Sunday, 23 December 2007

Nine Kilowatts is not Enough

When it's cold you might think: "why don't they just plug in another electric radiator". Mmm - not that simple.

Each household has a contract for so many kilowatts of electricity. Some contracts are as low as three kilowatts and we feared that that might be our situation. After all, the previous owners only used the place as a holiday home, mainly in the summer. What would they need electricity for, except for the pool pump, the shower and a kettle for tea in the morning? They would be eating out, or having barbecues and long summer evenings mean no need for lots of electric lights.

In fact, after much discussion with various visitors from EDF and peering at the meter in the wooden cupboard in the kitchen, we appear to be buying nine kilowatts - gosh, lots!

Well yes, until you consider that the four oil radiators we already have switched on are each taking one kilowatt. Then there's two fridges, the immersion heater for the water, the pump for the central heating, the electric kettle, the hoover, the TV, three computers plus printers, a hifi system, the wood splitter, at least twenty-five lights and lamps, not to mention electric drills, power saws, assorted flymos. What if everything was on at once?

In fact it was switching the toaster from two slices to four that did it. One minute everything was working and then darkness and a distant shout of rage from Tod on his computer. And we were supposed to be going out to Eric and Phoebe for supper. A vain attempt to explain to the EDF helpline just meant I had the phone put down on me. Having snarled at each other, Tod had bid a hasty retreat to walk the dogs. So in the dark, alone, I made a tearful phone call to our evening's hosts. Eric gallantly offered to come out to see what he could do and promised to be there in half an hour.

Tod returned, calmer, with the dogs and taking the torch climbed on to the kitchen table to peer at the row of fuses. The big black master switch (the disjoncteur, as I now know it's called) was clearly on, so it could not be that. "What does this do?" he said, pushing up one of the fuses that seemed to be disconnected. And the whole of the house flooded back into activity - fridges whirred, lights lit up, computers rebooted. The joys of living with a man who tries something first and asks questions afterwards!

But now we had Eric on his way, coming to the rescue, and missing out on that hot bath before supper. He arrived with a bemused smile on his face - he'd seen our lights in the distance as he drove along the ridge. For him it was the best solution. He'd visions of having to stay alone in our dark, cold house trying to fix the problem while we sat in the warmth and light at his place, with wife and kids, eating a delicious meal. He thankfully headed home for the bath and we followed later to share in an especially happy evening.

It was last October we started talking to EDF about increasing our nine kilowatts to twelve. Not just a matter of flicking a switch though. The cable from the mast outside is not heavy-duty enough. So we signed the papers, paid the money and waited.

We finally have a date - 13th February - when we hope the work will be done. In the meantime, when I need four pieces of toast I switch off one of the radiators.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Bricolage and Borscht

Tonight the house feels cosy.

We've been laying insulation in the loft over the last couple of days. We've bought the thin insulation that is a silver sandwich, with strange types of foam and fabric between the outer layers. It's horrendously expensive, but has the virtue of being easier to handle and less likely to be a nest for furry creatures than glass fibre. It's meant to go on walls and under the roof and in time that's where it will be. For the moment it is lying on the attic floor, like a silver eiderdown.

We've also bought a calor gas heater for the lounge, while we sort out the badly smoking Godin stove. I was in Briconaute (the French for DIY is bricolage and all DIY shops are brico-something) and there it was - the only one among rows of paraffin heaters (which we refuse to have because of the smell). I think it was probably the display model, but no one seemed to mind as we wheeled it away.

So when I came back after the carol service on Sunday evening with Paul and Judy who had given me a lift, I could proudly usher them into our warm lounge. We shed our outer coats and sat on the sofa drinking Tod's home-made scalding hot, sweet tasting borscht.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Holding the Dream (part two)

It's hard to stay sulky or depressed about living here for long.

Only a few hours later I'd finally put up another set of shelving in the garage - something I'd been thinking about for months. It'll be a great space for Tod to stash all his computer bits and pieces and get them off the floor of the lounge, the dining room and his study.

In the weak late afternoon sun we took the dogs round our favourite walk through the hilltop village we can see from our veranda. We take a track that loops round the side of the hill, below the houses and passes an old rock pool that was used for washing. Frogs hide in the ferns that grow in the walls about the pool and jump in as we walk by. Sometimes we have a two, three, or even four frog walk.

The track gives us a bird's eye view of our local small chateau which sits in a secret valley at one end of a lake. In summer the chateau is almost completely hidden by trees but at this time of the year we can see its turrets, old walls and imposing foursquare burgundy shuttered windows.

The next few days are going to be mild and wet. Maybe I'll plant some more daffodil bulbs around the plum trees. When I was out there the other day, a blackbird was rustling through the leaves around the bottom of our wood store and a wren was flitting through the scrub on the bank by the maize field.

We have robins that squabble from opposite sides of the garden. A wagtail dips and bobs on top of the bright blue swimming pool winter cover, a promise of summer and sun.

Holding the Dream (part one)

Some days are tough and it's hard to remember or understand why we are here.

Tod has a bug or food poisoning and spent all day yesterday in bed. Today he is still white and tired and struggling to keep warm.

The day is cold and grey, the kitchen range is sulking and it's hard to keep even one room heated.

A week ago we were sharply reminded how little french we understand. Out walking, we met a man who (we thought) told us one of our neighbours had died, having been attacked by his dogs. We were aghast at the story and deeply shocked by what we had heard. But it was not true! To our great relief, Tod saw him a few days later in his garden and he waved cheerfully. So what had we heard? And how could we both have so thoroughly misunderstood?

It is not just our lack of understanding of language, it is the whole context and infrastructure that we are having to rebuild: who is a good doctor, a good vet, a good osteopath; where to buy organic food, go for advice on tax, get the car serviced, buy inks for the printer, find quality fabrics and carpets; when is the refuse tip open, can we contact our local mayor, get hold of our electricity company? And there are times when I have absolutely no idea where anything is or where anything belongs, in the garage, in the kitchen, in the utility room, in my study. Each situation, lovingly built up over years and so taken for granted in the UK, now demolished, leaving us just that bit more exposed, alone and frustrated.

Most days we cope and know that next year everything will be easier. Right now, though, it's hard to hold on to the dream.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The God of Small Stuff

Some days, small stuff gives great pleasure.

We woke to extra special mist and sun this morning. While Tod walked just Smudge (Clara is convalescing her rheumaticky back legs) I wandered down past the derelict cottage in my two dressing gowns and wellington boots, camera in hand to take shots across the valley, trying close-ups of brown teasel heads halo-ed in mist and sunlight. No idea whether the photos worked (haven't bothered to look, no need) just immense pleasure in wandering around, camera in hand, looking for the perfect image.

It rained properly in the night for the first time in two months, so everything is sparkling fresh and the baby cabbages (we think) in Serge's field are bigger this evening than they were this morning.

It's been mild and sunny right from first thing. The thermometer on the veranda reads eighteen degrees almost as soon as I opened the shutters, so I left the kitchen range unlit, then decided to clean it properly. I took the hoover to its insides and removed great chunks of tarry soot and mounds of ash. Two hours later I emerged filthy, but triumphant.

Fred came to put up the shelves in the kitchen and suddenly we have a clean, empty white tiled worktop, with tidy piles of plates, mugs, glasses, utensils, tins of coffee and tea, the food mixer, the blender the first-aid kit, pots of jam and honey and bowls of fruit on the pine shelving above. One day, we will have a fitted kitchen. For the moment Fred's shelves are a joy to behold.

And while he was here, he put two hefty screws in the chimney breast in my study and my Amazon Indian snake picture is on the wall and no longer being heaved out the way every time I want to get at something.

And we ate tonight in our most favourite crêperie, where the dark brown galettes are crispy, paper-thin and the owner shakes our hands when we arrive and knows that I will always have the vegetarian option.

And in my French lesson today I talked about Peter, my brother, and how he died of cancer about this time last year and it was good to tell his story.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Sunday Stroll

We've finally done the walk we've been saying we'd do since we moved in over four months ago: down the track past our garden to the derelict cottage; then along the edge of Serge's field, now with neat rows of what to our uninformed eyes look like cabbage seedlings, struggling and turning brown with the lack of rain; right along the bottom of the ploughed field (choice between long grass at the edge, amazingly still damp after nearly two months of no rain, or hopping from clod to clod in the field), to the stone bridge over the stream; then back left along a grass track that follows the stream.

This is new territory for us. Suddenly we are passing the gates of the farm which until now has only been a group of buildings and a few tatty polytunnels on the far side of our valley. We look back across the stream between the now bare branches of elder and hazel and see our own farmhouse from a new angle, nestling in the hillside.

We walk towards a small copse of close-planted trees - all long bare trunks and straight lines. Neat white rows as we look straight on and then as we walk past, neat white rows again on the diagonal. The French like nature to be neat and tidy.

The track, wide and well-cleared, turns to the right up towards the woodland that has been just a promise there on our horizon - cool, green and inviting on hot summer days and now golden and misty. We are somewhat startled to see in the book we have purchased that our short saunter is part of a longer four-hour stroll through the wood and up to the old ruined chapel beyond. We will just about manage an hour's worth. We walk up through the wood, kicking the bone-dry leaves and speculating about finding mushrooms (too dry now, but it's going to rain next week, so maybe then). It is so quiet. We stop. And listen for the sound of birds and wonder if we are being watched by deer and wild boar.

At a cross-roads in the woods we turn back towards our farmland. Deeper into the woods can wait for another day. The book warns us of a palombíère - not quite as bad as bears, but to be avoided on Sundays after lunch when it's hunting season and Frenchmen have been drinking. We hear palombíères are large, opulent tree houses to which grown men retire for weeks at a time to shoot wood pigeons, drink wine, bond with their friends and keep away from the wife - but that may just be a malicious English rumour.

We recross the stream and walk slowly up the grassy track through our neighbour's ploughed farmland, listening to the silence and revelling in the solitude: no farm machinery at this time of the year, just the trill of a distant skylark and the clack of a startled pheasant.

We breathe in the crisp cold air and, as we climb up to the farm, we look back across the autumn-tinted woods to the distant chapel ruins on the hillside beyond. And we know why it is we have come to live in France.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Fire, Fire, Burning Bright

Over the last few weeks our lives have been taken over by firewood.

To begin with, it was no more that idly wondering where we ought to get our firewood while we eyed our neighbours log piles. All prudent families in this part of France keep neatly stacked cut wood, laid side by side, two maybe three feet high and stretching along the side of the house, or against the garden fence. Some stacks are many yards long and are ample for even the most severe of winters.

Asking around our local commune, we found the brother of someone who might have three year-old wood for sale. We learnt new vocabulary: chêne (oak), érable (maple), cerisier (cherry), orme (elm) and found a whole new topic of conversation discussing the merits of different woods and how to burn them.

After a visit to choose "our wood", in early October we took delivery of 10 stere (10 cubic metres) which we stacked into two rows of metre-long logs, stretching the width of the wood shed and reaching taller than Tod.

Tod cuts our logs into shorter chunks with the chain saw. The first day I took the hatchet and tried to split the chunks into smaller pieces. After 5 minutes of futile bashing on the veranda floor (more damage to the tiles than to the log) I marched in to announce we were buying a log splitter.

The splitter uses hydraulics to push the log forward onto a wedge which bites into the end of the log. Some logs break instantly with a satisfying "thwack", the two split pieces flying across the wood shed. Other logs, creak and groan and inch forward reluctantly as the wedge forces the wood apart, causing it to buckle and splinter.

The uncut logs are all weathered silver grey. Cutting them reveals a whole other world. Some logs are fine grained with a rose pink core. Others are bright yellow and coarse fibred. Some are light as balsa and split to reveal a network of channels and the fat white grubs of capricorn beetle.

We need to cut and split at least two barrow loads every day, just to feed our recalcitrant kitchen range. It burns hottest when the firewood is no more than four fingers wide and two hand spans in length. Friends think we are mad to cut it so small but also admit that you have to get to know your own stove.

Our other stove, the Godin in the lounge is elderly and the back interior wall is broken, with little chance of a replacement. It smokes badly when lit and we now tend just to turn on the oil radiators. On cold evenings I curl up on the lounge sofa and watch bad TV movies in my puffa jacket, wrapped in a blanket.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Morning Ritual

Back to the early morning routine. While Tod walks the dogs, I reluctantly leave the warmth of bed (two duvets) and don two dressing-gowns, thick socks and wellington boots to light the elderly, somewhat battered Tirolia kitchen range. The boots are so that I can take yesterday's ash to the compost bin through the long wet grass in our small orchard of plum trees. Sometimes I walk through thick mist. Today it is already sunny and I can see across the valley to the woods beyond, now warm shades of russet and brown.

The fire lighting ritual starts with riddling the dead embers and then using the long hooked poker to push any remaining ash wedged in corners down into the ash pan below. Next, I use a tool like a croupier's rake, to pull out all the ash in the bottom that has missed the pan. I then brush up all the residue and tip it into the ash pan and take it to the compost heap. With an empty pan back under a clean, empty fire box, I'm ready to light the fire.

A scrunched half page of newspaper goes in first with a small white paraffin-smelling fire-lighter on top. Over this go a few twigs of old, dry vine cutting (they burn quickly and fiercely) and on top a few pieces of bark (they burn more slowly but longer). One match and the kindling catches (easy with a fire-lighter!). The newspaper has a green flame - the ink perhaps? I put a couple of small pieces of firewood on top and shut the door to the fire box and leave the draught door underneath ajar. There is a handle thing by the oven which opens and closes a flap in the chimney. Not sure I notice much difference; sometimes I open it, but the fire catches just as well without.

After a few minutes there is a satisfying roar from the fire box. I open it up and pile in more firewood, as fast as possible, getting sooty fingers in the process.

I then anxiously keep an eye on the thermostat on the water pipes at the back of the range, while putting the dog beds on to the veranda and filling the kettle for Tod's return with the dogs and the fresh loaves for breakfast. Once the thermostat reaches 60°, I switch the pump on for the old clunky radiators round the house. Within minutes, the thermostat drops back to 40°. I switch the pump off, pack in more firewood and distractedly wait for the thermostat to creep up again.

At 40° the radiators are no more than dispiritingly luke warm; just about tolerable at the moment, but useless in January and February when the temperature will go down to -10°! So juggling the pump on and off, opening up and shutting down the draught door, packing the fire box with small pieces of wood which burn more fiercely, I do my best through the day to coerce the Tirolia into holding steady at 60°.

Success is baking radiators and an oven so hot we have to leave the door ajar. But sometimes the whole system sulks and we make plans to buy a propane gas tank next year and install proper central heating.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Lost between Two Shores

"...Nowadays, I'm lost between two shores
LA's fine, but it ain't home
New York's home, but it ain't mine no more"

Neil Diamond's right. Ten days in the UK and I have come back jumpy and irritable and not knowing where I belong.

London was a noisy, polluted ant hill. I was a kid in a sweetshop at M&S Marble Arch. I hopped on and off the tube with my oyster card. I revelled in two nights at the theatre (not having been for years) and gossiped and fed with friends. London is all bustle. Here is all tranquillity. There, cars and people are nose to tail. Here, we cruise down empty country lanes. There parakeets fill the trees of Richmond Park with their raucous screeches and no-one looks up. Here individual sounds - a dog barking across the valley, chaffinches squabbling, a car starting in the yard of the next farm - drop into an underlying pool of silence. There no-one takes any notice. Here we "bonjour" everyone we see in our village.

I miss here when I'm there and there when I'm here. There is no longer home, but not sure here is yet.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

I'm on a plane to London first thing tomorrow morning and today our bit of France is doing everything it can to persuade me to stay.

We put back the clocks this morning and it's nearly November, yet Tod is sitting on a lounger by the pool, reading and sun bathing. Not IN the pool mind you - it really has got too cold and tomorrow the pool is going to be wrapped up and put to bed for the winter.

The garden is full of butterflies taking the last sweet mouthfuls of the remaining windfall apples that are frosted and bruised. The remaining shrivelled bunches on the vines along the veranda still have a few fat juicy grapes that we steal from the lazy hornets. The flavour is a rich heady muscat.

The light across the fields is bleaching everything to pale greys and browns. It hasn't rained for a month and the small plants I've put around the base of the roses need daily watering.

This morning we woke again to mist touched with the light from the rising sun. As I opened the veranda doors to my bedroom, the cottage that I see across the fields was sitting on its own small pink cloud.

Tonight when we shut the shutters we will pile logs on the fire and have apple charlotte for pudding.

Tomorrow morning we will leave the dogs asleep and set out at 6.30am to drive along the péage motorway to Toulouse for my flight to Gatwick.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

"The cranes are coming...."

"....Can you hear them?" said Eric as he hammered in the post to our new garden gate.

We strained our eyes and ears to the north east and finally, impossibly high up, we saw two thin, faint lines in the blue between the clouds. Gradually, as they came towards us, the lines became Vs and we heard their wild cries. The French for crane is grue, the latin for common crane, grus grus, and that is the distant sound they make, high above us, as they fly south.

They come from summer in Scandinavia and fly towards winter in Spain. We watched their passing with awe.

For the French here in the south, cranes are harbingers of colder weather and, despite their wild beauty, their arrival is not welcomed. It didn't seem a coincidence that two days later we woke to a temperature of 2°C and frost on the lawn.

These cold days the sunlight is almost unbearably bright and the air is crystal clear. It feels as if we could see every blade of grass as far as the Pyrenees.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

I have become a Mouse Murderer

I said I wouldn't. I've never killed anything deliberately, except perhaps the occasional mosquito and lily beetle - certainly nothing as sweet as a mouse. In our last house we had a mouse that used to eat the bird seed. We called it "the mouse", as in "I've seen the mouse again" and we lived together quite happily.

No one warned us beforehand what would happen here, although everyone now nods sagely and says it's inevitable.

First it was a few droppings along the kitchen worktop, left like small black seeds overnight. So we need to be more careful about leaving the kitchen clean and tidy. Then it was a matter of clearing out a rarely used cupboard and washing everything. OK, that means blocking all the cracks, however tiny, to stop them getting in. Then it was the small furry body darting round the back of the sink taps and hurling itself off the side, before disappearing into the utility room. (That's the equivalent of a human jumping off a thirty-storey building and getting up and running off.)

So, a trip to the local garden centre and a heart-sinking look at rows and rows of bottles of poison. We can't, we have dogs, and anyway who could poison something as sweet as that?

I found a website that describes how to build a humane mouse trap involving glass baking dish, tray, wooden kebab stick, toothpick and sellotape, plus cheese. It worked! Except that there I was at midnight with a mouse going frantic under the glass dish and me thinking: "I’m not going out at this time of night to set it free and I can’t leave it all night, it will die of fright or lack of oxygen". So I let it go.

Metal cages like small sea urchins are primed with dog biscuits and just sit there empty. A super-sophisticated humane multi-mouse trap with chocolate inside fairs no better. Maybe "humane" means they can get in and out again?

Over the next few days they (no talking about "the mouse" any more) got bolder. One sits on my computer keyboard. Two play tag around the lounge floor while Clara does no more than open one eye as she reclines on the sofa. One happily shins up and down the refrigerator power cable. The final straw is mouse droppings on Tod's pillow.

So, with dread, I buy small, wooden mousetraps and prime them with currants. Within hours we have four small bodies and more over the next few days.

No longer are there small black seeds on the worktop in the morning. I miss the two who played tag.

The Changing Seasons

The swallows have gone. I don't know when. I just noticed they are not here any more: no longer swooping for insects behind combine harvesters like seagulls following a fishing boat or twittering and fluttering in their dozens along electricity wires. What did swallows and starlings do before man brought electricity and telegraph wires to sit on?

The nectarines have vanished from Leclerc. We now have great banks of ripe juicy pears - every sweet, dribbly bite a reminder of summer.

The landscape has changed shape. Through summer the maize and sunflowers created 6-foot green walls across the Garonne valley through which we drove, seeing no further than two or three rows of giant stalks. As the fields are harvested suddenly we have vast open brown spaces under huge skies, with distant church spires and chateaux nestling low in the surrounding hills.

We approach our house and for the first time see our pigeonnier peaking coyly above the brow of the top field, where before we just saw green.

Reaching for Help

Crises show us the value of the English network here in France. While we may not want to be part of it every day, there are times when we bless it.

Smudge had a really bad allergic reaction to …. harvest mites maybe? He licked himself raw, getting more and more frantic. We thought we could control it, but it reached the stage we urgently needed a vet’s help. Yet we don’t have the language skills to explain Smudge’s complex history to a local French vet.

An English forum here gave me the email address of an animal website, they in turn gave me the name of an English vet whom I emailed Saturday morning. By the afternoon she'd arrived, children in tow, having driven over an hour to bring help and practical words of advice not only about itchy dogs but also about living in France. Knowing that our move here has prompted Smudge's distress I'm riddled with guilt. Her reassurance calms me as much as the dog.

Colle pour Carrelage, s'il vous plaît

Written to friends in August
Language and the distances we need to travel for help are where we struggle the most. Tod is taking the brunt. For example I lost my car keys, so almost immediately we arrive, while I’m unpacking boxes, Tod is having to drive a 60 kilometre round-trip to deal with paperwork and the practicalities of getting new keys sent from Germany. Face to face is easier than telephone, so each subsequent conversation means another journey and we don’t yet have the keys.

We are also having to be pragmatic about what can be achieved in one day when 2 hours is taken for lunch. Virtually everything shuts and while we are in the middle of deciding what we want, we are politely ushered out of supermarkets, DIY stores, offices and banks as the shutters close behind us.

It’s the crises that show us how weak our French is and then how kind and helpful people can be. Tod had ear trouble. Friends suggested we tried their doctor who is Spanish. We drove to the surgery to make an appointment (easier to speak face to face) and he saw Tod there and then, while others who had appointments smiled and waited. The conversation was a mixture of French, Spanish and English, with some of my Portuguese thrown in for good measure!

We are getting a new bathroom installed and we bought the wrong shower door – a dash to get another one at a DIY store and we start explaining in broken French. The assistant in the store replies in perfect English. Buying tiles, we spend a lot of time drawing pictures, pointing and grabbing words from the building terms dictionary Tod has bought, while the assistants go back and forwards with possible solutions. We may not be able to speak everyday French, but we do now know the words for tile adhesive and grouting!

Airedales as Ice-Breakers

Written to friends in an email in August
At the end of July our local commune was “en fête” and it was important for us to go, if we are to be part of this community. Not knowing what to expect we strolled into the village in our jeans with the dogs in tow, to find the entire village standing around dressed up for a night out. There was an outside bar where we tucked ourselves and chatted to the barman, trying to look nonchalant. Saturday night was cabaret night in the local village hall. We felt we were part of the cabaret as we were eyed and commented upon. Fortunately our dogs are great ice-breakers. Airedales are not well-known in France and we have learnt that the first question to us nearly always is: "what race are your dogs?" We struggle then to construct a sensible reply, but we are learning to smile, nod a lot and always say "Bonjour" and "Bonsoir" to everyone we meet, in the street, the shops, restaurants.

Our dogs have become serious café animals. We tend to walk them late in the evening when it’s cooler and they like town life where we can search for cats under cars, stroll down to the riverside (trying to ignore the background aroma of sewerage) and finish up in the town square café watching the world go by.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

I've Fallen in Love with a Hypermarket

Written in an email to friends in August
I thought I would be doing food shopping in the local markets, but we have a Leclerc in our local town. I was leaning across a display of tomatoes and was hit by the hot, musty smell of tomato vines in a greenhouse – never happened to me in Sainsbury’s! Melons and nectarines come ripe, sweet and juicy, salads are fresh and local and the deli counter stretches for miles and requires long discussions about what selections we’ll have today. The freezer has dozens of varieties of ice-cream including nougat, rum and raisin and crème caramel (at the moment we are rationing ourselves to two new types a week). And at the same time we buy summer duvets, cotton shirts, English to French adapters, chairs for the veranda and a small olive tree.

Local markets are not just for Wednesday and Saturday morning food shopping. We sat with a friend in an outside restaurant in the old square of the hill town of Monflanquin one hot evening and revelled in our first experience of a “night market” – long tables set out for people to make the most of the barbeque, stalls of local produce and the world and his wife and small dog and children out meeting and greeting.

Through July and August every town and village is full of holiday events – the tomato festival in Marmande, the prune festival in Agen, street theatre in Miramont. One evening we went to Clairac to try the local crêperie. Set in the courtyard of an old house with its high vine covered walls, heavy wooden shutters and old well we could have been in the Middle Ages. Afterwards we strolled towards the local church, to find they were rehearsing a Schuman cello concerto. We slipped inside to listen and loved the unexpectedness of it all.

Of Birds and Beasts

Written in an email to friends in August
The buddleia by the veranda is attracting red admiral and peacock butterflies. Sparrows fly down onto the veranda for insects and in the fields beyond we watch the starlings with their young sitting in gaggles on the electricity wires that are looped from pole to pole between farms. The local town is full of house martins and swifts. Buzzards and kites hunt the fields and on hot evenings frogs set up a chorus from the stream in the bottom of the valley. I think we have nightingales in the copse behind the derelict cottage.

As we walk round the veranda and garden we catch a flicker out of the corners of our eyes as small lizards that have been sunning themselves dive for cover. Bees are everywhere – including great black 747 bees with a deep roaring drone – respect!

The first few mornings we found small black droppings round our table on the veranda – too big for mice, not seen squirrels, so what? Friends tell us it’s probably a loir, the French version of a dormouse, but bigger than we know in the UK, bred by the Romans for food – how could they! Apparently most old houses have them.

There’s also something in the kitchen, heard but not seen – may be a “rongeur” which just translates as rodent, so no clue there. Apparently it has a small bandit mask across its eyes (seems appropriate for a food-stealer!). So we’re being more careful about clearing up crumbs and all packet food is now in plastic boxes.


Written to friends in an email in August
We’re surrounded by working farms, every field cultivated. Maize is behind us and to one side, right to our boundary. The fields in front and to the other side have already been harvested so we overlook stubble and great round straw bales.

Beyond we have sunflowers – now gone over as their heads droop from the weight of the ripening seeds. To begin with I thought they looked sad, but now the foliage is turning to a bright rusty brown which glows in the late afternoon sun.

The other side of our small valley there is a herd of white cattle that wanders around the edges of woodland. Their cowbells are like having our own wind-chimes, although sometimes it’s hard to hear them over the noise of harvesters working late into the night as the farmers take advantage of a dry patch.

We watch the weather coming in across our valley. Some mornings start deep in mist and then gradually clear to sunny days. Thunder storms start with flickering on the surrounding hills and then come crashing in. Clara, Smudge and I sat panting on the corridor floor outside the bathroom at 1am, where we couldn’t see the surrounding flashes, only hear the crashing thunder. In the still points between we heard Tod’s gentle snores as he slept through the lot.

Everyone complains there has been no summer this year. We are just grateful that it has been cool enough to be able to sleep well at night and to have the energy to unpack, while we slowly acclimatise.

Nights can be crystal clear. We stand in the garden looking up at an ink-black sky full of stars and great swathes of the Milky Way.

Pool Boy

Written to friends in an email in August
I’m sitting on the terrace that runs the length of the back of the house and typing this on the portable, so that I can enjoy the view over the garden to the fields beyond.
Tod has just been “pool boy” – straw hat, calf-length trousers (de rigueur for men at this time of the year) and bare chest. The weekly pool clean is a mystical ritual of valves on and off, pump on and off, terms like “backwash” and then a long slow vacuum of the pool bottom. All this you understand for something only slightly larger than a garden pond – four and a half strokes end to end, 10 lengths in under 5 minutes. As it is only heated by the sun it still takes courage to go in – better fast than slow, with associated gasps of shock – but after a sweaty day of emptying boxes and sorting books and pictures (we’re still unpacking!) it’s a joy to jump in and cool off.

When Tod swims, Clara runs alongside, barking anxiously, like a worried mother at her toddler's first swimming lesson.