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.