Thursday, 28 February 2008

Spring Sounds

It's been raining on and off over the last couple of days (for the first time in about six weeks) and somehow all sounds are sharper and louder.

This morning I've been putting in the last of the new shrubs between the (now) stumps of mallow. Close up, bees and flies buzz backwards and forwards along the bank where I'm working, looking for early flowers among the dead nettle and groundsel.

Just behind me chaffinches and tits squabble in the honeysuckle which smothers our abandoned well. Across the garden a wren scolds.

Down in the valley by the stream, the frogs are beginning to tune up for their spring chorus, with a sound more like a duck's quack than a croak.

On the ridge behind us a new house is going up - all concrete and sharp pink brick - and the builders are chatting and laughing.

Two farms away, along the valley, a cockerel is crowing.

Suddenly there's a low rumble and the French air force jet - black dart, half a mile ahead of its own sound - skims past, so low above the ridge it looks as if it will touch the new house.

Earlier, I heard the wild cry of the cranes high above me. I've imagined the noise several times over the last few days, but this time it was real. A small skein of about 20 were heading north.

I've posted my sighting to the migration website: Spring is nearly here.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Unpacking the Tea Set

Just had our French teacher to afternoon tea instead of our usual back to back (me first, then Tod) French lessons.

Yvette loves all things English, so we've been thoroughly spoilt - an afternoon of chatting in English rather than struggling in French, while we showed her round and then drank weak English tea and ate delectable French cakes.

It was her first visit to our house, so this morning was a frantic "cat's lick" of a tidy up to get the place looking half respectable. Our excuse is the age of the house (bits dropping off the walls and ceilings all the time, spiders' webs in every corner) and having two Airedale dogs who spend their entire time carrying the garden into the house. Turn round and there is dust on every surface. Somehow I thought tile floors would be easier to clean than carpets, but now I realise that the carpets in our last house hid most of the dirt that the dogs brought in.

We have friends who say "drop in for coffee, any time" and I just know that if I do their house will be neat, clean and tidy. No lime scale on the bathroom taps; no leftover bits of food on the swing bin lid; no sink filled with yesterday's dirty saucepans; no cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and no remnants of dogs' dinner on the kitchen tiles.

We have friends round periodically (but not too often) so it forces us to clean and tidy up. And also forces us to continue to unpack the last few remaining boxes currently sitting in the part of the house that as yet has no name - studio? apartment? gîte? - anyway, the bit that friends stay in which probably was a barn and now has a mezzanine with beds. This morning I scrabbled through old newspapers to find our posh tea service and I now have a work surface in the studio/ apartment/ gîte covered in pieces of unpacked crockery with nowhere to put them.

Somehow when they were handing out the tidiness gene I missed out.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Mallow

Today our first daffodil bloomed and I began to attack the great jumble of over-grown mallow branches along the bank that sweeps down from the edge of our (so-called) lawn.

Until now I've been nervous of the garden. Through last summer I eyed plants that I didn't recognise and remembered advice to see a garden through all its seasons. Yet at the same time the garden felt impoverished, with too little variety and not enough greenery. And where was the spread of colours and textures? Perhaps it's not surprising. After all, the house was only used as a holiday home.

It was Tod asking what should we do about the mess of branches on the bank; that and a sale of garden plants at Leclerc, which suddenly gave me the courage. We went to the supermarket yesterday for weekend shopping and came out with a trolley piled high with pots of forsythia, viburnum, syringa, cotoneaster, laurel, ribes, deutzia, weigela, ceanothus and tamarisk.

We will cut the mallow right back, clear the undergrowth and begin to plant a deep shrubbery along the bank. Perhaps some of the mallow will grow back. If so, it will become part of a rich tapestry of leaves, berries and flowers.

It is time to claim the garden as ours.

Sunday, 10 February 2008


I have been unwrapping the house from its winter gloom.

The glorious, unseasonal warmth is promised to continue for the rest of the week. So, although it may get colder again, I'm hoping that the cold will not get a grip and that we really can begin, like the plants, to unfurl for spring.

Because our elderly house is full of draughts, at the beginning of winter I sealed up the worst windows with large plastic sheets stapled to the frames. Some days you could see the plastic billowing from the gusts of wind coming through the cracks. It certainly helped keep us warmer, but oh it is wonderful to take the plastic down and throw open the windows and let in the sun and fresh air!

Last night we took our courage in our hands and went to our first commune fête as participants - €15 each for "poule au pot". Held in one of the two salle des fêtes in the village - all 60s concrete and high ceilings, with a wooden stage at one end - we were faced with long trestle tables laid out for supper and small groups of our neighbours standing around chatting to each other.

We knew no-one. Help! But to my amazement I have discovered that there is this slightly crazy woman inside of me who thinks she can speak French and who found herself chatting to four warm, smiling women, much amused by her efforts. And we all got by! Somehow, with the use of a dictionary, hand signals and considerable guessing on their part we had a conversation and I learnt about where they lived, their children and their husbands. Two are sisters-in-law. Their husbands - brothers - farm the same land: a large modern complex in wonderful folds of green fields that lie further along the ridge behind us. I have spent hours trying to capture their swooping landscape with my camera: sunflowers bathed in sun and shade last summer and now misty and mysterious.

And the warmth of the evening continued. Somewhat at a loss where to sit, in this roomful of people who knew each other, we coyly asked if we could join a group of six, who cheerfully brought us into their conversation. And to our amazement, we found we were next to a woman in her 60's who was born in our house!

She promised to visit. I hope she will come and tell us more about this old house and land that is now ours.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The Same Sun

Tod told me on the phone that yesterday was glorious. Eighteen degrees, sunny.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a Manchester hotel, over here for some work, not quite sure why I'm still doing this.

The work is not that arduous. Two evening workshops, Tuesday and Thursday, and between times I can do what I like. So yesterday I set out for Trafford Park shopping centre. My journey started on the tram from the centre and, like a small child, I sat up front behind the driver so I could see where we were going.

Manchester is a strange mixture. Hard, angular skyscrapers - all glass and chrome - are cheek by jowl with vast ornate, red brick buildings, some being restored behind scaffolding, but many broken-windowed, derelict, surrounded by rubbish. Hoardings proclaim the new, yet the streets are littered, buses are smelly and small shops are boarded up. My posh, modern hotel is two minutes from an "everything for a £" store.

The tram took me to Stretford and then I had to change onto a shuttle bus. The heavy grey clouds promised rain and as I stood at the bus stop I was having second thoughts. Why was I bothering? The small bus arrived. One person got off and two of us got on. And it just sat there at the bus-stop. Not much shuttling! Finally more people wandered up and as we pulled away, the sun briefly poked through the lowering clouds. The watery glimpse that I caught, is the same sun shining brightly on Tod and the dogs 900 miles further south.

People are posting messages on Total France to say that the cranes are flying north! Spring is coming.

And I know where I'd rather be.