Monday, January 12, 2015

A reflective post for the New Year

Just like last year, I made New Year resolutions. To exercise more, to eat less, to actually complete my WW11 novel (and find a publisher for it) and to resurrect my blog. The latter has tragically proved much easier, as the events in France of the last few days has spurred me into action. For anyone who believes in the freedom of speech(and that must mean anyone who blogs, tweets, or posts on social sites such as Facebook) the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo is an attack on us all....hence 'Je Suis Charlie Hebdo'. We are all Charlie Hebdo To be honest I'm not a great fan of French satire, and I often found Charlie Hebdo went beyond the bounds of good taste, but as Voltaire famously said: I may not agree with you, but I will defend to death your right to say it'..... or something on those lines. France has a long and proud history of satirists, as does Britain. Where would we be without the likes of Hogarth … or Spitting Image? Going back as far as the eighteenth century, in England satirists regularly lampooned the bloated, lascivious Prince Regent, the feckless son of George the Third. Without cartoonists of the day filling the pages of newspapers with outrageous images of the Prince's latest bit of bad behaviour, there would have been little else of interest for coffee shop society to gossip about. Christians have had more than their fair share of piss-taking, but we tend to suck it up, taking it with a wry smile, or being offended for a while but, by and large, we are 'big' enough to get over it. We certainly don't feel the need to go out and kill for our faith. I fundamentally disagree with the brand of so-called 'Christianity' put out by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their manipulation of the bible is nothing short of disgraceful, and it's a subject I've argued with them on my doorstep for years (never invite them in, or you're doomed). If the truth be told I quite enjoy a verbal wresting match with a pair of dedicated Jehovahs, especially when they turn puce with anger at my own (inflated)opinions. But however much I detest their warped(and dangerous) philosophy, actually killing them for views which are totally contrary to mine is against most human principles. Nowhere in the Koran does it condone the killing of anyone. In fact the Koran and the Bible share many moral ideals – something that should bind us together rather than divide us. We must all stand up to the threat of extremism and continue to exercise our fundamental right to freedom of speech. It is, after all, one of the few freedoms we have left. For anyone living in France - buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo next week. You may not have ever bought one before... you may not like the concept of the publication.... but you will be putting up the proverbial two fingers to the extremists who are trying to silence freedom of opinion. It isn't the right time to wish everyone a happy New Year, but I wish you all a year in which writers, and artists can continue to write and draw in freedom.

Monday, January 27, 2014

So, my New Year resolution was to kick-start my blog. Actually, it was my New Year resolution for 2013. Okay, it never happened in that year, but I'm back now for 2014. I've given the blog a makeover (wish I could give myself the same as easily) and a slightly different slant. I'm still in France, still accepting it warts and all.. Hence the title: France for Better or Worse. It's still for the better, so much so I feel like an alien on the rare occasions I return to the UK. After twelve years in France I'm beginning to feel this is where I should be, and England is a just somewhere I used to live. I haven't been idle these past three years. I've been concentrating on my writing, and hopefully honing my craft. When I look back at my early attempts at short stories, and the false starts on novels, I cringe. How could I have written such unmitigated drivel? I've advanced so much that in the New Year (I'm talking this New Year) I felt confident enough to enter my first completed novel … Moonlight Through the Judas Tree, into a competition run by This was for the opening chapters of a novel, and was I ever thrilled to see my name on the long list? Then I made it onto the short list... and then I had to do a double take when I saw I'd come 3rd. The prize was a critique by the author Jane Horland of the first 15,00 words. A review by a published author is such a help, after all they have their books out there on bookstore shelves while the rest of us are still striving to get there. Jane 's crtitique was an immense help, if only to tell me what I should cut out. So, at the moment I'm cutting a lot and pasting a little whilst still trying to keep a handle on the pace of the plot. Jane writes as JG Harlond and she has written a stunning historical novel - 'The Chosen Man ', a fictional account of the events that triggered the Dutch scandal known as 'tulip mania' in the early 17th century. I feel really privileged to have had her read my work. The winter has helped considerably with my editing. It's been the wettest since we have lived here, horrid for most of our friends and neighbours but great for me. There is nothing like a wet afternoon to give me the excuse to put my feet up on the settee, laptop on my knees and with the wood burner blazing away I can lose myself in Occupied France... the setting for 'Moonlight Through the Judas Tree' (more of that later). Reading the notice board on the village mairie this morning I see we have a flood warning set for the next 24 hours. I'm probably the only person in the village who is quite happy to see that. I'll just have to make sure I have a good supply of chocolate to keep me going.

Monday, September 13, 2010

All Good Gifts Around Us......

As I think I’ve said before (ad infinitum probably) September and October are the best months to be here in the Haute Garonne. There are three main reasons: the tourists have gone home (sorry tourists... love to see you come, love to see you go), the weather is absolutely, gloriously warm and mellow and we are awash with nature’s bounty.

I’ve been on the receiving end of ‘all good gifts around us’ this week and while they may have been ‘sent from heaven above’ they have been delivered by my lovely friends and neighbours.

It’s amazing what a few straggly cabbage plants can bring forth. Capt. Sensible had some left over in the spring, and rather than throw them away he gave them to Serge, who keeps chickens and has a ‘potager’ close to our garden. Serge speaks no English, Capt Sensible speaks no French, but so far we have had in return, an abundance of ‘salade’, some melons, haricot vert and just this weekend enough tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes to make ratatouille for the entire village… or so it seemed.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of some delicious plums. The only problem was my small freezer was jam packed with a whole load of apricots which were going cheap on the market …9 kilo trays for €5. Well, that was too good for Capt Sensible to turn down, despite my weak protests that the freezer was full of home- grown raspberries.

If the plums can’t be frozen they can be turned into plum brandy…. you can see the way my mind works, can’t you?

I worked out that if I got going sharpish we could have some plum liqueur in time for Christmas.

I’d got the vital ingredients – plums (d’accord) sugar and brandy (purloined from Capt Sensible’s personal supply). Not his best French of course (I value my life) but the Terres Spanish stuff he has for ordinary consumption. I needed vodka - pas de problem and a container large enough to hold a couple of pounds of plums plus the sugar and alcohol. That was a bit of a problem, but then I remembered a rumtopf pot which I hadn’t used for years. I’d had a bit of a disaster on the only occasion I’d attempted preserve plums, apricots and peaches in the manner described in the recipe that came with it. The fruit went mouldy, the alcohol had secondary and ‘thirdary’ fermentation and the rumtopf became a breeding ground for botulism. It spent the next few years gathering dust as a kitchen ornament until, for some unexplained reason, I paid good money to transport it to France with all the other bits of junk that I foolishly thought might come in useful one day.

And so it has, but I don’t intend to leave the plums in any longer than necessary.

If you have an over-abundance of plums there’s just time to turn them into a Christmas liqueur. This recipe is very simple, and just the thing to warm you up after a chilly day in the mountains.

You’ll need a large macerating container with a lid ... a 1 litre kilner jar is ideal if you haven’t got a rumptopf crock,
and :
a kilo of plums
450 gms white sugar
500 ml. vodka
125 ml. brandy.

Wash, dry, halve and de-stone the plums. Place in the jar, layering with the sugar, then add the alcohol. Stir gently to mix the liquid and fruit, put on the lid and leave in a cool dark place for 2 months. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth into a large jug, cover and leave to settle in a cool place overnight and then strain again. Bottle and leave for another 4 weeks. The liqueur should be port wine coloured and crystal clear, if it’s not, leave another week or two.

On Friday when Serge’s wife Martine turned up with the peppers, aubergines etc. the timing couldn’t have been better, as I had a roast shoulder of lamb planned for the weekend. I love ratatouille with lamb, and Serge had come up with all the ingredients.

This is my haphazard recipe for ratatouille:

I cut the courgettes,peppers and aubergines in half, leaving the tomatoes whole, and pour over a little olive oil. This time I used lemon flavoured oil(just because I had some in the cupboard), but you could use chilli oil for a bit of spicy heat.

I put all the veg in a big roasting tin, throw on some unpeeled garlic cloves (I like lots, but it’s a personal choice) some sprigs of thyme, a few roughly torn basil leaves and roast for about 20 mins in a hot oven.

When the veggies are nicely brown and beginning to go soft I take them out of the oven, leave to cool, then cut the peppers, courgettes and aubergines into cubes(large or small as you like) and skin the tomatoes. I squidge the garlic, which should be soft and squidgeable, onto the peeled tomatoes and mash them up a bit with a little more oil. This is then poured over the cubed vegetable, given a quick stir and spooned into a serving dish. You can serve it straight away at room temperature as part of a vegetarian lunch or, as I do, leave overnight in the fridge and re-heat in the oven and serve with the lamb. I think roasting the vegetables first, and leaving overnight increases the flavour. And beats the tinned ‘rat’ into a cocked hat.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The World comes to Montrejeau

Every August our local market town sees an invasion. It has been going on for over 50 years, fortunately for the townspeople, the invaders are friendly. They arrive in coaches, rather than tanks, and they fill the streets with colour and a wide variety of languages.

It's the annual folklore festival of music and dance, and it happens in many a French town during the summer.


It began for Montrejeau in 1959, and many of the countries taking part came from parts of Europe that were still firmly behind the Iron Curtain. I suppose it was one way of getting out and seeing what was going on in the rest of Europe - cultural visits being allowed, but I wonder if all the dance groups went home with as many as they came with?

Today's dancers and musicians come from all over the world as well as Europe. Most of the African or Caribbean performers come from former French colonies, and they certainly give the town an exotic air for a day or two. South America gets in on the act too, I remember one year a large Puerto Rican group brought traffic to a standstill, and almost took the whole show over in their wild enthusiasm.

One year, to our amazement, we heard what sounded like a Scots pipe band coming into the square... and it was. They went down a storm. Last year there were some Morris Men from Plymouth complete with fool ... they were greeted with bewilderment. Pipes, the French can do, a lot of French departments have a history of bagpipes... in fact the Breton group that came a couple of years ago had 'baguettes' that were almost identical to the Scots variety. Not so sure about their understanding of men with flowers in their hats and bells on their legs, waving coloured ribbons in the air.

It's nice to know that this wonderful cultural exchange is still going on after 50 years, and with no sign of the enthusiasm waning, certainly not on the part of the performers. On the last day they are here it's market day, and with summer tourists,plus 400 dancers, musicians and back-up teams (mostly still in national dress) the town is absolutely jammed packed. When it co-incides with a public holiday(The Feast of the Assumption)it's even worse. Thank goodness it's a good-will invasion.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Harvest Home

In the Christian church the first Sunday in August marks (or marked) the start of Lammas-tide (one never knows with modern liturgy these days- it could be totally obliterated from the list of Anglican festivals ) Anyway Lammas runs from now until Michaelmas(Sept 29th), in other words through the harvest season. It derides its name from the medieval English word ‘lam’ meaning bread, and traditionally a loaf was baked using grain from the first sheaves brought in from the field.

Living where we do the seasons are as marked as they were in medieval England, just that bit earlier. Our hay harvest is all but over. The hay has been cut, left to dry (unfortunately we’ve had the wettest July since we’ve lived in France ) and for the past three or four weeks we have become accustomed to the rattle of tractors and over-loaded trailers roaring up and down the road in a frantic attempt to get it all in and under cover. It would seem an awful lot of hard work – they’re still at it at 11 o’clock at night – but there are beef cattle to be fed all through the winter so hay is money. The more you can store the less you’ll have to fork out for commercial feed, and the better fed the cattle will be.

Being a secular country, whilst hiding under the pretence of being a Catholic country (or should that be the other way round? One never knows with the French) old religious ceremonies seem to have been forgotten, but from a non religious aspect the bucolic celebrations associated with the harvest and the land are still observed here.

From the middle of July the rural community is gearing up for old time markets and harvest fetes.

The Marche L’Ancienne in Montrejeau acts as a good advertising platform for the August harvest celebrations. Out come the ancient tractors that rarely see the light of day, puffing, coughing and burning a small hole in the ozone layer immediately over the town.

There are teams of oxen, shepherds on horseback with their dogs riding side saddle, decorated farm trailers and the ubiquitous majorettes, the tinys looking vaguely worried as they try to keep up with the ‘big girls’, and not drop their batons.

The old copper still, that to this day pitches up in the local villages to distil the fruit harvest into something very alcoholic and inflammable, is brought out and joins the parade. It’s the same-old, same-old every year and although there is a smattering of tourists in the main the crowd is the same. You know that by the leg-pulling, joking and laughing going on as the older generation recognise old friends and neighbours.

The first weekend in August (which coincides with Lammas Sunday) sees the first of two Fetes de Moissan held in Le Cuing and Lecussan. The old farm machinery that’s been in the barn all year is dusted down and brought out, the threshing machines are checked out and a huge meal consisting of multiple versions of chicken is served in vast airless marquees.

All the old skills are on display, oxen grinding grain on a giant millstone, hand reaping, and threshing.

The air is oppressively hot, and the smell of steam and oil mingles with the aroma of roast chicken.

The stubble scratches unprotected toes, and nothing runs to the published timetable …. but what the hell ? It’s fun, and like the Marche L’Ancienne it’s the same every year which is how our rural neighbours like it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Racing Bikes and Fireworks

July and August are the months when it all kicks off here. Well, ‘here’ is no different to the rest of the country. For 10 months of the year the Haute Garonne jogs along at a fairly even pace – a ‘vide grenier’ every other Sunday somewhere, a ‘fete locale’ a repas de chasseurs, a Feu de St Jean (which is a good excuse for a meal and a bonfire) – nothing exceptional. But in the next eight weeks the department will go stark raving mad.

The celebrations commence with the commemoration of the Revolution. July 14th used to be known as Bastille Day, but now it seems to be known by the more PC title of the Fête Nationale. All the blood letting which followed the storming of the Bastille has been diplomatically shelved in favour of a public holiday culminating in firework displays. Nowhere in France can compete with the Paris display – well the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mar are pretty impressive in daylight, but at night, with the sky exploding in a thousand stars, the city becomes magical.

The second best display must be the Feu d’Artifice mounted on the walls of La Cité in Carcassonne There the surrounding vineyards are illuminated by a cavalcade of fireworks which soar up from the city ramparts and roll down the rows of vines in an ever-expanding explosion of colour. The event draws in thousands who park up anywhere they can, unpack a picnic and sit it out till the night sky darkens and a lone rocket signals the start of the spectacle. The tourists prefer to cram into the old city to soak up the atmosphere, all they actually do is pay over the odds for a drink, and miss the best of the display because they can’t actually see it. But they’ll get plenty of ‘atmosphere’ – the smell of burgers and chips, pizzas and several thousand sweaty bodies struggling to navigate the crowded cobbled alleyways. Not to mention a crick in the neck, and temporary deafness when the fireworks go off from the city walls.

Old hands find a grassy knoll outside the city and bring their own food and wine. A few years ago the police had to close the Toulouse/Narbonne motorway due to the huge number of cars which had stopped on the hard shoulder to watch. Now it’s slightly more controlled, well, as far as the French ‘en fête’ can be controlled.

In the face of that sort of competition our nearest town had its firework celebrations the night before. On a suitably balmy evening after a very hot day, we joined friends at the lakeside restaurant, along with half the town, and several million flying things (ants, small flies? ) and watched the municipal fireworks, which like the Carcassonne ones are entirely free. The French government may have warned the nation that we must tighten our belts and not spend public money, but what the hell…. let’s all fiddle while Rome burns, except, being in France, we’ll replace the violin with fireworks.

In the week following the Fête Nationale the Tour de France descends on us for the Pyrenean stage of the endurance race. It usually passes within 10 miles of our village, and depending on the weather (it’s usually unbearably hot), how early they close the roads and if we have a ‘window’ in our non- existent social diary (life is one long party for retirees in rural France!) we sometimes endure a couple of hot sticky hours waiting for the pelaton to whiz past.

What am I complaining about? I’m not clad in sweaty lycra, bent over the handlebars of an instrument of torture otherwise known as a racing bike. I’ve yet to understand why they choose the hottest month of the year to stage the thing. I’m obviously missing the point, as I usually do where physical activity is concerned.

Now I have a small grandson I probably should be out there with all the other grannies and granddads scooping up the rubbishy freebies that the ‘caravan’ throws out to the eager masses. I sometimes wonder if the crowds are there to watch the race, or collect free samples of coffee, coloured pencils, packs of kids card games and cheap hats that rain down from the vans, cars and lorries. The riders speed by in a matter of seconds so I guess the freebies are the major draw.

The last time I watched Le Tour one of the riders lost a water bottle and two blokes nearly fell into the Garonne to get it. It was probably for sale on Ebay by six o’clock that night…. ‘as used by Lance Armstrong’.

As well as the major events we’ve the usual crop of August music festivals, everything from organ recitals, to hot jazz. And in case thoughts are turning to Christmas, there’s the annual exhibition and sale of Provencal santons in Saint Bertrand de Comminges. What better time to choose your Christmas crib than August?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Look Out Carla's About!

Last Friday saw the 70th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s first speech via the BBC to the newly occupied French people urging Frenchmen to join him in resistance to Hitler and the Vichy government. It is quite ironic that very few French people actually heard the broadcast, and those that did, hadn’t a clue who he was. Indeed some cynics thought, with a name like de Gaulle, he was a pseudo Frenchman invented by the British government in an attempt to stir up French national fervour. As if we would! Well, not for nothing did the French refer to us as ‘perfidious Albion’.

Strangely, for no-one having heard him, and the BBC not having thought it important enough to save the original broadcast, every word of it can be recalled. So much so, the opening paragraph is engraved on the war memorial of our nearest market town. Oh well, it’s always said a prophet is never recognized in his own country!

Anyway the old boy got plenty of mileage last week. Nicolas arrived in London with medals to award to veterans now in their nineties (better late than never one might say) plenty of kepi-wearing military attachés, and of course Carla.

Oh dear, Mlle. Bruni should really come with a health warning – to other leader’s wives. They should be briefed on the multitude of tricks the French First Lady has up her model’s sleeve, and make sure they never stand next to her for a photo shoot.

Pity poor old Samantha Cameron. Being five months pregnant is tricky. The bump is too big not to be noticed and too small to be in the beautiful full bloom of late pregnancy. She’s sort of at that lumpy stage, and she hasn’t a clue what to do with her hands. There’s not enough there to rest her arms on top of the bump, so she clasps them underneath it, like she’s afraid it’s going to fall off. Someone give her a handbag, for heavens sake. But you have to have some sympathy for her Anyone who’s five months pregnant, and new to the job of consort to the Prime Minister, would rather die than be photographed beside someone as media-savvy as Carla Bruni.

World leader’s spouses must dread the words ‘The French President is making an official visit and he’s bringing his wife with him.’ Except Michelle Obama. As she’s about 8 feet tall, and built like an Olympic sprinter, she can well hold her own with Carla, as is proved in the photo taken on a visit to the White House; in fact Mrs. Obama makes Carla look quite washed out. Anyone but the American First Lady might as well abandon all hope of looking chic

I’ve noticed Carla is nowhere to be seen when hubby is meeting Angela Merkel …. is this a coincidence, or some smart maneuvering on the part of the German Chancellor? Maybe she arranges for her to be accidentally locked in the loo when the official photographer arrives. She’s no fool, is Angela. She’s also, bless her, incredibly dumpy so she knows the score.

Mrs. S was up to all her old tricks in London. She, like the late Princess of Wales, can hear the click of a camera shutter at 300 yards and that’s when ‘model’ mode kicks in, well old habits die hard. So there she was, tossing her mane and skittering about like the winner of the 2.30 at Epsom. The pout, the flick of the hair, the flutter of the eyelashes, I’d have loved to have seen her and Lady Diana sharing the same platform. Wonder who would have won? I think my money might have been on Lady Di. Prince Charles, minus Camilla (had she been forewarned?) seemed to be reduced to a pink-flushed jelly when faced with Carla’s performance, but the Boy David, to his credit, ignored La Bruni’s shenanigans, preferring to put an protective arm round Samantha, who looked as if she would rather have been having an enema in the delivery room than posing in the doorway of number 10.

What Madame de Gaulle would have made of it all I’ve no idea, but I’ll bet it had the old general spinning in his grave.