Wednesday 23 December 2009

Mince pies

A tradition: home-made mince pies. Not a French custom, and they don't know what to call them. Rather, they describe them, as little pies (tartelettes) of dried fruit, but tartelettes don't normally have lids.

Anyway, mixed dried friut, a bit of brandy and a topping of sweetened cream cheese, all wrapped in orange pastry. Yum! I'll take a couple down to Marie and Noel at the Canyon, just to see what they make of them. (And one for myself, to share over coffee) Still warm....

Monday 21 December 2009

Thermal undies

There was a concert this Sunday in the basilica at Evron; a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass. I like this music so I went. The problem with the basilica is that it's big, stone, and usually unheated, and the pews are uncomfortable. I was warned to dress warmly, and bring a cushion. So I did. Good thing, too, considering the snow we've had the last few days.

Great concert, quirky in parts, but enjoyable. The cold was definitely starting to seep through towards the end: I even had to put on my wooly pom-pom hat.

Incidentally, the French would say that the piece was "interpreted" rather than performed. I like this; it implies some added value on the parts of the players.

Thursday 17 December 2009


We had an inch of snow today, the first of the year, so despite the arrival of a snuffly cold I took a short walk to enjoy the cold, the white and the solitude.

I apologise to my blogging pals. I have done a new windows install today and it has lost me all my blog links. I will be back, but please be patient.

Tuesday 15 December 2009


A trip to England to visit relatives and exchange presents has taken me out of circulation for a few days. I have no special diary of events for you, but a few observations and reactions to being there.

Presenting my lovely sister, our host for the weekend. Poor girl, not only did she have to put up with us, but knowing that a trip to England was in the offing, I turned her house into a warehouse during the previous several weeks, with all the stuff I bought by mail order and had shipped to her house to await collection.

This is Stubbington green, which I always think should be home to Pretty Little Polly Perkins. I had to choke back a cheery "bonjour messieurs-dames!" to the lady behind the counter of the Post Office, and had to make do with a passing smile instead. The wife had 37 Christmas cards to post but miscounted, and bought 36 stamps. Given that the queue by this time was even longer, and she would have to had to have spent as long again posting the last letter, was the posting mission 97% successful, or 50% successful or a complete failure?

Fareham is a market town, and used to have an iron foundry. The foundry is commemorated by a sculpture of an anvil hitting itself with hammers, which just makes me think of a hangover. I bought a zip-up fleece for a tenner this time last year and I have practically lived in it indoors this year, so I got another one with a slightly different pattern. Still the same price. Can't be bad.

There is an "all you can eat" curry buffet restaurant in Fareham. I do miss curries. Not that there aren't Indian restaurants in France, I have just never found one that does hot like English ones. Hottest I have found in a french restaurant is the herb and chilli oil you put on pizzas. I ate far too much, even though I only took the tiniest portions of the poppadums, chutneys, rices, curries, to ensure I could sample them all. Best was chicken chilli massala.

Visited my grandma while I was there. She's 96, and her short term memory is shot to bits; non-existent in fact. But she is looked after every day, and seems to be enjoying herself. This stretch of river I call Woodmill and is not far from her house, and I used to fish here with my dad when I was a lad. I like to go and see it when I can, walk along it sometimes, but not this time. Fishing was banned here ages ago, much to my dad's disgust at the time and although there are no "no fishing" signs to be seen any more, there were no fishermen either.

Other impressions? Vegging out on rubbish TV that I don't have to concentrate on to understand. Cracking up when radio one broadcast a snippet of a Very Serious Newsreader getting the giggles as he read the item about a "prankster" who tried to launch a firework rocket from his bottom on bonfire night, and suffered "serious burns and internal injuries". I don't think that "prankster" is the word I'd have chosen, at least in casual conversation. And am I the only person who gets irritated by a radar speed indicator that tells me to slow down whatever speed I am doing? Am I a grumpy old man?

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Rainy day

The rain makes for bleak viewing from the conservatory, but in the corner there is a little Kalanchoe flowering, reminding me of the generosity of the daughter of one of our guests, who gave it to us.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Trip to Nantes - Day 2

The second day of our visit was a short excursion into the main town of Nantes. Nantes was largely flattened by the Allies during WWII, so the architecture is mostly modern, and therefore, almost by definition it seems, ugly. But the chateau is intact and is worth seeing, housing a museum of the town of Nantes. It gives a detailed and fascinating account of the evolution of the town from medieval centre of political power, through busy port, (active in the slave trade), industrial manufacturing city, up to its current incarnation as centre for tourism and bureaucracy.

There is an interesting publication on display; a book called The Black Code. A treatise on the ethical treatment of slaves, its purpose was to reconcile the "Christian" concept that "blacks" are "Children of God" with the idea that they were at the same time an item of household property like a table, horse or barn. It considers questions like "Who do the children belong to, if the father is owned by one master and the mother by another?", or "Can you adopt your children by a slave?" or " Is it OK to mutilate a slave?", and other burning questions of the time. It is a thick little book, densely typed, which perhaps attest to the difficulty of its stated objectives.

Moving out of the castle into less offensive subjects, there was, in the middle of town, quite the finest coffee shop I have ever been in. It was Italian. Featuring genuine hot chocolate drink (28 flavours!), the kind of ice cream for which Italy is justly famous, and coffee strong enough to paralyse a small horse, it was the ideal place to recover.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Trip to Nantes - Day 1

The regional tourism office organised a seminar designed to help people in the tourism industry to make the most of the internet. It was heled in Nantes, a town that the wife and I have been meaning to visit, and it also included a free visit to the "famous" Mechanical Animals of Nantes, as an added incentive. So we set off early for the seminar, and stayed overnight afterwards.

It has been a long time since I sat through a business conference, and it reminded me how much I dislike them. Not that they're not useful, I just wish there was a better way of getting the information than sitting down for half-day stretches and listening to someone talk.

The conference centre was fancy, perhaps the best-equipped I have been in. A microphone per person, one screen per two people, CCTV, the lot. The morning presentation was interesting, an enthusiastic consultant expounding on the increasing use of social networks (e.g. tripadvisor, facebook) by tourists in selecting places to stay. That reminds me, I must try to get more of our guests writing us up on tripadvisor. (Search for Domaine des Hallais)

Ultimately, I found the day frustrating. The tourism office spent a long time telling us what they had done in 2009, and what they are going to do in 2010, and nothing about what they have achieved nor what they are planning to achieve.

The mechanical animals were something else; huge mechanical contraptions, steam and electric powered, made from wrought iron and plywood. They have a Jules Verne-like victorian air, which is appropriate since Verne was born in Nantes. I especially liked the elephant, and the sense of humour in the little boat. The yellow raincoats on the volunteers in the boat are not for show. They got drenched.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Lights On

Yesterday was the switching-on ceremony for the Christmas lights in Laval. This always includes a big firework display, so we went with friends to see the show and have a meal afterwards.

It rained hard all evening. We parked a short distance away, and made our way down the wet and shining street to join the crowd on one of the bridges over the river, below the castle, to get a good view.

The show was great, as we expected, and lasted about 20 minutes. I was surprised that the downpour didn't seem to dampen the fireworks, which were most impressive.

After the fireworks, we all bundled into a local restaurant for steak and chips, and on the way back we passed under the bridge, now proudly displaying its lights. But the brightest part of the evening was these enthusiastic buskers sheltering in a shopfront, whose spirits defied the damp and cold, playing "Mon Amant de St Jean" to anyone who would listen.

Tuesday 24 November 2009


I can well remember the last time I got flu. I was on a skiing holiday. We all arrived in our catered chalet and all the staff were down with it. Great. I lasted until Wednesday.

It's the only illness I can remember catching, where my temperature went to 105 and I had hallucinations. Well, more like an inability to separate my dreaming from wakefulness, with the result that I ended up patiently explaining to the wife that I didn't need any aspirin, thank you, because the monks were now looking after me just fine. You really don't want to catch flu.

The French government has bought enough H1N1 vaccine for two shots for the entire population, and has been rolling out a campaign of vaccination. It started with health-care workers, then extended to children, and elderly and vulnerable people. Since I am diabetic, I am classed as vulnerable.

As a target for the early roll-out, I should have received a voucher for my jab in the post. I have not. When the wife explained this to the doctor he got quite upset and scribbled a letter that I was to take to the vaccination centre. There, I was expecting some jobsworth behind a desk to tell me "no voucher, no jab", but having explained my situation and shown them the doctor's letter (they couldn't read his writing) they printed me out a voucher, and I got my vaccination right away. Apparently about 40% of people who turn up at the vaccination centre do so without a voucher, and if they're not busy they will cater for you whether you are classed as vulnerable or not.

Today I feel a bit under the weather. My left shoulder hurts, I was a bit shivery this morning, and my eyes are sore. But I'd much rather be being looked after by a vaccine than my monks.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Strange Light

Storm clouds and low bright sunshine illuminate the trees in my garden

Thursday 19 November 2009


I've been busy in the garden these last few days. The last of the Dahlia tubers have been dug up and put into storage to save them from the frosts. And this pheasant has been strutting round the garden recently. He is spared from being shot, at least for the time being, because there is a hunters' amnesty to allow stocks to recover.

Sunday 15 November 2009


There is a grand chateau at Chenonceau in the Loire valley (actually it's built on the river Cher) and the wife has been itching to visit for ages. So this Sunday morning with nothing on the agenda and a sunny start to the day, we decided to go. This being a famous tourist attraction, you can find out most of what you want to know from their website. (Click here) So, some impressions just for you, my avid reader, and perhaps some pictures you won't find in the guide books.

I am always intrigued by the effects of time and wear in old buildings like these, so I was pleased to spot some floor tiles in unfrequented corners that showed their original patterns.

This gallery is the part of the chateau that spans the river - not nearly as broad as you might think but quite long. The black and white floor tiles are of different stone (slate and tuffeau respectively), and the white is less durable than the black. So the white ones are worn concave, and the black ones convex. Walking on them feels odd.

The chateau has an extensive and well-kept garden and plant nursery, and they use these to provide spectacular "daily" flower displays in the chateau rooms. Here are some.

And, well, you've just got to have some views of the gardens, haven't you?

Finally, this cheeky chappie was looking down on us in the gift shop. I thought it was a beaver but the label told me it is a ragondin, or coypu. Farmers where I live hate coypus because they are big (shaped like a rat, about 2ft long in the body and with a tail equally long) and they eat crops. I came across a cage on one of my walks by the river not so long ago, and as I was inspecting it, a guy appeared from in the bushes and told me it was a ragondin trap. Why the long chain I asked, attaching it to a metal spike driven into the ground? That's so that once you've caught the ragondin and drowned it, you can pull the trap back out of the river.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Journée Calendrier

During my first year here in France, some time before Christmas, the postman turned up in the afternoon, not his usual time. He had no letters with him, but was carrying a calendar that he gave to me. I thanked him and he went away. I was a bit puzzled, but, there you go, sometimes French habits seem a bit strange.

I learnt later that handing out calendars in exchange for a voluntary donation is a time-honoured way of raising money for charitable purposes; it is the equivalent of the Christmas tip. I made up for my mistake the following year, of course.

Having joined the Harmonie of St Suzanne more recently, I discovered that we have a calendar sale, and today was the day. We split up into teams, and three of us, Aurélie, Nico and I covered an estate not far from the St Suzanne castle.

Impressions first of the friendliness. A person will either buy a calendar or not, and if they do, they will invite you inside for a chat, and to complete the transaction. Vegetable plots almost everywhere, and the occasional old farm tool, many if not most speaking of a farmer in retirement who can't break the habit.

And sarcastic somments from my team-mates who observed that there is no single word in English that means éclaircie (in the context of weather, that is: sunny interval) but plenty of words for awful weather. We were caught in a shower at the time.....

After the sales campaign, a great communal lunch, then back home to find that lightning or a power surge had fried my router, so this post is courtesy of my ancient emergency back-up. I need the internet to order a new one, of course. If the backup fries, I'm stuffed.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Nothing Much Happened Today

When I was a lad, I got given a diary for Christmas. Not my favourite present, and I even think this happened more than once. I was encouraged to "keep a diary" and to "write something in it every day". I started dutifully on Jan 1st, and vowed to keep it up. Things get difficult of course when you're back at school, since, as we all know, nothing happens at school:

- "What did you do at school today?"
- "Nothing."

After a few weeks I was struggling, but managed to write something every day. So I never really understood why my Dad wet himself laughing when he observed my entry for the day (probably some time in February) "Nothing much happened today".

So today being an ordinary day, nothing much happened. I woke, did my flute scales, the went with the wife into the village to pick up our laundered bed linens (for the gîte) from the village hall where they get delivered by the laundry, except they weren't there. She sent them an email.

Then I went down the the bar-restaurant down the road for a morning coffee with Marie, who doesn't charge me, and to try to find Jean-Claude so that I can invite him and his wife to dinner. I have been trying to phone Jean-Claude for a couple of days and he hasn't been answering his phone, but I have seen his car about.

Marie doesn't know where Jean-Claude is, but Karine in the tourist office tells me he's somewhere along the river clearing the banks. So I go in search, chatting to a couple of fishermen on the way who are fishing, I think, for Perch:
- Catch anything?
- Nope
- What you fishing for?
- Perch
- Are there many in this river?
- Dunno
- We'll find out

I find Jean-Claude upstream, he is with a co-worker, cutting brushwood, and has a big trailer-load of it ready to burn. Brushwood is ideal for shredding; I use the shreddings to cover my flower beds to keep the weeds down, and I persuade him to deliver this and subsequent loads to my car park, to save him having to burn it.

We decide Thursday evening for dinner, but he has to check with his wife first.

We discover that when I phoned him, his phone rang but didn't connect, so I make a mental note to do a test to see if it's his phone or mine has the problem. Back home a simple trial reveals that it must be his phone with the problem, so I must remember to tell him.

In the afternoon, I dig up my gladioli. They're not frost-hardy so the Winter is likely to kill them if I don't find somewhere cool, dry and frost-free to store them.

I am sure that every year I have fewer and fewer Glads. Apart from the obvious conclusion that some die, I have no idea why.

Canna Lillies are also supposed to be killed by frost, but since I have had almost no success keeping them alive in storage overwinter, I have decided, by contrast, to try to overwinter these plants in the ground this year. I will cover them with a thick insulating layer of the wood shreddings I make from the brushwood pile, and see if they have any better luck getting through the Winter this way. It can't be worse than trying to store them.

And oh yes, the chimney sweep came. You're in trouble in France if your house burns down and you haven't had the chimney swept for more than a year. You're probably in a spot of bother anyway, but without the certificate from the sweep, your insurance company will add to your woes, and claim the French equivalent of "contributory negligence", contesting your claim.

So not much happened really. What shall I do this evening?
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