Monday, 30 December 2013

"Ouvert tous les jours" ...

... is the most mendacious phrase in the whole of the French language.

I checked - that's what it said: "Ouvert tous les jours" (open daily). It's true, I only checked quickly, so I was pleased that I spotted the website went on to say "except bank holidays" - fair enough. So that rules out Christmas Day and New Year's Day.  But today's a normal day. So I decided to go as today is the only day this week the météo shows no rain.

Next Tuesday is a photography club evening and it's a competition night. The topic is roofs (rooves?) and I'm struggling.  It's true there are plenty of old, interesting roofs round here, but they are all much of a muchness and I need four different, contrasting images to make an impact. So Bordeaux seemed like a good idea - old roofs, maybe some new, perhaps some glass for contrast. I googled and found that there is a splendid view to be had over the rooftops of the city from the top of the Tour Pey-Beland. But maybe the tower was only open in summer for the tourists? So I googled again, and there it was, that phrase: "ouvert tous les jours". Great. And off I set.

Only of course it wasn't! The heavy red doors to the tower were firmly shut. Perhaps it was because I was too late?  I found the notice with the opening hours alongside and no, I was on time, still another hour before closing. But then I found it. There. The dreaded phrase in small print underneath - sauf lundi (except Monday).  Aaaah!  You would think I would know by now. That I wouldn't be taken in any more.  After all, this is our seventh Christmas in France.

Well, the trip wasn't entirely wasted.  I now know where to come when the sun is shining and I've spotted some other potential scenic shots.  Today wasn't the right day - too dull and washed out.  If the tower had been open I would have been dissatisfied with the shots I took.

So now I'll just have to make the most of the images round here - starting perhaps with the cooking pot (or maybe chamber pot?) on top of our own pigeonnier.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Post-Christmas Ponderings in the Sunshine

Bertie sits in guard dog pose on the bank up behind the house, next to Monsieur F's maize field.  He's watching the "fauchage" tractor on the skyline clearing the ditches that border the road along the ridge and gives an occasional "woof" of encouragement.

Near-by, Tod is chain-sawing a dead elm that came down in one of the windy days over Christmas. Shame! Although it has been dead for years its gaunt branches reaching skywards continued to offer some sort of shelter and perching point for birds. We have too few mature trees in our garden. Those that we have planted are still tiny.

My task is cutting the long grass on the bank that tips down into the field where our tiny trees are slowly growing.

We're making the most of the sunshine. We need the exercise and fresh air after much feasting and merriment; thoroughly indulged by friends on The Day and then too much chocolate, Lidl's ice-cream "bûchettes de noël" and panettone thereafter. (We're doing our best to finish it all before New Year resolutions start.)

Over Christmas lunch we reflected on how tough Christmas must have been for so many this year. And there seemed a particular poignancy to our reflections as we know well and love some of the areas worst affected.

I grew up alongside the River Mole.

A placid, gentle river, meandering through reed beds and round islands, it was there I paddled, learnt to fish, played hide and seek with my brother, walked the dogs, picked cowslips and day-dreamed of boyfriends.

It is a Wind in the Willows kind of river and all too easy to underestimate.  Because occasionally, just occasionally, it becomes a raging torrent that tears its banks, hurtles over weirs, roars round the arches of old brick bridges and pours over its flood plain.

When I was very young, this didn't seem to matter that much as the plain was largely playing fields, scrub land and watercress beds. So as kids we just thought it was fun and stood at the edge of the brown swirly water as it washed across Guildford Road and stopped the buses from the garage getting into town to take us to school.  

But over the decades, with pressure on housing in the South East, what were playing fields and watercress beds became building plots. And this year the River Mole has become again that raging torrent, flooding homes, disrupting travel and leaving thousands without power over the one time in the year when we are told: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that we are "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." For many, it must have been anything but.

Here's hoping that the River Mole quickly returns to its normal beautiful tranquillity and that 2014 is a good year for all.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Benign December

Some days we wake to deep frost and a thick mist which lingers on into early afternoon. Tod and the dogs disappear into a muffled world on their morning walks; just the sound of Tod's boots crunching on the brittle grass. As the sun slowly breaks through, the farm on the next outcrop of sandstone further up the valley beyond Monsieur F's maize fields emerges as an island lapped by a grey sea.

But this week the weather has turned benign.  Blue skies and an almost mildness have me stripping off my heavy gardening jacket as I strim the weed patch to the left of the cottage that remained untouched through the whole of this spring and summer - just too far down the "to do" list. The scrubby bumpy terrain deserves to be something better, with its splendid views across the fields to the distant chateau and small hill-top village.  As I cut back the great mounds of weed and grass, I dream of a rose bed and arbour where our guests can sit and watch the changing light on the fields and the swoop of the buzzards as their hunt their prey.

It may take some time before that dream is realised.  The ground is above what I suspect are the remnants of a flint walled barn that is shown on the Napoleonic maps. Older than the cottage, sadly all that is left of the barn (Serge having dismantled it) is one long wall, the support for a tatty breeze-block cow shed with a tin roof held down by tyres.  We've never understood why the barn was flint. After all, this is clay and sandstone land and no landowner in Napoleonic times would have transported building materials far. Then we learn from one of our farming neighbours (they whose family has been here longest) that there is a small flint quarry just beyond the distant village. Mystery solved.

I fear I will be quarrying flints in our own garden for the foreseeable future if we are to have that new rose bed.  Something to add to the "to do" list. And maybe, just maybe, if December stays benign, it will be a task that I manage at least to start, if not accomplish, at the end of this old year.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

As always, the cranes flying south ...

... through these late November days and nights have been the advance guard for colder weather.

Gleaming frosty mornings, bright sun and a pending photo club competition on "Trees" had me reaching for my camera.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Wednesday is not a Good Day for Buying Cakes

There are at least six boulagerie/patisseries in our local town (quite apart from the supermarkets). But only one - the artisan bakery - has really good cakes. And on Wednesdays they are shut.

So, when Yvette said let's have tea Wednesday afternoon and I foolishly said I'd bring the cake, that meant making it.  As I rarely make cakes, I dithered all morning, wondering if it would be better to go and buy one and finally at the last minute, without much hope of success, flung together an almond and chocolate cake (no flour) that I'd spotted on Pomiane's blog ages ago. It was delicious! So we had seconds.

I wanted Yvette to keep the cake, but she insisted we took the rest home.  And I didn't try too hard to dissuade her.

That evening, feeling peckish and knowing that eating dark chocolate that late was risky, I had my third slice of the day. In an email to a friend I said I would be zinging round the house at two in the morning - little did I know!

Tod had been to bridge and as he came back into the cottage we lingered on the doorstep. In the dark, immediately above our heads the cranes were flying over, heading south for the winter.  Their cries were so close it felt as if they were skimming the tops of our trees.  Which of course was more than Bertie could bear - cranes, in our garden! So he vanished into the night barking at the top of his voice.

Silence, with dogs, is usually an ominous sign. At eleven-thirty, afraid he'd got himself trapped somewhere, I went out with a torch and tramped the garden.  And at twelve. And at twelve-thirty.  And at one. And at one-thirty. By now I was pretty sure he'd gone AWOL - chasing the cranes in the dark maybe.  Vita, ever helpful and only too keen to put him in his place, charged round the garden with me.  It was about 2am I first heard him barking - the other side of our electronic fencing. He'd decided it was time to come home but couldn't cross the barrier. That meant Vita had to be lured back inside (to bounce all over Tod who was trying to sleep), so I could turn off the power to the fence and walk the boundary to find him.  He came willingly enough to a piece of smoked sausage.

We finally all turned in some time after two-thirty.  It was a good job I'd had that third slice of chocolate cake - kept my energy up nicely.


A PS: thank you for your comment Perpetua. You've reminded me that Pomiane felt he had to take his blog out of the public domain (which is a shame as it is an excellent blog) so I hope he won't mind my repeating his recipe here.  The cake really is very splendid and as he says, very quick and easy.

4 oz Butter, at room temperature; 3 oz Sugar; 4 oz Ground Almonds; 4 Eggs, separated; half a teaspoon of Almond Essence; 4 oz Dark Chocolate (Felchlin, by preference, but if not, something like Valhrona or better-quality Lindt) ; 1/4 cup of Slivered Almonds.


1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Melt the Chocolate in a double boiler. Once it has melted, allow it to cool slightly, as you get on with the next stage in the recipe.

3. In the food processor, cream the Butter and Sugar together, then add the Egg Yolks, one by one, processing them into the creamed mixture after each one has been added.

4. Add the Ground Almonds, and process in, then add the melted Chocolate and the Almond Essence and again run the processor for ten seconds or so thoroughly to amalgamate everything. Scrape this mixture out of the food processor into a large bowl.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the Egg Whites until quite stiff. Then take a quarter of this Egg-White mixture and stir it into the Chocolate mixture, to lighten it, before folding in the remainder of the beaten Egg White - much like making a chocolate mousse.

6. Grease a 20 cm spring-form cake tine and pour the cake mixture into it, levelling it off inside the tin. Sprinkle Slivered Almonds over the top.

7. Bake for fifteen minutes at 200 degrees C, then reduce the temperature to 180 degrees C for a further ten minutes. If the Almonds show any sign of getting too dark, then cover the cake loosely with a piece of foil. Check for done-ness with a skewer, and by pressing the surface of the cake (if the skewer comes out clean, and the surface springs back under the light touch of a finger, then it's done).

8. Run a knife round the cake inside the tin, but don't turn it out immediately - leave it to cool down in the tin for ten minutes or so, before removing the spring-form bit of the tin.

I used Carrefour dark cooking chocolate, because that's all I had and I thought the flavour was fine.  No doubt with a better quality dark chocolate the flavour will be even more special. I heated the oven to 200C and then turned it straight down to as low as possible when I put the cake in. Even so, I did have to cover the cake part way through. French bottle gas ovens can be very fierce and slow to respond when the flame is turned down.  Also next time I'll add Amaretto.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The French certainly know how to Party!

At midnight, when we'd just finished the wedding banquet and the dancing had only just started, it was a relief to realise that we would have an extra hour in bed to recover as this was the weekend the clocks went back.

We'd started at the bride's house just after lunch,  to meet and greet and have our cars decorated. Bride and mother - both with waists about the size of Vivien Leigh's in Gone with the Wind - stunningly attired in chic Parisian outfits, graciously welcomed their guests. Then, in procession with much tooting of car horns, we made our way to the mayor's office and crammed into the small room to listen to a long list of laws being read out at great speed and not much ceremony about the responsibilities of marriage.  This was then followed by an interminable photo session on the steps of the Mairie, coordinated by the bride's brother: "Bride, groom, bride's parents, groom's parents. Bride, groom, bride's immediate family. Bride, groom, groom's immediate family."

By this stage my camera had packed in and I teetered across the road in my extremely uncomfortable high heels (six years of living in sandals in summer and wellingtons in winter does nothing for feet and elegance) to the local tabac to refurbish the batteries, to find on my (slow) way back that I needed to break into a fast teeter as they were calling for "bride, groom, bride's parents, bride's friends".

The next stage was the church - a full sung Eucharist lasting an hour and a half. By this stage my feet were out of the high heeled shoes and resting on the cool stone flags. Unlike many English weddings where hymns are unconvincingly mumbled by a reluctant congregation, this service was led by a splendid cantor, sounding not unlike Joe Dassin, who imperiously waved his right arm in upward swooping movements at the moments when we were all to join in.

Somewhere about the exchange of rings the bride's brother started crying, closely followed by the bride and then the groom and several members of the congregation.  There was a hasty searching for tissues that were hurriedly passed forward, the figure-hugging, tiny-waisted Parisian wedding dress not having any hiding places for such items and there not being any bridesmaid (as is typical in France) to do the necessary.

By the end of the service, all were beaming smiles and again there was much taking of photos on the steps of the church. We wondered as we stood outside whether to pop home for a sustaining cup of tea and biscuit as we knew we were still several hours away from food, but we could not face running the gauntlet of the dogs who would wish to show their gratitude at our return with large muddy paws all over our elegant attire. I deterred Tod from crossing the road to the bakers to buy a croissant as I felt his action would not go unnoticed  by the bride's parents and he would be left with croissant crumbs over his beautiful new three-piece grey suit.

So we set off in convoy for the champagne reception.  I worried about drinking on a (by this stage very) empty stomach - unnecessarily as it turned out. The nibbles were hot, tasty, lavish and very tempting.  By the time we made our way into the hall for the banquet at 9pm I really wasn't hungry any more, which was a shame as the menu was foie gras terrine; followed by scallops and mussels in a wine and cheese sauce; followed by a HUGE plateful of pink lamb; followed by cheese; followed by profiteroles; all this accompanied by a different wine at each course.

Fortunately there were pauses between courses, the highlight of the entertainment being one of the uncles (who had played the solemn role of deacon in the service) somewhat surprisingly proving to have a repertoire of bawdy Pyrenean songs, which he sang lustily to the great embarrassment of  his wife and the younger female relations and friends.

The microphone was offered to our table - perhaps we wanted to sing?  We hastily shook our heads. So as a token to the English present the neighbouring table looked up "God Save the Queen" on their i-phones and sang it with great gusto.

By midnight as the DJ started up, we were already flagging.  So we bounced around to a few sixties numbers for a few minutes and then slipped away.  We're certain that most of our compatriots will have continued 'til dawn.

Bertie and Vita, convinced that we were never coming home, had gone hunting for food, raided the utility room, dragged the biscuit bin out from under the shelving, up-ended it over the floor and gorged themselves to a standstill.  Bit like the wedding banquet really.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Well there's a Surprise!

I'd planned to write a slightly melancholic post about the changing of the seasons and the arrival of autumn, but then, between cool days of rain, it suddenly was so hot and sunny again I had to come in from gardening for ice cream, so the post didn't seem appropriate.

And I'm not the only one who's not too sure what season it is right now.  The mauve lilac up behind the house (on the bank that borders Monsieur F's now-ripe, bone-dry, rustling-in-the-wind maize) has decided to burst into bloom, to the delight of the local butterfly population.

So much for the distant sound from my childhood of my father singing: "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again",  as he accompanies himself on the upright piano in the lounge; a room only used for visitors or on special occasions such as Christmas.

I stand under the sweet smelling branches, struggling to capture clear images of the camera-shy peacock butterflies above my head as they flutter from bloom to bloom, gorging on this unexpected bounty.

I wonder whether we will be gathering this particular lilac again next spring?

Two others  who dropped by whose names I don't know ...

And  a touch of nostalgia ....

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Reflections on Falling off a Ladder

One minute I was up the ladder. The next, flat on my back on the concrete terrace at the back of the cottage.  There wasn't even time for my past life to flash before my eyes.

I lay there, wondering if any bits were broken, but all seemed to be in working order, though the pot which held the blueberry bush looked a little the worse for wear. I gingerly set off up the garden to the house, reassured Tod that I was ok - not that he'd realised anything was wrong - and he departed for his normal evening of bridge.

I'm not good up ladders.  Much beyond the third step and I'm hyperventilating.  So later that same night, when my right foot had swollen (I was not quite as ok as I first thought) and the nurse at A&E asked what height I'd fallen from: "Un? Deux? Trois? Quatre? Cinq?" and I replied: "Cinq ou peut-être six", I meant steps and he meant metres. He looked a little startled.

It was a busy night at A&E and not much sign of a doctor.  I was relieved that the woman who came in with contractions was whisked away.  Not sure any of us in reception would have been up to delivering a baby. By 2am I still hadn't been seen.  So we came home, caught up on lost sleep and my foot has steadily mended ever since without medical intervention.

Friends suggest I should stop self-harming - what with the sun burn in early summer and now this.

I reckon it was hubris.  Pride and falling and all that.  I was busy; coping (I smugly thought) without asking Tod for help; rushing around getting the cottage ready, doing the garden, painting furniture; making the patio nice with curtains and shading. My second reaction lying there (after first wondering what I'd broken) was: "There's still so much to do".

And that's it. All this year there's been so much to do. In fact every year we've been here there's been so much to do.  Friends tell us they love what we've done in the cottage and the house, what we're creating in the garden.  Me, all I do is rush around, getting stressed, as I see more jobs to be done.

Maybe the Universe is trying to tell me something: "Slow down. Stop and look around.  This is a beautiful place, to be loved and appreciated for what it already is. Pause. And take joy from what you have already achieved."

Monday, 16 September 2013

Too Soon!

Summer is already slipping away.

We light the fire in the lounge against the chilly evenings and talk about moving back down to the cottage when our last guest departs in the middle of next week.

The dahlias haven't even begun to flower.  And have we really had our last swim of the year?  The pool water feels uninvitingly cool under its so-called heat-retaining cover.

The grass badly needs cutting, but it's sodden and the dogs come panting in from their morning walk with thick mud on their paws, which they trail all over the kitchen floor.

Faced with a grey steady drizzle, I decide to get my hair cut in Leclercs rather than try some soggy weeding. This is my summer haircut you understand - short and easy to care for after swimming.

The hairdresser and I share commiserations over the weather.  She's young with brilliant red spikey hair. She solemnly tells me that our wretchedly short summer is all due to the phases of the moon.

She reassures me that next year will be better.  I hope she's right.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

I've been Ironing Sheets in the Cottage

As friends from previous visits can testify, this is unheard of. Especially as the lawn needs mowing, kilometres of tatty edges need strimming and the gravel driveway needs a good, down on hands and knees weeding. But it is also pouring with rain.  Has been most of the day.

Probably my fault.

Last year our friends stayed in June and spent most of the time inside playing card games and doing jigsaws because the weather was so lousy.  So when we talked about this year's visit: "Come in September" I said "It's always lovely in September."

That, and the fact that I've made a shady outside pergola for them, complete with gently wafting curtains, where they can sit in comfort, sheltered from the blistering heat of the noon-day sun, enjoying a good wine and a tasty meal. The dripping curtains, sodden piles of leaves hiding in corners around the pot plants and puddles of water in the plastic seats of the chairs look decidedly uninviting, but there's little I can do about it at the moment as the rain has set in for the rest of the day.

Hence the sheet ironing. At least I can make the inside of the cottage as welcoming as possible.

They arrive late this evening. When did Flybe make that unhelpful commercial decision?  They hasten to say that all they will want to do is sleep. "But you must have at least something for supper, you'll be hungry." I insist, at the time envisaging the table under the pergola laid with candles and an inviting warm quiche and salad to tempt them.  I think it will have to be hot soup, in the kitchen.

The rain has eased a little.  So back to the next set of pillow cases and duvet.  This is quite a novel experience. Hope they are not too tired to notice.

PS. And what do those weasel words "minimum iron" mean?  One either irons, or one doesn't.  How does one iron "minimally"?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Our First Boat Trip

Nothing to this boating lark!  I could quite enjoy this!

I think I'll be ok, so long as I stay here, nice and safe under the table in the galley.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The boat ...

... has what is euphemistically called a "holding tank". It is positioned beneath one of the two cushion-covered seats in the main cabin that, along with the table between them, converts into a double bed.

The tank is full. Hence a slight "aroma" in the cabin, which is kept at bay with liberal use of air fresheners. When we bought the boat the tank must have been full, although we didn't realise it at the time - no doubt because the previous owners also used air fresheners. It's probably been full for a long time.

If we were on the Broads back in the UK (where our elderly cruiser comes from) there would be no problem.  We would draw up to any marina, link up to the grey water pumping station, the tank would be emptied and the ambience around the boat would be much sweeter. Ah, but we're on the Lot, in France.

There are pumping stations on the Lot.  In fact we are moored right next to one on our marina.  But it doesn't work.  Has never worked. We are told none of the pumping stations on the Lot work (despite having cost a lot of money to install). Tod thought he ought to check this out when he was over on the far side of Villeneuve at a ship's chandlers, merely a stone's throw from the next marina.  He found four guys playing cards in a shed and asked about their pumping station. No, it didn't work, had never worked  He asked whether any other pumping station worked.  This required a lengthy telephone conversation.  No, none of the pumping stations on the Lot worked.  Honour satisfied (the strange Englishman having been given the necessary information) they returned to their cards.

It is unlikely that the pumping stations will ever work.  This after all is a country where men prefer to pee at the side of the road and where French boats just have a hole in the side to let everything out.  So who needs a pumping station that works except a few eccentric British people on British boats who keep everything in a tank in the salon?

So, we need a pump - but what pump?  And will it be one the marina pays for and keeps, or one we have for ourselves? The marina solution looks doubtful, so what do we need? We are sent a link to a wonderful video demonstration of a Leesan manual self pump out kit.  It looks remarkably easy and simple, but Tod baulks at the idea of paying £317 (plus VAT?) for something that (hopefully) we will rarely need.

A helpful email is sent to us saying: "It would probably be much cheaper to make your own pump out kit".

Unfortunately the sender is addressing two people who are capable of making no more that a light salad for a supper with friends.

Monday, 12 August 2013

How Frustrating!

There's a stubborn lump of grey wispy cloud that's barely moving right in the north east corner of the night sky. Right where we're supposed to be able to see the Perseids meteor shower. And tonight's supposed to be the best night for seeing them - anywhere between 60 and 100 an hour (depending on which enthusiastic newspaper article you read).

This is an especially good year - no moon to wash them out.

I've been sitting in the dark on the terrace by the "one day to be front door" and I've been lucky enough to see one - a red ball with a long tail - but mainly I think the pricks of light and the dim streaks are my eyes playing tricks.

I have seen the bats, briefly silhouetted against the grey cloud as they weave and dive for night flying insects.

I might try again in an hour if I have the stamina. Tod's yawning his way to bed. He's seen at least a couple and is content. I wonder if I should wake him later, if the stubborn cloud finally goes and the sky clears? Sixty meteors an hour - that would be something worth seeing.


The Perseids

Nasa article

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Rain Gods have Answered my Prayers

The water tank down by the cottage is filling.  The water butt at the house is over-flowing.  The mornings are misty and cool. The swimming pool (unswum) is covered in tiny leaves from the overhanging silk tree and brown petals from the pink rose hedge. The dogs come back from their walk with sodden fur. Tough for visitors who would have hoped for better weather, but wonderful for gardeners.

Through the weeks of heat we had left all the windows of the boat open, so yesterday we went to mop up and to go for a leisurely cruise. The day was perfect, a gentle cooling breeze and a blue sky full of white clouds. Except for the odd kayak we had the tranquil river to ourselves in all its watery green splendour, with just the occasional small village or grand house peeping coyly at us through the trees..

Christina's photos

Monday, 29 July 2013


It's rained during the last two nights.  Not much. Not enough to fill the empty, bone-dry water butt by the house. But enough to brighten up the grass this morning and to give the day a feeling of freshness.

Suddenly the tasks that seemed impossible in all that heat are being tackled: turning an overly dry compost heap; pruning a rampaging wisteria; cutting the long grass by the pool; starting to sort out the muddle of gardening stuff on the veranda that needs moving down to the tin-roofed shed by the cottage, so that we can create a comfy seating area just outside the kitchen - a place to flop with a cup of tea, rather than trip over empty flower pots and cast aside no longer working strimmers.

Every evening for the last three weeks, we have watched great rolling thunder clouds, pink in the setting sun, build along the edge of our valley only to have them slip away to the south of the Garonne, or flickering with lightning, move north into the Dordogne.

The floating fat yellow duck thermometer tells us the swimming pool is way above thirty. We no longer cover the pool at night, in the hope that if we leave it open it may cool down slightly and refresh us when we dive in.

Even sleeping under just a sheet, all the windows and doors open to try and catch a draught, has felt too much.

Last night though, I half-woke at some point to the novel thought that getting back under the duvet might be a good idea, but then drifted off again, enjoying the touch of cooler air across my shoulders.

Friday, 26 July 2013


Vita has known him ever since she was a pup.

When she first met him, he was already a grand old man  who tolerated her constant need to play, only occasionally grumbling at her bouncing and play bowing.

That first summer, she was so young her crate where she slept was still in the bedroom.  The night of the thunderstorm, he crawled inside the cage trying to escape the noise, while she, bemused, came and checked on him and then wandered away unperturbed to sleep elsewhere.

Now deaf and blind, he is oblivious to the rumbling and flashes of our distant summer storms and it is she who has learnt to be anxious. But she still checks on him.  She, now a grown-up elegant lady, has learnt not to bounce and tease him. She follows him as he shuffles round the lawn on his arthriticky hips, bumping into apple tree trunks he can no longer see, stumpy bald tail wagging sixteen to the dozen as he finds some new exciting smell.

She disappears down to the cottage for hours, lying a respectful few paces away from him as he sleeps gently snoring and farting, on the cool of the kitchen tiles.  Then she's back, charging up the garden, just to let us know, he's awake and on the move - albeit slowly and several minutes behind her as he weaves his slightly erratic path up to the house from the cottage.

This morning she dashes down to the cottage ahead of me, to say "good morning".  But he's gone, off before dawn, tucked down in the back of the car for the long, hot journey home.

I think Vita that this summer is the last time.

Guccio and Vita in previous years


Summer romance

Stormy night

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

There is a science fiction film ...

... by David Lynch called "Dune", which I love.

I'm not sure why I love it, since it is virtually incomprehensible and it's one of those stories where people with unpronounceable names  have to keep telling each other the plot along the lines of: "as you know, your second cousin twice removed who lives planet X and who started a war in 3013 has recently died". Maybe the film means more to those who have read the Frank Herbert book.

Despite this, it's one of those films where whole scenes have lingered in my mind.  We've grown used to the magic of computer graphics in films, but back in 1984 there was a special thrill in seeing the huge tank containing the floating giant head and tiny body of the Emissary of the Spacing Guild (those who fold space, thus enabling space travel) come rolling in through the great doors of the Emperor's salon.

Some parts are gruesome, which is why these days the film tends to be repeated on the Horror Channel.  I usually fast-forward those bits, or go out and make tea.  Sadly, it's the gruesome bits I'm reminded of at the moment. Baron Harkonnen (the baddy) has a swollen red face covered in oozing boils and blisters. And that's what I see when I look down at my feet.

I always take such care to cover up when I am gardening through our hot, sunny July and August days, but this last week, in my rush to enjoy the delights of a suddenly-arrived summer, I forgot about my winter- white toes peeping out of my sturdy Merrell sandals.  They are now "Baron Harkonnen toes" and even after four days of soaking in aloe vera still very painful.

We have friends coming this evening, so Tod and I have been out early, shopping for treats for supper. While everyone else in the supermarket seemed to be in shorts and flip flops, I wore long black baggy trousers and hid my tender red-raw feet in white socks and bedroom slippers.  I hope that people thought I had just come hot-foot (literally) from my judo class, rather than that I'd just rolled out of bed.

The image of Baron Harkonnen is just too ghastly to inflict on the sensibilities of my readers, so here's one of the film poster, with a very young Kyle MacLachlan (the hero) and a sinister Sting (also a baddy) at his shoulder.


Dune - the film

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

L'Appartement à Louer / Flat to Rent

I open the drawer in the bathroom and sigh as I look down on nail clippings and hair stubble from a razor. She claimed to have cleaned before she left. Not much evidence of that. Anywhere.

I wonder about the hair stubble - hers?  Or a man's?  She said she was on her own with her toddler, (in order to get the maximum from "the social")  but I found a pair of large sweaty sports socks flung in the top corner of the hall cupboard along with a tin of body-building protein - not hers I think, or her young son's.

Over the weeks of cleaning and re-decorating, the flat slowly reveals to us snippets of the lives of its previous occupants:
- The remnants of transfers that we remove from every wall and piece of glass. A sticky shadow of Spiderman still visible on a bedroom window.
- Hundreds of staples and small pins in the walls from an earlier family. Three growing girls covered every inch of the place with their favourite posters.
- The bureau behind the kitchen, where the father of the three girls retired to smoke furiously, leaving a thick yellow coating of tar and nicotine in the walls, ceiling and lino. That one small room alone took Tod a week to clean and re-paint.
- The small black and brown edged pock marks in the lino of the master bedroom where said father lay in bed smoking and flicking cigarette ash onto the floor.
- The contents of a jar of honey with a child's toy stuck in it oozing behind the plinth below the kitchen cupboards - how did it get there?
- The deep scratches in the lounge floor where small hands had run sharp edged toys back and forth.
- The black drag marks across the lino of the bedroom with the jungle animal wallpaper.  Some piece of furniture, too heavy to lift, just hauled out of the room as they left.
- The unstuck stained lino and swollen door that wouldn't shut in the bathroom where water had seeped from a badly installed tank over a weekend  when the place was empty.

Mum with toddler "brightened up" the flat with vibrant orange, dark brown, bright red, smoky blue, acid green paint - all of which had to be painted over in a clean, neutral white. But the colours wouldn't let go easily. Three coats of white later, the kitchen still has a blueish tinge. And bits of orange and brown peep out round the edges of uneven skirting boards and corners in the lounge, despite repeated attempts to brush over them.

Bare wires through the ceiling now feed into smart looking spotlights bought cheaply in a "closing down prior to re-opening" sale in Conforama.

The dust-dull glass lampshades hanging from metal chains thick with grime and grease that I wanted to throw away and Tod said "clean" now sparkle and throw out interesting shadows in the hall.

The lumps of black soot in the ceiling corners of the bathrooms and kitchen, hoovered and soaked and scrubbed, reveal themselves to be cream plastic louvred covers for the ventilation system that (now the air can circulate freely) no longer whistles and sighs.

The confusion of meters and bare wires right by the front door - the wall stained where there had been (another) water leak - is now covered by a smart white painted cupboard.

The flat has 100 electric sockets and light switches.  Every single one has had its grubby faceplate removed, soaked in hot soapy water and scrubbed, while the fitments on the wall have been carefully cleaned (trying to avoid the exposed live wires) with kitchen towel soaked in grease remover.  The final task as each room is finished is to put back the faceplates.  Amazing the pleasure to be had in a room full of pristine light switches and sockets!

I find a pile of off-white plastic tiles in the loft and wonder where they are meant to go.  A week later, as I start scrubbing away the grime on the lounge floor, I realise: the tiles in the loft match those in the lounge! Over the years, as the original wooden floors underneath have sagged, the old, brittle plastic tiles on top have started to crack. I decide to replace some of the most damaged with the clean ones from the loft.  As mentioned elsewhere, this proves to be less than a good idea. Ideally, we would replace the flooring throughout, but cleaned, most of it looks fine and pragmatism steps in.  We have already spent far more than we budgeted and we are told by the agent: "c'est pas méchant".

And at last we have a new tenant!  Our weeks of  hard work have paid off. She and her teenage daughters moved in at the beginning of June. She's a teacher and not "on the social" so her financial situation should be secure. Hopefully, she and her daughters will care for this sunny, sparkly, newly-painted home and want to stay for many years.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The number of times ...

... in my business life, on the eve of going on holiday, I would be finishing off a report at what, two, three o'clock in the morning and exhaustedly posting it through the office door in the middle of the night to be typed the following day while I went away.

It's beginning to feel a bit like that now.  I'm in the UK next week and looking at the tasks I'd hoped to finish before I leave: huge areas of the garden still need strimming down; with our first guest arriving shortly after I'm back, the cottage still needs a final clean and the furniture moving from upstairs where we shifted it while the downstairs woodworm was zapped; there are large lumps of foam (now dried out) from the boat lying around the house that need new cushion covers and inner liners; the boat ceilings need painting and the work-surface in the galley replaced; I've still pots to plant, furniture to shabby chic and an idea for a mosaic on the cottage terrace wall that I'd hoped to do.

This is not to mention that yesterday evening Vita started a new "hot spot" and spent most of the night trying to get away from it and fighting the urge to lick it. While Bertie this morning found her steroid tablets on the kitchen table and ate the entire packet and had to be rushed to the vet to be made to sick them all up.  He seems none the worse for wear for his experience, though I am.

That list of things to do - all before Tuesday. It isn't going to happen, is it.

I thought retirement was going to be less stressful than this.  I need that week in the UK to recover.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

We've Bought a Boat

Or rather Tod has, since I get sick in a rowing boat on a duck pond, so it's not my first thought on what we might do with our time and money. Mind you, I do have this sort of image of messing about in boats - I loved the Arthur Ransome books, especially Swallows and Amazons - but reality is rather different.

Anyway, he bought it (her?) last autumn and I took no interest whatsoever and then we were busy all winter and spring and she just sat there at her moorings on The Lot, unloved and uncared for.

But now we've time and we've been lavishing some attention on her. Well it gives us something to do now that the good weather has gone again!

She's a wooden Norfolk Broads Cruiser, built in the sixties, and amazingly there is a photo of her in her prime on a boat-fanatic's website.

She was christened Gossamer Girl.  (The boatyard still exists and they are still calling the boats in their fleet "G-something Girl".) And then her name was changed by previous owners to Lucy Mary, which has now been frenchified to Lucie Marie.  She's certainly no fairy-like thing - being pretty broad of beam - so that rules out GG. And she's not really an elegant French lady, so she'll probably revert to plain Lucy Mary.

She's looking her age and we're investigating what we need in the way of marine paints and wood restorers to give her a face-lift - all much cheaper in the UK, of course.

Friends down over the summer may just find they get presented with a paintbrush as they arrive.  But after a hard day's work on the boat an early evening cruise down The Lot to a local night market sounds like a pleasant experience.  I will just have to wear my sea-bands, breathe deeply and remember Nancy and Peggy in the Lake District.

In the meantime, we badly need advice on how to make her more weather tight.  With all the rain of the last few days, the mattresses in the cabins are soaked through.  This seems like a "cottage moment" - better to know now that we've got rain problems than in the middle of a cruise.

 Gossamer Girl in her heyday 


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Overnight, it seems ...

... we've gone from thermals, hot-water bottles and log fires to sun-hats while mowing the lawn, supper on the terrace and a swimming pool that's already warmed up to twenty-two degrees (that's over seventy fahrenheit!).

Let's hope summer's here to stay.

It was disconcerting during the cold patch to learn that the Orkneys were warmer than here. The owner of our local garden centre said the weather in May was "une catastrophe". Hopefully he will now see his customers emerging from their hibernation and planting up their immaculate potagers and buying their gaudy geraniums.

The cuckoo has found his (her?) voice again and I swear I heard my first mosquito as I was gardening yesterday evening

The tiny maize plants in Monsieur F's fields around us have all doubled in size since this morning and the daisies in the long grass on the bank beneath the wild rose that hasn't flowered yet have grown another foot.

Friday, 31 May 2013


When Eric moved the pool house to the end of the swimming pool (because the previous one was falling down the slope into Monsieur F's maize field) he left a muddy patch at the side, which I lovingly turned into a small pebble garden. It was a useful quick route through to the back of the building so Tod could do stuff with the pump and then come back and check the pool itself was doing ok.

This year, the pebble garden has become a nose-high jungle that Tod has to cut through with a machete. So on the day we took the winter cover off I hacked down all the weeds.  Among them was a soft pink poppy that happily seeds itself round the garden coming up in different places each year.  It was here when we arrived, so there is a particular satisfaction in getting majestic poppies for free.

Without much hope, I cut off all the tight green poppy buds before I dug up the plant (it couldn't stay where it was) and plonked them in a large vase in the kitchen.  They are such delicate flowers they seem too fragile to make cut blooms.

To my delight they are coming out and look lovely.

Monday, 27 May 2013

At Last!

We've had a day of sunshine and almost warmth.

Tucking ourselves round the side of the house away from the veranda which was catching the still chill east wind, we sat sipping our mugs of tea before the joyous task of removing the winter cover from the swimming pool.

As I've said before, there's just one benefit of a cold wet spring.  The roses are glorious.  I took these over the last few days dashing out with camera between downpours.

We have a lot of red and pink roses I realise as I take the photos.  This just provided an ideal excuse to head for our local garden centre and find (to my delight) some splendid David Austin orange and yellow roses.  Mind you, another very dark fragrant red one hopped into the trolley as well.

David Austin roses

Sunday, 26 May 2013

I am rapidly acquiring ...

... Old Lady Feet.

One of the advantages of moving between cottage (winter) and house (summer) is that I am forced to acknowledge what in my wardrobe I am and am not wearing.  Lugging armfuls of clothing up and down the drive every six months or so between cottage and house gets very tedious, especially if half the armfuls are never being worn.

Sometimes I just shove everything back in the wardrobe and shut the door.  But this time, after weeks of cleaning, tidying and repainting I think the bit of me that is my grandmother's genes is still looking for something to do.  So I open a few shoe boxes that have collected an inordinate amount of dust to see what's inside. Good heavens, slim black "crocodile" patent leather shoes bought from M&S more years ago than I care to remember.  How did I ever squeeze my feet into those?

We're not talking the odd half size or so here you understand, but a whole half a foot's width and length.  While the rest of me seems to be shrinking, my feet are definitely still expanding and growing.  I blame it on the sandals in summer and trainers and wellington boots in winter - foot attire not designed to keep feet under control, unlike the tight leather of "proper" shoes worn at work.

Even the trainers that I bought, what, no more than five years ago, are feeling a bit tight. Some of my toes are grumbling as I sit and type this. The next pair will have to be (yet another) half size larger.

Those ads for wide velcro fastened Old Lady Shoes in the back pages of the Daily Telegraph colour supplement are beginning to look very attractive.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Weather

The only topic of conversation - French or English:

"Le tempsIncroyable!".
"How are you?" "Fine except for the bloody weather!"

We've had the wood fire on in  the lounge every day since we moved up from the cottage. Thank heavens we ordered that firewood last autumn - just in case. Bertie lies on the hearth rug with his nose only inches from the hot glass.

We scuttle across the cold bits of the house to the next pool of warmth: the lounge, my study, the kitchen if we've just had the oven on, Tod's room (if he gets round to lighting the gas fire).

We're reduced to tasks in and around the house - sorting paperwork, tidying the utility room and the garage. The swimming pool still languishes under its winter cover. Between showers we dash out to do more strimming and mowing - though some days the rain has been continuous, or it's just too cold to summon up the courage.

I'm still wearing my thermals (shock, horror!) and I've cut some roses and brought them indoors. It's the only way this year that I'm going to enjoy them.

We have yet to eat outside in the courtyard of our favourite crêperie.

Two years ago, we feared a drought (huh!) and spent hours watering freshly planted trees.

Three years ago, we had French lessons in the garden and cycled along the canal under the shade of the plane trees. And I photographed the roses.

It's good to have a blog and to be reminded that May can be glorious.

Excuse me - must go. There's a thin watery shaft of cold sunlight outside - time to don wellington boots and gardening jacket and strim down some more weeds. I might even manage to take the odd photo of drooping roses and post some here.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Woodworm Man Cometh

We're out of the cottage and back in the house.  Forced out by small wood-boring insects and the need to have professionals come in and sort them out.

I tried to treat the cottage beams myself, last year, but the woodworm march onwards has been inexorable and so it's time to get the job done properly.

Otherwise, we'd still be snug in the cottage at the bottom of the garden, with its underfloor heating, double glazing and good insulation. But it's back to the hot-water bottles, bed-socks (very important before putting one's feet down onto cold floors first thing in the morning), extra layers and calor gas heaters to stand between us and the draughts.

Who would have thought May would be this cold?  Or maybe, with cottage living, we've just gone soft.

Monday, 6 May 2013


For over eight weeks, every day, I drove up the drive from the cottage, past the house, averting my eyes from the sight of Nature rampaging through the garden and made my way into town to clean floors, paint walls and repair lino.

And now, with time to garden again, I've no idea where to begin.

The rose beds, the bushes already in full bud? Strangled with buttercup and bindweed tendrils, great juicy thistle, dandelion and dock stems barging their way skywards, cutting out the light and killing the lower branches.

Perhaps the paving round the swimming pool? A jungle of dead nettle, self-seeded alliums, more dock, dandelion and thistle (of course) and speedwell.

Or the loving planted borders either side of the one-day-to-be front door? Now overrun with rye grasses and wild oats and yet more dock and thistles.

Or the lawns, round the house and the cottage?  The grass now so high and stems so coarse that mower and strimmer struggle to do more than just knock the plants down.

I despair at what a mere eight weeks' neglect can do to all my previous hours of care. How do those of you who spend no more than a few weeks here each year cope?

I sit on the bank behind the cottage laboriously extracting fronds of sap-filled grass from the middle of a large cotoneaster that is desperately trying to flower.  Vita and Bertie sit close by, watching me mournfully as I cut back what are obviously their absolutely favourite blades to chew.  Don't be ridiculous dogs!  There are acres of greenery all round us, just waiting to be eaten.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

It looked easy ....

... on the B&Q and Homebase DIY videos:

-  Run a hot hair-dryer over the damaged plastic tile

-  Slide a putty knife under the tile and lift

-  Scrape off the softened old adhesive underneath

-  Apply fresh adhesive to the now clean floor

-  Place the new tile on the fresh adhesive

-  Smooth out air bubbles

-  Put a heavy book on top for 24 hours and voilà, flooring repaired

No mention of  what you do if, in lifting the damaged tile, half the floor underneath comes up as well.  Or how to cope if the plastic tiles are so old and brittle that the adjacent one starts to crack and lift.  Still, Steve, our builder, did a couple for us - mixing self-levelling compound that would even out the lumps and bumps under the tile and letting it flow slowly across the floor, placing the new tile on top and gently pressing it down into the concrete so it was at the same height as the neighbouring tiles.

Well it didn't look too difficult.

So the next evening, after Tod had left, I had a go with replacing the tiles we lifted in the kitchen.  Mixing the grey self-levelling compound in the small bucket took forever.  It just seemed too runny.  So I'd beat out all the lumpy bits, stir and stir, add more powder, beat out the fresh lumps, stir,.add more powder.      And then, suddenly, it wasn't runny any longer, it had gone like thick porridge.  That was the moment I should have thrown it away and started again, but after all that time mixing it seemed a shame to waste it.

So I plonked it on the floor in dollops and tried to smooth it out. Far from self-levelling, it determinedly formed a small mountain.  So I scraped most of it off, thought it looked reasonably level and then realised that, as it was now hard rather than runny, the tiles might not stick to it, so the addition of tile adhesive might be a good idea.  I squidged the new tiles onto this mess and reached for a heavy tub of paint to rest on top of a block of wood to keep the tiles flat, when I realised that the tile adhesive had tipped over and formed a small white lake behind me (where I wouldn't notice what was happening).  The pack warned me that while the adhesive was white I could clean it up, once clear (after about ten minutes) it became like super-glue.  I grabbed a roll of kitchen towel and mopped as fast as I could.

Twenty minutes later, I was still scraping a nasty mixture of self-levelling compound and tile adhesive off the floor that Tod had so carefully cleaned a couple of days previously. I was also conscious that my hands were becoming increasingly sticky and it was difficult to separate my fingers. I padded into the bathroom, leaving a trail of sticky concrete footprints along the (recently cleaned by Tod) corridor floor and lathered my fingers alternately with white spirit, soap and Nivea cream. They still felt tacky.

As I drove away later, I wondered whether I would be able to prise my fingers off the steering wheel when I reached my destination.

It was only as I was driving in the following morning it occurred to me I might not be able to unstick the block of wood with the paint tub on top from off the newly laid tiles.

It's at moments like this that the only thing I can do is sing Gerry Rafferty..... I hope he's right.

Our photo project in early April ...

... was to take two spring flower photos.  How could I possibly choose only  two!

Apple blossom
 Cherry blossom

 Quince blossom


In the end, I didn't have to choose, as I was still busy painting!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Joy and Stamina

One of the earliest "Grand Designs Abroad" (and one of our favourites) was the story of Doug and Deni who lovingly restored a HUGE five-storey French maison de ville, open to the sky.

We saw the program again the other evening and yet again we were in awe of the task they took on and also admiring of their evident joy, enthusiasm  and stamina - working 12-14 hour days over months and months, often just the two of them.

And here we are grumping about our six-week / six hour day DIY task.  Ah, but ours feels like a duty and a burden.  Just goes to show how miracles can be wrought if there is joy in the task.

I spent yesterday cleaning the filthy living room vinyl tile floor - hands and knees, scrubbing each tile with a nail brush soaked in a grease remover, then rinsing off the swirly filth, then drying.  Took me an hour to do the first row of tiles.

Mind you, I did speed up when I stopped trying to clean off the pattern. It's a kind of streaky smudge (meant to be a type of marbled look I think) and I thought it was dried in paint. Only another ten hours of lounge flooring to go.

A mere nothing! Doug and Deni persevered for a month lifting eighty flooring beams in place.

Doug and Deni's B&B
Grand Designs Abroad

Monday, 1 April 2013

March Mementos

March departed yesterday "like a lamb" and for the first time this year, in the early evening sun, we had supper on the cottage terrace.

The days have passed in the seemingly endless drudgery of cleaning walls, ceilings, floors, bathroom tiles, light fittings, repairing, filling holes (dozens of holes!) and painting, painting, painting.  Too tired in the evening to do anything except eat, watch bad TV and then go to bed.

It was good last night just to stop for a few hours and breathe in the green spring air.

My few memories of March:

Vita, Tod, Bertie sitting on the sofa, intently watching Crufts.

Bertie charging across our neighbour's field tail wagging frantically, nose buried in the thick luscious sward of spring wheat - saying: "no way am I coming in, you haven't been here and now I'm having fun!"

The steady stream of people through the door of the boulangerie (including Easter Sunday and Monday) where I stop on my way in, to buy pain aux raisins for the workers. Each time the door swings a murmured "Bonjour messieurs-dames".

Bertie and Vita sitting waiting at the entrance to our drive - waiting for one of us to come home.

The sound of the Saturday market in full swing below the open window as I paint the wall of the back bedroom.

The front garden of the little old lady who used to own sheep, a riot of colour as I drive past each morning into town:  blues and pinks and whites of the dozens of fat hyacinths and brilliant reds and oranges from the hundreds of tulips, all planted through a river of mauve aubretia.

I return in the evening to find one tulip blooming in our cottage garden, the rest still tightly furled green buds just poking above the earth.

We're late this morning - Easter Monday and the clocks have gone forward - time to get back to the painting.  Not for much longer, we're nearly there and the result will be worth it.

[And a PS - an early April memento - this morning's bored mischievousness in our absence: a whole pack of rye flour spread over the kitchen floor and Vita's muzzle, mixed with plenty of water from their drinking bowl.  It's sticky and hard to get off (dog and floor). We're about to find out whether Vita's diet should or should not include raw flour!]

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

I feel as if ...

... we are living in the film "The Shipping News", which by the way if you haven't seen I can thoroughly recommend. Kevin Spacey is on top form as a slightly bemused man who, with his young daughter and aunt (superbly played by Judi Dench) goes back to the family home on a remote cliff top in Newfoundland.

The old Newfoundland house is held down by guy ropes to keep it from flying off the cliff in the high winds and at night creaks, groans and sighs, keeping the occupants awake.  For the last twenty-four hours that's what it's been like in the cottage.  Bertie, Vita and I got little sleep last night as I resorted to a duvet and the sofa in the lounge. The constant thrumming of the aluminium drain pipes and the shrieking of the wind through the shutters kept all three of us on edge - while Tod slept blissfully through it.

Debris is all over the garden and a couple of the dead elms in the small copse behind the cottage, covered in ivy where the small birds nest, are now snapped in two and doubled over - as is a brand new concrete electricity pole up on the ridge behind us.

I found the plastic greenhouse that I bought from Lidls tilting precariously to one side, all the contents in a jumble on the floor.  So taking a tip from the film, the greenhouse is now held down by an improvised guy rope stretched across the roof and tied on one side to a wooden pallet and the other to an old plough.

Although the high winds are still with us, I'm hoping that I'm tired enough to be able to sleep through the noise tonight.  Tomorrow is the Big Day - Tod is demonstrating making his sourdough rye bread and I want to be wide awake for it.  But more of that anon.

The Shipping News

How very French!

I peeled off my pink Marigold gloves and, with aching shoulders and feet, staggered downstairs to Tod saying I'd had more than enough of stripping flocked jungle paper off the back bedroom walls and please could we go home for lunch.

Up a ladder in the lounge, surrounded by strips of bright orange wallpaper, he agreed. So, locking the front door, we set off home in our two cars (extravagant I know, but we'd been running different errands).

As I turned out of the side street I met a queue of traffic crawling through the town centre, every other vehicle a white van.  This was unheard of.  We never meet heavy traffic in town - particularly not on a Monday when most of the shops are shut.

Then I happened to notice the clock on the dashboard. Three minutes past twelve. Ah!  The Frenchman's rush to get home as soon as possible for his two-hour lunch.

And we're doing the same! We've gone native!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Turn of the Seasons

Paul phoned.  To say the cranes had just flown over them and would be with us shortly.

I rushed downstairs, grabbed a coat and the dogs and I tumbled out of the front door.  And there, sure enough - the first I have seen this year - a great black V, coming out of the western sky, stretching wide. Too distant still to count individual birds but close enough to see how the group ebbed and flowed, broke and reformed.

They followed the ridge on the other side of the valley and I quickly counted, guessing ten, fifty, hundred, two hundred, three, maybe four hundred of them. Vita barked at their cries, uncertain where their unsettling sound was coming from and not thinking to look above her head.

And then, as I turned to come back indoors out of the cold, I saw another line, this time heading straight towards us, bird after bird after bird, right over the cottage, driving forwards, on, on north and east to their summer haunts.

Tonight I will sleep with the window open and even through my dreams will hear the sound of their cries as they pass in the dark.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

A small, green tree frog ...

... clutches at the stem of a plant whose name I can never remember, watching me balefully.

I'm strimming between the shrubs that are growing on the bank which was covered in tired mounds of mallow when we first moved here and he's not impressed that I'm clearing his territory.

My approach to the garden is Jekyll and Hyde - part of me wants to leave everything weedy and overgrown (as the bank has been for the last umpteen months) so that all the birds and insects (and tree frogs) thrive but another part wants it all neat and tidy - clipped box hedges and not a weed in sight.  The latter me is winning at the moment, spurred on by having watched three episodes of Monty Don's "French Gardens" on the BBC.  How do the French keep those vast parterres so impossibly neat?

Bertie is doing his best to create the "natural look" further along the bank - bottom skywards as he frantically tears a hole between lumps of sandstone and old roots.

The bank needs more shrubs.  Those that I planted (what? three, four years ago?) some have thrived, others are struggling and judging from the gaps as I strim back the dead thistles and tall grasses, not a few have died. A trip to the tiny, elderly lady who runs a nursery behind the prison in Villeneuve is called for - her prices are half those elsewhere.

The weather is idyllic for planting - weeks of rain, so the ground has been saturated, followed by mild sunny days.  And everything is springing into life - hence the need to strim.  I'm itching to get on with pruning all the roses as they are already smothered in tiny red leaves but winter hasn't completely released its grip, we're promised sharp frosts for the next few nights, so I'll wait a few more days.

It's time for the cranes to start flying north.

The plant whose name I can never remember silhouetted against the evening sky

Monty Don's French Gardens

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Rhythm of Life

There was a meeting this week on how to restore old furniture to get that French "shabby chic" effect.

I was really looking forward to it.  We've got one or two bits of tatty old dark furniture that I have been eyeing but not doing anything with.  So this was an ideal opportunity to learn how to restore them.

I knew when the meeting was - first Wednesday afternoon in the month - because there is nearly always a meeting then - except through the summer when everyone has visitors and not in January when people are still recovering from Christmas. It's a bit like the W.I. and there are always interesting talks (not at all like Calendar Girls) and a chance for a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a gossip.

And then I forgot.

Not that I was doing anything more important. I'd decided that the fig tree alongside the cottage needed attacking so that any new growth (typically five or six feet a year) would be a sensible height for reaching the figs.

I suddenly realised I'd forgotten as I came back inside at dusk.  And I felt quite disorientated and disappointed.  Tod goes off to French lessons Wednesday morning and I'd watched him go - so at some point in the day part of me had realised it was Wednesday.  And I knew it was no longer January.  But somehow, this week had not transmuted into being the first week in February. 

The same thing happened to Tod a few weeks back when he was really looking forward to going with friends to the excellent self-service Chinese restaurant in Villeneuve. I mocked when the day came and went without his noticing and now I've done the same.

It may be evidence of early senility. But it's also a change in the rhythm of our lives. So different from the hour by hour measuring out of all those years at work. Here, the days gently ebb and flow. We notice the change in the seasons (the lengthening of the days, the milder weather) more than the days of the week.  And although there are routines - Monday morning rubbish day, French for me on Tuesday afternoon and Tod Wednesday morning, Friday my photography, his bridge - the weeks all too easily slip by without having dates to them.

It is not enough to put our appointments on the Airedale calendar that hangs on the wine rack in the kitchen. Because as like as not it still shows January. And here we are eight days into February.

There is an extra frisson to this increasing detachment from the day to day.  Next month, at the same first Wednesday get-together, Tod is giving a demonstration on making sour dough bread.  At least one of us had better remember on the day! 

some of Tod's bread

Thursday, 31 January 2013

By nature, I'm a saver, not a spender ...

... unless I'm in a garden centre of course.

So the Scrooge in me was quite happy to go to Agen today and wander round clothes shops and come back without spending a penny.

But I have this problem.  In fourteen days we are going to a Valentine's ball, and I've nothing to wear!  Well that's not strictly true.  I've got this satiny deep orange evening jacket that I bought aeons ago and I have this image of a long, under-stated, but slinky black evening dress to wear underneath the jacket. (You note that I have this misguided mental image of looking like Helen Mirren on the catwalk.) Many years ago, I had such a dress, but I made the mistake of washing it and it fell apart, or shrank, or something (well I did only pay about two and sixpence for it in House of Fraser).

This being France and the home of the LBD (the little black dress) I thought I'd have no problem in finding something tasteful.  Unfortunately this year the LBD is not much larger than a curtain pelmet. If I put the jacket on, you won't see the dress.

And I'm somewhat disconcerted to discover that my modest "on a good day, holding my breath and pulling my stomach in" size fourteen, is designated LARGE in France. And that my "feeling relaxed after a good lunch want to wear something comfy" size sixteen is designated EXTRA LARGE. And most dress rails only have two things in size sixteen right at the back - both of which are a strange purple colour and look like a dressing gown - and nothing larger.

I now understand why it is that our robust, start at size eighteen local farmers' wives when dressing up for summer parties choose to do no more than put on a clean pair of dungarees.

So I turn to the internet.  And yes there are long slinky black dresses to be had.  And a few even are to be had in LARGE and EXTRA LARGE.  But which size to choose?  Go for the tight across the hips, can't eat too much and may not be able to sit down look? Or the baggy, there must be a set of boobs in there somewhere look?

And interestingly, black doesn't photograph too well, so I can't really see whether the neckline plunges to the waist or stops demurely under the chin.  Maybe I'll do what I did all those years ago in the House of Fraser - go for the cheapest.  Just remember this time not to wash it.

Monday, 28 January 2013

If you stand quietly ...

... in the cottage hallway, you can hear the sound of trickling water.

And it's coming, not from the downstairs bathroom as you might suppose but quite the opposite direction, from the hall cupboard by the front door where the fuse board lives.

Open the hall cupboard door and peer into the back left-hand corner and in the gloom you will see the glitter of a tiny waterfall pouring out of the open mouth of the "gaine", which carries the electricity cable all the way underground from the white electricity meter alongside the road that you can see from three fields away, down our steep drive, beneath the stone walls of the cottage and up into the floor to ceiling fuse cupboard, beautifully made by Monsieur "Fred".

I had to look up gaine - it means conduit or ductingI only know French building terms, having only restored a French house, not an English one.

The water pouring out of the gaine leaves the tiles on the floor of the cupboard quite dry, as it happily finds its way back into the mud under the cottage wall.  Our Polish builders were disgusted with the old French method of building walls straight onto bare earth, but in this instance it seems an advantage.

Our tiny cupboard waterfall has only occurred once before when, like now, the fields around were totally saturated.  Our local bio shop has a very attractive "tranquillity" indoor waterfall for a mere hundred-odd euros.  We get ours for free.  Although I'm not sure showing Tod last night heightened his tranquillity.

We're due several days without rain, so hopefully the water table will drop and the sound of trickling water in the hallway will cease.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Winter's Not over Yet

I've just been mowing the lawn!  In January!

The grass at the back of the house, in front of the wooden barn where we store our firewood, has grown ridiculously long and lush in all the rain we've been having.  To leave it would just be storing up a greater mowing challenge in the weeks ahead.

So I use the small electric mower that I bought for next to nothing in Leclerc and trundle backwards and forwards in the afternoon sun. Mind you, I have to stop every half row, turn the machine over and extract handfuls of sopping wet greenery caught under the blades (hence the reason for using the tiny mower, easy to turn over).  As I remove the wet grass I try not to think about turning blades and fingers and hope that the machine can't spontaneously turn itself on.

A robin follows me round hunting for the grubs and insects I've disturbed.

Difficult to believe that this morning I'd driven up to Eymet  for a photography club get-together in cold, thick fog.  There was a strange meteorological line at Armillac - behind me thick fog, in front glorious sunshine. And it was still there when I returned at lunchtime. But by this afternoon, we too were basking in the sun and the garden called.

I finish as dusk falls and set off back down to the cottage.  Then, in the half light, a small group of cranes crosses the sky, right over the roof of the house, low enough for me to count them - thirty-two. (I wanted to write "skein of cranes", but that didn't seem right, so googled it, apparently the collective noun for cranes is "a siege" - how lovely!)

I tell Tod about them as I come into the kitchen where he and Vita are preparing supper.

"Were they flying north?" he asks.

"No, south."

"Ah winter's not over yet"

I mustn't be fooled by the glorious sunshine and the long lush grass.

Collective nouns for birds