Friday, 28 December 2012

I'm Sorry ...

... but I have to change my "comments" settings.

I know that the strange letters are not easy to read, but I am suddenly getting a deluge of spam that I am having constantly to moderate and delete, so I'm going back to the system where the strange letters have to be typed into a box in order to block the spammers. I'm doing this very reluctantly, but feel I have no alternative.

My thanks to those of you who comment on my blogs. It's good to know that you are there and that I am not just speaking to myself.  I do enjoy your comments and through them feel I know a little bit about you. But I also recognise that reading the letters in the box is far from easy and all too often what we type does not match up, so I quite understand if those of you who have posted comments in the past feel that you can no longer do so.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Just One More Night

The cottage is practical, and cosy, and warm and it's much more sensible to spend the evening there.  But for one more night the old farmhouse calls.

So we'll light the log fire in the lounge and put match to all the candles nestling in the decorations, switch on the lights for the Christmas tree and those among the greenery around the one-day-to-be  front door. And drink hot spicy borscht; eat cold meat from the largest turkey in France with crunchy left-over potato and brussel sprout rosti (bubble and squeak to you and me); sip a glass or two of Confidentiel wine; tuck into Christmas pud and brandy butter and maybe a chocolate truffle; watch another heart-pounding episode of The Killing.

And celebrate Boxing Day. Just us.

Confidentiel Marmandais Wine
The Killing

Diet Going Well?

Vita and Bertie are on an exclusion diet.

This is because Vita periodically licks one or other of her haunches to the point where her skin is red raw, which means trips to vets for steroids and antibiotics.  We've had the same problem with our other Airedales.  It's probably food intolerance so we're finally trying to get to the bottom of what causes it, hence the diet.  Bertie doesn't need it - typical mongrel, eats anything - but you can't do one dog and not the other.

So for two to three months they have to be on this very expensive special kibble diet based on "hydrolysed protein" - I had to look that one up - which is supposed to be entirely neutral for the dog. Then one by one previous foodstuffs are added back to find out what causes the intolerance.

Christmas Day, we hosted our "French class get-together lunch". We made our old farmhouse festive, cooked the largest turkey in the whole of France and revelled in not having to do everything, as our friends arrived with luscious starters, prepared vegetables and all the trimmings.  It was tough on our exclusion diet dogs - all those delicious cooking smells - so we kept them down in the cottage (much barking and whining) as we humans enjoyed our repast up at the house.

With the departure of our last guests, Tod went down to let out our two pent-up mutts while I cleared up.  I whisked round lifting half-empty bowls of nibbles, opened boxes of chocolates and crumb laden plates above terrier nose height and set about filling the dishwasher.

I did not, however, reckon on the sheer determination of two dogs that have eaten nothing but beige bland biscuit for a  month.  An Airedale tongue hoovered along the edge of the work surface finding meat scraps where five hours earlier one of our guests had expertly carved the turkey.  Nor did I anticipate that a walnut, in a bowl on the middle of the dining room table could be flicked onto the floor and then carried out of sight and crunched through - shell and all - on the hall rug. And I certainly thought that the left-over slices of stollen cake which we'd had for tea were well out out of reach, until I found an Airedale with her mouth full and incriminating crumbs all round her muzzle.

Think we may be back to square one with the exclusion diet.  And by the way, how's yours going through this festive season?

Christmas baubles

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Small Success

I took a box of chocolates into the mayor's office to thank them for their help this year and to ask them to sign yet another form from a pension company to prove that I haven't died.  The form asks for someone like a doctor or solicitor to sign, but I reckon the mayor's stamp looks pretty official and seemed to work  last time.  So hopefully the three pounds something per annum that BP sends me around the fifth of April will continue to arrive.

While the secretary was filling in the form we chatted.  She and the mayor wanted to know whether we were here for Christmas.  I told them it was our turn to host Christmas Day lunch for those of us who do French together - twelve of us will be round the table, everyone contributing to the meal.

We joked about my collecting the turkey from the itinerant English butcher on the nineteenth and if the world ends on the twenty-first that will have been a pretty expensive bird! The mayor reflected on the very real challenges for his counterpart in the village of Bugarach facing an invasion of New Age fanatics hoping to be taken off the planet in an alien space craft. Hard to believe that it's not just a joke and that the resources of a small village are likely to be stretched to the limit.  (Mind you, rumour has it that those with board and lodging to offer will be making a tidy penny! A touch of no room at the inn, methinks.)

Nothing in the ten minutes of banter and chat seems like much. Just that even a year ago I wouldn't have done it.  There are times I think I make no progress at all with my French. But even if my vocabulary and grammar don't improve much, my confidence does.  And they graciously seemed to be able to cope with my Franglais.

This is our sixth Christmas here.  It feels good to know I've reached the stage where I can now share a joke with the mayor.

Photo from yesterday's Daily Telegraph

Friday, 7 December 2012

Are We Being Served?

I have a great fondness for Marks & Spencer.

I still remember that leather-look burgundy raincoat, three-quarter length, tightly belted at the waist, turn up the collar, high heeled boots and feel like a million dollars.  No matter that there were three others, all identical, in the same train carriage - it still felt good.  Then there was the floaty button-through navy dress with a wafer-thin jacket. All silk. Pricey, but so much cheaper than anywhere else and heavenly for hot summer nights in London. And oh, when Per Una arrived on the scene and I bought that grey, short, multi-patterned jacket that still has pride of place in my wardrobe and people think I bought it at some chic shop here in France.

It's true that they lost their way for a time and I discovered Next and flirted with Laura Ashley, but M&S was the place I went when I first set up home all those years ago and needed affordable good curtains, decent duvet sets, hard wearing place mats and pretty vases.

And since we moved here, visits back to the UK have always included a trip to M&S to stock up on underwear, socks, T-shirts, perhaps some new swimwear and those cropped jeans the French so love that are much better made and cheaper in Marks.

So I was thrilled when they announced they would be delivering to France.  Oh joy! I could now go online and order what I wanted, with an incredibly reasonable shipping fee. This then, was the year that I would finally replace our aged, thread-bare bed-linen.  I had searched fruitlessly through numerous French retail establishments horrified at the prices and appalled at the designs and quality. The style of French haute couture certainly does not get as far as the towns in south west France.  Marks & Spencer online would answer my prayers.  And they did.  Our guests in the cottage now sleep under the prettiest of blue French toile duvet covers. And given the so-reasonable shipping fee, I bought some extra sheets and pillow cases, just in case.

Naturally, when I realised we needed another duvet set for the big super-king sized bed that's made up of two singles, but you'd never notice as they are well-strapped together and very comfy, I turned to the M&S website and started to fill my "shopping basket".  A snazzy shirt stripe duvet caught my eye and good, it came in super-king size. A couple more sheets, 100% cotton, virtually non-iron, in a luscious teale green, and deep navy also popped into the basket.  So now to check out and fill in my address.  Oh the joy of sitting at my computer clicking on "home delivery" and having it shipped to me here in France.

But what's this?  No France on the list of countries they ship to? Albania's there,  Denmark and Finland. But where France should be it says Hong Kong. How absurd! Must be something wrong! But no.  There in small print at the top: "France, Germany, Mainland Spain, Ireland, Belgium, and Austria now have their own dedicated sites. If you wish to deliver to these countries Find out more"

I click on the link and find I'm on a new site, with an empty shopping basket.  But I've just spent half an hour choosing what I want!  And the French site has a much more limited choice and the sheet sizes are different (because French beds are a different shape) so how do I know whether I'm buying "super king size"?

I rant at Tod. (Poor man!) I slam off a disgruntled post to one of the forums and find that I am not alone in my frustration.  We share suggestions as to what to do.  A facebook campaign has started.  I call M&S head office and speak to a polite young man who listens to my fury and murmurs he will tell his international colleagues. I receive a cheerful email telling me this is being done for "my convenience"!  I try phoning to place my order, but the staff are adamant I MUST use the French website. But the French Marks & Spencer website doesn't have what I want and you do!

I'm saddened.  It's true I can buy my bed linen online from elsewhere. 

But, I care about Marks & Spencer and right now I feel they don't care about me.  Seemingly, they don't care that they are losing my business because they are forcing me to use a website that is poorly stocked; with sizes that don't meet my needs and a different layout, so I struggle to find my way around..

And sadly, they don't seem to realise that in this increasingly joined-up world, even a retired woman of mature years sitting in deepest rural France expects, at the click of a computer mouse, to have the freedom and choice to buy from anywhere in the world and not to be told by a marketing manager in Head Office what she can and cannot do. 

Are those of us who live in France and still love to buy from M&S being well served?  I think not!

1976 cast of "Are You Being Served?"

Thursday, 29 November 2012

It's Time

They came through in waves heading south and west towards where the Pyrenees reach down to the sea , moving fast, at the speed of the scudding clouds silvered by the moon.  I heard their cries right overhead but could not see them as I stood in the dark by the house front steps, clutching a pot plant. Cranes. Harbingers of winter weather.

Our mild November is ending. It's time to move the still-flowering geraniums into somewhere frost-free if I am to save any for next summer. I huddle the few remaining pots against the south facing wall of the cottage; maybe they'll be safe there for a few more days while I finish other more urgent tasks.

It's time to finish planting before the clay hardens in the frost: a viburnum bush, full of sweet smelling pink flowers; tiny rose coloured cyclamen;  bulbs that will become deep coral tulips next spring; white and yellow primulas; a young turquoise-green holly; three blueberry bushes, with dark red autumn-tinted leaves.

It's time to cut the last of the rose buds from the bushes by the swimming pool, still bravely flowering, and bring them into the house safe from the frost.

And it's time to shut the cottage shutters, curl up on the sofa, watch bad television and old movies in the warm and make plans for Christmas.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Planting Trees

Bertie races backwards and forwards across the field, barking at the sky, chasing flocks of small, twittering, brown birds barely visible against the intense blue.

A buzzard lazily circles high above, mewing as it twists on ascending thermals.

The distant noonday siren in the town wails across the fields and the noise of drilling from the farmhouse across the valley that belongs to the retired police captain from Paris ceases - lunchtime.

A fat worm slowly squeezes its way between clods of earth that I've turned over, hoping I haven't noticed him.

The clay is perfect, neither too wet, nor too dry, falling easily off the tines of the fork as I work.

One of the trees came with us in the back of the lorry to France, root-bound in a large green pot; lovingly carried with us from house to house since the early nineties, when my father, then elderly and frail, helped me plant a small bowl with a tiny Cyprus and a few daffodil bulbs.  I seem to remember the daffodils towered over the little fir.

I think it would amuse my father to know it has survived all these years and is now six foot.  I could almost feel the tree stretch and breathe a sigh of relief as I teased out its roots to fill the hole I'd dug.

Dad loved France and things French.  He would find our sloping, swooping field on the side of a Garonne valley a very suitable final resting place for "his" tree.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


My mother had an ancient brown Harrods box with a canvas strap in which she kept old photographs.  The box and its contents fascinated me as a child: those faded sepia images of elderly women in long dresses and bonnets; men with moustaches posing stiffly and uncomfortably in three piece suits; young men in uniform.

And then I forgot the box for decades.

After she died I found the box again and regretted that I had never asked her who these people were.  Which of these solemn-faced individuals are my great grand parents, great uncles and aunts?  Or indeed, from the age of some of the barely-visible images, my great, great grand relations.

My father's mother, Emily, had three brothers Edgar, Alfred and Albert and two sisters Caroline (Carrie) and Florence.  I remember Carrie, just, as a small, elderly spinster in a long black dress.  All I have of my other great-aunt and uncles are a few tattered picture postcards - "Dear Emmie, this is a photo we had taken at Eastbourne, we had a good time, will come and see you before long, from your loving brother and sister".  Yes, but which brother and sister? - and those images of young men in three-piece suits and then uniforms.

But there, among the unexplained photos and their many untold stories is one that speaks all too clearly. A cross in a muddy field of crosses with the words:

"In memory of 572074 REN A ELLIS 1\17th London Regt. 
Died of wounds 25.8.17"

From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I learn more. He is buried in The Huts Cemetery in Belgium, outside Ieper. The cemetery takes its name from a line of huts strung along the road from Dickebusch (now Dikkebus) to Brandhoek, which were used by field ambulances during the 1917 Allied offensive on this front.  Much of the cemetery was filled between July and November 1917 and nearly two-thirds of the burials were of gunners from nearby artillery positions. There are now 1,094 Commonwealth burials of the First World War in the cemetery.

Albert (the baby of the family) had joined the 17th (County of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles) "A" Company.

He was just twenty-four when he died.

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them." 
Laurence Binyon


Monday, 5 November 2012


Jigsaws, on line.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Fed Up

Feeling cold.

Starting a cold - Tod's brought one back from the UK and is sharing.

No more than three radiators on otherwise the power trips.

Dogs barking and scratching at the door to go out.

Dogs barking and scratching at the door to come in.

Dogs opening the kitchen door for themselves.

Dogs leaving the door open and letting in more cold air.

Zooplus on-line service refusing to sort out delivery of the wrong dog biscuits

Only rubbish dog biscuits as alternative, so the dogs are hyper.


Time to go down to the cottage, but we're re-varnishing the wooden window and door frames and need to leave them open to dry.

Only a few more days and we'll be snug.

Bertie sunbathing in warmer times

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Auntie Lizzie ...

 ... (the eldest of my mother's many siblings) and her husband Uncle Dave had a smallholding in the depths of rural Sussex.

She grew dahlias and chrysanthemums to sell at the gate.  As a small child I was entranced by the forest of giant brightly coloured pompoms and spiky stars that towered above my head in a great swathe leading up the path to the front door, which I never saw open.  We always went round the side, in through the hot glass lean-to smelling of musty ripening tomatoes, where Dave used to sit in an old easy chair in his none-too-clean shirt-sleeves and pullover.

Her ghost was at my shoulder today, tut-tutting at my neglect of the dahlias I planted in the hot border in front of the cottage.  To my surprise, one of the dahlias - a deep rich burgundy - has turned into a triffid; its many stems weaving and intertwining, bent double from the weight of the heavy blooms.  The strong southerly winds of last weekend had broken several of its tallest stems and with twine and tomato plant poles I was trying to recover and support what was left.

I realise now that the "forest" I walked through as a child would have been tall even for adults.  Lizzie must have staked and twined those many heads with such loving care, day in day out, keeping them straight and strong to make the most splendid of long-lasting cut flowers.

I'll cut some of ours tomorrow.  They won't be here for much longer. This evening in the dark, as I closed the gate at the end of the terrace, I heard the wild cry of the cranes, speeding before the cold air coming down from the north that will drive our temperatures down to zero later this week.

Next year, Lizzie, I promise to take better care of this dark beauty.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

After they've Gone

I wave them goodbye with a guilty sense of relief and wander back into the kitchen to make myself another cup of tea.  The sink is still full of the breakfast washing-up but I can leave it to later. Much later. Nobody here now to impress.

The bed linen in the cottage needs washing, but the sheets and duvet covers will never dry in this weather.  So I'll leave them for a day. Or three. No rush.

Supper tonight - just us. At home. And not much conversation.

Maybe watch an old film. Or a repeat of "Have I Got News for You".

Early to bed maybe.Or maybe not.

Peace. And contentment.

Monday, 15 October 2012

An Evening in Bordeaux with Melody

I can't remember how I first heard of Melody Gardot.  Almost certainly it was from one of the blogs I follow, but which?  I'm glad I found her. Her voice is wonderful and her music poignant - all the more so, when one knows her story.

She has been in France this summer.  At the Marciac Jazz Festival back in July, Eric and his son went and became instant "groupies", telling us later, one summer's evening in a café over a beer, that she was appearing again in Orléans in October and they were going again. We regretted missing the chance to see her live and then, last week, learnt that she would be appearing in Bordeaux at the Base Sous-Marine this last Saturday night.  So, on the spur of the moment, we went.

The Base houses the World War Two submarine pens, built by the Germans as a place from which to launch their U-boats into the Atlantic. The photos on the internet show enormous dirty slabs of forbidding concrete with water still lapping round the pillars inside. Hardly, one would have thought, the place for a jazz concert.  And what on earth to wear on a cold rainy October night?  Would we be standing? The official website for the Base is remarkably coy about any creature comforts. So thermals and layers seemed to be the order of the day and cushions for any seats. And sandwiches for the journey home - the French start their evening entertainment late.

Bordeaux is a miracle of restoration - now a UNESCO World Heritage site - with its grand eighteenth century cream coloured mansions along the quays facing onto the Gironde and the new boutiques, restaurants and offices with trendy names in the great old warehouses.  And then, suddenly, in the dark, we turn left and drive alongside the basin itself and we have gone back fifty years. Weeds push up through rubble strewn pavements. Barbed wire fences off derelict buildings. Old chandlers with dim lighting sit alongside the occasional edgy nightclub or restaurant. And there, in the middle, is the aggressive, ugly reminder of Germany's occupation of this part of France.  As we park (to our relief right outside, this does not feel like an urban landscape where one wanders at night) the cheerful crowd streaming towards the light from the open doors reassures - as does their attire. Coats, boots and scarves are the order of the evening - we have not over-reacted.

And the bleak photos on the websites are right.  We walk across a bridge over the chilly water of one of the pens and turn alongside the great pillars of concrete towering above our heads.  Ah, but the lighting! Deep reds illuminate the pillars, reflected down into the water.  I have my small camera, which cannot possibly do the effect justice.  And the venue itself - a welcoming grandstand of raked plastic seats (good). And a blanket on every seat!  (We're glad of the cushions we've brought as well.)  The atmosphere is moody, with a darkened open stage - and continues to be so as the concert starts - a single woman in red high-heeled shoes, beating out the rhythm of her song with her feet, barely visible in the low-lit gloom.

We're glad we went.  Her husky voice is wonderful and the individual performances of her band superb.  But the sound balance in the echoing concrete arena frustrated.  Too often her voice and her words were lost in the heavy base and over-amplified accompanying instruments.  We suspect the more intimate location of Marciac would have served her better.  The French were ecstatic - but then for many her words would have been meaningless sounds; so the fact that she was no more than another instrument in the group would not have mattered.

For us, the best moment was when she sang "Baby I'm a Fool". Just her, her guitar and a soft brush on a drum - her voice and words crystal clear in the cavernous dark of a U-boat pen.

Melody Gardot.
Base Sous-Marine, Bordeaux

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Good Day

A week beforehand the météo promised sun and thirty degrees - in October!

Well that would be very welcome. We could have everyone at tables on the veranda. So the garden needed to look good and much time was spent in weeding, mowing, strimming. And removing a year's worth of cobwebs from way up in the top of the veranda roof.

We nervously watched the forecast deteriorate as the week wore on and began to talk about "plan B".  Eat inside.  That meant the effort switched to dusting, hoovering, removing a year's worth of cobwebs from way up in the one-day-to-be our entrance hall roof and cleaning off the evidence of our spring broods of baby red-starts who had learnt to fly there.

Additional chairs and lamps and cutlery and dishes were brought up from the cottage and we anxiously reviewed whether we would have enough of everything.  Larger serving plates were needed and it looked like more knives and forks were required - so they were added to the Leclerc's food shopping list.

We kept hoping the météo was wrong and checked out several sites - his météo seemed to promise better weather than mine. Saturday was spent cooking: One in the kitchen in the house and the other in the kitchen in the cottage - better to keep out of each other's way. And still we hoped.

Sunday dawned wretched - a steady grey drizzle. Who would want to be on the veranda in this?  Our guests would be arriving shortly and we needed all the tables inside - including the long heavy oak one that lives outside and seats ten.  I thought it wouldn't work. He said it would.  And time was ticking by.

There were salads to be made - tomato, cucumber and watermelon; chicory, pear and cashews - melon and parma ham to be laid out; tomatoes and mozzarella to be cut up and dressed with basil and balsamic vinegar; the cold chicken roll stuffed with prunes to be carved. The slow roast lamb to check, the mashed potatoes to pop in the oven, the peas to gently simmer with onion, lettuce and coconut milk. And we were still moving furniture.

With half an hour to go Tod had managed to fit four tables in the house with seating for thirty-two.  I dashed round laying out napkins, place mats, cutlery, nibbles.  The one-day-to-be entrance hall had flowers and greenery and tables ready with glasses and wine bottles. Beer and soft drinks were on ice. It all looked inviting.

But all the salads were still to be made and our first guests were arriving.

Oh the joy of friends who come wandering out to the kitchen, away from the hubbub in the hall saying "can I help?".  And suddenly the salads were ready, the chicken carved and Tod's char-grilled vegetables laid out.

Some time later, pottering alone in the kitchen, I could hear the laughter from the lounge and knew, despite the weather, it was going to be a good day.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Channelling van Gogh

I've discovered on-line jigsaws!

Which is probably one of the reasons why my posting rate has dropped. But it's a great way to pass the time between bouts of gardening: "Oh I'll just make a cup of tea and just do a bit more to the puzzle." Then an hour's passed and I'm still struggling to put in the last few pieces.

Someone yesterday said I looked tired - probably the late night, "must just finish this puzzle" syndrome.

People post their own photos and images and then the rest of us can choose to do them - or not.  Some puzzles are very strange.  The most played jigsaw is a cover of a dog magazine showing a dog playing with a kong.  Much as I like dogs, and find kongs to be excellent toys, this is not one I would choose to do and cannot imagine anyone else would. I wonder if all the staff who work for the magazine are required to spend their lunch hours doing this particular puzzle in order to keep it top of the "most played" list.

Some of my favourites are images of paintings that people have found and copied - frustratingly not all are attributed - and among my most favourite are those by van Gogh.  As I painstakingly put the jigsaw together, piece by piece, I begin to understand how the painter has created the image and how rich it is.  That bit of dark green is subtly different from this bit, so no, this piece cannot go there.  These brush strokes are short and strong and dramatic, so no, the smooth texture of the piece I hold on the end of my mouse pointer cannot go here, it must belong somewhere else.

I have always loved van Gogh's work. But only now do I really begin to see just what it entails. His paintings broken up in small pieces and scattered on my screen are just tiny bits of smudgy crude patches of colour.  It is almost impossible to decide "that is sky" when he also uses a light brilliant blue with flecks of white and grey to convey the play of light on a  field.  And is this dashed off bit of brown and black the bark of a tree?  Or a hollow in the hills? Or the shadowy side of an old building?

I've decided the only thing I can do is ask him.  And I let him move my pointer mouse across the screen. He knows just why he placed that colour, that brush stroke there and the final effect is beautiful. I bless the person who is finding and posting van Gogh images onto the puzzle website.  Although it does mean my gardening and blogging are suffering.

Excuse me everyone. I've just got "The Poplars at Saint-Rémy" to finish.

Jigsaw Planet
Van Gogh
The Poplars at Saint-Rémy

Sunday, 9 September 2012

This is ...

... what happens when you take your eye off the courgette plants.

Well, the dogs will enjoy them.

(The white things are pattypan squash - even less flavour than a courgette.  Won't be growing those next year.  Or maybe just one plant as the dogs seem to like them.)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Late August on the Beach

Tired of weeding-and-watering and watering-and-weeding, I head due west for the sea, to remind myself why I am living in this part of France, leaving Tod and the dogs content at home.

The joys of the French lunchtime. I arrive soon after mid-day and have my pick of places to put my towel and sun hat.  Only the hardy and the foreigners are still on the beach.

I venture into the cold Atlantic rollers, which one moment drag at my ankles, the next buffet round my thighs; and admire the fearless children pushing out through the waves on their flimsy surfboards.  Not a sea for swimming in, but it is enough to get soaked and breathe the salt-laden air.

A make-shift shelter behind a tumbled-over lifeguard turret means I can dry off and have the joy of reading The Time Traveler's Wife for a while in the shade before wandering along the promenade past restaurant after café after bar in search of a crêpe au fromage and an ice cream from a counter where they have at least thirty flavours including bubble gum and licorice (never dared try either!).

I stroll, take photos and admire the lithe bronzed bodies of those who have been here surfing for the whole of August.

By mid afternoon the beach is steadily filling with beautiful people, surfers, surf boards and large stripy umbrellas.  I breathe in one final lunge-full of sea air and head home.

Lacanau-Océan Lunchtime

Mid afternoon

PS: gardener's sun tan:  dark brown back and shoulders from bending over weeding; pink end of nose and chin that jut out from under sun hat; tide mark just above knees (where shorts end) down to mid calf (where wellington boots start); light brown grubby hands from mostly hiding in gardening gloves.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The swallows ...

... are gathering on our new super-power electricity line.  Not just in ones and twos but dozens, chattering and fluttering.

In the drought, Monsieur F has abandoned watering his maize and taken the lot for silage for his cows.

Further down the valley, the first of the fields of blackened sunflowers has been cleared. Those around us are not far behind.

The camper vans in the supermarket car parks this weekend will be heading north and home.

The pears on our small tree are blush coloured - nearly ready for picking - and the grapes on the old vines along the veranda are more black than green.

Even through these hottest of days there is a feel of the turn of the seasons.

First misty morning

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Yet again . . .

. . . this year high summer seems to arrive out of nowhere.

One minute we are fretting that the weather is not warm enough for our visitors and we worry that we will be chilled sitting out for a leisurely evening meal in a restaurant high on the escarpment overlooking the Lot valley.

The next, we are hiding indoors, shutters pulled to with just a crack to let a glimmer of baking sunlight through.  We wonder whether it was this hot last year? (It probably was.) Did the pool get up to thirty degrees? (It probably did.) And was the lawn this parched and dry? (Almost definitely.)

We stroll up to Laparade night market, leaving it late thinking the crowds would be thinning, but the hot night envelopes us like a blanket and cars are still arriving by the dozen, the tables are still packed and the queues for food still intertwine across the square.  A man in white with a red cap and scarf is singing Basque songs - quite well too. We spot friends in the dark silhouetted against the lights of the band and chat for a while.  But Bertie announces loudly to the world that he can see/smell another dog between the bare legs of the milling throng and we decide it's time to beat a retreat.

We park the car in front of the house and pause before going in, looking upwards at the huge arc of star-filled sky. The Plough hangs low over us - appropriate for this harvesting time of year.

Then, to the north east, across the dust of the Milky Way, I see my first Perseid meteor.  This is a good year to see them - no moon and an inky-black cloudless sky.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

July . . .

. . . came and went as quickly as the sunflowers in Serge's field alongside our chemin rural.

Warm, but not too warm, gardening became an all day activity, not just something squeezed into early mornings and late evenings.  So I weeded and dug and planted and half wrote blogs in my head that I never wrote down:

. . . like the one about the new electricity line that now brings power straight down from the road and not meandering across our neighbour's field, so the lights no longer dim when we turn on a kettle;

. . . and the rampant woodworm in our "only three years old" oak beams that Martyn found when lime washing the cottage, which meant I spent a week dressed like something from a CSI TV series - white hooded gown, pink marigold gloves, mask - while I sprayed every inch of every beam with some noxious substance in a squeezy bottle;

. . . and the hoopoe and the hares and the fluttery baby magpies who took ownership of our drive, so setting off in the car anywhere became like participation in a wildlife programme;

. . . and learning what it means to try and arrange a visa if we invite someone who is not European to stay with us and the "joys" of French bureaucracy and the helpfulness of our local mayor's office;

. . . and the fun of watching a recording of the opening ceremony of the Olympics the day after (which meant we could skip the slow bits and - on everyone's advice - turn off before Paul McCartney. Shame, he was once my favourite Beatle).

Saturday, 21 July 2012

I must admit . . .

. . . I do like a nice lawn.  It sets off the flower beds so well.

But I do have mixed feelings as I'm trundling along with the mower and the crickets, grasshoppers and moths are fleeing ahead of me. So I trundle slowly.

And it's the bees I especially worry about.  There's the forager bee back at the entrance to the hive dancing her dance of the clover patch and off sets the rest of the hive in eager anticipation to find that the patch is now a short stubble of barren green spikes. So I tend to skirt round the clover - which rather negates the look of a "nice lawn".

I can't help feeling that it was a man who invented lawns. "What we need dear is a nice green sward to set off your potager. I'll let the sheep roam over it. It'll look a treat."  And thus was born the industry of scarifying, top-dressing,  raking, spreading of noxious substances and, of course, frequent mowing, strimming and edging with acres of DIY and garden centres devoted to large green, noisy, smelly machines. Testosterone paradise.

Another thing. . .  Whoever thought it was a good idea to eat an artichoke heart, rather than let it become a wonderful thistle head and bee paradise?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Summer Night Sounds

Monsieur F's water canon pulses across the maize in the field up behind the house: swish, swish - swish, swish - swish, swish. Like  a heart beat.

Fat rain drops spat on the just-open window and the curtain stirs in the current of cooler air.

Thunder murmurs in the distance. A soft growl rather than a real threat.

A lone car whooshes along the top ridge in the dark

Remote shouts and gun shots echo from the lounge as Guccio and his master watch bad late night television  turned down low so as not to disturb..

Vita shares their space and scrabbles at the carpet, trying to hollow a nest before settling down again with a thump and a sigh.

Bertie sleeps on the bed behind me in the gloom beyond the light on my desk.  He breathes so quietly I forget he is there.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


At best, my gardening can be described as haphazard, with at least half a dozen projects on the go, none of them finished.

Creating a new border, I strim off the grass, throw in a few plants and expect them to fend for themselves.  Usually this is a dismal failure and I remember them a few weeks later to find they are swallowed in couch grass and bind weed.

Sounding like the Tories still blaming the previous government years into office, I am still blaming the cold in February and the rain in April for all my current failures as I struggle to bring my half-dozen projects back to some semblance of order.  Weeks back, before our friends arrived, I realised the cottage borders were a disaster; the bushes burnt and shrivelled, only slowly recovering and smothered in rampant weeds. So I filled pots with cheerful geraniums and hoped no-one would notice the borders.

Our friends now departed, reluctantly I headed back down to the cottage to try to do something with what I laughingly had called "the hot border", where last spring I'd dug out yet more builders rubble, scattered some summer bulbs around and hoped for the best.  I don't even remember if they flowered last year. I was too busy to notice, trying to keep the young trees and new hedge alive in the field with twice daily watering.

And there they were. In all their glory. A feast for the eyes. Did I really choose those colours? These last few days, despite the earlier weeks of cold and wet, the lilies have all burst into magnificent bloom, towering above the inconsequential weeds below.  Just sometimes haphazard gardening works. And it's such a wonderful surprise when it does.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Holiday in the Rain

Hours of cards and board games, Mexican dominoes and scrabble.

An afternoon's half-finished jigsaw left on the kitchen table for later, covered with a tablecloth while we have supper.

A walk snatched along the canal tow-path before the next downpour.

A stroll through Saturday's market and enticed by a plant for the garden, a sweet ripe melon, musky tomatoes. And fresh, tender French beans to be added to an evening's warming curry.

Visits to our local crêperie, where we relish the welcome of our hostess and the cosiness of the old colombage room. Outside in the courtyard - a place of delight on hot summer nights - the wind eddies and gusts.

A dash across the carpark at Buzet between showers to the wine warehouse full of noisy French tourists relishing the degustation, to buy a pretty bottle of wine - soft blue glass fading to clear - where the look of the bottle is more important than its contents.

A trip to Leclercs to buy a warm hoodie and luscious prunes dipped in dark chocolate.

The days slip by and we scan the météo, hoping for better news. Tomorrow our friends leave and for the first time in a week we are promised fine weather.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Builder Fatigue

How do they do it on Grand Designs?  One minute the place is a wreck and workmen are everywhere. The next, Kevin McCloud is walking up the path between manicured lawns and a door opens onto sunlight streaming through huge, polished windows, leather sofas, a new sound system and a pristine empty kitchen worktop.

Two years ago, we got as far as the place being a wreck, workmen everywhere, the furniture coming out of store and then that was it. Builder fatigue set in.  We could not face the sight of another van in the drive, another pile of tools in the hall, another "bonjour monsieur, dame" as heavy boots clumped along the veranda.

And the still to be done niggly small stuff that irritated us - like the naff blue plastic water pipe emerging from the smart tiles in our two new bathrooms and the loos not flushing quite properly - stayed just that, stuff still to be done.

It has taken us two years to recover from builder fatigue.  Finally, we have someone cheerfully doing "the snagging" and at long last the blue water pipe is hidden under smart conduit, the flush is "formidable", the lights that were never quite right have been changed, cracked bathroom tiles from settling walls have been replaced and we are even contemplating further work!

And the reason for the cheerfulness through the snagging process? We have a different builder. It's like doing someone else's washing up. So much more fun than doing one's own.

And who knows, maybe in five to ten years if Kevin should stroll up our path he would find that our "Grand Design" too is finally finished.

Grand Designs

Monday, 28 May 2012

Helping thin the Plums

Vita and Bertie have been helping Tod thin plums.

In our so-called orchard we have assorted elderly trees that produce strange sour or hard small fruits, which we struggle to identify.  One tree however, regularly gives us sweet yellow juicy plums.  I was told it was a Reine Claude (French for greengage) but I don't now think it is. The plums are too big.  Despite its wizened appearance the tree produces a bounteous crop every two years - recovering from its bounteousness in the year between.  In fact the crop was so abundant two years ago that several of the larger branches broke under the weight of the fruit.

We're in for another bumper harvest this year, so to help the tree Tod has been doing some major thinning out.  The thinned plums are still small and quite inedible.  That does not stop Vita however believing that she has to guard them, just in case Bertie should want some.

The Claude Rains Reine Claude

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dans le Jardin

This last fortnight, the photo challenge on The France Forum has been Dans le Jardin.  A wonderful excuse  to wander round taking pictures of our roses, which are just beginning to blossom, when really I should be weeding after yet more rain.

I'm starting a new round rose bed.  The first bed came about by accident. I was trying to protect the tree peony from being mown down each year (the French do like to just plop a plant in the ground and surround it by grass) and so I dug a rough circle, which linked the peony with a huge honeysuckle that we think is hiding an old tree stump and is always full of squabbling sparrows (much to Bertie's disgust) and then filled the gap between the two with pink and red roses.

The new bed is pinks, and oranges, and pinky-oranges and orangey-pinks. With some cornus dug up from the bank behind the house, canna lilies rescued from a gloomy corner and scraps of purple heuchera broken off elsewhere by a rampaging Vita and Bertie and then popped in a mug of water to root, the bed already is beginning to look quite splendid.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Tonight ...

... there is a gentle sadness round the world. We have finally come to the day that so many of us had hoped could be infinitely delayed.

We have followed with such pleasure the joyful, courageous life of Wilf, the Polish Lowland sheepdog. A life so lovingly and eloquently told by Angus in his blog Wilf the PON discovers France.

Wilf - best and dearest of dogs - no doubt there is much laughter in heaven tonight.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


Ten thirty at night and the kitchen door is still open onto the veranda, where Vita sits sphinx-like at the top of the steps listening to the night sounds - crickets, frogs, nightingales.

Earlier we sat in the courtyard of our favourite crêperie, chatting to the owner, the only ones there in the warm dusk, as she regaled us with stories of her great grand and grand parents. Stories of political resistance, intrigue and the birth of the communist party in this region.

Our first guest arrives this Friday to promised good weather. He will assume that South West France is always like this and not realise just how lucky he is.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Washing happily blowing on the line.

Strimming the too-tall grass in a T-shirt.

Red kite circles lazily overhead as Tod mows the field.

Fat bumble bees fall over each other in the opened peonies and first roses

Hoopoes hoo-hoo-hooing down at the cottage.

A line of swallows gather and chatter on the electricity wire that crosses the field from our neighbours.

Bertie hunts a small shrew in the sandy bank behind the cottage as I pull up handfuls of long lush weeds and try to leave at least some of the wild poppies to flower.  The shrew jumps inside a fat plastic tube protecting the agapanthus and lives to fight another day.

The plants I thought had died in February's snow are slowly reviving in the warmth and sunlight.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Normally on a Sunday ...

... we don't mow or strim.

There is still some respect for the tranquillity of The Lord's Day round here; although at harvest time the farmers work right through and there's tolerance of the guys doing their self-builds.

A few months back, the mayor wrote in the local newsletter, reminding people not to disturb their neighbours on Sundays with noisy gardening and DIY equipment.  That didn't go down too well with the upstanding folk of our commune.  It seems that the rule of "Peace on Sundays" applies to all of us except the motorbikers.  So another article appeared in the next newsletter, gently reminding the leather brigade that they too should be sensitive to others. Much good it did!

But this Sunday is different. The rain has been almost incessant for what feels like weeks (when's Saint Swithin's Day?) and the grass and weeds have never been so tall, so green, so lush, so totally out of control.

Today, we woke to sun.  So seizing the moment, we rushed out with our noisy strimmer and mower to begin tackling the elephant task of bringing what looks like a hay field back to a garden.

We hope our (distant) neighbours understand.  They will have peace and quiet tomorrow. Another day of pouring rain is forecast.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Promise of Summer

Walking the dogs this morning requires wellington boots, two sweaters, hat, gloves and my old dark blue, now threadbare cashmere M&S coat.

We push our way through knee-high sodden grass at the edge of Philippe's and Alain's fields, the winter wheat now lush and full of rain drops.  Small shafts of tepid sunlight break through the heavy grey clouds. Nightingales and wrens shout from every bush.

We cross the stream and turn towards the pond on the edge of the wood, where an orange tent has mysteriously appeared.  Hardly camping weather!

And then - the first liquid notes high above our heads, hidden in the topmost branches of the copse of poplar trees, only ever heard and never seen - a golden oriole brings the promise of long, warm summer evenings.

 Call of the Eurasian Golden Oriole 
The Wonderful Bird Website -

Thursday, 12 April 2012


By the time I'd lived four years in Brazil I was virtually bi-lingual.  Not entirely, because there were whole areas of Brazilian life where I didn't have the vocabulary: like discussing the previous night's episode of the latest "soap" on TV (didn't watch it), or visiting a beautician (which all Brazilian women seemed to do weekly), or taking the car in for repair (mind you I struggle with that in English).  But my business Portuguese was pretty good and I even wrote reports and gave presentations, which most people seemed to be able to understand.

By contrast, my French is still abysmal.  There is still much that I do not understand (at least on first hearing) and I often have to ask someone to slow down and repeat what they have said.  I managed that in the post office this morning - a reply paid package to Belgium that I wasn't sure would be accepted.  The lady behind the counter smiled and rattled something back at me.  We started again. This time, S L O W L Y.  Ah! if, I'd brought a copy of the label with me she would have stamped it so I would have had a record of the despatch - sensible idea!

I left feeling smug that I'd understood, but then rapidly deflated as I realised that I would not have been able to say any of that in French to someone else.

Yesterday, after I'd dropped Tod off at Bergerac airport I popped into Jardinland, pretending I was there to buy compost, but really for a tea and cake in the glossy small cafe surrounded by the sweet smell of fresh greenery.  I stood at the counter waiting to make my choice. A woman alongside me struggled with three words of French, gave up and said (in English) "I'll have that one".  The French girl behind the counter smiled and said (in English) "of course".  The "that one" was a tarte au chocolat.

Although I am far from fluent, what my time in Brazil has given me is the courage to gesticulate, make a fool of myself, make up words that are a mixture of French, English and Portuguese and to realise that quite often the French I need is not that different from the English.

However, I may just not understand the reply!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Tod has 'Flu

Casting too many clouts before May is out, if you ask me!

That, and leaving the cottage too early and moving back to our draughty house during what was a brief moment of warmth.

The Godin stove is lit in the lounge.  Spicy butternut squash soup is warming on the stove.

Tod is asleep under the duvet and Bertie is lying on top as a hot water bottle.

We're hunkering down for a wet, cold week.  Unfortunately Tod is booked on a flight to the UK on Wednesday and we're running out of his magic all-powerful (not available in France) remedy - Lemsip.

At least he'll be able to stock up when he gets there.


The cold weather in January has had a devastating effect on gardens and people are posting on the forums swapping advice and suggestions for what to do.

The received wisdom seems to be to wait and see whether new green shoots begin to emerge before pruning back dead branches.  Maybe wait as late as the end of May for some plants.

We have two bay trees, a young mimosa, a large ceanothus and rosemary on the rockery, a great oleander bush on the bank up to what one day will be the front door, all with burnt, brittle leaves and dead looking stems.   And my pride and joy - the phormiums, with their bronze spikes that form such a feature in the borders in front of the veranda - have completely collapsed, their centres a mushy mess.

We've already cut back the tops of the yuccas at the end of the swimming pool.  Looking like something out of Where the Wild Things Are their rotten mop heads would never have recovered. I've left their long trunks, at least we can grown some annual climbers up them until (hopefully) new growth starts from the bottom again.

And there is hope. Buried in the dead stems of a hydrangea that I thought we'd lost bright green leaves are emerging; and nestled right at the base of a very sick looking berberis I was weeding yesterday, I found two tiny pale new shoots.




The Phormium in Happier Times

Hydrangea new shoots