Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Courting Le Chasse

There is one set of neighbours that I haven't mentioned yet and that is Stephane and Stephanie (despite their matching names they are a married couple). They live in the village in a small house in between the road and the church and are around retirement age although neither seems to have fully retired! They have a vegetable patch opposite the church and a large barn on the opposite side of the road and speak with a strong local accent! They are always welcoming and pleased to see us and like to be kept up to date with the local gossip including our news. I stopped in to say hello on my way to take lunch to Ian and his friend on the last day and we got invited for aperitifs that evening at 7.00 (thus ensuring that the building had to be finished by then!) The aperitifs consisted of Stephane's home-made wine (tastes nice but gives you a shocking headache). The wine improved my French enough to join in the conversation and we had a good laugh about the events with Herman, the state of the world and le chasse or the hunt; for which Stephane is a key figure! From what I can understand le chasse seems to be an organisation broadly similar to the Freemasons in England except that in France they go out with guns and try to shoot things. Certainly the movements of le chasse are considered extremely important and usually most conversations with us end with 'when are you coming over?' and 'will we still be able to hunt on your land?'. Our view so far has been that while we are not here they can but once we get animals in the field then this will be more difficult and I can see that this is one area where we are gong to have to negotiate very carefully if we are not going to upset a lot of people. We were then told that a family of hares had set up home in the base that has be scraped for the garage but not to worry as le chasse had got them all! We were later presented with a jar of home-made hare pate! In her colander on the sink Stephanie had two enormous animal hearts. I was amazed to see them and made a comment but she just thought I was asking what sort of animal they came from and tried hard to explain that they were from something shot at the weekend! At least they eat all the bits of what they kill!

Stephane and Stephanie are the sort of people that enjoy and appreciate every moment of their lives! They are always smiling and always welcoming and make such an effort to understand my poor French. They both have that special spark of passion for life inside them and you can see it in their eyes.

Campsite man 2

Ian was fully engaged all week building the llama house so while we were in France it was my job to run errands, do the shopping and generally be friendly to everyone. I made several trips to see campsite man (Pierre-Henri). It was his last week and there were three old camper vans on the site. On the first two mornings that I went there it was deserted and campsite man was nowhere to be seen. However, on the Friday I finally saw him. He looked tired and even thinner than I remembered him in the summer. It was cold enough to see your breath and he was clutching a bottle of wine under one arm and saying goodbye to the remaining campers. He didn't recognise me straight away but when he did he seemed generally pleased to see me. My attempts at communication were limited by my inadequate French but after a while he started speaking in a little English (something I never knew he could speak!) and then we communicated using both. He told me that he was finishing with the campsite all together. He had had enough of the local commune and had fallen out with them and told them that he would not do it the following year. He decided that it was too hard with too much stress to make it worthwhile. He was about to start a job in Agen in a factory repairing electronic goods. From what I could understand this was a revival of an old factory that had been set up years ago, where he had worked as a young man. I wished him well and felt quite sad a I don't think the campsite will be the same without him. When we were leaving the following day we saw him driving his camper van in the opposite direction. We tooted and waved at each other. I wonder if that will be the last that we see of him?

Monday, 27 October 2008

The house grows..

When we arrived on the site there was no sign of the builder but it was reassuring to see that the walls had progressed a little to the height of the windows. There was no sign on Tuesday but on Wednesday he arrived with the rain and activity resumed at pace. By the time we left on Saturday morning the walls were completed to the top of the windows and the builder was awaiting a new delivery of bricks in order to continue. It was good to see progress so quickly and the roof and windows were promised by the end of the year (although this remains to be seen!) Below are some pictures of the progress! The window is from the main bedroom and was inserted as almost an afterthought. Looking at the view I am very glad that we put it in!

Llama house 3


Ian, Mike and Bill (another neighbour and owner of the gite where we stayed), managed to finish the mobile field shelter in the time available although it was close and they were working up to dusk on the last day. There are one or two finishing touches to add but basically the construction was a success, although we had several discussions as to whether the llamas would actually appreciate it! Here is a picture of the finished item!

Below is a close up of the towing mechanism which was custom designed and hand welded by the man down the road. Its capacity to withstand towing has not yet been tested!


Sunday, 26 October 2008

A long lunch and a long wait

Having decided to forgo the joys of Eurotunnel for our return trip, due to the fact that the only available crossing was at 6.00 a.m. on Monday, we booked onto the last crossing with Speed Ferries expecting to depart at 9.45p.m. Well, here we are sitting in a line, in the van, in the rain at Boulogne with a one and a half hour delay. Ian has just said that he now remembers why we don't travel this way normally! All the white vans are in one line next to the line with all the Range Rovers! Not a good choice. Mr Range Rover driver has just slammed his door open into Ian's van almost causing a violent incident!

On a more positive note, we took Mike out for lunch to thank him for his hard word this week. He suggested a restaurant in a nearby village called La Taverne Du Cochon Sale (the salted pig). We had to book and the restaurant was full. The food was definitely not for vegetarians but really excellent local recipes, well cooked and beautifully presented. I had scallops (cooked beautifully) to start followed by a stuffed quail, a selection of local cheeses and a desert called the Paris-Brest (maybe after the famous bike race!). It consisted of choux pastry, praline, chocolate sauce and a sort of local bread pudding. We arrived a 12.30 and left at 3.45! A proper French lunch at under 90 euros for three! I can recommend it if you ever find yourself in the Somme.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Freedom and occupation

We have brought Ian's friend Mike with us to assist with the arduous jobs, such as sawing, cutting and lugging wood and to assist with the technical aspects of the design, thus giving Ian someone to talk with and leave me free to be a 'domestique'; fetching the refreshments! Mike lives in Albert. Albert is in the middle of the Somme a few kilometres from the front line and after the first world war all but one building remained and a handful of people, living in cellars. Mike bought a house on the main road opposite the aerospace factory, in an area that was once a casualty clearing station for the French. The house was formerly a hotel and at one time a brothel and a bar. It was in pretty poor condition and Mike is painstakingly restoring and renovating it; turning it into flats and bed-sitters.

The history of the area is fascinating and depressing. Mike has found human bones when digging but unless they can be linked to a person by other artifacts no one is interested as there are so many to be found. On the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 young men were killed or fatally injured. That is more than 20 times the number killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Here in the Dordogne the history is not quite so tragic although during the second world war the border dividing occupied France from free France was a only a few kilometres away. Apparently the area where the land is was occupied and the older locals remember stories of villagers being taken to the woods and shot. There is still some animosity towards the Germans (although at the same time a gay German couple lived happily in the village for many years).

Know your boundaries

We are now happily settled at the neighbours' gîte and are re-acclimatizing to life in rural France; the quiet, the wildlife (including cluster flies, harvest mites and hornets), the beautiful countryside and the eccentricities of the French, the bureaucracy and the local population. It feels good to be back!

Yesterday we had an early start as we were putting in or les bourns cadastral or boundary stones. This is not just a case of bashing in a few rocks but involves the local geometre, (official surveyor) an array of complicated and highly technical measuring equipment and the presence of all concerned parties. Thus a strange bunch of people assembled at 9.00 am at the land. We were there together with Herman (the herb farmer at the bottom of the field), Madame Delgrano's brother, who owns a neighbouring field, and Madame Fleurre, a smart and sprightly seventy something lady who owns another of the fields.

The French contingent were in good spirits; it was sunny and they were enjoying the outdoors! They told stories of their youth. Madame Delgrano's brother started life picking grapes for Madame Fleurre's father and then should have been a baker, in the family tradition. However he rejected that plan as he felt that all he would do was to make things that disappeared with nothing to show for it. He decided to be builder; something he found much more enjoyable as his buildings were there to stay and he could still look at them. Madame Fleurre and her friend went off to look for mushrooms in the wood but the dry autumn meant there were none.

All seemed to proceed amicably. The plans for the fields were originally drawn up in Napoleonic times and hence there was some discrepancy about the exact dimensions which did not stand up to the robust measuring tools of today. However, all was agreed and all seemed happy except for Herman (who had been convinced that he owned all of the wooded area around the boundary - we suspect because he has let much of his land get very overgrown and if he cannot freely access the edge of the woods he will have a lot of clearing to do to make it possible for him to access all of his land!) Herman stormed off at one point (to the amusement of the French) and although he parted in a seemingly good humour in the afternoon we saw him marching back and forth around the boundaries of his land. No doubt we will hear more from him! The boundaries were officially marked with all due ceremony! The man in the photo placed the original stones 40 years ago. He is retiring next year!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Waiting (hopefully not in vain)

Here we are sitting in the Eurotunnel waiting area while our crossing is delayed by an hour and a half due to 'operational difficulties'. I am making use of the free Wi-Fi connection to blog! In the seat behind me is a young man reciting a monologue about himself to a blonde woman. I have not heard a word from her but know a lot about him and his remarkable achievements. Children are running riot and we have just been given vouchers for more hot drinks! I hope we don't have to sit here too much longer as I have already spent £30 on perfume!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Good and bad in America

I have a confession and that is when I get in from work and make myself a cup of tea one of my favourite ways of relaxing is to watch Judge Judy. For those who are not followers, it is an American TV show, where people bring their small claims court cases to be heard in front of a real judge on prime time TV. The cases are mostly minor, usually relating to money and relationships and I will leave you speculate about the people who are happy to air their grievances in public, suffice to say the phrase 'trailer trash' enters my head a lot. Judge Judy herself is a shrewd New Yorker who relishes in telling it like it is... a woman after my own heart!

Conversely I am not that interested in the American election, even though the staged debates do have the air of a Judge Judy court room about them. When I first heard that Sarah Palin's 17 year old daughter was pregnant I didn't immediately make the connection but when I read that she was accused of abusing her power by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper because he was going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with her sister I began to see that Judge Judy really does represent all walks of life.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The builder re-appears

To coincide with our visit next week we heard from our spies that our builder has resurfaced in earnest and turned up on site together with a very large pile of bricks. We look forward to seeing the progress!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Saving the economy

Yet more dealings and negotiations have occurred over the last few days to try to stop the city talking itself into economic meltdown. The upshot is that shares rose again and my brother now works for the government after his bank was nationalised. He is looking forward to less pay, shorter hours, more holidays and paid sick leave.

Llama house 2

This is the kind of shelter Ian wants to build when we are in France. I have persuaded him to make the doorway bigger and we are going to put in 2 windows to allow the air to pass through in the summer and to give the llamas something to look at! Who knows whether they will like it or not! We are picking up the wood on Saturday morning from Kent and driving it down to the Dordogne. I will post pictures of the work in progress. (The picture is from here.)

Do you believe everything you read?

We are going to France by Eurotunnel again but the recent fire means that the crossings are not so frequent and we could not get the exact times that we wanted. When the fire happened (the most serious fire in the history of the tunnel) I did notice that it happened on 11th September or 9/11; the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers. It was surprising that the usually speculative press made not one mention of this fact. In fact it was universally accepted that it was caused by a fire on a lorry caused by hazardous chemicals (forbidden on the tunnel) and by a lorry tipping over (an impossibility). I am not a great one to believe in conspiracy theories (I think Princess Diana really was killed by a reckless driver) but the facts in this case seem vague and the lack of speculation seems improbable. There are a few mentions of this on various websites but if there really is a government cover-up then expect this blog to disappear forthwith!

Autumn spiders

After a wet and cold summer Autumn, or at least the last three weeks, has been glorious. Yesterday it was as warm as summer although this means that in the mornings and evenings it is misty. In preparation for winter the spiders are at their busiest and there are large webs everywhere that show up in the dew. Here is a picture of one.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The dangers of getting involved at work

Today has been irritating! The problem is that up until the last week or so my heart was still in France but then it slowly got tugged back to work and I found myself more and more entwined. The problem with that is that the more that I get involved the more irritated I get and I had finally had enough today when I learned (through the circles of gossip) that the boss is off on 4 weeks holiday from Monday. Not that I begrudge her that but as I have to give weeks of notice, get it approved, negotiate it with my team and arrange cover for my work when I go away it did feel very much like there was one rule for us and one for the boss. Anyway I made my feelings clear which also didn't go down too well! The good news is it will not take long for me disentangle myself from work the week after next when we head over to France again! My challenge is to stay disentangled for as long as possible when I get back. It would be good to make it as far as Christmas.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The price of peace

Had another conversation with my brother tonight as he works for a major bank that looked like it was going down the toilet yesterday and I wanted to check that he was still sane! He said he was okay as he now works for the government so is looking forward to less money, longer holidays, shorter hours and paid sick leave. He said that the global economic crisis would probably mean that the U.S. will pull out of Iraq, regardless of the result of the election. In fact this crisis has been what Al Qaeda have been trying to do since 9/11 and if only they'd have known that this meltdown would just occur on its own they could have avoided a lot of bloodshed! Now all the major economies have got their money tied up supporting the banks their won't be anything left to spend on weapons and wars. Wouldn't that be nice!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The sh*t will always hit the fan eventually!

I can't help thinking that work is a microcosm for life in general. There have been a few issues lurking around at work that those in power have been aware of for a while but have adopted a perplexed laissez-faire attitude about; until now. Well, guess what has happened? The mistakes got more noticeable and the sh*t (which had been ignored for a while) has well and truly begun to hit the fan and we will all feel the fall-out very soon. I couldn't help but notice that this was akin to the events in the economy where the various governments have been aware for a long time that all was not well with the major banks, their dealings and their integrity but adopted a similar approach to that of the big chiefs at work and let it be. When the sh*t happened they seem a bit surprised to find that all the major economies of the world are now about to be flushed down the toilet and Iceland was declared bankrupt on the basis of a rumour concerning something that someone said in Germany.

Ian and I talked about it on the phone tonight, (the closest we get to an intimate relationship on weekdays). We both agreed that having been in the position when one day we thought we had it all and then seemingly a day or so later realising that we probably had nothing, that all this about the economy was relatively minor.

Interestingly I can remember discussing with my brother how the trading floor worked a few years ago. It seemed to be run mainly on suspicion and something akin to witchcraft. Most market crashes happen in Autumn because that's when everything happens in the city and every autumn they get jittery (Halloween also happens about then). When my brother was a trader he would only open his book at a time with a number 7 in it (IE. 8:07, 7.57) as he liked the number 7. He was not alone in having these various superstitions and beliefs. Most people that are traders are basically gamblers and if they weren't employed gambling with the banks' money would be down the betting shop. We all know the downside of addiction!

NB: My brother seems to have come out the other side and is now the most cautious person I know when it comes to money"!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Llama house

We are going over to France in October for a week and Ian had hoped to be able to progress with the house but as we are unlikely to have any walls by then I guess that will not happen! So, we want to use the time productively. Doing the fencing is really too big a job but Ian suggested that building a field shelter for the llamas might be a good thing to do..Okay, we haven't got any llamas or a house for us yet but you have to start somewhere! Ian was keen so looked up patterns for mobile field shelters (it has to be a temporary structure or we need planning consent). In the meantime I looked up 'field shelters-llamas' on Google. Now here we have the difficulty. A mobile field shelter needs to be quite solid so that when you tow it across the field it doesn't fall apart; whereas llamas get claustrophobia and prefer a more 'open-plan' style! I think we will have to design our own!

Talking of llamas, Matthew Parris (a part time llama farmer himself) wrote a funny piece in the Spectator about the economy and the bottom dropping out of the Llama market. Good news for us as by the time they are at rock bottom we may be ready to buy!

Mandi's return

One day you are in the next day you are out, or vice-versa! My cat Mandi was actually named Mandelson, after Peter. For a while everyone thought it was rather funny but in recent years I have got the the point where I don't even bother to explain the true origins, just saying that it is an abbreviation that stuck. The most anyone ever queries is why my male cat has a girl's name. That is until last week and the reincarnation of Peter Mandelson in the government. After years in the wilderness Mandi has returned!

Saturday, 4 October 2008


This is really an experimental post to try out a new tool that I found on my Eeeee.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Food for friends

Just spent a nice evening with colleagues. The idea was to drink some of the wine I bought back from France, which we managed. I also made something for us to eat. It was the first time I had made it and it turned out quite well. The recipe comes from a Sainsbury's magazine and was quite easy.

Roasted Butternut, aubergine, tomato and feta couscous.

I small butternut squash (I used a large one)
1 small aubergine (I used a medium)
2 tablespoons of olive oil (I didn't measure)
10 cherry tomatoes (thereabouts)
2 tablespoons of pine nuts (used what I had left in the packet)
150 gm couscous (I used 204gm..what was left in box)
250ml boiling water (I used about 320ml)
150 gm feta cheese (I used a packet of low fat feta)
a handful of mint leaves (didn't have so didn't use)
2 red chillies (I used one hot one)
sea salt
(I also used a small green pepper and ground mixed pepper)

Preheat oven to 180 (fan) 200 electric or gas 6.
Peel de-seed and chop squash into chunks (assisted by colleague). Chop aubergine into chunks. Toss in oil and roast on baking tray for 20 minutes. Scatter tomatoes and chopped pepper among the vegetables and roast for a further 10 minutes. Tip pine nuts into a small tin and roast in oven at the same time. Place couscous in bowl and pour on boiling water. Cover and leave to stand for 10 minutes.
De-seed and finely chop chili. Chop mint. Mix chili, vegetables, salt, pepper, pine nuts and crumbled feta cheese into the couscous.

Serve with salad and garlic bread.

We talked about a lot of things including health and safety man's latest escapades which will be the subject of a future post!