Saturday, 21 November 2020

November Flowers

Took some photos in the garden yesterday before the frost.  Just as well.  Some are not looking quite so happy today.

First Frost

 Our first frost is early this year.  

Often we get through to January before I am worrying about protecting the summer flowering plants around the cottage.  Sold as annuals most, in fact, will survive the winter if they are kept safe.

We are planting more young trees in the field.  Especially now, it feels like a promise for the future. And against a cold wind and in fading light, as I put stakes in the ground to support a bare-rooted lime tree, I hear the cranes coming out of the north east.  Their V-shape, way, way up in the clear sky, passes directly over my head.  Moving too fast to count them properly I roughly guess - five, ten, twenty, forty ... about a hundred and fifty of them.

After supper, in the dark, I make my way with a torch back down to the cottage, take the fleece out of its summer storage in the shed, cover the most vulnerable pots and close all the shutters.  

The inky black sky with a myriad stars and a low crescent moon to the west promises a frosty night.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Covid Sofa

 Apparently, lockdown has forced people to look long and hard at their sofas, which have been found wanting - much to the delight of furniture retailers such as DFS.

In a previous life, with French lessons and Alexander classes, and bridge and photography we rushed in and out past where we live and closed our eyes to our surroundings.  Not any more.  Since March our life has been no more hectic than walking the dogs, visits to the shops and, occasionally, the doctors, the pharmacy and the vets.  Since March, apart from us, only two people have been in our house - an emergency plumber and the guy who managed the company that did our groundworks.

So, like those with unsatisfactory sofas, we have been looking at what we have around us and found some of it wanting.  Notably, the terrace.

When we bought the house all those thirteen years ago, the terrace floor was enchantingly quirky - a mass of crazed old tiling that just reeked age.  In the intervening years our busy lives (lessons, bridge, photos and so on) have meant that we have marched backwards and forwards over said tiles.  The terrace is our way in and out - our route from the kitchen to the cars and our life beyond. So the delightfully crazed tiles have moved, come apart and crumbled.  No longer charmingly quirky, they just look sad.

They are not so easy to replace though.  Modern tiles are different dimensions.  So, one option is to just remove the saddest tiles and replace them with the ones that came out of the cottage and were stacked somewhat haphazardly on the floor of what was once a tobacco drying barn, til it was taken down by the previous owners. The stacks of tiles are now smothered in brambles and young trees are pushing their way up through the barn floor.  They are still get-at-able though - just.  They are mossy, damp, the undersides covered in mortar, but usable - just.

So I ask for advice on a forum and the suggestions from those who know how to manage the process terrify me, starting with using an angle grinder and progressing from there.  

But then I remember.  Twelve years ago, our second summer, we had a big lunch party at a long table on the terrace and I realised at the last minute that some of the tiles where the chair legs would be were badly broken. I had little or no time, so I just cleared out the old tiles and laid new ones in their place on sand. Looking at them now, twelve years on, they are still there, undisturbed, most still in one piece. So, with a bit of luck, just using sand to bed in some replacement tiles may give us another ten years or so before we have to do the terrace properly.

So yesterday I had a go.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Yesterday, in bright sunlight ...

... as we headed down across the field,  Vita rolled in something odorous. Normally Vita's rolling would provoke an "Oh no!" as she proudly wafts around in her new perfume. But on this occasion we smile.  She has not done this in months.  She struggles to her feet against the slope - her back legs collapsing under her - but finally manages.  

This is progress.  It has been a hard year for her, with the emergence of full-blown epilepsy and then three violent bouts of high fever over the same number of months.  Slowly, slowly, she is regaining strength, aided by the lovely Doctor Sophie in Bordeaux with her acupuncture and her colleague who administers osteopathy.

Vita had followed us as we headed down towards the far corner of our terrain to plant a new liquidambar tree.  I needed Tod to hold it in place while I decided exactly where it would go exactly, in the line of sight to the right of the dark green cypresses and to the left of the more distant golden leaved silver birches.

I hope the new addition, which will have the most spectacular of autumn foliage, will be a flame red - the label only offers a vague promise of purple or red or yellow.  In a few days we will know.

This morning, an increasingly robust Vita announces at six am it is time to get up and go for a walk.  Only today it's five.  So we pretend not to hear and she finally curls up and snores gently on a rug in the kitchen.  Daylight saving quite throws a girl's routine. 

Saturday, 3 October 2020

The rain tinkles on the metal frame of the tall ladder ...

 ... propped longways beneath the window of my study.  The drops are falling from the hundreds of seed pods dangling from the wisteria - their removal a future task for a cold, bright January afternoon when the low sun has crept round to the west.

For the moment, we huddle indoors, gossiping, spending too much time on our computers and making endless cups of tea.   Storm Alex is working its way across swathes of Europe and we are (probably) catching a soggy, blustery trailing edge.

Almost overnight the weather changed.  We had a couple from Germany in the cottage for two weeks.  They arrived to a pool that was a pleasant twenty-six degrees.  By the time they left on Thursday the temperature had dropped to eighteen. Even so, he went for a swim.  Somewhere in the middle of those two weeks it rained and rained and rained.  They assured us they were content - more so once we'd put the underfloor heating on - and over those grey, no-point-in-going-out days, she knitted us multi-patterned socks as a gift, left socially distanced in the pool house for us to find after they had gone.

Some of our computer time is spent (reluctantly) addressing what may be the impact of Brexit, now only three months away.  Firstly, it was the UK banks.  Are they going to close our accounts because we live full-time in France? Now - it looks like fun and games with our cartes vitales, which show our entitlement to healthcare here.  Maybe it's as well it's raining.  I would really resent dealing with this if I could be out in the sun gardening.  

Monday, 21 September 2020

With the new short hairdo ...

 ... I emerge from water looking less like The Thing From The Swamp and I decide I can risk heading for the sea.

Bordeaux and the Gironde are categorised a "red zone" in COVID terms.  Not really sure what that means in reality but it seems like a good idea to avoid it and I decide to head south and cut across the Landes to the coast.  

Mimizan Plage looks like a good destination and Google optimistically tells me the journey time is just over two hours, with the road more or less in a straight line.  Three hours and several wrong turnings later, I emerge from the endless kilometers of gloomy pine trees (people choose to live here in these dank clearings) to a small, cheerful seaside village. 

German voices mingle with French. Taut-muscled tall young men come for the surf but - unlike in August when it is heaving - the place feels delightfully half-empty.  Strolling the main street, I'm reassured to see most people are wearing masks as they hunt for end of season bargains on the clothes rails spilling out on the pavements. Middle-aged, overly-tanned women finger floaty beach wraps and strappy long dresses while their husbands perch, bored, on the walls of municipal planters.

I'd thought to head for a remote beach, but there's no need.  From the esplanade I can see acres of deserted sand, so I happily descend the steps, trek to an empty space and pitch my socially-distanced tent. Towels, swimming costume, sun hat for when I wander back into town later for an ice-cream, Lidl's small cool bag, complete with ice packs and what's left of lunch (most of it eaten out of boredom on the interminable journey through the pine forests), Kindle with a Julian Barnes novel I'd forgotten I'd down-loaded. The occasional foray into the sea with my new, sleek hairdo and I am blissfully set up for a long, lazy afternoon.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

For the first time since, well it must be ...

 ... at least March and possibly even before Christmas, I have had a hair cut.

It was beginning to look fairly wild.  I could have auditioned for Back to the Future - The Musical.

I felt it had finally become safe to approach the salon in the Leclerc entrance hall where I usually go. The tourists have left, children are back at school and Tuesday lunchtimes once again are a haven of tranquility. 

Arrows on the floor in one direction only, alternate reclining seats by the basins blocked off, disposable capes, carefully wiped combs and scissors and (of course) the obligatory masks.  I recognise the stylist's eyes over her mask - she's cut my hair before.  No glossy style books to look at, which are usually my visual aid: "I'd like that one (pointing) but the length more like that one (on the following page)."  I struggle to explain through my mask and wonder does "dégradé" mean layered?  Anyway, she seems to understand and steers me towards the wash basins. 

It's all more functional - no relaxing head massage - just get the client in and out as soon as possible.  I ask her how it's been and she says, "you get used to it", with a typical Gallic shrug. The mask elastics over my ears hold no fears for her.  I wonder how she avoids cutting through them, but she has done this hundreds of times by now. 

And the final result?  Well worth it. I'm now more Michael J Fox (albeit not that hair colour) than Doc Brown.


Saturday, 15 August 2020

They've Left!

 And Samantha, she of the doe eyes and recently lost eyelashes, has gone with them.

Our courteous Dutch guests have departed. Not for Rotterdam - as I had assumed - but for Soulac-sur-Mer, where they will be spending a week surfing.  And the holiday continues for one very pink seahorse.

We did not see them go - social distancing favours minimum contact - so we have no idea whether she fitted in the back along with the teenage daughters, or had to be deflated and stowed in the boot.

Now the cottage will be left to "rest" until Tuesday morning.  Shutters are ajar, windows open inside, and (if they have remembered to do as I asked) empty wardrobes, drawers and cupboards left open to air.

The last of our English guests, due to arrive next Saturday, have deferred until next year their month-long holiday, in light of the new quarantine regulations.  But we will prepare the cottage as if they are coming.  I have opened my calendar again and, who knows, maybe some family this side of the Channel looking for a tranquil last minute holiday will find us.

If not, we will not be concerned.  Having the place to ourselves through the rest of August and September has its appeal. And I'm glad I don't have to make any tough decisions about what to do with Samantha.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

A very large, very pink seahorse ...

 ... named Samantha is perched on top of the sun lounger cushions in the pool house.

When she first arrived she had long eyelashes above her doe eyes, but they seem to have disappeared in the energetic play of the last few days. A pool overflowing with three Dutch teenage girls is not a tranquil place.

Point number four in my carefully prepared COVID-19 notes, which explains to guests that everything they bring into the cottage must leave with them at the end of their holiday or go in the rubbish, may just have been circumnavigated.  I can't see Samantha fitting in their car.  And her doe eyes are much too irresistible to have her end up in the waste bin. 

She may well stay in the pool house all day today.  Finally, after weeks of drought, this morning's leaden skies are reluctantly letting a few fat splashes of rain fall.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

A Subdued Summer

Normally, in July and August, every crossroads is covered in posters - concerts, lotto, exhibitions, more lotto, car boot sales, yet more lotto, petanque contests, and (of course) lotto.

Late evenings, walking the dogs across the fields, I would hear the thump of the bass from some distant music (tribute band or local DJ) or see the flash from far-away fireworks at the end of a three-day jamboree. But not this year.  The silence is astounding.  And down at the roundabout with the miniature barn in the middle there is one mournful poster advertising a Basque concert in the village that usually has an annual weekend fest of dance groups from around the world.  Our first summer here, not knowing any better, we wandered into said village during said weekend and met a young group of Chinese (dancers or acrobats probably from their build) who all wanted to be photographed with our old Airedales.  We, somewhat bemused, wondered what we had stumbled across.

We have guests, finally, in the cottage.  A Dutch family staying for a week.  The cottage has been stripped of extraneous content and cleaned and disinfected to within an inch of its life.  Our forty-page plus information pack has become their own personal copy, to take away at the end of their week, or to be destroyed.  The pack talks about restaurants to enjoy, villages to explore, museums and châteaux to visit.

Our guests want to know where they can go where they will meet no other people.  I enthusiastically suggest the tranquility of the canal towpath, its shade from the heat, the chance to see (maybe) tourist boats going by, a lock or two to pass.  It's only later, much later, I realise the irony of suggesting a walk along a canal as a great idea to a Dutch family!

The temperature is supposed to reach 40°C later this week but this morning it is grey and overcast - almost a chill in the air - and we leave the pool cover on.  Even the weather is subdued.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

The chink of metal spoon ...

... on cereal bowl, Tod is eating porridge.

The soft shush of Vita's breathing. She lies asleep in the corridor, spread the whole width so we cannot escape.

The quiet murmur from Bertie, so quiet it's barely there, as he dreams on the armchair behind me.

A bird taps briefly on the window and then is gone.

Right here, right now, all is well.

Friday, 22 May 2020

There is an aspect of French rural living ...

... that rarely gets discussed, which nevertheless occasionally raises its somewhat ugly head.  And that is the "fosse septique" or septic tank.  Live in the country in France and the chances are you'll have one.

When we first renovated the house, our new system proved to be highly temperamental, with suspicious wafts of doubtful smells in and around the house.  But in recent years we have almost become complacent that all is well - until recently.  There it was again, that slight whiff from the utility room.  The spare bathroom in the hall (the other side of the utility room wall) these days gets rarely used and a dry shower trap can let doubtful odours escape.  A quick spray with febreze and run the shower for a few minutes and usually all is well.  But not this time.

A further possible source of trouble is the vent pipe, which unfortunately is located in the utility room, exiting up through the loft and opening out above the roof.  Knowing what we know now we would have rethought the whole system - oh the joys of being wise after the event.  With the wind blowing in certain directions the smells being vented may creep back down.  Maybe it is that?

So we keep the utility room closed for a few days and hope the smell goes away.  Until a couple of days ago.  When suddenly the aroma goes up a whole octave on the scale.  And I decide it couldn't be ignored any longer and has to be investigated.  And there it was - a damp, extremely smelly, patch on the floor. Which could only mean one thing.  There is a leak from the bathroom toilet either coming up through the floor, or through the wall - or both.  Not the spare bathroom, but the one alongside it which gets used all the time.  We needed to do something and urgently.

The first thing was to take all the gardening/dog-walking coats, cagoules and "gilets jaunes" hanging on the wall immediately above the offending patch out of the utility room and in so doing it became evident that the coats were damp and very smelly.

Monsieur G, he of the building company which did all our groundworks and laying of services, fortunately lives just the other side of our valley. He graciously agrees to come immediately. Being an extremely traditional builder with a strong rural accent Tod and I decide it needs both of us to participate in the conversation.  I also know that, as I am a mere woman, all of his attention will be on Tod.

But then I see the conversation going in all sorts of directions except the one I needed, which is to have someone dig up the utility room floor and knock down the wall to find the leak.  He really does not want to take responsibility and talks of getting the septic tank emptied (despite our having recently had a report from the public health inspector that all is well), well then, it must be humidity build-up in an enclosed space and a suspicious leak from the shower tray in the bathroom.  The whole scenario is not helped by his admitting he has no sense of smell, so the overpowering aroma completely passes him by. And, oh my, isn't a loss of sense of smell one of the symptoms of COVID-19?  And here he is, standing in our kitchen being unsympathetic and not wearing a mask.

So I get cross - never a good idea with Frenchmen who are certain of their own opinions.  But finally, as he departs, he agrees reluctantly he will send someone round "tomorrow" (unlikely as it's a bank holiday) to carefully drill out the concrete floor and investigate.

Tod then sets forth into town to warn our insurance man, as we can visualise all sorts of dire (and costly) scenarios.  I, in the meantime, head down to the cottage with an arm-full of the offending garments, with the intention of putting as many as I could through the washing machine.

Sorting the coats into piles on the cottage kitchen floor, that was when I found it.  A plastic shopping bag containing a stinky lump of fetid vegetation floating in its own fermenting juices, dripping through a hole in the bag.  Once a cabbage (probably) bought at the beginning of lockdown, too large to fit in the fridge and left, forgotten, to fester in its bag on a hook in the utility room until it formed a puddle on the floor.  Not sewage, but manky sauerkraut juice.

My overwhelming sense of relief is tempered with the knowledge that I need to get round to Monsieur G's builders yard as soon as possible and eat an enormous humble pie.  And call Tod back from the insurance man.

When I meet him, Monsieur G is gracious and, needing to have the last word, tells me we must get our "fosse septique" emptied.  I meekly agree.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Dawn Chorus

I wake to the sound of Bertie barking in the garden.  It's barely light, so what's he doing outside?  I snuggle back down, but sleep eludes me as I wait for the next bark, so I decide to investigate.

The back door is ajar and I push it open to a flood of bird song and a wide-awake, anxious mutt.  His stomach is rumbling furiously - so no more sleep for either of us. Harness and lead slipped on and without disturbing Vita and Tod, we set off down the garden.

As the red horizon lightens, we push through the long wet grass and the spikes of winter wheat to find the muddy tractor wheel tracks that are a route across the field.  Philippe, who used to have this land, left us a border of virgin grassland to walk along, which Tod mowed for him from time to time.  The new owner is less generous and farms right to the ditch. So we need other stratagems for reaching  the stream below us and the woods beyond, when, by early summer, crops have reached thigh high and are soaking in the morning dew.

We cross the small bridge and turn left alongside the stream. This year it is running full and fast - a sign of the amount of rain we have had this spring. Its gurgling is a background to the cascade of sound from the trees and hedgerows around me - the song of nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes interwoven with the fluting calls of the golden oriels in the canopy high above.

Thank you Bertie for waking me. In this fractious world where we live right now, it's good to be reminded of the beauty of this small heaven on earth.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

A Good Day for Making Masks

It's raining. Steadily.  And the drainpipe is  gurgling happily into the water butt.

I'm grateful.  The small tomato plants in the raised bed were beginning to look at me reproachfully, even though I'd given each of them their own empty sunken flowerpot as a way of capturing and directing water to their roots.  Given that the vegetable beds on top of the sandstone ridge slope down towards the cottage it seemed a good way of keeping the water in the beds rather than running off the surface.  We'll see.

Monday is the start of easing lockdown.  It will be good to be able to leave the house without having to fill in an attestation each time, provided we stay within 100 kms.  In fact we've tended to keep the same bit of paper - one for the shopping, one for walking the dogs and one for a visit to the vets - and we've just crossed out the old date and time and put in the new one.  Not that we've ever had to show it.

Otherwise, our lives won't change much.  Driving to the canal so that we can give Vita a gentle walk along the towpath is an appealing thought. (She remains frail after getting, twice, what seems remarkably like COVID-19, even though dogs aren't supposed to.) But then we have concerns that everyone else will have the same idea.

Tod badly needs a trip to the barber - the "wife cutting hair" experience never having been repeated - but then he hesitates at the degree to which his barber will be able to control social distancing and hygiene.  Maybe a trip to my hairdresser within Leclerc (at three times the price) is a better option?  As a large chain there is more at stake for them to get it right.

The sit-on mower needs a service. So a trip to the young man with his own business is now possible and Tod's booked it in for Monday.  I worry the young man will not be using a mask or frequently washing his hands - few men of that age show any signs of concern - and anxiously ask Tod to keep his distance.  Even "distance" in France is a dubious concept. The recommendation is "at least one meter".  That's barely further than any self-respecting Anglo-Saxon would stand anyway.  Two meters would be preferable.

So we will continue to wear masks. At least we will be doing our best to protect others.  They are still not mandatory, except on public transport - much to my frustration - and only about a third of those out shopping are wearing them.

From the online forums, it seems that some communes are doing an excellent job getting masks to their inhabitants. Usually this has required the "old" mayor and his team to step up to the mark, the lockdown having prevented the recently elected ones from taking up their roles. Not much sign of activity here though.

So, I'm adding to the builders masks which we are already using and Tod finds uncomfortable.  He now has a snazzy blue striped one made from the material that I bought what, two years ago, to cover our poolside lounger cushions.  Fabric that I belatedly discovered shrank after I'd cut out the pattern and anyway was much too floppy.  Pretty, but impractical.  Makes a good mask though.  And I've enough material to supply the whole village. With the rain due to stay with us for these two days, this seems like a good moment to get to the sewing machine.

An interesting article that will become our road map for behaviour over these coming weeks:
COVID-19: The Risks and How to Avoid Them

Monday, 20 April 2020

Social Distancing - Not

Tod has been on the phone to an old school friend for nearly an hour.  This, mind you, is a man who tells me he hates the phone.

I call the HomeAway helpline to renew the advert for our cottage. (Normally a somewhat irritable conversation with a stressed agent in a call centre.)  I can hear domestic sounds in the background - a child's chatter, the clatter of kitchen routines, scraping of a chair - and I ask the man who answers if he is working from home.  He tells me about his bulldog who prefers his bed to a walk in the morning and we chat and laugh.  Never has HomeAway taken my money so easily and pleasantly.

I send my "Just checking" email to a friend in the UK and we gossip about gardening.  Photos are swapped, of the small shed she has made, the dogs, my roses.  And she describes the challenges of self-isolating from her granddaughter who lives next door.

Funny or nostalgic videos, snippets on Twitter, cartoons by Matt (from the Daily Telegraph, who is mining a rich vein of coronavirus humour) are shared round the world.

The British government has chosen the wrong phrase. We may be distant physically, socially we have never been so close.


Saturday, 18 April 2020


Bertie sits barking on the bank at the side of the house, looking down into the field. He's on full guard duty. There are some strange silvery shapes in the distance that obviously need warning off.

The News brings us images of sheep, deer and coyotes strolling through lockdown emptied streets and countryside.  And here too, our wildlife is getting bolder.

With no bikers or chainsaws in the woods across the valley to disturb their peace, the deer are free to roam - including into our garden and field where they are beginning to strip the bark from our still young trees. Hence the silver.  I've deconstructed unused sheets of sandwich insulation and wrapped the outer shiny layer round the already damaged stems, in the hope that the deer - like Bertie - will be disconcerted by the reflections.

Human hair is reputed to work. I need more than Tod and I can provide (even with lockdown, lack of visits to the hairdressers and ever-increasing tresses).  Perhaps I can ask friends to save theirs for me?  Collecting it would be a problem though for the foreseeable future.

Bars of perfumed soap hung from the trees is another option, but the supermarket shelves have been stripped. Were the French not using soap before all this?  Don't answer that, I'd rather not know!

So, in the short term I hope that the silver wrapping works - supported of course by Bertie's indignant and loud protestations.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

At Least Only The Dogs Will See

We have a new "essential".  Tod needs a haircut - badly.

I never realised that barbers shops are much more important to men than hairdressers are to women.  Unless the man is courageous enough to let his wife cut his hair.

Tod has began to look fluffy.  Over the ears and round the neck.  To the point where he's been muttering about my using the dog clippers on him. Leaving it to grow is not a good look for him.  I have seen the photos of late teenage Tod looking not unlike a young Leo Sayer.

So I do some research on the internet and find a video of a man cutting his own hair.  It looks suspiciously simple.

A quick trip to Leclerc's and a hunt along the men's "personal grooming" shelves reveals dozens of gadgets for beards, ears, nose and body but only one for hair.  OK, that's the one then.  Yes, we could buy online but deliveries have slowed in the lockdown and another week's hair growth and we could be in serious trouble.

I start cautiously, at the highest setting and take off single millimeter lengths. Maybe this is easy!  But then, I don't know how - a moment of overconfidence perhaps - and there is a small bare patch where there shouldn't be.  Maybe he won't notice?  He does.

He's now in the bathroom showering off all the shorn bits. I think I can also hear him praying that lockdown will end soon.

I wonder if I'd have done it better with the dog clippers?

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What is "Essential"?

The attestation paper that we have to fill in and sign every time we go out tells us that we are only allowed to make "essential" purchases.

Ah, but what is "essential"? As the days lengthen and the temperatures increase and we work outside our "essentials" list gets longer than just food and toilet paper.

The water in our swimming pool has gone a startling pea-green.  Suddenly it is "essential" that we have pool chemicals.

The field has a patch that can only be attacked by the large strimmer.  Suddenly it is "essential" that we have the special Stihl fuel mix.

But pool shops and agricultural stores are closed.  Aren't they?

Apparently not.  There is a discrete French pragmatism to all of this.  No, you cannot go into the shop.  The door is barred.  But if you know what you want they will get it for you.  Social distancing is strictly maintained.  Only one other car in the car park.  You hang back until you are waved forwards.  The item is produced and placed on a table by a solitary man wearing gloves who looks like the manager. Wearing mask and gloves, you keep your distance, pay by card - ideally contactless. And the "essentials" are purchased.

The pool water is blue again and will be ready for our guests when they can travel.  The coarse grass in the field is being subdued.

And this is how life goes on in lockdown in rural France.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Christmas List

Each year, some time near the middle of December, a good week later than I should if I want to make sure the cards arrive in time, I print off last year's Christmas list, change a few addresses, maybe remove a name or two, and sit down with a pile of UNICEF cards (the French don't do charity cards) and write my Christmas greetings.

All too often, although I promise myself I will write some news, in fact there is only time for a few vague platitudes: "we must meet next year", "it would be lovely to see you here", "hope all the family are well".

This year, though, I know I cannot do that.  I cannot get to December and write those platitudes not knowing how these people, these friends, these relations who have been important in my life have fared.

How can I write "how was 2020 for you"? How can I tell them what 2020 has meant to us?  For the first time in years I know a card rushed in the post at the last minute will not be enough.

So I email, I phone, I write letters and tell our story and listen to theirs.  And with that first "hello" on the phone the decades drop away and I know why this matters.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Les Saints de Glace

Well that's a shock!

We woke this grey morning to near freezing drizzle, in contrast to the last days of bright T-shirt wearing sunshine. Not a day for being outside.  The weeding and the painting of shutters will have to wait for the return of warmer weather later in the week.

I was warned - on a gardening forum when I was asking about early pruning and someone said that old French gardeners wait to do most of their gardening tasks until after "Les Saints de Glace".  It's true that the immaculate front garden potagers in town are beautifully tilled and ready.  But not much sign of planting.

I check on Google and learn that "The Ice Saints" (Estelle, Achille and Fatima) are not until the eleventh to the thirteenth of May.  Good heavens!  As late as May?

Our mild winters are making us blasé. Traditional French lore reminds us, late spring can still have a nasty bite.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Sunday Afternoon - France in Lock Down

This weekend Vita has chosen to manifest full blown epilepsy.  Up until now she has had a fit once every few weeks or months (and indeed at the beginning every few years).  But Saturday night she had four fits in seven hours, which means she needs now to be on medication.
So Sunday afternoon meant a car ride across Lot-et-Garonne to our vet with my attestation explaining why I was out.
In the hour-long journey I saw:

  • One tractor
  • A man on a bicycle
  • A man on a motor bike
  • A boy on a skate board
  • A woman out walking
  • Eighteen cars

Friday, 20 March 2020

Vita would have us in lock down in the kitchen ...

...   All of us.  All the time. Where she can keep an eye on her pack and the food at the same time.

She's quick to pick up on our moods and we are probably both saying "I'm fine" but really walking round with an undercurrent of anxiety.  It makes her restless. She wants to be with both of us at the same time and even Bertie is looked for.  So one of us elsewhere in the garden isn't good enough - her sight and hearing these days not helping much in her search for us.  She resorts to solitary "woofs" in the hope that we will come to find her.

A quick trip into town yesterday lunchtime for a food top-up meant that, despite the warm sunny day, I was wearing gloves.  A woman leaving the shop, likewise attired, smiles at me.  We exchange conspiratorial glances. There are two new clubs in town: those who wear gloves (who obviously feel superior) and those who do not.

The car park is virtually empty - cars parked away from each other as if distancing extends to the vehicles themselves. Inside, staff are wearing masks and a perspex screen has been installed in front of the self-service help desk.  The baskets are being wiped down between use, but I prefer to stick with my own bags.  The few customers wandering round remind me of our early days here, twelve years ago, when the French still largely viewed the two hours from midday as a time for lunch. There is no panic buying any more and even pasta is coming back onto the shelves.

I duck and dive around the shelving, avoiding the other shoppers as much as possible, until I approach the organic section (the pre-packaged rye bread in my sights) when an elderly gentleman with a trolley appears from a parallel aisle with, it seems, the same intent. Seeing me, he politely backs away and disappears. I take my bread - two packs - and turn to come face to face with him again, coming from the opposite direction.  We smile, give each other room and go on our separate ways.

It occurs to me we are playing "Ring a Ring of Roses" with each other and then regret the thought, as I associate the rhyme with the Black Death - though Wikipedia tells me not.  Whatever its origins, our modern day "Pockets full of posies" are gloves, masks and a thorough washing of hands.

Monday, 16 March 2020

First thing on a wet Monday morning ...

... and Leclerc is already heaving.  Like Christmas shopping, but without the jollity.

Until now, round here the only panic buying has been for hand sanitiser.  That's now changed.  Rows and rows of cream metal shelves are bare.  Every pack of every type of pasta has gone.  Understandable given that the children are now at home and there's suddenly a need for cheap mid-day meals.

For the first time, I see women wearing gloves - usually posh leather ones. The French must keep up appearances, even in a crisis. Others have woolly scarves wrapped high around their faces.  No medical masks to be had.  A woman hovers in front of the household gloves muttering: "jetables, jetables".  She smiles at me when I tell her there are no disposable gloves to be had now.

Other encounters are less friendly - the woman who weighs our fruit and veg had cancer some years back and she obviously feels vulnerable.  She brusquely tells the man in the queue in front of me to stand further away from her.  I hear distant angry voices at one of the tills - someone too close maybe.  We are learning to be afraid of our fellow human beings.

I buy myself two pairs of knitted gloves, on the basis that, in future, I can wear one pair and wash the other.  Not only do I feel a need to protect myself, but also to show others I'm taking care.  The gloves have "Love" sewn on them.  Seems appropriate somehow.

I avoid any of the supermarket trolleys, as I understand the virus can linger on the metal handles, just relying on my own lifetime bags, which means my "panic buying" is limited to whatever my two arms can support.  Is buying four butters for the freezer being greedy?

At the self-service check-out I am reassured to see one of the shop assistants wiping down the machines between each customer.  As I am finally packing, a young man in a security vest comes up behind me and wipes over the keys of the card reader.  Who knows whether any of this will help, but at least they are trying.

As I drive back along the ridge of our valley in the drizzle, I realise I have the same overwhelming feeling I experienced when 9/11 happened while I was out shopping - I just want to get home and be safe.

On arriving, the first thing I do is wash my hands thoroughly in hot soapy water.  And the next?  Make a cup of tea of course.  The British answer in moments of disaster.

Friday, 13 March 2020

It's No Hardship

Our horizons are narrowing.  No photo club, no French lessons, no Alexander lessons and now (for Tod) no bridge club for the foreseeable future.

Mind you - we wonder who are these "old people" of seventy plus who are being advised to stay at home and the BBC shows us "old people" at a communal lunch who will be lonely if they can't meet up each week.  This doesn't feel like our world.

We still shop and (as always) go in to the supermarket at lunchtime when it's quieter.  Tod popped into the pharmacy first thing and had the place to himself.  Are the French really staying away?

Greetings have become more distant.  There was no handshake with driver of the large digger who flattened the surface of the chemin leading down to our house this week.  Just a vague attempt at a "Wuhan shake" - elbow to elbow.  Much to our surprise our mayor has come up trumps.  We have been talking about the state of our chemin for the last two years and he's been promising to get it fixed.  He's not standing for re-election this weekend so we assumed our request for repairs would just be forgotten.  Not at all.  He must still have some money in the pot for this year and he's determined to spend it before the new incumbent takes over. We hope the incomer will be as helpful as the current one has been.  Sadly, no voting for us this Sunday.  (The French have been asked to bring their own pens.)

So, we spend our days gardening and watching bad television in the evenings.  The dogs are walked, we eat well and healthily, chat with friends by email (no one answers the phone these days there are so many nuisance calls), shop (come home and wash our hands thoroughly) and, as much as we can, stay safe.  It's no hardship to live like this.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Fewer than Six Degrees

It's raining and I finally get round to doing some DIY. It's going well, but I then realise I need narrow wooden beading to hide a join.  Just time before supper to pop into the Brico store in town and get the job finished.

The man in the queue in front of me looks familiar.  He thinks he knows me as well and we exchange "Bonjours".  As he chats to the cashier I finally recognise him - Monsieur P.  We bought our Godin wood burning stove from him years back when he still had a small treasure-trove of a hardware shop in the town centre.  At the time he gave us a wrong estimate for the installation.  He'd undercharged us but refused to accept any more money.  In France a signed estimate is a contract, so that was the price.

Having sorted that out, I begin to listen to their conversation (not always easy with the regional accent).  They are talking about Coronavirus - isn't everyone - when Monsieur P cheerfully informs the cashier that his son's family has just flown back from Venice and voluntarily are now in self-isolation for 14 days.

I'm grateful that all we did was exchange smiles and greetings from a distance. However he did touch the cashier's hand, and the cashier touched my cash card. I wash my hands thoroughly when I get home and discuss with Tod what to do.  It may seem unnecessary, but I've decided to avoid our photo club meetings for two weeks and no Alexander classes.

Better safe than sorry - and my proximity to someone who has Coronavirus feels uncomfortably a lot less than six degrees of separation.

In the meantime, I'll do more DIY and some gardening.  Friends are offering to leave food parcels at the gate.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Economist's cover this morning says it all ...

Well, yesterday came and went.  And the deed's done.

Friends in the UK ask us how we will be affected.  Not so different from asking someone on Day One how they will be affected by their divorce.  The question requires a shrug of the shoulders (ideally with a French flourish) and a "who can tell?" expression, followed by a murmured "ask me in a few years' time."

About the only thing we know for sure about Brexit is we cannot vote in the up-coming local elections in March.  Shame.  We will have a new mayor, new staff in the office and several new councillors  and it would have been good to have been showing solidarity and commitment to our local commune.  Once he's elected (assuming it's a he) we'll have to pop into the office and introduce ourselves.

Otherwise, life goes on much as normal and the uncertainties - healthcare, pensions, freedom of movement (or not) - remain to be resolved.  We will be required to change our cartes de sejour, so laboriously applied for just over two years ago, for new residency permits.  We are reassured by the French government that those who already been through the process will go through minimum hassle.  No doubt though we will need new photos, fingerprints taken again at the prefecture in Agen and yet again Tod's fingers will not scan properly and they will struggle to find a way to confirm he is who he is.

The hiatus of the last three years has been painful and there is still much anger on the ex-pat forums.  Some feel it's time to move on, get over it, stop whinging, whilst others say why should they when there has been such an injustice.

At least, now though we can begin to move forwards, even if it is into the unknown.  There is to be a discussion this coming Friday at our local language club.  It will, no doubt, be something of an anticlimax for the French audience since most of the answers from the English will include a Gallic shrug and a "we don't yet know".

I'm glad all our gite guests have already booked their holidays with us for this coming summer.  A gentle reminder and reassurance that our lives will continue and, day-to-day, there will be much that remains the same.

Monday, 20 January 2020

The wind is bitter ...

... but it's a bright, sunshiny day and we need to get out of the house.  So we decide to take the dogs in the back of the Skoda to one of our local villages for a stroll.

The village has a mill and a millpond, a new salle de fête painted the most unfortunate grubby mauve colour which clashes with the soft yellow-beige of the surrounding old buildings.  It's an up-and-coming place where properties have been lovingly restored and we feel it's time we see what the locals have been up to.

Two miles into the journey, as we round the first roundabout with its miniature tobacco drying barn the flat tyre warning light comes on. We've lost count of the number of flat tyres we've had over the years.  Narrow country lanes and oncoming cars that determinedly stay on the crown of the road means that all too often we are the ones to move onto the rubble-strewn verge and over the hidden threats of large discarded nails and screws.

A big, red fireman's van comes towards us and stops.  Do we need help?  We smile and wave reassuringly. No, we're fine. With a "bon courage" he waves and departs.

The dogs are sitting on top of the spare wheel, so the first task is to get them out of the boot and into the front, which they much prefer anyway.  Then wind up the strange, much too flimsy-looking jack which leans suspiciously to one side.  Then find the small thingy which flips off the thief-proof caps covering the wheel nuts.  In flipping the caps off there is considerable danger of the caps flying through the air and disappearing into said rubble-strewn verge, never to be seen again.Then realise, cannot undo wheel nuts while suspiciously leaning jack is raised. So lower jack, loosen wheel nuts, move jack, put it on a carpet taken from the passenger well.

Opening the front door of the car to get the carpet is a mistake as by this stage the dogs are bored and want to get out.  Jack raised again, nuts removed and now, merely a matter of lifting wheel off. But no. The wheel won't budge, despite much heaving and kicking of wheel and concern that the jack might collapse under the strain.

So we need help and someone who knows more about cars than we do.  But we have no phone. Neither of us.  Well why would we?  We're only going for an afternoon stroll to a local village. That means one of us has to walk home - two miles, uphill most of the way - at least forty minutes.  Tod starts walking. I stay with the car and the dogs, glad of the heavy winter coat I'm wearing in the bitter wind. I'm reluctant to get into the car in case the jack collapses.

He had not even got as far as the roundabout when I see the car coming our way stop.  I see his hand signals as he demonstrates not being able to get the tyre off.  People get out, put Tod in the back, the car turns round and disappears up the hill taking him home. And I stand and wait.

A Porsche coming towards me slows, pulls past and then stops.  Out gets a couple.  Do I need help?  I explain the stuck wheel phenomenon. The man says he'll call his brother (or maybe he said father - his south west accent is strong).  As so often, I find the woman easier to understand.  She says she knows me because she lives in the village where we used to walk Clara and Smudge, our two elderly Airedales - heavens that was eleven, twelve years ago.

The man returns from his phone call and asks if I have a mallet in the boot.  Nothing heavier than the wheel brace.  Lying under the car he starts hitting something with the brace, but no joy.  His other half sets off at a jog for a farmhouse down a track on the other side of the road and returns with a large hammer and some thin pieces of wood - all a complete mystery to me.  In the meantime the man tells me he is the brother of the local town mayor and they are off to a Sunday outside flea market (in this wind?).  But of course.  They need to get out.  I know the feeling.

He instructs me to take the handbrake off and put the car in gear - that much I do understand - and he disappears back under the car where loud banging noises can be heard.  I worry about the jack collapsing.  Suddenly the wheel shudders and drops forward - it's free.  They show me how the wheel has rusted and seized itself to the car.

The hammer is returned to the farm, the spare is rapidly fitted, the jack lowered, wheel nuts tightened and they head smiling back to the Porsche. I shower them with thanks, wish them "bonne continuation" and lots of cheap purchases at the flea market. They call back to me, how cold the wind is.

Still no sign of Tod, so I decide to drive home and catch him coming back. I get in the driver's seat, the dogs are all over me but they can't go back in the boot, it's piled with a punctured tyre, wonky jack, wheel brace and emergency red triangle.  There's no key in the ignition!  Tod's taken it with him!  So I get out of the car, lean against the boot, glad of my thick winter coat in the bitter wind. And wait.

A lone cyclist in immaculate white lycra strip comes by, stops, turns round and comes back to me - is the car "en panne"?  Can he help?  I explain and he heads on his way. I suspect grateful that his white strip remains unsullied by our very dirty car.

Finally, I see the batmobile in the distance.  Not knowing (of course) that I've had help, Tod has called a friend who is riding to the rescue.  We sort out car keys.  Abandon plans to walk anywhere - a hot cup of tea calls.  I head home with two confused dogs who are very happy to be sitting on the back seat rather than in the boot. Tod waits for our friend.

Later, we both agree, from now onwards mobile phones must be carried at all times. We also agree how wonderful the French are in times of crisis.