Saturday, 22 December 2018

Tod was Lucky

Christmas Day we will spend with friends.  Christmas Eve is just us and a traditional Polish evening meal.  It's a day of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic calendar, so the break fast happens at the first star and the meal is fish.  Traditionally in Poland the fish is carp - bony and pretty tasteless.  I think I had it once, many years ago, when Tod prepared a meal for his mother, sister and her children.  We've always agreed since: "not carp". 

So it's usually something like monkfish or a meaty piece of "dos de cabillaud" (fillet of cod).  The challenge is that the French (also following a day of fasting and abstinence) opt for seafood.  So from now onwards great swathes of the fish counter in Leclerc are given over to huge platters of mussels, prawns, oysters, crabs, lobsters, clams. Boxes and boxes of oysters are stacked in great piles.  And the white fish vanishes from sight.

This morning's early dog walk was close-by the Garonne on the edge of town and not wanting to make the car journey twice, Tod nipped into Leclerc to buy the cod on his way home.

He was lucky.  As he was leaving, the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) were setting up their barriers on the same roundabout where I got caught a month ago. These are not "casseurs" (a new word I learnt through all of this meaning hooligan) but just local guys who are very, very fed up with the way their central government has been treating them and they are just not giving up or going away. 

Tough though on anyone who has only this weekend to prepare for Christmas.

Monday, 17 December 2018


My role in life has become keeping the medical profession in full employment.

If it isn't teeth it's eyes.  And if it isn't eyes it's feet. Today, it's feet.

Do you remember the large brown x-ray machines in shoe shops?  A lifetime ago.  As children, my mother always insisted we wore "sensible" shoes - Startrite I seem to remember.  The giant advert on the walls at tube stations of two small children, hand-in-hand marching away from us along an endless road,  a perfect image of me and my brother.

The man with the brown box - I was always a little nervous of putting my foot into the black hole (a touch prescient maybe) - informed my mother I had "expensive" feet.  How right he was!

Apart from a relatively brief irresponsible moment in my late teens and early twenties when my father despaired of the impact of my stilettos on the lounge parquet flooring, I have, on the whole, continued with my mother's advice ringing in my ears to wear sensible shoes.  So, I find it hard now to be lumbered with a set of aching clodhoppers that our new GP recoiled from exclaiming "deformés" several times when he asked me to remove my socks. (It particularly rankles that Tod has such beautifully straight feet.)

Still, our less than tactful GP gave me a prescription for some orthotic insoles and I headed for the best podiatrist in the whole of Lot-et-Garonne. Somehow, shoving little coloured wedges of differing heights under my heels and insteps, bonding them all into scruffy grey insoles and with fearsome instructions to wear them always, the podiatrist has done it.

My feet may still be clodhoppers but at least they no longer hurt. Today, three months later, the foot-man is proud of me (and himself) exclaiming "superbe!" at least half a dozen times as he asks me to stand and walk.  So much more encouraging than "deformés".

Basking in my new-found sense of well-being, I contemplate even going so far as to buy some new (sensible of course) Merrell's sandals for next summer.

As I leave, we shake hands and wish each other "bonnes fêtes".  He tells me to come back in a year - but then hastens to say if I need to see him in the meantime, not to hesitate to do so.  Ah, of course, I must always be mindful of my new role in life!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Yesterday ...

... I think I may have been lucky.  Not displaying my "gilet jaune" on my dashboard to show my solidarity with the "manifestation" I could have encountered a much more aggressive response than just a leaflet through the window.

In this morning's Sunday Times ...

The protests continue today. On the VINCI website alone there is a list of over a hundred places on their motorways where traffic is being obstructed.

Free parking at Disney World Paris today apparently, thanks to the demands of the "gilets jaunes".

They are talking cheerfully about carrying on through the week.  We'll see whether tomorrow's temperature in single figures cools their ardour.  Or just encourages more burning of pallets and (as is usual in France) car tyres.

We, in the meantime, are spending a bright but cold windy day moving summer pots against the shelter of the cottage terrace wall and building our own barricade of large black bags of swept up leaves which will help to keep the plants cosy through winter.  Very satisfying to have geraniums and begonias continue year on year.

If we venture forth tomorrow we'll be displaying very prominently our yellow vests for all the world to see.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Well That Was a First!

I had our large Leclerc supermarket entirely to myself this morning - except for a few dejected staff.

France is having a national "manifestation" against the rising cost of taxes on diesel.

Blissfully unaware, I took the back road to the retail park where Lidl and Leclerc sprawl. Emerging from a side street I found my way onto the roundabout blocked by middle-aged men in "gilets jaunes"- the yellow safety vests we all have to carry by law in our vehicles.  A leaflet was thrust through my window. No one was going anywhere.

Slowly it dawned on me - they weren't blocking Lidl's entrance!  Possibly because the "gilets jaunes" needed somewhere to park their own cars.  A quick u-turn, a parking space found and I struck out on foot for Leclerc on the far side of the estate.

More "gilets jaunes" and several pallets blocked my way.  Uncertain of the etiquette in France about crossing picket lines, I asked if I could pass. Sometimes being an elderly English woman speaking bad French has its benefits and I was waved benevolently through.

As I walked between the rows of empty parking spaces, the entrance doors swished apart and a solitary, scowling man emerged. Good! That meant the place was open.  Curious to know what was going on, I crossed the deserted hallway to the information desk, to find the staff clamouring for information from me!  How had I got there?  Had they let my car through?  When I explained Lidl was open and I had been able to park and walk, an irate manager promptly got on the phone. (I nervously wondered if his call would lead to Lidl and my car being blocked.)

In half an acre of cash tills, only one was open, the young cashier idly chatting to a colleague.  They told me the manifestation was foolish and that it was likely to happen again next weekend.

Carrying my shopping and retracing my steps, a woman with a knapsack, wisely wearing her "gilet jaune", came towards me.  As we passed we smiled at each other conspiratorially.

It's going to be a very long, very slow Saturday for Leclerc's staff. They are going to need the "bonne courage" I gave them as I left, especially as Lidl is still open.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Lot-et-Garonne has been Invaded!

Open a window and they emerge from the frame. Take down washing from the line and they scuttle out from the folds.  Get into bed at night and one is bound to wander out from the sheets across your pillow. They huddle on electric cables, lamp shades, the backs of chairs, the edges of books. Pick something up and they will be hiding underneath.

They fall badly - lying on the floor, or the desk, or the kitchen worktop, legs waving in the air - and so they stay until, exhausted, they are comatose.  Pick them up and they wriggle back into life, using your fingers to right themselves and heading off purposefully to explore your hand.

They startle when they burst into flight, wings emerging from beneath their greenish-greyish hard shiny cases. Their deep buzz is out of all proportion to their size and their flight, as they zigzag across the room, is decidedly erratic.

Happy to be in orchards and maize fields throughout the summer, they definitely prefer indoors to outside at this time of the year!

They are shield bugs or stink bugs (crush them and they give off a nasty smell). "Punaises" in French. And their numbers this autumn are so extraordinary (perhaps the hot dry summer has contributed) they have made the front page of the newspaper.

Among the places they have found to hibernate are the gathered curtains of our gazebo outside the cottage.  Unfortunately for them, and some sleepy wasps, we are taking down the curtains and fabric roof for winter.  The task involves much shaking out and grumpy bugs dropping to the ground, picking themselves up off the terrace and trundling off into the grass.

As soon as we put down the folded material a small contingent tries to sneak back into their shelter.

No doubt late next spring, as we set up the gazebo for summer, a few will contentedly re-emerge, having survived whatever this coming winter has to throw at us.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

We lingered ...

... reluctant to leave.  Our crêpes finished, the wine drunk, the bill paid, the soft, gold lighting casting shadows on the old brick and stone walls, up to the gloom of the ancient beams high above us, we and our friends from Australia stayed to listen.

Giselle spoke of the time when Clairac was "the centre of the world"; when every nationality crossed her threshold, the family from Tasmania, the forty Australians who disembarked from their boats down at the quay and walked up the narrow cobbled street to dine at her crêperie.

At the table next to us the four English boat people spoke with sadness and hope.

Sad that the beautiful Lot is now so little used.  Channels allowed to silt up, pollution contaminating old mill ponds preventing dredging, the Garonne crossing that enabled boats and barges to move from Europe's great network of canals onto this waterway now closed.

Hopeful that, finally, France is beginning to recognise what this beautiful river has to offer.  Not next year, but maybe the year after, the crossing may re-open and, who knows, one day money may be found to reverse the on-going decay and neglect.

Giselle closes her crepêrie at the end of September and this would be our last visit 'til the first of April next year.  There was an extra tinge of nostalgia in our farewells.  She tells us next season will be her last.  Where then will we go to find such evenings of magic?

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The merc has been ..

.. part of our lives for over twenty years.  Not a "he" nor a "she".  No cute name. Our functional brute of a vehicle is always just "the merc".

Built on a Friday, or in some doubtful foreign country when Mercedes was trying to save money, or left out in a field in the rain, or too much salt on the roads over winter - the myths grew up as to why the bodywork of the merc so quickly began to deteriorate. Rusty bubbles appeared. The paint on sills began to split and crack.  The merc was never a beauty.  Or maybe only briefly, in the early days before coming into our lives.

So it became the workhorse and a Tardis.  It is the car that is used to carry newly bought plants from the nursery (a sprinkling of compost and wood chips left in the well). It is the car that has carried tatty writing desks and small occasional tables to be "shabby-chiced", sets of rush-seated wooden dining seats for the terrace and two armchairs (a mistake later transported to Emmaus), more than one second-hand carpet and a mound of furniture from Ikea that by rights should not have fitted in the back.

It is the car that is used to take rubbish to the tip - garden bags stuffed with plastic plant trays and pots too small to re-use, old faded, grubby sun umbrellas, wooden poles broken under the weight of their covers - caught and carried across the garden in a sudden summer storm, great cardboard cartons, flattened as requested, the wrapping from the latest Amazon delivery or the outer protection of dog biscuits from Zooplus (Bertie and Vita in the van helping to track down the package), builders rubble that leaves the upholstery dusty and gritty, odd bits of metal and plastic pipe carefully separated each to go to a different skip.  The tip attendant peers in through the window of the packed merc, checking that we are not carrying any noxious substance.

Eleven years ago a border official too peered into the back window of the merc; duvets, pillows, kettle, plates and mugs, wedged in and pressed against the glass obscured his view.  Somewhere from the depths came a muffled bark and he handed back our pet passports with a smile and waved us through.  On the Eurotunnel crossing we opened the tailgate and our two elderly Airedales (Clara and Smudge) eased out of their cage to sit with us on the floor of the carriage.

Over the years the dog cage has been in and out of the back.  Seats removed so that it would fit - Airedale sized dogs need a large cage if they are to turn round - the merc carried them to the vets, to the canal for walks, to a play date with a nearby cousin found via an Airedale owners forum.  The evening Vita was poisoned there was no time to find the cage.  We hurtled into town to the vet, breaking every speed limit, Tod holding her on the back seat as she thrashed and foamed and he begged her not to die.

On short trips - up to the bottle bank in the village, down to the stream to start the morning walk on days when the fields are too muddy to cross - Bertie and Vita just jump in the back and jockey for where they always finally sit.  Vita on the front passenger seat, Bertie in the back, in the middle, looking over our shoulders through the windscreen.  Sometimes a large Airedale paw gently pulls at the driver's arm, asking to have her "tummy tickled".  The passenger window is smeary with Airedale snot as she snorts at the glass, wanting more of a gap so she can stick her head out.

In earlier days the merc was an ambulance for Tod. This was yet another time we removed the seats and he lay, in agony with a bad back, the length of its cavernous space as I gingerly drove home, silently cursing every bump and pothole in the road.

It was the place where we said goodbye to Smudge. Too weak to be driven anywhere he lay in the back until our vet came to him and we let him go with love.

To begin with I was nervous of this great tank of a vehicle and it was very much "Tod's car" but then he bought the Batmobile - with its open roof ideal for warmer climes - and the tank became mine.  It turns on a sixpence and squeezes into parking spaces that other drivers have rejected.  It is scruffy.  Pebbles from the soles of my wellington boots collect behind the pedals. Loose seat covers and extra carpets have briefly smartened the interior and then, looking sad, have been discarded.

Monday, taking a visitor back to the airport, the merc broke down on the motorway. Towed to a distant garage, it now sits forlornly on a forecourt looking all of its many years, waiting for an estimate for repairs.  We already know it will not pass the French MOT next year.  Friday we collect a second-hand Skoda from Tarbes.

It's possible (probable?) that the merc has taken its last journey with us.  I doubt somehow that the Skoda will be with us for the next twenty plus years.  I will miss the old brute.

Monday, 11 June 2018

The crash ...

... came from the hall and was impossible to ignore.

I was watching something facile on Netflix trying to block out the sound of the wind and rain, the thunder and Vita's anxious pawing at the furniture.

But the crash needed attention.  A sharp command to two anxious dogs to "Stay!" and I opened the door from the lounge.

The old, rickety french windows were flung open and horizontal driving rain from the east (from the EAST! It never rains from the east) was pouring into the hall, soaking the scruffy Indian carpet purchased for next to nothing in a junk shop.  A pool of water spread across the concrete floor and under the spare computer tucked beneath a card table awaiting Tod's attention.

I dragged the windows to and tried to lock them together, but knew they would not hold for any length of time in this gale. 

It felt like an old disaster movie as I clutched at the handles "Fetch the storm shutters Annie-Mae and be quick about it gal!". But I had no storm shutters and any help was soundly asleep (heaven only know how) and gently snoring.  If not woken by the crash he certainly wouldn't be by any distant shouting as I clung onto the wooden frames.

Forced to leave the rattling windows, I dragged the green leather sofa that had been an unfortunate choice and had been banished to the hall across the sodden carpet and wedged it against the doors hoping it would be enough to hold them.

In the lounge, the dogs had not moved, shocked into obedience by the urgency of my command.  I returned to Netflix and to my surprise they both settled down contentedly.  Obviously I'd sorted out whatever was wrong and all was well.

We wake to remarkably little damage - battered roses and a branch down from one of the lime trees.  The météo promises that summer starts this coming Thursday.  After weeks of storms described as "a national disaster" - for farmers, for builders, for the tourist industry - it can't come a day too soon.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Big Talk

I suddenly find we're having a conversation that I'd hoped not to have for years.  Ideally never.

He thinks here is "becoming too much".  I don't.

He's talking about downsizing. I don't want to.

Where do we go from here?

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bertie lies on a blanket ...

... in front of the calor gas fire in the hall which is boosting the warmth in the cottage.  If he gets any closer he'll scorch his fur.

The "Beast from the East" - it's Siberian winds much tamed this far south - is sending snow flurries across the garden and the under floor heating is struggling. 

Yesterday, with even colder temperatures and in brilliant sunshine, I mowed one of  our grassy banks. Huffing and puffing backwards and forwards I was tempted to remove (but resisted) one of my many layers. Today, however, a leaden grey sky keeps us firmly indoors.

Watching the snow begin to settle I decide a Leclerc's shopping trip is required. Better now, while I can still get the merc up the chemin rural behind us. The supermarket car park is virtually empty and the few of us who've braved the weather scuttle in and out of the automatic doors, shoulders hunched and faces lowered against the sting of the driving snow.

Before I set out, Tod tells me that tomorrow is due to be worse in the UK according to the meteorologists and he asks me gloomily if I've checked our forecast.  I'm somewhat surprised to read our temperature here by late morning will be fourteen degrees celsius. With sunshine.

Much encouraged, I find myself standing in front of the seeds display in Leclerc's and buying packets of cosmos, lavatera and California poppies .  Maybe this summer, during the weeks when the roses sulk, I will manage to fill our borders with a riot of colour to delight our guests. Now there's a heart-warming thought on this dank cold day.

Thursday, 1 February 2018


My father's parents came to live with us when I was eight.

Nana was small and brittle, always busy. Not comfortable with children, she used to buy our good behaviour with spoonfuls of honey. She wore an apron with a pocket in the front and it was here she carried her false teeth, only to be put in her mouth when visitors came to the door.

In her early twenties Mum had all her teeth taken out and was fitted with dentures.  She told me she had chalky teeth and was tired of going to the dentist on her own since early childhood. She had no mother and none of her many older siblings could be bothered to look after her.  So among the memories of my mother is one of a small pink plastic pot into which her dentures were popped at night.

This was the image I carried with me as I discussed with Dr M my brand new partial dentures which he had just placed in my mouth.  What did I do with them at night? He told me opinion is divided. In England, dentists suggest taking them out.  In France, dentists suggest to women that they always wear their dentures, so that their husbands are blissfully unaware their spouses are toothless.  Apparently there is no evidence either way as to which is better.

My mouth feels like it has an entire cutlery drawer in it.  I am assured things will improve.  In the meantime, I might just get myself an apron with a front pocket.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Tuesday Afternoon - Day Three

Bertie emerges from the lounge and sniffs suspiciously at a small lake that has crept out from under the pink towel in the hall.  He decides not to get his feet wet and skirts it, choosing to tiptoe delicately across the mat at the bottom of the stairs which is meant to trap muddy footprints.

I've been catching up on University Challenge with the sound off and the sub-titles on. The noise of the buzzers makes Vita anxious.  Without the sound it doesn't have quite the same impact, especially in the music round, but I do gather that Merton College looks like a strong contender for eventual winner this year. I've not been paying sufficient attention to the task of mopping up and have allowed the water to accumulate.

Earlier in the afternoon we went into town.  The fog lights on the batmobile are switching themselves on at whim. So we leave the car at the garage run by the Portuguese family with an endless number of identical brothers and cousins and afterwards head off in the merc for the bank.  I've just paid for tiles for a new pool terrace and there's a large dentist's bill coming up and builders to pay. So I want to check that the bank will let me.  French banks see the money as theirs, only to be used with utmost prudence by their customers.  After waiting half an hour, I smile gratefully as the bank clerk with the suspiciously black hair tells me he's raised my "ceiling" to the maximum for a month.

We wander across the town square to the bandstand on the promenade above the Garonne. Groups of townsfolk stand gossiping quietly and gazing across what has become a grey inland sea.  Small green islands emerge from the water - each with its farmhouse and outbuildings.  The locals knew what they were doing when they built on the flood plain.

Martyn said he would come round to look at our small inundation.  He lives in the middle of the grey inland sea.  I don't think we will be seeing him any time soon!

He will also be laying our new pool terrace when the weather improves.  The slabs arrive on a large lorry which cautiously inches its way down our muddy, slippery chemin rural.  The driver insists we cut down a poplar which some years back had self-seeded by our entrance.  He is adamant he cannot get past. Otherwise, he tells us, his lorry will slide into the ditch alongside.  There's not much we can do other than comply - he's holding four pallet loads of our slabs to ransom. Eventually, poplar tree sawn down by hand (the chain saw was sulking) the slabs are gently lifted off by crane and left on the lawn - a promise of sunshine, swimming and sunbathing.

Tod has asked me not to grumble if we have a drought this summer.

Monday, 22 January 2018

I thought I heard the siren across the fields ...

... as I came back down the drive from the house.

We have two washing machines going full pelt on their spin cycles, (one in the house, one in the cottage) trying to get the towels dry enough to mop up yet more of our small "inundation" in the hall and I was coming back with another load as the siren sounded.

That means the Garonne has broken its banks.

I've just looked at the vigicrues flood warning graph and in 24 hours the Garonne has gone from just over four to just over eight metres.  And the graph is still on an upward incline.  Two dotted lines cross the graph, showing the floods of June 1st 2013 (8.08 metres) and of January 25th 2009 (9.04 metres).  At nine metres in 2009 the town was virtually cut off.

There will be people on the flood plain tonight moving their furniture to the first floor. It puts our own small pond in the hall into perspective.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

A touch stir crazy ...

... (yesterday it rained solidly all day and this morning's not been much better) we take advantage of a brief break in the clouds to get some fresh air and set off with the dogs to walk the quays in town. The Garonne is only millimetres away from spilling across the cobbles.  In places, we walk through muddy slime - the river has already encroached and, briefly, receded.  The "vigicrues" (flood warning) graph shows the Garonne to be 4.40 metres at 11.45am, on a rapidly accelerating upward slope - the quays won't be walkable for much longer.

We return to find sodden towels in the cottage hallway. Removing his wellington boots and heading for the kitchen for coffee and toast, Tod grumps as he accidentally walks through an invisible puddle in his socked feet.

Water is steadily dribbling from the main electricity cable where it enters the house, collecting in the meter cupboard and then oozing out across the tiled floor.  Sopping towels wedged round the bottom of the cupboard only hold the water back briefly.  I squeeze them out on the lawn outside and feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.  The water table is now so high that the ground is saturated and the rain has nowhere else to go except along the sheath of the cable and into the cottage.

We've been here before in wet weather, but not often and not for a few years.  It seems worse this winter and with the sharp upward direction of the vigicrues graph, unlikely to get better any time soon.  I suggest to Tod that for the next few days he keeps his wellingtons on whilst circumnavigating the hall and the kitchen.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Christmas and New Year passes ...

... in a haze of Vicks VapoRub, Kleenex tissues and early nights. Even now, two weeks on, we are still coughing and sneezing, along with every second person in Leclerc's supermarket.

We negotiate "Bonnes Années" (Happy New Years) and "Meilleurs Vœux" (Best Wishes) with caution. To kiss on each cheek?  Or not to kiss? I wave a packet of tissues at friends in the photo club and they back away hastily (wisely I suspect) and someone cheerfully informs me that this particular virus is good for at least three weeks.

And through all this, instead of lounging indolently watching bad TV, we grump and grumble our way through the process of getting paperwork together for the prefecture at Agen.  We decided way back in October, in the light of uncertainty around Brexit, that we would each apply for a Carte de Sejour, which gives us the right of occupancy here in France for the next ten years.

As so often in France, each department seems to be a law unto itself and Lot-et-Garonne seems to be particularly exigent with a three-page questionnaire to complete requiring everything except inside leg measurements and a list running to a page and a half of paperwork to be presented at an interview on January 2nd.

So, we drag the wallpaper pasting table out from the garage and set it up in the cottage and start piling up the contents of our two dossiers - two copies of everything because we each have our own interview appointment (very Green Card. Are they checking up on us?). Five years of bank account statements, for him, for me, UK and France, downloaded from the internet.  Five years of electricity bills (to show we live here). Five years of tax demands from the French tax man.  Five years of evidence that we are receiving pensions (and hence will not be a burden on the state).

As a hoarder (I've kept every single bit of paper about my pensions from the moment we began to talk to an IFA) I have no problem producing the evidence - tedious, but no problem. My beloved, as an accountant, on the other hand, keeps a massive Excel spreadsheet on our financial lives and knows to the nearest penny how we are doing. But, of course, does not keep the supporting paperwork.  Why does he need to keep the annual state pension letters when he just enters each new amount in the spreadsheet?  And what little paperwork there is could be in the cottage, or in the house, and if in the house could be in one of half a dozen places. Hence all the grumping and grumbling. (This is why behind every good accountant is an even better accounts clerk who is keeper of the paperwork.)

I post anxious messages on the French forum asking for advice and suggestions and along with the helpful replies come the questions - why are we bothering to do all this?  Why indeed?  It just feels like an insurance. We will already be "in the French system" if/when Brexit happens.

January 2nd comes like the morning of an aural exam.  We carry our large ring binders and supporting folders with three-quarters of a ream of paper up the stairs of the prefecture - to be greeted with smiles and an "of course you can be in the same interview".  We sit together and papers flow steadily across the desk, are noted and recorded in the computer. After half an hour of French bureaucracy at its best we are told that our dossiers are complete and the "cartes" should be with us in five to six weeks.  We depart with more smiles and more "Bonnes Années" all round.

Despite all the Vicks and the Kleenex laden days it feels like a good start to the New Year. Hope yours too has started well.

I can safely send virtual greetings to you without the obligatory kisses and without danger to health and well-being. So "Meilleurs Vœux" and "Bonne Année" to one and all.