Thursday 27 December 2012

Good book

I picked up a reference to this book on a blog that I was passing through recently.  It was included in a list that the blog writer had read and was recommending, and since I have an interest in China, her politics and how she is starting to make herself felt, I thought I'd take a look.

It is a thoroughly researched, detailed, clear and articulate exposition of China's past, current status, and  extrapolations and predictions as the what the future might hold.  It's as excellent a political book as I have ever read.   See other reviews here.   If the subject is of interest, don't hesitate.

Monday 24 December 2012

Pushing envelopes

I have been nervous playing music in front of an audience ever since I can remember.  I still vividly remember the terror of a school concert where, as a teenager, I played a Chopin waltz on the piano.

Since those times my working life often involved giving formal presentations to large audiences, and although I was nervous in the early days, my technique improved over time.  In the end, although I would sometimes get a bit nervous before presenting, this would never get in the way of a good result.   So it came as a surpirse (and a considerable disappointment) when, the first time I played my flute in front of an audience, the terror struck again.  I was shaking so much that my trembling jaw made its own, completely uncontrollable vibrato, and the overall result was, of course, a disaster.

In the grand scheme of things, not being able to play for an audience is not, at least for me personally, a big thing: it's not as if I'm ever going to be a professional musician.    But I find it frustrating not being able to share my love of a piece of music with a wider audience.  What's more, other people play in public without being reduced to gibbering wrecks, so it's clearly a personal, internal barrier that belongs to me.  So I set about trying to get rid of it.

I tried hypnotherapy, counselling, and above all, practice at getting out and playing.  The music school here is especially helpful, since they hold little informal concerts at the end of every term, and one is simply expected to play.  We have also hosted a couple of the flute courses run by the inspiring teacher Wissam Boustany here at Les Hallais.  Wissam is a firm believer in playing from memory, or "by heart" if you like, and the wonderful concert he held at the end of his recent course inspired me to go for it.

So here, warts and all, is my first ever renditiion of flute music, in front of an audience and from memory.  The rehearsal was better than the concert, and the video isn't really as good as the concert, but such is the way of things.  2 Romances, from Op94 by Schumann.  With thanks to Wissam and to Sandrine, the wonderful pianist.

Friday 21 December 2012

Top marks to Maxwell and Williams

We chose Maxwell & Williams' White Basics range of crockery for the gîte.  It has a simple elegance that we both like, and being off-white, goes with any colour of furnishings or table setting.  However there is a problem that we didn't thnk about when choosing it: there are no French-based suppliers.

Breakages are inevitable, and to replenish our stocks this year, we had to have the new items sent to my sister's place in England, and pick them up when we went over.  (Thanks, sis, we're always grateful).  It happened that we ordered the necessary items at the end of October, and picked them up during our recent trip, in the middle of December.

The crockery was superbly packed but despite this there were two chipped plates.  These things happen.  So I telephoned the supplier (International Home Goods Ltd in Thrapston, the Maxwell & Williams distributor), explained the situation, and they shipped two replacement plates to arrive next day at our friends' house where we would then be staying.  They duly arrived.

Later on, we looked for, but didn't find, an invoice in the original box, so a second telephone call resulted in an electronic copy by email within the hour.

I reckon that this is excellent service.  The crockery shipped in October and we didn't collect it until December, and as far as IHG know, we could have been using it since then, and broken the plates playing frisbee.  No quibbles, and replacements that arrived on time, which was important since we were only there for one day.  First class.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Missing food

Our trip to the UK this last weekend was hugely enjoyable.  Visits to friends, family, with the special extra of celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary.  The wedding itself was organised in a bit of a rush, since we realised fairly late in the day that we were going to have been together for 25 years, and to hit the right date, we had to get our skates on.  So the centrepiece of the trip was a 3-star Michelin dinner and overnight stay at the Roux brothers' Waterside Inn at Bray, where we got married.

We commented that of the things we thought we might miss in moving to France, good food was not on the list.  And yet the impression whilst we were back in England was that we hadn't eaten so well since, well, the last time we were in England.  We ate fish 'n chips, a curry, a burger (Burger King, char-grilled), Chinese, Thai, as well as French.  Had we had any room left on the way to the ferry on Sunday night, there is also an excellent pizza take-away right near the Portsmouth ferry terminal.

OK, France doesn't do fish 'n chips, you wouldn't expect it.  And they do do burgers (Mac's and Quick are in Laval, but not Burger King, the best of the lot in my view), and if you want more American options, KFC have recently installed themselves, and there is a Buffalo Grill American-style steak/beef restaurant chain too.   And if you fancy Italian there is a perfectly acceptable Pizza Del Arte chain in Laval.  I should also mention chinese-style places too, often of Vietnamese origins.  They are all fine, and if you want French, there are all levels, including Michelin stars to be found.

Pictures: The chippie where we bought the fish & chips, and the seafront at Warsash where we ate them.

And yet.....

The fish 'n chips was perfect; freshly cooked in crisp seasoned batter, the Chinese take-away organised by our friends was not only delicious but delivered to their house.  The Thai, in an invisible Harry-Potter style space between two pubs, was beautifully spiced and presented (and available at 2:45 on a Sunday afternoon too).   Even the French food in England was better than anything we have eaten anywhere in France (though to be fair, more expensive too).

I accept that this comparison doesn't hold for Paris, and probably other big cities too, where you can get superb cuisine of all kinds.  Perhaps no small part of the difference is because we are, of our own choosing, out in the sticks.   Well, fair enough.  If you can find sticks to be out in in England these days, perhaps the choice and quality is limited there too. And perhaps I'm simply missing the spicy flavours, but I don't think it's just that.

But one thing I will say for sure.  The idea that the food available every day to the average person in England is in any way inferior to that available to the French isn't just outdated; it's just plain wrong.  If anything, it's the other way round.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Colour clash

Blue and green should not be seen
Without a colour in between.

Looks OK to me.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Decisions, decisions

We're always on the lookout for ways of promoting our gîte in a cost-effective way.   Being a large-ish place with catering provided, and best suited to groups, it doesn't lend itself to standard holiday promotion vehicles.  So we keep our eyes and ears open.

I got a spam phone call from a part of Ryanair yesterday.  The gist of the spiel was something like "we don't have enough places of your size in your area, so would you like us to promote you to our clients"   Well, yes, if it doesn't cost anything.

Now I don't know about you, but I tend to assume that someone who says "your size" and "your area" doesn't in fact know where you are or what size you are.   A second red flag is that Ryanair are trying to sell me something.  Mr O'Leary has a reputation for financial astuteness, so I'm figuring that in any deal between me and Ryaniar, I might well come off worse unless I keep my wits about me.

So it turns out that this guy is basically flogging space on a Ryanair holiday website, and he persuaded me to at least take a look at it, so I did.  After all, it might just be worth going for.  It looked pretty standard holiday stuff to me, and not really appropriate for what we do, but out of curiosity, I contacted one of the advertisers and asked them if the site worked for them.  This is the reply I got:

"No, always on vacation has not brought one single enquiry let alone a booking.
It's rubbish as far as I'm concerned."

Now it could be that this proprietor has found the Ryanair website to be a real goldmine and is lying through his teeth to keep the secret.  After all, I have no way of verifying what he said.   And a random sample of one can hardly be expected to be representative either.   But those are both risks that I'm prepared to take.   Some decisions are easier than others.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Eye question

We have (at least some of us, I guess) seen at some time, a diagram of the human eye focusing an image on the retina.  The image appears upside-down.   This is not a problem because the brain simply interprets the top of the eyeball as represening "down", the same direction as the feet, and the pull of gravity.

The brain's ability to "correct" or interpret this image has been demonstrated by getting people to wear prismatic glasses that invert the image back to "the right way up" on the retina.  People took a couple of weeks, but adjusted to it.

Now the human eyeball is basically a sphere, give or take a bulge at the lens, and the junction with the optic nerve.  It is rotationally symmetric about a line drawn from the centre of the lens to the opposite point on the back of the eye.  So images on the retina are inverted left to right as well.   Now there is no asymmetry to left/right like there is for up/down, so does the brain also correct for left/right reflection?  If it didn't for some of us, how would we know?  And would it matter?  How about left-handed people?   Am I missing something obvious here?

Monday 3 December 2012

Notes on a Galaxy Note

I have had a Samsung Galaxy II smartphone for a while now, and more recently, a Google Nexus tablet.  My wife has been enviously eyeing my Kindle app, the games, the stereo remote control, the pocket torch and all the other gizmos that you can get with Android.  But she doesn't want to carry two devices around, so she decided to get herself a Samsung Galaxy Note II, its intermediate size being neither too big to be a phone nor too small to be a book reader.   The stylus and handwriting recognition is a plus too.  This post is the story of its purchase and commission.

Why now?

Anita has had a very old (non-smart) mobile phone for a while, on a pay-as-you-go contract from Carrefour, a supermarket chain.  She never used it much; it was mostly for emergencies, and, if I'm honest, it was often out of earshot, or had a flat battery, or was left at home, or there was some other reason why just at that particular moment, it wasn't actually useful for anything.   However, it had "minutes" available to spend, if needs be.

Recently, Anita found that her spare minutes of credit had disappeared.   On going to the Carrefour website, she learned that the contract had been taken over by Orange, and in doing so, her accumulated credits had been zeroed.   Not happy; no text messages of warning, no announcement, or letter received, nothing.   But, with a 70 euro voucher if she bought a Galaxy Note before 1st December, perhaps now was the time to indulge.

Why Orange lost the deal.

Orange operate the network for my mobile phone, and they also provide the internet ADSL line to the house, so they are well-placed for additional business.  Also, when I bought the phone a couple of years ago, I walked into the Orange shop in Laval, and walked out a while later, somewhat poorer, but with a fully-working phone.   This might sound trivial, but it can be hard to achieve in France.

The bottom line for Orange is that they didn't do any low-usage, low-cost mobile phone deals.  Nor did they offer any kind of all-in-one internet-plus-two-phones deal that might have made them attractive.  They do do a complicated business package that, since we run a gîte, we could have gone for, but I run the WiFi service for gîte customers down the same line, I manage the firewall and security, and these require some specific settings in the ADSL router.  I have encountered Orange tech support before, and I simply don't trust that shower to install a new "Livebox" (internet router, Ethernet switch, and generally useful gadget) to my satisfaction, and to get it running without at least a week of stress and probably no internet connection for at least the same period of time.

In the end, I tend to hold that if they can't be bothered to meet the needs of their existing customers, I can't be bothered to deal with them.

Why Free didn't get the deal

We therefore walked into the Free shop in Laval when they opened after lunch on Tuesday afternoon.  We only had to wait until 2:30.   Now I like Free as an outfit.  I read somewhere that France is the most profitable country in all of Europe for mobile phone operators.  I wonder how that happens?  Free is the upstart, the newcomer, and you could tell that they were offering something the public wanted and that the cozy cartel didn't like, by they way the mainstream media attacked them when they had some teething troubles arising from the enormous takeup when they launched.

Free has also been attacking the "all-in-one" phone-plus-connection deals offered by the other operators, on the basis that it includes a hidden phone hire-purchase agreement, and should therefore publish interest rates, etc.  An interesting argument; they have a point, it will be interesting to see how that pans out.  In the mean time, Free will do you a credit deal on a Galaxy Note, and then sell you the data+voice connection that you want.

A notice on the door advertising an urgently-needed sales assistant didn't promise a speedy service, but we were second in the shop so we only had to hang about for about 15 minutes to get served.

Anita had been to the Free website, according to which, to keep her old phone number she needed something called a “relevé d'identité d'operateur” or RIO.   She called the appropriate number and got this code from Carrefour.  So, armed with credit card, old phone, RIO code and personal ID (French driver's licence), we were hoping for a "one-stop" transaction.

Well, Free didn't have the Galaxy Note in stock, but you can order one.   To order one, you must have a Free mobile phone contract.  Well, OK.   But the sales guy couldn't make the RIO work, and therefore wanted to charge 10€ to to open a new line.  At this point, since everything (SIM and phone) was going to be sent by post anyway, and the phone was not particularly cheap from Free, she decided to just buy it all over the internet.

We walk out of the Free shop without a phone.  The queue behind us waiting to be served was, by this time, enormous.

****Interlude*****   Getting the RIO to work.

The RIO was apparently not valid because Carrefour's mobile operation had been transferred to Orange, which meant that the RIO number had been changed.   Guided by the Carrefour website, Anita sent an email to to request a valid RIO.   After no response in 24 hrs, she eventually she found a phone number to call, who referred her to another Orange service that she then called, who gave her a new RIO that worked.  One email, 2 website visits, two phone calls. Then two different RIOs arrived two days later by text and email, only one of which corresponded to the one given over the phone.

How Bouygues won it

The buying process has been reset to zero at this point, so she might as well look around to make sure she is going for the best offer.  Amazon were doing the best price on the Galaxy Note (50€ cheaper than Free), so she ordered it from them, paying a bit extra for fast delivery to be sure that the 70€ discount voucher would still be valid.

Bouygues telecom are advertising heavily their "B&You" services.  Their website is friendly and the offers are competitive.  So they get the deal.  SIM and phone are now ordered, SIM scheduled to arrive by the 4th December.

Getting it to work

It so happened that both the SIM and the phone arrived on Friday 30th November.  Top marks to Bouygues for exceeding customer expectations, and a "satisfactory" rating to Amazon for meeting them.  It's also all here in time for getting the 70€ discount from Samsung.  Things are looking up.

You can't use the phone until the battery is charged, which is a frustrating wait, but unavoidable.  Meanwhile she visits the Bouygues website to "unlock" the SIM.   They promise to send an SMS with the code.  (Where to??)  Bouygues say the old number can't be transferred until Monday but a few hours later send an email giving a temporary number to use until then.  It works!  Test calls are made to and from the shiny new device.

Now to connect it to the home WiFi.  Problem.  Once the WiFi security is set up, the phone fails to connect to it.  It just sits in an endless loop: Scan for networks-->request IP address--> turn off WiFi-->turn on WiFi-->scan for networks.   An internet search tells me that other people have experienced this problem, and it's not just something wrong with our network.  Besides we have four other devices using the WiFi without a problem.

Samsung tech support

Telephone call to Samsung tech support.  I happen to have the number to hand following a problem with my galaxy SII a while back.  Top marks to Samsung tech support for being available at 4PM on a Saturday, despite having a complicated automatic call routing system to navigate before reaching a live person.  Once Anita has persuaded the girl that the problem is not our network, the proposed action is to install Kies on her computer and use this to bring the phone's firmware up to date.

Kies is Samsungs's software for managing synchronisation of files with your home PC, and it also serves to update the firmware of your devices.   Anita downloads the Kies software and installs it (A few hours).  Once installed, however, it fails to achieve a connection between her PC and the Note, even though we leave it connected for a couple of hours while we go out.  When we get back later that evening, I try the same thing with my more poweful laptop.  A connection is eventually achieved and I leave the firmware update running overnight.

The next morning, the firmware is updated, but the phone still does the same thing.  At last, after looking around on the net a bit more, I solve the problem by changing the WiFi channel used by the router from 6 to 5 (a random choice after a couple of posts suggested trying changing the channel, or using one numbered less than 11).  I really shouldn't have to do that.  How many people know how to change their router's WiFi channel?

The Samsung discount

So now to the Samsung website to register the voucher and claim the discount.  The November offer has been superseded by an equivalent December one, so it takes a while to find the right website page but, as promised, this can still be done until 15/12.  But clicking on the link to fill in the online form, takes you to an account setup page first, then you have to wait for an email with a confirmation link to click.   This takes about an hour to arrive.   

Now the online form can be completed, which offers 5 unexplained versions of the grey phone - is it a Galaxy Note II BOG, or XEP, or SFR,  etc?  We chose BOG since it's a bog-standard phone.  I hope Samsung are not hoping for good results from a detailed sales analysis.

When it comes to entering the company we bought it from, the site does not accept the 4 digit Luxembourg postcode of Amazon EU, the holding company for, who sent us the bill.  We fudge this by adding a zero so the form can be printed and sent off, together with a RIB bank form for the reimbursement to the bank, a copy of the bill AND the product bar code sticker.   This sticker does not come off without tearing - why not if they want it back?  Not a satisfactory experience.  Fingers crossed for the discount.


As of Sunday morning, Anita is venting her frustrations by bombing the crap out of some green pigs,  (Star Wars version - fun, and with a great sense of humour) and it seems that, barring actually getting her old number back, and the inevitable hassles of setting up new apps for Facebook, Kindle, etc. everything is finally as it should be.

But this was way too hard.

Friday 30 November 2012


I've been working in the garden, taking the turf off an area that is to become part of an enlarged flower bed.  Worms love to live just under the roots of grass, so the resulting wormfest delighted the local robins.  These two came to a face off.  I somehow doubt that they argued on the basis of who was there earliest, and therefore entitled to the worms.

Monday 26 November 2012


Just a few pics today. This first one is one of a set of four, intended to show the view through different windows, of trees in Autumn colours against clear blue sky. Well, they didn't really work out, but I thought that his one kind of stands on its own.

This one at least shows the colours I was trying to capture.  As in the Wizard of Oz, please pay absolutely no attention to the cars, lamp post or my shadow.

And finally, a quick snap as I was on my way out.  The leaves of this tree Lupin seem to explode like a green starry firework from the flower bed.  It will die back over Winter, but I hope that it will burst into white, scented flower at least one more time before its seedlings have to take over.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Rule 1

When you install a solar-powered, movement-activated light right at the apex of your roof.....

... first, check that it works.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Fields and bureaucrats

The house and gîte here are enclosed by fields on three sides and by a small road on the remaining one.  On the other side of the road is a field of a couple of acres that is also part of the property, but, being apart from it, is not constrained to integrate with the garden.  It can form a space of its own, separate, but part of the whole.

I don't really have a strong idea of what to do with it, except that it would be nice to have some trees there.   With this in mind, I organised, with help, a meeting with a person from the région engaged in management of the site classé that surrounds the property, and a landscape gardener available to the local community.   The purpose was to get some outline ideas on what might be a sympathetic and attractive way of managing the space to best fit in with local scenery and aesthetic values.  Null points.  Those august personages seemed to engage in a power struggle, and did nothing but argue about what might be permitted.    I think the best idea that came up was an orchard.  "How many apples do you think my customers are going to eat?"   So I'm doing what I feel like.

Last year I mowed the field once in the Autumn, taking care to avoid the yearling walnut trees that had sprouted, in the hope that they will get their roots deep enough to survive the inevitable weeks of Summer drought.   They still seem to be there, although they're not much taller than I remember them.   I have not mowed the field this year; I understand that tall grass helps to shield young trees in their early years as they establish, so it's staying.

However, I have decided to give Nature a helping hand.   I have cleared a strip of grass parallel to the road, a few metres into the field, to transplant some Hazelnut saplings that had self-seeded in the garden.  I figure that once they grow they will help hide the inner area of the field from prying eyes of passers-by, and give me a bit more freedom as to what to do there.  There are nine small trees of various sizes, 5 paces apart, along the mowed track.  Fingers crossed.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Journée calendrier

A cold, damp and misty start to the day, with rain forecast: not a promising start to our day of flogging calendars in aid of the Harmonie (I mean, giving calendars away and asking for a donation) in Ste Suzanne.  But, as it happens, we managed to be the first organisation to be doing the rounds this year, beating the firemen and postal workers to it, so we made a good haul.

Afterwards there is traditionally the totting up of the proceeds, analysis of results and a lunch chez Mamie Suzanne (Granny Suzanne) who is thus named, as far as I can work out, because she is the mother, grand-mother and perhaps great-grandmother of, in all, about half the musicians in the Harmonie.

I have attended the lunch a few times now, so I think I'm qualified to say that it is traditional, at least insofar as it relates to this event.  It runs: munchies, soup, pot-au-feu, cheese, apple tart and coffee.  We were about 28 people who sat down at a big long table.

The munchies were standard supermarket fare, offered on the table in the little plastic pots they are sold in, and eaten by the participants before the meal started, while we were waiting for everyone to arrive.

The soup is a vegetable soup (largely cabbage based, I think), thickened either with tapioca or what the French described as Perles de Japon.  There was some debate as to whether Perles de Japon are the same thing as tapioca, but nobody really knew for sure. 

The pot-au-feu is a hot-pot, made by boiling lumps of beef, whole carrots, whole potatoes and quartered savoy cabbage in a vegetable stock, all together in a big pot.  I tried to find out what cut of beef is used, and had it patiently explained to me that you go to the butcher and ask for pot-au-feu, and that is what you get.  The meat was served separately from the vegetables, and both were served drained into bowls, from which you served yourself.  If you wanted, you could add mustard or a vinaigrette, which surprised me.  I had always assumed vinaigrette was just for salads, but this was a chunky one, with finely chopped garlic, shallots, parsley, mustard and other herbs all mixed in.  It worked well with the beef, and you could also just smear it onto the bread, where it worked well too.

Cheese was a Camembert cut into wedges and passed around in the little wooden containers it was bought in (no salad) and was followed by the apple tart, home made, and, well, tart.   Commercially-made tarts and other puddings tend to err on the sweet side, so it was good to eat a proper tart that lived up to its name in the nicest possible way.

And we made a bit over a couple of thousand euros.  Nay bad.

Friday 9 November 2012

Blowing Wood

The boiler that heats the gîte (and a bit of the house), burns wood chips.  These are delivered here by a lorry which blows them into the wood store using special hoses, via an inlet in the bunker.  The inlet is matched by an outlet that lets the blowing air out, so the roof doesn't lift off.

The height of the inlet determines the maximum height of the wood chips you can blow into the bunker, and for various reasons, largely down to last-minute changes in the bunker design, these allow only for 20 cubic metres of wood to be delivered at a time, when the lorry can carry 30.   The bunker can hold 30 cubic metres, too, but much of the volume is above the height of the inlet.

This is a waste, since the price of a wood delivery is in two parts; a fixed part for the transport, and a variable amount that depends on how much wood you take, so it makes sense to get as much wood delivered each time as you can.   I have been taking deliveries of 20 cubic metres at a time for a while, and I have been applying myself to solving the problem of being able to accept deliveries of 30 cubic metres.

You can't raise the height of the inlet since the lorry driver won't be able to reach it to attach the hose.  The solution is to attach a tube inside the bunker to carry the wood chips higher up, so a greater volume of bunker can be used.  This is what I have been trying to do.  I have bought a hideously expensive length of steel-reinforced polythene tubing designed to cope with the wear & tear of wood chippings blasting through it, and various attachments to mate it to the inlet.

I have tried it on one delivery, and it all worked well for a short while, until the tube blocked with wood chips, whereupon the blower tone changed from a steady roar to an angry whine.  The lorry driver dived for the "off" switch, but too late, and one of his hose fixings gave way, causing a small explosion of wood chips over the car park, and a writhing hose.   I think perhaps I had too tight a curve in the tube, so now I'm changing its path to make it straighter.  Next  delivery attempt in a few weeks.  Watch this space.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Dahlia management

The first frosts arrived last week, killing the dahlia foliage.  Today is the first opportunity I have had to cut down the dead leaves and tidy things up.  I usually dig up the tubers and overwinter them in a shed, but last year I discovered that, despite temperatures going down to -15, those tubers that I left in the ground survived. 

So this year I'm just digging up one example of each kind of dahlia, and storing that indoors, on the basis that even if all of those that are left outside die, I can start afresh with my indoor stock.  I'm covering those left in the ground with a thick layer of wood shreddings, which should help keep them insulated from the worst of the cold.

I really should have labelled all of the ones I wanted to dig up, before they got frosted.  The flowers lose their colour and shape once frozen, so I have to rely on memory to tell me which ones are which.  I think I've got it pretty much right, but I won't know for sure until next Spring.

And I have joined a local gardening club, motivated by the discount offered on Sutton's seeds.  Chose from their online catalogue, place the order through the club, apply the discount, pay in euros.   I buy both flower seed and veggies, but I'm not really motivated to grow vegetables that you can buy in the supermarkets.   I like to grow things that are hard to find here, or are really expensive.  Sweet corn is thought to be for cows only, so is hard to find, and the same is true of parsnips.  Butternut squash are a bit of an oddity, and really hot chillis are hard to find.  And purple sprouting broccoli is unheard of, so I have some of that growing this year, with more seed on the way for next.

I have this idea in my head that it would be nice to grow really fresh veg of all kinds, to cook for gîte customers, and perhaps one day I will realise this ambition.   For the moment, limits on time and space mean I have to stick with the rarities.  But I do like the idea of seasonal fruit and veg; recent menus for our gîte visitors have included hot, thick soups based on pumpkins or lentils, and puddings of things like poached pears.  Yum!

Saturday 27 October 2012


There is a track running around the back of the gîte that allows for the passage of vehicles.  However at one point, it turns sharply behind a shed, and this makes things difficult for long vehicles or those pulling a trailer.  Having gotten fed up with scraping my car, damaging a mudguard on the trailer, and knocking bits off the corner of the wall, I decided it was time to do something about it.

It took a little time to discover where a digger might be found, how little it might cost to rent it, and who might drive it, and so on, but once this combination of things was brought together, work could start.  I am always surprised at how much of a change can be effected by these diggers, but in a day, the area was transformed, and I now have a nice turning circle ready to be covered in gravel.  (Another challenge to find all the right ingredients, but not an urgent one)

In the course of the work, a lot of soil was dug up, and since the area round here is stony, there were a lot of stones in the soil.  I have spend the last couple of days pulling large rocks out of the soil, and using them to build a retaining dry stone wall that will hold back the topsoil we dug out, and, I intend, make a nice lawn/flower bed one day.   The availability of the digger has brought this project forwards, probably by several years, and here is the before and after result so far.

..... and after

Meanwhile, the heavy rain has brought the Dahlias on, and they are giving one final flourish before the frost clobbers them.  We're hoping they survive the week until our next guests arrive for the All Saints holiday.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Autumn update

A walk in the local fields and woods yielded these pictures of autumn fruit, that I thought were quite pretty.

Meanwhile the squirrel continues to evade photographic capture, but this time only because I didn't have my zoom lens.   I'll get him one day.  Some earth-moving operations in the garden had me rescuing slow-worms and lizards all day.   Here's a lucky green lizard.

And finally, our classroom for french lessons displays a happy disregard for aesthetics in pursuit of a solution to lightbulb failure.   In fact there are four such bulb-holders in the room and they all have one spot and one candle bulb, so someone is doing this on purpose.

Friday 19 October 2012


We were woken up early this morning by the sound of rain coming down like you wouldn't believe. What seemed like a moment later (but was in fact a few hours of sleep) we were woken again by a phone call from Marie who runs the restaurant in the valley. "It's flooded down here, can you come and take some photos for me?"

That might sound like a strange request, but there are plans afoot to move her restaurant into the mill beside the river, and there is some debate as to whether or not this building is liable to flooding. Since water mills tend to be beside rivers, and rivers can sometimes overflow, my money's on the "floodable" side of the debate.

Here are the pictures. The mill is built on a slope and the water comes up halfway along its length, so some of the inside is underwater. However all of the island next to it, where a terrace is planned, is submerged. This should give the decision-makers something to get their teeth into, at least.

Saturday 13 October 2012


A short break in the not-too-far-away city of Orléans before the Autumn rain sets in and the frosts send the gardens into hibernation.  Although we trolled around the city, the focus of the trip was a visit to the gardens at Orléans-la-Source where there is a big (35 acre) Parc Floral. This is built behind a big chateau, and surrounds a small tributary of the Loire, le loiret.  

The different areas are framed by mature trees, and the overall impact is of a space carefully planned and managed for family visits, child entertainment, educational school trips as well as for the plant enthusiast.  I felt that the maintenance was perhaps a bit lacking in some areas, but the garden was by no means scruffy.

October isn't really the best time to visit it, but I was pleased to see a big display of Dahlias, a plant that is close to its best at this time of year, as long as it hasn't been exhausted from flowering too much and has been regularly dead-headed.  I liked the system they had for staking them, too, with a square metal grid attached to a central pole.   Another reason to get myself some arc-welding kit.

They had some very artistic but strange planters for the Fucshias, they look very much like they are designed to hang from something, but I bet they weigh a ton.  And I was quite taken by the pergodas they have built for climbing roses.   The rose garden was a bit past its best, but will definitely be worth revisiting in Summer.

Friday 5 October 2012

Grumpy old book review

I thought, since I live in France, that it would be a sensible idea to read up a bit on French history, since I know very little of it.   After looking at various options and reviews, I settled on the book in the Cambridge Illustrated History series.   It's variously described as authoritative, well-written, a tour de force, etc., so I figured it would be worth a punt even at 32 euros. I haven't read very far into the book yet, but already the author's style is starting to irritate. A couple of examples:
The shift towards a farming existence is conventionally described as one of "Man's" greatest achievements. Yet.... the initial impetus came from women rather than "Man".
Now I wouldn't mind so much, but the use of the word "man" in this context denotes mankind, humankind if you prefer, or humanity, rather than men. Historians, had they meant that "the shift... was one of men's greatest achievements", would presumably have said so.  So we then have to wade through the author's tedious destruction of this straw man. I have the feeling that it's about needing to say "Look how PC I'm being, aren't I a good boy?".   Perhaps that's what it takes to get a reference book published these days, but I find it irritating.  All the author needed to say was
"The shift towards a farming existence is conventionally described as one of man(kind)'s greatest achievements, and the initial impetus came from women".
A bit later on in the book, we have this, when discussing the maximum population counts of some of France's (Gaul's) earliest cities:
"...its biggest conurbations - Narbonne, Nîmes, Lyon, Autun, Reims and Trier - did not exceed the 20,000 to 30,000 population band."
 Now the problem I have with this, is that I don't know what the author is trying to say: I have to guess.  It's the use of the word "exceed" together with a population "band" that confuses me.  If he means that the populations did not exceed 30,000, then he should say so, and there is no need to mention the 20,000 figure because it means nothing.  If he means that all the towns listed had population counts of between 20,000 and 30,000 then that's what he should say instead.  There are plenty of other possible meanings as well.  All he has to do is choose one and write it.

A final comment.  This is from the Cambridge University Press.  My alma mater.  Is this the best they can do?  The shame!!

On a more positive note, I haven't, for a long time, enjoyed any novel as much as I have enjoyed "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its sequel "The Girl Who Played with Fire".  Those dashed cunning marketing chappies at Amazon hooked me with a cheapo Kindle download of the first one, and, as they doubtless planned, I got hooked, and paid much more for the second.  I wonder if they have ever traded street drugs?  I'm going to have to wait for a rainy week to download the third one, since I can't put them down, and really should be in the garden as much as the weather permits.

Sunday 30 September 2012

The garden at Château de Villaines

We went garden visiting yesterday, since it was a mild and sunny afternoon and it might be raining the morrow.  The chateau itself is classed as a "Monument historique", and its garden as a "Jardin remarquable".  The most "remarquable" thing of all, I find, is the number of classifications they seem to find necessary in France.  The idea that people visit a place, form a view as to whether or not it offers value for money,  and that the market then looks after itself is a bit, well, anglo-saxon.

Anyway, the veg garden is indeed, quite remarkable.  It's set out like a formal French flower garden, but with vegetables.  Rectangles of veg plots are surrounded by little box hedges, linked with grassy walkways, and decorated with pots and statuary.  Each has its own assortment of chosen plants. The garden covers a hectare, and is completely surrounded by a wall of some 3-4 metres high.  My own veg plot would easily fit into one of the two rectangles they have dedicated to artichokes, so I'm quite envious.

Here's a couple of general views of it to give you an idea.

On the three walls that don't face North, they have put espaliered pears and other fruit trees.  Apples are espaliered too, but are cut low, and used to make the enclosures for rectangles of other fruit such as raspberries and gooseberries.  I scrumped one.  There is something especially delicious about a fresh, ripe apple that falls into your hand when you gently push it sideways, and it's always a pleasure to pay homage to a language that has a special word that means precisely, to steal, specifically apples, and specifically from a tree.

They also had neat tomato climbing frames that I was quite taken with.  They appear to be made of a cast-iron pinnacle welded to iron rod, and are rock solid. They sit about a metre high.  I might ask my pal Alain how to do arc-welding and make some up myself.  I've no doubt that they'd be hideously expensive to buy; it would take the rest of my life to grow enough tomatoes to recover the cost.

Finally, I'm noticing large numbers of butterflies about, these last few days.  I don't know if the strange Spring weather is responsible for a lot of late development, but there seem to be hundreds.  I had not known before, just how attractive Asters are to butterflies, but they seem to be at least as attractive as the Buddleia when it is full bloom, and more so than the Sedum that is now in flower.  Here's a couple from the Château, one on Asters, the other on Salvia.

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