Sunday, 27 December 2009

So how was your Christmas?

I don't really do Christmas. Nor, it must be said, does France, where it's a bit of a one day wonder; traditionally, a long réveillon dinner on Christmas Eve, after which presents are exchanged, followed by an only slightly less demanding Christmas Day lunch. Then it's back to work as usual on the 26th - no Boxing Day here. It's all pretty low key, marked mainly by the absence of special promos and a sudden hike in the price of oysters. Presumably because we're all used to shops not being open 24/7, there's no panic fuelled filling of chariots - while tills rattle with more euros than usual, it's quality not quantity that is the order of the day - foie gras, seafood, goose, capon, champagne, good wine (and hey - it's only a week until the food fest starts all over again with the Réveillon Saint Sylvestre - New Year's Eve ...).

This year I didn't do Christmas even more than I usually don't do it. If you see what I mean.

What I didn't do:

Go to a Christmas market. No time.
Eat and drink too much. Ditto.
Go for a Christmas Day walk. Ditto again.
Send any Christmas cards. Except online.
Buy a Christmas tree. Surrounded by them right outside the window.
Buy loadsa Christmas presents. Bah humbug.
Watch interminable quiz shows and 'best of' programmes on TV. No TV.
See anyone except John. Miserable antisocial creature that I am.

What I did:

Painted 45 square metres of ceiling in La Petite Maison's bedroom.
Played with my one Christmas present. Which was - wait for it - a new stepladder (oh, but what a ladder ...).
Ate a sandwich in the sun at lunchtime.
Prepared some pigments and a bucket of lime wash for the next day.
Paid some bills and got excited when I discovered that my stamps smelt of chocolate (how could you not love a country that produces stamps that look and smell like a chocolate bar?).
Cooked a magret for dinner, a rare treat for two infrequent meat eaters.
Looked anxiously out of the window at 5pm to see if the days are getting longer ...

And do you know what? It was a perfectly joyeuse fête.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The blue tits' hot tub, and other stories

Just to keep the record straight, I guess I may as well add my voice to the thousands of other bloggers who are commenting on the current weather. Yes, it's a little chilly, and we're still surrounded by icy snow. In fact the temperature here hasn't risen above freezing now for a week, with the honourable exception of lunchtime today when the sky turned sapphire blue and the sun came out (though round the corner in the shade it stubbornly stuck at precisely 0 degrees ...). And so, never ones to be outdone by a bit of weather, we ate lunch outside, in it but surrounded by snow. Very nice it was too. I even took my fleece off. That's the south of France for you.

As we ate, we were joined by an exceptionally large contingent of militant blue, great and marsh tits, who were demonstrating in true French style for better food. They already have fat balls, seeds and a cranberry fat cake (!), but they obviously remember last year's cold winter when we took to buying them kilos of cantal jeune. It won't be long before they're tapping at the window again when their supplies have run out ... The best bit though was when we topped up the bird bath with warm water: within a couple of minutes it was literally full of blue tits scudding round enjoying the warmth, then leaping out and rolling in the snow before landing back in the warm water again, chirping with delight all the while. Blue (and other) tits are fascinating and surprisingly clever little things: if you doubt me, try and get hold of a book by Len Howard called Birds as Individuals, written in the 1950s. She - for Len was a woman - literally lived with her birds, many of whom lived and nested inside her Sussex cottage; she knew them all individually and shared their daily lives to the point where she was almost one of them. It's a wonderful book; although I couldn't imagine taking living with birds to the degree that she did (twenty great tits roosting on the curtain rail? Um - perhaps not) we did, when in Norfolk, have a large contingent of blackbirds who all, as individuals, became a part of our family while, in a strange way, we became a part of theirs. They would think nothing of sitting on my desk as I tried to make a phone call, or perching behind me on my garden chair as I ate breakfast, or flying round the house to look for me if there were no sultanas (their favourite food, which we bought by the 3 kilo bag, five at a time ...) on the step, or bringing us their disabled offspring for adoption. I miss them - we have several pairs of blackbirds here, but so far they're all true 'wild' birds and much shyer, although I think I detect a slight increase in fearlessness this year from one of the females (do I? Or is it just wishful thinking?).

When it snows, we're effectively snowed in: our chemin rural, like most such animals here, isn't treated or cleared, and the last bit of it that joins the road to the village entails negotiating a short but sharp drop. Or climb, depending whether you're coming or going . At the end of the drop - or beginning of the climb (yes, I'm on fine form today ...) - which negotiates several bends and a camber, there's a very narrow bridge, a ditch, and a 90 degree turn onto the road. Put all that lot together and you have a formula guaranteed to send even a 4x4 into a tailspin - as it did a couple of days ago when a friend decided to visit. He beat a hasty and not unscathed retreat. If the worst comes to the worst, we can walk to the village and back - a pleasant, if slippery, round stroll of 6 kilometres. But mostly we're just happy to accept our temporary confinement, and wait for the snow and ice to melt or someone to take pity on the occupants of the three houses on the chemin and bring a tractor up here, whichever happens the sooner. It's all part of the ah-so-ness that comes with living somewhere like Grillou - and indeed it's the very thing that we came here to find. And one day perhaps you will, too.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Hex your ex ...

Just in case you're still looking for that elusive Christmas present, I may have found you just the thing. This week's pub (that's as in publicité - the stuff that drops into our postbox every week regaling us with the best bargain buys) tells me that La Foir'Fouille is selling voodoo dolls, complete with pins. There are dolls to represent your boss, your ex-partner, and ... your mother in law. ("She harasses you on the phone? Regales you constantly with a thousand and one useless bits of information? Criticises your lifestyle, the way you cook, the way you bring up your kids? A great present for anyone who wants to wreak vengeance on their mother in law").

Each voodoo point is labelled with a 'vengeful wish': by judicious pin sticking, you can apparently cause your MIL to lose her voice, fall down the stairs, suffer permanent memory loss or choke on her dinner, amongst other things (none of them pleasant). "Warning" says the blurb for these things, "This is not a toy or game". Hmm. Nice.

Mind you, voodoo dolls are not new here. Last year, a publishing firm started to sell a voodoo doll of Nicolas Sarkozy. He was so - er - needled by the doll that he took the company to court, claiming was that every citizen in France owned the rights to their own image ... and he lost. The court's ruling was that the doll fell within the 'boundaries of freedom of expression and the right to humour'. The irony is that before he took legal action, nobody had heard of the dolls, but the whole affair became big news and sales rocketed.

Now I'm all for freedom of expression, but I'm not sure I'd describe what's going on here as 'humour'. But then France moves in mysterious ways ...

Merry Christmas, belle mère.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A steam driven geek ...

For some reason, a lot of people seem to think I know what I'm doing on the end of a laptop. A friend of mine even refers to me as her 'tame geek'. Now I can see it may look as though I'm technologically savvy - and I suppose to a limited degree I am. (I certainly am compared to John, who honestly believes he's going to 'break' the computer if he so much as touches it. Hmm. Very convenient ...). But ... although I can put on a fairly convincing show, I'm like the language teacher who's only ever one lesson ahead of her pupils, and what knowledge I have garnered over the years is well past its use by date.

And now my chickens are fast coming home to roost. Over the last eight or nine years, I guess I've created and run some fifteen websites for different purposes, including sites for our restaurant with rooms, a community site to encourage environmental tourism in our old village in north Norfolk, a site for a Ban the (plastic) Bag campaign, a couple devoted to workshops, retreats and therapy, and a networking site for English speakers here in Ariège. Mostly, I've used various versions of Front Page - Microsoft's WYSIWYG web editor which allowed you to create sites without knowing a word of code. Which I didn't, really (see, I told you I was a sham). But to be honest I've been getting more and more dissatisfied with the end result - a kind of 'Front Page' look which while functional can by no stretch of the imagination be described as inspiring. More important even than that, I've slowly realised just how Microsoft-centric the code created by Front Page is - view a FP web site in Firefox or Google Chrome and unless the author has painstakingly hand-edited the code it's usually gobbledegook. W3C compliant it isn't. [Goodness. That almost sounds as though I know what I'm talking about. But don't be fooled ...].

But now the time has come - actually it came a while back, though I ignored it and hoped it might go away - to start putting together some new sites for Grillou. And I have some decisions to make. Like - er - how to go about it. Carrying on with Front Page is a no-no, so do I use an online WYSIWYG website builder? Many of them are distinctly naff; too often their sites have that tell-tale look. And me, follow the crowd? Nah. Too egotistical for that. I could use a Wordpress platform as a base - lots of holiday accommodation owners are doing that now, with good results. That's on the 'possible' list. Or I could pay someone else to do the whole thing for me. That's not on the possible list.

Or (or rather and) I could get down to it and learn to code properly. There. I've said it. I don't want to get into this. I really don't. I've got better things to do - or at least I'd like to have - late at night, which at the moment is usually the only time I have to devote to geeky type pursuits. My heart sinks at the idea. "Why me???" it cries, as it stamps its foot in true drama queen fashion. Trouble is, I've moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, which is not a comfortable place to be, for me at least. And so - deep sigh - there really is no alternative.

I thought, tonight, that if I blogged about this, it might just help my intention along a bit. So here it is. Coding here I come: I've committed myself to following a whole load of online tutorials at the W3Schools, until I know what I'm doing.

That may take some time. I'll be back.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


One of the very few things I miss from England is its plethora of charity shops, which for many years kept me supplied with books and clothes and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, most of which eventually found their way back again to whence they'd come. One of the things I don't miss, however, is the concept of charity that lies behind them.

I don't think of myself as being a particularly uncharitable - as in mean spirited or ungenerous - being. But nevertheless I do have huge problems with the notion of 'charity'. It's divisive: it divides those who have the means to give from those who receive. It creates a distance. It creates inequality, and therefore classes. It sets up a situation where I do something for you, not with you or alongside you; in doing so I fail to offer you the chance to be an equal partner in our encounter and therefore I disempower you. And so it encourages and perpetuates paternalism: something which, however well meant, I find intolerable.

To me the concepts of justice and equality, of exchange, and of mutuality and reciprocity are the crucial ones. So, for example, I don't offer a concessionary rate to therapy clients, but because I see money as simply a form of energy, I do offer the opportunity to take sessions on the basis of energy exchange, as in 'I offer you therapy, you offer me gardening or woodwork or produce from your land or whatever skill you have that I can use'. That way, I don't turn into the magnanimous bestower of favour and the power balance between us starts, and stays, equal. (Interestingly, and to my surprise, very few people have ever taken me up on it, although I'm frequently asked for concessions ...).

And then of course there's the particularly French notion of solidarité. Not the same as the much more political (and oft-maligned) use of the word in the UK, la solidarité is not only a much-used word but also an accepted part of day to day community life here. But what is it? Strangely enough one of the best attempts I've found to define it comes from Martine Aubry, the president of the Parti Socialiste, who isn't, it has to be said, one of my favourite politicians, if using those two words together isn't too much of a contradiction in terms. But she writes:

"Solidarity is first and foremost a behaviour that we can all embody in our everyday lives. It's supporting other people when they need it. But then it's also a collective value. So that we can all live better together, and so that each one of us feels comfortable in our society, we need to help each other on a mutual basis. To be in solidarity with someone is to be 'with' that person; to feel their problems and their pain as if they were our own. And solidarity is also doing our best to live better together as a part of our country; to accept the other person as they are, whatever their origin, their neighbourhood, their differences".

Heavens. You could almost believe she's been reading Carl Rogers ...

And so (finally getting to the point ...), now you'll understand why I was truly delighted to encounter the new espace non marchand - non-trade area - at the market in Saint Girons this morning. Basically, the espace non marchand is a higgledy piggledy collection of trestles, stands and simple tarps laid out on the ground, covered with all manner of goods from books to boots to bottles of apple juice, from surplus produce to craftwork to clothes to tools. And people are also there milling around (it's a very convivial spot) offering their services on the same basis. The philosophy here is that you take whatever you need or want when you need or want it, and/or leave whatever you no longer need or want. Need some new working boots? Take them. Fancy a cup of tea? Pour yourself one. But - and here's what makes it radical - no money is involved. At all. Ever. Period. Nor is a tit for tat on the spot exchange required. It all works on the concept of there being sufficient resources for everybody, and it works on responsibility and trust: it's Freecycle (without the begging emails) and freeganism all rolled into one and then some. You don't have to prove your pitiful income or be a - gulp - 'person in need' to be able to benefit, nor is there any monetary value - even in the LETS / SEL* sense - put onto your giving or your taking. It's all very karmic, in the simplest sense of what goes around comes around. All that's expected of you is your willingness to engage in the process, and with the other people involved in the process, as a person.

Charity it ain't. So if this sounds like your thing ... the last Saturday of every month, at St Girons market. See you there.

* LETS: local exchange trading scheme. SEL is the French equivalent, système d'échange local.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Labels are for jam ...

I have an identity problem.

As the loose-bowelled Pigeon of Time swoops low over the unsuspecting Tourist of Destiny, and the flatulent Skunk of Fate wanders into the Air-Conditioning System of Eternity (anyone else a ISIHAC fan?), I notice that I can at last see the end of the renovation in my distant line of sight, and that means I have to get my act together to start describing and promoting what we're offering at Grillou to the world.

And that's not as simple as it could be. Because the world of guest accommodation seems to be rigidly divided into this or that: self-catering or serviced, gîte or chambre d'hôte. You book a gîte: you arrive on a Saturday, hand over your security deposit, get your keys, make up your beds, do your thing for a week; then a week later you clean up, hand back the keys and go home, possibly having seen nothing of your hosts, who may not even live on site. You book a chambre d'hôte: you spend time as a part of your hosts' household - you talk with them, get to know them, you may eat with them, effectively share their lifestyle for a night or several ... but although you may be invited to share their living area your own space is usually limited to a bedroom and bathroom.

In France, as indeed in England when we lived there, the entire culture of domestic scale tourism revolves around this distinction. I'm supposed to choose which side of the line I fall on and which particular mould I fit, following which it will be decreed what I offer (or not), how I describe what I offer, what I advertise as, how I legally frame and register my business, how I select my tax régime and what expenses I'm permitted to deduct. And therein lies my problem. I don't do labels, I don't do moulds, and I don't do either-or. And so neither I, nor Grillou, will ever sit happily in a one-of-two-sizes-fits-all system.

We've been here before, in our restaurant days. "Are you a vegetarian restaurant?". "Er - no". "But you don't serve meat or fish ...". "Er - no". "So you must be a vegetarian restaurant then ...". "Er - no". (Okay, I wasn't quite as obtuse as that, but you get my drift). And here in France, where things are as they are just because they are, I suspect it's going to be pretty hard to break the mould. It is, after all, no accident that one of the favourite expressions here is "c'est comme ça" (that's how it is), accompanied of course by the famous shrug of the shoulders.

So when you're offering a chambre d'hôte that actually isn't a chambre but a whole tiny house, with its own hallway and a proper salon and a bedroom with a mezzanine, along with a huge two level gîte-apartment where you can arrive any day you like, stay for three days or fourteen, take breakfast or not, and where your bed will be made up for your arrival and your accommodation cleaned every other day ... well, it's pretty hard here to find yourself a meaningful tag. And that's without throwing into the pot the fact that each unit is designed, in spite of its size, for one couple without children (or four adults, if both are booked together) - and that in itself is going to be challenging to many French people, who are happy to cram as many people/kids/dogs as they can find into the tiniest space when on holiday and seem never to travel without at least two blow up beds for just that eventuality ... not to mention the fact that dinner will indeed be an option two or three times a week, but not every day; smoking will never be an option; and we don't take dogs (or cats, or hamsters, or ferrets).

Oh dear. I think I've just pretty much written myself off.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The best laid plans ...

This afternoon was marked up for a Serious Start on the first wash of L'Atelier's walls. With pigment, that is - yellow ochre from Provence, and sienna earth from Italy, if you're interested - not with St Marc, the ubiquitous lessive that cleans everything (except plaster dust, of course) and has been a constant feature of my life over the last two weeks as we've attempted to clean up the chantier. That, however, was before John came in with 3 kilos of Rosé-des-Prés (a kind of posh field mushroom).

Now there's only so much fungus that two people can eat at any one time. Especially when they've just been munching their way through the two and a half kilos he brought home three days ago - but, hey, downshifting is downshifting, and foraging is ... fun, and free food. So while we've set aside some to cook for dinner this week, there was nothing for it but to set to and look at how to preserve the rest.

Bottling, I decided, was out. Too complicated, and seems to involve boiling oil. Hmm. Drying? Well, one of the many projects on my list is to make a drying cabinet, but that will have to wait (to use a phrase that seems to form an increasing part of my vocabulary) until all this is over and life is back to normal again ... Some of the smaller mushrooms I flash fried in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley then froze; the rest I decided to turn into a duxelle.

A duxelle is a glorious thing: while the volume reduces, the flavour and intensity increases. If you've never tried it, do - it's very simple, even if it does tie you to the stove for a while. You simply chop finely, mince or - if, like me, life's too short - pulse in the Magimix a good quantity of mushrooms and around a fifth of their weight of onions; fry the onions first in olive oil until they're transparent and start to take on a little colour; then add the mushrooms and stir it all around. At this point you find you have a pan full of wet, unappetising mush, which looks like this:

What you're aiming to do now is to gently simmer out all the liquid until the mixture starts to 'fry'. This will take - er - over two hours if the mushrooms are very fresh (well, I never said it would be fast, did I?). As time goes on, you need to stir the pan more and more often to stop the mixture sticking and burning; you're aiming to reduce the volume usually by around two thirds. Eventually you'll end up with a sort of pâté thick enough for a wooden spoon to stand up in; now season it, and you're done.

So then what? Use it for stuffing; add it to soups and stews (especially good with Puy lentils); add some chopped parsley, garlic and pangritata, then spread it on bruschetta; make beef Wellington; spread it over the pastry base of a mushroom tart before adding the rest of the filling; drape it around pasta; use it as a relish ...

We haven't, so far, done very well at finding any of the big names such as cepes or chanterelles or morilles or girolles nor sadly (and I say this at the risk of tarnishing my already somewhat ropey reputation) the more - er - magical varieties. But that's because we've not had the time to go out looking for them beyond our own back yard, so to speak. When all this is over ...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mother tongue

I read a fascinating snippet in La Dépêche du Midi the other day: according to the German medical anthropologist Kathleen Wermke, babies cry in the language their parents use.

She and her colleagues studied 60 two to five day old babies, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families. They recorded 2,500 cries as mothers changed nappies, got the babies ready feeding or otherwise interacted with them. Acoustic measures allowed the researchers to identify 1,254 cries (a cry being 'a vocalisation produced with a single breath') that contained clear rising-and-falling arcs. German newborns’ cries tended to start out high-pitched and gravitate to increasingly lower pitches, whereas French newborns’ cries started out low-pitched and then moved higher. And those kind of intonation patterns, Wermke says, characterise words and phrases used by fluent speakers of German and French. Well yes, that certainly has a grain of truth in it. Take the word papa, for instance, found in both languages: the French pronunciation slightly stresses the final a so that the intonation rises, whereas a German will stress the first syllable so that it falls. And so on.

Apparently, in the last term of pregnancy, unborn babies become active listeners. Although the sense of hearing is the first to develop, the baby's sense of hearing while still in the uterus is restricted by the amniotic fluid - but what gets through are the melodies and sense of intonation of the mother's speech.

And although I have to admit to being at best ambivalent towards babies, never having had - or even for one moment wanted to have - one, that's the bit that fascinates the languageaholic in me. One thing I do know is that as a foreigner, it's much easier to make yourself understood if you have a good grasp of the 'music' of a particular language but a poorer grasp of its vocabulary and grammar than it is if you're ace at words and grammar but speak the language with the intonation of your own mother tongue.

For as long as I can remember I've picked up on the melodies of the accents of the areas I've lived in. I'm endlessly fascinated by them, and although I don't do it deliberately it takes me usually less than a week to subconsciously adapt my own speaking style to a local one. My Italian, for example, is despicable, but because I've spent more time in Tuscany than any other part of Italy I'm told that what little I can say I say with the Tuscan intonation. A week in South Shields earlier this year left me singing like a Geordie hinnie; and I can still slip into passable Narfock, Brissle, north Yorkshire, Sheffield and Dorset at a moment's notice given the right provocation.

So - rant coming up - why oh why oh why does the music of language continue to be largely ignored in foreign language teaching? Anyone?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Hat laying

We've been AWOL. Overcome by the sheer and unremitting amount of plaster dust in every crevice, we took off for a few days on the Atlantic coast, to Le Teich on the Bassin d'Arcachon. No, I'd never heard of it either, though I've wanted to get to know the Bassin for a long time. We stayed, courtesy of a Good Deal with, in a fairly new residence de tourisme that just happened to be a couple of minutes walk from one of France's major bird reserves; unlike most of its concrete counterparts on the Med coast, this one had real character, being built in traditional Arcachon style - several 'villas' on stilts, wooden framed and faced with wood in different colours, each comprising four apartments and built in a circle around a pool. We felt at home from the moment we arrived. Life for a week was oh-so-simple: we walked, we cycled, we ate, we swam, we read, we chatted with people we met here and there. And there was no plaster dust.

The weather was kind - more than kind in fact: six days of sun and balmy temperatures up in the late twenties ensured that everyone spent the week in hastily-packed shorts and tee shirts. The bird reserve - Le Parc Ornithologique du Teich - was up with our old favourites of Cley Marshes, Titchwell and Minsmere (if I'm honest I could be pressed to say it even outclassed them). The landscape was stunningly photogenic, especially for a died-in-the-wool Light on Water fanatic like me; not unlike north Norfolk in many ways, though the quality of the light makes it into something quite other.

Early morning mist over Le Teich's bird reserve

The puzzle is to work out where the stick emerges from the water ...

Dusk over the Bassin d'Arcachon on Cap Ferret

We twiddled our way home on the back roads through Lot et Garonne and Gers, which got me to thinking about what it is that draws people to want to lay their hats in particular places. When we first decided to live in France, we put Gers on the 'possibles' list, because it's stuffed full of seriously attractive and substantial farmhouses, and because it has attractive rolling countryside, not unlike Tuscany, with villages perched on top of ridges and lots of mellow stone. But I just couldn't take to it; in fact two days into a week long house hunting trip I was in full blown 'get me out of here' mode. I haven't been back since, until now. This time it took just a couple of hours. We explored a bit of Armagnac country and a few bastide towns before staying overnight in Auch, which so should be a great place ... but - and I'm sorry if you live in Gers and love it, I really am - it just doesn't do it for me. Any of it. I can't feel its heart beating or its soul singing. I simply don't get it.

It's such a strange thing, this energy of place. Being basically a nomad at heart I've lived in (I just counted) 19 different places between leaving my parents' house and moving to Grillou, each one not just a different house but an altogether different location. Most of them I've enjoyed, to a greater or lesser degree; the odd few I've not; and a couple I've felt such a strong connection with that I miss them even now. One is Scarborough, the other - can you believe this? - Acton in west London. I suspect Ariège will be another, should I ever leave it. But why? What is it that makes a place call out to one person while repelling another?

It's clearly not just about natural beauty, as anyone who knows Acton will readily concede. I spent a year living in west Wales, which is as stunning a part of the British Isles as you could wish for - and yet much as I might have appreciated it, I never felt connected to it or welcomed by it. Nor is it just about people: some of the closest and most extraordinary personal connections I've known came when I was living in Norwich, but I'm not mad keen on Norwich either. And it's certainly about about tick lists of what makes a place right.

No, it's clearly something other, something bigger, something more mysterious. As Michael Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we know more than we can tell.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Stock taking

Just recently I've started to get emails of the 'when do you think you might be ready to open' variety. I suspect what they really mean is 'come on - you can't still be renovating after all this time'. Well, er, yes, we are. But just to prove to you sceptics out there that we are actually doing something, here's a bit of a taste of where we've got to.

L'Atelier's bedroom started like this: bare stone walls, sound but tired oak beams, no window sills, no lighting to speak of and sockets fed by surface cable.

The room was rewired, then the hemp and lime went on. This was the first stage:

I took these pictures a few days ago: the hemp and lime is thoroughly dry, all the beams have been cleaned, treated and oiled, and we have beautiful chestnut window sills and skirting boards. All that's left to do here is to strip, stain and oil the floor.

The bathroom was just a grenier, albeit with good windows and a wooden floor. Work quickly started to convert it:

It's by no means finished - I still have to finish tiling the shower and part of the floor, strip, stain and oil the rest of the floor, and fix a glass shower screen. But it's on the way:

The hallway of La Petite Maison was encumbered by the smallest shower room in the world, suitable only for those with waif like figures. So we knocked it down.

Now it looks like this, which is what it should have looked like to begin with ...

I know I said I wouldn't do this but ... see that wall with the radiator on? I plastered that.

Each floor had two bedrooms which were actually too small to photograph properly. Or do much else in. We've knocked each pair into one bigger room; the downstairs room will be the salon, while the double height room upstairs is the bedroom, shown in these two pictures. Here you can still see the join ...

The new stairway going up to the mezzanine:

We're all taking a few days breathing space this week, then we've got a couple of builder-less months to get on with kitchen fitting, flooring, painting, lime washing, tiling and all the rest before they come back and we all attack the new dining room. But as The Perfectionist said today, it's not half bad for a builder, two counsellors and a guy who drives a pink van.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Desert tiling discs

My memories of particular times or events tend to be linked to two things: food, and music. Much to John's bemusement, I can recall salivatingly accurate details of what I ate on a particular holiday or cooked for friends - admittedly perhaps not entirely predictable behaviour from one who sometimes can't remember her own name. In the same way, hearing a particular piece of music transports me emotionally back to a time when it was important for whatever reason: for instance, every time I hear Barbra Streisand singing Run Wild, I'm straight back to 1981, the Civil Service College, and my first encounter group, where we played it incessantly for two weeks in the early hours of the morning ...

Over the last few weeks we've all taken to working to music for much of the day. Tentatively at first: Is this all right? Not too much? And then, as we began to discover that we enjoyed much of the same music, in what-the-hell-let's-turn-the-volume-up mode. More and more of our CD collection migrated down to the work space; The Perfectionist brought in his iPod dock (and - oh joy - left it here every night; what he doesn't know- yet! - is that come 7 o'clock I took it down to the huge and so far blissfully unfurnished gite space, kicked off my shoes, turned up the volume again, and danced ...).

Inevitably some bits of music 'stick' more than others: they're the ones that stop me in mid-tile, and it's those - mostly mine, a couple of The P's - that I guess will come to characterise this era of my life in years to come. And so here, with apologies to the BBC*, are my desert tiling discs ....

1. Funkadelic - Maggot Brain. Best guitar solo ever?

2. Gary Moore - Parisienne Walkways. Heart stopping, that moment when he holds the guitar note for ever ...

3. India.Arie - Ready for Love. Soul with soul.

7. Archie Shepp, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) - Moniebah. Sensitive, intense, mellow sax and piano.

8. Geoffrey Oryema - Makambo. Close your eyes, play it loud.

and because I just can't leave this one out I'm awarding myself a bonus track:

9. Richard Wagner - Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde. As someone once wrote, listening to Tristan und Isolde without being grabbed by the throat and driven at least to the borders of insanity just ain't possible ...

* Desert Island Discs as been broadcast on the UK's BBC Radio 4 since 1942; guests are invited to choose eight pieces of music they would take with them to a desert island. The apalling pun is mine :-)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Red and white

I woke up again this morning to a white, white world. Although it's only October, the weather appears suddenly to think it's winter and is offering up crisp, cool days of impossibly blue skies and nights hovering below zero degrees. We're some 10 degrees down on the average temperatures for this time of year, and even though the sun is hot enough to strip off for a few hours in the afternoon, for the rest of the time long trousers have become the order of the day. We even closed the curtains for the first time last night.

As I drove towards Foix just before sunrise this morning (look, it's not that impressive. The sun doesn't come up here until nearly half past eight ...), the smell of wood smoke was in the air, the horses were wearing their blankets and even the cows looked cold. Although Grillou was, as usual, clear, there's a point a few kilometres to the east at Castelnau Durban where you always drive into early morning mist at this time of year; it always provokes the proverbial sharp intake of breath, and never more so than this morning. Note to self: must go out walking early one morning. After the réno, of course ...

The last of the summer plants in the potager have taken umbrage at being left out in below-freezing temperatures (who wouldn't?) and promptly died. Which meant that this weekend the réno just had to wait while we dealt with 11 aubergines, half a kilo of Scotch Bonnets, 2 kilos of cayenne peppers, half a kilo of green chili peppers, a good few sweet Basque peppers and another 2 kilos of Cornue des Andes tomatoes. I've come to the conclusion that anyone wanting to grow a cash crop here could do worse than go into the production of pimentos: from five cayenne plants, picked up at St Girons market for 60 centimes each, we've produced almost 5 kilos of peppers. Cayenne peppers sell here for up to 25 euros a kilo ...

We've already got a huge stash of whole cayennes in the freezer (thanks to the friend who introduced me to this particular astuce) and have given away as much again; this bit of the harvest was destined for drying. I've always wanted to string up my peppers (along with a few other - er - things. And I don't mean the builders.), so last night, when another friend phoned, I told him that I was sewing up my chillis. Sigh. Another credibility point lost ...

Anyway, I now know that strings of chillis are called ristras, and that apparently hanging one up in your house will not only bring you good luck, but is a symbol of welcome for visitors. Well, I've got three. Bring it on ...

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sticking plaster

There's a lot of it about. Plaster, that is. It's

in every room.
on the floors.
on the stairs.
in the cupboards.
on the furniture.
wafting out of the windows.
on me.
on the grass.
in the car.
in the bed.
on my laptop.
in my wardrobe.
in my dinner.
and (fortunately) on the walls.

And there's nothing to be done about it. Zilch. You clean it up; it comes back. You clean it up again; it comes back again. (Where does it go in between times?). So there's only one thing to do. You shrug your shoulders, and let it be. Eventually (and you may have to take my word for this) you just laugh.

The Perfectionist was as good as his word and did teach me to plaster. On Day One, my brief was to plaster three walls of a former loo, now cupboard, clearly so that my hap-handed efforts would only ever be seen by me. No, I know you didn't say that, dear Perfectionist. You wouldn't. Dare. It was a true bastard of a job: not enough room to swing an edible dormouse, let alone manipulate a hawk and trowel in a meaningful fashion. But, in spite of my best efforts, the plaster went onto the walls, and actually it's not half bad. As in smooth and strokeable, with not too many dings or rough bits. On Day Two, I graduated to the hallway of La Petite Maison, and, well, let me just say that in England I once paid good money for worse work than that ...

It's all in the teaching, of course :-). But I also found that once the initial omigodimgoingtof*^!thisup terror was past, it was something I really enjoyed doing. While tiling is more of an intellectual exercise - a bit like a builders' sudoko - plastering is actually a very tactile, sensual experience. You can't plaster with your head. You need to feel the movement of the trowel across the wall; it's your body that knows when you've got it just right, and as with all such bodily experiences, when it flows it's a great sensation. And I discovered that, in the same way as cutting in when painting, trowelling the plaster on the out breath rather than the in breath is a Good Thing and much more likely to succeed.

And the best thing? Having to put all the plates down for two days. Now where did I put them?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Above all don't wobble

What do you do when there's not enough of you to go round?

project manager accountant cook therapist designer tiler gardener marketing manager sander personal shopper quantity surveyor budget bod decorator webmaster furniture restorer purchaser cleaner upper special effects coordinator networker hacker outer (infrequent) blogger .....

I'm plate spinning. And the last few weeks have been a bit difficult, to be honest. As usual at this kind of point in this kind of project, everything needs doing/buying/deciding at once: x can't be done until I've done y, y can't be done until I've sourced w, w can't be sourced until p has been done. And so on, ad infinitum. Each day begins, and ends, with a juggling of priorities, in a vain attempt to fit in with the needs of The Perfectionist's work, my work, and the bigger long term needs of the project itself. It's a bit like trying to cut a path with a machete through a jungle of competing demands; inevitably compromises have to be made, and nobody gets everything they want. At the same time, Life has to go on: eating, sleeping, washing clothes, dealing with potager gluts, maintaining something of a clear space to live in. Emails and blogs get written at midnight, other work gets fitted in somewhere between midnight and morning. Time with friends, out walking, in the garden ... mañana.


Real progress is being made, day after day. What was just a twinkle in my eye (and on my plans) has been given shape, and life, and it works. A new timetable has been thrashed out with The Perfectionist for the last stage of the project, which gives us a bit more space - two whole months, in fact - to finish our work in the guest accommodation before he starts knocking a big hole in the library to connect it, finally, to the main house hallway.

We've started the finitions in L'Atelier d'Artiste: I'm ankle deep in tadelakt, paint, natural pigments, linseed oil, lime wash, tiles. Colours are appearing; the place is becoming a home.

I'm beginning to dare to believe that we might make our target of being ready to open by late spring next year.

Three peoples' shared hysteria about toomanythingstodoandnotenoughtime is often hysterically funny.

The potager seems to have thrived on the neglect we've thrown at it this year and has thrown more food at us than we've had any right to expect: there are kilos and kilos of sugo di tomate in the freezer and still 11 aubergines on the plants, we could open a shop to sell all the chilli peppers that we're getting, we're already eating parsnips and cavalo nero, we have 24 potimarron stored away for the winter and the same number of beetroot in the ground. Plus there's my pasteque - water melon; my first ever. I've grown it to make jam, a speciality of southern France. But I'm so attached to its round perfection that it hasn't so far graduated beyond its role as table decoration. (You think that's weird? When I was a girl, I could never, ever bring myself to eat chocolate rabbits, or bears, or ducks. Still can't, since you ask ...).

And then there's the weather. Summer here is just going on and on this year; today was hot (29 in the shade) and immaculate, with awesome clear golden light. Tonight we've eaten outside, in tee shirts.

And at the end of this week The Perfectionist is going to teach me to plaster. Can life really get any better?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

You know you've got an attack of bricoitis when ...

The two of you pounce on the newly arrived Brico Depot catalogue and fight over who's going to read it with their cornflakes.

You can recite the names, dimensions, characteristics, qualities and prices of 276 shower trays, 198 taps, 17 sink wastes, 94 door handles, 8 shower doors (the only ones in the whole of France that (a) fit and (b) you like), 53 radiators, 148 floor boards and 7439 bathroom lights. From memory.

You read Maison et Travaux in bed. In fact it's all you do in bed.

Your calendar hasn't been turned over since March.

Your hands are multi coloured, multi textured, and covered in scars.

Your morning meditation consists of half an hour removing splinters.

You can discuss R values and U values as easily as once you talked about food, and you know by heart the cubic metreage of all your rooms, but you can't remember your phone number.

You no longer need to file your nails. The sandpaper does it for you.

You go out wearing your building clothes.

You never go out without a tape measure.

You seriously think about buying a white van.

You suddenly realise that it's nearly October and you haven't had a day off since the end of June.

You know all the staff at all the local brico outlets by name.

You buy fromage frais to make paint with, not to eat.

Your builder asks you to buy a buchon brut femelle, and you know what it is.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

That old chestnut ...

When we arrived at Grillou two years ago, like most house buyers here we inherited a lot of Stuff, in our case mostly wood of one sort or another (oh, and a pony). Mounds of it, here, there and everywhere: wood for burning, wood for making steps and structures in the garden, old beams, old oak floorboards stashed away in the porcherie, bits of cut down trees, slices of oak tree 6 centimetres thick ... and then there was the chestnut.

The chestnut was obviously Important. It had a mention on the inventory that came attached to our buying contract, and was valued at 400 euros. It had been used by our predecessors as volige in the part of the barn roof that had already been relaid, and we assumed that we'd use the rest of it to finish the job. The Perfectionist, however, had other ideas: "Merde alors, you can't use it for that!" he spluttered. Or words to that effect. And set out to find a hundred and one other places where it could be mis en valeur, as they say here - a wonderful expression which translates roughly to showing it off to its best advantage.

Reader, he was right. It pains me to say so, but he (nearly) always is. Don't you just hate people who are right (nearly) as often as you are? Anyway, moving swiftly on ... what looked like a fairly unpromising, if large, pile has so far metamorphosed into, amongst other things, window sills, cladding for walls and cupboards, and skirting boards.

Part of the original pile. Not exactly promising, huh?

And Pink Van Man has revealed himself to be a bit of a woodworker, on the quiet. Well, not so quiet, actually, given that Grillou has been echoing with the sound of circular saws, planers and sanders of all description over the last fortnight or so. But he has a real feel for wood, and loves working with it. I do too, and for the last few days we've had a bit of a wood conveyor belt going on: he's been cutting, scribing and machine sanding the skirting boards, then passing them to me in my makeshift atelier (the garage) where I've been hand finishing and then oiling them with linseed oil - six coats so far and counting ...

In the atelier ...

Do you remember those magic colouring books that were all the rage hundreds of years ago, when I was nobbut a kid? You 'painted' the page with water, and a picture in different colours appeared, by magic. Well, oiling chestnut that's been really well weathered and then sanded is a bit like that; as soon as you wipe the oil onto the wood, the most amazing grain patterns appear, as if from nowhere. And it's the most beautiful, rich wood, too ...

Amazing grain

After oiling, and before

Now that sure as hell beats digging out hard core ...

Friday, 11 September 2009

The little prince is saving his planète

So he's done it. Unless you've had your head in a paper bag for the last couple of days you'll know that Nicolas Sarkozy has put his money (or rather, our money) where his mouth is and introduced a carbon tax. From the beginning of next year, businesses and households will pay for the privilege of using carbon-emitting fuels at the starting rate of 17 euros a tonne.

Assuming, of course, he manages to steer his proposals unchanged through both houses of parliament by then. And that, from my armchair vantage point, is not looking entirely likely. Because although in theory politicians from all parties agree with ecologists that a carbon tax is necessary (Nicolas Hulot, France's tame popular ecologist, famously managed to extract a pre-presidential election promise from all the candidates that they would introduce a carbon tax if elected), now that push has come to shove most of them are finding reasons to disapprove: it's the wrong time; it will penalise the poorest families; it goes too far; it doesn't go far enough; it's too unwieldy to work; it's never going to change behaviour.

Now I'm no great fan of our president - people as hyper as he is scare me - but I have to concede a sneaking admiration for him on his determination to integrate green thinking into day to day politics. Not being one to underplay his own importance, Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself as a 'leader in the fight to save the human race'. And in spite of all the criticism and hyperbole flying round, I do actually believe he is genuine on this one. France is now committed to reducing carbon emissions to a quarter of the 1990 figures by 2050, and for several years now we've had decent financial incentives (and now interest-free loans) to install energy saving measures and renewable energy systems. For our petit prince, the new carbon tax is not 'just another tax', but a whole new way of looking at taxation - the first step in a fiscal revolution which will lead France into a post-petrol economy: he wants to shift the burden of taxation from labour towards polluting goods and services.

That's a pretty tall, and radical, order. The nitty gritty is that we'll all pay around 4 or 5 centimes more per litre of petrol, diesel and heating oil; a little less on gas; nothing on electricity, because it's almost all produced in nuclear power stations. All the money thus raised will then be returned to us: every household will benefit from a tax reduction (non tax payers will receive a 'green cheque') which will vary according to family composition and whether people live in the town or the country. Urban dwellers who use public transport to get around, and electricity for all their energy needs will therefore do nicely, thank you. People like us, in the middle of nowhere? Not so well.

There's a certain, rather comical, irony in all of this for us at Grillou. As some of you who knew us in our restaurant days may remember, we were pretty active in campaigning on the whole issue of carbon emission: we were England's first - and then only - carbon neutral restaurant, and we ran a carbon offset scheme for our guests and customers to balance the carbon emitted in their journey to us. And now, here we are living in a house with - yes, oil-fired central heating! We have become the polluters, and we shall pay. Don't get me wrong, of course we should pay. And one day, when (or rather, if) finances allow, we intend to replace our (German, and very efficient) orange monster of a boiler with an all singing all dancing wood pellet model. But carbon neutral we're not, nor will we be.

If I have one criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy's scheme it's that behaviour change needs more than willingness; it also needs resources - in this case, financial ones. And financial resources are in pretty short supply for the average rural household in France: people here simply don't have pots of savings into which they can dip to finance new heating systems, or less polluting cars, or photovoltaic or thermal energy; nor do they have spare disposable income to pay back loans, whether interest-free or not. Not only that, but if you already do all you can to minimise your energy use not so much from green conviction but because you can't afford not to, where's left to go?

Perhaps that's why two thirds of people here profess themselves to be 'largely unhappy' with the new scheme. Perhaps if they also saw hefty tarifs on food that's travelled 6000 kilometres to get here, or on air travel (which, bizarrely, remains exempt), or on goods imported from 'dirty' carbon countries; perhaps if they saw the building regulations for new build houses altered to require the use of renewable energy sources; perhaps if they saw their politicians and Eurocrats living and travelling more modestly: perhaps then they might feel less picked upon.

We shall see.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Glut gluttony

So, the rentrée has rentréed, The Perfectionist and Pink Van Man (aka the builders) are back, the sun still shines, and we're still barrowing loads of hardcore around the garden. (Was there ever a time when I didn't? Will there ever be one? Sigh). We're in the process of creating what we intended to be a car parking area. Note the past tense there, because once we'd cleared it of the inevitable toot and rubbish and old tree roots and nettles and rocks and half a metre thickness of moss and ivy, we suddenly saw it with new eyes: a lovely leafy, shady space with an equally lovely view south towards Col de la Crouzette. Much too good for a car park, methinks. So in a rare display of swift non-Libran decisiveness, I've converted it into a 'zone Zen'. More about that in due course - watch this space, as they say. Or rather, that one.

And in spite of - or maybe because of - the long, hot and dry summer we've been having here, our garden continues to throw food at us: glutting courgettes (yes, still) have been joined by aubergines and tomatoes and peppers and potimarron. The potimarron have been put to bed tucked up in straw, ready to feed us through the winter, while I exhaust every crevice of my creative brain (or at least what's left of it after yet another day shi - er, hardcore shovelling) to come up with Interesting Things To Do with all the rest.

Two stars of the dinner show have emerged this summer. We've enjoyed them both so much that we've eaten them again and again, and so thought you might like them too. Here they are.

A courgette soup ...

Actually, it's not really a soup - more like a lightweight broth, in the Italian style, which means that with some good bread it's good enough to eat for dinner and not as an entrée. For two people, you'll need:

Two or three new potatoes, in small cubes; 500 grams or so of courgette, ditto; a biggish onion, finely chopped; 2 cloves of garlic and a couple of sprigs of thyme, ditto; half a glass of white wine; 300ml vegetable stock; 200ml milk; and - erm - 4 pieces of La Vache qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese (I know, I know, but humour me here).

Fry the onion in butter until it's soft, then add the garlic, potato, thyme and a bit of black pepper and cook very gently, with the lid on, for a good 15 minutes or so. This is what the Italians call the soffrito stage: often skipped or skimped, it's what really draws the flavour out of the base ingredients, so don't rush it. Then add the wine, bring to the boil, reduce the heat again and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the stock and the courgette, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 15 minutes. Add the milk, then the cheese, stirring until it melts. Season. Don't ask how I came to have a few bits of Vache qui Rit lurking at the back of the fridge, but trust me: there's something about the lactic flavour of the cheese in this soup which is so seriously addictive that I unfailingly eat more of it than is good for me ....

... and an aubergine tart

This, for me, is pure, unadulterated summer comfort food; it contains just about every one of my to-die-for summer ingredients - olives, aubergines, tomatoes, anchovies, basil, mozzarella. And it's easy enough to put together after a hot day's shovelling. To make four good portions you'll need:

A ready-rolled flaky pastry case; 2 very fresh aubergines; 2 large tomatoes, a tablespoon of tapenade, some shavings of gruyère, a ball of mozzarella; and a dozen anchovies in oil. I'm addicted to Collioure anchovies, which are my summer treat, but anything that comes in a jar will be fine.

Cut the aubergines down their length into half-centimetre thick slices. You can, if you feel inclined and have the time, do the salting-and-rinsing thing, but to be honest I usually don't, because I haven't, and I'm not convinced it would make a blind bit of difference. Then fry them until they're golden on both sides. I suppose you could grill them if you have a thing about frying, but nice though grilled aubergines might be, they never acquire that lovely silky texture that a really good fried aubergine has and which for me is the essence of this tart. So I fry them in a mixture of olive and rape seed oil, which is the best combination I've come up with after years of experimenting (during most of which I pooh-poohed rape seed oil. Wrong).

Then simply put the tart together: lay out the pastry in a large metal flan tin - I use the type with the removable bottom, prick the base lightly, then spread the tapenade over it. Cut the aubergine slices in half across the (short) middle, and lay out half of them in circles. Slice the tomatoes thinly and lay half of them over the aubergines. Throw on some shaved gruyère and some torn up basil leaves. Then repeat the whole thing so you have another, identical, layer. Lay out the anchovies in a clock formation, then cover the whole thing with slices of the mozzarella. Bake at 220 degrees Celsius (200 degrees in a fan oven) for around 25 minutes, until the mozzarella is golden.
Here it is before ...

and after ...

And that, gentle reader, was my 100th post on Blogger! Thank you to all of you for your presence, your support, your comments, your emails, your humour. None of which I expected when I set out eighteen months ago just to write for the sheer pleasure of writing, whether anyone read it or not. So here's raising a glass of Minervois with you all to the next 100 ...

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Cows en fête

The Builders are coming back this week after their summer break (huh!), so we're rushing round like the proverbial mouches bleues trying to prepare (which I guess is a bit like cleaning your house ready for the cleaner to come in, but as I've never had a cleaner, so to speak, I wouldn't know ...). This afternoon, however, we prised ourselves away from our respective tasks - John from wirebrushing beams, me from weighing up and sourcing various heating options - to go and look at some cows.

Yes, I know we've got cows down the track, and very nice ones they are too - Gascon and Limousin, if you want to know. But the annual Foire Agricole at Le Mas d'Azil, 15 minutes away through the cave (yes, really), is a must-do. As its publicity puts it, it's a day where ruralité is put in the forefront - not as folklore, but as real, day to day agricultural life, with its economic and social difficulties as well as its successes. I like that. And it was a good day. Here's some of it, in pictures ...

We got cows in profusion:

Most of them came complete with panels showing which butcher we'd be able to buy them from when they pass into their next life. One of the things that I like about butchers here is that a lot of them have pictures in their window of the animals they're selling bits of inside. Yes, okay, it's a bit uncomfortable, at least for me; but it's straight, and honest, and it honours the animal that was killed for food. And (beware, soapbox mode coming up) one of the things I bang on about is that those of us who eat meat - even if, like me, it's not every day - need to recognise and accept that real live animals, with pretty faces and melty eyes, are killed for that sole purpose or in the service of it. But it's not for those who want to go on thinking that meat grows on polystyrene trays, perhaps ...

We also got some rather splendid pigs and piglets, for whom the day seemed just that bit too much like hard work ...

There were sheep and goats and rabbits and turkeys and ducks and geese and chickens and donkeys and horses too, naturally. Not to mention some rather fetching underwear:

I suspect their owners may have been eating too much of this:

It's millas, a local dessert traditionally served to celebrate the killing of the family pig. It's made from fine corn meal, wheat flour, raw milk, sugar, butter and orange flower water; it's made in a similar way to polenta: cooked, and stirred with a long wooden paddle, for at least an hour, then poured into trays to cool, after which it's cut up into squares and fried in butter until golden. It is, I warn you, more addictive than it looks ...

There was what in England would these days be called a farmers' market (here, it's just a market, because what else would a market be ...). This bread was being baked from scratch in a wood fired oven set up in a van:

This guy, from the delightfully named village of Camarade - between Grillou and Le Mas d'Azil - makes some of the best Tomme de Vache des Pyrénées: it's really yellow, and like eating new mown grass:

I'm very fond of Le Mas d'Azil. We're there quite a lot: at the Wednesday market, or for a coffee as we're driving through, or occasionally to eat at the pizzeria or the local hotel-restaurant, Le Gardel. It has some lovely squares, shaded by plane trees, and some equally lovely medieval columbage houses, many with gardens running right down to the Arize river, which runs through the middle:

And yet there are still corners of the town (village? I'm never sure) that we're discovering. Today, for instance, we stumbled upon an old house which was actually rather forlorn, but redeemed by this lovely old shutter, with its patina of bleu pastel (woad) and linseed oil:

And then, of course, there are the caves, and the dolmens. Another blog, another time ...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

50 good reasons ...

It's exactly two years since we signed on the dotted line and Grillou became ours. Two years! How is that possible? We've done the bottle-of-something-with-bubbles bit, and now I feel a list coming on to celebrate. So sit back and brace yourselves for, in no particular order, 50 good reasons to love living in France, and in Ariège.

1. The Pyrénées. Of course.
2. Seasons - all different, all defined.
3. The scenery. It always, always, takes my breath away.
4. Lizards. Small, huge, brown, bright green - always there, always curious.
5. The apéro. Breathing time between day and evening, work and play.
6. The night sky. So clear ...
7. Patisserie. Just looking at it is (nearly) enough..
8. Markets. Shopping at its most colourful and convivial; produce from down the road.
9. Wine. Languedoc Roussillon starts less than an hour away from here; some of its wines are up with the best in the world. And some aren't (but en vrac, at a euro a litre, who cares ...).
10. Silence. Absolute.
11. La saison. Summer - a period of time when everyday life stops, and pleasure takes over.
12. Depôts ventes. A cross between junk shop, antiques warehouse and rummage sale; I never tire of rooting around for bargains. I even find one, sometimes.
13. Butterflies. So many different species ... even in February.
14. Bof! An expression as indispensible as it is untranslatable.
15. Geographical diversity. Even across our small department, we range from orchards and wheat fields and pretty country lanes, to plains with expansive views, to rolling pastureland dotted with foothill farms and cows, to steep sided valleys where hamlets cling precariously on south facing slopes, to wide verdant mountain valleys, to rocky peaks, mountain lakes, beech forests ....
16. Shutters. Such a clever invention - they keep your house warm, they keep your house cool, they look wonderful.
17. Cheese. France produces around 1000 different types. I'm getting there, slowly.
18. Sunflowers. A summer cliché, but stunning anyway.
19. Driving. A pleasure, here in France, where roads are uncrowded, French drivers notwithstanding.
20. Architecture. And how it changes as you travel regions, departments and even villages.
21. The two hour lunch closure. Much maligned by some Brits, but not by me.
22. Blue virgins. They're everywhere.
23. Thermalism. So many spas, so little time ..
24. Pétanque, or boules. Not that I'm any good at it ...
25. The smell of wood smoke in winter.
26. Free food. Otherwise known as foraging.
27. The French language.
28. Tradition. Still alive, well, and and celebrated.
29. Bonjour. More than just form, the obligatory greeting of all and sundry in shops/before you do business/when you meet acquaintances/when you arrive at a group of friends is an unmissable - and pleasurable - ritual. People matter, it says.
30. Snow. Look at it, walk in it, ski on it.
31. Space. There's just so much of it - France is well over twice as big as the whole of the United Kingdom, for a similar population; Ariège is one of the least populated departments, with just 28 people per square kilometre.
32. Swimming in lakes and rivers. Beats the sea any day. And I won't even mention pools.
33. Festivals. From folklore to fiesta to funk, and nearly all free.
34. Oh la (la la la la la la la la...). Yes, the French really do say it. Frequently.
35. The Midi sun. Strong enough to sunbathe, and even pick up a tan, in winter.
36. The number of things you can do here with a pig.
37. Simple living.
38. The network of footpaths, both local and national, and the right to roam.
39. Tisanes.
40. Working to live, not living to work.
41. The French obsession with bandes dessinées (comic books, to you and me).
42. Being able to spend so much time, and eat, outside for most of the year.
42. Diversity: of accents, culture, appearance.
43. Body language - the French shrug, facial expressions, hand waving.
44. Things well used, re-used, and recycled. Consumerism doesn't rule, okay?
45. The lack of fashion victim-ness. Nobody cares what brand of trainers I wear; if I choose to wear my aging hippy outfits from the seventies, that's fine (everybody else does).
46. Spain. An hour and a half away: no ferries or planes required.
47. Our potager, and the sheer variety of things we can grow in it.
48. Toulouse: just over an hour away, and all the museums, opera, concerts and big city buzz you could wish for.
49. Organic. C'est normale, here in Ariège.
50. Pastis. There. It's out. I'm addicted to it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Exposed beams

We're having a heatwave. It's official. Not quite official enough, here in Ariège, to trigger the government's canicule plan, brought in after nearly 20,000 people died in France during the 2003 heatwave; but official enough to be the ongoing subject of media coverage, not to mention many a conversation. And it is hot; afternoon temperatures are up to at least 36 degrees in the shade, dropping to a more comfortable 26 degrees or so at around 10pm. In the sun? Put it this way - my thermometer goes up to 50 degrees, and it's off the scale. Working is becoming increasingly taxing, and I keep having fantasies of diving into cool water.

So the timing was apt this week when a friend in England sent me the bizarre piece of news that the theme park Alton Towers has banned men from wearing Speedo-type swimming trunks 'on grounds of public decency'. I honestly thought this was a joke at first, but having followed up the links she sent it appears that it isn't: apparently "the style is not deemed public or family friendly" and is likely to "cause embarrassment".

Am I missing something here? Do most people not have bodies, and bits that stick out here and there, and - heaven forfend - body hair? And wasn't the whole Adam and Eve thing a long time ago, and just a fable and/or a lot of tosh (depending on your persuasion) anyway? When, and how, did we learn to be so ashamed and embarrassed about our physical form? Surely to goodness, in the twenty-first century, it's time to move on from the smutty seaside postcard ...

Here in France, if you're male and you want to swim in the vast majority of public pools you have to wear Speedos (and, usually, a swimming hat). No bermudas, no question. It's deemed unhygienic to bathe in a swimming pool in clothes that you could have been (and probably have been) wearing in the street all day. It would, the official line goes, simply turn the pool into a wash house. My friend's Alton Towers story reminded me of a story I read in our regional newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi, a few weeks ago.

Until this year, there have been two public pools in Toulouse which allowed the wearing of bermudas: a small pool, Castex, and the much larger one close by, Nakache. Castex has for some time been a favourite haunt of young people from the quartiers populaires - working class estates - in the area, and has had a reputation for being, shall we say, a bit on the lively side. Tensions between the teenagers and other pool users ran high; two years ago the entire pool area had to be evacuated when a pitched battle broke out between fifty or so teenagers and security guards, and then the police that were called to restore order. That kind of thing.

Clearly Something Had To Be Done. But what? Well, a bit of uncharacteristically creative thinking out of the box obviously took place: a solution has been found, and appears to be working. But it doesn't involve extra policing or heavy-handed rules or showcase arrests. Local officials have simply banned the wearing of bermudas at Castex, while continuing to allow it, by special dispensation, at Nakache.

As if by magic, the yoof has migrated to Nakache, which is much bigger and is a leisure pool as opposed to a swimming pool, as it were, whereas the swimmers have returned to Castex. Hanging out and joshing in a pair of Speedos and a swimming cap is simply not cool; besides, many of the teenagers are of Muslim origin and consider themselves to be too prudish to wear, as La Dépêche puts it, 'le maillot à poutre apparente' (lit: swimming costume with exposed beam' (!). Nakache has reported a high frequentation, good spirits and no problems. Castex swims peacefully. Problem solved.


Saturday, 15 August 2009

Did the earth move for you this week?

We're having A Proper Summer in Ariège this year: for nearly 2 months now we've had day after day of clear, cloudless blue skies and temperatures hovering up in the thirties, interspersed every so often with the odd thunderstorm and cloudy day or two just so that you appreciate the sun all over again. It's not exceptional, just normal. But after the previous two cool and wet summers, it's come as a welcome relief to everybody: visitors and residents alike are happy, the mood is upbeat, the rentrée is creeping up all too fast. It's not, admittedly, good for laying mortar, which is frustrating as that's what we're supposed to be doing, but hey, there are a hundred and one other jobs to be done and when everything looks as beautiful as this who's to complain?

The crystal clear skies this week meant that we had a fantastic view of the Perseids meteor shower. I've been watching these ever since someone introduced me to the show at Dance Camp East many years ago - or rather, I've been trying to watch them. It wasn't easy in England: too much light pollution - even in our small community in north Norfolk, one of the last streetlight-free villages in the country, urbanites on holiday were in the habit of leaving their porch, and even worse, halogen security, lights blazing all night. Grrr. But here at Grillou it's a different story. No street lights (no street!), no houses visible. Nothing. Just pure darkness, and the night sky.

Stretched out in the warm night air on our beach mats, heads resting on pillows, we must have seen a good hundred shooting stars in the hour and a half before the moon rose and brightened the sky. It was stunning. As was the sheer clarity of the sky, and the indescribable number of stars that we could see with the naked eye. Looking through binoculars simply left me speechless, and determined to acquire an astronomical telescope.

Most amazing of all, though, was that for the first time ever I actually witnessed the turning of the earth. Lying there, relaxed, slightly meditative without trying to be (fatal!), looking up at the spiral arm of the Milky Way, I could see the dense star clusters appearing to move oh-so-slowly across the sky as I watched and as the earth turned. Yes, of course, the same thing happens with the sun every day. But you can't look at the sun; you can't actually see it moving. I could see, and I could feel, the movement, and it was an extraordinary experience. I haven't got words to describe it, because it was the kind of experience that bypasses the mind and speaks to something much deeper, much older. Something that just is.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Rocks and hard places

It's been so long since I blogged that I feel as if I should be slinking out from behind the sofa, making sure the coast is clear before assuming a guise of innocence, eyes wide open, saying "Me? But I was here all the time ...". Not, you understand, that I'm accustomed to doing that. I'm just trying to make myself feel better about not posting.

I blame this:

'This' represents about half of the hard core that we've been hacking out over the last two weeks (the rest is behind the camera). Plus ... we've dug out and taken away around 200 huge rocks, and taken to the déchetterie two trailer loads - that's over 50 rubble bags - of self-formed concrete from the area in front of L'Atelier's terrace. I reckon the combined weight of all that to be about 15 tonnes. My back agrees.

However. It's finished. The garden is no longer a landfill site. The land is breathing again; smiling. Soon, we'll add a layer of topsoil and seed it with grass. And the terrace is constructed, framed, stepped and now awaits its filling, just as soon as the mortar in various bits of its construction is properly dry.

In the meantime, what are we doing? Yes, we're preparing to lay Terrace Number Three. The good news is that this time we have a completely flat base to pave - the only flat bit of the entire garden. It used to house an ancient and gross steel swimming pool that we removed - with difficulty - within a couple of weeks of moving in; it was so ugly that the previous owners had planted leylandii to screen it off; we removed those too, of course (nothing, but nothing, merits leylandii, in my book). The bad news is that the rocks and paths that closely surround the area were all but invisible under layers of brambles, ivy, moss, soil, leaf mould and the general toot of decades of neglect.

Five days of brushcutting, hacking, cutting, sawing, tugging, scraping and brushing later, rocks have appeared and been cleaned - and so have some steps we didn't know existed ...

Next on the agenda: laying some warm stone over the concreted area, planting the crevices in the rocks with succulents and other rock plants, and furnishing the whole area with lots and lots of pots of colourful things, tables, chairs and parasols. Et voilà (shameless plug number 694b coming up - look away now if you're likely to be offended): a lovely space for breakfast and lunch, in even winter, and the hub of long, slow dinners in summer.

I don't mind admitting that this is proving to be a long, hard summer - physically, for sure, but also mentally and emotionally. It's been hard for us both to see how this land - the land that we both love and which captured us the moment we set foot on it - has been used and abused; sometimes it's just made me want to cry. It's been hard for us both to keep up physically with the energy needed to turn it round, working from very early in the morning through to early evening. And it's been hard to keep finding new solutions to each seemingly insurmountable problem as it's arisen. At times I long to be doing something simple, gentle and creative (hah!).

In the process I've come head-to-head, for the nth time, with all the stuff about non-attachment. The end result of all our labours clearing the land is that it now simply looks as it should. And as much as I might want the entire population of Ariège, France, the world, the universe, to congratulate me for the next ten years on having done such a wonderful job of restoring it (and I do, because I'm just an ordinary, imperfect human being), nobody will, because it all simply looks Right. All the anger, the hurt, the sweat, the angst, the back-breaking graft, the hours spent working and the hours spent working it out, the pride in having done it ... there's nothing for it but to let it go.

One of my favourite Zen stories:

Two monks were travelling together down a muddy road. It was raining heavily. Coming round the bend, they met a beautiful young girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross a stream. The older monk offered to help. He picked her up and carried her across. Several miles down the road, the younger monk could no longer contain himself: "Master," he said "We aren't supposed to associate with women, and yet you actually touched that beautiful woman. You picked her up!" The master said "And I put the woman down on the other side of the stream. Are you still carrying her?"