Tuesday, 25 April 2017

On railway tracks

One of the things you can do with disused railway tracks is turn them into bike trails or hiking routes.  There's a few that have been so converted in Mayenne; the one we tested runs from an unremarkable and un-named place north-east of Laval, North towards the town of Mayenne.

The start point is quite literally a point where an old railway bridge crosses a road, and there is a slip-lane you can take that leads up to the track.  There is no parking there, so we drove along a couple of Km to where there is a proper car park.

As with the towpath along the Mayenne river that we tested the other day, the railway line was very close to level, but unlike the towpath it was straight.  This made for a rather boring ride.

There were occasional points of interest as the track passed old station buildings, or went over or under bridges, but the interest to be had was in spotting landscape features through the trees.  The track had been well signposted, with adequate warnings for what used to be level crossings, with notices showing how grinning cars will joyously crash your bike if you're not careful.

We had a pleasant pic-nic when we got to Commer (About 10km from our car park) and then set off back.  The weather was fine, the route calm and quiet, and the general atmosphere peaceful.  We will doubtless test other sections of the track, but the winner so far in terms of interest en route, is the Mayenne towpath.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Pesky Russkies

We have clear blue skies but the air is cold with chilly winds coming in from Russia.   This means that we are getting ground frosts and I am having trouble protecting my potatoes.  It's clear that the Russians aren't content with interfering in our free and fair democratic elections, they are trying their best to ruin our potato crop as well.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Bike ride

One of the things we intend to do with the new bikes is grab short holidays where we can ride them.  The gîte seems to limit the opportunity to take long breaks, so we figure that short breaks of a couple of nights, combined a not-too-difficult bike trek along, say, the Loire will give us the chance to visit some châteaux, as well as keeing us fit.

As a feasibility study, on this glorious Sunday (cloudless skies, 25 degrees C) we took the bikes to Entrammes and rode down the Mayenne towpath to a créperie for lunch, and then back again.   The views along the river were fabulous.

The crêperie doesn't serve crêpes on Sundays; I think there's too good a business opportunity to dissipate it on low-cost lunches.  The place was busy, and the quantity of bikes in their thoughtfully-provided bike racks told us that we were not the only ones with an idea for a Sunday bike ride.

On the way back I noticed an unusual construction that I had not seen before.  I think it is a windmill, possibly for pumping water from the river.   It appears to be made of iron, now rusty, with a spiral stairway up to the top, and a little platform to stand on.

I used this opportunity to check out a bit of Android software that records your tracks using GPS.  I used to use Quechua Tracking, an excellent app provided free (with in-app purchses) by Decathlon, a sporting goods company, but they have withdrawn it.  Grrr it was an excellent app.  I have since installed iPhiGéNie that does the same thing but is harder to use.   Here is what it produces in terms of a mapped track output.

I only recorded the trip back up the river; it told us we did 17.8 Km in almost exactly an hour.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Making a whole cheese

In France, if you want to tell someone that something's not a big deal, not to worry about, they say "N'en fait pas tout un fromage", that is "Don't make a complete cheese out of it".  Sometimes abbreviated, at least in this part of the world, to "N'en fais pas".

If you say "Thank you" to a cashier, or to anyone from you have just bought something, you are likely to get the response "It's me".  What?

    - "Merci"
     -"Cest moi"

The "c'est moi" is a shortened form of  "C'est moi qui vous remercie", that is, with the emphasis used in English, I'm thanking you.   At this point, the conversation makes some sense, but for a newcomer to France, it usually takes a few weeks before you hear the full version, and you finally understand those wierd conversations you keep having with shopkeepers.

We do the same thing in English of course.  If we say "Don't count your chickens", the follow-on "before they've hatched" is understood, but I wonder if foreigners think the English have some strange kind of superstition about poultry.  Same thing with stable doors.

And on the same subject, have you ever tried burning a real candle at both ends?  It's a disaster.  The wax drips everywhere, you get two big smoky flames, lots of smell, and the candle doesn't last five minutes.  But if we work from early morning to late at night, we are "burning the candle at both ends".  For this to make any sense at all, there needs to be an unspoken follow-on: "burning the candle at both ends of the day".  That is, we need candle light to work by in the morning, and again in the evening.

My candle burns at both ends;  
It will not last the night;  
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends 
It gives a lovely light!


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Internal project

The project to replace hinged wardrobe doors with sliding ones continues.  The upstairs hallway is done now, and looks a lot better than it used to.  Even the normal opening doors to the bedrooms look much better; it's amazing what a simple paint job can do.

Of course, you can't just replace doors: the floor has to be redone or else it looks oddly naff, and the shelves inside the wardrobes have to be replaced with nifty sliding drawers and bins.

And you can't just do the hallway; the bedroom that has its own hinged doors needs re-doing as well.   This is the next part of the project.  The bits are bought and are hiding behind the sofa in the living room.   The old doors and frame have been taken out so I now have a hole that will be enlarged and then filled with sliding doors in the fullness of time.   We have decamped to the spare bedroom.  It's a bit cramped, so there's an incentive to get on with things.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Broken things

The front left wheel of the sit-on mower broke the other day.   Something that keeps it in place seems to have snapped, and the wheel was turning without its bearing for a little while.  This knackered the wheel, so I'm waiting on a replacement one from my local service agent.  They always say that parts will arrive in a few days but it always takes at least a fortninght.  Meanwhile, I need to cut the grass so I bit the bullet and bought a second-hand walk-behind self-propelled one to use as a spare.

Meanwhile, I can at least change the oil and replace the oil filter.  Hence the oily patch....

The boiler has a problem too.  The wood is fed into the boiler by a screw feed, and this arm is one of two that sweep the wood into the screw.   Except this one doesn't because it has snapped.   It's been over a week and I still don't have even a quote for a replacement from the distributor, though the guy just phoned to drop round to take some measurments.  Apparently there are several options for the mounting.  

I can probably weld the two bits together, but I'd rather fit a new one, and keep the welded one as a spare.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Come on, baby, light my fire

There is increasing resistance in France to the routine use of weedkiller products like glyphosate, with ideas like a complete ban from 2020 being mooted.  One of the advantages of weedkilling chemicals in general is that they're cheap and easy to use.  You can get enough for some 500 square yards, that kills the weeds and stops seeds from sprouting, in a single spraying that lasts for a whole growing season, for about €20.

In the light of the debate, various other techniques are being tried out.   I have seen council workers and plant nursery owners clearing weeds from gravel paths and raised beds with a steamer.  The steam kills the plant above the ground, and hopefully, the heat is enough to kill a proportion of the roots and seeds in the ground.  Uses quite a lot of energy, although I don't know how it might compare with the production, transport and sale of glyphosate.

As an alternative, you could use this compact gas burner.   To you, squire, and I'm cutting me own throat, a mere €1,490.  Seems a bit expensive to me; you can buy a very nice lawn mower with a complicated, 4-stroke internal combustion engine for a couple of hundred euro, and this burner looks very simple by comparison.

It has a line of burners mounted on a metal frame, plus a shelf on which you can fix a big bottle of gas (not included in the price).  You fire it up, and walk slowly along while it burns the weeds and roasts their seeds.

It even has a little shelf on the back for the fire extinguisher, in case of unfortunate events.  Handy that.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Glycerine and physics

Recently I read a book by David Bohm called Wholeness and the Implicate Order.  I don't pretend to understand all of the mathematical physics developed in it; it is 40 years since I did any of that - time enough to forget, and to get out of date.  He presents a case for the existence of "hidden variables"  (an idea that had been discounted) that might underpin the randomness of quantum-level physical observations.

There were a couple of related things in it that got me thinking.  The first is an analogy he drew between the physical world and our perception of it, as displayed by a simple experiment.

You take a large diameter cylinder of glass, put a smaller diameter cylinder inside it on the same axis, and fill the gap between them with (transparent and viscous) glycerine.  If you put a dot of dark ink on the surface of the glycerine and spin one of the cylinders, the dot will gradually stretch out until it becomes too thin to be visible.  But you can turn the cylinder the other way, and the dot re-appears, then disappears again as you continue.

So you can draw a dot, spin the cylinder, draw another dot next to where it was, spin again, repeat several times, until they are all invisible.  Spinning the cylinder back again gives rise to the impression of a dot moving along the surface.

You can expand this idea into different sizes and colours of dots, spread out in 3D in the glycerine, spining the cylinder until you end up with a grey goop that, none the less, contains, in a meaningful way, the lines of different coloured dots you have drawn.  The author calls this the implicate order, and posits it as analogous to the implicate order of the physical world, of which we see only the observable elements that develop through time.

It's easy to see that disturbing any part of the grey goop has an effect spread out through time and space that is difficult to predict.

He then draws an analogy with music.  Our appreciation of any given note, chord, phrase, theme, and our reactions to it, emotional and physical are all dependent on other parts of the music, some of which appear only in the future, others resonate in our memory of what has played out before.  That is, in listening to music, we perceive directly, an implicate order.

Is this why mathematicians like music?  (Related)

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Carnival while you can

Arnage is a suburb of Le Mans, fairly heavily industrialised.  It has a residential quarter where they traditionally hold a carnival parade this time of year.  Our little band of flute students teamed up with some local players, and we took part in the parade.  It was a little cold, being March, but a good time was had by all.

Carnival parades in England are, in my experience, light-hearted, but well-organised and managed.  This one seemed to be more on towards the pantomime end of the scale, but no-one cared.  There were bands of musicians playing anything from traditional music to snatches of Led Zeppelin, people dressed as witches (the theme of the event), stilt walkers, people juggling flaming torches, lots of ballons, traditional costumes, and goodwill.

I have not participated in this event before, so I'm having to rely on information that was passed to me, but apparently the parade this year didn't weave in and out of the side streets as it usually does, because the anti-terrorist security would have been too difficult to manage.  I'm also told that many similar events in the region have been cancelled since the concrete barriers now required are too expensive for many small towns' budgets.

There's a big music festival held annually at Bais, not far from us, with multiple performing bands, street musicians, food and wine, all taking over the town centre.  I have played there a couple of times.  The fate of this event is being currently debated, as they are pricing up the anti-terrorist security.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

New museum

It was nearly 50 years ago that prehistoric cave paintings were discovered in one of the caves just down the road from us.  Apparently, it was somewhat of an accident; the cavers were on their way out of the cave, and had to queue up at a narrowing of the passage.  The last one, standing around waiting, happened to look back and his lamp caught the first of several images on the wall.

Some 30 years later a plan was hatched to open a museum to exploit these findings and put them into context for the public, and after 20 years of administrative gestation, a couple of years of construction and nearly 2 million euros of taxpayers' funds, the museum opened to the public this weekend.

We went to an avant-première that was offered for free to locals.  The museum is pretty good.   It covers the natural history of the area from geological time to the present, and the cave paintings and other aspects of human habitation are explained in this context.  The centrepiece is a big cinematic display of a computer model of the cave interior, that you can navigate using a joystick and buttons, in the manner of computer games like The Elder Scrolls or Half Life (complete with sounds of pattering feet when you move).  Nothing to shoot at, though.

Everything has to be 'ludique' these days; 'interactive' is perhaps a good translation, although dictionaries will give you 'playful'.  As well as the computer game cave navigation, there are, for example, reconstructed human and neanderthal skulls, mounted on shafts where you can turn a handle to make them spin.  It saves walking around the case, I guess.   You can also stick your head in different holes in a cupboard to experience the sounds and smells of different local vegetations, which struck me as interesting and innovative.

There is a fair number of security cameras.  I didn't realise, but apparently, some of the exhibits are worth several hundred thousand euro.

The explanatory labels were in English as well as French, with only a few niggly translation faults.  A pendant made from a pebble was described as a pendant on pebble rather than simply a pebble pendant, for example.  These were small faults in a generally well-presented exhibition.

All in all, a decent, little museum; we'll definitely recommend it as a worthwhile visit to the guests who come to stay with us.

Thursday, 9 March 2017


Well the DIY project started in February is still ongoing, with some progress having been made.  The sliding doors are in, and the vertical dividers inside the cupboards are in place, as are some shelves, sliding drawer/baskets, and hanging rails.

The old doors have had a lick of paint, though the curvy top looks out of place and will probably get changed.

The floor remains to be done.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Limoges - the junk shop

I'm not sure that "junk shop" is the politically correct term, but it's one that my father would have used, in complete innocence.  And it certainly applies to this "troc" that we chanced upon just outside of Limoges.  It was vast and full of junk.  It was on the way to a poreclain shop and factory just a bit upstream from Limoges on the Vienne.  We bought some porcelain serving plates there, but the junk shop was interesting too.

I mean, where else can you buy second-hand books for a euro the kilo?  There was an early C.J Cherryh book translated into french, but I'm not that much into sci-fi and Anita decided not to buy it.

That table in solid wood, described as a monastery table, was rather nice.  At €450 I'd have bought it on the spot if I had had the means to transport it.    But on the basis that you can't leave Limoges without buying some porcelain, Anita bought a cat.  (The serving plates don't count, cos they were for the gîte).  Here it is.  One euro from the junk shop.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Limoges - the aquarium

In the penultimate post on Limoges, we visit the aquarium.  Not the biggest in the world by any means, but clean, well-maintained and documented, and interesting.   Well worth a visit.

Spot the alligator.

*Sings*  "If you're down in the sea, and a fish bites your knee, that's.... a Moray.

Finally, these little critters caught my attention.  The Axolotl is a fish found in lakes above 2000 metres in central Mexico.  They reach maturity while still in the larval stage, and can regenerate limbs, eyes, etc in the event of damage.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Limoges - fine lunches

Many french restaurants can be a bit ordinary, but we had lunch at a couple of places, both of which seemed to us to be rather better than the usual.

The first one was this little place called Le Croquembouche.  They claim savoury home-made pies, plus a new menu every day.  We got the last unreserved places when we arrived just after mid-day; always a good sign.

The patron was enthusiastic; polite and professional with strangers like us, and warm in his welcome towards what appeared to be regular customers.  At one point, some regulars came in and one ordered, as part of the meal, a chocolate tart that was in short supply.  So he called the waitress over, apologised to her for interrupting her workflow, and asked her to save one for his guest.  A pro.

When he asked me how I liked my steak, I asked him if it was tender, and he told me yes (Limousin, he said proudly).  I chose rare, and it arrived rare and tender.   Anita also was very pleased with the home-made fish pie that she chose.  All served with a glass of good wine, several options available.  A cut above the average lunchtime diner, not expensive either.

The other restaurant was a pizza place, the Metropolitain, done up to resemble a metro station.  The boss told us that he competes in the international pizza competitions in Italy, though I didn't ask him if he ever won anything.  He served a very fine pizza, fresh ingredients, proper mozzarella cheese.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Electric bikes

When I was a callow youth, I went everywhere by bike.  It's a mode of transport that I like; it keeps me fit, I get to see the coutryside, and it's cheap and eco-friendly.

The coutryside in Mayenne is undulating, cut with lots of river valleys, and the hills are fierce.  That doesn't mean that it's impossible to enjoy pleasant rides, but it does mean that it gets very tiring; I get out of breath and sweaty going up the hills.  That's not a problem if I'm just out for a ride, but if I'm going somewhere where I have to be presentable, it's not good.

I've been looking at electric bikes for a little while, in the hope that they might represent a solution to this problem.  Last weekend we bought one each.  I'm happy with that decision; the electric assist does everything I want: the ride is just like normal, but easier.  And the killer hills to and from my house are now a doddle.

The criteria were different for Anita; she is looking for a leisure bike, a means of gentle, low-impact excercise.  She doesn't have the experience on bikes that I have, so an easy-to-ride bike with smaller wheels is the thing.  She's pleased with hers too.

We bought them from a shop in Le Mans, paying a deposit first and then coming back a few days later to collect them.  They were supposed to be ready, Anita's was, but the lock hadn't been fitted to mine, and the gears were not quite properly aligned, and needed adjusting, something I had asked to be done whey paying the deposit.  So not a perfect score for the shop.

Incidentally, in french, the word for flat in music (as in D flat major, for example) is bémol, which used to just indicate that the B is flat, indicated by the round b: B molle (c.f. german, where a plump, chubby or curvy girl might politely be described as mollig).  The (musical) word for natural is bécarre, that is B carré, or square, indicated by a square-shaped b, the sign for which has acquired a slant and a tail over the years.

This is relevant to bike shopping, because in french, a bémol can indicate a downgrade, a negative, and in the case of our bike shop, un petit bémol could describe their failure to have my bike ready.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Limoges - Museum Adrien Dubouché

Is the French National Porcelain Museum "Adrien Dubouché" the best poreclain museum in the world?  It would not surprise me.

The museum was started in 1845, and is named after a founding father who took over as Director in 1865.  His success in business and consequent wealth allowed him to create what was among the biggest ceramic museums of the 19th century.   The government took over the administration of the museum in 1881 and it has subsequently had large quantities of taxpayers' money poured into it.  It's an impressive building with an impressive collection, and if you visit Limoges, you really should see it.

One of the things that amused me was a work by Ewa Sadoska; a porcelain cast of her nostrils, placed on miniature pedestals in the style of great traditional art.  She is cocking a snook at the pretentions that can surround such art that has a long tradition behind it.

Other examples of her work are shown elsewhere in the museum, so I think she has been forgiven.

If I were ever to meet her, I think we might get on.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Limoges - The old bridge, the railway station

The town of Limoges didn't come across to me as especially pretty.  There are some attractive old buildings, and certain ones, housing for example, the town museum, and the National Porcelain Museum "Adrien Bouché", and the railway station, are seriously impressive.   But you tend have to look at the buildings in isolation, blocking off from your senses the more recent, ugly ones, or other unattractive urban developments.

The old bridge over the river Vienne that runs by, rather than through, the town, is attractive, and the river was millpond calm.

The railway station is quite magnificent, featuring dramatic architecture and stained glass.

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