Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve

Tonight - just the two of us - we did what we do best together. We made a Polish Christmas Eve supper .....

- Borscht
- Monkfish with a mushroom, brandy and prune sauce
- Makowiec (poppy seed cake)
- with a fine French wine
- and candles

.... and we talked.

Links: Makowiec recipe

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Winter Solstice

Glorious sunshine after days of dank cold grey. So warm I've had to come back inside and change my two sweaters for a T-shirt.

I'm finally cutting back the brown tendrils of the morning glory that smothered the trellis at the end of the veranda in the summer. They have intertwined with the bare stems of a white summer jasmine. The sun is hot on my back as I work. Tod is giving the swimming pool a clean - the last of the leaves from the apple trees have sneaked in under the cover.

A tiny lizard sunbathes on one of the stone pigs. I walk down to the derelict cottage and disturb a red admiral basking on a wall.

The météo promises this weather to Christmas Eve. There's a chance I'll get the rest of the pansies and tulip bulbs planted before it turns cold again.

It's so warm, I've let the fire go out in the kitchen range. I'll light it again this evening and, joy of joys, the new Godin stove in the lounge.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

I hardly dare breathe it ...

... but Smudge is finally getting better.

I blithely posted something similar nearly three weeks ago and the following night we were woken by his whimpering and crying with pain. At three in the morning I e-mailed our vet and deleted the post in fury and frustration. After all our love and care how dare he have a relapse!

But now, finally, he wriggles vigorously when we lift him in and out of the car, rather than hanging limp. A wriggling Airedale is a splendid armful. He sits sphinx-like on the Indian rug in the kitchen keeping an eye on breakfast proceedings, rather than just going back to sleep. Good, that means he's hungry.

And he walks - painfully slowly and with a limp, but still he's walking: along the veranda and all the way round the back of the house; down towards the derelict cottage, now being restored, where he found (and sat with) our two workmen eating their lunch in the tin-roofed shed; twice round the empty patch of mud in town where the tatty circus sometimes pitches, because once round was not enough; across the town square, down the street with the pizza restaurant that has cats, along the side of the church where it's not clear who has right of way and back past the pharmacy on the corner where they speak English and would only sell me his incredibly expensive antibiotics one packet at a time, "just in case".

In the end, it was not leukaemia, or an autoimmune disease, but toxoplasmosis which crashed in on top of his immune system already weakened by the tick fever. Finally, this week, the blood test results are negative.

This evening I'm taking him to Dr M. who will murmur sweet nothings to him and give him osteopathy and maybe acupuncture. Our vet who has supported us through all this emailed me this morning: "Give Smudge a hug." You bet - lots!

A Further Week
Tick fever

Thursday, 20 November 2008

St Catherine's Day

St Catherine's day is November 25th. My mother's birthday.

Yesterday, in my French lesson, Yvette quoted this old saying: "A la Sainte Catherine, tout prend racine." (I guess a rough translation is: "up to St Catherine's [day] everything takes root".)

According to the biodynamic calendar, November 24th and 25th are good "root days". So I've been out in the garden digging the holes for our six new fruit trees: two nectarines, two apricots, two cherries, which we'll be planting next Monday 24th.

The ground is damp and the fork is going in easily. Two spits depth, the earth is crumbly and full of fat worms. I think our new trees will take root very well.

Monday, 17 November 2008

November Flowers

These are some of the flowers still blooming in the garden.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Trip to Bergerac

Yesterday we went to Bergerac to see EDF.

EDF are our electricity company. We have two electricity meters: one in the house and one in the derelict cottage. When we moved in, we didn't know we had two meters. And we didn't realise that EDF had started sending us estimated statements for the meter in the cottage, where the dial probably hasn't changed for years.

Trying to explain to an EDF telephone help line in broken French that there is something wrong with the EDF statement is a particular form of exquisite torture, not least because the person at the other end of the phone knows, with total certainty, that their computer is right and that the mad English woman on the phone is wrong. "Perhaps she has read the wrong meter? She has a water meter perhaps, and has read that? "
We made calls to the previous owners and copies of previous statements were sent. A year on, we discovered our other meter, hidden behind the broken front door of the cottage and we began to unravel the mystery. A visit by a senior meter reader was arranged. Copies of bank statements, direct debit arrangements and photos of the two meters were shown. The senior meter reader said he understood and left. And still the statements from EDF were wrong.

Then finally a breakthrough - we reached for help from French Liaison in Eymet and we were told about the well-kept secret of the EDF office at Bergerac where you can actually get to talk to someone face to face.

It's taken two visits, but we are quietly optimistic that EDF now understand.

And there are worse places to go on a bright autumn afternoon: open road, no traffic, hood of the batmobile down, driving between rust and gold coloured vineyards, with the occasional chateau in the distance.

By the River Dordogne

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Dressing Gown

Went to Agen yesterday to buy a dressing gown. I arrived in the pouring rain just about noon.

All self-respecting French men and women were hurrying home for lunch and most of the small shops were closing for at least two hours. But these days one or two of the bigger stores, including Eurodif and Galeries Lafayette, stay open over the lunch hour. So, for those of us who loathe shopping, from 12 til 2pm is almost bearable.

I headed for Galeries Lafayette, passed the small pavement cafes, their empty tables and chairs puddled and dripping in the rain. I've only ever been to the store's ground floor before: an emporium of elegant accessories and a great source of presents (especially scarves) for friends in the UK.

Yesterday I ventured further: to the second floor and women's clothing. I stepped off the elevator to grey, grey and more grey - all beautifully arranged. As my eyes adjusted to the lack of colour, I began to see the occasional touch of red and shocking pink in the distance.

There was only one other customer on the floor. She was trying on a grey cardigan and talking to an assistant. Her eyes flicked over to me and I could see from her expression that I was found wanting. I caught sight of myself in a mirror and had sympathy with her silent opinion: wet hair, damp jeans, thick, shapeless puffa jacket and wellington boots. I looked like a Michelin man. Somehow even in the rain, French women who shop look smart.

I bid a hasty retreat to the basement and the dressing gowns. The one I've bought is fluffy, warm and soft pink. Not a very practical colour to wear while cleaning out the ash from the boiler in the mornings, but maybe just a touch of that French elegance.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Pumpkin

It's a wet Sunday morning and I'm pootling through the internet.

I started with "A Small Stone" and then got led off down various alleyways until I found "A Half-Remembered Life" and lingered to read about cauliflower soup, saunas, rabies vaccinations, Sweden and moose.

I'm supposed to be looking for recipes for pumpkin (not cauliflower) soup and pumpkin pie.

Tod went to see Monsieur M. who supplied us with our wood last winter. We need another load and at the end of a discussion that included visiting the pile of wood we are buying, Monsieur M. gave Tod a 16 kilo pumpkin. It sat on the table on the veranda for several days as I'd no idea what to do with it, but I've now decided it's the right weather for eating it.......

..... continuing on a wet and windy Monday afternoon

We attacked the pumpkin last night. The soup (including mild curry) was delicious. We used one segment of the pumpkin and that gave us enough for three helpings each. That left another nine segments to go. So today I've made my first ever, pumpkin pie, based on about four different recipes from the internet (the joys of broadband).

My pie-making needs a bit of fine-tuning. I should have puréed the pumpkin more thoroughly. The pie crust would be better baked blind first and perhaps a tad more sugar and ginger?

Still, there are another eight segments to practice on and several long-suffering friends on whom I can inflict the results. One of the pies will be for Monsieur M.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Chalk Cliff

The field behind us climbs to above roof level and after heavy rain mud slides down the bank at the corner of the field and across our drive. These mudslides have periodically happened for years and the previous owners had an agreement with Monsieur F (who owns the field) and the local commune that "after the harvest" the corner would be shored up to hold back the mud.

That agreement was made three years ago and when we bought, the notaire confirmed that the work would be done "after the harvest". That was a year ago. From time to time we trotted into the mayor's office and with lots of smiles all round, various excuses were put forward and new dates suggested. So when the mayor said "after the harvest" this year, we smiled, nodded and didn't believe him.

But this year it happened! Three lorry loads of chalk cliff were dumped in our drive. The corner of the field was scraped back, the ditch at the bottom deepened and a bastion of white rock layered with mud created.

It is very white. So I've planted ground cover in the pockets between the rocks: cotoneaster, ceanothus, ivy, vinca, rock roses, variegated elaeagnus. In time they will spread and the whiteness will be subdued.

When it rains heavily the water that runs down into the ditch is milky.

Monday, 27 October 2008


We've been cosy-warm today despite the grey wet weather. For the first time since last winter we've had the kitchen boiler on all day and the radiators have been piping hot. It all seems a lot easier than this time last year. Tod has been chain-sawing and splitting last year's logs - we've still got a good stock - and we've been steadily feeding the stove throughout the day. Having got the firebox up to a good heat this morning, every 20 minutes or so we put on another couple of fresh logs to keep it well fed.

Keeping the house warm is not the only thing that feels easier than last year. Yesterday Serge drove up with his girlfriend. They'd come to check his field that runs down the side of our track. He planted rape (colza) a few weeks back and it's coming up well except for a patch alongside us, which he says is being eaten by insects, despite having been sprayed.

We chatted about the neighbours (she has a new boyfriend), the spring that he's piped and diverted into a ditch (wish we'd known, we could have used that water for gardening), the sale of his field that's fallen through because of the credit crunch, the cows that are his pride and joy.

The conversation wasn't fluent. If you'd asked Tod and me at any moment, "what's he just said?" we probably couldn't have told you. But, we muddled through, got the gist of it, smiled a lot and managed. That too gives a warm, cosy feeling.

Friday, 24 October 2008

A Further Week

I can't settle to anything.

Smudge collapsed again a week ago and he was breathing so quietly we thought we'd lose him. But again he pulled through. This time though, when he tried to walk, you could see every step pained him. He could barely stand and we had to hold him. He would hunch his shoulders, walk a couple of steps and then stand panting. Several times, he fell and just lay there.

When our vet touched him, he cried in pain. She thought it might be leukaemia, triggered by the tick fever. She gave him steroid and antibiotic injections and took blood. Within a day the change was amazing. He was walking more easily. He could get himself up without help. We have continued with the steroids and antibiotics and he potters about the house, almost his old self, but thinner and still very tired.

In the meantime, initial blood tests imply some form of autoimmune disease. That seemed better than leukaemia until I began to read articles on the internet.

The tick fever has totally compromised his immune system. To minimise further damage, I give him filtered water, organic chicken, rice, lentils and vegetables. I add ground seaweed and elderberry juice to his food to build strength. I trickle homeopathic drops between his lips.

I dread the side effects if we have to keep him on steroids and hope that acupuncture and herbal remedies will help. I read about flax oil and cottage cheese, raw food, spirulina, vitamins, laetrile and wonder what's best.

We still do not have the results of all the blood tests. I start doing something, but then break off to check my emails, read more on the internet and watch him sleeping.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Bordeaux for Lunch

Last Friday under blue skies we had lunch in Bordeaux for Tod's birthday.

We took the train for an adventure and we knew we were nearly there when the fields alongside the track changed from maize to vines.

Through the bustle of Bordeaux we rode a sleek modern tram to the quay alongside the Bourse and we sat in the sun, ate good seafood and watched the world go by.

Afterwards we strolled along the west bank of the Garonne and, like others, were drawn to the constant film of water on the pavement that reflected the blue sky and the grandiose quayside buildings. Suddenly, to much delight, everything vanished magically in clouds of steam.

We wandered on and browsed in the foyer of the Grand Theatre. The Nutcracker at Christmas perhaps?

Bordeaux is only an hour away. Next time we'll come for longer.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Two Weeks on

Smudge is recovering, but slowly.

We had fierce instructions from our vet not to walk him through his convalescence. But he likes his walks and hates doing his business in the garden, so we compromise.

He gets a car ride and then a gentle shuffle round for a few yards and that seems to be enough most of the time. On good days he wants to walk further and has to be steered in a slow arc back towards the car. On less good days he stops. Just stops. And looks as if he would stand there forever.

Sometimes we sit for a while and watch the world go by and he seems content.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Wednesday Morning

Yesterday morning we went to the funeral of our mayor.

He died suddenly of a heart attack and the commune is still in shock. Several hundred of us stood outside the small church, chatting quietly, waiting patiently for the cortege. Gendarmes arrived in full dress uniform. A flag was unfurled.

So many weather-beaten faces were touched with grief, as the service was piped to those of us outside through wavering, crackly loud speakers.

People spoke of him with affection and remembered his warmth and kindness. He will be missed.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Smudge has tick fever ....

.... and I'm zonked.

Yesterday evening having written a cheerful catching up email to Pat in Mexico, I went for a walk with Smudge. He bounced (as much as his rickety old legs will let him) to the Merc and up the ramp that lets him get into the back, where he likes to sit facing backwards, grumbling at cars that tailgate.

One of the villages where we walk him is five minutes drive away. I parked in our usual place and opened the back. He likes to lean against the wheel arch for support and he just sat there. "Okay", I thought, "he's bored with here. We'll go a bit further, to the next village." Another five minutes or so away.

Again, when I opened the back, he just looked at me. So I tugged on his collar and he reluctantly stood up. It was then that I realised that the sweet sickly smell I had sub-consciously noticed in the car was because he had done his business. "Poor mite" I thought "he's embarrassed and that's why he doesn't want to get up and out of the car". So I tugged him down the ramp, cleaned him and the car as best I could and then watched him just stand there, swaying, tail between his legs, head hanging low. And it was only ten minutes ago that he bounced to the car. "Oh Lord" I thought "he's had a stroke, or something" So tugged him back up the ramp and drove home as quickly as possible, more concerned at what I could see happening in the rear-view mirror than looking ahead - as his head sunk lower and lower.

I left him in the car and sat with him in the drive as I waited for our vet to arrive, still thinking stroke or something as he lay there panting. We knew it was serious when he made no attempt to grumble at her as she examined him and took his temperature (high). Then she turned back his lips and showed me his pale gums - anaemia. And suddenly we were talking tick fever.

When feeding on the blood of its host, an infected tick passes a parasite which lodges in the red blood cells. The host body responds to the invasion by destroying red blood cells. Smudge's lethargy and panting were in response to the rapid onset of anaemia as his cells died and his heart struggled to pump round enough oxygenated blood.

This is life-threatening.

Taking no chances, our vet gave him three injections and I gave him a homeopathic remedy - ledum 1M - to support him. Tod carried him in and tucked him in bed. Our vet drove away in the dark, doing her best to reassure me.

The first twelve hours are the most critical. So we put a mattress in the kitchen and I settled down beside him, listening to his rapid, faint breathing and watching him just lying there in the faint glow of a nightlight. The slightest thing jerked me awake with a cold anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. The American fridge turning on and off was thunderous. I thought I heard mice. Tod crept in to see how he was. I took the kitchen clock out because I couldn't hear his breathing over the ticking. Once or twice Smudge licked his lips, so using a syringe I trickled water into his mouth - dehydration is a serious risk. He took it without raising his head.

And then suddenly it was ten to seven on the microwave clock and we had come through the night and he was still with us. Our vet said he was tough.

I'm getting an early night tonight. I know I will sleep soundly and so will Smudge.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Sunday in the Park, with Judy and Paul

(with apologies to Mr Sondheim)

The weekend before last was "le weekend de patrimoine" when stuff happens - fairs, open days, walks - all of which are usually an excuse to eat.

Sunday lunchtime, long trestle tables were set up in the park by the mill in the village where we often walk Smudge. A bandstand went up. The stalls around the edge offered food: pâté and tomatoes, cooked chicken, fried whitebait, cheeses, wines, gooey deserts.

We wandered from stall to stall, piling our plates, and contentedly settled at one end of a table.

After lunch, as we lazed, couples danced in the early afternoon sun to rock and roll numbers. With a weekend theme of heritage, the old dance tunes seemed appropriate.

Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

I have no words ....

... to adequately describe the blue-skied wonder of these early autumn days.

Hot sun on my back as I dig the weeds out of the bank below the lawn - almost too hot.

I stand up, stretch and turn to watch a tractor in a distant field and feel the sharp, fresh cold wind across my hot shoulders - like stepping into a cold shower.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Late Summer Visitor

Scarce Swallowtail, photographed by Tod 14/09/08.

We have raised walled borders along the front of the veranda. In the corner of the right-hand bed beside the steps down onto the lawn, there is a buddleia. It's grown too big and is beginning to break down the wall of the border. Buddleias are lovely when they are first in bloom, but by September the gone-over blossom - more brown seed than mauve flowers - looks ragged and tired. So, of course, it will have to go.

But it's also a magnet for butterflies. What can replace it and bring us visitors like this?

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Sand between my Toes

Joy of joys - went to the seaside yesterday!

As the day promised to be fine, we set off in the batmobile, hood down, for Lacanau-Océan, on the far side of Bordeaux: round the rocade, turn left and keep going west until you hit the Atlantic. It's a "proper" seaside town: pink, yellow and blue paint in abundance; rows of small shops selling the French equivalent of "kiss me quick" hats; ice cream in every hue and flavour and every other shop a pavement cafe.

We found a seafood restaurant (paella good, sardines not so) and sat under an awning watching the world go by. In August, the town heaves, but now the pace is more leisurely; mainly the elderly and couples with toddlers have their pick of places to eat.

Afterwards we strolled down to the front. The beach is breath-taking. Look left and as far as the eye can see there is golden sand. Look right, and as far as the eye can see there is golden sand - just a small slice of the 150-odd miles of beach that stretches from the mouth of the Gironde to the foothills of the Pyrenees.

We bought a folding chair for Tod so he could sit and read while I splashed about in the small surf (yesterday was a quiet day), wading out to chest level and then attempting to swim in on the rollers as they broke, puffing and panting back out again with sea in my eyes and ears, feeling about 8 years-old. I splashed my way around the tourists learning to surf and enviously watched the instructors effortlessly catch the waves that took them almost to dry land.

Driving back, (for Tod's entertainment) we detoured across country to join the D2, the road that follows the Gironde estuary and weaves between the Grand Cru vineyards and chateaux. Under cloudless blue skies we turned south towards Margaux and Bordeaux. A journey up to Paulliac and the Chateaux Lafite Rothschild and Latour will have to wait for another day.

We arrived home tired and happy. It was a good day. I sat on the edge of the bed last night and brushed out the sand from between my toes.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Lasting Memories

Stas and Anka came, stayed for a while, then left again, like two exotic birds.

They slept lots (sometimes in the tent); cycled to town in the heat of the sun; helped clean and prepare the house for the party; mowed the lawn; strimmed the brambles; did the washing up; left intriguing photos on my computer; squabbled; made up; worried us; made us laugh; played with Smudge and massaged his back to ease his aches and pains; ate greasy crêpes with nutella at a night market (why do we always fall for them?); played Mexican dominoes and scrabble; hitched to Spain and came back; drew our portraits; went to Biarritz with Tod in the batmobile and got caught in a storm.

ANKA is scratched on the stonework of the cottage.

Photos by Anka

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Cottage

I've been playing with floor planning software for the last few days.

Our plans for the house have not moved forward, so we've turned our attention to our derelict cottage (also know as the guest accommodation) which lies at the bottom of the garden, beyond a mess of brambles where nightingales sing in spring.

The cottage has no roof and at some point there was a fire, so many of the fallen beams are blackened and crumbling. The chimney is still standing but it is bowing out and the adjoining wall has cracks you can get your hand in. (Mind you, there are people living in houses up in the village with cracks bigger than ours - no one seems to worry that much.) But we do have four walls and the chimney still has the TV aerial on top.

Our first task has been to get a "certificat d'urbanisme" which gives us the right to restore the cottage. Without that, it has to stay a ruin. A delicate conversation with the local mayor along the lines of "would we possibly be thinking of using the cottage as a chambre d'hôte" and "well, we would not rule out that possibility" may well have helped the process. This is a region where there is little accommodation for tourists .

So now we are on to the next stage of getting planning permission to do the building work - especially putting the roof back before winter rains penetrate further into the walls. The cottage is not large - it will be less than 150 square meters over its two floors - and therefore the plans do not have to be drawn up by an architect. Hence the planning software.

Clutching tape-measure, pad and pencil, we crunch our way across the debris of bricks, tiles and wood that litters the earth floors and gingerly ease ourselves under half-supported beams. We peer into small rooms where young saplings are growing through broken pallets. I wait while Tod gets a ladder and in the stillness I can hear the sound of wasps gnawing on rotten wood. This is hard hat territory.

Thin wires trail everywhere and catch our feet. They were strung from the long-gone ceilings and used for drying tobacco. Broken light switches hang off walls and I nervously eye the meter still there in the hall. The power is off - I hope. There is no running water or sanitation, but a thin electricity wire stretches down from the pole by our house. This is the wire that the swallows are gathering on this week. They'll soon be gone. We measure pitted window cavities and doorways and try to decide what are the "right" lengths to put on the plan as the gaps vary by centimetres.

We begin to notice things: a doorway has been narrowed; an added window is bigger than the others; here was the hole where the water from the sink came through; the step into the hayloft is worn down by years of use; the angle of the missing roof can still be seen on the chimney; there is an outline on the back wall where the stairs went up to the loft.

Gradually the cottage speaks to us of what it used to be and what it could become.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

La Chasse

Woke to the thud, thud thud of guns echoing across our valley.

End of August, the hunting season has started.

I fear for the three roe deer that sometimes hide in the maize field behind our house.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Cap Ferret on a Holiday Saturday

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.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Summer - South West France

Hot soup for lunch and wearing two sweaters.

Livebox - Not!

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.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Street Theatre

Miramont de Guyenne, Saturday and a bit of Sunday: Bastid' Art

Pity the camera battery ran out before the Brasilian percussion batucada. Drums, more drums, hypnotic rhythmn - nostalgia for Rio carnival.

Rio Batucada


Friday, 1 August 2008

Those of a Nervous Disposition: Do Not Read

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.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Summer en Fête: Part Two

Tod has a bad back again and decided to retreat to bed for the day. So I had a decision to make: to go or not, to the opera highlights at Penne-d'Agenais on my own? I'm glad I went.

Mid-afternoon, when I got in the car after my lesson with Yvette, the thermometer said 41ºC and the oven-hot stickiness continued right through the evening. We all sat, wedged thigh to thigh, in a much-too-small-for-the-occasion barn, with the soloists and orchestra sweating gently only inches from the front row. Elegant French ladies in wafer-thin dresses wafted their programmes in an attempt to keep cool. But the discomfort and heat were forgotten in the joy of the singing.

Old favourites - Au Fond du Temple Saint from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers The Flower Duet, from Delibes' Lakme; Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot - were interspersed with (for me) the less well-known - Thomas's Hamlet, Bellini's Norma and Rossini's Moise.

During a night that resounded with bravos, the performances I will especially remember are the rich, soaring voice of the mezzo-soprano, Tatiana Varapai, singing Saint Saens' Dalilah; the tenor, Stephan David, and the baritone, Guilhem Souyri, singing the heart-aching duet from the Pearl Fishers and the delicate harmonies between sopranos Olivera Toalovic and Florence Gelas in the Flower Duet.

I regretted Tod was not there to share it and I know what I'll be looking out for next summer.
Bizet: O Fond du Temple Saint:
Delibes: Flower Duet:
L'Orchestre du Centre Philomonique:

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Summer en Fête

Remembering how last year we seemed to be a step behind everyone else as July and August got into full swing, this summer, we've been determined to "be there" when it happens.

Looking at the local tourist board calendars and talking with friends who tell us how good "such and such" was last year, the challenge is where to be when "it" happens. Should we go to see the Bratislav Chamber Orchestra? Or perhaps listen to motets by Mondonville (who he?). Maybe spend a night listening to opera highlights? That's quite apart from going to the all-day world plum kernel cracking competition (three age groups: under 11s, 11-16 and adults in the evening).

Nothing much starts before 9pm and even then, there may be speeches first, so stamina and a capacity to cope with late nights are key elements in the process of enjoyment. That, and a willingness to put up with appalling sound systems.

The place to be last weekend everyone assured us was Castelmoron for the seventh Folkloriades. Apparently last year was really good. In fact last year we met a troop of Chinese acrobats when out dog-walking, so we were intrigued to see what this year would offer.

The evening started with a Basque form of Morris dancing, but without the bells, bright colours or general gaiety. The most exciting moment was when one of the melancholic dancers fell off his stilts (not hurt I hasten to add). As Tod said, there are, after all, only so many things you can do on stilts.

We stayed for the sake of the following act, a troop from Peru. We both have been there and were nostalgic for the music. The average age of the dancers was about 10 and at least they had the bright colours and the gaiety. But then there's that feeling when there's only so long you can watch someone else's children doing something cute. And it's tough listening to El Cóndor Pasa being massacred. So at an appropriate moment we slipped away.

Not to be discouraged, this weekend we set forth with friends on Friday night to hear The Commitments in Agen in front of the Mairie: the stage set up in the open air, surrounded by the floodlit old municipal buildings and street cafés.

Yes, I know, The Commitments is an Alan Parker film. But apparently the band went "live". Only they didn't really, Andrew Strong, the raw, rough lead singer who made the band went solo and over the years they're down to only two from the film. But I bounced up and down and clapped enthusiastically to songs like Mustang Sally, Chain of Fools and Try a Little Tenderness and pretended I was part of the film and tried not to notice that Tod was sitting with his fingers in his ears (made the sound system marginally more bearable). Apparently last year's group, a Beatles tribute band, were fantastic.

Then last night - knowing what to expect - we sallied forth to our local commune for supper and cabaret. Whereas last year we'd been outsiders, this time we even recognised one or two faces: chatted to the Mayor and Mr Secretary - they know all about our plans for the house - and met some more English. Supper included large slabs of beef, with much gristle. Most of the English contingent left theirs; some of the French, made of tougher stuff, went back for seconds.

Still there was the cabaret to come: this year "1001 nights". It felt like it. There is after all only so many times one can watch the same four women twirling on the spot, with their arms in the air, waving bits of gauze. The highlight was when the Mayor was lured onto the dance floor, blushing gently and wiggling self-consciously while the lead dancer twined herself round him. After what felt like hours, we made our escape. Apparently last year's cabaret was fantastic.

This week, we will set out with renewed optimism to listen to opera highlights and next weekend is definitely where "it" will happen - street theatre in Miramont.


El Cóndor Pasa as it should sound:

From the original filmThe Commitments: Try a little tenderness Mustang Sally

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Claude Rains Reine Claude

We have a Reine Claude plum in the garden, which I muddle with the film actor and tend to call Claude Rains.

She, Queen Claude, is a greengage; apparently so-called in England because the French name was lost in transit and it was the Gage family who imported her.

Mind you, she (the French version) tastes much juicier and sweeter than the small, hard, very green greengages I remember from English childhood.

I've been clearing the long grass from round her feet and pruning out the dead, lichen covered twisted twiggy bits. The dead bits are deceptive and it's all too easy to find I've cut off a bit that has leaves as well.

She has much less fruit than last year. We hardly noticed her in the early days of unpacking. By the time we did, most of her fruit had rotted or fallen off and many of her leaves were brown and diseased.

This winter, she's had a good dose of wood ash and whether that or the wet Spring, she has rewarded us with lush, healthy foliage and fat juicy fruit.

Her branches come right to the ground and as I prune, hidden under her green canopy, I can hear Serge baling the straw from his harvested winter wheat. His tractor chugs along with a red box behind that gathers up the straw. Every so often the chugging and whirring increases as a door at the back of the box spews out a circular bale and then clangs shut.

The last few days have been like living in a vacuum cleaner, with the deep sucking roar from the combine harvesters working the fields around us far into the night.

Once the baling's done, life will be quieter.

Reine Claude
Claude Rains

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Last Rays

The water cannon in the maize field behind us catches the last rays of the dying sun.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Twenty-nine in the Shade

Smudge likes his routine: a walk in the morning about nine-ish and another in the evening around six-ish.

With summer now going full pelt, the evening walk can be a challenge. Surrounded by worked farmland, our walks involve a drive first to more dog-friendly territory. We park the car for walking (the merc, not the batmobile, which sits in the wood shed) under over-hanging trees to keep the heat off. Even so, by six pm on a sunny day, the thermometer in the car reads 29ºC and we set out with air conditioning full on and all windows open to get a through draught.

On these hot evenings our routine changes as we look for places with shade. There's a small park on the way into town, which is carved from an old country estate. Great plane trees shield the parking area and at lunchtime people sit on benches and eat their sandwiches in the relative cool. In the evenings young men park their cars with open doors side by side and share gossip, music and beers.

Across the grass, giant cedars with low sweeping branches and blue-green cones offer inviting shade. Smudge prefers the rubbish bins.

In one corner of the park there is a chapel with boarded up windows and door. In Spring it is surrounded by pink cyclamen and if you look carefully you can see tiny violets.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Before the Party

We've been here a year.

Tomorrow (Sunday) we are having a party to celebrate and today I'm in the kitchen, preparing the buffet:

- beef (to be roasted and served cold) from the butchers between the dog parlour and our second favourite bread shop. We discussed how much I needed and how many people were coming and how I would cook the meat. He sent me away while he cut and prepared the joint. It's probably too big, but I didn't have the courage to query it.

- thick, succulent salmon pieces from the fish counter at Leclerc that I will poach in a "court bouillon". When I asked for 3 kilos in my best French, the plump lady behind the counter looked startled. I think she was wondering whether this English woman knew what she was asking for. She disappeared into the back and returned with a new ice-packed box from which she carefully made her choice.

- tomatoes roasted in lashings of olive oil, garlic and basil. Great fat beef tomatoes that are a meal in themselves.

- twice cooked goats cheese soufflés (thanks Delia) that can be cooked the day before and then reheated.

- summer fruit terrine (Delia again!) strawberries, raspberries, red currants and cherries glistening in a wine jelly.

- two of Tod's best in the world cheesecakes are already in the fridge in the garage with the salad stuff that will be prepared first thing tomorrow.

Mid morning, I sat at the kitchen table, with a mug of tea and looked through the window past the grape vine with its bunches of green grapes that we are proudly watching grow, to the freshly cut lawn and the fields beyond and I remembered the me of a year ago, tired, stressed, busy unpacking box after box, wondering just what we had done.

And I sent a silent message to the me back then: "it's all going to be alright - very alright"

Delia Smith's Summer Collection

Monday, 23 June 2008

At Last!

I've been in the UK for a week. I left France a dank spring, I've come back to a roaring summer.

At Bergerac airport, we edged our way into a small hut, already full with passengers from an earlier flight, their suitcases being manhandled down a single ramp. We jostled good-naturedly in the heat and those of us still dressed for the UK regretted our heavy jeans and long sleeves. Suddenly all those who had travelled in strappy T-shirts and bare toes looked sensible.

Wheat fields are bleached the colour of light sand. The hay is cut and in circular bales the height of a man. Water canons and the huge wings of sprinklers are set up in the maize.

The petals of the pink roses by the pool are scorched to brown tissue and collect in corners. Red admiral and peacock butterflies settle on the veranda tiles, in pools of sunlight.

Summer is all the more welcome for its late arrival.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Thirteen Moons

Another grey, wet morning. And we're only eight days away from the longest day!

Despairing posts to Total France from those of us in the south ask if there will ever be a summer this year.

We grab the few hours that are sunny and rush out to mow the lawn (Tod) or weed (me). At least with all this water weeding is easy, just tug and they come out with a plop.

We scan the weather forecasts and plan trips for the odd days that promise better weather: Mont-de-Marsan last week and Pau this.

Because there's been so little sun, we treasure it more when it's here and have already bravely ventured into the swimming pool - no point in waiting for a hot day.

Those in the know, nod their heads wisely and say it will be a cool summer, like last year, because there are "thirteen moons in the year".

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Reasons to be Cheerful

Just brought Tod's damp washing in because it's raining again. Wettest spring for years, if not centuries.

So, looking on the bright side ...

- the girly pink roses by the swimming pool are lasting for days

- the herbs I planted while Tod was in England three weeks ago have doubled in size

- at 22 degrees C the swimming pool is warmer than the surrounding air

- I have been in the swimming pool twice since we took the covers off

- I haven't needed to spend hours watering

- we did have a drought in January; we needed the rain and all the reservoirs are now full

- when we do get sun, we really appreciate it: we've had couple of evenings on the veranda and a day out to Mont-de-Marsan with lunch at a pavement cafe

- there was a day when I saw a white and black Swallowtail butterfly

- everywhere is lush and green

Sleep Over

Our architect, stayed over Friday night.

He lives in Bordeaux, about 2 hours drive away. We had builders coming to look at our house on Friday afternoon and more on Saturday morning; so staying over seemed sensible.

It also meant that we got some "quality time" with him on Friday evening to go through the plans. We've been struggling with where to put the fridge in the kitchen. It's a big brute of an American fridge (seemed like a good idea when we bought it) and dominates the space. Fun to watch him drawing on his laptop; lines, arcs and rectangles appear, are pulled in and flicked around the kitchen outlined on his screen. What seemed initially like a problem has led to a creative solution and an improvement to the plans: move the kitchen door over, change the circulation, create a longer work surface and voilà, the fridge fits in better.

His staying over meant I had to tidy the gîte/apartment/thingy where he would be sleeping. We'd used it to dump the stuff that we'd moved out of the loft when we insulated back in the winter and we'd just never got round to sorting it out. As well I did! A mouse had made its nest in one of the beds, which had to be stripped back to the base, with the mattress and the linen going to the local tip. Reminder never to leave unused beds made up!

As I tidied stuff away, cleaned and hoovered, a redstart flew in through the gap round the old hay door half way up the wall to the loft. She circled round clicking anxiously at my presence, but finally calmed down enough to show me that she had a nest behind the boards that cover the ceiling, way above my head.

He assured me Saturday morning that he'd had a good night's sleep, despite the wildlife.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Time for Tea

"The grass is as high as an elephant's eye..."
.....with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein

I've come in for a tea.

I've been working along the bank under the fruit trees clearing the tall (elephant eye high) grasses that have been untouched since spring and are now a sodden mass. The sky's been leaden grey all morning and the wind has had a hint of rain in it - ideal working weather, not too hot and no need for a sun hat.

Some of the "grass" is wild oats and winter wheat that has escaped from Serge's field - tough to cut back with just a pair of shears. I really need a heavy duty strimmer to do the job properly, but they are noisy and smelly. When I use the shears I can still hear the birds singing.

Between cuts I've been eating the cherries from the low branches of our old raggedy cherry tree that I've been bumping my head on as I work. The cherries look so inviting - glowing bright red on the tree - and I always hope the next one will be different, but they are teeth-clenchingly sour.

When the bank is clear I want to plant the tulips that were in pots and have now gone over and are lying in a messy heap. But it's started raining seriously; so I've come in and that's yet another garden job half done!

"Oh what a beautiful morning" from Oklahoma

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Rainy Day

Day three and it's still raining: steady downpour need the windscreen wipers on all the time type rain. People on Total France are posting about "how to build an ark". All our oil radiators are on and the washing is on a dryer in the lounge. South of France late May - ha!

Yesterday we went to M. Bricolage in Marmande - one of the less awful DIY stores - and bought some cheap and nasty wood shelving. Garden tools are supposed to be in the garage but they keep creeping round to a messy corner by the kitchen door. So the shelving (which needs assembling) is an acceptance of the inevitable - the gardening stuff will stay on the veranda.

When I was eight, we lived in an Edwardian house with a large veranda. It was bliss for my mother on wet weekends as my brother and I could still play outside. It had storage cupboards to investigate, old furniture to make into hideouts and a water-butt that we used to stir so we could see the mosquito larvae wriggling back up from the bottom.

Rainy day in France? Thick sweater on and I'm going out to play on the veranda.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Evening in Bergerac with Smudge

Yesterday we (Tod, Smudge and I) drove the two hours to Riberac in the Dordogne to drop off some last minute paperwork for the accountants for our first tax year end in France. Next year we will find accountants with an office that's closer!

Having Smudge in the car is hard on the ears. He bark-yodels, loudly: "Let's leave, RIGHT NOW." "Look there's a cow." "We've overtaken a bicycle." "We've stopped for petrol." "Let me out for a walk, RIGHT NOW." But it's also good to have him with us, rather than leaving him at home on his own for hours.

To give us all a break, we decided to stop on the way back for dinner in Bergerac. We wandered down through the Old Town to the banks of the Dordogne, threading our way past pavement restaurants setting up for the evening and last minute shoppers carrying extravagant flower arrangements - today is Mother's Day. All of this takes time with Smudge as every lamp-post and shop corner has to be sniffed and a new message left. Sometimes we have to double back, to check out a particularly alluring smell. As our attention is at dog level, it is easy to overlook (or perhaps underlook) the attractions aimed at humans, such as the statue of Cyrano de Bergerac.

We checked out a couple of restaurants in a small tree-sheltered square and decided to go for the Moroccan one. The other was all duck, duck and more duck and although Smudge seemed to prefer it, he was outnumbered. Rain threatened and the waiter was doubtful, but by staying outside we could have Smudge at our feet, where he could keep close watch on importunate pigeons, occasional grey cats and the elderly black dog under the table next to us. Smudge refused a taste of Tod's foie gras (discerning dog!) and the steak kebab did not pass muster (though the black dog thought it was fine). My chicken kebab, however, was acceptable.

We strolled back to the car under increasingly lowering skies, this time catching a couple of moody evening shots of Cyrano. And the sunset as we left was spectacular, but also warned us of the weather about to come.

I huddled in the back of the car with Smudge as Tod drove us home for deserted mile after mile, lightning flashing across the dark horizons around us.

After yesterday's exertions we're all having a lazy morning.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand