Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Karma yoga

Three weeks ago we took a break. A short one, but away from each other, and for me, away from Grillou too. And as so often happens, those three days became a sort of punctuation point during which we both realised things that we hadn't consciously realised - or rather, hadn't allowed ourselves to realise. One of those things was that we both felt - feel - completely incapable of continuing to live in the sort of building site shite that our house and garden had become. When we set out we'd anticipated all that bit being over and done with in 6 or 8 months, and to live like that for a short and finite period seemed a perfectly realisable, if not particularly pleasant, choice. That was 14 months ago. It's now intolerable.

Although we can't do much about the fact that the work isn't finished, we decided that what we could, and would, do was to make a priority of sorting out the bits of the house that we live in, and the garden. Six solid days of house cleaning later for both of us (yes, really), I could see surfaces I'd forgotten were there and no longer felt the need to issue protective overalls and masks to anyone foolish enough to visit. And so we turned our attention to the outside, in my case to the frontage of the house which is not only the bit you see first as you walk or drive up, but the bit that's been covered with cement mixers, lime, cement, sand, tarps, tools, materials and builders for over a year. From our driveway a wide gravel path sweeps along the whole length of the house; even before our time it hadn't been maintained or raked or topped up and so was not only full of grass and weeds but also completely impacted and encrusted with moss as hard as cement. What started as a simple - or so I thought - job of weeding and raking turned into two weeks on my hands and knees breaking up the moss with a hand hoe and then pulling out every strand of greenery with my fingers. It's a bit like one of those tasks you get given on a meditation retreat: mind-numbingly tedious, and faintly pointless.

This is what I started with:

Not pretty, is it? (Nor are my hands. Or my knees). But at least I could sit in the sun, listen to the birds singing, and watch this year's pair of black redstarts feeding their young in the nest just a couple of metres away from where I was working, and then leading them out on to the barn roof for the first time. They're curious birds, and seem as fascinated by me as I am by them. Both parents are the browny-grey colour usually reserved for the female (the male is generally a dark steely grey, almost black), and for quite some time I was convinced that I'd spotted the world's first pair of gay birds. Sadly though I'm not about to go down in the history books; according to some obscure Scandinavian paper that Google dragged up for me, it's recently been discovered that quite lot of young male black redstarts spend their first breeding year in drag, only dressing appropriately for their gender when they're two. Oh well.

So now, just to convince you that Grillou is wending its Slow way towards being beautiful (and open!), and to indulge my current and rather smug feeling of Having Done Something Useful, here's a glimpse of what you'd see if you were to arrive here tomorrow:

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Parcel Farce

Being the gentle, easy going soul that I am ;-) there aren't many things in life that I can claim to hate. But I hereby announce, loudly and to anyone who's listening, that I hate, loathe, and detest parcel delivery services.

Living as we do in the middle of nowhere, it's often much more convenient, and almost always cheaper, to buy stuff online. Twas ever thus: it was the same in our Norfolk years. All the wine for our restaurant, for example, came to us from our various suppliers via courier. Our front door was a good 100 metres down a cobbled pedestrian-only loke (narrow alleyway); did any of them have sack barrows or trollies? Did they hell. No, every box had to be carried, painfully and with accompanying moans, down the loke. One used to refuse to do it, claiming back problems. And did any of them ring the blatantly obvious house door bell? Er - no. They would always knock - ineffectually - on the restaurant door, which is not especially useful when you're blasting away in the kitchen three rooms away. And then drive off and report a 'failed delivery'. Or occasionally leave a dozen boxes of wine outside the door, for everyone and his wife to help themselves to ....

That's assuming, of course, that they'd turned up, in the right place or, indeed, at all. On the Friday before one Bank Holiday weekend our Neal's Yard Dairy cheese order simply didn't arrive, leaving us running frantically round the county at 6pm looking for enough small-producer cheese to see us through the four or five days until it could be replaced. (It turned up, smellily, six days later in the barn of someone's (unoccupied) second home at the other end of the village. "Well, the courier couldn't find the right place, could he?" was the response from the delivery company. Ah. Of course not. Silly me).

And it's not a lot better here (did I really think it would be?). Invariably we get a phone call from the driver, who's parked outside La Poste in Rimont. Occasionally we even manage to pick the phone up, though not often as it's not terribly easy when, for example, you've got a bucketful of rapidly going off plaster. But assuming we do, the conversation usually takes one of three forms.

1. "Can you give me directions?". That's easy. But it is unnecessary: we're clearly marked on all the main maps, Google maps, Google Earth, Geoportail and all the SatNav systems. "Don't you have SatNav?" I asked someone last week. Apparently not. "Well, what about a map?" No, no map. Useful.

2. "I'm at La Poste. Can you come and get your parcel? Now?" Er, no. I'm paying you to deliver it. "But it's too difficult / too far / there's an R in the month". Tant pis. "Bof putain de bordel de merde fait chier ...".

3. "I'm stuck in the mud on a footpath that goes to a lake". Yes (sigh), you have got a SatNav, and you've asked it for the shortest route. (Listen, all ye who rely on such things. SatNavs are NOT intelligent beings ...).

This week however has offered up a new form of courier entertainment. A package I'd been expecting for some time had still not turned up, so I decided to use the tracking service. Address unknown! Failed delivery! Await clarification from customer!!! it screamed. Ignoring the question of just how said customer was supposed to know that, eventually I managed to track down the name of the offending courier. Heart sinks: it's Chronopost, known throughout France for their ineptitude, their bloody-mindedness, and their premium rate telephone number for all enquiries - yes, that would be one, for the entire country. Having pressed the required 72 buttons to get to speak to a living, breathing entity, I was informed that I had 'only' twenty-eight and a half minutes to wait to do so. (It was actually 32, which I suppose is close).

And the outcome? They had, it transpires, been attempting to deliver to my telephone number.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The most incongruous sound in the world?

Hello again, world. I'm back. Not that I've been anywhere, mind you. Couldn't, even if I'd wanted to. We've been tree'd in.

We woke on Tuesday morning to a grey, dank, wet, freezing cold day - thermal vest territory, and quite a contrast from the 26 degree plus temperatures of the previous week.

By ten o'clock the odd snowflake was making its appearance. By half past we were in a full blown blizzard.

By eleven o'clock our world was white, and the newly-in-leaf trees all around were creaking under the strain. By half past all we could hear was the sound of tree branches snapping under the weight of the wet, heavy snow and, every so often, the more ominous crash of a larger tree falling. At midday, we lost electricity. An hour later, our mobile phone signal went the same way.

A wellie-booted foray down the track to see what was going on was quickly aborted as branches and trees were falling like dominos, but not before it became patently obvious that we were going nowhere fast. The track was an impassable obstacle course. A thick, heavy oak branch balanced squatly on top of the main high tension electricity cable. Gulp. We retreated back to hot porridge and gave thanks to the goddess of gas hobs.

A while later a white figure appeared in the kitchen: our neighbour, bearing a hefty mechanical telephone and the news that her power cable had, under the weight of falling branches, been wrenched off the wall of her house, severed, and was now lying on the ground. She shook, slightly, and not from the cold. We plugged in the phone and found that, miraculously, we (unlike her) still had a faint connection. Like the rest of Ariège, we phoned ERDF, who are responsible for the electricity infrastructure, to be met with a recorded message telling us that over 25,000 households in the department were without power and Something Would Be Done About It, Sometime.

Two candlelit dinners and nights filled with fantasies of hot showers later, it was. Track cleared, electricity back on. Garden damage sadly noted: one lilac tree, one old plum, shrubs flattened, several ashes and a maple stripped, roses battered and ripped. Two hundred year oaks unscathed. And so, largely because I've become as superstitious as the French about planting before the Saints de Glace, was the potager.

Today, the air resounds with the noise of chainsaws. And the most incongruous sound in the world? The song of a nightingale, in the snow.