30 April 2018

TULIPS, VISITORS AND GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING.

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Having spent the first few weeks chez nous mending things and recovering from an exhausting six months in the UK, and a dreadful journey back to France (with my second cold of the year so far in full flood), we are beginning at last to slip back into our French way of life.

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Our tulips soon came into full bloom and what a joy they were.  They are finished now of course, but every year I marvel at their shapes and sizes, filling the garden with a riot of colour just at the time when we need it the most to cheer us up and reassure us that it is, at last, Spring.

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Nick had planted them during his flying visit back to “close up” the house last November.  The bulbs had been lifted after the flowers had finished last spring and he stuffed them into flower beds and pots.

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Hugo has taken to his new surroundings like a duck to water.  We have resumed the daily walks that we used to do with Lulu and he is loving every minute of it, exploring the sights, sounds and smells including so many things he has not encountered before.  In the picture above he was standing completely motionless (not a common occurrence), fascinated by the frog chorus at the lake at La Celle-Guenand.

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Daisy is delighted to be back in her real home.  She instantly reacquainted herself with her old surroundings and with the rodent population, quickly losing the weight she gained over the winter and becoming her old sylph like self.

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For the first couple of weeks we declined some invitations to events, feeling that we were not great company and needed to catch up on our sleep and reorientate ourselves.  Gradually we began to get back into the swing of things.  One of our first outings was to a concert by local choirs in the church at Preuilly, a spectacular event in fabulous surroundings.

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At the “foire à l’oignons” at St Branchs we enjoyed a slice of delicious onion tart and a glass of rosé as well as buying some lovely early season strawberries for our dessert later.

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We resisted most of the bargains on sale, including a selection of old typewriters and a pile of plates that matched our UK dinner service – the one that was my mum’s Sunday best china back in the 80’s.  I wonder how they got there.

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Since we returned we have got on with all the chores that are inevitable when a house has been empty for a long spell.  As well as repairing things, sorting out the garden and getting it ready for summer use, we had a lot of indoor cleaning and preparation to do for the arrival of our first visitors - my brother, my dad and his lady friend, Sybil.  We had decided to let Dad and Sybil have our bedroom for their stay so that they would be able to use its “ensuite” shower room, much safer than the shower over the bath in the bathroom, not to mention the two steps down to it.  The idea of either of them falling in the middle of the night as they tried to remember the steps on their way to the bathroom was not worth risking.  The only problem was – what to do about the open shower and toilet facilities in the bedroom that pass for the said “ensuite”.

This facility deserves a blog post of its own later but suffice it to say I didn’t think Dad and Sybil would be too comfortable with the view of the loo from the bedroom so as a temporary measure I screened it off using some curtains.  Nick says it looks “very French” but personally I think it looks daft and a bit too shabby chic (or home made) for my liking, but it will do the job for now.

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Our visitors have arrived and we’re enjoying showing them around the sights and the places that we love.  They’re having a great time.

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It is good to be back.  A whole six months away has been way too long but it certainly makes me realise how lucky we are to have a home in this beautiful part of France.   They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder but we were in the UK for so long that I was beginning to forget what it was like here.  Now that I’m back I wonder how I could ever have torn myself away.

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In reality I think I’m going to enjoy living in two countries.  The best of both worlds and how wonderful to be returning to France at such a lovely time of year, when everything is bursting into life and with the prospect of long summer days not far ahead.

9 April 2018

BOUCHONS, THE WRONG KIND OF AIR AND AN R.I.P.

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Well here we are back in France after what turned out to be the worst journey ever to get here.  As always (and how often have I said this) all the trouble and trauma was on the UK side.

We left home at 10.00am on Saturday 24th March, giving ourselves plenty of time to get our 3.50pm crossing via the tunnel and should have arrived at our hotel in France in good time for dinner in the evening followed by a good night’s sleep.  By travelling on a Saturday we had hoped to avoid most of the traffic problems that we would encounter during the week.

With dog and cat on board – Hugo having never travelled such a long way in the car before and Daisy being a seasoned if not a happy traveller – we hit our first problem only five miles from home where the M1 was closed following an accident.

Things went from bad to worse and we ended up having to change our route to avoid closed motorways and delays several times.  We arrived at the tunnel after a total journey time of seven hours, double what it should have been.  Then we had to wait for two hours at the terminal before we could get a space on a train.  The French word for a traffic jam is the same as for a cork – a bouchon.

We arrived at our hotel near Calais at 9pm, too late to order dinner in the restaurant.  We were exhausted, Hugo and Daisy on the other hand were extremely lively having spent all day asleep or resting.

Luckily for us the hotel did an excellent room service and at 10pm we were eating a delicious “gourmet platter” in our room, followed by a lovely dessert and accompanied by a nice bottle of wine.  How glad we were to get the cork or bouchon out of that bottle and relax with a plate of good food.  It’s amazing how a good meal can lift the spirits.

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On Sunday 25th we had a typically easy, pleasant run down through France, arriving chez nous in beautiful warm sunshine at about 4pm.  We were so pleased to be home again but unfortunately our delight was short lived.

When Nick turned on the main water supply there was the sound of rushing water in a place where we would not expect to hear water running at all.  That could only mean one thing – burst pipes.

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The rushing sound was coming from behind the plasterboard wall behind the stairs.  Frantically he drilled holes in the plasterboard to locate the running water and was met with a horizontal torrent of water gushing along the inside of the back wall of the house from pipes that feed the upstairs radiators.  He turned the water off again and we stuffed dishcloths in the holes he’d made in the wall to stop the howling gale that was coming in.  The house was really cold inside, despite the spring sunshine outside.

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With the heating not working we decided to get the wood burning fires going as soon as possible – but they would not light!  Thick wood smoke puthered out of both fires, filling the rooms rapidly.  We prepared to spend a very chilly night with the few electric heaters of our own that we had plus the ones that Alex and Nicole rushed round with, bless them.

Three days later the plumbers arrived to fix the leak.  This proved to be tricky because the damaged pipes were in an awkward place and also because they were English copper pipes which are a different diameter to French pipes.  Luckily Nick was aware that the house had been plumbed with English pipe and fittings so had brought a miscellaneous box of English fittings some time ago for just such emergencies.  The mystery was why the burst had occurred at all because we had tried to avoid such problems by leaving the heating on a low setting so that the house would not reach a low enough temperature for any of the pipe to freeze up.

The explanation became apparent when the plumbers started work.  Judging by the appearance and condition it seemed that some of the old English pipe had been seeping for a very long time, possibly years. Not enough for a leak to be noticed but enough to gradually cause a loss of pressure in the boiler and cause it to stop working.

In the past the boiler had lost a bit of pressure and Nick had topped it up but in our absence the pressure had continued to drop without us knowing.  Unluckily for us this happened at just the wrong time when the infamous “beast from the east” struck and the bitterly cold winds on the north wall of the house caused a drop in temperature in the house sufficient to freeze up this section of pipe.

The problem with the fires was easier to solve.  According to the plumbers the cause was a bouchon d’air in both sides of the chimney, a plug or bouchon of damp air sitting in the chimney that was shifted by warming the fires up gradually to disperse it.  Nick let a couple of firelighters burn away in each fire before relighting them and to our relief the flames flickered then stayed in and burned normally.  With the heating working and the fires going it was lovely to feel warm again!

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During our first few days chez nous the neighbour was noticeably absent.  On previous occasions when we have returned after being away for a while he had walked up and down the lane from his little house with his dog umpteen times a day, staring at us in his sideways fashion through the fence and the gate.  From the end of his lane it looked like his door and shutters were not only closed but also barricaded with planks of wood. 

Four days into our stay we learned that he had been taken into a home last autumn and died some time this year. 

What a shame.  He seemed to us to have a thoroughly miserable life, living by himself with just his little dog for company and the short daily visits from his carer.  His shouting and yelling at the top of his voice was hard to ignore.  As soon as I went out to hang washing he would stand in front of his house and bellow in such a way that you would think someone was trying to murder him.  It was a horrible, unnatural and chilling sound that I will not miss.  He would march up and down in front of our house staring at us and shouting when we were out and about and I worried constantly for the safety of Daisy who he had kidnapped when she was a kitten, also for his little dog who he was seen to beat mercilessly, kicking her over and over again.  People in the village had described him as harmless but we knew different. 

It’s a shame he didn’t have a better life and more human contact, although perhaps it’s wrong to assume that he was unhappy just because he didn’t have the things that make us happy.  We will never know.  I sincerely hope that if he was a lonely and troubled soul, that he is now at peace.