Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Mussels, flamingos and sheer desperation

Last Sunday was John's birthday. Why he has to have a birthday three days after Christmas I don't know - wouldn't you think that his parents could have stopped in mid - er - conception and spared him all those years of not getting proper presents ("We've bought you an Extra Large Christmas Pressie this year, dear"), not to mention spared me the vexed question of how to celebrate this year's Big One? Well, yes, they could have, but they didn't. Mean, eh?

We don't usually bother very much with birthdays, it has to be said - best not to notice the years rolling by - but this was one of those milestone birthdays that you really can't ignore. So a short sharp surprise trip was in order. In typical Libran fashion I ummed and aaahed for several weeks trying to decide where to go, but in the end three things made the decision for me: mussels, flamingos and sheer desperation. So it was off to the Aude coast and the villages of Bages and Peyriac sur Mer, two of the most atmospheric (and photogenic) places I know.

Yes, this is the same Languedoc coast that was developed into resortland in the 1960s when the government decided that the working classes should be able to afford to go to the beach too - though not, heaven forfend, to the Côte d'Azur where they went themselves. So they sprayed the beaches to get rid of the mosquitos (as they still do every year, though it doesn't work), created a number of purpose-built resorts for the mass market ... and the mass market duly came, and still comes, in ever-increasing droves. Don't get me wrong, it's not as gross as it sounds - we even go there ourselves (!) ... some of the beaches are more reminiscent of Australia than France, many of the resorts have been decently laid out with lots of space and greenery, and it is more egalitarian and, I think, more welcoming than the celebrity sands of the Côte d'Azur. And here and there you can still find pockets that remain much as they have been for centuries, like the snappily titled Parc Naturel Régional de la Narbonnaise en Méditerranée, of which Bages and Peyriac form a part.

Both villages are right on the edge of saltwater lagoons, which means that the light is just dreamy, and the bird life fantastic.

I poddled round with my camera, getting seriously stuck in the mud at one point, although it was worth it to get shots like these:

And of course we saw these:

and ate these:

What more could you want? Well, actually, some decent weather would have been nice: we drove there through blizzards and howling gales which were the subject of an Alerte Orange (severe weather warning), and although the snow melted fast the skies remained resolutely grey and menacing until Monday, when they opened and promptly dropped several centimetres of rain in a few hours. When we got home, we discovered that it had been warm and sunny here in Ariège all the time ... so much for the bloody Med.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Happy Winter Solstice!

Forget December 25th or January 1st: today is the real winter fest, and the one we at Grillou like to celebrate. Nothing new in that: the Winter Solstice has been a time of great celebration since the era of our earliest ancestors. And think about it: no calendars, no clocks ... but our ancient ancestors always knew precisely when the earth begins its journey back to the light, back to warmth, growth and spring ...

So today has been a time to feel the turning, to let go of what needs to be left behind, and to dream into being what we want from the next year. It has been the most glorious, warm, sunny day; we've filled the house with greenery from our woodland, and will celebrate tonight, the longest night, with a Solstice dinner, a room full of candles and a bottle of Montirius Vacqueyras (and hang the exchange rate!).

Two things to mark this Solstice: first, the lovely evening light in this photo (I took it from the bathroom window just over an hour before writing this) of the sun going down over Mont Valier:

And secondly, these words of Albert Camus, sent to me today by a friend as a Solstice greeting:
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an
invincible summer.

Blessed be!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

There's no such thing as a free lunch

In comparative studies of different countries' healthcare, France consistently comes out near, and often at, at the top. Waiting times are almost non-existent, technical expertise is at a very high level and the system is largely based around choice: the patient's choice of which doctor or specialist to see, and the doctor's choice of treatment, largely unconstrained by cost factors. Need an operation? The chances are you'll be offered it next week. Need an injection? No problem; the nurse will come to your home and do it, this afternoon if you like. Need an unusual (and expensive) drug? That's fine too - no postcode prescribing here. As a result the vast majority of French people pronounce themselves to be very happy with their healthcare, and boy, do they use it! It's fully expected here that you'll visit your medecin traitant (GP) for even the slightest symptom - sore throat, cold, headache, indigestion, sleepless night, itch in a strange place ... and over 94% of GP visits here result in a drug prescription. Indeed they're generally considered ineffective unless they do so; the average French household has cupboards full of half used or even unused medications. The fact that I haven't seen a doctor for some twenty years (and have no desire to do so for at least another twenty) provokes at first hilarity, and then - when they realise I'm serious - out and out horror amongst French acquaintances and friends. 

The upside of all this is that the French can expect to live longer, and more healthily, than most people who live elsewhere. The downside? Well, cost, of course. Unlike the UK, the French health service is not free at the point of delivery; it has always been partly contributory. All working people, and their employers, pay hefty cotisations (contributions) towards their health care. The state then covers a certain percentage (ranging from 15% to 100%) depending on the type of treatment, with  the balance being paid directly by the individual either out of their own pocket or through a 'top-up' complementary health insurance policy. But the French healthcare system is still one of the most expensive in the world to run, with a current deficit of over 4 billion euros. (It would be more expensive still if doctors were paid anything like their counterparts in the UK, who now receive salaries of which the French can only dream ...). And I'm beginning to see why.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that earlier this year John had a close encounter with the health system here in the form of a stay in a Toulouse hospital (cost to the Social Security system / our top-up insurers: a mere 1196 euros a day - nearly fifteen thousand euros in all. And that's without surgery ...). All has been well since then, but a couple of months ago it was suggested he go back for an 'MOT', which in his case comprised 10 hours in the Hôpital de Jour being subjected to no less than 23 different tests on every conceivable part of his bodily functioning, arteries, kidneys etc, with breakfast, lunch and goûter thrown in alongside sessions with several consultant doctors. Cost to Social Security / top-up: 940 euros. It's the kind of thing that belongs firmly in BUPA territory in the UK, but perfectly normal here. On the day before this marathon, he'd had to present himself to yet another department for the fitting of a Holter ambulant blood pressure monitor (don't ask); while he was there, the doctor announced that they were 'just going to do one test that day instead of the next' and that 'we've ordered lunch for you'. Test was duly done, and dusted, all within 30 minutes, lunch was duly declined (if you ever have the misfortune to stay at CHU Rangueil you'll know why).

One of the administrative strengths of the French health system - and heaven knows there aren't many: it's as cumbersome as a cart horse - is that you always know exactly how much each element of your care is costing, because you get a bill for it. We were, shall I say, a little surprised then when the bill arrived for the Holter day and it was - wait for it - 940 euros ... the full day rate. Hmm. I thought about this one, and smelt a scam. Not a scam on us, because 80% of the bill was covered by Social Security, and the remaining 20% by our top-up. But a scam by the hospital to - how can I put this? - maximise its income. By shifting one short test a day forward, and providing lunch, the hospital reckoned it had justified charging the 940 euros day rate instead of the appropriate costs for one consultation and one test - 75.60 euros, to be precise.

So I decided to call it. I wrote to the Director of the hospital, suggesting (with the utmost politesse of course) that an "unfortunate error must have occurred". I copied the letter to our local Social Security office, to the consultant-in-chief of the day hospital, to John's medecin traitant. "Bof!" said my neighbour. "Why bother? It's normal. Sécu have paid it already [they had]. In any case, you'll never win". But do you know what? I did. No letter, no acknowledgement even. Just a revised bill. In the great overspend that is the French health service, it's not even a molecule in the ocean. But I feel better for it.

You see, it's true. There really is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Sunday, 14 December 2008

So who said Brussels is boring?

We've just spent a few days in Brussels. Don't ask me why; I really haven't a clue what possessed us to go there other than a travel deal so good that even the scary state of our sterling income couldn't entice me to turn it down and the fact that, bizarrely, I've never been there. The day before we set off, I was mournfully scanning the weather forecast for central Belgium and seriously contemplating doing a no-show (although ironically, it was in the event scarcely colder than the Arctic conditions that we're currently experiencing here ...).

Brussels doesn't come with an especially good press, having several times been voted 'the most boring city in Europe', and being popularly regarded as the grey haunt of grey Eurocrats. "You're going where???" shrieked friends, regarding me with that pitious expression reserved for those on the edge of a minor breakdown. But do you know what? Brussels is neither grey, nor boring, and we loved it. Here's why:

It's one of the most multi-cultural, and multi-lingual, cities I've ever been to; you can walk down the street and be surrounded by every European (and a good few non-European) language you can think of. For a language-holic like me that makes it hugely exciting. We had a memorable dinner one night at a south Italian trattoria where I could practise my appalling Italian as that was the lingua franca, and where for a good while we were the only non-Italians in the place; the next night we decamped to the Turkish area near the botanical gardens to eat pide and kefta every bit as good as I've eaten in Mugla.

It has some fabulous Art Nouveau architecture, like the Musée des Instruments de Musique:

not to mention some superb galleries, like the Musée des Beaux Arts, where we ogled at Brueghel, puzzled at Magritte and discovered that Rubens didn't just paint buxom nudes.

It's great for street wandering, with lots of different quarters with distinctive looks and personalities, and it's small enough to explore on foot. The Sunday morning market by the Gare du Midi must be one of the biggest I've ever seen: part eye-popping vegetable market, part souk, we haggled for spices and ate Moroccan pancakes. And later that day, at the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, I found things I've been looking for for centuries, but had to leave them behind because they wouldn't fit in my rucksack ...

It's real. A bit gritty round the edges; a mish mash of old, new, beautiful, ordinary and (occasionally) jaw-droppingly ugly. Which means you have to work a bit harder, perhaps, than you do in Paris, or Rome. Which makes it all the more interesting.

It has very decent bars and cafés. Cool ones, right-on environment friendly ones, trendy ones, traditional ones, brown ones ... two of our favourites were Au Vieux Bon Temps, which feels as though it hasn't changed since the forties (and probably nor has its clientele ...), and this one, Le Cirio, a bit more well known but with this gorgeous interior:

And (of course) it has beer. Nine hundred different ones, apparently, from over 200 breweries. And no, we didn't try them all, although we made a more than valiant attempt. I'm not usually an out-and-out beer lover, but these are different: more like tasting wine. A couple of 9% Trappist beers before dinner is enough to make you very happy indeed.

And it does a mean Christmas market. I'm not a Christmas person, at all - in fact I'm a bit of a bah humbug type - but I'm a sucker for pretty lights, ice rinks, mulled wine and all the trimmings, so long as it's not twee, which this wasn't. The sound and light show at the Grand Place was startling; the view from the top of the Big Wheel over the ice rink and market was straight out of Brueghel. On Sunday afternoon it felt as though the whole of Belgium was there, and we played sardines.

I'm glad we went when we did because it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Belgium as we know it may not survive indefinitely. Tensions between the Flemish and Walloon (French speaking) regions run high with Flemish politicians still looking for independence, and if the results of a poll of French speakers published in Le Point last week are to be believed, a majority of Walloons now wanting to join France. It's a fascinating but complicated story of the relationship between language and culture, which traces its roots back to the 1830s when the Netherlands ruled; the Walloons took to the streets in their own version of revolution, following which a kingdom was set up with French as its official language. It was only in the 1960s, when the heavy industries that had given Wallonia its financial power were in decline but French was still the predominant language of the bourgeoisie, that the country was officially divided into discrete language areas (still current) and Flanders was given more say in the country's politics. Brussels is an aberration: the only officially bi-lingual area in the country, it sits in Dutch speaking Flanders, though it's much more French than Dutch.

From what I can gather from Belgian commentators and blogs, much of the resentment between the two communities is based on stereotyping. The Flemish are frightened of the alleged Walloon contempt for the Dutch; they also fear that their growing prosperity will be dragged down by the poorer economic performance - and the perceived laziness - of the Walloons. "We have had enough of paying for people who are just sucking at the welfare tit. The Flemish have a work ethic, too many Walloons just expect a free ride," was a recent, and sadly typical, comment by a Flemish woman. It feels a bit as if the tension between the two communities is the tension between the Anglo Saxon way and the French way: do you live to work (Anglo Saxon), or do you work to live (French)? Big generalisations, yes. But that's how it is. There are endless stories of an every day language apartheid: a school in Flanders that won't take pupils if they speak French at home; a tennis club that turns away anyone heard to be speaking French. There are no Belgium-wide political parties: only Flemish, French and German (because there's a little known German-speaking community too) ones. A French gite owner once told me, from experience, that the biggest mistake I could make if I got an enquiry from a Flemish guest would be to speak to them in French rather than English - which would almost certainly lose the booking.

I suspect there won't be a happy ending to this one, any more than there is to most relationship breakdowns. Acrimonious divorce looks a bit more likely than mediation.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Before and after

Writing is a funny thing: very often a piece has a life of its own and ends up being completely different from the one you (thought you) intended to write in the first place. Take my previous post, for example. I actually set out with the idea of showing a few before and after pictures of The Project So Far, just to reassure you that we do in fact manage to find the odd thing to do to fill our days ... and I ended up talking about Slow Design and quoting Rilke. Ah well. There's process for you.

And here's a bit of The Project So Far:

Part of the salon-as-we-inherited-it, complete with its latex-covered, oil painted walls (I kid you not. But that's nothing. I have a friend whose kitchen walls were covered in lino) ...

There's a very good reason why John is dressed up in a North Norfolk District Council bin bag. I just can't quite recall now what it is ...

What you don't see here, of course, is the way the plaster fell off the wall every time we tried to paint it; or the horrific mess I made (mainly of myself) when I lightened the wooden staircase from its previous ghastly red colour to light oak. Nor do you get any hint of the seagrass trauma that was to come) ...

But finally, our salon has now settled into this, complete with wood burning stove that arrived last week, just too late for the really cold weather but just in time to catch the euro-sterling rate at its lowest:

Okay, so it's not always that tidy. Moving swiftly on ... next door (through the opening on the right above), my study/therapy room, previously a bedroom that didn't really have any walls at all, just lengths of silky material stretched on battens over render (when we took it down it was so full of dust that I sneezed for a month ...):

And back the other way, the kitchen, with John trying unsuccessfully to unstick his hand from a cupboard ...

... under its previous régime. Admittedly you don't get the full effect of twenty-plus years of cooking gunk ingrained into the oak units, nor can you see the breathtaking variety of paint effects, but you can see it was pink. Very pink. Very very pink. After several centuries (no, that's not an exaggeration) of stripping, sanding, more sanding, sealing and seven - yes, seven coats of paint, it now looks like this:

And yes, thank you, I know it would have been easier to strip it out and replace it with an IKEA kitchen. Don't think we didn't contemplate it. But oak is oak, and green is green. And as we all know, it's not easy being green.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Learning to love the questions

I had an email from a old friend in England the other day. "So what do you actually find to do all day?" she asked, amongst other things. 

You know what they say about an over-hasty click on the send button. Well, I didn't, although I did walk around with my mouth hanging open for longer than was elegant, or probably necessary. Mind you we used to get similar comments quite frequently during the restaurant years: you'd be amazed how many people thought that we enjoyed endless lazy mornings and afternoons drinking coffee or walking to the beach, before pottering into the kitchen at - oh, six o'clock maybe, to throw together a four course dinner for 12. (If you really want to know, we started work before 8am, and finished after midnight. And in over eight years we only made it to the beach three times ...). And, more seriously and even more sadly, we lost not a few friends during that period because, I think, some people found it hard to accept that we couldn't close up on a Saturday night just because they'd invited us for dinner, or spend much time with them if they dropped in to see us or even booked one of our guest rooms for the weekend. But I digress. 
I admit it may look, from a distance, as though we've become fully paid up members of the leisured classes. Things are going slowly. Sometimes it's frustrating; sometimes it's depressing. But we're at the point now where we've lived here all four seasons round, and so have a much better idea what the house wants and needs from us as well as what we want and need from it; if we'd steamed ahead with a fully fledged renovation a year ago we would, quite frankly, have got it wrong. What we've embarked on, unwittingly but appropriately, is the process of Slow Design. Slow Design (and yes, it really does exist: Google it ...) is about pulling in the reins and breathing deeply; it's about listening, talking to and loving the project even - especially - before it starts to take shape; about taking time to do things thoughtfully, responsibly, holistically, ethically, well, and most importantly in a way that will allow us (and you, should you come here) to derive pleasure from them. You could say that it's a bit like the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. And just as in person centred therapy, the process is as important as the product - actually, more than. 

When I was training to be a therapist, my tutor at the University of East Anglia, Brian Thorne, introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke and in particular to Letters To A Young Poet, one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. It affected me deeply then, and still does. Amongst the many paragraphs that come right out and hit me in the gut is this one: 

Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart, and to learn to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the key is this, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, without hardly noticing, you will live along some distant day into the answers.

Do you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?