Friday, 21 September 2012

Engines,guns and other French pastimes

French folk “live” for the weekends, they are very family orientated and there is something going on every weekend during the summer/Autumn period. It’s like us with agility,they just do “other stuff”…..who knew !!!

Richard and I took a trip to the lovely location of Vertueil (the Queen often stays at the Chateau there and it’s a truly beautiful town)
We went to see a Motorcross event organised by the local MotorX club. We didn’t know what to expect,but we should have realised that instead of a humble “club” meet, it was a full on Motorbike spectacular with riders from a multitude of clubs and regions competing in several rounds to find the winner of each age group. Girls competed against the boys too,so I was suitably impressed. It started at 8am and ran until 6pm and from what we saw, the riders were as young as 8 and rode like they had been astride a bike since birth. Whole families competed and the atmosphere around the “pits” was electric.

Ok, I have to say right here and now that my son Paul could have probably given the guys in the 18-25 category a run for their money in the 500cc class…..
Paul's CR500
but then he’s wired wrong and has a crazy arsed(his words) Honda CR 500 that has hospitalized all it’s previous owners, so I was sort of glad he didn't “rock up” on the day. He apparently was sticking to the relative safety of a F2 sidecar that day at Castle Combe……………Safe????…….Why didn't he stick to agility ??? !!!

The following weekend hailed the dawn of another French obsession “La Chasse”.

France has a very long and very keenly followed hunting season, the 1st September until the end of March. Much has been written in Ex-Pat papers about the perils and horrors of the brigades of lone hunters and group organised shoots. They go much along the lines of they are all a bunch of gung ho murderous bar-stewards who kill anything and everything at the drop of a hat, and you take your life in your hands to be out and about anywhere in the countryside, coz they shoot 1st and think afterwards!!  I have to admit I have always taken precautions when out and about. It’s no idle co-incidence that my long-distance herding (potentially deer chasing) kelpie-X "Kif" dons a Hi-Vis Florescent jacket when off our property. Similarly  I dress in bright colours take an audible whistle and a non-stop barking spaniel(thanks Phee)when approaching woods.

I can’t say I approve of hunting but I accept that, like in England, it is long standing traditional pastime that once put the meat on the tables of our ancestors. Any form of cruelty disgusts me and baiting,trapping etc is barbaric. But organised shoots where dogs are used to cover beat into the open for the gunmen …. Nope,I hate that too, but I live here at the moment and appreciate, unlike Britain, how much countryside there IS for the wildlife at large to hide in. Yes the hunting/shooting IS keenly followed, but in the 8 years I have been coming here I have not noticed any drop in the numbers of local fauna.

If my opinion as to the average Frenchman’s attitude to “game” was altered,it was when I found an injured deer on a path near the house the other day. I couldn't see whether it had been shot but assumed it had- it couldn’t stand and had a very large swelling under it’s chin. To be honest I could see there was no hope,and it was suffering. In tears I went to my neighbour Rosemary’s house and garbled in Schoolgirl French about what I had found,and how I just needed someone to end it’s distress.

Phone calls were made,and within 10 minutes I went with Rosemary’s husband Jacky,and a member of the local "Chasse" back to where I had found the unfortunate creature. I assumed they could,and would, just “dispatch” it with no care, concern or remorse, but I have to say, considering they were both huntsman, they made several phone calls to try and get someone out quickly with a lethal injection to put it to sleep humanly before finally having to admit that the quickest, and therefore the kindest way, was to do it themselves rather than continue to let it suffer.They handled the whole situation,and the deer itself,with compassion and respect unlike anything I would have ever imagined. The French may have a bad reputation but my first hand experience showed just the contrary.

It turned out that the poor deer hadn't been shot but had been hit by a train which had shattered his jaw.In this long spell of hot weather the deer go to the Charante river to drink, but this means that they have to cross a local rail line. Somehow in coming back it had been struck,this made me reflect that you often dwell on mans inhumanity in shooting wildlife but you often forget how much wildlife is also lost as “roadkill”. Man has a lot to answer for all round I guess.

Anyway on a happier subject altogether, another French passion, preserving, and the use of natures natural abundances.

Every where you seem to go in France it’s foragers heaven countless roadside bounty in the form of Plums,cherries,damsons,apples,chestnuts,walnuts,and……..wait for it……sloes, all free and readily available,growing down every woodland path and backlane. Sign me up for the W.I. folks, let the jam making begin!!

No actually,on this particular occasion I had another thing in mind. -Queue hasty text to Brother Mark,the recipe meister himself. So how DO you make sloe GIN ??. That’s more like it folks. 

Now having MADE the aforementioned Sloe Gin(some of them picked in my garden) I have only to wait until Xmas to test it out. Thanks Bro, I will be raiding your Blackcurrent and Port Jam recipe in the near future… warned.      

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Log blog

One thing the French get really excited about is their log piles. When you drive through the countryside there are 100 metre x 2 metre high piled logs at every turn in the road. With the lack of natural gas most people heat by wood burners and “old wood” is sold for 40 euros per cubic metre. Now until this year,the nearest I have come to my very own log pile is the mish-mash of felled wood from our jungle of a garden. Not any more.

As some of you will know we have brought out our own wood-burner which is hopefully being installed with an accompanying chimney,flue and hearth this month(Sept). In anticipation of this much awaited arrival we have used a contact that my brother in law has,to supply us with 3 cubes of wood for the forthcoming winter/s. 3 cubic metres doesn’t SOUND like a lot of wood, we have only had 1 cube delivered so far….but it looks tons!!. Now what better way than to cut said wood than with a chain saw,.....and an axe…”gotta have an axe” I said.

With this in mind Ian, Richard and myself disappeared off to La Rochefoucauld (marvellous Chateau there by the way)to purchase a chain saw. We were in luck there was an amazing “promo” deal on a petrol chainsaw that looked as though it would do the trick (plus a really neat axe that I could pretend to wield about and look like a lumberjack) Voila,sold to the Brits all ready, and up for a good afternoons chopping, or so we thought.

Now the problem with some machine assembly is : that it’s pretty difficult to follow the instructions in your native language but try it in French !!! how hard can it be?,you try it!! Well armed with a dictionary it proved do-able, it just took a while. Glowing with pride,some hour and a half later we fill it with fuel, and chain oil and ….putt……putt…….putt……putt…. nothing. “@%*~#” Said the boys(direct quote) They had it apart(again) and fiddled(and cursed) and fiddled again(where’s mechanic Paul when you need him) and finally deduced -No spark… and the “kill” switch is wonky so basically …it’s…… that word again…..!

So,the afternoon of wood chopping was dropped in favour of the two boys taking the thing BACK to the shop to get a replacement by explaining it all to the Returns section in French.Tee hee, I meanly left them to that, alright I could have gone, but I figured it’s about time their training wheels came off their command of the language. Oh,to have been a fly on the wall !!. However,amazingly they managed to achieve A RESULT,as some 2 hrs later with a freshly boxed(to assemble again)chain saw, and 6 bottles of Charante Pineau(blended Cognac and wine), sold directly from a local producer, they returned triumphant.Just where the Pineau came into it, I wasn't too sure. 

It was now too late for logging, as we were going out for a meal at 7pm, but had just enough time to build it and fire it up…. thankfully, it worked.

Over the meal it was revealed that on their travels they had identified the problem all along. It  was….wait for it…..MY fault !!!!  They had remembered that when Ian had picked up the Original box in the warehouse he had added,(as he knows me too well) “Is this one ok Sis or do you want a different one??” I, of course DID want a different one, as the box he had chosen had minimal damage to one side. You can’t be too careful folks, so I choose a perfect box,Whoops, it’s just a shame it had a broken chain saw inside,had I gone for Ian’s selection, I would have had a log pile by teatime. Still, what’s the hurry, the sun will be shining again tomorrow.  

 It was 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Merrily, merrily, merrily, down the stream

What do you do when one of your older brothers pops in for a few days ?, well you start by kayaking down the Charante river…..who wouldn’t.!!!

My brother Ian lives in the Channel Islands, he has been a resident there since the early 70’s when he met and married my long suffering sister in law Maureen. He is my oldest brother and he had a few days holiday he needed to use up,so proposed to drive down from St.Malo. Ian and I have regrettably seen fairly little of each other over the last 20 yrs….maybe this has more than a little to do with my involvement in agility, and the associated lack of free time and money.In fairness, he has always done his part regularly, dropping in to England from time to time with his family,and keeping up his fortnightly phone calls, but to get him on the doorstep at Le Tardis. I was a happy bunny.

Now not a lot of you know this but our family come from a “yachty” background. My father was a sailing instructor on the Solent in Hampshire and spent his early retirement sailing around the Mediterranean on a 4 berth yacht,Ian studied traditional boat building and raced yachts in his youth and as for other brother Mark and I, well we took more holidays in yachts in the 70’s than we took caravan hols. So in summary, life on the water featured largely for the Ruskins.

Living now as closely as we do to the Charante river,and fishing it’s banks each visit, I had always held a secret desire to “row row row my boat” so I took the arrival of my nearest and nautical dearest to hire a canoe for a couple of hours and paddle around(well get HIM to paddle me around,I'm not stupid !). They say you can never go back in time…..but arsing about on the river as we did,we may as well have been back in our youths, it was a blast…so thanks for that big brother, the image of us struggling to go UP a weir (and accomplishing same) rather than take the boat out of the water and go round it will stay with me forever.

 A note to any intrepid river canoeists out there, when you launch off at the canoe base and find out you have left your waterproof map behind and you are offered it by the base manager…..paddle back and get it !!! The “how hard can it be” approach may not possibly get you up the creek without a paddle, but can prove interesting when the river keeps splitting and you can hear fast moving water. PS: who says you can’t blackberry pick from the water ??? I have a big brother that will try anything once…..silly bugger.   

When is quiet too noisy???

One of the things that I find hard to cope with, believe it or not, is the acute silence at the cottage both during the day,and more so in the middle of the night, the silence is,…..some would say,  deafening !!!
Coming as I do from a reasonably small village in Somerset,you would consider that would be quite “quiet” too, however, I assume that is because the cry of the seagulls(we’re on the coast)the crash of the waves at high tide and the steady movement of village traffic on the main road, plus the planes coming in on their approach to Bristol airport, just don’t register as they are constant. Now when you have constant silence, noise is a totally different affair, it makes it’s presence well and truly heard. A single mosquito buzzing in the room, the owl that has taken to hooting in a neighbouring tree in the middle of the night, the nightingales that don’t sing in Berkeley Square but have a “sing off”with the aforementioned owl. In full Dolby Digital with no other background noise, "You could hear a pin drop” literally, 24/7, It's LOUD folks!.  

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Bric a brac and other French junk.

Going from something that excites me on to something that excites my other half but leaves me pretty much stone cold, the Frenchman’s propensity to sell any old junk and expect silly money for it!. 
The weekends are peppered with "Vide greniers",Brac a Brac’s and Brocante’s in the towns and villages of the Charante. Picture a car boot sale which shuts down the road network of a complete village, pepper it with stalls selling everything you can imagine,Honey,Plants,Jewellery,crepes ,Pate,Brandy, etc then interspace it with 50 or 60 stalls holders emptying the the entire contents of outbuildings and barns and their homes, but not with fare the likes of which we see at Car Boot sales, but with things that are rusty,broken,tatty and worn. Some of these people much have been carting these same items around since they were NEW,(sometime in the early 1900’s methinks!) yet no matter how unrecognisable and obsolete these items are, they want the EARTH for them and in many cases get it. They,for instance, would attempt to sell a Barbie with no head and a missing leg!. How much do you want for it Mr Frenchman?? 10 euros !!…Ouch. I mean,  I  get embarrassed for them but they carry on with brazen confidence. But that having been said,we always come away with something,there are bargains to be found, eight matching sundae glasses for 5 euros ….that will do nicely. Maybe the cringeworthyness of it all will eventually settle with me……Or not……    

Fox on the run

NB :Just to say at the moment these posts are still "catch up posts" as I was writing them on a word document while I waited for technology to catch me they will be added in groups of three or four days at a time. Very soon,hopefully I will therefore be up to date.

This morning whilst I tried to escape the first blast of post 8.30am heat (I allowed myself a stiff black coffee before I ventured forth which made me somewhat later than planned) I saw the biggest ,darkest auburn fox I have ever seen,stood right in the middle of a huge field,the same field which a couple of visits ago allowed Kif to get more than a comfortable distance away from a deer he pursued. This fox saw me and decided to make a break at speed for the woods(a fair distance away) and then changed direction towards a nearer crop of Maize into which it disappeared. It was at this point that I realised that in all my 52 years, including a couple of equestrian Xmas hunts(for my sins) in my youth and I had never yet seen a “Fox on the run”. Have I seen foxes ? ,many….have I seen them “slip away” ?  more than a few but I have never just seen one take start and bolt !. It was a wonderful sight. Then it begin to make me think about all the things I have seen here which I had never seen in real live before. Things that perhaps a few of you who are lucky enough to live the “wild” like I used to when I was younger take forgranted. Hares “boxing in spring” ,Kingfishers hunting fish on the riverbank and Otters building holts directly opposite us on a riverbank while we fished.  Owls ,bats, red squirrels, butterflies, moths, swifts, snakes, woodpeckers, the list goes on and on. I know this makes me sound like a bit of a nature geek but it’s watching things like this on a daily basis that sets my pulse racing right now and to be able to trace their lives through the seasons thrills me to the bone. All I need for Xmas Mr Claus is a MASSIVE camera lens. Thanks guy.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

When is hot, too darn hot ??

Ok so I love the climate here. We are spolit in this area by what is known as a “Microclimate” a portion of land (I am told) that is a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs to the surrounding area, which makes it pretty pleasant 85% of the time, so, when it’s raining, snowing or freezing within the Poitou Charante it usually isn’t within 10 kms of the N10 (the north /south running road that is smack bang in the middle of this phenomenon). The exception to this rule is HEAT….whenever the thermometer starts climbing it soars to silly stupid hot. Our lovely garden faces directly south so that the sun rises and goes on it’s daily travels directly across it. There’s nowhere to hide….except indoors which is where we found ourselves for the most of Wednesday and Thurs but even then, it was to hot to DO anything,except read and drink Perrier. The temperature in our lounge didn’t dip beneath 27 even at 11.30pm and as for the temperature outside?? 38 degs air temp and if you stand still up to 48 on a hand held thermometer. It certainly explains why our neighbours never open their shutters or their windows but just sit in the dark!!. Only the silly English throw back the shutters with gay abandon.  I never knock the weather out here but even I had to admit, and yes I said it “ It’s really TOO hot”  Viewing the “Meteo” it was due for a change, while I’m typing this it is 25.2 in our lounge, MUCH more manageable.  Good job its cooler in the mornings for the dogs. They would fry otherwise. I hadn’t ever really given the prospect of working dogs in heat any thought. I bet on Wednesday they were still working them at Vallee du Salles Agility Club fifteen minutes away, but then they probably have acclimatized. There would have been no way “Swamp coat” or not any of mine would have been out in it. Never mind yours truly.  There are benefits of course. My washing is dry, if a little bleached, in no time at all!! Il fait beau.

End of week One. “Le Tardis” enters the modern age.

We HAVE a phone line, we HAVE a dialling tone….we don’t yet HAVE a modem (that’s on its way) and at the moment or phone calls are provided by France Telecom (ouch) and not the UK based provider we have chosen for our “Anglo” package but otherwise C’est bon. The very nice gentleman arrived with a cherry picker, well I use the term “arrived” loosely. For those of you that don’t know, in France you don’t have a house number,you simply have a road name and an area code. OUR area code 16230 takes in many many villages and our Road “Rue des Loges” extends throughout Luxe itself,serving multiple houses, so any deliveries or house calls are achieved by literally reading letterboxes (where you provide details of your title and Surname). If this were applied in England can you imagine the chaos !! So I “found” my workman at the other end of the village and caught him bang on 8am only by the sheer chance I was walking the dogs in the lane. Conjure if you will the thought of Kif,Phee and myself walking back towards our house being followed by a umpteen ton lorry, which by the way blocks the entire lane once it is “in situ” at our house,and the accompanying workman walks away from it as though causing a complete blockage isn’t a “biggy”  Ok so it’s only one car or two in a whole day but you’d think he’d at least pop a cone or two out !!.

Couldn’t fault his work, the speed of the installation, and he seemed pretty happy about the DIY cable entry and thank god my French stood up pretty well – job done.  Phone, dialling tone. Mission 1a accomplished.

Day Five - Health & Safety and bureaucratic nonsense

....... is alive and well and visiting France it would seem. The much planned (since May) much anticipated and much needed telephone line was due to be installed today. Rich walked the dogs at the crack of dawn so that the agreed calling time (between 8-10) left no margin for error. I should have known it was too good to be true when at the very early time of 8.15 a smart little French van arrived and a suitably (for my taste) young and handsome Frenchman extended the hand of friendship and bade me “Bonjour”. Now to summarize, we have no line, no wiring , no installation of ANY kind EVER. I mean the people that lived in our house lived on one floor, the basement was their workroom, their grenier (loft)their animal feed store, the kitchen, lounge, bedroom and toilet all shared the same space - no walls, no dividers(even for the toilet, which had a modesty curtain fashioned around it)….it’s not like they were ever going to have a phone, or T.V…Electricity, I take it from the super duper re-wiring job my brother in law had to do, was an afterthought too. This rather too colourful picture had already been shared with our provider so there was no likelihood for a mistake…or so you would think. After ushering him through the door and explaining in my very best French where I wanted the telephone point and why, I saw him look quizzically around the room and he shook his head, not it would appear for the first time this transpired that he just thought he was connecting us….could he not therefore start the work of installation.?? The telephone pole is just 10 yds from our front door, how hard can it be??? More head shaking…more tutting, "I know it’s a 2ft thick solid stone wall, so just get a BIG drill and a cherry picker and bingo Monsigner Le Telecom". NON apparently, in France that’s the role of an electrician who can assess if you are going to hit internal wall cables, it’s not the telephone engineers job to install the site for the line !! Two minutes on the job and 69 euros worse off I still was no nearer to having my contact to the outside world. Luckily I have a very willing husband, the enormous drill borrowed from my brother in law, the step ladder of my neighbour and VOILA a freaking great hole and no electrician required….we weren’t going to hit power lines….my brother in law put them IN !!! Now after a very disgruntalled call to my service provider I have the engineer returning tomorrow…I am assuming that he will have the necessary box and bracket to run it into the house through our rather cleverly developed trunking…..I doubt it and I’m sure it’s going to cost me to have him tell me that, but I feel another strongly worded complaint brewing……it’s not like I didn’t tell them ……  

Friday, 7 September 2012

Day Four - Settling back in and things to celebrate

Day three by the way we didn’t lose through a wine binge or memory fade but was infact an opportunity to share the pandemonium that is “Le Tardis” after a three month break with our nearest and dearest..or as I know them Mother in Law and partner. They were staying with my sister in law 6 kms down the road….”Give us a chance to settle in for a few days” quoth I………24 hrs after reaching French soil is apparently, in some people’s opinion PLENTY of time to leap tall buildings in a single bound !!! Thankfully my mother in law is THE coolest mother in law anyone could have…I mean ME as a daughter in law for 30 yrs……it speaks for itself !!!! Anyway we had a lovely day nothing too strenuous or demanding….basically chatting, pottering and a “spot on” BBQ, Trout, roasted peppers ,salad, potatoes and accompanying red wine(for those of us NOT driving M in law back to Jeans later) plus fresh peaches in honey with cream for pud …beats a sausage,burger and a shop bought Viennetta for sure. It was nearly TOO hot to have it outside dammit…. But we survived.

Anyhow back to Day Four:
Day four dawned with me taking the dogs out earlier than yesterday for their walk…..We had a bit of a “scare” Phee wee wise….I guess 35 degs with a dodgy heart at 9.00am in the morning not really wise… decided to venture forth before 8. Saw a green woodpecker today, usually they are the Red spotted variety, also a Black red squirrel….yes you heard me right the cutest thing you ever did see. Arrival back at HQ was greeted with a much needed cup of strong black coffee and the formulating of a game plan to “assault” the lower terrace of the garden (our Shrub zone) particularly aimed at the fauna of the region and my pride and joy. 3hrs later nettle and deadly nightshade free I had at least some semblance to what we left 3 mths ago…some of the “they have two chances” flora bought the farm…some went MENTAL…does a 6 foot tall Buddleia really appear from a tiny sprig in May ??, apparently so. Blimey…it even killed all the weeds underneath it ! mind you it’s yellow counterpart regularly trimmed to within an inch of its life with little or no regard to the approved pruning programme had taken OVER the entire patio. Can’t lop them back yet though…they aren’t called butterfly bushes for nothing.

Celebrations were in order as, after checking our nesting boxes I found two of the three (the tit boxes) had been used. Before we return in October I will be giving them a spring clean and I am hopeful they will be used again next year….by which they likelihood is that I will try a web-cam in at least one of them. “Springwatch” on my own doorstep…unreal.

Patrice, one of our neighbours, caught us in the garden and we were astonished to be given a Charentaise Jaune (Gala style) melon, cucumber, Crinkly lettuce and 2 marrows, all cut for us from his veg patch right then and there. Good job we don’t have to barter, I don’t think 8 barrowloads of dead weeds would have stood us in much stead.

Day Two - And so it begins

Happily some of the remembered articles already coming in useful. New parts for the petrol weed-wacker which will hopefully decimate the aforementioned jungle, a full and comprehensive DVD collection of fresh out the cellophane,and cinema films that will complement our purposely chosen 42 inch French television with accompanying TNT package…sure, it’s an opportunity to watch back to back episodes of Dr.House,Vampire Diairies and NCIS Los Angeles all dubbed and subtitled into French,but hey these days they ACTUALLY bother to choose people who SOUND like the original actors and there’s no better incentive to learn French then a little eye candy begging to be translated, " Merci beaucoup Monsieur Damon Salvatore",you still apparently smoulder convincingly in something other than my native tongue!. But for the odd fall back moments there’s something in every genre of DVD……well mostly in mine, Rom-Com and a couple of thrillers and Marvel films to keep Mr Skinner happy. The worst part will be the last week when we have only the flicks that we kept till last because one or the other of us didn’t fancy them. We WILL watch “Remember Me” at some time Mr Pattinson….but someone told me it was pants and Richard only thought you were EVER any good as Cedric Digby in Harry Porter !!! He has a point. 

Day One - Here we go again

It never fails to amaze me that no matter how much I am looking forward to getting away the trip “over” always makes me feel like I just want to crawl under the covers and not come out, glorious weather or not. This has very little, nothing infact, to do with the pitiful exchange rate I got on my English Pounds, or missing my family and dogs and realizing the six things I wrote on my “do not forget” list were promptly forgotten…,this has more to do with the fact that we pull into our drive hidden from view by a six foot solid metal gate in the small, if not wee-small hours of a 13 hour solid car and train pilgrimage to our own personal Mecca, open the gates  and have the beam bent headlights hit the JUNGLE that was the pristine picture of greenfingered contentment we left 12 weeks previously. “Merde”…….it will still be there in the morning….it was: