Monday, 30 October 2017

I promised myself I'd go back...

...and I was running out of time.  We were still in glorious sunshine, but only for another day or so.  After that, the forecast looked depressing.

So Wednesday evening I leave Tod and the dogs and head south in the dark for Pau and the Pyrenees beyond. Thursday morning reveals a town smothered in pink for breast cancer awareness and clear skies over the mountains on the horizon. Pic du Midi d'Ossau, with its distinctive double peaks is my eventual destination.

Pau - Place Clemenceau decked out for breast cancer awareness month

Pau - View from Boulevard des Pyrénées, with the distinctive outline of Pic du Midi d'Ossau

And those clear sunny skies stay with me as I revel in the glorious scenery and stop to take photos on nearly every bend in the road.

Bas Ossau (the lower Ossau) is green and lush.  The mountains hang back, leaving a spacious valley floor, populated with small towns and villages.

Looking down on Laruns

Higher up the slopes, Eaux-Bonnes a thermal spa made popular by Empress Eugénie now languishes in a scruffy, faded glory - the Hôtel des Princes a shadow of its former self.

Eaux-Bonnes casino

Eaux-Bonnes Hôtel des Princes now derelict and sold at auction in July for a mere 19,000 euros!

I travel on and upwards, following in the tracks of the Tour de France cyclists.  A pause on a sharp bend for a lunchtime ice-cream (the only food) and a Perrier at one of the few restaurants that are still open, I look back down on the ski station of Gourette - now a ghost town with its bars, hotels and apartments shut at the end of the summer season.

Gourette from Les Crêtes Blanches

My destination is Col d'Aubisque, a mountain pass at 1,706 meters (5,607 feet) and most years a passage in the Tour de France. Giant bikes honour the event and make wonderful climbing frames for small children. I stroll up a grass-covered slope and look back down on the modest hotel and cafe - still doing steady business as late holidaymakers and tough whip-thin men who have cycled all the way up relax under umbrellas and drink in the views.

Col d'Aubisque with Le Soum de Grum to the right

Friday dawns brisk - the temperature in single figures - as I set off for Haut Ossau (High Ossau), pausing at another thermal spa, Eaux-Chaudes, on the way. "Bonjours" are exchanged with a middle-aged couple cheerfully heading towards the entrance, towels under their arms.

Eaux-Chaudes thermal baths

The mountains here press in on the valley and the sun is slow to come over the horizon.  When it does, the landscape glows in the late morning light.

Gave de Brousset

Cirque d'Anéou

I'm heading for the Col du Portalet pass (1,794 meters, 5,886 feet) and the Spanish border (just so I can say I've been there). I cross into Spain to find a gaggle of French shoppers busy buying cheap booze from a huddle of small supermarkets.

Pic du Midi d'Ossau from the Spanish side

Now on the Spanish side, I realise I am looking at a mirror image of the peak seen in the distance yesterday morning from Pau - I have arrived!

Time to head home, passing the occasional cow complete with large cowbell on the way.

Through the windscreen

The weather is changing, the cranes are flying south and by the time I'm back on the motorway it's raining. These two last days of our Indian summer have been precious.

On Tuesday we're moving back down to the cottage for winter.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Yes, you are in the right place

Those of you who have been following Writing Home for some time, you may wonder where you have landed.

For some time I've felt that the black small writing on a white background was looking a tad old-fashioned. 

Also, for those among us of a somewhat elderly disposition there is a practical aspect which is that our eyes aren't what they used to be.  I mentally thank bloggers who publish in a larger font and thought it was time I did the same.

So on this wet Saturday I've finally taken the plunge, changed my template and somewhat nervously pressed the "apply to blog" button.  I haven't yet worked back through all my posts to check all is well, but the ones I have looked at seem to be ok.

I do hope that this new layout is easier to read and that the midway between donkey brown and Paris grey colour (Tod's not entirely convinced) is not too dull.

Friday, 20 October 2017

So We Came Home

Hard to believe, but for the ten years we've been here we have never really visited the Pyrenees. And they are only about three hours drive away.

Tod has driven through them coming back from Saragossa.  We once sat on a terrace in Pau and lunched with their magnificent backdrop just over our shoulders. Years ago, I stood on the battlements at Carcassonne and wished I was in the mountains instead.

So, we decided finally it was time, booked a hotel and headed for the Ossau Valley, complete with dogs, and armed with maps, guide books and pages from Google showing the easy walks (we weren't planning on doing anything too strenuous).

The weather had been glorious for the previous two weeks - temperatures in the high twenties. Even when we caught the trailing edge of Hurricane Ophelia as it tracked across the Bay of Biscay going northwards, the blustery wind was warm. In the bright autumnal golden sunlight the thought of walking in the Pyrenees was delightful.

As we drove south the rain clouds began to bank up and we took comfort in the occasional bit of blue sky - perhaps the weather forecast was unduly pessimistic.  By south of Pau the mountains were barely visible, grey sketched outlines appearing and disappearing against the grey sky.  By our third "pit stop" (Bertie gets bored / car sick, starts to whine and needs the diversion of a quick walk) the rain was falling fairly fast.  By the time we got to the hotel it was pouring.

Tod and the dogs stayed in the car as I dashed, dripping and bedraggled, into the elegant hotel foyer. Madame, looking at me with some horror, suggested that we and the dogs should stay in the annexe. She mellowed somewhat when I meekly agreed that yes please, we would like to book the restaurant for dinner - there was no way we were going any further!

The downpour eased to a mere steady drizzle and, knowing the dogs would need their constitutional, we set out macked and booted to explore a green lane immediately behind the hotel (great, where to go for tomorrow's early morning walk sorted).

We'd hoped to have the annexe to ourselves but a family of four arrived, banged and crashed doors, flushed toilets, ran showers and invaded what we'd already come to think of as "our space".  They were English too - maybe for Madame the annexe was the "English ghetto"?  I murmured that I hoped our dogs wouldn't disturb them - while quite convinced they would disturb us.

We hustled Vita and Bertie back into the car, hardened our hearts to his barking ("he'll settle down") and headed for the hotel restaurant. Throughout the meal we watched the rain in the dark falling into puddles on the tarmac, reflected in the lights of the hotel, trying to gauge whether it was easing off or not.

In a nearly empty room, Madame placed the English family at the next table - maybe she thought we needed the company?  We tried not to eavesdrop, but did hear with some relief that they would be leaving in the morning.

Another damp walk in the dark and we decided an early night was called for.  It had been a stressful day and the other family had settled down early - they planned to be up at seven.  In the dark I heard Bertie pacing the floor his nails click, clicking on the lino and then the soft whining started - I hissed at him to be quiet, praying the English family were asleep.  Vita too wouldn't settle, panting in anxiety and pawing the door.  By midnight all four of us were dressed, up, out and walking towards the village in the drizzle, the dogs thrilled with exciting smells and dank burrows to investigate, the sound of cow bells from the steep valley sides in the background, low cloud drifting in and out of view in the beams of our torches.

We crept back to the annexe and opened and closed doors as quietly as we could.  I lay in bed for hours, semi-rigid, longing for sleep, hoping that the dogs would stay calm and quiet.  By seven the family were up and out. The dogs, exhausted, slept peacefully through all of the comings and goings.

Over breakfast, the rain still pouring outside the hotel windows, we decide to come home.

We wonder whether Madame would be displeased, as I'd booked for two nights.  I approach her somewhat apprehensively to give her the news.  However, when I mention that our dogs have been restless in the night and I was concerned about her other guests, she couldn't wait to get rid of us.

Next time, we've agreed, when the weather's fine I'll visit the Pyrenees on my own, with only my camera for company. Tod, Vita and Bertie will stay very contentedly at home.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Sights and Sounds of Autumn

Seven hounds and other assorted mutts joyously hurtle their way along the bottom of Monsieur F's field beside the stream, the front two (massive Bassets, their ears flapping) baying loudly.  Hunting? I doubt it. Their demeanour says "freedom" after six months of being cooped up in cages.

Some time later, three dogless hunters stand  on the crest of the hill behind where I'm weeding, one of them forlornly tooting a hunting horn in the vain hope that their errant pack will obey and return.

Bertie sits on the edge of the lawn of the cottage barking. His echo comes straight back at him: Yap, Yap, (yap, yap) Yap, Yap, Yap (yap, yap, yap).  The old man with his dog that has bells on its collar is working his way alongside the stream in the bottom of the valley, much to Bertie's annoyance.  The dog is hidden in the long grass, only the tinkling of the bells gives him away.

In the lunchtime lull (guns, dogs and hunters having departed in assorted white vans) I realise a robin is serenading me from a nearby bush, its song every bit as lyrical as a nightingale's.  He flutters down to where I've been digging the heavy clay, now softened by September's rains, keeping me just at arm's length while he searches for grubs.

Later, in the distance, there's the roar of a giant combine harvester clearing Alain's land of his organic soy beans, while in the neighbouring field Philippe rattles and clangs backwards and forwards on his old tractor ploughing in the bleached maize stubble.

Buzzards wheel high overhead, mewing, as they hunt for small rodents.

October is mild and sunny - outside warmer than indoors. Early mornings start misty and then dissolve into a warm golden light.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

TWELVE Pages of Comments!

Two years ago, one of our photo club (French) members suggested we did a "then and now" exhibition of the village where we hold our meetings. Some two hundred postcards from the early twentieth century were available and the suggestion was to take the same shots today.

Reactions to the idea were muted. How "creative" is it to stand where someone else stood over a hundred years ago?  It would be a lot of work. It would take over from other club activities.  And so, we (English) procrastinated and hoped the idea would go away.  Until an article mysteriously appeared in the commune's annual newsletter, saying the club was doing the exhibition and the mayor told us how thrilled she was.  So we were (reluctantly) committed.

It was all the things we feared - hard work month after month, finding the exact same places where the original postcards were photographed.  Interrogating Google street view; taking advice from local historians; tramping the streets trying to find "just" the same angle; sending letters to absentee chateaux owners asking for permission to photograph; fighting through brambles and unruly scrubland to get the "right" view; sharing what we'd taken and realising we needed to go back and try again - this became our lives for much of last winter and spring.  And still there were grumbles - where was the photographic creativity in all of this?

It was agreed with the mayor's office that the exhibition would be for the whole of this summer, so by late spring we were holding evenings where photos were printed and framed - the empty plastic crates under the tables gradually filling with pictures, old and new, ready to hang.

And something magical began to happen. We began to realise that what we were doing was quite special.  We began to appreciate the skills of those early photographers and how, with our modern cameras, we struggled to recapture their wide angles, their depth of field.  We learnt so much about this small village - and saw it with new eyes.  The vistas that are identical to those of 100 years ago. Others that have changed out of all recognition.  The old butchers shop that no-one had noticed has become a lovingly restored grand mansion; the streets that have been renamed after the two world wars; the railway line that has vanished and the station that's now a private house; the country lanes once shaded with great elms that have become urban thoroughfares.

At the preview the mayor, near to tears, thanked us and told us how important the exhibition was for the village, for those locals who would see their own history and for visitors who would learn more about this community.  We smiled, thanked her and secretly believed her words to be hyperbole.

Exhausted by the whole process, I have not been near the exhibition until visiting friends ask if they could see it.  While they stroll round, I wander over to the table with the leaflets and the visitors book open at the most recent, complimentary, comments. Curious, I turn back a page, and then another, and then another - I'm looking at twelve pages of scrawled handwriting - enthusiastic, grateful, flattering - every comment telling us how much they appreciate what we have done. The mayor was right.  Our hard work has been worth it.  So much so, that we know of at least three other communes in the area which are planning to copy us.  I wonder if they realise quite what they are taking on!

Monday, 31 July 2017

In the dark...

... I dance along the green verge between the two maize fields, a dog on a lead at the end of each raised arm.

It's the end of four days of our village's annual "fiesta".  Each night the music from over the hill has become louder.

The finale's fireworks crash and bang across the fields up behind the house and Vita frantically barks at the noise and the flashing along the horizon.  Once over, I reassure her all is well and it's time for bed, but she refuses to be convinced.

So to the laser light show and the thud, thud, thud, of the bass from the disco that will continue til well beyond three in the morning I take her and Bertie for a walk down to the stream and the bridge.

Only the dogs and the creatures of the night are there to see me dancing in the dark.

Friday, 21 April 2017

I Garden in a Sun Hat and Thermals

For days now we have woken to brilliant blue unclouded skies and a vicious north-east wind straight out of Siberia.

The shaded edge of Monsieur F's field down by the stream is frosty where Tod walks the dogs first thing.

We've had no rain since early April and I'm already watering newly-planted pots and the shrubs that I have been busy moving before summer sets in. I worry that I have already left it too late.

We had virtually no rain last year from April through to October.  The winter rains have been sparse and the stream is already low for this time of year.  If we have another dry summer, the plants I've just moved - roses, cornus, potentillas - will struggle.

Our lawns have never been cut so early or looked so good.  They are already so dry that Tod can whisk over them with the mulching mower. Even the field is being tamed.

The tulips and lilac are finished and the wisteria, looking magnificent for too brief a period, has already gone over in the strong sun. All our troughs along the terrace are filled with young geraniums, begonias, lobelias and trailing variegated greenery whose name I don't know.

We've moved back to the house - and wish we were still in the cottage. The cold north-east wind finds its way into every room and we create small puddles of warmth - in front of the log fire in the lounge, next to radiators in our studies - and we scuttle across the cold tiled floors of the dining room and the kitchen.  The dogs come in from outside, bringing an icy draught.  They've learnt to open doors but sadly not to close them.

Bedtime requires a hot water bottle and two duvets.

No doubt we will be grateful for this draughty old house come sweltering July and August.


Even when they are dying tulips still look beautiful.

The wisteria, almost over, through my study window.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

We went to Ikea

We had it all planned. Just after the kids have gone back to school, just before the January sales start. Not on a bridge day for Tod, nor a day when we're doing Alexander Technique lessons.

It takes us half a day by the time we've driven along the motorway to Bordeaux, walked round, queued to pay and had something to eat. We always set off late to arrive at twelve, just as the French are going for lunch, so we have the store more or less to ourselves, except for the Germans and the other English.

The first Tuesday in January was just perfect.  So Monday was preparation day - sat nav primed, merc petrol tank full, details of what we wanted to buy printed off.  It was then, at the top of the chemin rural, having checked our post box for late Christmas cards,  that I found I couldn't put the merc into gear.  Best laid plans and all that. Tuesday morning we watched the merc disappear into town perched precariously, swaying from side to side, on the back of the really too small Rodrigues' pickup truck.

He promised to let us know the diagnosis.  Wednesday morning, Alexander lesson having been cancelled for the afternoon, the call came to say the car was fine and we rushed into town, resolved to head off to Ikea after all.  And the reason for the gears jamming?  A hazelnut wedged in among the cogs.  He tactfully suggested it was a mouse who had done it, rather than the merc's untidy owner taking a snack.

So no more than twenty-five hours later than planned, we took our trusty old spacious merc to collect a two-seater sofa for the house and a comfy armchair for the cottage.  Fortunately the furniture comes flat packed.  And unfortunately I never got round to checking the packing case measurements, otherwise I would have realised that, large though the merc is, the two enormous boxes wheeled out from Ikea's warehouse wouldn't both fit inside the car (and we had no roof rack).

Not sure how we did it. After heaving, pushing, shoving, moving the front seats forward as far as possible, changing the angle of the seat backs, there came a moment when it looked as if we could close the tailgate by leaning on it heavily and praying that nothing inside was crushed.  Tod drove home with his knees round his ears.

An hour earlier we'd stood in Ikea's furniture department wondering if we should buy the smaller armchair.  But it wouldn't have matched the big three-seater sofa in the cottage lounge.  And we have always done spacious, roomy and comfortable for our guests.

As we tried to force the boxes into the car, I said: "we should have bought the smaller one".

As I assembled the armchair in the cottage lounge and stood back to look at this enormous lump that completely swamps the rest of the room (even overwhelming the sofa) I said: "we should have bought the smaller one".

Vita and Bertie, on the other hand, think our new armchair is just perfect.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Bertie sleeps in ...

... recovering from an exhausting few days.

He's curled in a corner of the small slightly lurid green dralon sofa that I bought from John Lewis some time in the early eighties.  It was the smallest sofa I could find for getting up the narrow winding stairs to the top floor flat I'd just bought in Battersea and after more than thirty years it's still going strong - shame about the fabric.

Like a feral cat, uncertain whether the next meal will be provided, Bertie periodically hunts opportunistically, no table or worktop surface too remote for him to reach.  I forget, as sometimes months pass between episodes.

The pyrex bowl of home-made mincemeat covered in foil, ready for another batch of mince pies, had been sitting on the worktop for a couple of days, untouched, seemingly undetected.  Christmas Day we left, to visit friends for lunch, reassuring the dogs we would be back in time for their supper.  But Bertie didn't believe us. Some time during the afternoon he found and demolished half the mincemeat, much to my disgust.  It was only later, when he asked to go out at one in the morning, I jerked awake, remembering: raisins - grapes - poisonous to dogs - kidney failure.  And he hadn't eaten one or two, but half a bowl full!  I didn't sleep much that night, not indeed the next two nights, while we waited to see.

Bertie, oblivious to all of this, blissfully continued to eat, poo, sleep in ruddy good health,

Vita, in the meantime, feeling that she was getting less than her due share of our attention decided to have night-time anxiety attacks - pacing, pawing and whining at doors to be let out, climbing onto the sofa and onto our laps (difficult for a 25 kilo Airedale), nose pointed skywards, tail between her legs. The start of her behaviour seemed to coincide with our Christmas treat to ourselves, the arrival of a new Smart TV and I googled LED screens and dog anxiety, bought pheromone plug-in sprays and tried Rescue Remedy.

We removed the TV, struggled down from the house with the old big one we'd bought when we first came here that needs two people to carry it.  To no avail.  She still asked to go out, came back in immediately, wanted to go out again and climbed as high as she could on the sofa.

Then finally light dawned.  We were watching Christmas University Challenge every evening!  Jeremy Paxman: "Fingers on buzzers, your starter for 10".  Not buzzers in fact, but the noise of  "front door bells" on the TV every few minutes. And we were taking no notice! No wonder she was going frantic, she was trying to tell us there was someone at the door and then someone else at the door and then yet another person at the door.  We watched St Hilda's win and then breathed a sigh of relief as peace was restored the following evening. The large, heavy TV was returned to the house and the Smart TV reinstated to no ill-effect.

Yesterday, Bertie, feeling life was too tranquil, decided to liven things up and went on a foraging trip.  Tod heard the crunch as he went through a tiny wrapped parcel that sat on the bookcase in the hall, one of several grouped around a small seated Father Christmas.  I'd wrapped whatever it was probably twelve years ago and each year put it back in the Christmas decorations box, ready for next year.  I'd no idea what was inside (a wafer coated cheese ball maybe?) but Bertie - briefly - thought it was edible. Until he threw up on the hall floor.  And then did the same about half an hour later outside the kitchen French windows.  After that, of course, he was hungry and demanded a full supper, though I feared the worse and gave him short rations.

It was about this stage that I announced to Tod in the kitchen I was never, ever going to have another dog.

We settled down to late night New Year's Eve rubbish on our new Smart TV.  The rubbish looks so much better!  And all was quiet until the fireworks started at midnight.  So two dogs were let out to go hurtling off into the dark, yelling at the tops of their voices.

Vita quickly returned, content to go to bed.  Bertie finally re-appeared just before three am. By this time I would have happily given him away to the first passing stranger.

He is sleeping in.  I, on the other hand, am very short of sleep and very short of temper. Let's hope 2017 improves.

Indeed, whatever is in store, may this be a year of tranquillity and happiness for all of us.