Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sustainable driver

I grew up in the midst of four-wheel vehicles. (I was also immersed, from as far back as I can remember, in an exciting environment of vehicles of a two-wheeled kind: track-racing bicycles, but that's another story.) My grandfather Ernest Skyvington was the Ford dealer in Grafton, and his son Bill (my father) was employed for a while as a mechanic in this business. In the late '40s, my mother, Kath, used to drive us to school in a Jeep, while her Walker family (dairy farmers in Waterview, South Grafton) even got around in an old Pontiac.

Well, in spite of this, I never acquired any kind of lust for automobiles. I obtained my driver's license before leaving home but, during my time in Sydney, when I was employed as a computer programmer with IBM, the idea of purchasing a car never entered my mind. Apart from racing bikes, my only objects of fascination and desire (to call a spade a spade) were computers and romantic female nymphs who played the piano. It was only in France, after seeing Christine at the wheel of a primitive Citroën, that I finally got around to purchasing my first car.

These days, I believe that one of the most noble roles of an automobile in rural France consists of taking you to a nearby train station where you can maybe hop on to a fabulous TGV (high-speed train) to travel rapidly to another corner of the land. Besides, if your car happens to be rather ancient (like my 1996 Citroën ZX), then you can leave it parked near the train station with no worries that it might get scratched or bumped or stolen.

Here at Gamone, there has never been a garage... because automobiles didn't even exist at the time my house came into existence. So, my car has always stayed out in the open, in the sun, rain, hail, ice, snow, etc. At certain times of the year, oil drops from the blossoms of my giant linden trees and leaves a dirty black stain on the roof of the car. At other times, it gets covered in red dust blown across the Mediterranean from the deserts of Africa. Once, I used to scrub the car clean every so often. But now, I generally wait for the rain to lend a helping hand, and I only intervene when it's impossible to see out through the windows.

At the height of summer, it's a luxury to be able to invite Sophia to jump into the car for a trip down to the Bourne, for a swim. Then, on the return trip, the soaked dog, with muddy paws, lies down on the upholstery of the rear seat to dry herself. Later, I end up taking out my vacuum cleaner to remove a thick coating of dog hairs from inside the vehicle. Another luxury consists of being able to use my car as a utility vehicle for transporting rubbish, or for picking up a few bags of cement. For bulkier stuff, I hook on a light trailer.

Christine once remarked that the old façade of my house at Gamone (before restoration) bore scars, like an adventurer who had traveled through many dangerous lands.

This is not surprising in the case of a modest residence that was probably erected shortly after the French Revolution of 1789. My car, likewise, has collected a respectable set of scars, picked up mainly in Grenoble, Valence and various Dauphiné villages.

During the time that I've owned my Citroën ZX, my former neighbor Bob has got around to consuming his fifth vehicle. I have no trouble understanding why that's the case, because I've been in cars with Bob at the wheel (including my own). He's convinced that I'm an untalented and frustrating driver, because I don't whip my vehicle like Ben Hur in his chariot. Bob considers that, since the resale value of my Citroën is now zero, and since it still runs perfectly (in spite of its mileage: some 260,000 kilometers), then the logical economic solution is to carry on driving it until it falls to pieces. I agree with him. I'm the proud owner of a sustainable automobile.

This afternoon, I took the old Citroën along for its obligatory annual technical inspection. At the end of his 30-minute procedure, using all kinds of sophisticated gadgets, the fellow said: "Everything's perfect. The ZX is a sturdy Citroën model. Normally, you should be able to get another 100,000 kilometers out of yours."

Over the years, there have never, of course, been any miracles. Various parts of my Citroën have indeed given up the ghost from time to time. But, instead of throwing up my arms in anguish and rushing out to purchase a new automobile, I simply get the broken parts replaced in an excellent little Speedy garage alongside the Leclerc supermarket in St-Marcellin. I've got to know the mechanics fairly well, and they never try to cheat me on their invoices. Besides, they use an excellent computer system, built by their colleagues in Paris, which enables them to track down required spare parts efficiently and quickly.

In fact, the ultimate luxury for an automobile owner such as me is to leave the vehicle at home and go out on foot for a stroll to the village or in the hills, accompanied by my dog.

I've often said that I would wait until I had a garage here at Gamone before contemplating the replacement of my old car. Well, as of this morning, after an intense 24-hour period of earth-moving operations carried out by my friend and neighbor René Uzel, there's a broad ramp of rocky earth (very muddy for the moment) leading up to a corner of the house, which could soon become my garage. Observers wonder if it's wide enough for a garage. My Citroën has an external width—between the tips of the rear-view mirrors—of 2 meters. The distance between the stone wall of the house and the concrete pillar is 2.5 meters, and it's 6 meters deep.

Up until now, it was quite impossible to see the entire northern façade of the old house from this viewpoint. The roof on the right has been recently renovated, as you can see from the pale-colored wood. The empty zone beneath the western side of the house (where you can see a tall metal ladder leaning against a roof rafter) was used by former owners of Gamone as a hay loft. Besides the future garage, there's an available area of 60 square meters, much of which lies above the ancient stone cellar that was used as a winery. The following photo, taken at the southern side of the house by my daughter Emmanuelle in the summer of 1994, shows me dragging out this hay to burn it. I didn't yet own any farm animals, and I was afraid that the hay might catch fire.

One of these days, I would like to board in the upper part of the garage opening, and install a pair of big wooden doors. I would also cover the ugly new concrete pillar by a layer of stones.

I had intended to build a firewood-shed to the right of the new ramp, up against the embankment. In facts, I now hesitate, because I'm not sure that this view of the ancient house should be marred by the presence of a flimsy new wooden structure for storing firewood. There's an obvious constraint concerning the location of a shed for firewood. It must be located not far from the spot where my neighbor Gérard Magnat drops off from his big truck. That's to say, the shed must be near the road... since I don't want to find Gérard driving across the "lawns of Gamone" (where the inverted commas highlight the fact that my modest lawns have little in common with those, for example, of Windsor Castle). Maybe I could erect my future wood-shed (dimensions of about 1.5 m x 4 m) on the flat area to the left of my mail-box, which I have been using, up until now, as a place for hanging out my washing.

One hesitates (as Christine knows full well) before introducing any kind of new constructions into an ancient place such as Gamone. Even though it's a quite humble site (that adjective pleases me), with no pretensions towards esthetic splendor, I dislike the thought of polluting inadvertently this ancient environment, of a beautifully minimalist and austere sub-Alpine nature, with my Mickey Mouse erections.

BREAKING NEWS: I agree with Christine (who has always been my guide at Gamone) that the stark frontal aspect of the house, viewed from the north (as in the above photo of the new ramp), should not be disfigured by any kind of construction, neither up against the new embankment nor in the vicinity of the mailbox. The rustic charm and spirit of the place reside in its basic austerity, which must remain unaltered. We therefore have the impression that a convenient and inconspicuous spot to stock firewood might be beneath the overhanging roof on the slope to the right of the house.

I often think that my property at Gamone is a reflection of my life. Over the last few years, in the style of a Buddhist monk (which I'm definitely not), I've been whittling Gamone down to its bare but essential sustainable elements: me, for example.


  1. There's a wonderful sense of freedom you get from driving a beat up old car.
    One year when we stayed at my parents' holiday house on the sunshine coast, we had use of my mum's ancient honda civic - it was bright yellow.
    It was wonderful driving along the beach road, crunching the gears, the wind blowing through like a gale and 3 wet, salty, smelly dogs in the back seat.

    These days, we have a proper car but I have a 1960 Morris Minor that I just love driving around town on a summer's day.

  2. I drive a Mercedes 6 cylinder 230E Sedan - Body W124 Built February 1987 (ie 23 years old this month). Presumed to have had a number of previous owners and has had an engine rebuild. It now has 342,000 kms on the odometer and drives well. It has a number of very good features not seen on present day cars. Pleasant and comfortable to drive and hopefully will last until I cease to drive cars.