August 28, 2015

WHERE DID AUGUST GO?

I can hardly believe that the end of August is here already.  How did that happen?  The year has whizzed by, and the summer has been a good one for us in France.  There’s lots to tell, some of it seems like very old news now but it’s worth telling it all the same – when I get round to it !!

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I’ve mentioned it before but we’ve done really well with our few tomato plants this year.  Other people have done well with courgettes and we have benefited from their success.  I decided it was time to make a real effort to use them productively.

On exploring the contents of the fridge today I found a few other bits and bobs that needed using up so, remembering this recent blog post, an idea evolved in my mind and I produced smoked salmon and halloumi stuffed courgettes for lunch.  They were very tasty and I shall make them again.  You can read all about them here.

August 20, 2015

OF PAINT POTS, TOMATOES AND MOLE HILLS

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There is nothing the least bit sinister about the fact that I haven’t posted for absolutely ages.  The simple fact of the matter is that I have been busy.  Not that that is any real explanation or excuse for neglecting my blog.  I have been busier than this in the past and still found time to blog.  Gawd knows how I found the time to do it when I was working, now that I have retired I seem to have even less time to do anything for myself than ever before.  Now how many people warned me about this……?

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I first saw these paint pots on offer in B&Q in early spring.  They looked like they could come in handy but I managed to resist buying them.  Then back in June (I think) I went on a blueberry and raspberry picking morning with friends, in France, and they were much more well equipped than I.  Whilst I grappled with plastic bags and boxes they picked efficiently with paint pots and much more sensible boxes. 

I did well though, coming home with several kilos of blueberries and raspberries, but I resolved to return to B&Q next time we were in England, and get a couple of those paint pots.  Ideal for picking a few blackberries from the hedgerows or load of tomatoes from our garden.

Considering how much trouble we had growing tomatoes in the UK, even in a greenhouse, we have done staggeringly well here in France this summer.  We have had tons of them.  Well maybe not tons, but many, many kilos.

We bought a handful of plants in the spring, planted them out, added a few plants given to us by friends, and from a very small patch of appallingly poor quality earth and by more or less ignoring them completely, we are up to our necks in tomatoes.

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We have made and frozen tomato sauce, various flavours.  I have bagged up chopped tomatoes for the freezer and, for the first time in my life, roasted and preserved herby tomatoes in olive oil.  Yum.  Two of these little beauties squashed onto a slice of baguette makes me feel full of sunshine and incredibly smug.  Our tomatoes have without doubt been a huge success.

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I wish we were as successful with the use of mole scarers.  We bought one at huge expense and have positioned it in various mole hills around the garden only to find the mole pops up somewhere else.  This morning I rounded the corner between the house and the barn to find Daisy poised to pounce over a throbbing piece of gravel and a mole hill.  Obviously Mr Mole was about to emerge skywards right next to the mole scarer, completely unscared and unperturbed.  Unfortunately my plodding in his direction with a basket of washing was enough to send him in the opposite direction and Daisy retired to her favourite chair in the sunshine.  Later that day the mole hill was up to the top of the mole scarer, which continued to buzz ineffectually.

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Last but not least, we have a little conundrum for now.

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We have commissioned our friendly local builder to redo the front of the house.  This involves picking out all the existing cement render and putting it back in a much more beautiful fashion.  Which sounds simple but is actually a big job.  The house will look fabulous afterwards, much better than the mish mash of finishes that adorns the front now.

The question is, which colour of cement render should we choose?  We have a choice of three colours from hardly pink at all through fairly pink to positively peachy.  Our builder has done us a sample of each on the front wall.  We err towards the middle one, just slightly pink.  But with each hour of the day the colours look different and as each day goes by and they dry out they look different again.

We need to get this right, as we may have to live with it for the next hundred years or so!

Bon weekend !!

July 21, 2015

A QUICK DASH

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Dashing here, dashing there, we seem to be doing a lot of dashing about lately.  Nick dashed back to the UK on the aeroplane to join me in the UK and to see his mum.  After she died we both dashed back to France to see how the staircase had turned out, retrieve Daisy from the cattery and spend a short week there. 

As we were driving south on the almost deserted French motorways I was thinking that life had resumed a far too hectic pace, much like it used to be when we were both working.  We would usually dash to our little house in the village for a quick one week break in the middle of July, before the English schools broke up for the holidays and the tourists started to arrive.  We loved having that week’s holiday every year and a week seemed to last much longer than it does now.  We would make each day count and return home to normal life and to work refreshed, revitalised, warmed by the sun and full of lovely food and wine.

This time a short week seemed like no time at all and it whizzed by in a blur of activity.  We picked our first tomatoes.  Lovely, sweet fragrant tomatoes, big ones and tiny ones.  It seemed like a miracle, to be picking our own tomatoes in early July, grown outdoors, without the aid of a greenhouse.

The weather was hot, getting hotter every day.

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On 13th July, the eve of Bastille Day, we went to Le Petit-Pressigny to join in the fun and celebrations there.  There was a huge crowd in the marquee, lovely food, music and excellent fireworks.

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On 14th July it was another lovely hot and sunny day, we had a barbecue at home in the evening before driving into the village to see another set of fireworks.  The warm weather had brought out the crowds and it was all very jolly.  It felt odd not to be able to simply wander up the hill towards the château and fall into bed, the murmur of laughter and music in the village square finally dying out in the early hours.

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In the middle of the week, on a very hot day, the farmer arrived to harvest the wheat in the fields that surround us.  I had been dreading this day, wondering how dusty and noisy it would be.  It turned out to be very little trouble at all.  Keeping the doors and windows shut all day to keep out the dust was no hardship at all as it also kept out the heat.  At 4pm it was 37°C, too hot for us to be working outdoors in the garden so we retired to the cool of the sitting room, sipping iced water.  I wondered how the farmer could stand it, out there for hours in end in the baking heat.  By nightfall he had more or less finished apart from a thin strip at the opposite end of the furthest field from us.

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It was getting hotter with each day and we found that by opening all the doors and windows first thing in the morning and putting on all the fans we could let some of the heat escape from upstairs and cool the rooms down a bit before the temperatures soared again.  Daisy took advantage of the open windows to explore the roof. 

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She climbed onto the very top and meowed, giving us the impression that she didn’t know how to get down.  We coaxed her along the roof towards the little terrace above the barn and rescued her.  Ten minutes later she was up there again so we decided to leave her to it.  She was back in the house in no time.  All we had to do was stand outside the front door and rattle the tin of Dreamies.  She will always come for the promise of a few Dreamies!

On Thursday we collected our friend Gaynor from the station in Tours.  The outside temperature on our dashboard display got to 39°C.  Thank goodness for modern cars and air conditioning.  I sometimes wonder how people managed before air conditioned cars were the norm, although I was illogically slightly disappointed not to see it reach 40°, just so that I could say I had. 

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With Gaynor installed chez nous to keep an eye on Lulu and Daisy for a few days we set off back to England on Saturday to be in good time for the funeral on Monday.  There were miles and miles of traffic jams going south on the motorway around Tours.  The holiday season had obviously begun big style and although it was a good deal cooler on Saturday morning, a pleasant 25°C, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for all those people sitting in traffic for what looked like it could be hours – not a good start to their holiday. 

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Having no dog or cat with us we decided to take the long route home, via Portsmouth.  The recent shenanigans at Calais had closed the tunnel and the port quite frequently and we didn’t want to risk being stuck and not getting back for the funeral. The journey to the ferry at Caen is a good two hours shorter than to the tunnel at Calais, which was nice.  The weather was very pleasant indeed, at Ouisterham there were sailing boats bobbing about in the sunshine.

We used to prefer this crossing and used it regularly in our motorcycle touring days.  After a hard slog to the port a five hour rest and a nice meal on board was very welcome.  However, we had somehow forgotten that in those days we used to break the journey with an overnight stay either in a hotel on the French side, or by sailing overnight.  This time we did it all in one go and it took sixteen hours from door to door.  The boat was delayed by an hour in leaving the port and we had also forgotten that once it has docked it then takes another hour to get out of Portsmouth – unloading the cars takes a long time then everyone has to queue up for passport control which itself can take up to an hour.  We finally fell into bed at 2.30am.

The funeral was yesterday.  Funerals are supposed to mean closure, a release, a chance to get back to normal and get on with life, a new life without the person who has passed away.  I always feel slightly raw and unsettled for a while afterwards.  So we are dashing back to France today, spending the evening with friends in Dover to break the journey, which is, I must say, becoming harder every time we do it. 

We’ll be back chez nous by tea time tomorrow and are looking forward to a good long spell of feeling settled.  Enjoying the house and planning the garden.  Nick will go fishing.  I will do some baking.  We’ll get the motorcycles out and do a bit of touring.  We’ll walk the dog and play with the cat.  And we’ll enjoy our own home grown tomatoes.

July 10, 2015

R.I.P.

Nick's mum

Nick’s mum passed away yesterday evening at 8pm.  She was ninety one years old and this photo shows her on her 90th birthday.

Nick’s dad was a vicar and she was devoted to him and his work.  He died ten years ago and she will be buried with him in the village where they have lived since he retired.

My thoughts are with Nick, his sisters, and the family and friends who supported his mum during the last few years and will miss her.

July 8, 2015

LOST IN TRANSLATION

When we bought the house last September we thought we would replace the spiral staircase sooner rather than later.  The metal structure, more suitable to factory or a trendy apartment, is difficult to negotiate at any time but very much so when carrying anything up or down them.  I have nearly come a cropper many times already.  Lulu took one look at it and didn’t even attempt to get upstairs.  I think the open treads probably put her off.

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Back in October we spotted a young man with a stall at the “Art et lard” event in Le Petit-Pressigny.  He is a local carpenter specialising in roofs and staircases so in December we invited him to come and give us a quote for a new staircase made of oak.  It would have been very convenient for it to have been fitted in March when the spiral staircase had to be removed for the new floor to be put down.  Unfortunately it wasn’t ready then so we had to have the old staircase put back again (at a cost of course).

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We managed to pin him down to an approximate date for the new staircase to be fitted – the beginning to the middle of June.  The sooner the better for us.

By the beginning of June there was no sign of him so we chased him up and he said he would start on 15th June.  We enquired whether we would need to move out for a day or two if there was going to be no access to the bedrooms and he said no, it would only take a day to fit so we wouldn’t be without stairs overnight.

On 15th June we assumed he had started work on the components in his workshop and we looked forward to the new staircase probably being installed at the end of the week…….on the Thursday evening he came to take the measurements and said he would be in touch “la semaine prochaine”.

“La semaine prochaine”  translates as “next week” in my book but it actually seems to mean some time in the next few weeks – if you’re lucky.  We chased him again and he gave us a date of Wednesday 1st July.  We groaned.  This was after we had planned to go back to the UK for two weeks and with Nick’s mum very ill it was more important than usual that we made the trip. 

We anguished over what to do and after a long conversation with Nick’s eldest sister we decided that I would come back to the UK with Lulu while Nick stayed on to see the installation of the new staircase, flying home the following weekend.  We already had Daisy booked into a cattery so off she went.

We are quite used to leaving workmen with a key to get on with some jobs in our absence, especially things that were done under the supervision of Alex and Nicole, but somehow we felt that with something as unique, personal and expensive as a staircase one of us needed to be around, to answer questions at least.

Wednesday 1st came and went with no sign of the staircase.  After several phone calls the young man promised to deliver it on Thursday afternoon.  Or Friday at the latest.  With Nick’s mum becoming more ill with each day, it began to look like he had wasted his time staying behind and might not get home in time.

Nothing happened on Thursday afternoon.  On Friday morning the assistant (“the lad”) turned up to take the old staircase down – not a job to be tackled single handed.  Between the two of them, Nick and the lad, they managed to dismantle it and store it in the barn.  On Friday afternoon the young man delivered the new staircase, carefully laid the parts on the kitchen floor and went, promising to start work on fitting it on Monday. So no staircase for the whole weekend, just a ladder to get upstairs.

Nick left him a key and flew home on Saturday.  His flight home was booked for Saturday afternoon so he had no option but to leave the staircase to be installed in our absence, which was exactly what we were hoping to avoid.  But with Nick’s mum being very poorly, he wanted to get home to see her.  The doctors were saying that she might not survive beyond the weekend.

Nick visited his mum in hospital on Sunday and later that day she slipped into unconsciousness.  She is hanging on but the doctors think it won’t be long before we lose her.

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The carpenter has fitted the new staircase and emailed some pictures.  It looks beautiful in the photos and as far as we can tell he has done a good job. 

When we bought the house the previous owners gave us a folder of photos showing how the house had been renovated and our new staircase looks remarkably like the one they took out and replaced with the metal spiral monstrosity.

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Nick’s mum is still deeply unconscious and he and his sisters have said their goodbyes.

We will be going back to France this weekend as planned, the end of what was to be a two week holiday here in the UK.  We will be coming back again soon for a funeral. 

Life can be so topsy turvy at times.

June 19, 2015

LET THERE BE LIGHT

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The house we have bought is called a “longère”.  This type of building is usually rural, one room deep and several rooms long, one leading on to another without a central hallway.  Longères typically have windows on the front only, making them rather dark inside. 

During the day and especially in the summer we get enough light in the house not to notice how dark it is and in fact the lack of windows and the thick walls mean that the house stays nice and cool inside even though it might be baking hot outside.

When we moved in the house came with four uplighters in the living room.  They are quite stylish, in a flying saucer made of concrete kind of way, but they give out hardly any light.  Until this week we made up for this by having lots of lamps dotted about and until earlier this year we also had a rather nice standard lamp.  Unfortunately that succumbed to one of Daisy’s mountaineering expeditions.  She decided it would be fun to climb into the top of it and it crashed to the floor, irreparably. 

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So we bought ourselves four new wall lights, ones that give out plenty of light and are, we hope, Daisy proof.  Nick got round to fitting them this week.

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Of course, we have flying saucer shaped shadows around the new lights, showing that the previous owners painted round the old lights when they painted the walls, instead of removing them to paint underneath.  I was trying to think whether I would have done the same, or whether I would have removed them to paint properly.  I can’t decide.  As this house is no longer just a holiday home we probably would have.  Probably.

Anyway, the flying saucer shadows will have to stay until we get round to decorating the room again, and that’s not high on our list of current priorities.

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We’re just pleased to be able to read comfortably in the evenings and not trip over bits of mouse that the cat has left behind because we can’t see them in the gloom.

Changing the subject and moving on to a more serious note, Nick’s mother is very poorly.  She had a fall and has broken her hip, a serious problem for a frail old lady of ninety one.  She is in surgery as I write this and whilst we hope for the best we are bracing ourselves for the worst.  She has been a lost soul since Nick’s father died ten years ago and now has dementia to add to her health problems.  I truly hope that this doesn’t leave her even more confused and dependant on others, adding to her woes and misery.

When my mother died she died suddenly, without warning, which was traumatic for us but great for her.  Her sister had the opposite experience, dwindling away and spending her last years bedridden, ill and totally dependant.  If we had a choice in how we die, I know which way I would choose for myself and for those I love.

Difficult times are ahead of us I think.

Bon weekend!

June 10, 2015

KITCHEN NEWS

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Work on the kitchen is coming on in little bursts.  Getting the worktops finished was a major job, requiring the skilled help of our friend Tim for which we will be eternally grateful.  The curves on the island unit had to be cut very precisely and carefully and the joints fixed using specialist tools.  It was a long job and a huge relief and achievement when they were all finished.

The next job was to tile the walls between the wall units and the worktops.  The plain tiles were mounted in groups on a kind of mesh, making some of it very quick to put on but as always there were lots of fiddly bits of tile to cut around sockets and switches, not to mention corners!

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Choosing the tiles was easier than we thought, considering the enormous amount of choice in designs.  We decided we would only look in one shop – there didn’t seem any point trailing from one to another once we had found something we liked - I have found in the past that this leads only to confusion and indecision.  Nowadays once I have seen something I like I go for it and stick with it rather than spend days and days wasting time looking around just in case something even better turns up!

I am however rather chuffed with the little patterned tiles.  We knew we wanted a timeless, traditional look rather than an ultra modern one.  The little “haycart and rooster” style of kitchen tile is still very much alive and well in French tile showrooms – but we didn’t want to go quite as traditional as that!  So we chose these cute little herb pots as a nod to the haycart and rooster but with a slightly modern feel – I think so anyway.

We were thinking originally of having a continuous row of them all the way round – until we noticed the price.  Just these eight patterned tiles cost as much as all the rest put together – so we went for understatement rather than extravagance!

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The grout is drying as I type but it’s another step forwards and I can finally see what the finished kitchen is going to look like.

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There is still plenty of work left to do before it’s actually finished.  Nick has gone hunting for the right kind of covers to fit the sockets.  Then he has to fit the kick boards under the units.  Next will be the tricky job of cutting and mounting the cornices and valances on the wall units – I predict another long job requiring a good deal of patience and mugs of tea!

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We’re learning to live with the new kitchen gradually.  We especially like the soft close doors and drawers, the island unit (fantastic for baking) and the deep pan drawers under the hob.  We’re pleased that we have only really made one minor mistake.  The narrow space next to the dishwasher is filled by a pull out unit that has towel rails, which seemed like a really good idea in the showroom.  As it turns out, having to pull out the drawer every time we want to use a towel or tea towel has proved to be a nuisance so we’re going to change it for a double shelf version to house tall bottles. (We use one of them in our UK kitchen for storing chopping boards vertically – that works well.)

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Once the kitchen units are finished there is still work to do on the other side of the kitchen.  Nick has obtained sheets of board that the cupboard doors are made of to construct a cupboard around the old stone sink, which is where we intend to house our water softener (when we’ve bought it).

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There is also a cupboard to build around and hide the electricity distribution board.

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The really good news is that the carpenter is starting our new staircase next week.  He will build it in his workshop then bring it to install chez nous.  He also said that he should get it fitted in a day, which means we won’t have to use a ladder to get upstairs to bed!

We have plans for the spiral staircase to be installed elsewhere in the property – if we can be bothered.  At the moment it’s looking like it might be one project too many, but we will see!