Friday 31 July 2009

Short Break - Day2

We've got a boat trip round the gulf planned for this afternoon, with lunch thrown in, so that's half the day sorted. The morning? It's sunny, and who wants to have breakfast in a boring hotel full of stressed and distracted business people, when you can go out and have fresh, buttery croissants and coffee, sitting in the sunshine?

And it's market day! A nice pure wool sweater for me, only 35 euros from a lovely English lady, so a natter too, for good measure. It goes nicely with my indigo denhim jeans..... that, on reflection, I have relegated to gardening use, since they got holes in from swimming pool chemicals. Note to self: get new pair of indigo jeans to go with my new sweater.

Then a wander round the pedestrianised parts of Vannes. Buskers, art shops, little boutiques. A jazz band... and is that a tuba for the bass line? Seems to work, anyway!

Then, on to the port for the trip round the gulf. Islands, boats, wind, salt air, and sunshine off the water making moving silver jewellery. The pink house marks the entrance to the river leading into Vannes. If you own it, you can't recolour it, because it's on all the nautical maps. On past the restaurant where we ate the evening before, and out into deeper water. A long trip round the islands, a stop-off on the Isle des Moines, and back to Vannes.

And a special treat, as we came in: a dolphin playing with the boat!

Finally, at the end of the day, a jazz band in a bistrot. Everything such a band should be: skillful, entertaining, amusing.

Thursday 30 July 2009

Short Break - Day1

Where to go for a short break? I love the sea! That doesn't mean I need to be on it, miles from land, although that's fine. But I like shorelines, islands, estuaries, little bays, rock pools, wet feet, cliffs, gulls, fishing boats and yachts. And seafood. And sailboards, since I spent many years windsurfing.

So, off to the gulf of Morbihan, the town of Vannes, to a clean and anonymous business hotel. And islands, and sea, boats.....

View Larger Map

But first, on the way, the town of Josselin, and a big castle inhabited by the Duke and Duchess of Rohan (do they ride, I wonder?), on the banks of the Brest-Nantes canal. And a church tower with 138 steps in a spiral, narrow and steep. You miss your footing, you'll feel every single one on the way down.

Then, on to Vannes. Check into the hotel, then where to go? Look, there's a place called Arradon Point.... I bet that's a good place to go and see the sea. And for sure they'll have somewhere you can sit and have a beer and watch. And maybe if we're lucky, a nice restaurant where we can have a good seafood dinner.

There they all were, what delight. Paddlers, windsurfers, yachts, fishing boats, all moving with the incoming tide. A shoreside bar to watch them from, beer in hand. And when hunger drives, a restaurant overlooking the water, to view the rising tide, the dusking sky, and enjoy what must be one of the best meals of my life. Deep joy.

Monday 27 July 2009


I didn't know this was a plum tree: the first year it did nothing at all, the second year it made a few tiny, hard green marbles that fell off. This year it is festooned with plums. They have a different flavour if you eat them straight from the tree. Not more sweet than what you buy in the shops, but different, tastier.

The double hollyhocks look like little powder puffs threaded onto a string.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Mayenne Towpath

A perfect Sunday morning, not too hot, but sunny and calm. A day for putting the newly-fixed bikes to the test, with a ride along the Mayenne river.

Afterwards, a coffee in a riverside café in town. Great start to a Sunday.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Bike Repair

As a youth I used to ride my bike everywhere. It kept me fit while I was young, and the general decline in my fitess that lasted until my mid-40s began with the winning of my driving licence. My bike took me everywhere I needed to go, these places not normally being farther than, say, ten miles away. It was my transport; to get anywhere I either rode my bike or walked. As a consequence, I know a lot about bike maintenance.

It looks like the the wife and I might be using our bikes on a upcoming holday, so I checked out our much-neglected off-road bikes. Mine was OK, but hers, having been lent to a young guest at our gîte recently had a flat back tyre, and the tyre itself had a number of bits on the tread that were worn away, where the toerag had skidded it as far as he could. So, off to get a new tyre, and suss out the leak(s)in the inner tube.

Mending a leak in an inner tube, is not difficult, in principle. You find the leak, clean the area around it using sandpaper, apply a very thin layer of rubber solution, and stick a patch on it. In practice it's harder. To find the leak, you inflate the tube and dunk it in water and see where the bubbles come from. Works like a charm. But as soon as the tube is out of the water, you can't see the leak any more. So you mark it with an "X" using a coloured wax crayon while it's under the water, except the crayon never puts the "X" exactly where the leak is.

Assuming you have a reasonably good fix on the leak, you take the tube out and clean the area around the leak with sandpaper, which makes it clean enough, but promptly erases the crayon mark. So you hope your leak is more or less in the centre of the cleaned bit, when you apply the rubber solution. You apply the smallest drop to the centre of the cleaned area, and then spread it around as thinly as you can with a finger. If you spread it properly, you get a nice circle of solution right around the leak. Now you apply the patch. It should stick.

Getting the tube back in place is easy, the tyre is difficult. You're not supposed to use tyre levers because this stretches the rim, so you have to push it on with your fingers. This can be done, with some effort, even if you have squashed one of your fingers the day before, fighting rock fairies.

Then you pump it up, only to discover that it deflates in half a day because the leak has has managed to be a millimetre away from the patch. It has happened.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Pumpkin Borg

I bought the seeds innocently enough, but the plants seem to have taken over my veg patch. The pumpkins. I suppose I knew they tend to make big plants, but this was supposed to be a smaller variety, and the instructions said plant them one metre apart so I figured they wouldn't get too big. But they've taken over. And the galia melon, watermelon and butternut squash plants that I swear I planted at the same time seem to have disappeared. Destroyed or assimilated by malevolent pumpkins! These pumpkins must be the Borg in disguise.

As a child I never made a pumpkin lantern, a serious omission in any western upbringing, I think. So, assuming that it ripens properly, this one in the picture will be hollowed out, carved, have a candle placed inside, and be used for some fun illumination.

Fench for Pumpkin is (le) potiron, which I just think has a nice sound to it :)

Tuesday 21 July 2009

I hate the rock fairy

I've been spending a lot of time pick-axeing a new section of a flower bed I've been developing. You can see here how far I have got. It's boring work, the ground is rock-hard due to lack of rain, and so I decided to do something else for a while.... Something easier, something quick, something to give me a sense of satisfaction, of a task completed in a few short hours or perhaps a couple of days.

There is a heap of stones that has been annoying me in the garden, so for a bit of light relief, I decided to get rid of it. It used to support a statue I think, but it's no use to me, and I can use the stones in it to extend my dry stone wall. And since, I thought, it's just a heap of stones, I should be able to shift it in a day or so. I figured without the badass rock fairies.

The thing looks like a dry stone construction, but that's just a rock fairy trick. At the centre, they have stuck the whole lot together with concrete. Great big dollops of it.

So I have spent two days on it with a slegehammer so far, and I think I have about 4 more to go. And since it now looks spectacularly ugly, I've got to finish it so the garden can start to look normal again.

What do rock fairies like?

Friday 17 July 2009


A quiet day today. I went for a walk this morning to clear my head, get some air, and to remind myself why I chose to live here. I managed to avoid the thunder showers that have been plaguing this part of Europe today, but when I got back to my place, I discovered a couple of geological surveyors in my field, doing what you might expect....surveying. I could tell, from the long, white pole one of them was carrying like a tightrope balancing pole, and the fact that he wasn't on a tightrope.

The nearby village of Saulges was bathed in sunlight against a dark cloud

I introduced myself as the owner of the field and asked the what they were up to, and they explained that they had been asked by the archaeologists digging the prehistoric caves nearby to see if they could find any more caves, and they were looking at all the fields they could in the area. So once permissions were sought and given, they carried on.

This isn't a very good picture, because it's of a dull computer screen in daylight, but it shows clearly, the "anomaly" they found; the big red/green area at the top left of the screen. It is an area of reduced ground resistivity, and they thought it might represent a collapsed cave roof that has filled with soil. So they came back in the afternoon to do a more sophisticated test.

This pic shows the tape measure they laid out on the ground through the centre of the anomaly, and the cable they connected up to probes hammered into the ground along its length. This will give them an accurate measure of soil resistivity to a much greater depth than the computer screen image above.

Here are the surveyors with their cunning measuring device They promised to drop round tomorrow to tell me what they discover.

A little bit of brooding, thundery atmosphere :)

They returned as promised, and the image below shows the results they got. I have tilted it so that you get an idea of the slope of the land. The blue area is soil (low resistivity) and you can see this layer of soil on top on the rocks (red). It looks like water has eroded a basin in the rocks, and the brown area leading away from the bottom left hand edge of the blue is perhaps where the water soaks away.

They did another measurement today, at 90 degrees to this one, through the middle of the brown area, about where the yellow splodge is. This to see if the water is soaking away through fissures or perhaps some form of tunnel. They said they'd send me the picture they get and if they do, I'll post it on the blog.

Preventative medicine

I admit, I have been putting it off. Here in France, once you reach the age of 50, you are automatically enrolled into their anti-bowel cancer programme. Once every two years, you get a little kit of sticks onto which you are supposed to put a stool sample. These get sent off for analysis, and they tell you if you have a possible problem or not.

It's a smelly and unpleasant process. You have to shit into a pot, take two samples, one from each end, over a period of three days. During this time you are not supposed to eat black pudding (a blood-based sausage) nor take vitamine C. I have done this procedure once before, two years ago, but this time the kit has sat in my action tray for about three weeks, while I procrastinate.

Given how much better an early diagnosis is than a late one, for all concerned, I really must get up off my metaphorical backside (as it were) and do it. I should be grateful, really.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Bastille Day

Today is the 14th July, the day when France celebrates a symbolic event in the formation of the nation: the storming of the Bastille. Sorry if my blog is starting to sound like a catalogue of musical events, but we did a celebration concert last night, finishing with fireworks. No more concerts until September, I promise!

On the subject of fireworks, my thoughts turn to a firework display I saw years ago at the end of a rowing regatta at Marlow, not far from High Wycombe, where I used to live.

We had had a lot of the usual rockets, whizzz-bangs, etc, lighting up the sky with rainbow colours, all the normal stuff. And then they let off a firework that was quite strange by comparison. All it did was create a large, vertical rugby-ball-shaped space (perhaps 6 or 7 metres high) containing nothing but flashing white fires that winked in and out of existence, and tiny white sparkly Catherine wheels that must have been on little parachutes because they were suspended in the air. Pretty, but a bit ordinary?

Then in a flash I saw the universe evolving in a God's-eye view, the spiral galaxies whirling their lives away in seconds, stars being born, living and dying in the blink of an eye. If I said that time stood still, I'd be wrong because technically, it was speeded up. But you know what I mean.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Musical saturday

A busy Saturday, music-wise. The morning and early afternoon fully occupied by a wedding not far away. I can never decide if Wedding Vows are beautiful and moving, or just plain stupid. Perhaps it's because they're a bit of both that they're special. Anyway the bride was plumping for the moving option, since she had trouble getting the words out, crying as she was.

The Harmonie played its usual supporting rôle, playing stirring or calm music at appropriate points. But this wedding was a bit different, in that the couple decided not to have the usual piano/organ accompaniment to the songs, but instrumentalists from the band instead. So two flutes (Mad Lucy and I) and two trombones (Gilles and Laurent) accompanied the hymns. You might think the trombones would drown the flutes, but they're far enough apart in pitch that both carried well. And I could play the two-part close harmony, which I love to do, with Lucy :)

Home for lunch, then almost immediately off to the Medieval Festival at St Suzanne. A carnival of medieval things, featuring dancing, performances of dogs, horses, mock swordfights, concerts and so on. The Harmonie got togged up in medieval costume and played a programme of medieval music that Gilles had slaved over for weeks to produce. We had only had one rehearsal, but it all went swimmingly.

The motley crew known as the Harmonie of St Suzanne, in medieval costume. Would you buy a used car (or tune) from this bunch? (Click on the image to see a larger version)

And as an afternote, today, Sunday, my veg patch is yielding even more strawberries, and what I am pleased to call space-ship squash cos they look like flying saucers. Should be nice for dinner tonight.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

The shape of a kiss

For no reason at all today, my thoughts turned to a joke that was originally told me by, of all people, my maths teacher. John "Sooty" Cole taught me, amongst other things, co-ordinate geometry at school. This is the kind of geometry where X-squared plus Y-squared = R-squared describes a circle. Other formulae apply to ellipses, parabolas and so on.

So there we were, up to our ears in X-squareds and so on and he pipes up with: "What shape is a kiss?" We were a bit taken aback. This was our maths teacher, not known for sexuality of any kind (impossible in someone as old as his mid-thirties, anyway), and he's asking a serious question or telling a joke?

The answer is elliptical (A lip tickle) Anyway it made me smile, and if it makes you smile, that's cool too.
Have a nice day :)


I'm waiting for a potential client to arrive. He phoned this morning from Angers, said he'd be passing, looking for a place for a family re-union next year. Sounds like our thing, so he's coming round later this morning.

Meanwhile, the hollyhocks are growing like weeds. This particular specimen must be a good 4 metres high. I like the single ones for their pure pink-to-red shades, and the double ones are like strings of powder puffs. You do have to spray them against rust fungus though, which would otherwise be devastating.

Monday 6 July 2009

Exchange Visit to Waremme, Belgium

An ex-player with the Harmonie of St Suzanne left to study Veterinary Medicine at Waremme in Belgium. He joined the equivalent of the Harmonie there, the Ensemble Instrumentale Waremmien, (EIM) and being an enterprising sort of person, he organised an exchange visit. They came to visit us last year, and this year it was our turn to be entertained at Waremme. I have just had a fantastic weekend.

We started off from St Suzanne at 3:00 by coach on the Friday morning, and spent an "away-day" in Bruges, which is almost on the way to Waremme, but not quite. I'm sure you can find out all there is to know about Bruges from all the usual tourist guides, but let me confirm: Belgian beer is as good as they say, and so are the chocolates. We did all the normal tourist things; a boat trip on the canals, a visit to a small local brewery, traditional mussels and chips for lunch, and a guided tour of the town. And do visit the Church of Our Lady, where you can see the Madonna and Child, one of the few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy. It is grace in marble, and the expression on the Madonna's face is special.

From Bruges to Liège (not far from Waremme) for an overnight at a youth hostel. There were 45 or so in our party, and we were split between 8 or so rooms, 4-6 people to a room. Now I presumed that the French are cool with assigning two couples, a single guy and a single woman to a tiny 6-bed, basic, youth-hostel room, because when the list of assignments of people to rooms was read out, nobody turned a hair.

I was exhausted, and not up for decision-making by committee, so I climbed up the wooden scaffolding to the top bunk that no-one else seemed to want, slid under the duvet, took off my trousers and t-shirt, lobbed them over the side, checked they had landed on my case, and slept in my underpants.

So what I want to know, is what's the etiquette for a morning greeting, when you've just climbed down from the bunk, arse-first in your underpants, like a monkey on a climbing frame, to greet the wife of 70-odd year old musician colleague? I just figured that a cheery "Bonjour" would have to do, while I rummaged in my case for a T-shirt, trousers and toiletries bag before disappearing for a much-needed shave and shower.

It turned out later, that perhaps there is no etiquette for such situations. The lady travelling singly also sharing the room told me that after I had crashed, everyone sat around Not Looking At Each Other, wondering how they were going to get to bed.

From Liège to Waremme where we were greeted by the wonderful people who were to be our hosts for the next two days. They played to greet us as we arrived, served us a wonderful barbequeue, and led us on a treasure hunt that showed off their town. We then split up to join our respective individual hosts who were putting us up for the night.

I spent a lovely evening in the company of musician colleagues, in the house of Danny (short for Danielle) and Francis, the conductor of the EIM. As part of a wonderful meal, Danny served us a starter of sweet, juicy melon, thin slivers of ham, and a liqueur I'd have sworn was port, but is in fact made from wine, alcohol and green walnuts. I have some walnut trees around, so I am going to try to make some. Here is the recipie, courtesy of Danny. You take:
20 green walnuts
7 litres red wine
1.5 Kg sugar
1 litre 95% alcohol.

You cut the nuts, mix in with all the other ingredients and let it steep for three months, shaking or agitating from time to time to dissolve all the sugar. Then filter it (a paper coffee filter will do) and there you have it. I'll let you know how I get on making it.

We finished off the evening telling rude jokes. I found this a bit difficult, since the punch lines often escaped me. But once someone had translated "chastity belt" into French for me ("ceinture de chastété) I was able to make a contribution in the form of a joke steeped in Arthurian legend, crusades, Guinnevere, merlin, and a magic chastity belt.

The next day we were off to the Château de Jehay for a joint concert performance. Waremme played first, we played second, and then we did a joint performance. Great fun.

Another fabulous lunch, then off to a cherry festival, since it's cherry harvest time. The Banda of St Suzanne played a short series of numbers, and we all had cherries to eat, and cherry beer. And normal beer, too. At the end of the afternoon the weather broke, so departure was in the rain.

So here I am again at home, with 175 photographs and no small number of short video clips, attempting the impossible, which is to explain to you what a fabulous weekend it was, what wonderful people our hosts were, and how they made the weekend very special.

Ex-Cep-Tion-ELLE thanks to Danny and Francis. Here, a farewell in the rain.
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