December 15, 2014

A BONFIRE AND A NEW LEVEL

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With the help of Alex and Nicole we have cleared a lot of trees and bushes from the boundary of the property. 

When I say “we” I really mean Alex and Nicole, with Nick acting as labourer and taking advantage of their expertise and advice.  My gardening activities involved staying out the way and providing tea and cake!

Too many trees had been planted too close together which meant that many of them were not growing properly as they had no room to breathe and develop as they should.  We also like the idea of a more open appearance – we can see more of the view, and passers by can see more of us – the property no longer looks unloved but looks very much loved and lived in.

The result of all this garden work produced several large piles of twigs and branches – too many to either pile up on the compost heap or to take to the tip.  The perfect opportunity for a bonfire.

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Nick piled the wood on top of an old, worm eaten sideboard that had been left behind in the barn.  Neither of us have had a bonfire for decades.  We both had fond memories of family bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night as children, but lately any bonfires we encountered were at large, organised events.  We waited for the right kind of weather – no wind, no rain – and hoped we could get it right.

It’s funny how something so simple can conjure up unexpected memories from the depths of our experience and as I looked at our bonfire I was reminded of a picture in one of my childhood story books.  I remembered very clearly the scene of a bonfire in the garden of a large house.  One of those very solid middle class houses with bay windows, stone paths and pretty gates.  Two adults and three children of various sizes were wrapped up against the autumn chill and were helping the gardener to collect leaves and wood for the bonfire, which was large and burning strongly.  You could tell he was the gardener by the way he was dressed in cloth cap, boots and trousers held up with braces, hurling branches into the fire  – in contrast to the figure who was obviously the father of the family, dressed smartly in overcoat and scarf, casually leaning on a wall with a pipe in his hand.  I can remember feeling envious of the family in the story, having such a lovely big house and garden, compared to the small semi detached council house that we lived in ourselves.

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Our bonfire was soon fully alight and burned steadily while we fed it with cuttings for the next hour or so.  I was amazed that we managed to burn so much damp wood.  It all disappeared and the next morning there was just a small pile of ash, still smouldering gently in the frosty air.

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Another job we tackled this weekend was to empty the middle room upstairs in preparation for the creation of a new floor.  We haven’t yet come up with a name for this room.  In many longères it would be a bedroom, even though you have to walk through it to the next room which really is a bedroom. 

It was the upstairs space in the house that helped to sell it to us.  At one end of the house is a huge master bedroom.  At the other end is a bathroom, this room and a decent sized bedroom.  The previous owners called this end the “guest suite” and this middle room was furnished with a sofa, bookcases and a large dresser – which we bought from them.  We intend to use it as a study/workroom/craft room and we use a variety of terms for it.  Sometimes we call it the study, other times the middle room or library.  Some would think of it as a dressing room, being joined on to the small bedroom by just an opening without a door.

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In any case, whatever you might call it, the floor has a ridiculous slope.  There is a height difference of about 10cm over the length of the room and it also slopes about half as much front to back.

At first we thought it was just one of the quirky features of an old house and that we could live with it, but when we got fed up with trying to level bookcases and found it difficult to sit up straight on a chair, we decided to do something about it.  We are going to have a new floor built on top of the old one.  It will sit on top of the existing floor at one end and on batons at the other end to get the level right.  We will end up with a step down in the doorway onto the landing but this will match the step at the other end of the landing into the big bedroom, so that’s fine.

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Ever helpful and incredibly nosey, Daisy was on hand to help with the clearing of the room at every stage!

December 11, 2014

KEEPING A CAT AMUSED AND BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS

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Daisy is a clever little cat.  We keep her toys in the bottom drawer of a chest in the kitchen.  Most of her toys are small objects she can chase and several of them have ended up out of reach under the kitchen units.  I had no idea she knew where we were keeping them until I spotted her helping herself the other day.  Nick had left the drawer open and in less than two minutes she had the “mouse on elastic” out and was playing with it.

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In this photo she is playing with a real mouse in the utility room.  This is one that we caught ourselves in a trap in an upstairs cupboard.  We thought she might as well have it and gave it to her outside.  Moments later she brought it in through the cat flap and was playing with it indoors!

A few minutes after that I found her eating it in the barn.  I spotted her just as the tail disappeared!

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Yesterday she found a brussels sprout on the kitchen floor.  They are just as much fun as a mouse, real or pretend, to play with it seems.  The only difference is that she didn’t eat it!

(In these photos you can also see the condition of the tiled floor that we want to replace and that led to our decision to have a whole new kitchen!)

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There were no sprouts on the menu at my birthday lunch today.  There was some doubt whether we would be going out for lunch – it all depended on what time the boiler man turned up.  Luckily he’d been and gone by 11.30 so Nick quickly rustled up a reservation at one of our favourite restaurants, L’Auberge de l’Ile at L’Île-Bouchard.

One of the things I liked very much, apart from the fact that the food was obviously excellent, is that the Christmas decorations were incredibly subtle.  We rarely go out for my birthday in the UK as everywhere is knee deep in tinsel and cheap crackers this close to Christmas and we usually find ourselves sitting next to a table of revellers determined to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible at the boss’s expense.  By contrast the ambience at L’Auberge de l’Ile was calm and relaxed, as always.

For starter we both had something called “le Mac Ko”.  It is obviously a take on another sort of burger that we’re all familiar with but this one is fabulous!  It contains fois gras, rocket and sundried tomato, served in a lightly toasted seeded bun on a plate signed by the chef himself in balsamic dressing.  Delicious!  In fact the whole meal was, as always, truly delicious and, along with the promise of a new boiler in the not too distant future, made for a very pleasant birthday.

December 8, 2014

IT’S A GONNER

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One of the things that appealed to us about our new French house is that it has gas central heating.  The radiators are an odd mixture of old and new types and the boiler is twelve years old.  The gas is stored in one of those enormous tanks which is buried under a path outside the barn.

The boiler in our house in England was twenty years old before we decided to replace it with a more efficient one.  Topping that, the one at work was at least forty years old before it started to need major repairs.  Consequently we didn’t expect to have much trouble with this one - but there is probably a good reason for it.

When we moved in this September the heating system was “drained down”.  Lots of people with second homes do this when they close up the house for the winter, to avoid the risk of burst pipes if the temperature dips below freezing for any length of time.  The previous owners had spent the last four or five winters in warmer climes, leaving in the middle of October for six months each time.  This means that our central heating system had certainly not been used since their return in April, probably had been drained down and not used for at least eighteen months, more likely several years.

We had trouble coaxing the boiler into life in October and eventually called in a plumber who got it going.  He also fixed leaks on most of the radiators.  (Except for one which leaks constantly and we now keep permanently switched off.)  The boiler stopped working on and off and the plumber came back a couple of times and fiddled with it.  Nick also fiddled with it after some advice from the chef in the local restaurant!  For a couple of weeks it has been working fine.

Then last Friday, it died.  The fault seems either terminal or very expensive to repair so we have given up on it and decided to have a new boiler.  

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Luckily there are two wood burning stoves downstairs, one in the kitchen and one in the living room.  Up to last Friday we had only ever used the living room fire, not needing extra heat in the kitchen with the radiators on.  But we were forced to light the kitchen fire at the weekend because we needed the warmth.

This fire seems to be a quality Godin wood burner.  It burns wood steadily, it can be regulated and chucks out a lot of heat.

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The living room fire, which we have been using every day for a month or so, is a different kettle of fish altogether.  It’s actually an “insert” – one that is intended to be built in to a surround so that only the door part is visible.  It’s a cheap, ugly thing which gets through logs at a terrific rate and although it produces plenty of heat it’s impossible to control it - it burns at full pelt all the time.  We plan to replace it with a better quality, better looking model next year, after we have finished using it for this winter.

The previous owners hardly ever used it, we think.  They were in the habit of living in the kitchen, where they had their TV and dining table  They shut off the living room and dining room end of the house, keeping the door closed and a heavy curtain over it to keep out draughts.  That was before they decided to go south for the winter each year!

Curiously, they told us that it was not possible to have both fires going at the same time, saying that they didn’t draw properly because they share the same chimney.  Out of necessity we have lit both fires and found no problem in keeping them going at all, although we did get the chimney and both fires cleaned before we started using them.  The plumber fetched an old wasp nest down on one side, so maybe that was the problem!

So the boiler has to be added to the list of appliances that we have had to replace because they didn’t work.  A local “chauffagiste” is coming on Thursday to look at the heating system and hopefully fit us a new boiler.  Unfortunately it’s unlikely that it will be in place before we go home for Christmas, which means that, to be on the safe side, we too will have to drain down the system before we leave.  In the meantime we manage downstairs with the two fires and upstairs with some electric radiators dotted around – ones that we had kept from the other house, just in case, plus a couple of extras kindly loaned by friends. 

The thing I really miss is waking up to warmth in the mornings.  I don’t mind so much having to wear multiple layers of jumpers and thick socks, and we can get the house warm enough by mid morning, but the general effect reminds me very much of my childhood in the 1950’s.  The house we lived in had only a single coal fire in the living room for heating.  My mother was always the first up and she would light the fire to warm the house before anyone else got out of bed.  When it was really cold she would also light the gas oven and leave the door open to warm the kitchen!  There was no heating at all upstairs and scraping the ice off the inside of my bedroom window is one of those childhood memories I have no great fondness for!  I also remember dreading Sunday afternoons – the bathroom was downstairs but was not heated either.  My mum would light the paraffin stove to warm it just enough to take the chill off before my brother and I were obliged to take our weekly baths – whether we needed it or not – before we could have our Sunday tea!

December 3, 2014

WEATHER AND BIG DECISIONS

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When we arrived back in France on 18th November the weather was still fine and mild.  We spent a lot of time in the garden, taking the opportunity to get on with some winter clearing and tidying up - “putting the garden to bed” as a friend of mine calls it.  There’s a lot to do to get it back into good shape.

It was so mild and sunny that we just had to have the last BBQ of the year, eating lunch outdoors in the covered picnic area which was built for exactly that purpose.

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We all enjoyed being outdoors in lovely warm sunshine at the end of November, knowing quite well that it couldn’t possibly last much longer.

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It actually lasted for nearly another week and then, suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, on 30th November winter arrived.

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On Sunday we went to an antiques fair at Azay-le-Rideau.  It was barely a few degrees above freezing we were definitely feeling the cold. 

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There were plenty of antiques on offer but the prices were high.  No bargains were to be had and although plenty of visitors were looking, nobody much seemed to be buying.

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It was cold enough to make these fur coats tempting, but not at the prices offered.

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Even Daisy showed less inclination to go out hunting, preferring the comfort of her warm and cosy bed to the excitement of chasing mice in the draughty old barn.  We found ourselves spending more time in the kitchen and we quickly arrived at a big decision…….

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When we bought the house we felt it was very much a “move straight in” situation.  In many ways that it still true – we haven’t got to renovate the property as such but as time goes by its shortcomings are becoming apparent. 

The kitchen looks lovely but some of the cabinets are not in good condition.  The dishwasher simply didn’t work and we have already replaced it (along with the washing machine and the tumble drier) and we no longer use the oven since the door dramatically fell off.  The cooker hood looks good but is useless since it doesn’t have an extraction vent at all.  The tap wobbles annoyingly and the sink itself is simply annoyingly cheap.  Neither of us like the granite worktops – they have a lip on the edge which makes them difficult to clean and the dark colour makes it difficult to decide whether they are clean or not – they look as though they are permanently covered in dead flies.

Above all, the floor tiles are in bad condition, many of them having been already replaced with oddments by the previous owners, but gradually more and more of them are breaking up.

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And we really do not like the metal spiral staircase.

None of these things come as a great surprise.  We felt we would change things bit by bit but last weekend we decided to bite the bullet and have a new kitchen, sooner rather than later.  The thing that tipped the balance was the floor.  We need to have a new floor before fitting a new staircase and it makes no sense at all to fit new floor tiles around kitchen units and appliances that have so many things wrong with them.  So we decided to go the whole hog.

We have been measured up for a new oak staircase.  The first job will be to remove the existing kitchen and put down a new floor.  Once the floor is down the staircase can be fitted and the new kitchen will follow. 

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So we are juggling ideas for a new kitchen layout.  The new cooker (or hob) will go on the back wall where we can have an extraction hood that actually functions.  We like having a table in the kitchen where we can sit and eat or relax and luckily there is plenty of space for it, but other than that we are flummoxed.

A new kitchen is an exciting prospect and we need to get it right!

November 15, 2014

NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION

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Having got Daisy back safe and sound from the neighbour and back to full health we then had to think hard about her future.  I was very worried that if she remained an outdoor cat he could steal her again.

So she became an indoor cat with outdoor options.

We took her to the vet and got her all the regular vaccinations plus a rabies vaccination and an identity chip, so that we could bring her home to the UK when we returned for a long spell.

The rabies vaccination was not done soon enough to bring her with us this time so we were faced with having to leave her in France for two weeks.  Our friends Tim and Pauline had offered to cat sit – to call regularly and keep her company, play with her, make sure she’s ok and keep the cat feeder topped up. 

We felt very strongly that she would be less vulnerable to the neighbour’s uninvited attention if she could get into the house where it was safe and warm whenever she liked, rather than having to find shelter in the draughty barn.  We needed a cat flap!

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The problem was, where to fit one?  All the doors into the house are made of full length glass, something we’re very pleased with as it makes the most of what light comes into the house at the front - as a typical longère there are no windows at the back and the front is currently shaded by an overly large lime tree.  Whilst it is possible to fit a cat flap into an existing glass door (I enquired once we got back to the UK) we hadn’t got the time to get that organised in France before we came away.

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So we improvised!

Tim and Pauline loaned us their spare cat flap and Tim made a wooden insert that fits the utility room window.  We constructed a cat ladder from a pile of logs and with a bit of encouragement Daisy soon learned how to go in and out. 

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By which I mean that she learned how to climb in very quickly, because we started to keep her bed and food inside, but needed a little more coaxing to get the hang of going out.  We took the magnet off the closing mechanism as the door seemed quite hard for a kitten to push, and that helped.

The going out through the cat flap learning process was assisted by Lulu.  We were in the habit of giving Lulu her dinner outside the front door – she prefers to dine al fresco – and a race soon developed between the dog and cat as to who could get to it first.  Daisy would shoot out of the cat flap and down the ladder and we would sneakily open the door to make sure Lulu got there just ahead of her!

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For the last two weeks Tim and Pauline have been keeping us up to date with her progress and sending photos.  She is thriving without us, it seems!  She has grown, her eyes have turned a gorgeous green, she is keeping the mouse population down and enjoys playing with the kitchen sponge and teatowel.  Which tells me that it didn’t take her long to work out how to get onto the kitchen worktops via the spiral staircase and the top of the fridge.  She’s a clever and fearless little thing.

  cat flap4 I knew that three-seater sofa would come in handy!

So we’ll soon be back in France and are looking forward to seeing how she’s got on without us.  Pretty good, I suspect!

Bon weekend !!

November 11, 2014

THE MISSING JUMPER

So the BT engineer finally came and seemed to know what he was doing.  He used his fancy equipment to work out that our line was totally dead and that the fault was a very short distance away, at a nearby junction box, only a few hundred metres from the house.  (635 metres to be precise!)  Of he trotted to see what was wrong and returned in a short time saying that the problem was a missing jumper.  This is something fairly crucial that had been removed in error or by accident when some other work was being carried out.  Without it we had no telephone line.  He replaced the jumper and hey presto, the phone and internet were working again.

The whole process took less than an hour once we had someone sensible to talk to.  I don’t know whether to be happy or cross, but at least normal service has been restored.  If BT could have sent this bloke to sort the job out straight away we could have been saved from a lot of angst and aggravation, not to mention inconvenience.

November 7, 2014

REFLECTIONS ON TECHNOLOGY AND SERVICE

We are currently in the UK for a short visit, the main purpose of which was to bring my dad back home after his stay with us in October.

When Nick came to fetch him on 16th October he found that our phone and internet weren't working. A call to BT (thank goodness for mobile phones) revealed "a fault at the exchange" and he was told they would send an engineer to check it out in five days' time - not much use to him as he was only staying home for two days!

We arrived back home on 2nd November to find we still had no phone or internet.  Another call to BT revealed the same "fault at the exchange", but only after they tried to blame our equipment or internal wiring. We have no wiring. The line comes into the house and our phone plugs straight into the socket - the one that was installed by BT only four months ago.    We also checked it out using an old fashioned phone that doesn't require an electricity supply - one that we keep for emergency use such as in a power cut. That doesn't work either, suggesting a fault with the line.  BT said they would send an engineer to the exchange on 6th November - a wait of another four days.

By mid afternoon on 6th November we still had no phone. Another call to BT revealed that an engineer had been to the exchange and found no fault..........the previous day! So we were no further forward and they hadn't had the courtesy to inform us of the outcome.

I admire Nick for his calm and patience. I suppose decades of getting to the bottom of problems and getting the most out of people when they have failed to come up to scratch must be good training for dealing with a large company whose systems and processes for resolving problems are hopeless. Plus the fact that the person you have to speak to at the call centre is doing his or her best but probably doesn't give a toss or is already thoroughly demoralised. I would have found it very hard not to lose my rag.

We now apparently need an engineer to come and check it out at the house, which will be - in another four days.

This leads me to reflect on the current state of service and technology. The technology is fantastic but the service is awful. How did that come about? Why is it that these days the customer has to do not only his own quality control but also his own project management when things go wrong?

You can't actually get to deal face to face or even talk to someone who really seems to care or whose job depends on getting things done right.  Maybe that's the problem - large companies have great ways of getting your business through marketing but nobody takes any pride in doing a good job, whether it's the person in the call centre dealing with angry and frustrated customers, or the people who devise the processes for resolving problems. They seem to think that a refund of  a month's charge for the lack of service should make us happy.

However, Nick opened his iPad to find that we are connected after all using BT Wifi - and presumably the service of one of our neighbours. So at least we have the ability to check emails if not use the phone. If I pop round to my dad's house, log on to his internet and download the right app on my own iPad, I shall be able to do the same............

Meanwhile, we await the next instalment in the saga of getting our phone line fixed. At the current rate of four day intervals between each step in the process, and having to do our own project management, we'll be very lucky indeed if it's fixed by the time we go back to France!