Tuesday, 29 January 2008

France is having a Winter Hair Cut.

Everywhere trees are being pruned to within an inch of their lives.

In the village where I sometimes walk Smudge in the morning, the square is full of old plane trees, Last week, the trees were a mass of twiggy sticks pointing skywards. Now each branch finishes in a bare gnarled stub that looks like an arthritic finger joint.

In summer, these same trees will have sprouted new twigs and great flat leaves which will form lush green umbrellas of shade. Underneath, during the hot, dusty afternoons, the old men of the village will play pétanque and be cool.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Three Stars in the Michelin Guide

Monday I went with Tod to Toulouse airport as he's in the UK this week to see our osteopath about his back. He hasn't found anyone in France yet who can give him the relief he needs. Still, a trip to the UK means a chance for a few "boys' nights out" and some serious shopping for curry spices.

When we left home at 6.30am, it was pitch dark and thick fog. But by 9.00 the sun had broken through and the fog was no more than wisps wrapped around distant woodland.

Toulouse is an hour and a half's motorway driving due east from us and less than an hour further on is Carcassonne - three stars in the Michelin guide. So I left Tod to the joys of security checks and airport shopping and headed on east in our batmobile.

And then I saw them. There in the distance, gleaming white caps in the morning sun. The Pyrenees. Oh the temptation to turn south towards them, lured by the names on the motorway signs - Andorra, Lerida, Barcelona. But Carcassonne had to be worth a visit. It's got three stars. The mountains and beyond would have to wait for another day.

With no idea what to expect or where to go, the batmobile led me to Carcassonne Cité, the old fortress on the hillside, looming over the town, like something out of a Disney movie. With its great red roofed donjons and forbidding battlements, the place was an empty film set. Grey, grim walls enclose narrow overhung streets. Every other building is a restaurant, hotel, museum or haunted house. A few tourists wandered round disconsolately. In summer it must be impassable. I found I was searching for places to look out from the fortress to those white gleaming snow caps in the distance.

Next time my heart says "head for the Pyrenees", I'll go.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Oak Tree

We woke this morning in the dark to high winds, rain, thunder and no electricity. I stumbled through the house trying to find a torch and calor gas lamps whilst tripping over anxious Airedales looking for somewhere safe to hide. The crash straight overhead had me wanting to hide with them, but I pretended to be very brave and cheerful.

Fortunately the failed electricity was just the trip switch in the fuse box. So we had breakfast and waited for the worst to pass before taking the dogs for a walk in town (morning ritual: hunting cats under cars and buying fresh bread). As we topped the brow of the hill behind our house, we saw the results of the crash overhead: a large oak at the side of the road was split from top to bottom, two huge branches torn off, with smaller branches scattered in all directions. There are two bungalows either side of the tree, neither was touched, but they must have thought it was the end of the world when the lightning hit.

Yesterday we took delivery of another five cubic metres of wood. Monsieur M knocked at the kitchen door in the morning to ask if he could deliver the wood later, as he knew that the rain was coming. Tod has a bad back again, so I helped with the unloading. I was tidying the wood store when I heard the tractor and trailer slowly making its way along the ridge from the next village and down our long drive between the fields. As if he had all the time in the world, he reversed the tractor into the shed and then zig-zagged back and forth to get the trailer piled high with the logs as close as possible to where we wanted them.

As we lifted the logs off the trailer, with the wind beginning to gust around us, he told me about the changes he is seeing in the weather and his regret at the old trees disappearing as they are grubbed up by farmers wanting larger fields. I wished I could have asked him more, but do not yet have the words.

Afterwards, still wearing his black beret, he sat with us in the kitchen drinking Tod's strong black coffee and we talked of the different types of wood he had brought us, chêne (oak) which burns slow (some say too slow); acacia, which has the yellow heart wood, splits easily and burns hot; châtaignier (chestnut) which splutters and is best burnt in a closed stove; orme (elm) and charme (hornbeam) which are increasingly hard to find.

I hope that the great oak branches struck by lightning this morning make a warm fire for someone in years to come.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Christmas Ragbag

Over Christmas, with no internet connection, I left the computer off for days on end, stopped writing and now I find I'm left with a ragbag of half-remembered images:

- on the way to Riberac to see an English speaking accountant, the green pompoms of mistletoe in the hedgerow trees, in places growing so thickly that the trees looked like evergreens

- early morning, frozen pansies in the planters on the veranda, looking like wet tissue paper. Then two hours later in the morning sun, all dried out and bright and perky

- high on the escarpment at Nicole, above the great alluvial plain where the Lot and Garonne meet, two hang-gliders float and drift in the rising air currents only yards in front of us

- wine bottles wrapped in aluminium foil hanging drunkenly on trees as decorations outside the smartest of villas

- the roar of the water over the great weir at Aiguillon and the sunlight reflected so brightly on the pond behind the derelict mill we had to squint to see

- everywhere, great wooden boxes of oysters, huge platters of seafood, mountains of whelks, mussels, shrimps, prawns, lobsters, crabs, for French Christmas Eve celebrations

- even the smallest commune has its street decorations, perhaps no more than a couple of small wonky stars

- English carol service in our small white-walled, barrel-vaulted church. More and more people arriving until it seemed impossible they would all fit. And still they came. At least with the number of bodies we were warm

The Drive to Marmande

We've been "off-line" for most of the time since Christmas day, when our telephone landline (and hence our Orange livebox) went down.

We celebrated Christmas twice here in France: on Christmas Eve (the French and Polish way) a supper of borscht, fish and bottled fruits in liqueur and then the English way with friends on Christmas Day: turkey with all the trimmings, champagne and red and white local wines and a rich, nut-filled dark Christmas pudding from Sainsbury's, brought back specially in my hand luggage. Don't try carrying crackers onto a plane. As I was wandering listlessly around Luton airport, killing time waiting for my flight, the staff at Cotton Traders told me they had already been given ten boxes by people stopped from taking them on board and it was still only mid December.

Boxing Day, we needed to recover from the exertions of the previous two days. So it was the 27th before we set off on the half-hour drive to the Orange shop in Marmande to report our out-of-action phone. Easier face-to-face we naïvely thought. The shop was packed. We signed in, to get our place in the queue and joined the milling throng. An hour or so later, we told our story to an assistant in our pidgin French and she then struggled to get through to the helpline. Finally we were assured that an engineer would be out, that evening or the next day. Amazed at the prospect of such efficiency, we set off on the half-hour journey home.

And to our delight an engineer did arrive on the 28th. Ah, but .... he had not come out to fix the fault, but in true French, bureaucratic fashion, to report it, with signed paperwork, in triplicate.

And so we waited. Quite nice in some ways, being cut off. No wading through the dozens of emails inviting us to spend yet more money in the post-Christmas sales. No means of dialing 3103 to find that no-one had called us while we were out ("Bonjour. Vous n'avez aucun nouveau message").

But by early January, with people to call to say happy New Year and the possibility of some work from the UK, we were getting anxious. It's fine sitting in the South of France so long as we can just email or pick up the phone. Even began to think about sending letters.

Finally, after costly calls on the mobile to reassure friends and clients we were still here, men appeared up a telegraph pole along the ridge behind our house and we were startled to hear our phone ring. A cheerful voice assured us all was well. At least we think that was what was said. I hastily handed the phone over to Tod and was impressed with his confident "d'accord" down the phone as he hung up. "What did they say?" I asked. "No idea!" he said.

Well all the lights on our livebox were glowing encouragingly and we rushed to catch up on our respective emails. We were back in touch! That lasted half an hour. So back to Marmande (half an hour's drive each way), this time to demand a new livebox. But had Monsieur dialed 3900 to report the fault and to have the line tested? Unfortunately without the fault reported, no new livebox would be forthcoming.

Horrors. A conversation must be had with an engineer on the phone! Fortified by a strong French coffee brewed in one of those little metal cafetières that look like an old-fashioned corset, the call is made. Triumph. The line is tested, the lights are on again and there is much wishing of "Bonne année".

How much easier just to pick up the phone than to drive to Marmande. Sometimes we just have to be kicked out of our comfort zone to find that we can cope.