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.