This week we have been working hard, far harder than we might have chosen to had we thought about it for too long. This week we have been laying large, square, floor tiles.
This came about because, well, we like to think we are kind people and when friends have a problem, like a job that needs to be done, we try to help if we can. Our French friend, Guy, is waiting for operations on both knees and one hip whilst his wife, Noëlle, is waiting for him to lay floor tiles in their 'salle de séjour' or living room. So, realising that laying floor tiles is the last thing we would want to do with stiff and painful knees and a defective hip joint, us Trotts have come to the rescue.
There is a payback for us, of course, in that whilst we are staying with them in their comfortable, centrally-heated house in the countryside just north of Lyon we are fully fed with whatever Noëlle can conjure up in her plentiful kitchen. This is worth more, in my humble opinion, than forty-five square metres of 'carrelage' (tiling), an aching back and bruised knees. Fortunately Kate and I both like garlic, which is generously added to most things we eat, and also wine, which is generously supplied by Guy from his vast cellar beneath the house. Eggs are kindly donated by a dozen hens who run free in the garden and there are fresh vegetables as well, safely protected from the hens of course, and every day we are eating winter salad freshly picked but a few minutes before.
One of the differences we observe in houses we have either stayed in or visited in both France and Italy is the absence of fitted carpets. In both countries they seem to regard the concept of a wall to wall woven wool floor covering with some distaste; in their view it is a source of infection and a completely unnecessary complication when it comes to cleaning. On the contrary I, as an Englishman have grown up with the idea that a fitted carpet is something desirable, indeed something to be aspired to, so the unforgiving ceramic floors seemed rather strange to me at first. Whilst I can see the sense of this in a warmer climate, as in parts of Italy, where a cool surface seems a generally good idea, here in Lyon where the winters can be every bit as fierce as those in the UK this explanation seems to make little sense. The fact that we have not unduly noticed cold from these hard floors penetrating the soles of our feet is because every house we visit has had a handy stock of slippers (the French word is pantoufle) close to the front door, a variety of colours and sizes to cater for every visitor. As likely as not these are soft, backless 'flip-flops' and a common sound, therefore, is the whispery 'shflipp, shflipp' noise made as one progresses across the tiled surface.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, 'les pantoufles' are big business over here. Your average shoe shop will have a large and prominent display of the things, often outside on racks where they hope to catch passing trade. One such shop, situated in Italy but close to the French border so as to catch the carloads of French tourists who pile across the border each day for the slightly lower prices on food and many other items, we named 'Pantoufle-R-Us' for its stunning external display. And to think that all this is due to tiled floors.
Noëlle, keen to show off the new tiles as soon as possible to her distant family and also being a regular internet user, carries her small notebook computer and its integral webcam with her as she tours the house. The computer uses a wireless internet connection and she chats with the screen as she walks about, a bizarre sight, but for efficiency one cannot fault her technique. She tilts the screen so that her sister, who lives in Switzerland, can admire the tiling from afar - far better than any photograph.