Napoleon did it, so did I . . . I did better

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THIS WEEK I travelled from the deepest French countryside to Moscow and back; a journey Napoleon and his troops also did 181 years ago, only in their case it took months of wintry hardship while my travel in each direction lasted 15 hours.

The culture shock induced by moving from a glorious, late autumn in the Dordogne to the beginning of the bleak Russian winter was diminished by the fact that my English friends took me straight from Moscow airport to their rented dacha in the country, so that I travelled from one modest country house to another.

It is impossible to describe a dacha without immediately invoking Chekhov. Set in the midst of a pine forest interspersed with silver birch trees, the little wooden house with its spacious glazed verandahs was like a stage set for The Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard. The verandahs are there as protection against mosquitoes, which are a scourge in summer. So instead of sitting outside, people sit at a large table covered with an embroidered cloth, screened from insects yet still amid nature.

In south-west France mosquitoes are also common, but I have never seen a windowed verandah. People sit in the sun under huge umbrellas, preferring to cover themselves in insect repellent and sun cream. Part of the reason may be that western Europeans have a passion for acquiring a tan that Russians seem not to share.

Inside the dacha another difference became obvious. Every room was dominated by a ceramic-tiled, wood-burning stove the size and shape of Britain's old red telephone boxes. Today these are seldom used, having been superseded by radiators, but they remain in place: a ubiquitous relic that, again, is rarely seen farther south than Hungary. These features - the verandah and the stove - create an atmosphere unlike anything found in a painting or film from farther west or south.

Something else contributed powerfully to this sense of strangeness. The sitting room was about five metres square. Its bare floor and walls were unadorned except for a couple of amateur oil paintings; the few pieces of furniture were placed hard against the walls. People talked to each other across a distance rather than in the intimacy created by sitting around a table or on sofas, and this seemed to add a Chekhovian sense of formality and weight to conversation.

In France our main living room, almost exactly the same size, is dominated by a wide fireplace and a huge open fire. People tend to sit huddled around it at this time of year. Conversation is close, confiding, rather than meditative or declamatory. The main piece of furniture is a long, heavy table, at which, presumably, the whole family would gather for shelling and grading walnuts or sorting mushrooms in autumn and winter.

There are many other contrasts - the French drink mainly local wine, the Russians mainly tea or vodka - but both dacha and stone cottage share a simplicity, even frugality, which means they have more in common with each other than with city life in their own countries.

It was only when we drove in to Moscow at the end of the weekend, past the burnt-out windows of the White House and the forbidding walls of the Kremlin, that culture shock set in. The French and Russian soldiers who fought in the snow in 1812 to promote the ambitions of Napoleon or defend those of the Tsar had much more in common with one another than their leaders.

Yet in the dacha I found charming evidence of one more difference between the French and Russians. The man who looks after the house when my friends are in Moscow had left a note: 'Mouses (mother, father and mouses- children) cames at our hous. I'm afraid this visit not goodwill-visit. I think it is necessary to take shelter all food (for stomach and thought or spirit).' Only a Russian, I think, would have added those last three words.