Dropped Tod at Bordeaux airport yesterday and headed for the coast.
To the south west of Bordeaux there is an inland sea - the Bassin d'Arcachon - and the road past the airport leads straight to Cap Ferret which sits at the end of a long peninsula that partly encloses the sea.
On the east side of the peninsula there is the calm of the shallow Arcachon Basin. Cross to the west and there are the rollers of the Atlantic. Great to visit, but possibly not on a major holiday!
August 15th (The Assumption) is an important date in the Catholic calendar and the numbers already holidaying are swelled by those down for the long weekend. So driving down this long spit of land with its single main road, it's important to already be in holiday mood, with all the time in the world: window wound down, arm hanging out, eyeing all the bottoms on bikes that are going faster than you. This is bike country. Bring your bikes on the back of your car, squeeze your car into the last remaining parking space on the spit and forget about it until it's time to wend your slow way home back up the single main road.
There are tantalising glimpses of the mud flats of the basin, between the pine trees and the camp sites, holiday cottages, restaurants and adventure parks. Determined to drive to the end of the spit, I found that the crowds began to thin out - it was lunchtime - and the god of parking found me a sandy space under pines among the huddle of small wooden huts where the oysters for which the basin is famous are sold.
Picking my way across the wet mud and sand, between lumps of seaweed, I photographed stranded boats and families pottering on the edge of the low tide. But this was only part of what I had come to see. Less than a mile away, on the other side of the spit, I scrambled up a grass covered sand dune and came over the brow to a vast expanse of open sky, endless beach and the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
The slow traffic jam had been worth it - just to be here breathing this salt-laden air, legs buffeted as the shallows of these great sucking waves rushed up the beach.
I'll come back with Tod - late in the year when the tourists are gone.
Seems like all my French practice at the moment is with France Telecom's 3900 "helpline".
I'm getting really good at understanding what the electronic messages are saying as I sail through pressing "un" about five times to get routed to the right person. At that point my stomach tightens, as I wonder who I will get and how I will cope with their questions and how they will cope with my pidgin French replies. Learnt a new word today - prise for socket - may have heard it before, but, if so, didn't register.
We're still having problems with our internet connection. Sometimes we can go a whole week with our livebox behaving beautifully - all the right lights glowing steadily. But then there's that depressing moment when we walk into the kitchen and there, on the work surface, tucked beside the bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar among the muddle of condiments, this white plastic triangular box sits there with just the one flashing light: "oh it's gone again!"
This last weekend was a bad one: Friday, Saturday and Sunday we lost contact at various points and I had my strained conversations with the helpline. Sunday I was lucky. I got a woman on the phone and she was very gentle with me. We talked slowly. I understood her most of the time. She understood me and sounded sympathetic. I haltingly managed to explain that as soon as they remotely test the line we get our connection back. But it doesn't always last. Sometimes it "holds" for only an hour or two. So we agreed that this time, we would arrange an engineer's visit.
Tuesday afternoon, five-ish (when we'd almost given up hope) the phone rang - "Qu'est ce que se passe?" said a male voice. Not very helpful, because I hadn't a clue what to say in reply! He needed directions and I'm getting quite fluent at describing how to find us. Fortunately we have a restaurant on a corner about two kilometers down the road, which of course all good Frenchmen know. (Like the English and pubs.) So we navigate from there.
A few minutes later, France Telecom van and France Telecom lorry (for lifting engineer to top of pole) arrive. Much muttering and sucking of teeth and walking round with small electronic gadgets trying to get them to beep. Tod took them up into the loft where they ripped out something they said we no longer needed. They changed the power lead to the livebox because the plug was warm. And that was it. They said we were fine. And left. We felt smug at having sorted this ourselves without having had to use friends to translate.
That was Tuesday evening. Today - Thursday morning - we have woken to the dreaded flashing light again. Yet another call, the line was tested and yes - for now - we are reconnected.
An engineer is coming back next Wednesday. If he phones for directions, I'll ask him if he knows the restaurant.
Yesterday we spent much of the afternoon peering down two sludge filled holes in the lawn in front of the wood store.
Yes, we have finally had to investigate the joys of our "fosse septique": two mysterious shapes - a large, round concrete slab with a manhole cover in the middle of the lawn and a crumbling brick supported concrete rectangle off to one side by the silk tree. They've been one of those things about the house that I've eyed nervously and then pretended wasn't there.
Eric told us when we first moved in that the silk tree was so big and healthy because was it growing over the fosse soak-away - too much information Eric!
But we've been forced (or fossed) to face the reality of what happens when we flush. Over recent weeks the flushing has got slower and more gurglely and we spent a nervous anniversary party hoping that not too many of our guests would need to use the loo.
I bought unblocking chemicals, a plunger and a long wire thingy (which I managed to get stuck round the U-bend, so now we had two problems, slow flushing and wire wiggly thing sticking out the loo). I enthusiastically flung buckets of water down trying to shift things along, but in the end had to admit that we needed expert help.
Total France forum told me that what we needed was a "vidange". Yellow Pages revealed dozens of adverts with pictures of tankers (some with smiley faces!) and reassuring messages about SOS and fast response. Picking one at random, our vidangeur arrived complete with tanker and yards of large vacuum hose and high pressure jets.
There was much tutting, muttering and shaking of head. Fortunately our architect was here so some rapid translation took place and we learnt some new vocabulary. We also learnt that the system is old and small, the inlet and outlet pipes are at the wrong heights, the silk tree is snarling up the soak-away and that whilst it might have been adequate for a holiday home (as used by the previous owners), it hasn't been able to cope with constant use. My flinging down extra buckets of water won't have helped either!
Eventually there's a decision to be made about how we improve the system. For the moment, it's just great to be able to flush again without a care.
In the 1970's I lived in Brazil and I wrote home to my mother in the UK every week. Those letters became the story of my life there. In 2007 I moved to south west France. Not quite sure where "home" is, I have no family left in the UK. If I did, these words would be my letters home, capturing the first impressions of my life here, to share, enjoy and perhaps re-read in years to come.