27 May 2018

OF CHALK AND CHEESE AND A WELCOME TO THE KING.

P1010170

Roughly this time last year we spent a week in the little town of St Emilion, staying in a lovely little gite in the middle of town.  I wrote about the holiday at length and the gite was beautifully appointed and very stylish.  What it lacked in the practical it made up for in bucketfuls in style and presentation.

We now find ourselves back in the same area, this time just outside Bergerac, for another week and in another gite.

P1010126

  Chalk and cheese is the expression that immediately springs to mind!

P1010129

When choosing somewhere to stay, we were led by the needs of our puppy Hugo.  Daisy is in the cattery (wearing her best “we are not amused” expression) but we had to bring Hugo with us, so we looked for safe enclosed garden and somewhere nearby to be able to take him for a walk off the lead without having to get into the car and drive a long way.  This gite has a small enclosed garden and a nice walk in woodland and around a small lake close by.

P1010131

P1010128

The style of the gite was described as traditional French so it’s full of big old fashioned furniture.  The kitchenette and bathroom are basic, which is fine, although some of the motley collection of crockery, pots and pans have seen better days.

The disappointing thing is that the gite is right by the road which at times can be very busy, including Sunday morning when presumably people are heading for the nearby boulangerie which opens very early!   

However, Hugo loves it!  The nearby walk around the lake – the reason why we booked the gite in the first place – suits him just fine.  Hey ho.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

P1010080

Changing the subject completely, we recently managed to solve a longstanding problem with our house in France.

The house is in an area where we have very hard water.  We have had to use filtered water in the kettle and coffee machine to prevent the visible bloom of white limescale that eventually causes them to fur up.  Also water softening tablets in the washing machine and salt in the dishwasher to avoid the unseen build up of limescale that would inevitably cause them to stop working too.

Years ago, when we lived in our old house in the UK, we had a koi pond.  Blanket weed is a problem with koi ponds.  The koi love it but what any koi keeper wants is to be able to see the koi – just knowing that they are there under a thick layer of blanket weed is not enough!  This problem was solved completely when we fitted something called a Water King, a magnetic device that structurally alters the calcium in the pond water so that the weed cannot attach to it and therefore can’t grow.  Now that we have been reminded of it, in the promotional material for the device it was mentioned that it can also be used for removal of calcium in domestic water supplies.  Also that larger scale versions are used in municipal buildings and institutions, such as hospitals, to keep the water pipes free from build up of limescale.

A recent conversation with a friend who told us he has something similar in his water supply jogged our memory and so we looked into it and sure enough – the Water King is still available for use in domestic water systems.  No need for a water softener and constant use of salt or chemicals – you just fit it to an existing piece of inlet pipe and the job’s done.  Not only does it prevent the formation of limescale, over time it will also remove limescale deposits from items already affected.

It has been a huge success.  A month after we fitted it we no longer get build up of limescale in the kettle so we can assume that all our other appliances are free of it too.  Our wine glasses are sparkling and clear instead of bloomed with white spots.  Not least of all, our three toilets, which have taken me years to get clean, scrubbing and treating with anti-limescale products, look positively pristine.

Long live The King!!

30 April 2018

TULIPS, VISITORS AND GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING.

P1000715

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.

P1000709

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.

P1000712

P1000717

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.

swing8swing9

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.

P1000844

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.

swing2swing3

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.

swing4swing5

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.

swing6swing7

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.

swing9b 

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.

swing9c

swing9dswing9f

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.

swing9e

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.

swing9g

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.

bouchon7

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.

P1000657

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.

P1000567

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.

P1000565

P1000566

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!

bouchon 

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.

22 March 2018

AT LAST

random picture

Tomorrow is our last day in the UK for a while.  We have a huge pile of stuff to cram into the car, along with the dog and cat and of course the bicycles on the cycle rack which perches on the tow bar.  We never used them.  When we had a minute to spare the weather was awful.  When the weather was better we were frantically working to a deadline to get something finished in the house.

I’m so excited.  Part of me is in panic in case I forget anything important because we will be in France for a long time.  Another part is irritated that we haven’t finished the project we started last October – to renovate our 1960’s old folks’ bungalow.  A third part reminds me that we are going to a civilised country where we can get everything we could possibly need and as long as we don’t forget the cat, the dog, our passports and theirs, there is nothing we can’t manage without.  A fourth part tells me that we’ve achieved an awful lot in the last six months, transforming a tired old person’s house into a nice modern home, and what hasn’t been done already will still be there in the autumn and give us something to do over next winter.

This winter has been a trial, that’s for sure.  The last time we had such a long, wet, cold and unpleasant winter was in 2012/13 and that was so awful that I decided I could no longer face battling my way to work in the snow and packed it in – retired before I got my pension because I couldn’t stand it any longer.  What a good decision that was!

P1000524a

This winter has been slightly less snowy but incredibly wet, cold and grey.  Not ideal for getting and training a new puppy, but what a joy he has been.  With the renovations and the endless work on the house I feel that my lasting memories of this winter will be of mess, muck and mud.  The mess and muck coming from the building work on the house and the constant shuffling of our belongings from one room to another.  The mud coming from the inevitable ingress of the stuff into the house when you have a puppy that needs to “go” so often and the garden and all the local footpaths are ankle deep in slippery, slimy mud.  Not to mention having a puppy that has learned pretty quickly that if he persuades us that he needs to “go” he gets a chance to chase the cat around the muddy garden whether he actually needs to go or not!

I can’t wait to get to France and put it all well and truly behind me.  Only two more sleeps!

10 March 2018

THE COMFORT OF THE FAMILIAR AND A NEW CHEESE.

new cheese3

Well, February disappeared in a blur of activity in the new house.  With deadlines to meet of one sort or another we frantically sanded and painted walls, rerouted wiring, added more electric sockets than we can surely ever need and moved our belongings for the umpteenth time in and out of rooms to make way for the fitting of carpets, flooring and so on.  My laptop languished untouched under a pile of papers in the corner of the bedroom and whoosh – suddenly we are into March.

Time to look back at the photos again and the joy of the familiar suddenly made me smile.  Events that come round every year and that we never get fed up with.  One of them is the annual garden event at Château de la Bourdaisiere near Montlouis. 

new cheese4

It’s a lovely day out at a time of year when you really need to see that kind of thing, beautiful flowers and plants full of colour and promise of the good weather that will inevitably arrive.  Not to mention the food producers, craft stalls and the fluffy chicken exhibition.

new cheese5new cheese6

We don’t necessarily go to it every year, but we never tire of it.  The château and grounds are beautiful and in fact it is now a hotel.  The garden event is huge and we usually buy something.  Last time it was a gorgeous dark purple lily, this time one of the cute bird baths.

new cheese7

And of course we enjoyed a delicious cake and coffee in the tearoom. 

new cheese8

Another event we went to last April was the open day, “portes ouvertes”, of the local potter in the village.  She lives just outside Le Grand Pressigny and produces beautiful decorative and useful pottery in a studio at her home.

new cheese9d

We have bought quite a few pieces over the years, either for ourselves or as presents.  She now has a shop in the village where you can buy her pottery and her partner’s gorgeous leather work.

new cheese9new cheese9a

Her old bread oven had been lit and used that morning.  There was still plenty of bread for sale when we turned up after lunch so we treated ourselves to a loaf.  Very good it was too.

new cheese9b

There was something immensely charming and fascinating about seeing the old oven in use.  So many people would have relied on the regular production of bread in that very oven, food to keep them alive probably, and very hard work it would have been to produce it.  What a joy it was to see (and eat) real, rather misshapen and very rustic loaves, so different from the stuff on the supermarket shelves and even the local bakery, where it’s all so uniformly shaped.

new cheese9e

Speaking of regular events, I suppose you would count a birthday as one of those.  For a friend’s 70th birthday and a surprise party I was asked to make a novelty cake in the shape of his favourite English food – fish and chips.  It was a bit of a challenge but I managed it, including sugar salt, apple juice vinegar and green marzipan peas!

new cheese

Along with the comfort of the familiar comes the joy of a new discovery.  For us anyway.  In a shop in Descartes we discovered a cheese we had never seen before, made just up the road from us in Neuilly-le-Brignon.  It’s called Bourdel and is not cheap but utterly delicious with an interesting rind, strong flavour and a firm texture.  Since we bought our first one last spring it has made a regular appearance at our cheese course.  You can read all about it here.

25 January 2018

OF BRIC A BRAC AND FLOWERS

We are partial to a bit of bargain hunting when in France and with brocantes or vide greniers going on most weekends throughout the year there is plenty of opportunity for it.

spring9a

Apparently I took this picture on 27th March, which was a Monday, so these items were obviously acquired at a brocante on Sunday 26th. 

The thing is, I can’t actually remember where it was.  I remember certain things about it, such as the set of little china dishes being brand new and unused in their original box and I thought that for 1€ they might come in handy for all kinds of things.  Afterwards I wondered why on earth for only 1€ each I didn’t buy both of the two boxes she had, especially when at the first use of them later I dropped and broke one!

spring9c

I remember spotting the cake stand on another stall under a pile of bits and bobs.  It’s definitely one of those love or hate items.  I love things like this, a bit quirky and not necessarily in the greatest of taste but for 2€ I thought I would risk it.  In the end it turns out to be more of a fruit bowl as it’s not flat enough for a cake but I think it looks great when full of fruit.

We rarely pay much money for anything at a brocante, that’s a great part of the fun, consequently we don’t haggle over the price that often.  Only if the stall holder is asking more than we think it’s worth do we try to knock them down a bit.  Some do indeed start at a high price expecting to get a bit less.  But when items are only 1€ or 2€ each, haggling over them seems rude!

spring9b

This necklace was a terrific bargain for 2€.  The beads are china and would retail for probably £1 each in a UK bead shop.  I have bought a lot of jewellery at French brocantes and in UK charity shops but nice beads are becoming increasingly difficult to find.  On close inspection a lot of the “jewellery” for sale is cheap and nasty stuff made of plastic beads, which are not much use to the discerning jewellery maker.

spring9aa

Of the other things, the little glass rose bowl is something I have fancied for a while but clean examples in good condition do not turn up too often.  A lot of the brocante we see is not transported very carefully and stored in barns or outhouses between events so they become dirty and damaged.  Some stall holders clean their stuff up before putting it on sale but most don’t.  The little holes in these rose bowls are difficult to get the muck out of and I’m also a bit choosey about chips.  I don’t mind using secondhand crockery once it’s been through the dishwasher but I don’t buy anything that’s chipped or cracked, regardless of how cheap it is.

The little wine glass is one of those very old hand made glasses that Nick is collecting and the coal scuttle was a really good buy at just 2€.  We obviously don’t use coal but it’s handy for stashing other fireside stuff.

So we did really well at our first brocante of the year, wherever it was.  Sometimes we find nothing at all that we want to buy but this was a good haul!  We do sometimes get it wrong, of course.  We buy something and then decide it’s not so good after all.  I usually then pass it on to a friend (any passing friend who looks like they might need it!) or take it back to the UK and give it to a charity shop.  (The point being that charity shops are plentiful in the UK but almost non existent in France, apart from Emmaus.)

spring9kspring9l


Now to the flowers.  On 29th March according to my photos, our friend Susan of Days on the Claise turned up and asked if we wanted to go with her to see a field full of fritillaries, those lovely flowers with snakeskin like petals that apparently don’t grow in too many places in this part of France.  You do see clumps of them in ditches here and there but a whole field full of them was a sight to behold.  The other thing about them is that they do not hang around for long so this was our chance to get a good look and off we went.

One thing that strikes me about this picture is that even though the trees are completely bare because it was only the end of March, Nick is in his shirt sleeves because it was a lovely warm day.  That’s one of the things we love about our little corner of France so much, by the end of March spring is in full swing and it is often lovely and warm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Live Writer programme is up and running again.  It’s little hiccup of not publishing pictures seems to have been fixed, but now that I have posted using Blogger I will not be so nervous of using it again if I need to.