plastic letters

"I've learned some things, these years in France," I said to Eric.

"You couldn't drive a manual car when you got here," he said.

I put a chicken into the oven to roast. "Why, four years back, I couldn't even roast a chicken!"

I thought about all the other things I'd learned. How to speak French, the difference between brebis and chevre. I'd never heard of grèves and I thought France was all shabby chic and women with scarves tied just so. I had no idea there were so many kinds of slippers, or knives. That neon yellow safety vests are for driving, orange for hunters.

How to tell a baguette from a batard, a financier from a religieuse.

Survival skills, like drinking coffee black - not because it's more sophisticated but because most of the milk is that long shelf-life kind. I didn't know how to steam and scrape wallpaper, but that's a must to know if you're living in an old French house and don't want to walk around permanently depressed.

"You know one other thing I've learned?" I shouted, clomping into the kitchen with an armload of logs. "This time last year, I couldn't build a fire!"

But now I did it easily, the first fire of the season - piling the smaller bits of wood into the wood burner, planting fire lighters, getting it going and then adding bigger logs.

A few minutes later, when the thing was really roaring, the room started filling up with foul-smelling smoke.

I checked the chicken - that was fine. I opened the wood burner and it was perfect, like a picture from Country Living magazine. But the fumes were making me queasy. I walked outside, looking at the chimney silhouetted against the sky, to make sure the smoke was coming out alright.

Back inside, it smelled like a hazardous waste site. I looked at the side of the woodburner and screamed.

Plastic letters, like you put on a refrigerator, THANK YOU spelled out by friends in the summer. I'd looked at them just that morning and smiled. It hadn't occurred to me to take them down - now they were melting and burning, the cheery colors dripping and running together like something in a horror film.

And suddenly Eric was lunging in fearlessly with a paint scraper, removing the molten mess and flinging it onto a pile of newspaper.

But then I already knew he was my hero.