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