of the village a few times during my daily strolls, twice stopping to photograph the worn exterior of sa maison before I chanced upon him, seated on his terrace with a pipe in one hand and a glass of red in the other, savouring some regional produce and the delights of dusk – a time when the cooling air releases the fragrance of the forest and birds are called to song.
During my first apero chez Toby, an old film camera was produced as Toby boldly inquired, “ Do you mind if I take a shot of your face with your name? Terrible memory. Like to avoid embarrassment.” Dutifully the “newcomers” lined up on the terrace, chatting (wine glass in hand) while waiting for their turn to have an identifying portrait taken – a procedure reminiscent of that of the dreaded, annual school photograph.
Like many houses in France, the antiquated exterior of Toby’s maison belied its tastefully restored interior. Giant butterfly nets hung from oak beamed walls and each item of decoration and carefully placed furniture had an interesting history.
Toby was relaxed and quietly confident – a man who has made a career from his passions and takes life in his stride. A charming host and an entertaining raconteur with a soft BBC accent. His thick brown hair has a rogue lock that frequently has to be flicked out of his face. With a portly frame and gentle demeanour, Toby reminds me of a much-loved teddy bear. He seldom ventures into the heart of the village, preferring to spend his time meandering through the local forest where he collects butterflies and other insects from which he makes preserved collections – a pastime he has pursued in France since childhood.
One gets the impression that despite the personal challenges he has faced, Toby still views life as a “Boy’s Own Adventure”. During our conversations, it was clear that he has an upbeat outlook on life that enables him to make the mundane appear exotic. One gets an inkling of this from his business card on which the whole family appears along with the farcical name of his commercial enterprise. A side of this card reads as follows.
Sporting & Natural History
Poultry & Rural Pursuits
Fencing, Theatre & English Literature
(Interpretation: A gentleman who enjoys the pursuit of his passions, regardless of the financial rewards. Life is to be enjoyed.)
(Interpretation: Anthony has finished school and, at the age of 18, doesn’t know what to do with his life so he is currently breeding poultry while he “finds himself”.)
(Interpretation: Henrietta is a drama student who has completed an Arts degree and fences as a hobby. Has yet to discover the importance of financial security.)