January 21, 2017

A CAMERA TEST

When my bag was stolen in Barcelona the thing I missed the most was my camera.  It was a Panasonic Lumix DMC FX-33.

The story behind this camera is – skip this bit if you like – Nick bought himself a new pocket digital camera many years ago and it was great – a Panasonic Lumix FX-30.  I admired it and realised it was infinitely better than the one I was using (a Samsung which was definitely from the early days of small digital cameras).  Then, one day when he was on his lunch break, he spotted a very similar camera in the Panasonic shop window in Sheffield which was half price in the sale and bought it for me.  It was an FX-33 and the newer version of his FX-30 and not only that, it was pink!  I was over the moon and it had taken zillions of really good pictures ever since.  Until some toe rag decided to steal my bag last September.

I used to take a lot of pictures and without my camera I felt completely lost, as if part of me was missing so it was inevitable that it would not be long before I tried to replace it.  You can’t buy the same thing any more and at that time there were none for sale on EBay so we went hunting for a new one.  A lot of the reasonably priced similar style of cameras seemed very flimsy and too light weight for me so we plumped for this one.  A Panasonic Lumix SZ-10.  At 140€ it was about the same as Nick paid in £ for the old FX-33 and about as much as I was happy to pay for a camera to do the kind of photography that I do.

SZ10

Within a very short time I was disappointed with it.  Compared with my old FX-33 it was sluggish, the pictures were grainy and the colours poor.  It was nowhere near as good as my old one and I was not enjoying using it.  I played around with the settings but none seemed any better and the sluggishness of the zoom and the shutter were really annoying.  It was impossible to snap away as spontaneously with this camera as with my old one as by the time I’d set the zoom and it had decided it was ready to take the picture, the subject had moved and the moment was lost.

Having forked out a what I thought was enough to pay for a camera I was really unhappy and reluctant to tell Nick how I felt.  But one day sure enough, I blurted it out.  He decided to do something about it, and before long found a used FX-33 for sale on EBay.

FX33

It was the same camera as my old one but black like his, not pink.  And only £13 including postage.  So I bought it.  It’s got a few scratches and dents but appears to work perfectly.

Of course, a girl can never have too much pink so I went looking on EBay myself and found a used pink FX-30.

FX30

For £50 I got the camera, two chargers, several sd cards, the original instructions and CD, a case and other bits and pieces.  It has barely a scratch on it, in fact it’s probably in better condition than my old one was when it was stolen and  I am over the moon again.  OK, it’s not exactly the same as my old camera, being the slightly earlier model like Nick’s but it’s great.

Here’s a picture test:

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Two pictures taken with my new pink FX-30 (the same model as Nick’s camera).

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The same pictures taken with my new FX-33 (the same model as my old camera).

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The same pictures taken with the brand new SZ-10.

The three pairs of photos were taken with the cameras in the same auto iso setting, which, being lazy and not knowing much about how to use a camera, is the setting I nearly always used.  These pictures were taken in good light but the difference is infinitely more noticeable in slightly poorer light which is when I often take photos. 

If you’re thinking that you can’t tell any difference try these two:

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A picture taken with my old FX-33 last year.

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A picture taken on the same position in identical lighting (after dark with just the kitchen lights on) and with the camera settings with my new SZ-10.

Obviously these last two pictures were not of the same object but the washed out colours and slightly fuzzy effect of the SZ-10 shows up I think.  Plus when you take into account the extra few moments it takes for the zoom to react and the shutter to open, I think I can say that the SZ-10 is a great disappointment.

So now that I have gone from owning one camera to three I’m a lucky girl.  I might put the SZ-10 for sale on EBay myself just to get rid of it, as I can’t see me using it again.  What a shame.

January 14, 2017

A LUCKY ESCAPE

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Living in the middle of a field can sometimes be interesting, especially when it’s deep in the French countryside and there is plenty of wildlife about.  The driver of the car in this picture had a very close encounter with a wild boar and a lucky escape.

This all happened the weekend before we set off back to the UK for Christmas.  It was after dark and as I was walking up the drive towards the car port I became aware of car headlights and voices just along the road from our gate.  There is very little traffic along our road but voices are not that unusual as passing neighbours sometimes stop their cars for a chat in the road.

As I pulled out of the drive I looked to my right and realised that one pair of car headlights was one above the other not side by side.  This could only mean one thing.  Something very wrong.

I reversed smartly back into the drive and fetched Nick and we both went to investigate.  The blue car was at that time on its side in the ditch, the driver was a middle aged lady who had been hauled out of it by a passing neighbour and his son. 

It appears that she was driving past our house (in the opposite direction to the way the car was now facing) and as she rounded the slight bend a wild boar stepped into the road in front of her.  She braked and swerved, causing the car to hit the opposite side of the ditch and it then spun round and ended up on its side with the driver’s door underneath.  She was very lucky that the passing neighbour turned up only five minutes later.  From inside our house we had no idea that a crash had happened as we heard and saw nothing at all.  She could easily have been there for hours as apparently she is slightly disabled and was totally unable to get out of the car without help.

The lady was remarkably calm about it.  She was a bit battered and bruised but otherwise not seriously hurt, in spite of having had to be dragged over the seats and out of the back door of her car.  The neighbour had already called for the help of another neighbour who soon arrived with his tractor, hauled the car back onto its wheels and pushed it out of the way on the grass verge.  After that, the neighbours disappeared and we took the lady home to the other side of Le Grand-Pressigny in our car.  Her car was badly damaged and was towed away two days later.

We knew that wild boar were around near our house.  A visitor had seen a family of them in the field at the side early one morning in the summer and we had seen footprints for ourselves.  Nick had seen them a few kilometres further along the lane, sauntering across the road in front of him at dusk, although that was many months ago.  I found it fascinating that this one was crossing the road right by our house but that I had never, ever seen one myself.

Then, as we drove north through France three days later on our way to Calais, we encountered another one.  We were on a stretch of fairly busy normal road (not motorway) in broad daylight and one stepped out from the forest.  It was just behind the car in front and fairly close to us.  It trotted swiftly across the road and disappeared into the forest on the other side.  Luckily we were far enough away that we could brake calmly and were in no real danger of hitting it.  Otherwise, who knows, we might have ended up in the ditch ourselves.  When faced with the choice of hitting a 200 kilo lump of solid muscle or a soft grassy bank, would one’s instincts make the right choice?

January 9, 2017

PAPERWORK AND ANOTHER WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY.

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Long before the referendum last June, we took the decision that we would like to live in France officially.  In other words, that we wanted to be able to spend most of our time there instead of sharing our time more equally between France and the UK, and to do it formally, so that we weren’t looking over our shoulder all the time, so that we could rest easy in our bed.

After a bit of dithering, we made the first step which was to get a document from the UK Pensions Dept. called an S1, which you can only get once you have moved to another EU country.  Under current arrangements this would enable me, as a UK pensioner, and Nick as my spouse, to apply for full access to the French health system rather than just emergency care as a visitor.  This comes in the form of a card called a Carte Vitale.  Once we have that we can then move our tax affairs to France and the job’s done.  Plenty of people told us this would be a long and difficult process and that dealing with French bureaucracy is a nightmare.

So, on 25th October we had an appointment at the social security office in Tours to make our application for my Carte Vitale.  We took with us every document we thought we might possibly need, including birth certificates and an EDF bill.  The young lady copied lots of them, declined others and created a dossier which would be sent with my application form to Nantes where it is all dealt with centrally, and told me I would get a paper version of my Carte Vitale, the French health card, in three weeks’ time.  The actual card would arrive a few weeks later.

Easy, we thought.  What was all the fuss about?

Weeks came and went and nothing arrived.  Then, a letter arrived dated 27th December – a full two months after our appointment – saying they needed copies of certain documents and not only that but official translations of other documents done by approved translators to go with my dossier.  We would not have received this letter at all but for the kindness of friends who had volunteered to check our French post box occasionally and forward stuff on to us here in the UK where we are now stuck until Nick completes his rehabilitation following his heart attack last month.

The really frustrating thing is that we had all those documents with us when we attended in October.  The young woman who dealt with us either didn’t know what she was doing, or didn’t care enough to get it right.  If she had pointed out the need for translations we could have got on with it and be two months further on than we are now.  I am tempted to wonder how a person can be doing a front desk job where he/she is dealing with the public in a process where he/she should know what the rules are and the person in front of them is entirely dependant on them getting it right - and yet get it so wrong.  Training perhaps.

So we are trying to work out how to get this done while we’re treading water in the UK rather than wait another two months before we return to France and can pick up the paper trail again.

The equally frustrating part is that in order to get my S1 and apply for my Carte Vitale I was required to tell the UK pensions people I had moved to France.  Which is absolutely fine but has resulted in my not receiving my UK Pensioners Winter Fuel Allowance of £200 as they ceased paying it to ex-pats this winter BUT they have sent me a letter (to France as that is where, as far as they are concerned, I now live) and a form called a Life Certificate which has to be filled in and certified by a solicitor (or a similar professional and will no doubt cost me more than a few quid) stating that I am still alive so that they will continue to pay me my UK pension.

So on the one hand I have moved to France but on the other I haven’t.  Yet.  I’m probably floating around somewhere in the English Channel.  All at sea is certainly how it seems at the moment.

It’s interesting that the UK pensions people seem to be much more on the ball than the French.  The UK system for letting me go seems much more efficient than the French process for letting me in.

Of course, we wouldn’t normally be in such a hurry but we feel that post referendum we have a window of opportunity to make this choice before “Brexit” (how I hate that ridiculous term) kicks in.  Not that anybody seems to know what the effect will be once it does kick in.  Blind leading the blind doesn’t begin to describe it.

So here we are in limbo, out of pocket already and immersed in the quagmire of French bureaucracy.  Everyone warned us that it wouldn’t be easy.  Some of them are the same people who warned us that when in Barcelona best not to let go of your bag.  Hey ho.

December 29, 2016

SEASON’S GREETINGS.

new year

Around about now I usually do a photo round-up of the year but this year things are different.  I’m not entirely sure 2016 has been a year worth celebrating.  For us there have been too many disasters; the loss of Lulu, the theft of my bag on the only holiday we took, political changes that have left me feeling very unsettled, and more.

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Then, just as I got to the point when I was feeling glad the year was nearly over, it got even worse.  Nick had a heart attack and ended up in hospital on the 14th December.

This was not like your typical heart attack, at least, not as either of us ever thought a heart attack would be like.  A few pains and symptoms that took him to bed for a couple of hours on the Saturday afternoon, after which he was completely fine.  No symptoms at all, lifting heavy bags and boxes as we packed up to return to the UK for Christmas. 

Thinking he should get it checked out when we got back to the UK, he decided to see the GP to get it out of the way sooner rather than later and got an appointment at the “sit and wait” clinic on the Wednesday afternoon.  We were both surprised when he was advised to go straight to A&E. The doctors there were giving him the “we’re not sure why you’re here” approach and getting ready to send him home when the results of his blood tests turned up and he was admitted to the cardiac care unit straight away.

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So Christmas has been a slightly non-event in our house this year.  In the days before when we should have been socialising, wrapping presents, decorating the house and enjoying ourselves we were in hospital, Nick as patient and me as visitor, anxiously waiting test results and treatment.  In between hospital visiting I managed to get some cards posted and some presents wrapped.

Having spent hours on end seeing what goes on in the hospital wards I feel I could write a book about why the NHS is in deep financial trouble.  The care was brilliant, the food tasty and edible but the chaos and lack of communication was unbelievable.  A hospital ward is no place to get better, being surrounded by dementia patients who shout, abuse the nurses, knock things over, pee on the floor and continually undress themselves in front of everyone one.  It is stressful and dangerous.  After a week had gone by we were both completely frazzled and exhausted.

Nick eventually had an angiogram and a stent fitted and came home on 23rd December, under strict instructions not to drive for a month, lift anything or do anything heavier than putting the kettle on until his rehabilitation programme starts in a couple of weeks’ time.

With only one day to get ready for Christmas I decided to have a frozen Christmas this year.  All the food, other than the turkey which had been ordered the previous month, came from the freezer cabinets in Iceland which is a five minute drive away.  I have to say it was all good, apart from the sprouts.  Frozen sprouts are not great but it was them or nothing.  We had the usual Christmas lunch with my father, brother and niece and had a good time.  More than anything there was a sense of relief that we got Nick back home in good shape and that he probably had had a close call.  He had apparently had a series of micro heart attacks followed by a bigger one.  For all we know the next one could have been much, much worse.  Having him home again was the only Christmas present I wanted.

So, I wish you a Happy New Year!  We shall be glad to see the back of 2016 and sincerely hope that we have a better year next year.  I hope you have a great 2017 too.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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.

deer

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.

Barcelona

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!