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Another figure appeared from a barn, a curly-haired man in his late thirties, wiping his hands on his overalls as he walked up to meet us. There was the usual hand shaking and then ...

It was our first introduction to the local dialect. I had expected it to be a variation on the French we'd heard on the language tapes and schools' programmes. But not this much of a variation. It was unintelligible.

I'd been reasonably confident of my French up until that point. I'd coped with estate agents who couldn't speak English, I'd survived restaurants and hotels. I could usually make myself understood - eventually. And I could normally pick up the gist of what was being said to me - if it was repeated slowly and often enough.

But this was beyond me. It sounded more like Spanish. Perhaps we'd been learning the wrong language. And as my entire knowledge of Spanish was limited to beer, squid and airport, my conversation would be less than inspiring.

The best way to describe the dialect is to imagine French being spoken at speed by a Spaniard who has taken out all the words and linked them together with that rolling Spanish 'r' sound, to form one long unintelligible word. And as my normal method of translation depended on recognising one or two keywords in a sentence and then gradually working out the others from the context, I was stumped. There wasn't room for even the smallest keyword to breathe - everything was so well wrapped up in 'r's.

And if anything the man was worse. He was a lisping version of his mother, adding a liberal sprinkling of Spanish 'th' sounds.

But this was the campagne. What did we expect? If we'd been a French couple knocking on a Devon farmhouse we'd have probably been as lost, meeting a stream of broad Devonian.

I began to suspect that we might not be listening to French or Spanish at all, but one of those ancient Pyrenean languages I'd read about - Occitan, Catalan or some such mixture of old French and Spanish.

But then I started to grasp the odd word - as the woman slowed her speech down and unrolled the occasional 'r'.

Her name was Claudine and Roger was her son. Not the most earth-shattering of revelations, but after ten minutes of total confusion, it was as precious to us as the Rosetta stone. We were beginning to understand.

We then embarked on an attempt to ask them if they could tell us where the nearest telephone was. An ambitious enterprise but we were desperate.

After a considerable effort and many blank looks we succeeded.

"," said Claudine, pointing to the kiosk, ten yards behind us.

We turned as one and looked at the very distinctive glass booth with the word téléphone prominently displayed. Ah, that one. I declined to ask if there was one closer.

But we had found a telephone, and from that moment, time shifted into overdrive. I rang up Jan, arranged to borrow her car, fixed a time for the kitten to be picked up, the horse transported, everything. I declined to give too many details about our journey down, as no one could possibly carry enough change in their pocket to do the story justice over a pay phone.

"I will tell you later," I concluded.

The day continued at the same pace. We stocked up with plugs and fresh food, a couple of 13kg bottles of Butagaz. We priced cookers and telephones and collected free papers for their car adverts.

Which was our next priority - we had to have a car of our own.

(next chapter - Cars, Cartes and Campagne)