Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Meeting skills

Today I set myself a task of not talking in a meeting for a minimum of half an hour! Usually as soon as the meeting starts my frustration gets the better of me and I open my mouth at the first opportunity and then spend the rest of the afternoon trying to cope with the headache. Today I had a bet with a colleague that I could not last half an hour! Well, I managed although it was really hard. I had to bite my tongue in many places but in the end the meeting managed to reach a resolution without me and other people ended up with the headache! After about 45 minutes I finally had to say something, which is probably OK as it would have looked strange if I had said absolutely nothing all day! It is a technique I am going to try and perfect in the 5 hours of meetings that I have to look forward to tomorrow.

Monday, 29 September 2008

I don't believe it...

Bergerac airport is very small and the only flights that arrive regularly are those of Ryan Air. There is no air traffic control for landing so if visibility is too poor or it is too windy the pilots have to fly on to Bordeaux or Toulouse and that is probably the most exiting thing that ever happens..that is until last week. A British woman had been doing a bit of shopping in the local second hand shop and as a present for her military obsessed husband she bought an old World War 2 shell. She packed this into her hand luggage and as it passed through the rudimentary x-ray machine at Bergerac all hell broke loose! She was arrested, all flights were suspended and the bomb disposal team were called. Her suitcase and its contents formed part of a controlled explosion in a field. She later said that she didn't realise it would cause a problem and was not charged (although I would imagine she was a little embarrassed!). (After all, you can't even bring a bottle of water on, let alone explosives!) It does give me a few sleepless nights to imagine what we might have to put up with in the bed and breakfast!

Sunday, 28 September 2008

En retard sur les chantiers

Progress on the house in France is faltering! Our builder was supposed to start last week but our spies informed us that there was no sign! We emailed and left a message on his mobile expressing our desire to be able to progress with the plumbing when we come out in October. We finally had an email expressing his sincere apologies for the fact that he is en retard sur mes chantiers or behind with his buildings, and saying that one of his staff had left (probably the one who had been arguing with his son when we last saw them!) He stated enthusiastically that by the time we get there in October he will be building the walls (which probably means he will start the day before we get there!) Such is life in the world of building I fear!

The green house is now the white house

The 'green house' before

This weekend has been busy. When I bought my house I couldn't fail to notice that the rendering was painted green. Although it did look a little odd I didn't really hate it at first and it came in quite handy when directing people here,"you can't miss it. It's the green one". I soon discovered that all the neighbours also referred to it as the green house, although they didn't all appreciate its eccentricity! Over the last few years it has also become more and more faded and the time had come to re-paint it. Fortunately it was a great weekend and so I chose a more neutral 'almond white' colour and we started Saturday and finished today. You can see the before and after pictures below! The paint is guaranteed for 15 years and Ian worked out that he will be 61 before it should need repainting again!

and after!

PS: we used a scaffold tower, bits of a ladder, no harnesses and after the children climbed up the tower as if it were a climbing frame! No health and safety man to be seen anywhere!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

All that we know is nothing really changes

So in the end the governments had to step in and stop the significant economies of the world from going down the toilet. Suddenly people are saying that speculative trading is immoral (which it probably is but no one worried about it when everything was going well and they were making lots of money). I have lived through a stock market crash and house price crisis before. At one time I had significant negative equity in my tiny, grotty one bedroom flat in a not too nice part of London. I was discussing this with a colleague the other day and we agreed that this experience had made us much more cautious so we do not have enormous debts or generally think it is okay to live above our means. If this experience makes another generation more cautious in the future and less inclined to believe the people trying to sell them the impossible then that is not a bad thing. I think these things are just part of the natural cycle of life recorded in the Bible and probably known for time immemorial. You have seven years of prosperity and seven years of famine and you must save in the prosperous times for the famine. Shame those gambling on the money market did not take note.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Distant memories

My summer in France now feels like a distant memory! Work has picked up pace and I am fully into the flow. I can't believe I was ever away or that things continued in my absence! The list of things that I have to do is getting longer and longer and the weekends seem to be getting shorter and shorter! (Along with the days.. it is now dark at 7.00 and pretty soon it will be winter!)

Monday, 22 September 2008

On being totally honest

So Gordon Brown has admitted that his performance lately during the imminent collapse of all Western economies has not been that good. Unfortunately, although I admire honesty in this instance it does not make me feel better! Its a bit like that question they used to ask at job interviews, "what are your strengths and weaknesses?" Now we all know that you have to answer this question strategically and balance your reasoned account of your great strengths with a mention of one or two fairly innocuous weaknesses that will not stand in the way of you getting the job. Similarly, when I was writing my PhD thesis I got to the bit where you have to evaluate and discuss the limitations of your study and my supervisor wisely told me to explain any that were blindingly obvious but not to discuss any of the more minor ones unless compelled to by the examiner. I guess it was bl**dy obvious that he wasn't doing very well but his statement that he 'hoped to do better' did not fill me with confidence!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

A gentle Saturday

Yesterday I went on my first mountain bike ride for many months. It was a glorious day; sunny and warm but not too hot. We cycled through one of my favourite views on the North Downs where in the middle of a field, seemingly in the middle of nowhere there is a bandstand with wonderful views to the south. (Actually, I don't think it is a bandstand; more like an observatory) I managed to stop this time and get some photos. I'd forgotten how nice it is to get outdoors and away from cars and traffic.

I've since discovered that this view is Colley hill near Reigate and the 'bandstand' is actually a folly (called Inglis folly). It also has a really impressive ceiling!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

To bissou or not to bissou

This refers to the French custom of greeting everyone with a peck on the cheek. Well, both cheeks to be precise. I was under the illusion that absolutely everyone bissoued as soon as they met and although it is something that doesn't sit so well with my Anglo Saxon upbringing I was prepared to indulge for the sake of entente cordiale. However, I noticed that this cheek kissing is not indulged by all and there is in fact a strict protocol as to who and when. As far as I can tell, never biss on a first meeting unless absolutely everyone else is bissing; never biss with anyone older or more senior that you until they biss you first (up until then the handshake is perfectly acceptable), never biss in any kind of business meeting. Biss with friends, people your own age, people who biss with you first and all the English living there who seem to think that now they are living in France they can biss absolutely everyone! I never have got used to it as way of greeting!

Biss Biss

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Smelling the panic

My brother works in the City for an investment bank. He has survived in the city for 20 years so I figure he must be doing some things right. Things are hard at the moment although he predicted this at Easter when he said he walked into to work and it smelt different with an air of uncertainty around. He explained how the whole economy was based on faith and belief. A faith that things are what they claim to be and a belief that a £10 note is actually worth £10 and not a just a piece of paper. What seems to be happening now is a lack of faith (and yet still a few people willing to speculate and put other people's livelihoods at risk). I find the whole thing a mixture of reassuring (at the thought that in fact the city is run on basic human instinct) and for exactly the same reason deeply worrying. It makes me think that the correct training for working in the city should include philosophy and emotional intelligence and not just economics!

My knickers

Over lunch my colleagues were laughing about the fact that there had been a pair of knickers on the floor outside someone's office. No one could really work out what to do about them. No one wanted to pick them up and no one came forth to claim them! Eventually someone picked them up using a tissue and put them in an envelope to put in the lost property.

"They were turquoise Lovely. They would have gone quite well with your trousers!"

I thought carefully as I had actually made a special effort that day to put on some matching knickers but I did still have them on! I had also worn matching knickers the previous day but I had cycled home and gone to my French class that night in the knickers and put a clean pair on this morning. Still, the description of these knickers was beginning to sound quite familiar so I thought I'd better go and check and sure enough, they were mine! But how the hell did they get to be on the floor outside my colleagues office?! The only explanation I can come up with is that when I picked up my cycle clothes off the floor this morning (as I cycled to work) somehow they got stuck to a bit of Velcro and were attached to me on the way in, falling off finally as I walked down the corridor. Now as if this wasn't embarrassing enough this morning I had driven my car to the garage, booked it in, chatted to the mechanic, got out my bike, cycled to work..all with a pair of turquoise knickers hanging off some part of my body!

Well...it made us all laugh but I don't know how I will cope when I have to go and pick up my car (which incidentally failed its MOT and is going to cost £600 to put right!)

PS: I wonder how many sad bastards will find this post when searching google for lovely knickers!

Monday, 15 September 2008

My heart is changing

When we were in France we were talking with Hazel and Peter on one of our many visits and I was saying how, although I was sure about my decision to give up my job and live in France, the process of doing it from both the physical and the emotional point of view, was quite difficult. I am fed up with my current job but I still have a belief in the career that I have done for 30 years and unlike Ian, who contracts and has no great emotional attachment to his work, I can not say exactly the same. Hazel understood this and offered these words..

"one day you will just know that your heart has changed and you know where you want to be and then it will be more difficult to stay than to go"

I think I am beginning to understand what she meant. Getting back to work this time has been excruciating. Even tales of health and safety man can not lighten my mood enough or enable me to take my current job back into my heart in the way it deserves. I know that this will change to some degree as I get more into it but each time I go away and more aspects of the life in France become a reality my life back here seems more and more difficult. So I think Hazel is right and in the end I will just have to go physically so that my physical body can be in the same place as my spiritual one!

Butterfly day

Today there were butterflies everywhere.. I think they were cabbage whites; probably emanating from the infestation of green caterpillars that devoured all my nasturtiums just before I went on holiday. Aware that butterflies are under threat I let them munch away and was rewarded by seeing them everywhere but particularly on the buddlejas! They say that bees are in trouble this year as well although again, on the buddlejas there is no shortage!

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Norma the cat is now suffering from age-related hearing impairment. In her youth she could hear the sound of a tin opener from 100metres and would come running before the lid was off the can. Now even when I call to remind her that it is dinner time she doesn't hear and I have to go up to her, tap her and show her the food before her youthful excitement takes over and she runs to the kitchen, (or at least attempts a run!)

Mandi on the other had has a new game called 'pat the window blind'. He jumps up onto the window sill and pats at the venetian blind so that it makes a noise. This and the 'tap the lever on the office chair' game keeps him occupied for hours.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The llama farmer

Life is full of strange co-incidences. Our new students started this week. As our course in post-graduate the vast majority have done lots of exiting things before they decide to be an occupational therapist (well, I'm doing it the other way round and doing my exiting things later). Before joining us one of our students worked with llamas on a farm for a couple of years in Cornwall and knows a fair bit about how to handle them. I will be offering her extra tuition!

New toy

Well, my new Eeeeee PC has arrived which hopefully should guarantee blogging from anywhere in the world where I can access a wireless network or internet connection. It really is quite a good deal for under £300, with its own built in webcam, windows and a battery that is supposed to last for 6 hours..and it fits into a large handbag! So, one less excuse for not blogging! I am using it to write this!

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Life on the border

Our return to the UK via Euro tunnel was not quite so smooth as the outward journey as a busy bank holiday weekend meant extra security and longer queues. We waited patiently, and as we were in a van we knew we would be stopped. We pulled up to the booth and a friendly chap said

"UK border agency..at least that's what we are this week..I think.. can I ask you what you have in your van"

I had sympathy. When I worked in the Health Service I did the same job, in the same place for 10 years but the headings on our notepaper changed six times!

More French

I have found a new French class and started last night. Peter is a native French speaker and teacher and lives locally. He runs classes in local community halls and centres at a variety of levels that don't follow any national curriculum or lead to an exam. The great advantage of that is that I don't have to spend a year learning how to talk about ipods, pop music and going to the disco (as covered by most A level texts) and I don't have to learn marketing French as taught by the universities! I was surprised to see that there were 12 of us in class and all but 3 had been coming for a number of years. The other surprise was that the class consisted entirely of femmes d'un certain âge (The polite way of saying middle aged women in French!). The group seemed nice, Peter was enthusiastic and a good teacher and the class was enjoyable so lets hope it works!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The studio and the commander

I have mentioned before that Hazel and Peter are musicians. Peter is also a record producer and as he informed us last time we were there

"you don't need a great big orchestra and a recording studio to make music now, its all done on a computer"

With that in mind his plan was to build a small studio room in his house and continue his recording work in France. Well, the state of the housing market in the UK put paid to that and has put their extension on hold, so Peter decided to erect a temporary studio where the garden shed was. When we arrived building was at a frantic pace as some musicians were expected the following week and the 'studio' (still looking very like a garden shed) had no roof or soundproofing. Still, where there is a will there is a way and over the next few days the 'studio' was soundproofed with an old mattress and some polystyrene trays from Herman's herbs, the electrics were connected and we arrived while Peter was trying it out with another neighbour we call 'the commander'. The commander runs some nearby gites and in his previous life held a very important and responsible position in the transport industry (something that you are made aware of early on in your acquaintance). The commander also likes singing and I must admit I had imagined him doing some light classical songs, so I was a little taken aback to hear his renditions of John Denver and the like emanating from the 'studio'. (The trouble with a studio is that although the singer hears the backing track those outside don't, so what you hear is the bare vocal with all its imperfections!) Anyway, it seemed to work, apart from the fact that the studio had no air conditioning (and it was 36 degrees at this point) and still no roof, and you couldn't run the pump for the swimming pool at the same time as the recording equipment (so as it was like a sauna you could not stand more than 5 minutes in there at a time). After his 'session' the commander had a beer and lamented about the fact that his 16 year old son couldn't communicate with him any more.

The following day we were planting our trees on the land when Peter and the commander turned up in their cars, each containing some young lads, who were obviously musicians by their indie and underfed look. (In fact, they looked just like most of the students on the arts courses at work!) The lads were pleasant and polite, and looked a little bemused (but then they had spent an evening with the commander after driving 10 hours from Calais). I imagine they were struggling to cope with the reality of the situation! They were promised a recording studio in France, with its own pool and what they got was a shed with no air conditioning, and the company of a John Denver impersonator. I bet it was never like that for Sting!

Night time calm

While on holiday we called in several times to see our near neighbours Peter and Hazel, who have now been living there on and off for 18 months. You couldn't really ask for more pleasant neighbours. They are kind, warm, friendly and their house seems to always be open. One of my nicest memories of our two weeks there was a warm evening where we popped in to see Hazel after we had been working on the land. (Peter was back working in the UK for a few days). We sat outside chatting and after a while we saw Herman's shape emerging from his land and wandering up the path that he had cut to Hazel and Peter's house. (Now we know why he was cutting back the hedges!). We had some tea and some cake, chatted about Madame Delgrano and the local gossip and then we had a glass of wine. Hazel offered us some dinner, just noodles and vegetables but it tasted delicious, and we sat talking some more and watched the moon rise up over the land. We had never been out there at night before and it was so lovely, calm and peaceful except for the sound of the crickets. After a while the peace was shattered when the cat appeared with a large green lizard hanging out of its mouth! We removed the lizard and hopefully it lived to see another day. The cat was cross for a while but soon recovered. We sat there for a bit longer and then Herman left to go and water his herbs! We watched his figure disappearing off into the dark of the field.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Time to go

While away I managed to cut big branches off a tree with a small pruning saw (for 2 hours), cycle for 3 hours at a time, lug Ian's tools back and forth around the land in 30 degrees Celsius, sleep on a bed like a bouncy castle, when I was sitting, sit in uncomfortable campsite chairs; and in three weeks I was not particularly bothered by my stiff hands and joints and muscles.

Why is it then that after being home a week, back at work for 4 days where I spend the majority of time seated at a desk that the joints of my feet, ankles, fingers and wrists are so sore that I struggle to get out of my nice comfortable bed in the morning and I can hardly pick up my tea cup? There is a message there somewhere and it isn't too difficult to work out!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

France holds some surprises!

One day on holiday we cycled out to Sigoules, a nearby village/town. As we were entering the town I had to do a 'double take' as walking towards me up the road was a group of Buddhist monks and nuns. It really wasn't what I was expecting to see in the middle of rural France! We ended up having lunch in a little cafe in the town (not as lovely as it sounds as the only place we could find was opposite the petrol station in a little arcade). Our fellow diners included two men who were obviously studying something, a couple of younger men on holiday who paid the bill with the French equivalent of luncheon vouchers that are given to the lower paid to help them pay for their holidays and an English group, dressed very smartly, that were waiting for the Mairie to open as two of them were getting married! As we left I asked the chef/owner about the monks. He told me that there is a community in Thenac; a neighbouring village.

I relayed my story a few days later to Herman, who claims he is a Buddhist.
'Yes, there is a community nearby..but they aren't proper Buddhists. They're a bunch from Vietnam. I've been there once.'

I left it at that but on return looked them up and found that there are from a community called the plum village and are pretty much our neighbours, owning several plots of land nearby. I mentioned this to a colleague at work who is a Buddhist and teacher of mindfulness meditation. Far from being a bunch of improper Buddhists it seems that they are a pretty influential and important group!

I like the quote on their home page:
If your cup is small, a little bit of salt will make the water salty. If your heart is small, then a little bit of pain can make you suffer. Your heart must be large.
Thay Nhat Hanh

Back to earth

I heard yesterday that one of our former students who graduated about two years ago took her own life over the summer. She was young and bright and struggled with many things but fought hard and finished the course. In the end she decided that she could not stand the pain anymore.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The ghost machine

Each time we went to land we passed a field with this machine in it. It looked like an abandoned piece of junk from a distance but every time we passed the field I swear it had moved from one side to the other and yet we never saw anyone near it. I decided that rather than a piece of agricultural equipment it was really a ghost machine and once it got dark it moved itself up and down the field in the moonlight. I later decided that it was probably a space probe and moved around to get better communication with the mother ship.

Ian had a much more practical explanation and said it was a thresher cutting strips of hay for animal feed. I like my explanation better!

Ian is quite keen on agricultural equipment and we could not go past a tractor shop without a stop while he had a 30 minute conversation with the owner about the price of tractors and toppers. I used it as an excuse to sit in the van and sleep! I did notice however that he was not the only man looking lustfully at large pieces of equipment!

Monday, 1 September 2008

The village fete

While we were in the tourist information office in Miramont we picked up a leaflet advertising a summer fair at a nearby vineyard. We were looking for something to do the following day and so decided to cycle out to it. The leaflet was in French and English but I must admit the whole thing did have somewhat of an English feel to it. The entrance fee went to support a charity and stalls selling local produce were promised.

The following day was warm so we set off on the bikes in the morning and got to the vineyard at about 2.00pm. Things were just beginning to take off.. We started with a long conversation with the man selling tickets. He had been a keen cyclist and had organised bike races and events in his home town in Lancashire for most of his life. He had also driven the press car for the Tour de France and had once picked up some cyclists from the airport only to realise he had 5 Tour de France winners in the back of his car! After a pleasurable conversation we parted with our 4 Euros and went in. The farmyard was set out with various stalls with arts and crafts, second hand products, books, paintings, tombola, 'fish the grapes out of the bucket' game, and a food and drinks stall selling quiches, salads, ice cream etc. We got a plate of salad and sat at the tables set out in between the vines to eat (and overheard the resident English contingent discussing how busy they were what with the line dancing classes and art class there was just no time for them to go to their French lessons!). After eating we wandered round the stalls. There was a young English chap there who had set up one of the first free-range pig farms in the Dordogne, raising English pigs and selling English sausages made to a recipe he got from the Heston Blumenthal book (Two shelias take note!). He had a whole pig roasting on the spit for an evening hog roast and was selling sausages and home made pork pies and had already been written about in the French Press, as the English farmer showing the French how to develop the free-range market! Unfortunately as we had our bikes with us we couldn't really try the wine but were offered a proper tour on another day. We cycled off with thoughts of strawberries and cream and Morris dancers floating around our heads!

The following day it was raining and I wanted to buy some wine so we decided to take up the offer of a tour and drove over in the van! I expected a half hour tour and a quick tasting, but no.. we got the full 2 hour tour and explanation of the history of the vineyard (bought by an enthusiastic English IT consultant who invested in setting up his own wine making shop and was now forced to work back in the UK to pay for the investment). The vineyard was going organic and the enthusiasm and commitment from everyone was apparent in every detail. The cuves were spotlessly clean and our guide (the owners father, a former chemist) knew exactly what was in each barrel and at what stage it was at. We then got to taste all the wines. I am no expert but I have to say that they really were well worth what they were selling them for. They are not filtered, use no chemicals in the processing and are made with love and enthusiasm from an Englishman the in the wine growing centre of Duras! I bought quite a bit and I must say I can recommend them as they are available via their online store at not much more than we paid for them in France.

You can find out about them here!

Madame Delgrano

Madame Delgrano is one of the few near neighbours that I hadn't met and as her house is almost directly opposite ours we went to say hello. We took her by surprise as she had been eating a late lunch after going to the Assumption Day mass in the town. She had unbuttoned her skirt to make way for the lunch and was just about to make herself a petit cafe as we arrived. She did not let her state of undress stop her however, and invited us to join her, quickly buttoning up her skirt as she did so.

She was probably around 70 years old; dressed unlike any of the the local women in a Hermes shirt, denim skirt, Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses and a pair of dainty stiletto sandals (left by the door). Like all the French neighbours she spent a few minutes on the social niceties before launching into the local gossip. Her topic of the day was Herman, or more pertinently his sheep, which once again had escaped and munched their way through her herb garden. She was vitriolic in her attack, referring to him only by his last name, calling him a cretin, saying that he was more stupid than his sheep and calling him a con which Ian explained as the French equivalent to d*ckhead! I was struggling to keep up with the French at this point as the speed of her attack was increasing and becoming more and more frenzied. I didn't get every word but her next sentence went something like
"well if he thinks he can f*ck with me he's got another thing coming!" (Ian described her of a good example of a French woman who thinks that she is classy enough to swear!)

We left on pleasant terms and made a mental note to make sure that the llama fencing is extra-secure!

We heard from Herman the following day. He had received a visit from the ministry of agriculture asking him to prove that his sheep were tagged and vaccinated and also one from the Gendarme, checking out a complaint that he was working on the black. He suspected that the complainant was Madame Delgrano! Turns out she was also a little cross with him for standing against her in the local election.

This is not a very clear photo but when we were there last I was so fascinated by Madame Delgrano's washing line and the neat row of black thermal vests and long johns that I tried to take a photo!