Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Halfway house

We're builder-less. Having reached the halfway point in the main project, they've bogged off for the summer, bless their little cotton socks, leaving Grillou unaccustomedly quiet. I can honestly say that it's the first time in my life that I've actually missed my builders. And having four - or more - of us here every day for the last two months has just confirmed my feeling that this house really loves to have people in and around it. As, in fact, do I. Well, most of the time, anyway.

So in the absence of good company and exciting events like walls coming down there's nothing for it but to get on with the grafting. And this is where, much as I hate everybody else's smug, look-what-I've-done-aren't-I-clever blogs, I'm going to inflict a bit of one on you now. Just a tiny bit, I promise. If this offends you, look away now. But I've just done something I've never done before, and it's worked. I've laid a terrace, out of random stone.

Originally, John was going to take charge of all the outside work to create terraces and steps and paths and things while I acted as his labourer. But, well, you know how it is. Being anybody's labourer is not my strong point. I much prefer to be out there, leading from the front. John, meanwhile, is much more easy going and is quite happy to do things my way ... which is probably why he's tolerated living with me for longer than anyone else has, or would :-). So he's been overcoming a surprise phobia about mortar by manning the cement mixer, while I get to clamber around on my hands and knees laying screeds and trying to piece strangely shaped bits of stone together in such a way as they look as though they've always been there.

Here's the man himself, working hard over the cement mixer ...

The terrace, in progress ...

... and finished (well almost; I still have the jointing to do):

Not bad, eh?

There are unforeseen advantages to spending four days with your nose against the ground. One early morning (it was so hot that we had to start work at 6.30 to avoid the mortar going off before I could work with it) I encountered these two striped shield bugs in a compromising position on some parsley stalks:

And I made a surprising discovery about butterflies. They love cement. Every afternoon, as the temperature hit the late thirties, the pools of waste mortar on the ground would swarm with dabs of flying colour, including marbled whites, silver washed fritillaries, white admirals, clouded yellows, various coppers, blues, ringlets, and this gorgeous purple emperor:

Apparently, it's the minerals and salts in the cement that attract them. Bizarre but true. So if you want to attract butterflies to your garden, forget the buddleia. Just get the cement mixer out.

Remember, you read it here first.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Courgettes R Us

Last year, you may remember, it was plums. This year it's courgettes. For heaven's sake, it's still only June and we're drowning in the things: I must have picked at least 12 kilos just in the last 10 days, all from six plants. Actually I blame Benjamin, our neighbours' donkey. Or at least his fumier. But what on earth is the matter with courgette plants? Why can't they be - well, a bit more restrained? Then we'd all like them better, and friends wouldn't hide behind the sofa when they see you coming with the tell-tale basket.

Having said all that, I do love home grown courgettes. They bear about as much resemblance to the floppy woolly things you find in supermarkets as a fresh crab does to a crabstick. In fact you could be forgiven for believing that they're actually different vegetables (are you reading this, you potager-less friends? You see, you can come out now ...). And of course you get the flowers to stuff as well, as if you didn't have enough to do being creative with the courgettes themselves.

It's not an uncommon problem - people have even written books about it - and there's certainly no shortage of Interesting Things to Do with courgettes: we've already had pasta sauces and grilled courgettes and stuffed courgettes and baked courgettes and risottos and muffins and briam and ragu and ciambotta and fritters and flowers stuffed with brousse, and I can feel the first courgette cake of the season coming on any minute now. And then there's always soup, and chutney, and jam, when things get desperate. It's just that - are you listening to this, you plants? - there are only two of us, and just occasionally - once a week would do, honest - it would be quite nice to eat something else ...

Monday, 22 June 2009

La Fête de la Musique

rock rap soul flamenco funk organ renaissance african reggae celtic mandolin orchestral chanson choral folk portuguese klezmer jazz pop string clarinet saxophone tzigane cuban irish rock'n'roll sevillian rumba punk alternative dance electro-acoustic hypnogroove country blues post-rock metal piano guitar latino brazilian ...

... just a snapshot of last night's Fête de la Musique in Saint Girons (and the reason why we finally made it home well after 2am. And by implication the reason why the cement mixer was just a little late in starting up this morning ...).

I'd vaguely heard of La Fête de la Musique before we moved here, but I hadn't really grasped it, if you see what I mean. A nutshell resumé: the first one took place in 1982, when the renowned Jack Lang was Minister for Culture; it was officially declared a public festival in 1983. The idea was simple: that on the night of the summer solstice, there should be music of all kinds (both amateur and professional) everywhere, and that it should be always remain 'popular' - that is, free and open to, and patronised by, all.

It took off. It's reckoned that one in five French people attend the Fête de la Musique every year, and that one in ten have at some point taken part. It's also been a major factor in the flourishing of the summer music festivals that are now such a part of cultural life here. And it's been emulated, to some degree, in other countries around the world, though nowhere with the sheer vibrancy of the French festival, and not, sadly, in England.

The Fête held in our local town, Saint Girons (population: 6552), has a reputation for being one of the best not just in the department but in the entire Midi-Pyrénées region. And I believe it. More than fifty groups, playing well over 60 gigs; plus a whole gaggle of spontaneous music makers (like the four guys playing fantastic blues in a tiny gallery at 2am). The entire town centre closed to traffic and filled with 'happenings', stages, bars, bodegas, makeshift restaurants, co-operative games (well, this is Ariège ...); bar and restaurant tables spilling out into the streets; and, of course, the sound of music everywhere. And people. Thousands of people. Mostly they (we) just drift around, led from one set of sounds to another, and another, until they find themselves drawn to one that they just can't leave. The smells of barbecuing lamb and suckling pigs mingling with those of chicken colombo mixed with churros and accras de morue and galettes and barbe de papa and patchouli and marijuana (as I said, this is Ariège ...). Oh, and I only saw two gendarmes all night, and they were listening to some Celtic rock.

Fancy it, next year?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Welcome, in Ariège ...

A few weeks ago, we went to see Welcome, Philippe Lioret's film about clandestine immigrants in Calais and in particular about a 17 year old Kurdish refugee, Bilal, who is determined to swim across the Channel to get to England, where he is hopes to rejoin his girlfriend (and play for Manchester United!). The film tells the story of how he is befriended by a swimming teacher, learns to swim, and eventually makes his attempt on the Channel. Meanwhile, his friend-teacher is arrested and charged with "offering assistance to a foreigner in an irregular situation" - a section of the penal code usually reserved only for 'people traffickers'. It was a truly excellent film, if upsetting, and not a little controversial. If it hits a cinema near you, see it. 

Little did we think that a not dissimilar, real life, situation would shortly unfold here, in our local town.

At the beginning of the year, a young Afghan guy, Obaï, joined the French language workshop that John attends at the Resto du Coeur in Saint Girons. Little was known about his background, and a few weeks ago he moved on, apparently to Pamiers, a larger town on the plain in the north east of the department. We thought no more of him. Until a couple of days ago, when a headline in our regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, caught my attention: a Saint Girons woman is being charged with "offering assistance to a foreigner in an irregular situation". The foreigner is Obaï. 

The story goes like this. Claudine Louis had been for some time concerned with the plight of Afghan clandestine immigrants to France; last winter she heard that a family was living rough in a park in Paris amongst 50 other clandestines, and went to investigate with a view to taking some action on their behalf. The family had actually been accommodated in a hotel by the authorities, but while there she came across Obaï: 16 years old, cold, and ill. She brought him back to Saint Girons to stay with her, made sure he got medical treatment, began to teach him French and set out to get hold of his identity papers so that he could get the formal child protection that all minors in France are entitled to: support, accommodation within a children's home or foster family, and education. Having successfully got his identity documents, she then set off on an interminable round of just about every official body in the department, encountering procrastination and being passed from pillar to post over a period of nearly four months. Finally, and in desperation to alert the departmental authorities to the presence of her young friend, she took him to the Préfecture in Foix and deposited him there.

By the end of the day, Obaï had been placed in a foster home in Pamiers, and Claudine had been charged. She is due to appear in court on 21 July; if she is found guilty she risks 5 years imprisonment, and/or a fine of up to 30,000 euros. 

There is more than a certain irony in the fact that Claudine is being charged under a section of the code usually reserved for those who are hiding an illegal immigrant when she has spent four months trying, unsuccessfully through no fault of her own, to do just the opposite. Our department does in fact have a generally sympathetic approach to refugees - perhaps not surprising given that a large number of its residents were originally refugees from Spain in the Franco years - and the Préfecture has stressed that no blame or fallout will find its way to Obaï himself. Quite why they have chosen to bring this prosecution - the fourth such case in France - is beyond not only me but also the many other people who are coming together in support of Claudine. 

If, like me, you are shocked and upset by what's going on here, please think about writing to the prosecutor (Procureur) in Foix. There's a sample letter here, where you can also read an account of events in Claudine's own words. Whether you live in the department - or even in France - or not, we can make a difference. 

Monday, 8 June 2009

Zen and the art of hemp and lime

Exciting things are happening right now in the huge first floor room that will become the bedroom/salon of L'Atelier, part of our guest accommodation. Nearly 50 square metres in size, with a ceiling height of over 5 metres and fantastic vast windows to two walls, set into the original barn openings, it was used by Grillou's previous owner as an artist's studio but was never completely finished: bare stone walls, basic wiring, halogen lighting, ventilation pipes from shower rooms and loos protruding into the room. It's a stunning space - it probably sold us the house - which needed something equally stunning doing to it. That something baffled me for quite some time.

Until, a year or so ago, I read an article in Maison et Travaux (my fave French doing-up-house magazine) about chanvre-chaux - hemp and lime plaster. I was hooked.

Hemp has a list of uses that would give most other plants an inferiority complex (did you know, for example, that the bodywork of the first Ford car was made from something called Hemp Plastic?), though it's in the arena of green building and renovation that it's really beginning to make its name. Mixed with lime, it creates a breathable, sculptable, warm, stone-wall-friendly, insulating plaster which is highly strokeable and has great character. As if all that weren't enough, research suggests that it's not just carbon neutral but negative: hemp absorbs a huge amount of CO2 as it's growing, and effectively sequestrates it in the walls: up to 50kg per square metre of hemp walling - much much more than the meagre CO2 emitted in the production of the lime.

Hemp has been used in building in France for many years, where it's widely grown (archaeologists have reputedly found a sixth century hemp-reinforced bridge), and is gathering quite a following now in Ireland too; sadly, I'd never really come across its use in England, where it would have so suited our cold, hard Norfolk flint walls. Sigh. French eco-builders have adopted hemp and lime in a big way; most often used in new-builds (where it can be used in almost every part of the construction, including foundations and floors, using a material known as 'hempcrete'), it's just beginning to be used in our kind of 'retro-fit' restoration.

Given all that, how could I even think about using anything else? A chance encounter with our charming and good looking Perfectionist (there - will that do? Just knock it off the bill ...), much research and many conversations later, and we were away. And last Wednesday, the process began. I don't know which of us is more excited by it .... Anyway, here goes the week, in pictures.

Our builders' merchant manages, somehow, to squeeze the tipper lorry into the tinest space to deliver over 6 tonnes of sand ...

... and uses an amazing amount of skill to drop two pallets of lime, and (narrowly, and fortunately) miss the telephone wire:

Phew. Just half an hour after the delivery, the long-awaited process begins. Our three guys are all going full pelt and flat out. One is The Mixer: his job is to keep two cement mixers going simultaneously, the contents of which are transferred into buckets ...

... then winched up to the first floor by The Wincher:

The first stage is to apply a coat of lime render to the bare stone walls, to prepare them for receiving the hemp plaster. Because of the sheer scale of this job, this (together with the initial coats of hemp plaster) is being sprayed, under pressure, onto the stone walls to make sure that all the gaps between the stones are completely filled. This is naturally the task of The Perfectionist, although The Wincher makes sure he gets a bit of a look in here too. A little non-human assistance is required as well, however ...

The final sprayed coat of hemp plaster is then 'scratched' in preparation to receive the finishing coats next week:

Someone described the application of hemp and lime as being a bit like trowelling tuna mayonnaise onto walls ... Hmm. Moving swiftly on ... look at these lovely rounded corners:

Two and a half days in, and two thirds of the walls are now 'scratched' and ready for their finishing coats. The sun shone relentlessly; the temperature hovered around 30 degrees in the shade. The guys worked from 8.15 to 6pm, with just a couple of breaks, while we also sweated digging out the dining terrace just outside and shifting hundreds of big stones. They'll no doubt think I've completely lost it for saying this, but there were moments - hours - when the task - hard, hot and dirty though it is - became a kind of dance; when the rhythm took over; when all three were lost in total awareness of what they were doing; when the process was all.

Zen moments.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A spot of Saturday afternoon retail therapy ...

Once upon a time, I recall, Saturday afternoons used to involve hitting the High Street with a wad of notes and a determination to come home with carrier bags full of clothes I was never likely to wear more than once and shoes in which I could barely stagger from one side of the room to the other. Remember those days? Yes, I thought you did.

Although having wads of notes is now naught but a fond memory, yesterday afternoon I decided to hit what passes for the retail superstores in Saint Girons (no, don't laugh) for a spot of retail therapy. As an indication of how times have changed, however, it wasn't high fashion I was searching for. It was - and I can scarcely believe I'm writing this - a new pair of safety boots. Oh, how the mighty are fallen ..... but when your old ones are well and truly crevées, and you've dropped the thousandth piece of rock, or plaster, or tile, or brick, onto what once passed for your toes, well, what to do?

Amazingly - and I bet you can't do this in Clapham High Street - I walked straight in to one of our major shoe chains, La Halle, and found that not only did they sell safety boots in women's sizes, but also that I had a choice. Can you believe it? So here, gentle reader, is a sample of the latest fashion, Grillou style:

Aren't they lovely?