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.