Friday, 9 April 2021

Cotinus Coggygria Atropurpurea

 My father loved words and had a rich and extensive vocabulary. He was the son of a milkman, born at the beginning of the twentieth century into a family that believed profoundly in education as a means to improvement.

He excelled at school, not just academically but also in sports and, had he been born in another era, he would certainly have gone to university. But, at an impressionable age and from a poor family, he had seen the hunger marches in the early twenties and knew what poverty was, so believed he needed to get a job as soon as he left school.  But that did not stop him continuing to learn.  Books were his route to knowledge.

And that love of language continued right into his final months, even when of frail health and uncertain mental capacity.  We shared those final months when he and my mother came to live with us. 

The "back garden" in our shared house was no more than a couple of stepped terraces, but at some point it must have been planted by a skilled gardener - each bush and tree chosen as the best of its kind.  And there, in the middle of a small border was a plant we had not met before - a purple smoke bush.  Or, to give it its proper name - cotinus coggygria atropurpurea.  My father delighted in remembering and rolling those Latin words round his tongue!

There has been a smoke bush in every garden we've had since.

I tried to plant one down at the cottage, in the border that you first see as you come down the drive.  I knew that, once large, its beautiful ruby purple leaves would catch the morning sunlight.  But the ground there is unforgiving - sandy and, even when dug over, full of builder's rubble - and I lost my first attempt.  

I decided to try again, and nursed the new, small plant through last year and this wet winter. Imagine my delight as I saw new buds forming in these last few weeks.  Imagine my distress when two days ago I found two-thirds of the plant broken down!  Wretched deer!!!  They are lovely in the fields, less welcome in the garden.

The now much reduced smoke bush has a large fence of heavy-duty green plastic mesh encircling it.  Not very beautiful, but very necessary, I suspect for a year or two.  And the broken off piece?  Small stubby twiglets dipped in cinnamon powder (apparently useful as a rooting compound) are now on the terrace in a pot - maybe (fingers crossed) one or two may take.

Dad, I need your help please, from up there in your scholarly paradise, in looking after the twiglets and the small bush.  In a few years' time, when our guests ask me "what is that lovely purple bush with its delicate smoke-like flowers?" I want to be able to say, casually, "oh, that's our cotinus coggygria atropurpurea." And I will think of you.


Sunday, 4 April 2021

It's Taken Time

 When we moved here thirteen years ago, there was little or nothing in the garden except for an occasional plant stuck in the middle of lawn.  

It made sense for the previous owners to have a garden like that (and many do round here).  The house was a holiday home, sometimes not visited at all for many months on end.  So gardening needed to be low maintenance - a quick whip round with the mower and not much else.  And with mild wet winters and warm early springs followed by baking hard clay in hot dry summers weeding large flower borders can easily become a full-time job. Not what one wants to be doing on a fortnight's holiday - and many of the locals feel the same, preferring to put effort and energy into their spotless, weed-free potagers.

So there, in the middle of the lawn in front of the house, was this dry, sad twig, which tended to be mowed over by mistake more years than not.  Further across was a muddled heap of honeysuckle.  So the twig and the honeysuckle became the opposite ends of a new, oval flower bed.

The twig, safe from the mower and given a chance to thrive proved to be a tree peony.  It's taken time, but this year there are nine flouncy pink flower heads, with promise of more for next year from fresh green shoots coming up from the base. Like the roses, peonies seem to like our heavy clay.



Sunday, 21 March 2021

Well, We've Been Done!

Imagining queues round the block, we arrive at the doctors' surgery early for our six pm vaccination appointment. 

But (of course) the place is deserted.  We wander in and the receptionist comes to greet us - we are the last appointment of the day and she and the doctor are hanging around chatting, waiting for us - good job we are early.

Some weeks ago Tod badly hurt his thumb and the doctor is more interested in seeing how well it is healing than talking to us about allergies and vaccines.  So we offer some suggestions - penicillin?  Not a problem. Lime? No, of course not! He begins to look a trifle bored with it all but perks up considerably when he tells us there is "a surprise" for us.  He opens up the flap of the large tent erected in the carpark and there are the two nurses who took care of Tod's thumb.  Like the doctor, they are more interested in seeing how it is healing than worrying about vaccinations.

Three firemen decide to join in the conversation since there is this large empty space and just us and Tod's thumb for entertainment.

Tod is led off into one bay, I'm taken to another.  I hear gossipy laughter from behind the curtains - this is all very civilised and relaxing.

Left or right arm?  We decide left.  I'd read wear something loose so it's easy to get at the top of the arm, but it is freezing cold and the tent sides do not protect, so I'm wrapped up in several layers, but we manage.  "A slight prick" the nurse says.  And it is.  Paperwork is signed, tablets are tapped as the information is stored.

And then we are taken to the next stage - a gym in the far corner of the carpark. How convenient. I'd imagined sitting in a cold tent - hence the multiple layers.  But no, we're in a vast basketball court - half a dozen firemen and women are clustered round the door awaiting our arrival and any pending sign of an allergic reaction. We are firmly told to let them know immediately if we feel at all unwell - they are the frontline and will be responsible for saving us.

I'm wonderfully relaxed about the lack of social distancing. Paperwork is checked and signed and we head for the far side of the hall and a random muddle of stacking chairs.  An elderly couple sit looking forlorn and bored.  We choose two seats well away from them and happily get out our Kindles. Fifteen minutes later and no anaphylactic shock, a young firewoman cheerfully tells us we can go. "Bonne soirée" all round and the fire crew are out the door, right behind us.

My nurse and one of the firemen proudly tell me they have done 200 Moderna vaccinations and they will be doing another 200 on Sunday. Well that's better than the ten a week Astra-Zeneca they were talking about.

We meet our smiley receptionist in the carpark who says "See you in a month".  It will be six pm again. There's a lot to be said for being the last of the day. We must remember to be early.

And touch wood, Sunday morning we are both feeling fine.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Nuisance Call - Not!

 We rarely answer the phone these days.  

A quick look at the phone's screen tells us if it's a nuisance call and we let it ring out.  Ones that start 097 are the worst.  Usually they are trying (still after two years) to sell loft insulation for one euro. On the rare occasions I do answer I say "Hello" loudly in an English voice in the hope that they just hang up.  I've given up trying to practise my French on people who hesitate as they try to say our surname.

Yesterday, Tod was out all afternoon at the Skoda garage and, not certain whether they might need to keep the car overnight, he took his mobile phone in case he needed to call me for a lift.

I, meanwhile, was having fun in the garden with our latest new toy - a battery driven Stihl mower. So when I came in at five pm I thought I'd better check for any messages.  

And there it was, from the morning, an 097 call.  Only it came, not from a call centre, but from our doctor's surgery.  They had (as we feared) cancelled our Astra Zeneca vaccination appointment. But, instead, were offering the option of Moderna jabs - for THIS SATURDAY - and would we get back to them immediately (by phone) because if we didn't want them they would give them to someone else.   

I phoned - to hear a message that the secretariat was shut. Knowing they were probably there for another hour (curfew starts at six pm) I leapt in the car, threw Bertie back in the kitchen and locked the door - he thought he would come with me - and hurtled round the back roads into town praying that they hadn't given away "our" slots.

Visits to the doctor and the pharmacy in France require the patience of a saint, which I don't have at the best of times and certainly not when I want to jump up and down saying "we'll take it, we'll take it". An elderly gentleman two in front in the queue for the desk, with a mask (of course) half way to his chin, collars one of the receptionists and a long conversation about his ailments ensues.  The other receptionist is called away by one of the doctors and those of us waiting, wait, and wait and wait.  

I begin to hop from one foot to the other - better than yelling at everyone - but that just irritates the people behind me.  "She's English" one of them says to the general assembly in explanation (that was after I'd muttered FFS, I thought under my breath, but obviously not).  "And speaks French" I snap, in case she decides to expand on my qualities.

Finally, finally, the receptionist turns to me, takes my carte vitale, finds the doctor and, joy of joys, offers us two appointments for six pm Saturday. We are to come to the surgery first to be checked in, then go across the car park to the tent where the vaccines are being done, then come back to the surgery for our paperwork to be completed and to wait 15 minutes in case we are anaphylactic. 

I skip out of the surgery cheerfully wishing everyone a "bon week-end" (I briefly think it is already Friday) thus confirming in the minds of those still in the queue that I am a mad Englishwoman. 

A friend told me she burst into tears with relief when she had hers.  I know how she feels.

Monday, 15 March 2021

I Head for the Doctor's Surgery in Town

Tired of waiting to be offered it, Tod went in to see our GP about two weeks ago to say we wanted to be vaccinated - unlike most of the French, seemingly.

He returned with a small, scrappy bit of paper with two dates on it - Friday 26th March and Friday 30th April and reported a partly understood conversation (our GP has a strong accent).

In recent weeks French doctors have been given permission to vaccinate using the Astra Zeneca vaccine.  They are being supplied with ten vaccines a week. TEN!  So on that first Friday the intention is that we will have our first jabs, provided ....  Provided that is, someone "more worthy" doesn't want to have it, in which case we will be bumped.

The "worthiness" for being vaccinated ahead of us depends on whether they have comorbidities - a word we never expected to have to learn and, said in French with a strong accent, caused Tod some confusion.

At the moment we fall between two stools. We are not actually entitled to be vaccinated because of our age and our lack of other illnesses.  We are not over 75 nor under 60 (or maybe it's 65, who knows these days?).  Over 75, you get Pfizer.  Under 60 (or 65) you get Astra Zeneca.  So our GP's doing us a favour.

There is an excellent system these days called Doctolib, where you can book online for an appointment - no need to ring the surgery.  Out of the blue, Tod receives an email for an appointment on June 4th. No explanation.  Hence my trip into town this morning.  An online system only works if there is an explanation.  As we had already deduced, the second date for April on the scrappy bit of paper is wrong - it's too soon.  They are now leaving ten weeks between jabs.  And yes, although there is no confirmation, the dates are for the two of us.

In the meantime, we continue to be mired in uncertainty.

More and more countries are suspending using the Astra Zeneca vaccine because of concerns about blood clots, which the WHO keeps denying.  But their authority has been much eroded throughout the pandemic and countries are increasingly going their own way, for medical and political reasons.

So will France follow suit and suspend vaccinations using the AZ product?  If so, will GPs be offered the Pfizer vaccine?  The doubt is doctors having the capability to store the Pfizer. Though a friend from Poland tells us they are managing there - the vaccine is delivered in the morning and used that day.

If France continues to use the AZ vaccine, will we be bumped from the list?  Or will the already reluctant French refuse to accept it, especially in the light of the blood clot debate? So we will find we are the only ones there?

Only time will tell.  And time is the one thing we have plenty of at the moment.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Vita barks to be let out ...

 ... of the door and immediately doubles back into the kitchen as the wind across the terrace hits her in the face. I know how she feels.

I tried some gardening for a while but then retreated inside, having watched a barrow load of carefully pruned and swept up dead twigs and dried grass disappear across the lawn. Too much like hard work!

But it is (at last) excellent grass drying weather, so I may venture forth after lunch with the strimmer and small mower and start attacking the banks and lawns around the cottage.  Who knows, we may have some guests this year after all.

It's also a good day for continuing to dry out the Skoda, which is sitting on the drive with all its doors open. We knew we had a leak but it was only after the January rains - when we found that the water in the driver's footwell (apt name under the circumstances) was coming over the pedals - that we realised just how bad it was and perhaps we ought to do something about it.  Once the electrics began to misbehave we knew it was very serious.  So the windscreen has been replaced and (hopefully) sealed properly. In the meantime, the water that's already in the car needs getting out.

Five full bucket-loads of our industrial vax hoover and there is still a squidgy feeling to the carpets, though no longer a pond. The solid foam underlay seems to have an infinite capacity to retain moisture, hence leaving all the car's doors open in the blustery wind.  I've also resorted to a hair dryer in an attempt to speed up the process.

Although coming from the south, the wind may be too strong for the cranes who are embarking on their annual journey up from Spain back to northern climes.  We were witness to some five to six thousand right overhead one late afternoon during the week.  Wave, after wave directly over our rooftop. A welcome promise of spring, as are the little daffodils that I am uncovering from under the dead twigs and grasses.  Their small size means that their golden heads remain defiantly upright, whatever the weather throws at them. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

For the fourth time in the thirteen years we have lived here ...

 ... we witness what is supposed to be a "once in a lifetime" event - the flooding of the Garonne River.

Yesterday, the sirens in town sounded as the water rose to over nine meters (nearly thirty feet).  We have had so much rain in recent weeks and the ground is so saturated there is nowhere for the water to go except out over the flood plain.

I stand on the esplanade next to the bandstand and, with the town at my back, look out across an inland sea.


And Marmande, this morning.  We have never seen it this bad.


Sunday, 31 January 2021

Tod asks me ...

... "Is it Sunday?"

I have to think about it.  The days, weeks, months are beginning to merge.  We have friends who used to rely on church on Sunday to put a marker in the week.  Now, not even that.

We had visitors last week, actually in the house, for the first time since heaven knows when. Was it Wednesday they were here?  Or Thursday?

Two Orange technicians came to install our new livebox, connecting us to their new, super-dooper optical fibre network.  They were both young, one overweight and coughing, which did not reassure as it seemed most of the time he wandered round with his mask tucked under his chin.  

They decided they needed to bring the new cable into a different corner of the house, which required climbing onto the roof of a small shelter at the back where we store our lawn mowers.  The young fat one managed to break ten tiles - easy to do as they are old and frail.  At least he confessed and then (I think, because my French gave out at this point) went into a long sob story about how he would have to pay if we made a complaint.  I tentatively climbed the ladder (ours, which he borrowed) and decided life was too short to complain.  His thinner, lighter colleague finished the job.

Having lived through most of December and the first part of January with hardly any internet at all (some local builder seems to have put his digger through a main cable somewhere and then water got into the repair) we would have been grateful for any restoration of our three megabyte (on a good day) service.  It is somewhat startling to discover that we now have well over three hundred megabytes.  We're not quite sure what to do with the all extra, though there is now the joy of occasional one-upmanship when we mention what we have to friends and acquaintances who mournfully say their installation is years away. 

We need to be careful and remember Boris and vaccines - smugness is not an attractive quality.

Mind you, talking of vaccines, we're unlikely to see any our way for the next couple of years (if then).  There are going to be many more days, weeks and months that gently merge into a seamless whole. At least, (hopefully) we will have high speed internet to keep us in touch with some sense of what day it is.