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.