November 30, 2016

DEER AND DIFFERENCES

People in the UK often ask if we’re going to live in France permanently and why we love it here so much.

Both questions are difficult to answer.  To the first I think we would probably say “probably”.  To the second it’s hard to be specific.  I just have to say “because we do”.  There are things about life in France that are slightly irritating but on the whole we simply feel happier here.  Happiness is hard to define but I just know that I am.

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One of the things I love is living in the country, in the middle of a field to be exact.  In France we have the kind of house we could only dream of and never afford in the UK.  Even if you could find an old renovated farmhouse in a quiet spot in Derbyshire, surrounded by unspoilt countryside, with no road noise, the weather would probably be terrible and there is no way we could afford it. 

There are however, drawbacks to living in this kind of property, and at the end of June this year we experienced one of them for the first time.

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When we returned to France from our two week trip to the UK we found that all our roses had been attacked.  Before we left we had a fabulous display of roses.  All the plants were in full bloom and there were purple, red, orange, pink and striped ones.  They were gorgeous.  On our return we found that all the plants had been nibbled down to the stalks.

Thinking that rabbits couldn’t possibly jump that high and in any case would have preferred our lettuces which were untouched, we were baffled.  What creature could possibly have been interested in eating only the roses?

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A stroll around the boundary revealed a clue.  Footprints.  Also, we have a camera installed by the barn that takes a picture when something moves in front of it, day and night.  The culprit was revealed.  A young deer, which took advantage of our absence and spent three days gradually eating all the roses.  It had trampled down the temporary fence at the back of the house.

Now whilst I can’t say that having deer wander into the garden and eat my prized roses is completely wonderful, there is a certain charm and amusement about it. 

It certainly beats finding food wrapping and other rubbish tossed over the wall into the garden by the passing wildlife, a not unusual occurrence in our UK home.  There is nothing even faintly charming or amusing about that*. 

Which brings me to another example of why I feel content and very at home in France.

For the last two weeks I have been in the UK because my father has had a cataract operation.  Before I set off, Nick and I went to lunch at one of the nearby “white van” places.  These are restaurants that cater at lunchtime for working people and serve a decent lunch for a sensible price. 

The restaurant was pretty full and we were surrounded mainly by men aged between twenty and sixty odd years old, mostly in their overalls.  They greeted each other with handshakes, chatted quietly and ate politely.  A mobile phone rang and one of the younger men excused himself, got up from the table and went outside to take the call.

Here in the UK I took my dad to lunch yesterday to a local pub restaurant.  It’s a brand new one, the first building to go up on a new development of houses, shops and so on, and we were keen to try it.  There were only a few tables taken, mostly by older people (like us I suppose) but everyone seemed to be talking quite loudly.  At one of the tables a mobile phone rang.

A woman answered the call at the table, put the phone into speaker mode so that her husband could hear the conversation as well – and unfortunately so could we.  Every word.  That’s the kind of difference that makes me feel unsettled in the UK nowadays and very happy in France.  When we spend time in the UK we get the feeling that ordinary people often have better manners in France and the English seem to have become very loud.  It’s not universal, but it happens often enough to notice the difference.

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*I am however reminded of a story told to me by a colleague at work some years ago.  He got up one morning to find that someone had tossed a brand new microwave oven into his front garden, still in its cardboard box.  This was in the days when a microwave was an expensive luxury item.  He used it for years.

November 17, 2016

A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY AND THE ROLLING STONES

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One of the things we really liked about our house when we first saw it was the number and size of its outbuildings.  To the side of the main house at the front are a large barn with good big doors, a smaller barn that looks like a little house and an even smaller barn at the other end that looks like it was added on later.

This tiny end barn was the first one we tackled in the sense of making it more useful.  It was known by the previous owners as the potting shed and indeed there were many discarded plant pots, rickety shelves and other bits of junk left in it.  The big problem was that you couldn’t actually stand up in it!  The height of the upper floor was the same height as the door, at about forehead height.  You could only get in there by stooping, which made it just impossible to use, so we solved this problem by knocking out the ceiling and cutting off the beams that formed the floor.  Now it is perfect as the wood shed, just the right size and opposite the new side door so that wood can be fetched into the house from just a few steps away.  Nick has improved it even further by putting a light in it. 

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At the back of the house there is another building that was added to the end of the house more recently (in the twentieth century, judging by its construction) which has been divided into two sheds with outer doors, no windows and feeding troughs.  No doubt some poor hapless animals were kept in there at some stage, when the land behind the house was still part of the property.

All of these outbuildings had a fair amount of junk in them left behind by the previous owners.  There were empty oil drums, decaying furniture, paint tins, boxes of nails, rags and jars.  When we moved in they promised to come and fetch it but they never did.  Some of it has proved to be useful, like the old lawn mower and the cement mixer, but most of it was simply junk that they didn’t want.  Gradually we have been picking through it and taking trailer loads to the local tip. 

Of course, we have added to the general chaos in the barns with our various building projects.  We stored the kitchen units in there, the old ones that we took out and the new ones when they were delivered.  Our furniture has been in and out of the barn more than once as needed to make way for the builders to get on with their work.  So all of these spaces have become a bit of a tip themselves. 

Early autumn was the window of opportunity to do something about it.

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In order to make order out of chaos we needed fine weather. The summer was too hot and by now it’s too wet so the dry weather we had a few weeks ago was ideal.  To reorganise the space in the large barn we needed to be able to take everything out, sort through it and put it back in again, in an organised fashion.  The building of some extra shelves helped.

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The little house used to be the wood store but is now mainly used for storage of garden stuff.  When we moved in it had the problem of the floor becoming a river when it rained heavily.  This was solved by fitting guttering to the back of the building so that rain water runs off into the field instead of down and under the walls and across the floor.  The usefulness of the space was improved immensely for what was really very little effort and cost.

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The animal sheds at the back are less useful because the access is difficult but they are nice and dry.  So, having removed the old bathroom suite that was left in there along with other junk, we now use them to store stuff we might need one day but not very often.

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You can’t beat a bit of tidying up and clearing out.  The whole process is both cleansing and fulfilling and gives a huge sense of achievement.  During the pleasant and sunny days of mid October we were able to knuckle down and more or less get the job done.  Lunch outdoors in the sunshine most days made the hard work quite pleasant.

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The wonderful weather was never going to last forever, of course.  On the evening that we went to see the Rolling Stones in Descartes it rained as we came out and it has rained on and off ever since.  It’s now cold, wet and distinctly Novemberish but we’re okay with that.  We have had an amazing summer and the early autumn was gorgeous.  With so many of our outdoor jobs now completed we’re happy to batten down the hatches in front of a log fire and relax a bit.

As for the Rolling Stones – they were actually a tribute band called “The Fortune Tellers” who performed at a little bar in Descartes a couple of weeks ago.  They were fantastic.  They reminded us very much of some of the better bands we used to see at motorcycle rallies and we had a great evening.  Not only that, we paid nothing to park the car and nothing to get in.  Amazing.

November 10, 2016

A THIEVES’ PARADISE AND A BIRTHDAY.

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On the last day of September, we went to Barcelona for a few days.  We were looking forward to it enormously, having not had any other kind of holiday this year.

There is a tendency to think that because we are now retired and live most of the time in France that we are permanently on holiday and we forget to take proper holidays as such.  It has been a very busy year, with visitors, repair work and garden projects, plus dealing with my dad’s illness early on, several trips across the channel by air or car, and getting used to life without Lulu.  We were truly ready for a change of scenery and a bit of a rest.

We arrived in Barcelona full of anticipation.  The weather was superb, perfect for sightseeing and Barcelona has plenty of that.  Unfortunately it also has plenty of thieves and pickpockets.

We enjoyed ourselves on day one, taking the open topped bus tour of the city to get an idea of how best to plan our time there.  In the evening we received bad news from my brother to say that my dad had been taken into hospital and was very poorly with an infection of some kind.  My brother was taking care of everything, visiting the hospital and liaising with doctors and so on.  He reassured me that he was coping and there was no need to try getting a flight back to the UK, which would have been nigh on impossible I suspect.

Having had his reassurance we enjoyed day two, visiting some of the places we had spotted from the bus the day before.

On day three we sat in our usual place for breakfast, outside at one of the popular restaurants on the main street.  It was quiet and there was nobody much around.  I used my mobile phone to talk to my dad’s lady friend to find out how they were both getting on and whilst I was distracted and my mind elsewhere, someone stole my handbag from the arm of the chair.  Right from under our noses.

Looking back, we realise who did it and how.  The person was dressed like a waiter so that he could push between tables and move things around without anyone thinking anything suspicious was happening.  In fact he could well have been one of the waiters or a person alerted by the restaurant staff to make his move.  There were other things I could mention that suggested a collusion with the restaurant staff, and with very few people about on the streets I find it hard to believe that we fell foul of a passing opportunist at 9.30 am.  Anyway, it was gone, a brand new red leather bag containing my wallet, camera and other bits and pieces that all are very personal and add up to quite a cost.

That’s why there are no other pictures of Barcelona in this post.  They were all in the camera that was stolen.  Nick took a few of course but I have no great desire to look at them.

We immediately cancelled my credit cards, desperately trying to remember what exactly was in the bag and the wallet, and by 10.30 am the police station was already full of hapless tourists, mostly women, who had been robbed of bags, wallets, cameras and mobile phones.  The police dealt with it in a bored, very matter of fact way, merely issuing a document listing what was stolen and from where.  Job done.  I imagine that they have little incentive to actively try to do anything about it as tourists only stay for a few days then are gone, replaced by another few plane loads of unwitting victims.  Barcelona is a thieves’ paradise.

For weeks I was angry and upset about it, thankful that my passport had been stowed in the hotel room and that I had already uploaded all my precious photos of Lulu onto my laptop before setting off, so as to have an empty card in the camera and lots of room for photos.  I have made an insurance claim, replaced the camera and the stolen credit cards, the UK ones arriving within days in the UK but the French one predictably taking several weeks and numerous fraught phone calls. 

In fact the thing I missed most was the camera, feeling quite lost without the ability to snap away at anything and everything wherever I went.  The new camera is fine, but it’s not pink like the old one.  The insurance claim has not been settled yet and in fact we don’t expect to get much money back, nothing like the value of what was stolen.

My dad was discharged from hospital after a week or so and is perfectly well again, another miracle at his age.  88 today as it happens and he’s spending the day with his lady friend, Sybil.

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Happy Birthday, Dad!

September 18, 2016

FEELING MELLOW AND THE WEEKEND OF THE PATRIMOINE.

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Summer was amazing, in the end.  My brother and niece came to stay for almost two weeks and we had a heat wave for most of their time here.  We spent many lazy lunchtimes and evenings in our picnic area enjoying nice food and the company of friends and family in lovely warm weather.

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I love this time of year.  September is always good, maybe because I don’t have great expectations, so it can’t disappoint.  It always leaves me feeling mellow.

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As August eases into September, the days get shorter, the nights get cooler and the days stay nice and warm.  A perfect end to a summer, whatever that might have been like.

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The roof terrace is finished.  We can sit there with our morning cuppa or with an apéro as the sun goes down, spotting the deer and other wildlife that surround us. 

Then, in the last few days, as if someone flipped a switch, autumn has announced that it is waiting in the wings.  A few showers have brought a green tinge to the grass, which has been completely brown for weeks now.  There is a freshness in the air in the mornings and a chill in the evenings, a sure sign that soon the leaves will be taking on their glorious autumn colours before very long.

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We have just had a very busy weekend, starting with live music on Friday evening at the little bar in Ciran which is called the “Pourquois Pas”.  The local group who call themselves “I don’t know” performed lots of songs from the 60’s that we all know well and we all had a nice time.

Saturday was the start of the weekend of the Patrimoine, when all kinds of country houses, churches and châteaux open their doors to the public for free or for a modest fee.  We decided to concentrate on visiting places that are not usually open to the public at all, rather than others that we can see any time.  It was fascinating.

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Above are pictures of just three of the places we went to see.  There were others too.  We had a great time.  I shall fill you in on some of the details shortly.

August 25, 2016

THE TOMATOES ARE LOVING IT

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We are having a heat wave at the moment.  The sky has been a beautiful, cloudless bright blue every day for nearly a week and temperatures have been in the mid 30’s.  Yesterday it was 38°C by late afternoon, that’s nearly 100° in old money.

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The forecast is pretty much the same until the weekend when it begins to cool off a bit.  We’re all finding it a challenge but the tomatoes are loving it.

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When I think back to how much trouble we had growing tomatoes in the UK I have to smile.  When I was a little girl at home, my dad had a home made greenhouse and in it he grew tomato and cucumber plants, spending hours looking after them.  Feeding weekly, watering daily, spraying for disease, picking out shoots.  Several times a day he or mum would march up the garden path, opening or closing the greenhouse windows to control the temperature inside so that the little beauties would have as good a chance as possible of producing fruit.  The effort usually paid off and I remember the joy of fresh tomatoes straight from the plant, still warm and smelling wonderful, along with home grown cucumbers and lettuce.

Even with a greenhouse Nick and I struggled to grow anything like a decent crop ourselves, often ending up with just enough to make a few salads each year and at the end of the summer finishing up with a lot of green ones that simply wouldn’t ripen at all.

Here, it’s a different kettle of fish.  Or a different bowl of tomatoes. 

We were late putting our plants in this year because the spring was cool and wet so we didn’t expect to do as well as last year.  For one reason or another we then neglected our tomato plants, left them to their own devices, tying them to canes when we noticed one day that the poor things were trailing on the ground.  The plants are by now a scraggly set of shriveled specimens and I would be embarrassed to let anyone see them.  My dad would be horrified if he saw them.  If we had let our plants look like that in our UK greenhouse I would have been ashamed.  Yet they are producing loads of beautiful, tasty tomatoes.  I have already preserved some, roasted in the oven and put into jars with oil.  There have been plenty for salads and cooking and enough to give some away to friends whose plants have not yet started producing.

So it may be too hot outside for comfort for us, including Daisy, but the tomatoes are very happy, I’m happy to say!

August 4, 2016

ROOF TERRACE, GATES AND A PROMISE

Time has whizzed by.  I am slightly dismayed by my own lack of blog posts.  Constantly playing catch-up and posting old news is not what I thought I would be doing at this stage of my life, now that we are more or less settled in our new home in France.  I could claim to have been so busy that I haven’t had the time, but in the past, before I retired, I had less time but still managed to post more often.  Ah well, they always say, if you want something doing, ask a busy person.  So there will be a degree of catch-up and I will try harder.  I promise.

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One of the things that has risen to the top of our to-do list, once the weather dried up, was to rebuild the “roof terrace”.

The very term roof terrace implies something more sophisticated and more useful than it really is.  Basically it’s the flat roof over the well barn and its existence has puzzled us from the beginning.  OK, it’s nice to sit in an elevated position and enjoy the view over the fields at the back of the house from time to time.  We don’t have any other way of seeing this view as there are no windows in the back wall of the house, except for three Velux windows in the roof, none of which are in a position that you can gaze out from without getting a sore neck after two minutes.  But frankly, if the terrace wasn’t there, we wouldn’t miss it.  We certainly wouldn’t have built it and could have done without spending hundreds of euros repairing it.  But…….

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It leaks.  The two layers of tiles, one on top of the other, sit on chipboard flooring panels and these have mostly rotted because water seeps through.  We could just leave it to rot away completely and not use the “terrace” but having something that is potentially unsafe and a no-go area on the property is not our style.  And the barn beneath would be a good storage area once it’s dry, so we decided to bite the bullet and get on with it.

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To access the “roof terrace” you have to climb out of the bedroom window.  Nick first removed the low railing, which was presumably meant to prevent you from falling off the edge, then the two layers of tiles.  Then he had to cut up the floor panels to make them small enough to be carried, along with all the other waste, out of the house via the bedroom window, the bedroom, staircase and kitchen.  This is because the farmer’s land goes right up to the back and side walls of the house and there was no way to lower stuff down and remove it any easier.  What a pain.

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Having removed all the rotten floor panels and replaced a rotten piece of beam, the next stage was to fit new panels made of wood that is impregnated with water repellant, making them less likely to rot and become dangerous if they get damp.  A water proof membrane then went on top of that, followed by the tiles, a long and tedious job.

Looking at the pictures of the renovation of the house that were given to us by its previous occupants, it finally dawned on us why the roof terrace was there at all.  The reason is, we think, something like this:

The bedroom wall, with the dining room below (previously the bread oven area), used to be the end wall of the house.  There was a well standing beyond that wall. Someone built a roof over the well, creating the well barn (or well room, whatever you like to call it) on the end of the house. The pitch of the roof built over the well partly blocked off the window in the wall above.  This will not have been a window at the time, but an access into the roof space which would have been used for storage.  (There was a similar window giving access to the space at the other end of the house.)  Whoever started the conversion of the roof space from storage into bedrooms decided it would be nice to use that access as an actual window.  In order to solve the problem of the roof line blocking the window they decided to chop half of it off, creating a flat roof instead and hence the “roof terrace”.  I’ll post more pictures when its repair is completed.

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While Nick was beavering away aloft, I was busy painting the gates.  We considered buying new gates, more stylish ones, ready painted.  But we decided it would be expensive and not the best use of our money.  Better use would be plenty of good food, good wine, holidays and a pot or two of paint.  So that’s what we did.  It was a long job.  In fact it took me a whole week to prepare and paint the old gates and the new, not quite matching but near enough, side pedestrian gate which we fitted last year.  (Fitted so that we could stroll out with Lulu for walks without having to open the main gates.  Sigh.)

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The effect I achieved is a little more shabby chic than I had hoped, largely due to having to slather something the consistency of treacle on vertical surfaces where it dried rapidly in the warm weather.  But the colour is nice, a kind of palish greyish green, much softer than the old dark green and the non-matching black of the new side gate. From a distance they look lovely and we’re very pleased with them.  All I have to do now is to paint the gateposts a nice creamy stone colour.  They can wait a while I think…….

July 12, 2016

A WEEK OF SPORT

Last week was a week full of distractions of a sporting nature, starting with the Tour de France and ending with the Wimbledon final, The Grand Prix and the football.  I’m not passionate about any sport these days although in the past I had my moments, but the proximity of the Tour de France route got us all excited and we thought “why not?”.  So off we set to the lovely old town of St Savin with sun cream and picnic, arriving in good time to get a good spot.

Of course, it’s really all about the advertising.  The caravanne takes hours to pass through, followed much later by the leaders then the peloton, which goes by in seconds.  If you blink or look the wrong way you miss it.

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Nick found us a good spot to sit and watch, with a clear view of the road, opposite the old abbey.  I couldn’t help pondering the difference between France and the UK when I noticed that the very young female police officer, her motorcycle parked nearby, was carrying a very businesslike firearm.  You would be highly unlikely (probably unlucky too) to ever see a policeman with a firearm in the UK.

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The caravanne started to arrive and it was worth the wait.  What fun these people must have, dressing up and fooling around through France for several weeks, seeing smiles on people’s faces as they go by.

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After the entertainment of the caravanne, it was time for lunch, picnic pies, fruit muffins, ham sarnies and a bottle of fizz.  After what seemed like forever, suddenly it all happened.  The leaders passed by in a flash, followed by the rest of the cyclists.  Whoosh, gone.  Followed by hundreds of spare bicycles.  And that was that.  Time to pack up and go home, after a great day out in the sunshine.

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At the weekend, having watched Hamilton win the Grand Prix and Andy Murray take the Wimbledon trophy, we wandered down to the village for a beer at the PreHisto to find excitement mounting for the evening’s football.  Nick fell victim to the enthusiastic face painting going on but after a while we headed home for dinner and to watch the match in comfort on our own sofa.

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What a damp squib that was.  There’s nothing more boring than a football match where nobody scores.  I don’t get it.  How can people become millionaires for kicking a ball around and not getting goals?  After the first half I went off to finish the ironing, much more worthwhile!