Sunday, December 27, 2009


I see that the last time I posted a blog was in June. IN JUNE! Where has the other half of the year gone?

It’s said that when one reaches a certain age, the 24 hours in the 365 days that make up a calendar year somehow accelerate and therefore the years actually pass more quickly. There must be something in this. When I was little, the twelve months between Christmas Day seemed more like twelve years, and as for the summer holidays…well, when they actually arrived, the six weeks went on for ever. They were also permanently hot, with cloudless blue skies. What tricks our memories play on us!

But this is even worse. I haven’t just lost a few weeks… I’ve lost half of a whole year.

I do have an excuse …. a limp one, I have to say. I’ve been busy. That’s another memory recall. My Mum was always ‘busy’. Unlike modern mums she didn’t have to multi-task. She wasn’t running a major corporation, and then coming home to a partner (who was running another major corporation), six children, two dogs, several ponies and a housekeeper with a drink problem. No, my Mum didn’t seem to have much to do - except to run a home, with no modern conveniences apart from a Ewbank carpet sweeper. Maybe her annual hour allowance was accelerating too. So that accounted for her ‘busy-ness’.

My being ‘busy’ takes a different form. Being busy for me means several weeks-worth of dust piling quietly up on the furniture; cobwebs strung across the beams and radiating from the picture frames (conveniently disguised for the next twelve days by sprigs of holly and swathes of ivy) and un-ironed clothes spilling from the wash basket. Being busy for me, takes the form of several hours a day staring at a laptop screen, trawling websites for obscure information, and translating it into something worth reading.

Another old adage, like time speeding up with every increasing year, is that it never rains, but it pours. And writing wise I’ve had a bit of a deluge. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it, the extra income is very welcome in this present climate and the kudos is even better. I’ve even managed to crack the elusive UK magazine market, and in job satisfaction, that is worth a hundred web articles.

My Opus Magnum has been writing the content for a new property website which will be on line soon. So I’ve spent the last three months travelling the highways and byways of Portugal (via the flying Googlemobile ). I thought I knew the country pretty well, but I’ve un-earthed some fascinatingly obscure information in my searches.

For instance … did you know there is a town in Central Portugal renowned for leitão assado or roast suckling pig? So renown, that the streets are lined with restaurants serving nothing else? If you’re a vegetarian, or of a squeamish disposition, I would urge you to take a detour around Mealhada.

And did you know that the Casa das Obras, in nearby Seia was the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War? Seia is also home to Portugal’s National Bread Museum. Remember that one; it may crop up in a pub quiz one night.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Heading for Pastures New.

The end of May, beginning of June, sees the annual transhumance of the sheep up to the higher pastures of the Pyrenees. And as with most old customs in France it’s a bit of an event. The word ‘transhumance’ is the same in English and French, although here it’s pronounced ‘trons-oo- monz ‘and according to my English dictionary is ‘the moving of animals to fresh grazing.’

Anyone can join in, and as long as you don’t get in the way, followers-on are very welcome.

Once you have tracked down your local transhumance (they’re not advertised much, the date and venue is more or less spread by word amongst the community) an early start and a fair amount of stamina is required. A stout stick, walking boots, plenty of bottled water and some sandwiches are advisable too. It will be a long day.

The shepherds gather up their flocks and set off for the foothills, trekking all day until they reach the lush upper pastures. It’s a long journey for the sheep, but these days the event is carefully monitored by vets, and unfit animals are left back in the lower meadows for the summer.

A combined mass evacuation can mean anything up to 15,000 sheep and several hundred followers. Coloured tassels identify the sheep and the initials of the shepherd are stencilled onto the rumps of each animal. Otherwise, how do you recognise your own flock out of all that lot? The flock leaders are fitted with big bells that are removed when they reach the final grazing areas, so as the huge flocks move off, the peaceful valleys echo to tinkling bells and the bleating of several hundred sheep.

Sometimes the muster commences with a mass, and a blessing, a sort of spiritual farewell to the flocks for the summer. Quad bikes and 4x4’s have improved the shepherd’s life, but in the old days, the men would disappear up the mountain with them, to spend the summer in small groups living in isolated, primitive shelters. There are sly winks and nudges when this old custom is mentioned, and one suspects it was all a bit ‘Brokeback Mountain ‘up there with no female company and not a lot to do except make cheese.

Nowadays the milk is brought down from the meadows and produced commercially in high-tech, soulless factories in accordance with EU rules and regulations. Fortunately, for the ‘real’ cheese lover, farmhouse cheeses are still produced locally by tiny producers though, and they are an ever-present sight on the weekly markets. These cheeses are expensive, often over 20€ a kilo, but ‘proper’ cheese production can’t be hurried and the best, such as the famous’ Napoleon’ is matured for 10 months at least. It is a beautiful, hard cheese, similar in texture to Cheddar, but made from 100% sheep’s milk, and it’s almost entirely confined to the markets around the Upper Garonne . It’s a great favourite with the French, who are extremely discerning when it comes to cheeses, and think nothing of spending 15 or 20€ a week on local specialities.

Occasionally, very, very , occasionally the larger cheese stalls will actually have a wheel of Stilton, or Shropshire Blue. When the vendor hears our English accents he, or she, gets very animated and draws our attention to it... as if we hadn’t already noticed it. We smile obligingly and agree that . yes ‘le fromage Anglais ‘ is ‘magnifique’, but, no we really don’t want any today, thank you. Especially at 24€ a kilo. I don’t actually say that of course, although I was brave enough to comment once that the Stilton was a bit ‘tres cher. This was met with …’ Eh oui , mais il est le roi de fromage anglais.’ So it’s obviously worth a king’s ransom to the French. Nice to know we can get something right!
Many thanks to my neighbour John ,who took these photos, and dozens more, when he joined in with a transhumance not far from here last week.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Nuts in May, or Early June

The old walniut tree in our garden is beginning to burst forth with embryonic walnuts. We harvested tons in 2007, and were giving them away to anyone who would cart them away. We like walnuts but not in such vast quantities. I was using the mature ones in cakes and salads and pickling the young ones. Such is our passion for pickled walnuts both 1 litre kilner jars remain unopened in the store cupboard.

If you 're not a pickled walnut fan the French have a very nice liquer (quelle surprise !) which they bring out with other sweet drinks for aperos.

Obviously you need your own walnut tree, or access to ripening nuts because they mustn’t be too big. By the end of June the shells will be set and this recipe calls for them to be still bright green and easily crushed. So here, in SW France there’s no time to be lost.

There’s no need for expensive equipment or ingredients (except for the alcohol)
Before you start you will need:

A few Kilner- type jars,some paper coffee filters, or a muslin jelly bag if you have one, and some empty wine bottles.

For the liqueuer you will need
20-30 green walnuts about the size of a small apricot
575 ml/ 1pint 40% fruit alcohol. (vodka can be substituted without any noticeable loss of flavour.)
1 clove and 1 small piece of cinnamon…..don’t overdo the spices as even these amounts add quite a lot of flavour.
A vanilla pod
125g/ 4oz sugar
100ml/ 3 fl ozs water.

Before starting to process the walnuts it’s advisable to use rubber gloves unless you don’t mind your hands being an unusually dark brown!

Lay the nuts on a non-porous surface (they WILL stain your work-top given the chance.)
Crush with a mallet into small pieces, and tip into a large, sterilised kilner, or other suitable screw top jar. Add the alcohol, the spices and the vanilla pod.
Close the jar tightly and leave on a sunny window sill for at least two weeks, but anything up to 6 or 8 weeks is preferable…..the longer the better. Try to remember to shake the jar every few days.
When your patience runs out, or the sun disappears, strain the liquid (which probably resembles sump oil in colour by now!) into a clean jug using a funnel and a filter.
Dissolve the sugar and water over a gentle heat, making sure there are no sugar crystals left in the bottom of the saucepan and leave to cool.
When it has cooled add to the strained walnut liquid.
Pour into sterilised bottles, cork and store until Christmas, or even better the Christmas after that!
The finished liqueur has herbal overtones with just a hint of cinnamon and clove. The addition of a vanilla pod is not authentic to the traditional recipe but it imparts a mellow tone to the drink.
It will be very dark green, almost like dark Chartreuse, and is delightfully warming on a chilly winter evening.

It will be drinkable by Christmas, but if you can forget about it until the next Christmas it will be superb. So they say - I never manage to keep anything in a bottle for as long as that!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bread and Cheese

Whenever the subject of holidays in France comes up in a conversation you can guarantee that someone will ask what it is about the country that keeps you coming back. The resulting list usually includes French markets, the wine and the bread.

The big difference between the holidaymaker and the ‘immigrant’ resident (people like us) is that when you live here you are experiencing these 'magical 'things on a daily basis

French markets? Well, they still do what it says on the box. They are a great place to observe the ‘Frenchness’ of the French, to buy fresh fruit and great cheeses, to sit outside a café in the sun and watch the endless round of kissing and handshaking that accompanies every chance encounter, and to try and fathom the unfathomable: how, in a European alliance obsessed with health and safety rules and regulations, do the French get away with it? Live chickens stuffed into plastic carrier bags and taken home on a bus. Cubes of cheese, saussison, jambon cru for free tastings sweating in the sunshine on deli counters, having been delved into by fingers that have could been anywhere (don’t even think about it). Stillyards (you know the old spring weight thingy grandma used to weigh the baby with) dragged out from under a table when you ask for ‘livre’ (500 gms) of scabrous, but organic tomatoes from the old crone selling a handful of veggies from her allotment. And on the subject of these ‘dames anciennes’ …. Why,when you ask for a ‘livre’ which strangely turns out to be a kilo, do they suddenly develop a complete incapacity to understand your French when you protest? Apart from that, and a few other things, markets are pretty much as they have always been, which I suppose is why they still figure large on the holiday ‘lurve’ list .

No 2 on the What- I -Love- About- A -Holiday -In -France agenda is the wine. Hmm…well that’s thorny subject. There’ s been a lot of hot air spouted about French wine in the past, some rather difficult publicity about chemical nasties being added to some supposedly high quality wines, and the famous French obstinacy when it comes to modernising their production techniques. Perhaps if they stopped sneering at New World Wines they might learn something useful. And the day of the pichet of lovely cheap plonk in a cosy bistro are long gone, if they ever existed. Cheap French wine can taste like battery acid – or maybe it’s just the effect it now has on my poor old stomach and serially abused liver.

Ah, but what about the bread? Rack upon rack of golden, ramrod straight baguettes, little flutes, huge couronnes, grey pain de siegle….. surely the mysticism of the boulangerie still remains? Well, within a few months of our permanent arrival we were….dare I say it?....totally fed-up with bread that staled as you looked at it, a village bread shop that sold out before you were out of bed, and the sheer immoral waste of several yards of day-old bread being consigned to the bin. I had been given a bread machine as my new French house –warming present . I am now on my second and they don’t owe me a penny.I can make the sort of bread I like, using ingredients such as whole grains and nuts that are never seen in village boulangerie. True, the supermarkets now sell a bigger range but they are so stuffed with chemicals I'm loath to buy them .

Now Steven Kaplan, a professor of European history at Cornell University in New York has fired a broadside at the traditional baguette on the eve of La Fête du Pain (National Bread Week) in France The Times reports today that after a lifetime of studying — and eating — le pain francais, Professor Kaplan says that he has witnessed with despair the slow death of the crust.
“This is a significant and catastrophic trend,” he says “The crust is what stands between France and the Armageddon of soft, mushy, repugnant loaves that we get in the US and you get in Britain, too. A baguette de tradition should be a “voluptuous pleasure and an exulting moment” that speaks to all our senses, but I am getting hacked off because the basic quality is essentially being thrown away.”
The baker’s response is predictable : they are responding to customer demand, who don’t want a well cooked crust. Well that isn’t the case down here in the Haute Pyrenees. The traditional baguette sold in both high class town boulangeries and village depots de pain is a torpedo shaped loaf which tapers to twisted ends and is as hard as hell.The points on the ends could be classes as lethal weapons. Some even more traditional bakers pull the dough up into little spikes before baking them at nuclear heat for as long as possible, removing the loaves from the oven just before they actually combust. Those you could use as a knuckle duster. It could also be used as a hammer. What you can’t do with it, is actually eat it, without losing several teeth that is.
Mr Kaplan poses an interesting question…’Do the French care any more, do they care about taste? When you eat their tomatoes, their carrots and their merlotised wine, you start to wonder. Are they not collaborating in their own cultural demise?”

Hmm ….Answers on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


A Vide Grenier in the Village

Most of the time I love my life in France, especially today when the sun is shining, the cows are manfully (or should that be 'cowfully'?)chomping their way through lush, knee high, buttercup- spattered meadows, and the snow is creeping away from the mountain sides.

But into each life a little rain must fall....and we've just had the wettest month since we came to the village five years ago. That I can put up with, as long as it's another five years before we get an April as wet as this last one.

No, its the dark cloud of customer service that really rattles my cage. We've got used to the two hour lock-down experienced in every French town from 12 to 2 pm, so we adjust our retail expeditions accordingly. We've got so used to it that the speeding cars, and log-jams outside the bakeries are a subject of jokes:-
'Oh that car's just shot the lights, it must be five to twelve.'
'Why are those cars parked all over the road? Has there been an accident ? Oh no, there's a boulangerie over there.'
I'm also accustomed to asking for something in a shop to be told they've sold out, and recieving a shrug of the shoulders when I ask when they will be getting it in again. Four or five months ago Captain Sensible wanted two small replacement wheel for his mower . They had them in just the right size...he was overjoyed, small things please him no end,but there was only one in the display unit. After what seemed like hours I found an assistant. I enquired if they would be having more.
'Mais oui, madame.'
' Ah, bon' (standard reply) 'Quand?'
'N' sais pas .'...shrug
Every time we go past the shop, he insists on stopping to see if the wheels are in. I stay in the car....the shop's a cross between a garden centre and a farmers supplies, it smells of fertiliser and rubber wellies and bores me stiff. I watch him go in, and I watch him come out, still no wheels. The grass is almost high enough to graze those cows on.
Today was a totally new customer service failure. As we walked past the tourist board we thought we'd see what was coming up in the next few weeks. Now, if there's one thing we like to do on a sunny Sunday it's to find a car boot sale, or vide grenier'.... 'attic emptying' is the French term for it. We don't buy much, if anything, but it's fun to see some of the ancient French farm implements, and pointless bric-a-brac. It's also a great way to see more of the area we live in. We've found some beautiful little villages we would never have seen if it hadn't been for the lure of a vide genier.
So, I was really pleased to see a calender of forthcoming car boots displayed on the wall in the entrance to the tourist office. Vide greneirs aren't regular events as they are in Britain, a village is only permitted to have one a year (I think this is the rule, but as with all things in France there is conflicting information on this). This makes it difficult to keep track of them.
The list was photocopied onto a sheet of A4, just the thing to stick next to the kitchen calendar.
I go in to the office..
'Avez une calendreir de vide greniers?'
'Oui madame, sur le mur, a l'entree.'
'Je sais,mais je voudrais un à emporter.'
'Vous n'avez plus?'
The long and short of it was.. ..yes, they had a list, it was on the wall as I came in, no, they couldn't let me have one as that was the only one they had.
If I'd been in England I would have said;-
'It's a photocopy, for God's sake. How much effort is it going to take to run me one off?'

Sometimes, for the sake of international relations it's a good job my sarcasm doesn't kick in so quickly in a foreign language.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Love Thy Neighbour

A French Refugee Camp for Spanish Refugees


Spanish Refugees entering France February 1939

A couple of days after my last blog, on the death of the trades union stalwart Jack Jones, I read a long article in a local journal on the plight of the Spanish Civil War Refugees who flooded into France in February 1939. After a four year struggle Spanish Republican forces had been overcome, and General Franco declared himself El Caudillo, a position he held for nearly 40 years.

It is the 70th anniversary of that great flood of humanity that poured over the Pyrenees into South West France, known as la Retirada. There have been a crop of books and newspaper articles produced in honour of this anniversary, and as most of them are written for French consumption they are slightly skewed (to say the least) in their analysis of the event. I suppose the expression ‘distance lends enchantment’ can be applied to this reportage. After all, seventy years is a long time, and those, like Jack Jones, who were eyewitnesses to the events of the Civil War are becoming scarcer as these old combatants die off.

In too many cases the warm welcome that the Spanish soldiers and civilians had anticipated from their neighbour was sadly lacking. Instead , the soldiers were immediately marched off to concentration camps on arrival , and those unfortunate civilians who had no friends or family to offer them shelter found themselves in miserable tented camps in the back-end of a bitter winter.

From the last few months of 1938 to February 1939, something like half a million Republican refugees crossed the border into the Basque region of France, where 17,000 were herded into the concentration camp at Gurs; and into the Pyrenees Oriental on the Mediterranean coast where the camp at Prat de Mollo, just inland from the fashionable town of Collioure, was a sea of displaced humanity.

In the months that followed this exodus more than 20,000 emigrated, by various means to America,but when Hitler invaded France thousands were sent to German concentration camps. Many of those that managed to evade the Nazi round-ups joined the French Resistance and continued their struggle against fascism.

The Civil War itself drew sympathisers from all over the world. One of the many women who volunteered to join the International Brigades as nurses was a girl from. England. - Lillian Urmston.

Born in 1914, Lillian lived in Stalybridge and attended St. Paul's Elementary School. She trained as a nurse at Lake Hospital in Ashton-under-Lyne and at the age of 22, in 1936 Lillian applied to the Spanish Medical Aid Unit after reading how Government troops were short of doctors and nurses. In June 1937 she left for the Spanish Medical Aid in London where she and another nurse left for Paris and journeyed through France to the Aragon front in Spain, where they rendered medical assistance to injured government troops and civilians.
In September 1938, Lillian returned to England to raise funds for medical supplies and food for the wounded in Spain. She was sent with an ambulance, from which she addressed many groups in surrounding towns. Some were very sceptical, even when they saw the ambulance, but she had deliberately left it as it was; blood stained inside.
In response, the people of Stalybridge started the ‘Nurse Urmston Fund’ in support of the Spanish Medical Aid Unit. There were house to house collections and money was donated at various meetings; the fund itself raised approximately £700.
Lillian accompanied some of the refugees into France where she herself was interned and she recorded her thoughts in a collection of writings from women who served at the front in the Civil War:

The things seen during the last days of our retreat from Spain, and the experiences undergone in the concentration camp of St Cyprian, near Perpignan, I shall never forget... The last few days spent in Spain, working close to the front, yet within sight of the Pyrenees, were utterly ghastly. Operating work was done, and efficiently, just inside houses by the roadside. In innumerable instances, we came upon families of refugees wounded whilst fleeing to safety. We cared for them and kept them with us if they were seriously wounded... On the late evening of the 8th we received orders to go into France. Although sad at leaving our Spain, we all realised that this had to be and looked forward to a rapid reorganisation in France which would result in our going back to another sector of Spain to carry on the struggle against Fascist aggression.
But we were soon disillusioned... We were led to believe that France had opened her frontiers to receive our soldier refugees and wounded, thus preventing a complete massacre. We expected sympathy and humane treatment. We had neither. The vigilance of hundreds of armed guards made sure that all people entering France entered the concentration camp. Ours was a stretch of sandy desert land, surrounded by the usual formidable barbed wire. Wounded men were even without treatment for about six days. We were not allowed to tend our sick comrades. One small spring supplied water for about 15,000 to 20,000people. Food was not supplied until the fifth day... Men attempting to dodge out to buy bread and send letters were treated brutally by the guards. Our comrades received bayonet wounds at the hands of these soldiers of the French army.
My friends turned to me and said: 'Would we be treated like this in England?' And I wonder, would they? Spanish soldiers told our men to return to Franco Spain and then they would get away from all this. Our soldiers felt deeply about this, and called out to those men who were collected to be sent to Barcelona, deploring their conduct. Then the camp resounded with 'Viva la Republica! Viva nuestra Independencia!'

Extract from Lillian Urmston from the book ‘Voice of Women’

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hero, or Dinosaur ?

The Valley of the Fallen The Escorial

Do you ever hear on a news item that someone has died who you imagined had died some time ago? That happened to me this week when I heard of the death of Jack Jones.
Born on the eve of the Great War of 1914-18 Jack was one of the last ‘old style’ union leaders; some would say a political dinosaur, but I would prefer to call him a true Socialist, a vanishing breed in the UK perhaps, but unlike the dinosaur, not quite extinct.

Whatever one’s own politics Jack Jones’ solidarity to a cause was something you just had to admire. He doggedly resisted the lure of champagne socialism, the chattering classes of Hampstead Heath, and trendy wine bars so beloved of New Labour. Instead, at trade unions conferences in particular, he shunned the four and five star accommodation of his fellow delegates and stuck to his favourite B&Bs in Eastbourne, Blackpool or wherever, travelling back and forth to the conference hall by bus. His familiar cloth cap wasn’t something invented by spin doctors, it was Jack being Jack,

When he retired from the hurly-burly of the trades union world he still couldn’t leave it entirely, and he became the senior citizens champion, riding into battle for pensioners rights and becoming the first president of the National Pensioners Convention.

In the mid 1930’s Jack’s left wing politics were to take him far from his Liverpool roots, across the Pyrenees to Catalonia where he joined the International Brigade and fought for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He was eventually wounded in the battle of Ebro, repatriated and spent the rest of the war organising aid for the Republicans.

His loathing of Franco and the Nationalist government was to endure until the General’s death in 1975, and he was vociferous in his condemnation of Labour and TUC leaders who took holidays to Spain while the Franco regime was in power.

I have long had a sort of morbid fascination with the Spanish Civil War, ever since my first visits to the country in the early 70’s. In the centre of the country, not far from Madrid, is the Valley of the Fallen, or the Valle de los Caidos. It’s difficult to describe the effect this monolithic monstrosity has on the unwary visitor. You really have to know the background to this bloody episode in Spanish history to appreciate just how unwittingly this piece of grandiose mawkishness illustrates the oppressiveness of the Franco regime

You can see the building miles away; it’s difficult to miss a 500 ft concrete cross. It stands atop a huge crypt carved out from granite cliffs by the losing side (the Republicans) after the Civil War, and is the final resting place of El Caudillo …Francisco Franco. Some tomb!

It is now classed as a national monument, and it can be combined with an excursion to the Escorial, the huge palace built by Philip II of Spain, as the two places are only a few miles from each other. It is worth a visit if only to provide time for reflection on the futility of war, and the complete madness of civil war.
Jack Jones’ journey from the International Brigade to the National Pensioners’ Convention was a long and momentous one, and the next time you use your free bus pass, or receive your winter fuel payment remember who it was who pushed the government to make life a bit easier for senior citizens, and say …’Thanks, Jack’

Friday, April 17, 2009

Something to Make Your Mouth Water

Last week we had a flyer in our mailbox advertising the annual hunter’s lunch next Saturday. These lunches occur all over rural France at the end of the hunting season, and, in our case they are long, multi-coursed and alcohol driven.

Like everything else in France the price has crept up, this year to 20€ ,but for that you get six courses and as much to drink as can be considered polite. And entertainment.

It’s mostly of the impromptu variety, fuelled by several glasses of wine and a fire-water digestif and it can go on a bit. There are hunting songs, and mountain choruses that I quite enjoy. In fact, the shepherd songs can be beautiful, especially when sung by our local male voice choir, the Chanteurs de Mont Royal. A ancient old boy always totters to the microphone and sings an obscure ditty with at least ten verses, and choruses to which everyone (except us) joins in - con brio !

It’s when one of the local ladies decides (as she always does) to give us her tribute to Edith Piaf that it all begins to soar into the realms of farce. We try not to wince as she renders (murders) ‘La Vie en Rose,’ and then find ourselves heading for the door as, to tumultuous cheers, she launches into ‘Mon Legionnaire’.
We are usually amongst the first to leave, at about four o’clock, but, as we live close to the Salle de Fete we are still seeing people drifting home at six.
This year’s menu, which is always included on the flyer is as mouth-watering as ever .:

Salade Gasconne
Panache de salads,tomates, gésiers,lardons et magrets fumés

Salad of duck gizzards, bacon pieces and smoked duck breast.

Pavé de Saumon sauce paprika et estragon
Fillet of salmon with tarragon and paprika

Civet de Sanglier et pomme de terre vapeur
Wild boar casserole with mashed potatoes

Cuisse de canard confit et ses legumes
Duck leg confit and vegetables (usually the ubiquitous haricot vert)


Fromage de pays
Local cheeses

Tarte aux Pommes tiède et sa glace vanille

Warm Apple pie with vanilla icecream



Vin rouge et rosé
Vin mousseaux
Aperitif tout inclusive.

I mustn’t forget to stock up on the indigestion tablets.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Where Does the Time Go?

All though I have three calenders in the kitchen time still seems to run away with me. I've only to look at the date of my last blog to prove that to myself. I haven't been idle though.

After 25-30,000 words I seem to have driven the plot of my thriller into a cul de sac and at the moment I can't seem to back it out, so I'm going to have to let it sit there until I can start the engine again - or I'll have to call the breakdown vehicle and get it towed away to the scrap yard. Fellow writers will know what I mean!

To relieve the tension I started to to jot down some humorous recollections of my adolescence... a teenager in the late fifties and early sixties. I had been listening to Emma Kennedy's new book, 'The Tent, The Bucket and Me'. on Radio 4's Book of the Week. It was hilariously funny, and for once, very popular with the listeners....just lately some of the choices have been panned on the R4 message board and not without justification.

Ms. Kennedy's book had a very simple premise which could be a bit of a turn-off for readers, including me.Family holidays!

'Oh, another self-indulgent ramble', I thought. We'd had a few of those in the past few months as BOTW....usually upper class somebodies who could take six months off and wander around Europe, India, Outer Mongolia with 6 kids, a backpack, and a desire to 'find themselves'. Oh, and sell the resulting book to a publisher who happens to be a friend/ close relative, when they get back. ( I'm just jealous really)

But it was the way in which 'The Tent' was written that made it stand out from the rest. It was just so funny, and self deprecating. I do like people who 'self-deprecate' rather than write some precious book about how wonderful it all was, and how enlightened all their children had become from the whole life-changing experience. When we all know the kids had spent most of the time plugged into their MP3 players, bemoaning the fact that they couldn't keep in touch with their friends on Facebook, and why isn't there a Macdonalds in the Hindu Kush? Well I'm sure that's what most of them are kids after all.

Some of Ms. Kennedy's mishaps had happened to me....her parents were avid campers ( that scenario's got plenty of mileage in it for a writer )...mine were of the caravanning variety but we shared similar toilet incidents.

And this set me off on a journey of my own. When I started, I thought it would be hopeless as I grew up in probably the most boring town in Britain, and I seemed, on the face of it, to have a fairly averagely boring childhood, but the further I've got into it the more I've discovered that, written as a comedy, it actually works.
Far from being stuck for what to write next, the incidents just keep coming.

The fact that I had a mother who was to cooking as Les Dawson was to piano playing, gives me quite a lot of material to work on. She was also one of those delightful working class snobs who considered herself to be 'upper working class' to lower middle. Oh, it's all wonderful grist to the mill.

I've no time for the current thirst for 'misery memoirs' Ms. Kennedy could be starting a trend for 'merry memoirs' so I'm going to join the crowd. And it's pretty good therapy as well as going back fifty years and recalling incidents one had thought forgotten is a great exercise for the brain. So even if it all comes to nought(as it probably will) at least it can be filed under 'Self Improvement' so all is not lost.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Winter Visitors

At this time of year, even a shopping trip can be an ornithologist’s delight. The French have long been accused of eating all their small birds, and to a certain extent this has been the case. Nevertheless, France has come into line with general thinking and small songbirds are not slaughtered in the numbers that they were thirty years ago. Old habits (or cuisines) die hard however. As recently as 1996, a dying Francois Mitterand (the former French President) ordered a dish of ortalon as a final treat.

This lovely little songbird, a member of the bunting family, was considered the 'hautest' of haute cuisine, and as such its capture and cooking was shrouded in tradition and myth. I'll not sicken you with the details of the preparation, but for some bizarre reason, which seems to have no sensible explanation, the dish is eaten whilst the diner covers his head with a white cloth. Legend has it that a gluttonous priest, who was anxious that God should not recognise him, first practiced this. He must have missed the vital piece of information in his theological teaching that nothing can be hidden from God.

Fortunately, these barbarically arcane traditions only survive now amongst the very oldest French gourmands. In nearly ten years, I have never come across thrush pate or lark's tongues on a village meal menu. Thank God!

But to return to our shopping trips. We are almost guaranteed to see a couple of heron, usually in the same place...a field bounded by a swift running water channel that takes the snow melt from the mountains, and for the last two winters our cattle have been joined in their pastures by an influx of cattle egrets. They spend a few weeks with us every winter now, and the cows seem very unfazed by them. I wonder why they choose to share accommodation with such big animals? They're never seen with the sheep, or in a field of horses, cattle are obviously their soul mates. Very strange.

The colder, snowy foothills of the Pyrenees bring down the birds of prey at this time of year. There really does seem to be a buzzard on every telegraph pole. The red and black kites circle endlessly round, as they do in the summer, but in winter, they seem to be higher in the sky.

There's quite a few small birds around too, fieldfares swooping and swarming, and of course the starlings who seem able to survive anywhere. We were lucky enough to see a swarm one day as we were driving towards Narbonne. What I thought was someone burning old tyres was in fact a cloud of starlings performing an aerial ballet over the flat terrain of the Minervois vineyards.

We never see any gulls as we're too far from the coast. For this reason, we never see wild duck or geese. I do miss the geese. The eerie sound of a skein of pinkfoot heading inland on the North Norfolk coast (to drive farmers ballistic!)is one of those experiences you never forget however far away you travel.

Another visitor in the skies over us isn't a bird, but nearly as exciting, well to Captain Sensible of course. It's rather larger than a bird; in fact, the Airbus 380 is rather larger than any other plane. So frequently does it appear that I hardly bother to look up now when I hear it droning over en route to the mountains, where the crew test the cockpit instruments for magnetic interference. We actually saw it on its maiden test flight. Well, I saw it ... in the distance. The Captain didn't because he was driving at the time. I said nothing for fear of looking stupid (I have been known to confuse large birds with planes and vice versa due to my short-sightedness) so it wasn't until I saw it on the telly that night that I realised what I had been looking at.
"I saw that this morning on the road from Le Cuing" I said. I was not popular.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snow, Floods,Fires, What Next?

What a strange start to 2009 we are having. Right now I'm writing up my blog as large snow flakes drift down from the skies like white confetti. When I was little, I was told that somewhere up in the heavens an old lady was plucking a goose. What a load of old cobblers kids were told in my day. Parents would never get away with it these days. Kids are far too smart to be fooled by daft stories like that.

But back to the present century. Only 6 weeks into 2009 and what have we got? The most severe winter conditions in the UK for 20 years, (or 10, or 50 depending on what newspaper you're reading), horrendous fires in Australia, and here, three weeks ago, the most violent winds for years, the effects of which we are still discovering as we drive around, with hardly a wood without fallen trees somewhere in it, either flat on the ground or leaning at crazy angles on neighboring trees. Strangely most of our old houses still have their roofs on; they must be a lot tougher than they look. Like their inhabitants I guess.

And today, the snow is not only settling but piling up ...well it has snowed all day. The lights are flickering ominously as well, and although The Captain has bought new wicks for our emergency oil lamps, he hasn't tracked down the oil for them yet. When the electricity went off in the storms, like the foolish virgins that we were, our lamps hadn't been maintained properly, so we were caught out, and had to resort to candles.

I can't begin to imagine the full horror of the bush fires in Victoria. My own experience of wildfire was on a minute scale compared to the Australian disaster, and that was scary enough.

We were living just outside Carcassonne in the heat wave summer of 2003, and we had become accustomed to the daily patrols of the Canadair fire fighting planes droning over, and even when we noticed a puff of smoke on the other side of the hill we weren't unduly worried. We still didn’t worry too much when twenty or so fire engines were seen up on the main road, and smuts began to flutter down in the courtyard. We maintained our British sang-froid and took tea on the terrace, as usual, and watched the planes ‘water- bombing’ the woods on the other side of the hill. The Captain, who takes on the characteristics of a ten year-old when confronted by planes doing exciting things (well, things he considers exciting, anyway) enjoyed it all immensely. It wasn’t until I went into the kitchen at about ten o’clock for ice for my bedtime drink (well, it was stiflingly hot so a good excuse for a G&T) that I noticed the sky had turned red and the hilltop was flickering with flames. Simultaneously two battle-weary pompiers appeared at the front gate and announced we were to evacuate the cottage. Then it got scary. We grabbed our passports, the dog and prayed the cats, out on their evening hunt would be alright.
An hour later the wind changed direction and our little house and the cats were saved.
It was alarming at the time, but nothing to what the inhabitants of Victoria have had to deal with.

I wonder what the elements have in store for us all this year. And what the global warming-in-denial lobby will have to say about it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Everybody Out!

Once again we're in the grip of a strike. It something of a national hobby, a good grève. In the UK the citizens tend to moan loudly about something they don't agree with; here in France they take to the streets to express their displeasure.
So hundreds of thousands of workers are protesting, 'comme d'habitude about a multitude of grievances.From wages,to working conditions,to redundancies, to lack of spending on education - but the bottom line is that the populace are fed-up with poor little Nicholas' handling of the econmic down-turn.
It's the first one he's had since he became president so that's pretty good by French standards.But public sector workers are letting him and his government know that they 'ain't going to stand for it! Like many countries in Europe right now they are feeling the pinch as unenployment and prices rise in unison.
So thousands are gathering at The Bastille in Paris today to send a sharp message to the Elysèes Palace.There's a feeling of anger mixed with malaise in France right now, so I fear this could be the first of many strikes this year.

I haven't been on strike. I've spent a fairly frustrating couple of days trying to set up a small website on which to showcase some of my writing. I think I've finally cracked it. I've set one up with google and I've downloaded a short story. I hope to put on excerpts from my other writings, but it's early days yet, both for me and the new Google service.
The link to the site is on the right hand side of this blog, entitled 'Jo's Writing Corner'.
If anyone would like to leave a comment please do so via this blogsite.
The website is a bit basic at the moment as I'm still finding my way round, and I think Google are adding features. I hope it improves...I've wasted quite enough serious writing time on the darned thing already!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ourages,Vents et Lumières des Etoiles

Ourages,Vents et Lumières des Etoiles

I’m pleased to announce that after 28 hours we are connected to the national grid again.

The storms that swept across, from the Atlantic to the Med rampaged over us on Friday night. As strong winds are virtually unheard of here (one of the primary attractions to us when house-hunting) the sound of a gale howling down the village street late on Friday evening was a rare event.

Thank goodness our wooden shutters were firmly closed, due to The Captain’s near-obsession with ‘closing up for the night’. It’s the one thing about life in France ‘profond’ that I haven’t whole-heartedly embraced. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but I just hate being shut in at night. Maybe I’m simply nosey but I like to be able to see ‘what’s occurin’ as Nesta says in that delightful tv sitcom, Gavin and Stacey. On Friday though, it was a good job we were well shut up, otherwise our banging shutters would have kept us, and our neighbours awake all night.

When I got up on Saturday morning it was blowing a hooley, but we had power. Until I switched on the kettle, that was. Off it went and was to stay off until Sunday afternoon.

We were lucky; we don’t rely entirely on electricity. We’ve a wood burner in the sitting room, and I cook on a bottled gas stove, so during the daylight we were doing okay.

For me, it was quite a welcome relief to be missing the usual Saturday sports schedules that clutter up the tv stations, and as for Saturday evening tv entertainment, well the less said about that the better.

As the daylight faded I was curled up in a chair with two rarely used items, a pencil and writing pad, plotting out a few characters to populate a fictitious village I’m planning for my present work-in-progress. The imagination seems to work so much better by candlelight. It was a productive evening, and we had a cosy evening meal which, had we been a lot younger might have the precursor of a night of romance. As it was The Captain, who has a low boredom threshold, sighed deeply at about 9.30. and suggested I look out the hot water bottle, used only for airing a guest bed in the past.

We’ve never used one in the 40- odd years we’ve been together, so this took some preparation, especially as I was having to boil water on the gas hob.
When I eventually got to the bedroom I decided to have a peek out of the window…the gale had blown itself out hours before….and I was intrigued to see what the village looked like without a single light. The main street is normally lit for about a quarter of a mile by rather attractive ‘old-style’ lantern lights, one of which is attached to the front of our house. The Captain actually leaves the shutters on the landing window open so the light illuminates the landing a bit. It sheds quite a nice mellow light onto the wooden floor, and saves us having to leave a light on when we have visitors. But now it was completely dark.

When I looked out of the bedroom window the sky was amazing. Although we live in a very rural village, it’s almost impossible to look at the night sky without some light pollution, but there was no artificial light anywhere, not even on the horizon. The stars were like sharp, blue diamonds and there just seemed to be trillions of them. I’m a bit of a numpty when it comes to the constellations, but I do know what some of the major ones look like, and Orion’s Belt was the clearest I’ve seen it for years. It made me realize just what we miss in the rush and bustle of our lives. For all our technology, nature has by far the most miraculous thing to show us. You can keep the Ex Facture, Strictly Come Dancing, Match of the Day (groan!), they’ve nothing on The Sky at Night, and you don’t need a tv license to watch that.

I'm expecting our local sage- femme or midwife to have a full appointments book at the end of October/beginning of November.The village hasn't been in bed so early since the days of oil lamps. She wan't have me om her list. Age does have it's compensations!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Nil Desperandum

I should be depressed today. Last night I received a very nice email from Legend Press, saying how much they enjoyed reading my submission for the 2009 Anthology of Short Stories (blah, blah, blah)and they had hundreds of excellent entries...etc...etc...etc. In short, they weren't taking mine !

I never expect success (one of my major failings) so I accepted it without a flinch. Well I've got used to it by now.

But they were nice about, which always takes the sting out of the wound, and said they'd be happy to look at any other submissions, but I suspect they say that to all the girls (and boys).

So, I've dusted myself,and the manuscript off, and sent it winging away to another publisher.Thank God for companies who accept electronic submissions. It would cost a fortune otherwise....I never cease to grumble at the price of ink cartridges, let alone the postage. It must have been a very costly and time-consuming business back in the snail-mail days,typing out your work,constantly buying correcting fluid,carbon paper, stamps for returns, stamps for posting it....thank you, thank you, thank you Bill Gates!

On re-reading my oh-so-polished MS today, three months after I sent it off, I still had to correct four spelling mistakes (did you miss them Microsoft Word, or did I?) and a little word missed out altogether. And I was so sure it was word perfect!
It's almost impossible to proof-read you own work, isn't it?

So now I'll be hovering over my writing inbox longing for, but dreading at the same time the reply.( I've set up two different email addresses, so my so-called work doesn't get muddled up with my social life) What social life, I ask myself. This is January in the Haute Pyrenees !

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Time for Tea, The Epiphany Cake Recipe

In case the previous article aroused your taste buds, here’s one of the many recipes around for the Epiphany Cake I wrote about.You'll have missed Epiphany but it's a nice cake to eat at any time of year.
Perhaps in the interests of safety the feves should be left out, after all who wants to spend what should have been a happy occasion in the local A&E?

Recipe for Gateau (or Galette de Rois)
Preparation time 20 mins
Cooking time 20 mins
Serves 8

2 Pkts ready-made flaky pastry, sufficient to cut into two 20cm diameter circles.
125 gms ground almonds
125 gms castor sugar
125 gms softened butter
2 whole eggs + the yolk of a third (separately reserved)
2tsps of Rum (or to taste)

Pre-heat the oven to gas mk.7, 220 C or 425 F

Work the softened butter with the sugar until you have a fluffy white mixture.

Add the ground almond, the 2 whole eggs and the rum and beat all together until the mixture is smooth and lump-free.

Cut two 20cm circles from the 2 sheets of flaky pastry and place one circle on a large baking sheet.

Carefully pour the almond mixture onto the pastry circle, leaving a 2cm space all around the edge of the base. At this point you can add one or more traditional feves (see previous article) but if you’re serving it to young children or elderly parents, on your own head be it!

Brush a little water, milk or some of the retained egg yolk, around the edge of the second circle of pastry, and place, egged side down on top of the almond mixture. Press the edges of the two pastry circles together firmly, and flute the edges with either a knife, the back of a spoon or your fingers.

Brush more egg yolk over the entire surface, and lightly prick with the point of a very sharp knife to release air as the galette cooks.

Bake in the centre of the pre-heated oven for twenty minutes until its golden brown all over. Resist the temptation to eat it straight from the oven or the almond paste filling will give your tongue 1st degree burns. Best served cold.

Bon Appetit !

Crowns,Crêpes and Chopsticks

You’d really think after the excesses of Christmas that French digestions would need a bit of a rest, Well don’t you believe it.
January has gastronomic delights which can brighten a dull month, starting with ‘Revilllons’, the Feast of Saint Sylvestre, or as we know it - New Year’s Eve. Unless you happen to come from East Anglia, where many still perversely refer to it as Old Year’s Night.
Revillon dinners can consist of seven or eight courses with copious amounts of champagne and surprisingly, they are very pricey in a country where good meals are generally less expensive than the equivalent meals in the UK. But a ‘Repas de Saint Sylvestre is to be enjoyed regardless of cost.

In the UK Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, is the cut-off date for taking down the Christmas decorations, but that means nothing over here, indeed village Christmas lights often stay strung across the street all year. Not lit up, of course…well that would be really daft, but the Feast of Epiphany in France means….yes, you got it! Food .Cakes, to be precise.

Gateaux de Rois are on sale in every supermarket and patisserie throughout January. There are two sorts, one is made of brioche dough, fashioned into a ring and decorated with coarse sugar and coloured candies or crystallised fruits. The other is a pastry based cake….crème patisserie or an almond paste mixture sandwiched between two layers of buttery flaky pastry, plus (and this is the Health and Safety bit) half a dozen fêves (French for beans). I expect dried beans used to be put in the cake, but for the last hundred years or so beans have been replaced by little porcelain figurines which are now highly collectable and turn up regularly on the French eBay site or car boot sales. Recently plastic ones have taken over; such is the march of time. The person who gets the ‘king’ (or in the case of the cheap modern ones, ‘The Lion King’) is crowned with a gold paper crown and gets to kiss all the girls in the room! That’s the loose connection with Epiphany I suppose.

As well as Gateau de Rois the supermarkets are getting stocked up for the second January blow-out. Large displays of bags of flour, eggs, vanilla sugar, chocolate spread and jam are artistically arranged around crêpe pans, large and small. Yes, it will soon be pancake time. Not for Shrove Tuesday, as is the case in the UK, but for Chandeleur, which is known in English as Candlemass, a religious festival which has rather gone out of fashion. It’s observed six weeks after Christmas, and I think (though someone may correct me on this) it commemorates the Infant Christ being taken to the temple to be blessed in the Jewish tradition. In true French style packets of ready made pancakes are on sale as well, just in case making them from scratch is too taxing, or time consuming. The French love anything sweet and served with chocolate so crêpes are consumed par tout le monde

There’s another gourmet treat in store for January and as if cakes, crowns, and pancakes weren’t enough there’s the Chinese New Year. Now for a country that assiduously ignores anything vaguely foreign, the enthusiasm with which the French embrace this Eastern celebration is quite astounding. Lidl, that last retreat of the cash-strapped expats and suddenly wildly trendy epicerie of those expats who are pretending they’re not cash-strapped, is going to resemble a Chinese take-away next week, if their promotional leaflets are anything to go by.

I love the French take on standard Chinese labelling: Petals de Crevette…..prawn crackers to us. Sauce aigre- douce …sweet and sour sauce And a drink called Shunji which is a new one on me….a wine based drink flavoured with passion flower, plum, orange, or ginger. 10% alcohol and €1.40…..might give it a whirl! There’s also a serious outbreak of woks, chopsticks and dinky little bowls to accompany all the bottles and cans of ‘Saveurs d’Asie’.
Once through this calorie laden- month we have a bit of a rest until Easter, for which my stomach will be very grateful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A French Dream

On Gardener’s Question time last week I heard someone enquiring about the possibility of growing a grape vine on a west-facing wall in Gloucestershire - I don’t think it was the Duchess of Cornwall, they’ve probably got a special orangery or something at Highgrove special built for producing dessert grapes- but the GQT enquiry was met with a bit of negativity amongst some of the panellists. Except dear old Bob Flowerdew, who is up for any horticultural challenge, of course. (I love that man. Who else could recycle old tyres and carpets to grow things in, and on?) Anyway, the general consensus (excluding Bob) was that it probably wasn’t a brilliant idea as dessert grapes rarely come to much in an English summer. Going down to Tescos and buying a pound or two seemed less effort, and would be more rewarding.

I rather endorsed their opinions. I can remember as a child a grape vine my father had in his greenhouse. I suspect it was already in situ when we moved in, but he was so taken with it that it remained, despite taking over the entire roof, and thus blocking valuable light off the tomatoes. The grapes amounted to diddly squit. In a normal Lincolnshire summer by September all we had harvested were pea-sized green things resembling bullets. In a heatwave summer we harvested pea-sized green things resembling rubber bullets. Sometimes my mother bottled them…..God knows why, but she was prone to a certain amount of bizarre behaviour when confronted by a gastronomic challenge. Needless to say, the bottled grapes were consigned to a dusty shelf in the cellar and there they probably still reside, fifty years and numerous house purchasers later.

But I’d forgotten all these childhood experiences until we first moved to France, eight years ago this month.

Our first little house was a delight. It was small and quaint and attached to a much larger house, and above all…it was free! We lived there for 2 happy years in return for ‘gardianage’ of the ‘big ‘house next door. We were surrounded by vineyards. An olive grove was planted right up to our terrace. It was ‘La Vie en Rose’.
Even more delightful was the wrought iron canopy which was constructed at the front of the cottage. Twisting in and out of the metalwork was an ancient grapevine. It had been trained up the wall and over the top of the canopy, and even in it’s winter bareness I could visualise it in the summer, spreading it’s luscious green leaves to form a shady bower, where we could partake of a long ‘dejourner’, and in the drowsy,hot afternoons while others ‘siesta-ed’ I could sit and write my block-busting novel!

Well, it certainly worked like that at the start… apart from the writing bit, that is. But as August smouldered into a beautiful mellow September the curse of the grape struck. Unlike my experience in England, there were more grapes than we could possibly eat, unless I bottled them, and we weren’t going down that road again, thanks.

Consequently as they ripened, and over-ripened they fell off, all over our little eating area, and worse, all over the door step, from whence they were trodden into the living room, where they stained the unglazed tiles unless we pounced on the offending objects before they could soak in. They also collected every wasp and hornet in the district. And France has some pretty evil hornets, I can tell you.
On a brighter note they did also attract the most beautiful butterfly, a Large Pasha, something which monetarily stumped the Captain until he found his ‘Butterflies of Southern Europe’. But even the glory of this bird-like butterfly couldn’t totally make up for the mess and the wasps.

It just goes to prove that some things are best viewed from afar, like on a birthday card, or a jigsaw puzzle, entitled French Cottage or similar.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Resolving to Behave Badly

We’re at the start of a new year. If we’d just landed from Mars how would we know?
Well there are 2 good indications that clutter up the media, and I get pretty fed-up reading about either of them.

New Year Resolutions.
That’s the first worn out headline. Usually a whole posse of journalist,‘celebs’ and assorted self -publicists are lined up by the press to tell us what their resolutions for the coming year are going to be. Are we really interested in the navel –gazing of someone who we have never met, and are unlikely to ever be in the same room as?

This year I’m not going to commit myself to any sanctimonious hair shirt- wearing. I’ve never ever been able to stick to any of my high flown ambitions further than the middle of January so after all this time I’ve decided to call it a day and from now on I’m going to spend 2009 behaving badly.

Therefore I resolve to….
Increase my daily alcohol units
Eat more chocolate
Take less exercise
Throw away the bathroom scales in view of the first three resolutions. (Well, I may just hide them for the time being)
Suffer fools less gladly than I did before – if that’s possible.
Spend more time surfing the internet
Spend less time doing the housework
(the last two items are almost impossible to achieve but I will give them my best shot.)

On a more responsible note I do intend to actually complete a novel. By which I mean to work on something that will be presentable enough to send to a publisher and not be chucked onto the slush pile without a second glance. Therefore I will be concentrating on that vitally important introductory letter, and my bête noire, the jaw-dropping-interest-arousing-must-read synopsis.

This is going to make me even more reclusive and anti-social. Hooray! I’m going to be selfish, self obsessed and who knows, successful? Well I’ll settle for a bit of success, like a short story appearing in a magazine, or, joy of joys, a publisher taking a slight interest in one of my novels. It’s not too much to ask. I’m not looking for a five figure deal, a burning desire to make the best seller list, or even the Booker Prize ( although I have just about got my acceptance speech word perfect now), so Joanna Trollope can sleep easy in her bed.

The New Year Health Regime
The other indicator of a new year is the endless references to de-toxing. What? Am I expected to seriously believe that 40 years of internal organ abuse can be resolved in a month by purchasing an expensive detox plan? Would that it were so. In four weeks, according to the advertisers, my liver, kidneys, pancreas, heart (sounds like an abattoir, doesn’t it?) will be cleansed, re-vitalised and restored to those of a teenager. (Well not one who hangs around on street corners smoking spliffs and drinking cans of Iced Diamond one hopes). They’re about as reliable as the miracle claims put out by face cream manufacturers to get rid of wrinkles in seven days.

So I shall not be resolving, detoxing or doing anything remotely good for my health.

And to all my fellow scribes and would- be- published authors I will raise a glass of something at least 12% proof and say ‘May all your hopes and dreams, however large or small, be fulfilled this year, and above all, live your lives exactly as you wish!’


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Home at Last

So I'm back. It was always going to be a conundrum as to where my heart really was. I lived in England for close on sixty years, and unlike many of my fellow compatriots who have set off for greener grass I have only returned to my native East Anglia once in eight years. My thinking on this subject is to commit yourself whole-heartedly to a new life and don't waste time dwelling on what you've left behind.
Every country, every new life, has’ fors ‘and ‘againsts’ and the more you compare, the worse your situation may appear. Especially now, when we who have retired on meagre pensions paid in sterling are beginning to feel the pinch. Well, its swings and roundabouts, so for the next few months it's a case of 'batten down the hatches and ride out the storm' And the storm will abate, that's for sure.
Meanwhile I had only to step off the plane at Toulouse (thanks, easyJet for another stress-free flight) to know that I was home.
The air was almost balmy, the light at 4.30 pm (3.30 GMT) just as I knew it would be, soft, golden, welcoming. The pace of life just that much slower....although once we hit the city ‘rocade’ (ring road) I was well aware that the French habit of tail-gating, and their total incomprehension of that funny little thing attached to the steering wheel known to UK drivers as an indicator, is still firmly in place. Yes, welcome back to the land that has produced the worst drivers in Europe.
Sometimes, rarely, one will encounter a driver indicating as he/she circumnavigates a roundabout. Don’t automatically assume they are informing you which exit they intend to take .It will probably mean that they've just discovered the indicator, and to their utter astonishment not only does it work but is quite good fun to play with. The fundamental trouble is that for years the French couldn’t be trusted with the gentle art of polite traffic filtering. Traffic lights were the only way to control junctions, so most drivers over the age of forty have their own individual way of attacking a roundabout. Combine that with a mental block regarding the use of an indicator and you’ve got an accident waiting to happen..
But its things like that which makes France so special. And it's one of the many idiosyncrasies that I've missed during the last month.
England is still a nice place to visit, don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those expats who slag off everything about the UK. And this year the shopping was great! I spent a happy half hour in Wilkinson’s, stocking up on continental conversion plugs, cookie cutters and eco light bulbs (so much cheaper than here in France).Yes, I know. I'm a deeply sad person!
And numero uno on my shopping list was spices. In particular, Thai spices. I stocked up in a West Indian shop in Letchworth as if they were about to be rationed the next day. I explained my manic behavior to the charming Asian girl on the check-out.....why was some-one buying industrial amounts of garam masala, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, cardamom, and fresh tamarind? 'Cos in my neck of the woods it's unheard of. She understood, and even sympathised. Hadn’t her own aunt done exactly the same thing a few weeks before?
Yes, I love duck, goose and all their by-products but sometimes I yearn for something spicy. And that, in French eyes, is close to treason. They’ve no time for foreign ‘muck’.

So, despite that, I’m still pleased to be home, and back writing my blog which I’ve sadly neglected.

All I have to do now is to wish you all a Happy New Year, and start reviewing my New Year Resolutions.