Sunday, 28 March 2010

Springing forward, and all that

So, the barn roof and the dining-room-to-be are going to be seriously - and I mean very seriously - en retard.

But - oh joy - the clocks have changed, it was light until nearly nine o'clock tonight, it's the end of closing the curtains for another eight months or so, and the clock in the car is right again (neither of us can remember how to alter it so it stays on permanent summer time ...).

And the first cuckoo's back and - er - cuckooing.

And the potager is (almost) dug, the moon planting calendar has come off the bookshelf, the purple sprouting broccoli is finally sprouting, and the broad beans are growing.

And the grass is purple and pink and white with sweet violets, the crocuses and the grape hyacinths and the daffodils and the tulips are all out together, and the track is lined with celandine and cowslips.

And today was a shorts day - the first of the year. And having driven 50 kilometres and back to collect a sofa, cut and fixed a decoupling membrane for the floor of La P'tite Maison's shower room and shifted nearly a tonne of stone several hundred metres into place ready to start paving the next terrace, I was still flopped on my sun bed, in the sun, at seven o'clock this evening.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The reckoning

If you're wondering why it's been a bit quiet on the blog front of late it's because I've been ruminating (and as my Aunty Connie used to say "can'tknitneatnall ...).

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and started to write a pedantically detailed list of everything that still had to be done in order to be ready to present Grillou to guests in mid June as planned. After 11 pages of A4, and with at least as much more to go, I gave up: without even trying I could see that it was as impossible as trying to find the square root of minus one.

We've been working at this now for just over a year, seven days a week, anything up to 14 hours a day. With the best will in the world, I don't think we can up that. And to be honest, I think there's a limit to how long we - anyone? - can go on working at that level. We were doing okay when we were working mainly on L'Atelier d'Artiste - although it's by no means finished, the work there went much more according to timetable, probably because it was effectively a brand new conversion and so was like painting on a blank canvas. But La P'tite Maison has stymied - and continues to stymie - us. Everything we've done there - and that's a lot - has taken three times as long as I'd calculated it would. And it's not just us - The Perfectionist has been working in the dining-room-to-be for what feels now like most of his life, but still has a good couple of weeks to go (and that's with everything going to plan - ha! - and a following wind ...). In moments of despair we've all wondered if La P'tite Maison is jinxed (and in really bad moments, whether it's haunted), but rationally I know it's because the whole area was never really finished in its previous existence and so we're dealing with all the aftermath of, for example, walls that had been plastered but never primed or painted, other walls that never made it beyond the rendering stage, radiator pipes that crossed a room hanging off a beam, and lighting either non-existent or in the most bizarre places (none of which were useful, or even functional). And all the rest, too boring to mention.

To realise that meeting the deadline I've been holding for two years looks nigh on impossible was depressing, to say the least. The other thing it did was make me realise just how tired I was. I was still doing all right physically, but mentally I was exhausted, mainly from holding all those blasted spinning plates up in the air for so long. Another couple of months pushing on at the same rate seemed do-able; another six distinctly not.

And so as those who bore the brunt of my miserable git-ness will testify, I spent a not too pleasant week or so trying to find my way through the whole dilemma. When could we expect to be ready? What would it take? Could anything be simplified or dropped? (No!) Could anything more be contracted out ? (No!) How to let down those people who've already expressed an interest in booking for early summer? How to stop the grass and the weeds from growing? And so on. Round, and round, and round.

Today was a beautiful day - blue skies, early 20s in the shade, birds singing their hearts out - and this afternoon I - radically - took some time out from La P'tite Maison to hoe the potager. And it's funny how going back to the earth puts everything into perspective and makes life seem simpler. Yes, we could choose to up the ante, work 18 hours a day, forget all the stuff about enjoying the process and just get our heads down and do the necessary. That way, we might possibly make ourselves beautiful enough by July. Possibly. That would mean no potager, doing nothing more outside than keeping the grounds under control, no apéros in the garden, no time away from Grillou, no time with friends, no festivals, no swims and probably no sleep. By the time you got here for your Slow Holiday we'd be foutus (look it up!). Now what on earth would be the point of that, either for us or for you? Call it corny if you like, but hospitality for us has always been about the joy of sharing our home and our food with others, not about 'being a business'. Or, we could choose to drop the deadline, breathe, carry on taking pleasure in what we're doing, still work hard but live something of an ordinary life at the same time. Which, of course, is what we came here for. (And I have a sneaking suspicion that in the contrary way of the universe, letting go of the deadline will actually free up the stuckness and let things start to flow again ...).

Eh bien. There's no contest, really, is there? I'm off to sow some carrots.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

There but for the grace of Gaia ...

The winds and hurricane of Saturday night passed by and left us completely unscathed. In fact we bathed in ridiculously high Foehn effect temperatures (it was 25 degrees at 10.30pm), and enjoyed a truly spectacular flare at sunset:

Other areas weren't so lucky. Like the rest of France, we've been watching, with a mixture of horror and disbelief, the daily TV coverage of the floods in Vendée, where 28 people have died in the communes of L'Aiguillon sur Mer and La-Faute-sur-Mer alone, surprised in their beds by the storm surge that devastated the walls built to keep the sea away from the huge bungaloid estates that have sprung up over the last 20 years. At least 10 per cent of all the agricultural land in neighbouring Charente Maritime has been invaded by the sea; the Ile de Ré (where 'only' two people died) has been split by the sea into its original three islands, and entire villages are still cut off.

This stretch of coastline is remarkably similar to that of north Norfolk, where we lived for 8 years before coming to France. Our house was barely 2 centimetres above sea level and a few metres away from hectares of salt marsh; like the rest of our street we were front line in the flood zone, and our house was one of many that had been flooded to nearly three metres high in 1953 (over 50 years later, salts were still coming out of the wall and so like our neighbours' houses, all our inside walls remained boarded). Although a new (and ugly) concrete sea defence had been built between us and the marshes, we remained at risk; the local council regularly delivered sandbags, our flood board was always at the ready, the flood warning siren was tested without fail on the first Saturday of the month, and we would get occasional phone calls from the Environment Agency requiring us to get "ourselves and our livestock" to higher ground. In the back of our minds was always the question: what should I save? It was somewhat discomforting; we all knew that one day another huge surge would come. And so it will, of that I have no doubt.

Probably because of that experience, I find myself being particularly affected by the flooding in Vendée. What I see every night on my TV screen is what we all, at an almost unconscious level, feared in Cley in our everyday lives. And yet there are some huge differences. The early warning system in north Norfolk is well developed, if not especially well thought out (many of the phone alerts, for example, came in the form of voicemail messages in the early hours of the morning ...), but there seems to be no warning system at all in place in the Vendée and Charente Maritime in spite of the fact that huge swathes of the land has been reclaimed from the sea and lies at - or below - sea level. Last night I listened to the President of the Conseil Général explaining how the flooding "could not possibly have been foreseen" because it was a result of a combination of events which had never happened before: high winds, spring tides, and an atmospheric depression that caused a further increase in the height of the tide. Er - yes ... that's exactly what happened in the floods of 1953 ...

It seems that many of the sea walls date back to the Napoleonic era when the land was first reclaimed from the sea, and have been slowly falling into a state of disrepair. Even more disturbing, though, is the number of homes that have been built in flood zones - and I'm talking at, and below, sea level - since 1999, the year of the two successive hurricanes that caused untold damage to much of France: 100,000. Many of these are, like those on the estate at L'Aiguillon, single storey 'pavillons' (in fact at L'Aiguillon, two storey houses are not permitted ...). There are, of course, huge incentives to classify land, however unsuitable, as constructible, and it's well known that many a town or village maire has done very nicely thank you over the years by doing just that. Rightly, the merde has begun to hit the ventilateur about all of that today, and hopefully we may find that this particular stable door is, if not shut, now pushed a little further closed.

Fat lot of good that'll be though to those who discovered, one Saturday night in February, that while you can build walls and banks and barriers and defences of all kinds, Gaia will, one day, have her way.