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

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Wet Week

Earlier in the week the météo promised snow.  We had a light dusting. Barely enough to cover the grass. And since then, it's been wet. Very wet.

Why is it, I wonder, that rain comes in different sizes?  This week's rain is the big splodgy type that could almost be sleet and gets down the back of your neck if you have your coat collar at the wrong angle.

And this is the week that the fosse septique in the cottage has decided to start a "go slow".  I realise that for some of you, this will be too much information, but one of the "joys" of living in rural France is we all have our own private sewage disposal works - only sometimes they don't - work, I mean.

It was the gurgling that first alerted me to the fact that all was not well. I must admit most of the time I try not to remember what happens when I flush, but this week I could not ignore it.  So a large screwdriver and up with the concrete manhole cover to find sludge where there should be a nice empty gulley.  Normally it's pretty clear what and why.  Guests flush something they shouldn't.  But we haven't had anyone in the cottage since last October and we're scrupulous.

So I turn to the relevant section of the ex-pat forum and post my question: could it possibly be the water table?  We've had all this rain, the ground's saturated.  Is our sand filter bed - the final stage of the process - inundated so that everything is backing up?  I learn things I never knew and I realise we've been too complacent.  The advice is open up the inspection pits for the filter bed.  But after three years of neglect they're nicely hidden in the lawn among grass and weeds.  So I get out the strimmer in the splodgy rain and feel a line of wet drops run down the inside of my waterproof as I clear the ground. Opening the plastic covers flush with the earth is a challenge.  So wet knees are added to wet neck as I struggle to dig away the mud that's oozed in under the lids. There's a final plop and the first one's off.  The sand filter hole is empty and dry. Excellent! This end of the system is fine.

In that case we have a "bouchon" - a traffic jam and we just need to unblock it.  I wonder about flexible rods and get advice from the forum on not turning them anti-clockwise when they are in the drain as that just unscrews them - which would add un-get-at-able drain rods to an already over-filled pipe.

I wander round the local brico store and see rods for chimney sweeping. Are they the same? Confused, I find myself in front of the bright yellow Kärcher pressure washers.  We do need something that will clean the swimming pool surround in summer. And they also have this nifty gadget thing that can be used to unblock drains. It's on offer as it's a display model - so obviously a bargain.  I'm a bit startled to come out of the shop one hundred and sixty euros lighter - I could have bought a lot of rods with that!

By now the splodgy rain is a steady downpour and we struggle with the outside tap. Why is nothing coming through the pressure washer?  It helps to have the hose pipe plugged in properly.  The Kärcher hose line has a mind of its own and curls round the manhole - anywhere but down it. The sludge stubbornly remains.  And the rain gets worse.

I'll call a "vidangeur" on Monday - a man who knows all about fosse septiques and how to clear them. In the meantime, we do have a very smart, very expensive pressure washer for keeping the swimming pool terrace clean - if ever this damn rain stops.

Monday, 7 January 2013


I say the magic word as I get up from the computer and Bertie's instantly awake, yawning, stretching and  arching his back, ready for his next adventure.

He and Vita dash ahead of me as I make my way up the drive to the house to pack away the Christmas decorations.

They were all down by yesterday - twelfth night - just to make sure of avoiding whatever ill luck is supposed to befall if you don't, but I didn't have time to put them back in their boxes, so that's today's task.

Mind you, the French don't seem to have the same twelfth night thing. My French teacher keeps her crib on display in the lounge grate until St Valentine's day.  And some houses never take down their weather-beaten Father Christmas climbing the ladder while hanging rather mournfully from the gutter. One of our local communes keeps its three street decorations in place too - a star, a bell and something else, I can't remember what. Saves paying for a man and a van to put it up again next Christmas.

There's a mix of emotions with the Christmas decoration packing away task. Regret that this season and this last year have just slipped through my fingers (again). But then also a tinge of relief: "Thank goodness that's over and we can tidy it away" (I can hear my grandmother's brisk voice here). And a touch of excitement.  Start of a New Year. Like Bertie, time to stretch, arch our backs and say: "Here's to our next adventure".