Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Christmas and New Year passes ...

... in a haze of Vicks VapoRub, Kleenex tissues and early nights. Even now, two weeks on, we are still coughing and sneezing, along with every second person in Leclerc's supermarket.

We negotiate "Bonnes Années" (Happy New Years) and "Meilleurs Vœux" (Best Wishes) with caution. To kiss on each cheek?  Or not to kiss? I wave a packet of tissues at friends in the photo club and they back away hastily (wisely I suspect) and someone cheerfully informs me that this particular virus is good for at least three weeks.

And through all this, instead of lounging indolently watching bad TV, we grump and grumble our way through the process of getting paperwork together for the prefecture at Agen.  We decided way back in October, in the light of uncertainty around Brexit, that we would each apply for a Carte de Sejour, which gives us the right of occupancy here in France for the next ten years.

As so often in France, each department seems to be a law unto itself and Lot-et-Garonne seems to be particularly exigent with a three-page questionnaire to complete requiring everything except inside leg measurements and a list running to a page and a half of paperwork to be presented at an interview on January 2nd.

So, we drag the wallpaper pasting table out from the garage and set it up in the cottage and start piling up the contents of our two dossiers - two copies of everything because we each have our own interview appointment (very Green Card. Are they checking up on us?). Five years of bank account statements, for him, for me, UK and France, downloaded from the internet.  Five years of electricity bills (to show we live here). Five years of tax demands from the French tax man.  Five years of evidence that we are receiving pensions (and hence will not be a burden on the state).

As a hoarder (I've kept every single bit of paper about my pensions from the moment we began to talk to an IFA) I have no problem producing the evidence - tedious, but no problem. My beloved, as an accountant, on the other hand, keeps a massive Excel spreadsheet on our financial lives and knows to the nearest penny how we are doing. But, of course, does not keep the supporting paperwork.  Why does he need to keep the annual state pension letters when he just enters each new amount in the spreadsheet?  And what little paperwork there is could be in the cottage, or in the house, and if in the house could be in one of half a dozen places. Hence all the grumping and grumbling. (This is why behind every good accountant is an even better accounts clerk who is keeper of the paperwork.)

I post anxious messages on the French forum asking for advice and suggestions and along with the helpful replies come the questions - why are we bothering to do all this?  Why indeed?  It just feels like an insurance. We will already be "in the French system" if/when Brexit happens.

January 2nd comes like the morning of an aural exam.  We carry our large ring binders and supporting folders with three-quarters of a ream of paper up the stairs of the prefecture - to be greeted with smiles and an "of course you can be in the same interview".  We sit together and papers flow steadily across the desk, are noted and recorded in the computer. After half an hour of French bureaucracy at its best we are told that our dossiers are complete and the "cartes" should be with us in five to six weeks.  We depart with more smiles and more "Bonnes Années" all round.

Despite all the Vicks and the Kleenex laden days it feels like a good start to the New Year. Hope yours too has started well.

I can safely send virtual greetings to you without the obligatory kisses and without danger to health and well-being. So "Meilleurs Vœux" and "Bonne Année" to one and all.

Monday, 30 October 2017

I promised myself I'd go back...

...and I was running out of time.  We were still in glorious sunshine, but only for another day or so.  After that, the forecast looked depressing.

So Wednesday evening I leave Tod and the dogs and head south in the dark for Pau and the Pyrenees beyond. Thursday morning reveals a town smothered in pink for breast cancer awareness and clear skies over the mountains on the horizon. Pic du Midi d'Ossau, with its distinctive double peaks is my eventual destination.

Pau - Place Clemenceau decked out for breast cancer awareness month

Pau - View from Boulevard des Pyrénées, with the distinctive outline of Pic du Midi d'Ossau

And those clear sunny skies stay with me as I revel in the glorious scenery and stop to take photos on nearly every bend in the road.

Bas Ossau (the lower Ossau) is green and lush.  The mountains hang back, leaving a spacious valley floor, populated with small towns and villages.

Looking down on Laruns

Higher up the slopes, Eaux-Bonnes a thermal spa made popular by Empress Eugénie now languishes in a scruffy, faded glory - the Hôtel des Princes a shadow of its former self.

Eaux-Bonnes casino

Eaux-Bonnes Hôtel des Princes now derelict and sold at auction in July for a mere 19,000 euros!

I travel on and upwards, following in the tracks of the Tour de France cyclists.  A pause on a sharp bend for a lunchtime ice-cream (the only food) and a Perrier at one of the few restaurants that are still open, I look back down on the ski station of Gourette - now a ghost town with its bars, hotels and apartments shut at the end of the summer season.

Gourette from Les Crêtes Blanches

My destination is Col d'Aubisque, a mountain pass at 1,706 meters (5,607 feet) and most years a passage in the Tour de France. Giant bikes honour the event and make wonderful climbing frames for small children. I stroll up a grass-covered slope and look back down on the modest hotel and cafe - still doing steady business as late holidaymakers and tough whip-thin men who have cycled all the way up relax under umbrellas and drink in the views.

Col d'Aubisque with Le Soum de Grum to the right

Friday dawns brisk - the temperature in single figures - as I set off for Haut Ossau (High Ossau), pausing at another thermal spa, Eaux-Chaudes, on the way. "Bonjours" are exchanged with a middle-aged couple cheerfully heading towards the entrance, towels under their arms.

Eaux-Chaudes thermal baths

The mountains here press in on the valley and the sun is slow to come over the horizon.  When it does, the landscape glows in the late morning light.

Gave de Brousset

Cirque d'Anéou

I'm heading for the Col du Portalet pass (1,794 meters, 5,886 feet) and the Spanish border (just so I can say I've been there). I cross into Spain to find a gaggle of French shoppers busy buying cheap booze from a huddle of small supermarkets.

Pic du Midi d'Ossau from the Spanish side

Now on the Spanish side, I realise I am looking at a mirror image of the peak seen in the distance yesterday morning from Pau - I have arrived!

Time to head home, passing the occasional cow complete with large cowbell on the way.

Through the windscreen

The weather is changing, the cranes are flying south and by the time I'm back on the motorway it's raining. These two last days of our Indian summer have been precious.

On Tuesday we're moving back down to the cottage for winter.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Yes, you are in the right place

Those of you who have been following Writing Home for some time, you may wonder where you have landed.

For some time I've felt that the black small writing on a white background was looking a tad old-fashioned. 

Also, for those among us of a somewhat elderly disposition there is a practical aspect which is that our eyes aren't what they used to be.  I mentally thank bloggers who publish in a larger font and thought it was time I did the same.

So on this wet Saturday I've finally taken the plunge, changed my template and somewhat nervously pressed the "apply to blog" button.  I haven't yet worked back through all my posts to check all is well, but the ones I have looked at seem to be ok.

I do hope that this new layout is easier to read and that the midway between donkey brown and Paris grey colour (Tod's not entirely convinced) is not too dull.

Friday, 20 October 2017

So We Came Home

Hard to believe, but for the ten years we've been here we have never really visited the Pyrenees. And they are only about three hours drive away.

Tod has driven through them coming back from Saragossa.  We once sat on a terrace in Pau and lunched with their magnificent backdrop just over our shoulders. Years ago, I stood on the battlements at Carcassonne and wished I was in the mountains instead.

So, we decided finally it was time, booked a hotel and headed for the Ossau Valley, complete with dogs, and armed with maps, guide books and pages from Google showing the easy walks (we weren't planning on doing anything too strenuous).

The weather had been glorious for the previous two weeks - temperatures in the high twenties. Even when we caught the trailing edge of Hurricane Ophelia as it tracked across the Bay of Biscay going northwards, the blustery wind was warm. In the bright autumnal golden sunlight the thought of walking in the Pyrenees was delightful.

As we drove south the rain clouds began to bank up and we took comfort in the occasional bit of blue sky - perhaps the weather forecast was unduly pessimistic.  By south of Pau the mountains were barely visible, grey sketched outlines appearing and disappearing against the grey sky.  By our third "pit stop" (Bertie gets bored / car sick, starts to whine and needs the diversion of a quick walk) the rain was falling fairly fast.  By the time we got to the hotel it was pouring.

Tod and the dogs stayed in the car as I dashed, dripping and bedraggled, into the elegant hotel foyer. Madame, looking at me with some horror, suggested that we and the dogs should stay in the annexe. She mellowed somewhat when I meekly agreed that yes please, we would like to book the restaurant for dinner - there was no way we were going any further!

The downpour eased to a mere steady drizzle and, knowing the dogs would need their constitutional, we set out macked and booted to explore a green lane immediately behind the hotel (great, where to go for tomorrow's early morning walk sorted).

We'd hoped to have the annexe to ourselves but a family of four arrived, banged and crashed doors, flushed toilets, ran showers and invaded what we'd already come to think of as "our space".  They were English too - maybe for Madame the annexe was the "English ghetto"?  I murmured that I hoped our dogs wouldn't disturb them - while quite convinced they would disturb us.

We hustled Vita and Bertie back into the car, hardened our hearts to his barking ("he'll settle down") and headed for the hotel restaurant. Throughout the meal we watched the rain in the dark falling into puddles on the tarmac, reflected in the lights of the hotel, trying to gauge whether it was easing off or not.

In a nearly empty room, Madame placed the English family at the next table - maybe she thought we needed the company?  We tried not to eavesdrop, but did hear with some relief that they would be leaving in the morning.

Another damp walk in the dark and we decided an early night was called for.  It had been a stressful day and the other family had settled down early - they planned to be up at seven.  In the dark I heard Bertie pacing the floor his nails click, clicking on the lino and then the soft whining started - I hissed at him to be quiet, praying the English family were asleep.  Vita too wouldn't settle, panting in anxiety and pawing the door.  By midnight all four of us were dressed, up, out and walking towards the village in the drizzle, the dogs thrilled with exciting smells and dank burrows to investigate, the sound of cow bells from the steep valley sides in the background, low cloud drifting in and out of view in the beams of our torches.

We crept back to the annexe and opened and closed doors as quietly as we could.  I lay in bed for hours, semi-rigid, longing for sleep, hoping that the dogs would stay calm and quiet.  By seven the family were up and out. The dogs, exhausted, slept peacefully through all of the comings and goings.

Over breakfast, the rain still pouring outside the hotel windows, we decide to come home.

We wonder whether Madame would be displeased, as I'd booked for two nights.  I approach her somewhat apprehensively to give her the news.  However, when I mention that our dogs have been restless in the night and I was concerned about her other guests, she couldn't wait to get rid of us.

Next time, we've agreed, when the weather's fine I'll visit the Pyrenees on my own, with only my camera for company. Tod, Vita and Bertie will stay very contentedly at home.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Sights and Sounds of Autumn

Seven hounds and other assorted mutts joyously hurtle their way along the bottom of Monsieur F's field beside the stream, the front two (massive Bassets, their ears flapping) baying loudly.  Hunting? I doubt it. Their demeanour says "freedom" after six months of being cooped up in cages.

Some time later, three dogless hunters stand  on the crest of the hill behind where I'm weeding, one of them forlornly tooting a hunting horn in the vain hope that their errant pack will obey and return.

Bertie sits on the edge of the lawn of the cottage barking. His echo comes straight back at him: Yap, Yap, (yap, yap) Yap, Yap, Yap (yap, yap, yap).  The old man with his dog that has bells on its collar is working his way alongside the stream in the bottom of the valley, much to Bertie's annoyance.  The dog is hidden in the long grass, only the tinkling of the bells gives him away.

In the lunchtime lull (guns, dogs and hunters having departed in assorted white vans) I realise a robin is serenading me from a nearby bush, its song every bit as lyrical as a nightingale's.  He flutters down to where I've been digging the heavy clay, now softened by September's rains, keeping me just at arm's length while he searches for grubs.

Later, in the distance, there's the roar of a giant combine harvester clearing Alain's land of his organic soy beans, while in the neighbouring field Philippe rattles and clangs backwards and forwards on his old tractor ploughing in the bleached maize stubble.

Buzzards wheel high overhead, mewing, as they hunt for small rodents.

October is mild and sunny - outside warmer than indoors. Early mornings start misty and then dissolve into a warm golden light.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

TWELVE Pages of Comments!

Two years ago, one of our photo club (French) members suggested we did a "then and now" exhibition of the village where we hold our meetings. Some two hundred postcards from the early twentieth century were available and the suggestion was to take the same shots today.

Reactions to the idea were muted. How "creative" is it to stand where someone else stood over a hundred years ago?  It would be a lot of work. It would take over from other club activities.  And so, we (English) procrastinated and hoped the idea would go away.  Until an article mysteriously appeared in the commune's annual newsletter, saying the club was doing the exhibition and the mayor told us how thrilled she was.  So we were (reluctantly) committed.

It was all the things we feared - hard work month after month, finding the exact same places where the original postcards were photographed.  Interrogating Google street view; taking advice from local historians; tramping the streets trying to find "just" the same angle; sending letters to absentee chateaux owners asking for permission to photograph; fighting through brambles and unruly scrubland to get the "right" view; sharing what we'd taken and realising we needed to go back and try again - this became our lives for much of last winter and spring.  And still there were grumbles - where was the photographic creativity in all of this?

It was agreed with the mayor's office that the exhibition would be for the whole of this summer, so by late spring we were holding evenings where photos were printed and framed - the empty plastic crates under the tables gradually filling with pictures, old and new, ready to hang.

And something magical began to happen. We began to realise that what we were doing was quite special.  We began to appreciate the skills of those early photographers and how, with our modern cameras, we struggled to recapture their wide angles, their depth of field.  We learnt so much about this small village - and saw it with new eyes.  The vistas that are identical to those of 100 years ago. Others that have changed out of all recognition.  The old butchers shop that no-one had noticed has become a lovingly restored grand mansion; the streets that have been renamed after the two world wars; the railway line that has vanished and the station that's now a private house; the country lanes once shaded with great elms that have become urban thoroughfares.

At the preview the mayor, near to tears, thanked us and told us how important the exhibition was for the village, for those locals who would see their own history and for visitors who would learn more about this community.  We smiled, thanked her and secretly believed her words to be hyperbole.

Exhausted by the whole process, I have not been near the exhibition until visiting friends ask if they could see it.  While they stroll round, I wander over to the table with the leaflets and the visitors book open at the most recent, complimentary, comments. Curious, I turn back a page, and then another, and then another - I'm looking at twelve pages of scrawled handwriting - enthusiastic, grateful, flattering - every comment telling us how much they appreciate what we have done. The mayor was right.  Our hard work has been worth it.  So much so, that we know of at least three other communes in the area which are planning to copy us.  I wonder if they realise quite what they are taking on!

Monday, 31 July 2017

In the dark...

... I dance along the green verge between the two maize fields, a dog on a lead at the end of each raised arm.

It's the end of four days of our village's annual "fiesta".  Each night the music from over the hill has become louder.

The finale's fireworks crash and bang across the fields up behind the house and Vita frantically barks at the noise and the flashing along the horizon.  Once over, I reassure her all is well and it's time for bed, but she refuses to be convinced.

So to the laser light show and the thud, thud, thud, of the bass from the disco that will continue til well beyond three in the morning I take her and Bertie for a walk down to the stream and the bridge.

Only the dogs and the creatures of the night are there to see me dancing in the dark.

Friday, 21 April 2017

I Garden in a Sun Hat and Thermals

For days now we have woken to brilliant blue unclouded skies and a vicious north-east wind straight out of Siberia.

The shaded edge of Monsieur F's field down by the stream is frosty where Tod walks the dogs first thing.

We've had no rain since early April and I'm already watering newly-planted pots and the shrubs that I have been busy moving before summer sets in. I worry that I have already left it too late.

We had virtually no rain last year from April through to October.  The winter rains have been sparse and the stream is already low for this time of year.  If we have another dry summer, the plants I've just moved - roses, cornus, potentillas - will struggle.

Our lawns have never been cut so early or looked so good.  They are already so dry that Tod can whisk over them with the mulching mower. Even the field is being tamed.

The tulips and lilac are finished and the wisteria, looking magnificent for too brief a period, has already gone over in the strong sun. All our troughs along the terrace are filled with young geraniums, begonias, lobelias and trailing variegated greenery whose name I don't know.

We've moved back to the house - and wish we were still in the cottage. The cold north-east wind finds its way into every room and we create small puddles of warmth - in front of the log fire in the lounge, next to radiators in our studies - and we scuttle across the cold tiled floors of the dining room and the kitchen.  The dogs come in from outside, bringing an icy draught.  They've learnt to open doors but sadly not to close them.

Bedtime requires a hot water bottle and two duvets.

No doubt we will be grateful for this draughty old house come sweltering July and August.


Even when they are dying tulips still look beautiful.

The wisteria, almost over, through my study window.