Thursday, 27 December 2012

On the move

No, not us. Heaven forfend, what an unthinkable thought - if I start seriously talking about moving from here please have me tightly bound and locked up immediately. But this blog is on the march.

I've been here a long time - since April 2008 in fact. I was looking back at the early years a while ago and was amazed at how often I managed to post; these days I'm lucky if it's once a month. It's true that over the last year life and times have changed: we've finally settled into doing what we came here to do and our day to day story is - well, pretty ordinary, I'd guess, to most people. It's also true that I'm beginning to feel as though I'm spread rather too thinly around the interweb, with Blogger, two (soon to be three) huge sites for our business here, two professional sites, the Ariège Network, and various other networking sites to tweak, maintain and keep up to date with.

And so as you do in the dark days of winter, I've been ruminating. Truth is, I'll never be a proper paid up member of the general blogging community - the one where people post several times a week, read each others blogs, comment on every post and generally form a warm and supportive clique circle. Quite apart from the fact that I have no idea how they find the time to do it, it's just not me. Yes, there are blogs I like, read, and even comment on, but my blogger community member score would never I think exceed a just-about-scraped D.

And so, dear readers (reader?), this will be my last post here on Blogger. And dear Blogger, I shall wave a fond yet oh-so-relieved goodbye to your endless quirks and foibles that have tied so many late nights up in knots over the last four and a half years and sent me to the point of wanting throw you and your 'improvements' into a cyberspace wormhole.

However. It's not an ending, just a change of form. Because from now on I'll be blogging here, on our own website: look for the heading 'Read' and go to the page of your choice. I hope you'll come with me.

Oh, and a very happy, healthy, peaceful and of course Slow 2013 to you all!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (3)

While we were over on the other side of the Pyrenees we met a few people like us, who've upped sticks from their own country and settled somewhere new. There's often a kind of bond amongst such 'strangers' that has nothing to do with country of origin and everything to do with the shared experience of culture change. I'm always open to opportunities for such random conversations, which often take place on café terraces or in restaurants and are invariably fascinating.

But what comes up in these meetings, time and time again, is that there's one factor that seems to be number one in determining whether the move works out or not, and that's language - as in being able to speak it. Those who can't (and I include in that a French couple that we met over lunch in L'Ametlla de Mar) seem to feel like permanent holiday makers; those who can describe their adopted country as 'home'.

Although my French and Latin background means that I can understand a good deal of written Spanish and Catalan, my spoken command massacre of both doesn't bear description; it barely goes beyond being able to pass the time of day, book a hotel room or order lunch. Unfortunately it seems that my accent when I do manage to get out a few words must be reasonable, because invariably the other person comes back with a torrent of stuff at a million kilometres an hour that just goes right over my head; fortunately however it seems that my accent suggests me to be French and not English. I say fortunately for two reasons: firstly it's much more likely that the other person can cobble together a few words of French than English, and secondly because it's no secret that French visitors and holidaymakers are rather more respected than English ones.

And I have to tell you that I hated having a language barrier. Not just because of the shame I felt when I couldn't understand what people said to me, but also because there were so many things I wanted to ask different people at different times, like the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable woman who showed us round the Civil War Museum in Corbera d'Ebre. So it's decided: this year's Solstice resolution is going to be Getting To Grips With Spanish, at long last. But I'm left, once again, with the question of how people manage to live in a country without having at least a reasonable command of its language.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (2)

Catalonia has always made the most of the resources offered by the sea. The Mediterranean has given to the Catalans a great variety of marine species, up to 120. The most popular fish are small hake, sardines, John Dory or tuna. Nearly everything is used: heads and skeletons, small and ugly rock fish, crustaceans, ‘not very noble’ molluscs and urchin’s gonads. It can be said that the Catalans are one of the most ichthyophagous peoples in the world.
So says the portal site of the Generalitat de Catalunya, at least. I'm afraid I can't (knowingly) report back to you on the taste of urchin's gonads, but we did eat a lot of fish and seafood, and one of our most memorable afternoons was spent at the llotja - fish auction - in Sant Carles de Rapita. For no really apparent reason this little seaside town had a huge appeal for us - it's not the most obviously picturesque of the fishing villages we spent time at (that distinction goes to L'Ametlla de Mar), but it's one of those places that just seems to feel right.

It's one of the most important fishing ports in Catalonia, and we went for two reasons: to eat a fishy lunch (it's known for its seafood restaurants), and then to watch the landing and auctioning of the day's catch in late afternoon.

This is one of the very smallest boats we saw - most are huge

My flabber was well and truly glasted by the sheer number of boats and the amount of fish being landed - some 30 tonnes a day, apparently, on 5 days a week, except for May and June, when the fish get a respite. It's mostly sold by auction, though many buyers cluster round the boats as they come in; we were told that a lot of the fish goes to Madrid. 

Fish being unloaded from one of the boats

The auction itself is an amazing affair. It's hyper-modern, with all the bidding done electronically; buyers have a hand held gizmo, and as each tray of fish moves through the hall, they bid as the price goes down by pressing the right button. It's a Dutch auction - all about holding one's nerve!

The fish is loaded onto conveyor belts which take it through the hall

It's a bit like a theatre, and visitors are welcome to observe from the gallery at the top. So we did, spending a long time watching this fascinating process, learning the Catalan names for all sorts of fish and trying to work out how it all functioned. Each tray is photographed as it moves through the line; the details of the contents are flashed up on the screen in red letters and then the bidding starts. It's all over in seconds, then the next tray moves forward and so it continues.

The fish 'theatre' at Sant Carles de Rapita

It's easy when you're faced with the sheer volume of all this to start getting het up about overfishing, but the truth is that the vast majority of the catch does indeed seem to be 'small and ugly' fish and 'not very noble' molluscs, all apparently equally prized for the plate here; I certainly had one memorable fish soup which was more than half composed of odd looking things in shells, not one of which I recognised! It's probably the fish equivalent of nose to tail eating - gill to fin eating, would that be?

A sunset or three ...

The sunsets over the Ebro Delta were amazing, and it was always worth braving the mosquitoes to see them:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (1)

There's not much - almost nothing, in fact - that I miss from north Norfolk, but apart from the wonderful hot and buttery toasted teacakes at The Owl in Holt (sigh), I do miss the birds and the big skies of the marshes. Grillou is brilliant for birds - we have to keep remembering, for example, not to take for granted the fact that we have red and black kites flying over the garden pretty much every day - but there's something about wetland birds that reaches the twitcher in me that other birds just can't reach.

And so it was that I unanimously decided that we'd spend our holidays this year near the Ebro Delta in Catalonia, one of southern Europe's great wetlands (of course the fact that we'd be within spitting distance from the Priorat wine area may just have swayed the choice a little ...!). We're still getting used to the fact that we can be in Spain in less than an hour and a half, just about twice the time it used to take us to drive to our nearest town of Norwich; at the beginning of November we set off on a leisurely five hour drive through the dramatic scenery of the southern Pyrenean foothills, down onto the Lleida plain, up again into the craggy olive-growing mountains of southern Catalonia and then down to the banks of the Ebro, where we'd rented an apartment for a couple of weeks.

We didn't get teacakes, but we did get big skies and birds, including thousands of flamingoes (now you don't find those in Norfolk :) ) as well as some species that were new to us, like the red crested pochard and black-necked grebe. We also got great walking, clementines straight off the tree, wonderful wines, fabulous scenery, amazing sunsets, and some - um - fairly crappy weather ( if we'd stayed at home we'd have had nigh on wall-to-wall sunshine and 20+ degrees; although we had some good days it was relatively chilly and on occasion positively torrential). It's a great region that combines within a relatively small area three of my favourite things: birds, mountains (albeit little ones) and sea. Oh, and wine :), though I may have mentioned that already. So here and in the next post or three I'll share some photos and a taste of a part of Europe very different from our lovely Ariège.

A misty dawn over the Ebro

Our apartment was in the town of Mora d'Ebre, in the historic part which runs right along and behind the river. To be honest, the town itself isn't much to write home about, but it's well placed for exploring, the river banks are lovely, and this was the view we woke up to each day: 

From the balcony of our apartment
Bridge over the Ebro in the mist

Cormorants on their way up river

Looking up river

First hint of sunrise


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A little navel gazing

The leaves are falling off the trees, the potager is almost bare, and I can hardly believe that we've just been stashing away all the garden furniture, solar lights and all the rest for the winter. A couple of months ago we passed our 5 year milestone in this house, and in another couple it will be 6 years since we packed our bags into the boot of the car and came to live in France.

So here we are, already at the end of our first summer season welcoming guests. Inevitably as the days get shorter (sob) we go into reflective mood and start taking stock. What's it been like? What did we get right, and what did we get wrong? What have we discovered? What are we going to change or introduce for next year? Here I share with you just a few random ruminations for a cool autumn evening.

1.  When we first started to think about living in France we were initially unsure whether to set up a maison d'hôtes or to buy a small house for ourselves and have a couple of separate houses nearby to let to guests on a pure holiday rental basis. All I can say is that the two of us are soooo relieved we made the choice we did, because it's clear that we'd have got an awful lot less satisfaction from the rental route. We honestly think that people who choose to stay in a maison d'hôtes or bed and breakfast must be particularly lovely human beings, because pretty much without exception everyone has been a joy to share our home with.

2.  One of the things that we've got very right is the design of the house, which gives us as well as our two sets of guests complete privacy. So there's no question of bumping into someone you don't know very well (or even at all) when you emerge bleary eyed in the morning to make coffee, and no having to whisper to each other because there's another room right across the landing. Believe me, after 13 years of welcoming bed and breakfast guests in village houses, that's pure joy for me as well as for our guests!

3.  The great delight in doing what we do is meeting so many different people and being able to share in their lives, hear their stories, sit down with them over dinner or a glass of wine, find them a perfect walk for the day. We've had guests from all over the place - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, Canada and the UK, many of whom we've got to know through lots of exchanged emails even before they arrive. Often our guests have invited us for an apéro or, in one case, for 'afternoon tea' - and that's very touching because it makes us think that they must feel really at home.

4.  After several years of being chained to the kitchen while my guests sat down to dinner, finally I'm able to be out there sitting down and eating with them. That brings its own challenges, of course, like not getting carried away in a particularly juicy conversation while the next course quietly burns in the oven, but we seem to have largely mastered the art of cooking-serving-and-joining-in reasonably seamlessly now. I'm hugely grateful for those years in our restaurant kitchen though, or I have a feeling it would all feel much more difficult!

5.  While we're delighted that all but one set of this summer's guests have dined with us at least once (and frequently more often), we've noticed that fewer people than we expected have eaten out in restaurants more than once during their stay (and quite a few not at all). To be honest we have a few mixed feelings about that: while we'd obviously like to be doing our bit to support our local restaurants by sending them our guests, we know that it's a growing trend for people on holiday to pull in the reins in one area or another and we understand the need to do that. So what to do? Well, we're going to do two things - a kind of two-pronged attack, if you like. The first is to try and find the time to write a better restaurant guide to give a more enticing flavour of what's on offer out there; and the second is to create a summer kitchen in one of the barns so that for a lot of the year guests in La P'tite Maison, our chambre d'hôtes suite, will have the means to rustle up lunch or dinner even if the weather's not really good enough to get the barbecues out.

6.  We both feel incredibly lucky to be able to have the freedom to create in what we do, and to keep tweaking and growing to make our home and our lifestyle and what we offer even better (we hope!). That's really important for us - one of the things we both dread is getting stale and predictable, and we've seen too many people over the years lose their joy in welcoming guests by getting burned out.

7.  We work as hard as we ever did, but we have a lot more fun doing it!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

And then there were two ...

Go on, admit it. You all knew it would happen, didn't you? Meet the new member of the Grillou family, Hobo.

After my last rant on here, I started doing all the things you do here when you find a lost dog: registering Hobo as' found' on the national dog register, asking round at the vets' surgeries, talking to the postman and the local shops, advertising in the local paper, and putting up a listing on And while the first four things did nothing at all, the fifth proved to be amazing.

Within hours of my listing going live, I'd had a phone call from someone who lives in La Réunion and is involved in animal rescue there, offering to try and find out from the local vets what might have happened to his owner. Somebody else from La Réunion contacted me to tell me she was going to go in person to Hobo's registered address to see if she could find out anything. Somebody else offered to phone all the people with the same surname as the owner in Midi-Pyrénées. I met somebody local involved with an animal rescue association outside the vets, who was a great help. And various other people phoned me just to be supportive, one of whom - who lives in the Vosges and is also involved in animal rescue - offered to do some digging and as a last ditch solution to take Hobo for rehoming if no home or owner could be found. It was amazing, and it really opened my eyes to just how open and giving the 'doggie' community is here.

Meanwhile, our guests arrived with a dog of their own - an absolutely gorgeous black cocker spaniel, completely loopy and in her element having two besotted males to boss around! And for a week the three of them had the best of times, though Hobo couldn't quite join in the wild games of the other two and would stand to one side with an expression of "oh - I so wish I could do that" on his face. Noodles, meanwhile, was ecstatic in the company of his doggie friends.

And then a few days later, I had a phone call from someone in the next village. "Can I come round?" she said, "I've just been contacted by someone in the Vosges and I need to talk to you about Hobo". And so she did. Hobo's story is truly extraordinary and very sad, but for various reasons I'm not going to tell it here. Suffice it to say that she and her partner had brought Hobo from a previous 'rescue' home elsewhere in France with the aim of keeping him, but one of their other dogs had other ideas and took against him. Hobo became very stressed out and started to spend each day out wandering; eventually one day he just didn't go home. He had, it seems, been wandering the hills looking for a suitable home for himself, and when he found one - ours - simply stayed.

What do you do when you've been chosen by a dog? And when your own dog seems to be telling you in no uncertain terms they'd like not to be an only dog? Yep. You become a two dog family.

He learns fast from his older brother:

And has the occasional unsavoury habit, like rolling in - um - fumier:

But mostly he's the gentlest, sweetest and most affectionate creature you could imagine:

And as the top photo shows, he's learning how to play for the first time. And we're very happy that fate, or whatever it was, brought him Grillou-wards.