Monday, 24 November 2014

There are times ...

... when the only card to play is that of a batty old English lady who doesn't speak much French.

Lost in the middle of Montauban at lunchtime,  as I turned left at the traffic lights, I realised immediately I was heading towards Auch and I should have gone straight on towards Agen. But not to worry, there on my right was a large lay-by in front of the gendarmerie where I could turn the car round.  As I did so, I heard the sound of shouts and whistles and hooting of horns and found I was facing a row of oncoming cars. Not perhaps the best place to choose to do a U-turn in a one-way street.

This was the moment to play the only card.

I was lectured severely by two young, tough off-duty gendarmes setting off for lunch with their large fierce dogs who obviously thought I should not be driving at all.  Vita, barking loudly in the back, gave me all the encouragement she could, .

French honour and discipline satisfied, we were sent meekly on our way.

Two hours earlier, in the calm of a small white room among farm buildings, at the end of a long grassy track, another elderly lady bent over Vita, her hands working steadily and gently up and down Vita's spine. I'd arrived with my story of Airedale skin problems, slug pellet poisoning, losing weight, an epileptic fit, but my imperfect French was barely heard.  The patient was Vita and it was her body that told its tale.

Fortunately, not all elderly ladies are batty.  Some grow old gracefully and with great wisdom.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Our Glorious Indian Summer has Finally Gone

After two months of warmth, with sun and blue skies most days and only one extraordinary night of rain (flooded basements in town and piles of grey hailstones, like grit, in all the gulleys) the weather has finally broken.

For the last two days the valley has resounded to the noise of tractors in all directions - harrowing, sowing winter wheat and getting in the last of the maize as the rain clouds gathered.  The co-operative shed at the corner of the road where we turn left to go down into town was open late last night, lights blazing, as the great golden pile of kernels was shoveled into shelter by a truck like a snow plough.

These weeks have given us heart and a chance to work seriously on the boat; something for a time that seemed quite beyond our capabilities.  In the certainty of dry warm weather we've been sanding down, cleaning out badly cracked and leaking woodwork, filling holes and gaps and applying wood treatment.  The boat is a long way from being water-proofed (as we will no doubt find after last night's rain) but it feels like we are making progress.

In the meantime, the garden (limp, dusty and gasping for water) is breathing a sigh of relief.  There is more rain forecast, so there's a chance we will be able to plant new young trees down in the field before St Catherine's Day (November 25th). The French believe "A la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine" [up to Saint Catherine's Day all wood takes root].

To get more trees planted - that too will be progress.

autumn tints

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Last Sunday in October

The clocks went back an hour last night.

Try explaining that to two dogs as we reach what they consider to be their supper time!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Rentré ...

... start of a new term.

Autumn, the beginning of a new school year.

And the start of our new 2014/15 programme for the photo club.

Our first competition: shadows.

A topic I enjoyed.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Well I Never!

In the more than seven years we have been living here, I have always assumed that the small game birds which foolishly run along the chemin rural in front of our car their legs going nineteen to the dozen (you would have thought flying, or diving into the ditch alongside would be the safer option, but no) were quail. But apparently not.

Our neighbour stood on the veranda late one evening holding an opened package mistakenly delivered to them rather than us.  We talked of the start of the hunt season and his six hounds. He stroked an astonishingly well-behaved Vita while she sat and gazed at him adoringly.  As he departed, Bertie trotted happily alongside him, so much as to say "this man is much more fun, he'd take me hunting".

It was only afterwards that I remembered. This was the neighbour whose wife said our dogs had killed their goat.  Whatever the truth, he at least no longer bears a grudge and a small feeling of relief touched my heart.

And it was afterwards that Tod and I had the conversation about the quail.  I had said "caille" and our neighbour had disagreed, cupping his hands in the shape and size of the birds we know and using another word which we didn't recognise but thought began with a "p". So not quail. But what then?

An online French dictionary and a bird sound website gave me the answer: perdrix - partridge. I had imagined they were much bigger, more like a pheasant.  It's those Christmas images of over-sized partridges perched in pear trees which confuse.

And their sound confirmed it.  That chucking noise they make while standing on top of a clod of ploughed earth, so much as to say to the hunters: "come and get me". They are the most reckless of birds! Quail, I learn, are much more sensible and stay hidden.

The postman brought us two gifts that evening with his misdirected parcel - neighbourly peace of mind and a new insight into our local fauna.

partridge call

Monday, 15 September 2014

Bertie charges down our field ...

... yelling his head off, running alongside the tractor with its harrow kicking up clouds of dust, daring the driver to bring his machine any closer.

I sympathise with Bertie's opinion.

The field, which used to be Serge's is now owned by the pig farm the other side of the valley.  Earlier in the year, I watched nervously as the new owner's tractor cut deep furrows on land alongside our boundary that Serge had left fallow and I had assumed was ours. I indignantly looked again at the plans of the land we'd purchased and had to acknowledge he was right.  His land comes to the point of the ditch at our gatepost. And he's going to take every inch of it.

The wire to our oh-so-necessary electronic fence lies in his field, not ours.

The tractor driver swings the harrow round over our boundary as it comes to the corner by the ditch. He is young, with heavy rimmed glasses - more like a medical student than a tractor driver.  Not anyone I recognise.  The pig farm owner's son maybe?  We raise a hand to each other in greeting as he turns away up the hill.

Once he's finished I discretely move the wire back onto our land.

No doubt in a day or two he will come by again with the dogs' extra-special delight - pig muck - to spread over the field.  From then on a fully functioning electronic fence will be essential, if we are to keep Vita and Bertie out of what they view as a gastronomic paradise.  

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Indian Summer

I stir the saucepan with the sticky mixture of quince cheese bubbling gently over a low heat and the breeze is warm coming through the open door of the kitchen.

Tod's sourdough breads are cooking in the oven, filling the air with a yeasty, beery smell.

Later, as I rake up the conkers down at the cottage I am grateful for the shade of the horse chestnut tree across my bare shoulders.

The farms around are already cleared of their crops except for the sunflowers, which are scorched black and bent double.  They too will be gone soon.  And then where will the family of quails and the hare who sits on our chemin rural taunting Bertie hide from the guns that start in earnest next weekend?

We talk about going to our favourite crêperie this evening, to sit outside in the courtyard in the fading light - a rare treat this year. There won't be many more occasions between now and the end of September when she closes til next April.

In August, when friends stayed, we supped indoors, had soup, turned on the underfloor heating and worried that their summer-weight duvets were not warm enough.  They left as the warm weather that vanished at the end of June coyly returned.

I have forgotten what it means to have to water the pots along the veranda every evening.

We regret our friends did not come in September.  And then the muck spreader starts work in the neighbouring fields.  And we think, lovely though the weather is, perhaps it was as well they didn't come this week!

Promise of soup for the autumn

Saturday, 9 August 2014


Looking at the météo for today, there was this banner ad: "Ras-le-bol fiscal?" over a man with his head in his hands.  I sort of knew what it had to mean, but hadn't come across the phrase ras-le-bol.  So I looked it up.

Oh how appropriate!  My dictionary tells me "(Colloquial) To be really fed up with. To be heartily sick of. Gloominess. Despondency. Dolefulness."

Yep, that just about sums up how we're all feeling about this year's summer in this part of glorious south west France.

Somehow the UK seems to be having our summer and we've got theirs.  Friends talk delightedly on Skype about swimming in the sea (in the UK!) and not minding the occasional dull day, because the summer has been so lovely and warm and sunny.

When I was house hunting here I met an English estate agent who said she so enjoyed the certainty of the long hot summers.  Not any more! At least those of us who live here all the time can fondly remember June. This year is tough for those who are just down for the holidays.

As I walked through the market this morning and the heavens opened yet again, a stall-holder muttered "putain" as she hauled an already damp plastic sheet back over her sodden fruit and vegetables.

This evening we are going to a concert in a chateau - in the garden if fine, in the entrance hall if wet - hence my check on the météo.  Looks like we'll be in the hall.

Friends arrive from the UK in ten days.  It'll be nice for them to have a cooler week here, after all that good weather at home. They may, however, just have to put up with a general slightly damp air of doleful "ras-le-bol" among the locals.

Sunrise before yesterday's storms

Monday, 28 July 2014

"I think I'll start ...

... heading for the village" said Tod, as the thunderclap hit directly overhead and the heavens opened.

So we considered Plans B, C and D, one of which at least was to stay at home and watch it all on TV. But it isn't often the Tour de France comes by, so in the end we packed waterproofs and I agreed to drive him as close as I could.

We forget just how empty this part of France is.  Imagining traffic jams up to road blocks, in fact we drove sedately down into the village and parked behind the half dozen other cars on the verge. We wandered across to the barriers along each side of the street with a stern gendarme forbidding passage to the other side, found a space and watched "the caravan" roll through.  Large garish floats alternated with fleets of cars from bureaucracy and the TV and radio stations. They had driven up from the foothills of the Pyrenees bringing the rain and thunder with them. Those on the back of open-topped vehicles were looking pinched and cold, struggling to keep their cheerful expressions as they flung their slightly suspect "goodies" at us.

For some reason the McCain float got one of the loudest cheers.

Still hankering after my lay-by where I thought I'd get the best views and knowing there was a good hour til the cyclists came through, I left Tod in the village and set out towards town, the road meandering between fields completely deserted except for the occasional small gathering of those fortunate to live on the route - a hay wagon set up for the best view, a family of three under an awning with their large television screen and satellite dish, a jolly late lunch party high on a terrace toasting me as I passed, a young gendarme, like a mother hen, fussing over her flock, telling me to get off the empty road and on to the verge, in case something came by.

I rounded the final bend and saw the lay-by in the distance, up on the crest of the hill.  A cyclist, lounging alone on the verge warned me - I would be stopped by the next gendarme. And sure enough, there he was, barely out of his teens, collecting a gaggle of passers-by, forbidding them to walk on or to turn back. The cyclists were due within half an hour and he could not risk it.  My lay-by with its sheltering trees was no more than five minutes walk up the hill; but to him I was obviously at least as old as his grandmother and too infirm to walk further.

So there I stood. And gradually the skies darkened and the rain drops fell. A battered van with an awning full of holes protected a family - grandmother and grandson playing snap while they waited.  She beckoned to me to come under the awning, which I did with gratitude, not least to shield my camera. Three Dutch tourists were also encouraged to come and join us. From time to time a phone rang with an update: "They are through Monheurt. Just left Villeton ..."

And suddenly there they were.. a blaze of headlights in the gloom, coming over the brow of the hill alongside the lay-by where I'd hoped to be, a cavalcade of motorcycles and cars and in the middle a small bunch of what five, six maybe, cyclists, heads low over the handlebars, legs pumping as the rain fell steadily.

From then on, it was all a blur, eye to the viewfinder, click, click, click, knowing in the appalling light I would be lucky to get even one decent shot.  Little time to think, no time to compose an image, just keep shooting and then they were gone. A rank of cars behind them topped with dozens of spare bikes.

A brief pause and then the peloton swept into view.  A riot of colours, turquoise, reds, greens, somewhere hidden in the melee the man in the yellow shirt - yesterday's and the eventual overall winner. Again, so little time to choose anything to focus on. Just keep pressing the shutter button and hope something comes out.

And then so quickly they too were gone.  We all hung around, reluctant to believe it was all over and then gradually started to drift away.  I wished the Dutch tourists better weather.  They said it was fine and, coming from Holland, they were used to it.

I started the long walk towards home knowing that Tod, down in the village, would be on his way through the back roads to meet me with the car.

And I think the young gendarme did me a service insisting I went no further.  With our little group under the awning, there was no-one and nothing to obstruct my view of the curving road up to the crest of the hill as the Tour de France came by.


The Leaders

The leader at this point, Martin Elmiger, being chased by Arnaud Gerard

One of the motorcycle camera men. They must be tough, with that weight of camera, holding that position, for 200 kilometers in the rain

Spare Bikes

The Peloton - somewhere tucked behind the turquoise group of Astana riders is the eventual winner Vicenzo Nibali

Sadly, no moody black and white close-ups of bike pedals, wheels and strong leg muscles.  In that gloom my camera was on 1,600 iso and the images are just too grainy to enlarge. Next time, maybe.


Tour de France 2014

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The barricades are going up ...

... on the road through town, each with a sign saying parking forbidden from Thursday evening to the end of Friday.

A notice on the main road warns the route will be closed on Friday from 11am to 6pm (woe betide anyone who doesn't know what's going on and has a plane or boat to catch).

The verges are being cut, balustrades are being jet-washed, the roads are freshly tarmacked (possibly too freshly, in a recent brief heat wave some of it looked suspiciously gooey), the white lines gleam from their recent repainting.  Every small bridge now has red and white bumpers covering the railing ends facing south. The village beyond ours has suddenly sprouted new plant pots and parking bays through the centre.

And whilst France is being far less extrovert than the UK (who would have believed Yorkshire could be so giddy - yellow sheep and all) nevertheless there is a certain restrained celebratory air emerging.  On the roundabout on the far side of Miramont there are four metal outline figures on bikes sporting T-shirts - one yellow, one green, one spotted, one white.

I've an eye on a nicely shady group of trees by the T-junction at the end of our ridge.  The road sweeps up from the roundabout and quickly disappears over the brow of the hill.  Nothing that will make the cyclists slow even a fraction, but the stretch is enough, hopefully, to give me some long shots of heads down racing towards me, quick close-ups of muscular arms and calves as they fly by and then a fleeting glimpse of lycra-covered bottoms cresting the ridge.

I'll drive as close as I can and then walk the rest, camera, sun hat and rucksack with water bottle, spare batteries and memory cards, a sandwich and if room a collapsible stool .  The "caravan" passes for two hours before the cyclists, so there will be plenty to keep us entertained, but it might be a good idea to have something to sit on for the long wait.

Tod plans to wander down into the village and take up a seat at a table outside the cafe that normally is never open except late on Saturday and Sunday nights for the Portuguese who work the fields.  He may find there is much competition for that seat.

All my best photos are always in my head and not in my camera, but I hope there will be something worth posting here after it's all over.  I must confess to becoming a tad excited about the whole idea.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Flaming June, Chilly Wet July

We warned our friends, and fretted before they came.

June is an untrustworthy month for a holiday. We've had the wood stove in the lounge burning on mid-summer's day before now.  "Bring a sweater and something water-proof", we said.

And the month was glorious. They swam in water the temperature of warm soup. They sun-bathed. We took them on the boat for a leisurely cruise to the nearest restaurant and lunched under the awning, glad of the shade.  In the evening light we leaned back to watch the aerial acrobatics of the swifts high above as we sat in the courtyard of our favourite crêperie. With the heat from the surrounding walls, the just-in-case-sweaters were not needed.

So they left content, their illusions intact that June in South West France is glorious.

July, on the other hand, everyone knows is reliable.  First of July, summer arrives.  At least, that's what the crowd of tourists in the small supermarket in Clairac on Sunday morning were trying to believe - all in their short shorts and gossamer-thin T-shirts.  As I stood in the queue (smugly wearing my heavy winter jeans, long socks underneath) I could see the goose-bumps on the bare thighs of the woman in front.

Tod lit the fire (in July!) to watch the Brazil / Germany match in comfort and then went to bed unable to bear any more after the fourth German goal.

At night, we lie in the dark listening to yet another thunderstorm rolling through and in the day snatch moments between showers when the washing goes on the line.

The garden in July has never looked so green (or so full of weeds).  The roses are still flowering, the veg patch bursting, the fruit trees laden, the water butts full and the watering cans unused.

I make apricot jam, do DIY, tidy my study. We visit Ikea in Bordeaux. The swimming pool cover stays firmly in place, the sun loungers stay folded.

The sunflowers and distant wheat fields glow against the grey-black of the banked up storm clouds overhead.

We're glad our friends chose to ignore our warnings and come in flaming June.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Weeks slipping by ...

... half-written blogs in my head.

None written down.

Every moment spent in the garden.

Shows me where, for now, my passion lies.

Tales to tell, left untold.

Maybe in a few weeks will come back here with renewed enthusiasm, when there is time.

One of the tales left untold: At Anchor - Collioure

Sunday, 13 April 2014

We returned from a smog-laden London to ...

... tree frogs, nightingales, cuckoos and hoopoes all tuning up for the summer.

Amorous black redstarts searching for nesting places - preferably in the house.

Wisteria and lilac in full bloom, pouring forth their perfume at dusk.

A tub of violas and tulips - a few old bulbs found in the shed now bursting with soft frilly whites, pale mauves and deep dark, dark purple (must be Queen of the Night).

Glow-worms on the door step.

Clear moonlit skies with just a wisp of cloud.  Or is it the Milky Way?

Oh, and a gang of wasps setting up home inside the Batmobile!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

We Have Voted!

A friend came for a late lunch and a long chat and time was slipping away.

He finally departed, gone five thirty, and we had no idea when the polling station, (at the Mairie) closed. Was it even worth going?  Well, it was only five minutes drive, so not a hardship if a wasted journey.

The number of cars in the carpark looked promising. And pushing open the swing doors and heading for the inner sanctum of the committee room at the back, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded jolly party. There were smiles and offers of help all round, as we admitted this was our first time voting and we had no idea what to do.

We handed over our voter's cards and our passports for identification. And were led to the table where "the lists" were and blue envelopes. Our task: to go into the voting booth, choose the list we wanted and place it in the envelope. Only in the case of our commune - there is only ONE list: showing our current mayor and our current councillors. So that is our choice: vote for our current mayor and all his team by placing THE list in the envelope, or leave the envelope empty. As voters in a small commune we have an additional privilege: to strike out anyone on the list whom we don't want.

No wonder there was a party spirit! The vote is a total foregone conclusion.

We duly signed in the register to show we'd voted and the transparent box was snapped open to accept our envelopes.

Mind you, our village takes this all pretty seriously. Monsieur F, our neighbouring farmer and one of our councillors, was saying that there are 530 voters in the commune and about 450 of them will have voted (a higher proportion than in the national elections) by close of play. "Which is when?" I asked. "At six - about a minute from now!" Our lunchtime friend had left just in time.

We slipped away amid many "bonne soirées". The party looked to continue for some time after the voting booths had closed.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Even the mildest of winters here ...

... carry a sting in their tail.

As I walk up the steps to Yvette's front door for our weekly French/English conversation, little piles of hailstones nestle in the corners.

This week, "les giboulées de mars" - the unwelcome, early-March, cold, stinging squalls (much less friendly than April showers) - have arrived. A treacherous time for blossom.

But they are also a sign. As are the first cranes starting to fly north this week. And the tree frogs, beginning to tune up on the far side of the valley.

Spring really is just round the corner.

Thursday, 20 February 2014


Between bouts in the garden (oh the bliss of a mild February, even if it is wet!) I plonk myself in front of the TV to catch up on the Winter Olympics.  But rarely linger for long.  There really is only so much curling a woman can take.

Yesterday, for a change, I found myself watching a young Korean - Yuna Kim - doing wonderful things in a short freestyle programme.  I missed the beginning and much as I enjoyed her fluid movement over the ice and (almost) perfectly executed jumps, there was a part of me, totally distracted, thinking "What IS the music she's skating to?"  It was there, on the tip of my tongue.  I found myself catching fleeting words from it through the evening, but just could not pin it down.

This morning, I've found it. "Send in the Clowns" by Sondheim.  And this for me is the most achingly poignant version.  Not when she first sang it on stage in A Little Night Music, all those years ago.  But as she is now, with all her beautiful age and experience.

And this, Yuna Kim in all her glory ...

Friday, 31 January 2014

Night Walk

The owl lifts noiselessly off the field, his ghostly shape caught at the edge of the torchlight.

Startled, Bertie looks up at me for reassurance and his eyes glow green-gold.  Other eyes, across Monsieur F's land, reflect back the same colour and immediately vanish - a fox or feral cat.

We reach the brow of the hill and walk down the slope towards the small bridge crossing the stream.  Our cottage comes into view on the left. A grey outline with two small diamonds of light shining out from high in the end wall. No doubt Tod is still at his computer.

Vita and Bertie hunt ecstatically along the pitch black ditches. The wet grass sparkles with rain drops lit by the torch as we pass. The sky shimmers with stars.  Orion's Belt to the south and west. The Plough to the north and east. The only two constellations I recognise. A plane's lights wink overhead - too high for the engine noise to carry.

Heavy rain clouds lie along the western horizon, deep grey billows touched with orange from the light spill of a distant town.

We turn down onto Monsieur F's left-hand field , slipping and slithering through the mud, and follow the stream, swollen with all the rain, gurgling and splashing in the dark.

Sloshing across the gully that borders Philippe's farmland, we head back for the final trek up our meadow to the cottage. To warmth. And dry towels for wet muddy paws. And bed.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Shirtsleeve Weather

We have friends who arrived a year or two before us, who told us the first January they were here they gardened in T-shirts.  As they tend to be hardy types and as every January we've been here it's snowed, we've taken their tale with a pinch of salt.

We thought they were exaggerating. Maybe not.  T-shirts are perhaps a step too far (we're not as tough as they) but we've certainly gardened steadily through this month and even have shed jacket and sweater because it's been  so mild. Oh the joy of being outside and getting to the tasks that rarely get accomplished in the rush of March and April.

Hazel saplings have been planted in the lawn behind the cottage. The apple trees and wisteria have been pruned, the banks strimmed, the borders weeded, cuttings potted, bulbs that were hiding in the shed planted. I've reached parts of the garden I haven't touched for years and discovered young elms springing up and a Japonica with fat flower buds completely smothered in the long grass.  Pots stand against the cottage wall with no more than a thin fleece over them for night-time chills - underneath geraniums and begonias continue to thrive. The violas I flung in a pot without much hope before Christmas are radiant.

Ten thirty, the early mist has cleared and the sun is streaming through the cottage windows. Time to grab the gardening sweater and jacket, find the gloves and secateurs and get outside.  Who knows, by mid-afternoon I may be in shirtsleeves again.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Mayor hugged me ...

... and planted a kiss on each cheek as he said "meilleurs voeux" (best wishes, for the New Year).  I was a trifle surprised as I didn't think we were that well acquainted and I would have been quite content with a hand shake.  It's true that Tod and I had gone into the Mairie after Christmas to register as voters - there are elections coming up in March - so perhaps that raises us to a new level of intimacy.  The mayor needs all the votes he can get, so if that means kissing an English OAP, so be it.

We were standing in the village hall surrounded by what felt like the whole of the commune, children scrambling between legs, weathered agricultural faces on all sides, a few women in dresses and high heels, clearly communicating that they had office jobs.

We were all there for the major's "state of the nation" and to welcome newcomers to the village. Although the hall has a stage, he stood amongst his people (egalité, of course), which meant most of us could not see him and had to rely on hearing his disembodied voice floating ceiling-wards via the amplifiers.

Tod and I understood about one word in ten, but could see from the somber faces and the nodding and shaking of heads that he was reporting on the poor state of the French economy and the certainty that it would continue for the coming year (indeed years). This will have a direct effect on what the commune will be able to achieve. Round here, people are stoical, they shrug and take in another belt notch.

The mayor was wise.  He finished on a cheerful note.  Two pétanque courts are being constructed in the centre of the village and (raising a cheer from the assembled company) this year the Tour de France will be coming our way.

As the slightly sickly white wine and cassis cocktail was being poured and the congealed pizza cut into slices we slipped away, our duty done.  Our neighbours are gracious but talking to us is hard work for them. We often see a slightly panicky expression in their eyes as we approach.  We have, however, met the new secretary to the Secretary of the Mairie.  She was one of those in high heels and her English is excellent.  No panic in her eyes, just a welcoming smile.  Hope her fluency doesn't make us lazy.  We need to practice our French as often as possible and the mayor's office is always a good place for a chat (and who knows, these days maybe a kiss as well).

Tour de France 2014