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Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Christmas Caroling High Note

Would we sing at a carol concert on the 12th  of January? Yes, was the reply, but I did wonder why it wasn’t being held – you know, during Christmas. 

Evidently, I was the only one who thought it might be a relevant point. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, most Christmas decorations don’t come down until the end of the month in our part of France. Come to think of it, some stay all year, gently gathering dust in preparation for the next round of festivities.

There’s a history to this date conundrum. Our friend, Camille, and her chums from other parishes, needed to find a date where four churches were available for the service on the same day. For the past few years, this had always fallen on the second week of the new year.

The idea of the concerts is for villagers to begin at their local church and then hop into cars and drive to the next one. The same for singers. By the time the final venue is reached there exists the potential for a substantial gathering, many choristers and lots of confusion.

Of course, I agreed, including my husband, Jack, saying he would love to join in too. Although prepared to do his bit for the village, he steadfastly refused to attend the practice session. I can’t say I blamed him. He’d been before.

Along I went to our local church on a freezing cold day. The heating wasn’t on, no problem for us hardy country folk, I had thought, we wouldn’t be there long. Organisers and a handful of other singers soon arrived. Our plan was to sing through the programmes, which would be different for each church.

Camille handed out a sheaf of papers containing all the carol lyrics. So far, so good. Then the fun began.

Madame from church one also handed out a sheaf. It was different. A high-speed exchange in French instantly took place between the two competitive ladies. It was one of those where chipping in with helpful comments was not required. Finally, an accord was reached.

Camille announced the newly-agreed order of play. This included les anglais (us), who were to sing a different carol in English in three churches. Les brésiliens (our pals), would sing a Brazilian hymn in a fourth. We got cracking.

The practice started fairly well until madame from church three caused a commotion mid-carol by yelling out a number. It happened during each one, which I’ll admit was a bit off-putting. It wasn’t until I spotted her staring fixedly at her watch that I realised what was going on. Madame was timing each carol. An excellent idea, sadly flawed as there were many pauses.

Reasons for these included starting off in either too high or too low a key. Re-starts followed in more or less the same register. The discovery of differing lyrics between papers caused further mid-carol dilemmas. More re-starts.

Impromptu debates later sprang up as to whether harmonising was required, or indeed possible. Then two of the ladies took it upon themselves to act as conductors, which inevitably caused additional timing issues. A lot was going on.

Our practice eventually ended over two hours later. Most of us were so cold our feet had given up. We shuffled out, croaking dragon’s breath au revoirs and creaked back to our cars – arms filled with heavily marked papers.

Not wanting to let the side down, Jack slaved through all the different song sheets. His goal was to produce one legible programme, but it was hard. Trying to get them in order, deciphering my arrows and scribbles in margins was trying his patience. If he’d been there, he’d have understood.

The day came, and we duly turned up ten minutes early at church one. It lies in the heart of the village, a striking, simply decorated building with a tall spire, which complements the vaulted ceiling interior.

First things first, we admired the crèche nestled in the chancel. Each church has one, sensitively constructed by parish families. Goodness knows how old those beautiful figurines were.

The conductor came up to us, checked our posh new schedule and tutted.

“This has changed now. Can you sing ‘O Holy Night’ instead of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, please?”

We had been blindsided before we’d begun. Jack looked stricken.

“Certainly, do you have the words?” I said.

“Yes, but in French. Can you sing it in English? We need two verses.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” I assured her, somewhat surprised by the appearance of a drummer. I felt sure there hadn’t been drumming the last time we sang that carol.

The congregation came in, and we got underway. At a random moment in the programme, our conductor pointed at us. Evidently, it was time.

We launched forth with a standard form of the first verse lyrics and an inventive second. Jack, determined to give it his best shot, ended particularly loudly on a high note plucked from nowhere in particular. It was a cracker. Stunned expressions from the flock quickly turned into admiration. They liked it.

Fortunately, the drummer had kept his sticks at bay during our effort, but now they came into their own as we sang that golden oldie, ‘Little Drummer Boy’. It may not have featured on our schedule, but to hear the children sing along to the rhythmic rrrat-a-tat-tat was delightful.

Church one had been a success. Off we all went to church two, with clock watch lady beaming. Primary mission accomplished. We had finished on time.

We arrived with more attendees and singers to find Camille already there. She was all of a bustle. After clucking impatiently around the participating youngsters, she arranged vocalists into a special order. And we were off. Well, most of us.

Jack stared accusingly at me. I shrugged. Nope, this carol wasn’t on our sheet, there hadn’t even been a hum of it during our practice. It must have been a late entry and was perfect for what happened next.

Nicely on cue, shepherds, kings and a munchkin angel processed slowly down the aisle, bashfully singing a French children’s favourite. Parents, anxious for their younglings, crossed their fingers, proudly watching. We all did. The spectacle ended as they gathered around the crèche, it was enchanting.

As the main programme began I developed a sneaky feeling that something was amiss with my fellow vocalists. It started with disgruntled shuffles from the ladies either side of me. Then, halfway through, one of them broke off and marched to the other end of the choir. It wasn’t a subtle move.

At the end of the piece, a couple more peeled off, leaving me on the end. Looking at the lady next to me, I had to ask.

Problème, madame?” I hissed.

Oui, nous sommes des altos, vous êtes une soprano!

Ah, that was it. Camille had stuck me in among a group of alto singers, and I was putting them off. Since the concept of harmonising had been abandoned, it wasn’t blindingly obvious why this should be a problem. Nevertheless, it was only polite that I should move. Since there was still lots of paper shuffling going on, I quickly slotted in amongst the higher-voiced crew.

Performance over, including our anglais piece, which Jack attacked with great vigour, we were off in convoy to church three. I confess this is my favourite. Murals lovingly painted by a parishioner many years before, the interior of this old place has a remarkably intimate ambience.  

As we approached the bevelled entrance steps, the choir mistress burst out. Small panic. One of the kings was missing. We had a quick scan to find her wandering around, happily showing off her gift to latecomers. She was speedily shepherded back to join Joseph et al.

As the church filled, we organised ourselves in the correct order in front of the chancel. In contrast to the other churches, this one was hot, boiling hot. Sensitive to their parishioners' needs, gas heaters on tall stalks were arranged in a semi-circle around the steps directly behind us.

Getting sweatier by the note, we galloped through a couple of crowd-pleasers. Now it was our Brazilian friends, José and Ana’s, turn. We joined the congregation to cool off and enjoy their piece.

José had brought his guitar, which was a lovely idea. He didn’t have a strap for it so needed to use a chair for support. One was duly produced. There wasn’t a sound in the church as he positioned his boot for the first strum.


José had broken a strut on the chair. The sound zinged out like a bullet ricocheting off the arched ceiling. Unsighted attendees at the back cowered in their seats. Poor José was mortified. Conscious that the show must go on, someone retrieved the splintered pieces of chair and gestured for him to continue.

Refusing to chance a second disaster, José was forced to place his clodhopper on the chair seat, thus causing even greater embarrassment to our gentle friend. We could have wept for him. In spite of all this, the piece he played was soulful and very beautiful. He and Ana did us proud.

It may have been a struggle at times, but we’d managed it. The programme concluded to grateful applause. We left with scorched necks and the end in sight.

The sun shone as we entered the tiny fourth village. The lofty church was already filling quickly as ancient-of-days, middlings and the young poured in. While we waited for the final stragglers, those echoing screeches of chair legs reminded me how excellent the acoustics are in this church.

We sallied forth in a least two keys, eventually arriving at more or less the same one by verse three. The next carol was announced as numéro huit sur la feuille de chanson de l'église, which was unfortunate since we didn’t have a number eight, or a church song sheet. But we did know the tune, or so we thought.

We burbled vaguely until a spare sheet was rifled and passed along by the sopranos. There were lots of verses. By the final one, we felt we’d nailed it. Jack, in top form, belted out another one of his high notes. Out it rang, quite marvellous, completely wrong. It seemed the last verse was sung a little differently. No matter, his efforts were much appreciated.

Our Christmas carol concerts were over for another year. Taking time to admire the final crèche, it crossed my mind there was probably a secret competition going on. They were all winners to my mind, as were the children, each as cherubic as they were intended to be.

We parted company with our fellow choristers, promising to do better next year and pledging to stand in the right places. Christmas carols in January? Yep, it had been another eccentric example of our charmed lives here in this sleepy corner of France. And we’re so grateful to be included. Events such as these always end on a high note.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Max and Madame l'Ostéopathe

I don’t know about you, but I’m a simple soul where breakfast needs are concerned. I like to drift gently downstairs, plink the kettle button on and plop my teabag into the mug for that essential first brew. Nice and peaceful. Fat chance of that happening around here. The place is heaving with fur.

Kitten-Claus, our latest rescue cat, has already been chirruping in the bedroom since 5 am. Ravenous and in need of attention, she begins by killing the duvet before moving up to lick our ears (raspy and a bit unpleasant). If that doesn’t have the desired effect, she’ll knock items off window ledges.

Kitten-Claus Causing Mayhem!
For goodness’ sake, close the bedroom door at night, you idiots! I hear you cry. We try that from time to time, but the subsequent wails and frantic scratching at the door are just as intolerable.

Back in the bedroom, if still foiled, K-C starts shoving our Kindles, hoping the resounding crash as one or other hits the floor might work. It does.

Jack, my husband, had given in before me. I joined him surrounded by a muddle of ecstatically happy cats and dogs. Well, all except one.

“The poor lad can only turn left.”

“Um, what are you talking about? Who?”

“Max, he’s crocked again.”

 “Aww, what a shame, how on earth has he done that? He was fine yesterday.”

Poorly Max
I knelt beside Max on his left side. He twisted to give me a smiley lick, but it wasn’t his usual standing ovation-type welcome. He looked strained. I moved to his other side and encouraged him to rotate right. No. Not possible, his back was rigid. He winced.

Instead, as usual trying his best to please, Max manoeuvred like a freighter, tippy-toeing his way in a slow sweeping motion. It was pitiful to watch. It had also happened before. There was nothing for it, a trip to Doctor Alice was needed.

Being an accident-prone mutt, Max, an Australian Shepherd, has spent lots of time at the vets. Among his various injuries is a recurring vertebrae issue. When he has a flair-up, anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed, which help ease the pain and swelling. I keep a stock of them at home.

My French doggy pal, Andrée, and I had chatted about his various maladies. Being a natural remedies sort of a lady, she had an interesting suggestion.

“Why not take him to an osteopath?”

“H’m I’m not sure. Anyway, is there such a thing as a bone doctor for dogs?”

“Yes, of course! Why not? She works with many vets in the area, she is often recommended. I have taken Baltik, our Labrador, to Doctor Alice, she uses homoeopathic medicines. She’s excellent.”


Poof! You English have no idea!”

One always knows where one is with Andrée. It’s one of the reasons I adore her.

The next time he injured himself, Andrée came with me to see Doctor Alice. It was lovely to have her moral support as well as help with French language complications. Our expert has a strong accent.

True to her reputation, the strikingly attractive bone doc worked miracles on him. I was impressed. Since his latest symptoms seemed similar to those last ones, without hesitation, I made an appointment for a couple of days later.

Beaumont-de-Lomagne Market Hall
This was our first solo visit, and I was apprehensive about directions. Doctor Alice and her family live in the middle of rural nowhere. Snuggled at the base of benign hills, their home is surrounded by lush meadows. No close neighbours. Just lots of bliss. It’s a location our GPS navigation system has never heard of.

Max and I set off extra early in the direction of Beaumont-de-Lomagne. This is a 13th century fortified town, particularly famed for its central square and huge medieval wooden market hall. Actually, it’s well worth a visit, especially for the market, but not for us on that day.

Driving along the ribbon-like road felt as though we were on a different planet. I was starting to get a bit twitchy when I spotted a lone farmhouse in the distance. Eureka! I turned onto their long drive with five minutes to spare.

Their homestead oozes charm – and animals. A selection of horses and large goats watched me park the car. And they weren’t the only ones who thought we were captivating.
Cats burst out of from nowhere. Little ones, big ones, lots of tabbies with a couple of black ones added into the mix, they all bundled up to say hello. While this was fun for me, they had a different reaction on Max.

Regularly mugged by Kitten-Claus when asleep, Max, the big wuss, seemed convinced they were about to gang up and give him a good old muzzle slapping. He stood next to me, smiling nervously at the swarm of fascinated felines.

Doctor Alice came out of the house and shooed them away. Ever tried getting a cat to do something it doesn’t want to do? Yep. It never works. She had a better idea.

Christian!” she hollered towards the house. “Feed the cats, please, I have a nervous dog here.”

Max, now surrounded and having his legs rubbed by a kitten, was looking like a condemned canine.

A couple of minutes later, a window opened and handfuls of feed were chucked outside. Like magic, all tails shot up and the cats bounded off meowing for breakfast on the patio.

“That worked well,” I chuckled. “Gosh, Doctor Alice, how many animals do you have at the moment?”

“Ooh, good question. Well,” she said, starting to count, “we have nine, no, ten cats, umm, yes, 16 horses, those goats,” she added, pointing at the bleating Greek chorus, “and a few sheep.”

I nodded, my theory confirmed about Doctor Alice being an inveterate rescuer of injured and abandoned animals.

“Let’s go inside before the cats come back,” she added. “I’ll just put our dog in a different room.”

She had forgotten to include the dog in her family roundup.

Spray Used to Calm Max
We walked into the cosy farmhouse kitchen, it’s very typical of the style in this area. An open fire warms the room, no doubt heating the others behind and above. Max beamed anxiously at Doctor Alice, who considered his behaviour.

“Yes, I can see he is not so confident. This will help.”

With that, she grabbed a small bottle, opened Max’s mouth and squirted liquid onto his tongue.

“You should buy some for him. It’s a natural product that will help him relax during stressful periods.”

Max was now wandering around the kitchen, looking as though he’d just swallowed a plum. I’m not sure whether it calmed him down, but he certainly didn’t open his mouth again for a while.

Doctor Alice began her treatment. She knelt and put her arms around Max, her countenance almost hypnotic. Max stood nobly like a wounded hero, succumbing to her gentle manipulations of bony pressure points. No winces, no whining – unusual for him. It was mesmerising to watch this specialist at work.
“Ah, I know where the difficulties are,” she murmured soon after.

She continued, quietly working her way along Max’s chest, stomach and then spine. She suddenly smiled and released him.

“That’s it, he will be fine now.”

Max padded towards me. I motioned for him to make that right turn. Easy. He moved flexibly, completely relaxed.
“That’s fantastic, Doctor Alice, thank you so much!”

“It’s a pleasure. Max has stiffness in his neck and shoulders, and a partially slipped disc in his back. I have fixed this. These injuries are typical of a high-energy dog. His stomach was tense because of the pain, and did you know he has a haematoma on his right side?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“No, I didn’t. How do you know?”

“Here, feel this,” she said, placing my hand on his right shoulder. “This area is hot and hard, also raised, they are typical indications.”

“Oh, yes! No wonder he was so sore, poor Max. He’s always accidentally self-harming. I had no idea, although come to think of it, last week he tried to jump into the car before I had fully opened the door and crashed sideways into it.”

“Yes, that will have been it. Again, it is very common for dogs like this to have accidents. Haematomas last for three weeks. I will recommend a natural product that will help with the soreness. It sounds as though you will need to buy a bottle!”

Doctor Alice sat at the table and used a diagram on her tablet to show me the problem areas.

“What do you suggest now? Do I give Max the anti-inflammatory medication from the vet? I have some at home.”

“No, nothing, he is back to normal now. Make sure he has 48 hours rest, though, his body will be fatigued after this treatment. I suggest you come back every three months. I have a feeling Max will be ready for another session by then.”
I could have hugged her.

We walked back outside to see a goat halfway up a tree twanging branches as it enjoyed a leafy snack.

Those Pesky Goats!
Chèvre rôti!  shouted an enraged Alice’s husband from the house.”

Non!” yelled Alice back in mock anguish.

Giggling at the pair of passionate animal lovers, however naughty their goats might be, I couldn’t quite imagine one of them ending up in the oven.

Taking a moment to check my tyres in case the pesky critters had taken a chunk out of them too, I put Max back in the car. Thanking Doctor Alice again, we headed home.

For someone who had previously been reticent about this form of alternative medicine, I didn’t need any more convincing. And here’s why. As we all know, animals can’t tell you where their pain is. They compensate to avoid discomfort and stop when it’s too much. To see the transformation in Max’s painful wooden gait to complete flexibility within 20 minutes was utterly remarkable. Yep, we definitely love our dog bone doctor.

Happy Max

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Pigs in Blankets

I’ve been taking time out to make a start on writing the next episode of our adventures here in France. It was supposed to be – you know, tranquil, peaceful, that kind of thing. I should have known better.

“What the… Is that a guinea pig?”

“No, Di, of course, it isn’t.”

“A funny looking rabbit then? I’m looking at the pic on my mobile phone, and your photo is too awful to distinguish.”

“I know, sorry, it was sprinting.”

The story began with Nathan, our French forester. Here’s the English version of our chat. Well, I say chat, but as you’ll see, Nathan is a man of few words.

“Beth, we have a pig.”

“That’s nice. I didn’t think you liked pigs, Nathan.”

“Not mine, in the forest.”

“Oh, I see. We have lots.”

“No, not like this.”

“So, it isn’t a wild boar?”


Nathan is excellent on tree IDs, but not some much with animal species. He could be widely off the porcine mark for all I knew.  

“Are you sure? Can you describe it?”

“Little. White blotches. Young, I think.”

“Chubby with biggish ears?”

“No, but yes.”

It suddenly occurred to me what he was talking about.

“Did it look like the one we rescued before?”

“Yes, but smaller.”

“Goodness! Where is it?”

“In Constance field by the lane.”

“Oh dear, that’s huge. And the fence is two metres high. How on earth did it get in?”

“It must have been thrown into the field and abandoned.”

“What a shame. Thanks, Nathan. I’ll go and investigate.”

If Nathan was right, it sounded like the young Vietnamese pot-bellied pig we’d found in a similar spot last year. At the time, it caused uproar among the hunting community.

A couple of roaming shooters spotted it over the fence and decided we were involved in a clandestine hybrid wild boar/domestic pig breeding programme. This was an interesting concept, but one that was flawed by physics. Why? Because mini pigs are just that. Mini. It would have required a stepladder and excellent balance to procreate.

After several enquiries, the owner was found. He said it was an escapee wedding present for his niece. Although this had sounded like a tall story, we nevertheless reluctantly told the man to collect him. The expression on his face when he arrived caused us to question our decision. We still regret giving the little chap back.

I discussed the latest situation with my husband, Jack. Grumpy through and through, when there’s even the slightest hint of animal mistreatment, his gruff exterior falls to pieces.

“The poor little blighter. If Nathan’s right, we can’t possibly leave it down there.”

“I’m pretty sure he is, his description was fairly piggy.”

“What is wrong with people? It makes my blood boil when this kind of thing happens.”

“Mine too. Let me see if I can find it, then we can decide what to do.”

“Good idea. Take the quad bike, and by the way, for goodness’ sake be careful when you’re changing from low to high gear. That lever wasn’t designed to be yanked backwards by someone with the finesse of a Sumo wrestler.”

“Okay, okay, I promise.”

There’s always an instruction of a mechanical kind where my husband’s concerned.

If there’s something our dogs, Aby and Max, love, it’s an adventure. And what they possibly love more than anything else in the whole wide world (food aside) is a trip on the quad bike.

Max, being a kind of hash it, bash it type, frequently self-harms by accident. For that, as well as general safety reasons, both dogs wear harnesses when they go quad biking.

The moment I took their gear out of the box, they started whining excitedly. Max hit meltdown pretty quickly by unhelpfully dashing off and throwing himself in the general direction of the quad bike.

Ending up in a furry heap on the ground, as usual, he neatly belied my regular claims about the vast intelligence of Australian Shepherds.

Smiling bashfully at his latest mishap, he managed to control himself for long enough while I attached the harness. Aby, despite whining like a leaky kettle, stood perfectly still, offering a paw to slot into her dainty kit (Max’s being a heavy-duty affair – of course).

And we were off, me with two dogs riding pillion, on a mission to find a piglet.

Down through the fenced woods we went, scanning all the way. Ten minutes later, the forest trail took us across a bridge into Constance field, so named after one of the previous owner’s daughters.

Constance is a magical pear-shaped five-hectare (12+ acre) meadow. It’s a place where deer graze, pheasants stroll, and buzzards hang glide way above. And as night falls, a handful of rumbustious wild boar might break cover, intent on causing havoc to grassroots and one another.

Protected by woodland, and a brook bordering one side, the lane runs parallel at one end. We trundled along the main track. Max spotted something, alert, dead keen, yelpy. Nice try, but no, it was deer. Then I glimpsed our quarry. Our size assumptions were way out.  

Di’s later description was apt. The animal was tiny. It could easily have been a big guinea pig or rabbit. Nathan was right too. This was no wild boar, it was a piglet with pink skin and dark splotches.

I pulled up as close as possible. Leaving the dogs on the bike, I approached on foot. But it was no good, the animal was terrified. I tried a couple more times with no luck. Rather than alarm it further, I took a couple of photos and left to brief Jack.

“It’s such a cutie.”

“All animals look cute to you.”

“Well, not all, but you’ll love this one. We can’t possibly leave it, the little mite will never outrun a fox or male boar, and it’s freezing down there at night.”

“Agreed. And don’t forget the hunters. They’ll think we’re back on our alleged genetically modified pig breeding programme.”

Jack and I set humane box traps, with the newcomer viewing from a distance. Our lure was a mixture of corn and chopped up apples. In our experience, no pig can resist yummy treats like those.

We retreated and paused to see what would happen. The piglet crept up to the cages, no doubt filled with a mixture of suspicion and fear. It patrolled each but didn’t venture in. This was going to take a while.

A couple of days later the phone went. It was Jack.

“We’ve got it.”

“Great. Erm…what?”

“The pig, of course!”

“Wow, that’s brilliant. How’s it looking?”

“It’s shaking like a leaf.”

“Aww, it must be freezing. Okay, meet me at the pheasant pens, I’ll bring a towel.”

“Hah, pigs in blankets, love it!”

“Honestly, Jack, your humour is worse than awful.”

I dashed down to the aviaries and quickly prepared an empty pheasant pen. Lush grass was growing, and the lean-to shelters would keep it dry. Would the perches be used? Nah, pigs don’t really fly. I shovelled in fresh wood chippings and put down food and water.

Jack arrived with what turned out to be a young male. He was very thin, scared stiff and freezing cold. I popped in the towel as we opened the trap doors in case he decided to stay there. No chance! Out he galloped, to the far corner of the pen.

Panicky. Shivering.

With temperatures dropping quickly and rain on the way, I laid the towel in a lean-to on the wood chippings. We left him to settle in.

During my later bird feed rounds, I checked on our newcomer. He was lying on his bed out of the cold. He looked comfortable, although as I approached, he scarpered oinking with fear. Earning this animal’s trust was evidently going to take a long time. Feeling guilty at upsetting him, I quietly retreated.

“Aww, Jack, he’s so frightened.”

“What? Haven’t you given it a name yet? That’s not like you. How about Napoleon? He’ll probably end up with the right dimensions.”

“Oh no, I don’t think we can do that. I’m sure there’s an obscure French law or etiquette that says animals can’t be named Napoleon. It’s something about insulting the head of state.”

“Really? George Orwell missed that headline too, then. How about Nap? That’ll save dire embarrassment if someone hears you call his name. Mind you, since our nearest neighbour lives a kilometre away, the likelihood of that happening is extremely remote.”


I changed Nap’s water and gave him fresh food at the same time each day. Little by little, his terror was replaced by timidity. After about three days, I found him rooting for bugs in the soft soil. Thinking this was a good sign, it gave me a chance to have a proper look.

He was rapidly gaining weight which was great news. The bad news was that he had a nasty graze injury to one of his hind legs. While it looked clean, I took the precaution to ask our vet for advice. Rather than traumatising him yet again, we decided to leave it to nature. If it failed to heal, we would have to catch him up.

By the end of the first week, Nap was happy for me to potter around his pen, make his bed and sort out his food. His towel was damp from the humid conditions. It was much colder at night now, so I changed it for a fresh towel and a little fleece blanket. Curiously, I think that was the crucial first breakthrough.

The next day I walked into what I thought was an empty cage. Concerned he might somehow have escaped, I checked every corner. Still nonplussed, I re-checked his bedding. The jumble of fleece blanket moved. I peered closer and listened. And then giggled.

Nap had buried between the towel and blanket and was fast asleep, snoring his head off. We were onto a winner.

Nap was an instant fan of fleece blankets. No matter how many times I washed it, he rejected the boring old towel stand-in and dashed onto the newly laundered blankie. The seedlings of trust were appearing. The next one came with food.

In the absence of bespoke pig meal, we had been feeding him pheasant nuts, a high protein food. Every now and again I’d add vegetable scraps and dried worms (treats for our birds), which he apparently loved. 

A couple of days ago I walked in to find Nap had upturned his feeder and was wandering around his pen. He trotted up to me oinking hungrily. I had brought a few ground nuts (monkey nuts) for him to mix with his pellets.  

Nap watched me crack the shells, flinching when I made they make that funny crack sound. He cautiously approached when I dropped the nuts on the ground. One sniff and that was it. It’s just as well I had restricted the offering. Nap was a voracious nut-eater.

It had been another breakthrough, another trust barrier broken. We’ve only had our lad for three weeks. We have no idea where he came from. There seems little doubt that his previous owners chose to discard him. We have no idea why, and this time we’re not rushing to find out.  

So now we have a pig in love with fleece blankets and hooked on shelled peanuts. Another animal to add to our collection of rescue critters. Oh, and he’s a smiler too. He’s coming along in oinks and squeals, and that injury is looking healthier every day. If no-one appears to make a claim, little Nap has a new home here, and we’ll always to do our best for him.

As for continuing writing Fat Dogs 5, well, Nap(oleon) won’t appear in that. I’m guessing his story will form part of a future chapter or two, though. D’you know, there really isn’t a dull moment in our rural French backwater.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sand, Surf and the Reluctant Holidaymaker

Was it an incident-free few days away? Well, nearly.

It usually takes months of gentle persuasion before my holiday-averse, grumpy husband finally caves in. He was quicker this time.

“Great, so we can go to Capbreton for a week?”

“Yes, yes, if only to stop you nagging about it.”

“Oh come on, you know you love it.”

“I really don’t.”

He does.

Capbreton, a quirky little seaside town on the south-west of France, is home to one of the best surfing areas in the world. The sandy beaches are endless, the dunes enormous, and when conditions are right, those cherished rollers are downright spectacular.  

We arrived bright and early with our two bouncy Australian Shepherd dogs, Aby and Max. Access to the apartment from the underground carpark is via a lift. It’s tiny but quite posh with one side made of glass.

Despite this being their second visit, Aby still hasn’t got the hang of the moving world business. Shocked by the disappearing trees, she scored an early own goal by trying to fit into Jack’s jean’s pocket, which was never going to happen. Max, on the other hand, seemed keen to test the glass to find out if he really can fly. Fortunately, the glass is made of tough stuff.

We reached the apartment more or less unscathed. It’s in a fantastic spot. Stuck right on the seafront, it has a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I quickly unpacked, grabbed the dogs and left Jack with a coffee to help settle his post-lift experience nerves.

We knew the weather would be mixed during the week, but it wasn’t too bad when we arrived. Seafaring folks would probably call it a fresh breeze, you know, the type that blows your socks off. It’s probably why we had the beach to ourselves.

The dogs, thrilled at the feel of sand beneath their paws, played tag before racing helter-skelter towards the sea. Reaching the edge, they stopped, uncertain. They hadn’t seen ocean spume before, and The Atlantic was belching up lots that day.

Poor Aby, having only just recovered from her lift shenanigans, wasn’t at all sure about froth flying off the breakers. Max, wondering whether they were snacks delivered from Neptune, tested a couple. Nah!

It was time to bring out the toys that make an Australian Shepherd’s happiness complete. Frisbees! Bounding around me, trying to work out which way I’d throw them next, frankly, it was anyone’s guess. It’s uncanny how these flying discs develop a mind of their own when cast from my hands, but they give the dogs a great workout.

A squall increased the wind to seafarers ‘fresh’. The inevitable sandblasting of my face probably did a marvellous exfoliation job, but it wasn’t doing anything for my Frisbee-throwing technique. We packed-up and fought our ways back to our apartment, where Jack had rallied.

“Come on, let’s go and have a coffee, I could do with a snack. Erm, and you might want to tidy yourself up before we go.”

I had a quick look in the mirror.

“Ooh, no wonder the janitor looked a bit unnerved when I said hello to him!”

I looked like a Halloween horror story. A couple of shiners, courtesy of my drizzled mascara, hair that had transformed into a wire wool ball, and my cheeks were covered in multi-coloured grains of sand. That’s beach life for you.

The weather is apt to change very quickly here. In passing, the squall had blown holes in the grey skies, and we strolled in puddles of bright sunshine to a café nearby. The coffee is excellent here as are the tiny Madeleine cakes served alongside. And it wasn’t just us who wanted a nibble.

A sparrow family appeared intent on helping with the excess crumbs on Jack’s saucer.

“Would you look at this lot,” he grumbled, “can I ever get a moment’s peace from animals?”

Jack (wannabe animal-hater) immediately donated half his to the delighted flock while continuing to moan about his tortured life with animals.

Our lazy days continued in a similar vein; dog walks followed by meals and extended coffee breaks, one of which featured a lady who stopped to admire Max.

“I must stroke your dog,” she gushed. “Bernese mountain dogs are so much nicer than Saint Bernard’s, and she is a lovely specimen.”

Now, while this was all very kind, as a passionate Aussie lover, I always feel obliged to enlighten others about the breed. The gender mix-up needed sorting out too. I was a sparrow’s toenail from putting her right when Jack interrupted (he’s heard me drone on about the breed values before).

“Do you always take your dog for walks in a pram, madame? ”

“Ah no, monsieur, but today he is tired.”

With that, she gave us a cheery wave and wheeled her pooch away.

“I suppose it wouldn’t have fitted in her handbag,” he muttered at the departing stroller.

September is an ideal time of year to visit Capbreton. The summer season has finished, and the kids have gone back to school, so it’s much quieter. The restaurants are still open, though, which gives diners an almost endless choice.

Being a doggy place means that restaurant owners are very welcoming. Dog bars (bowls of water) are positioned strategically, and mutts are generally posted under tables or in handbags, out of other diners’ ways. It’s ideal for us.

We are seafood lovers. Oysters may be gloopy-looking to some, but they are a particular fave of ours, especially the Gillardeau variety offered here. Uber-healthy, they are consumed in vast quantities by customers.

Similar to this palate-teasing pair, all our meals turned out to be culinary triumphs. But it wasn’t just the food that turned heads.

For a couple of country bumpkins, Aby and Max are surprisingly well behaved when we eat out. Galloping 15-25 kilometres each day after disappearing Frisbees probably helps. They’ll lie under our table snoozing with half an eye open, ready to field a falling scrap. It’s a tidy arrangement. Mind you, this all changes when attention is shown, which I maintain it’s not their fault. Jack doesn’t agree.

We had settled down to another seafood bonanza. Table set nicely with drinks just delivered by the kind chap, who paused to tousle the dogs’ heads. An innocent error.

Aby and Max were thrilled. Our table erupted as they scrambled out to welcome their new best friend. This had predictable consequences. Jack had a tantrum as his beer followed the same route as the dogs, and I got tangled up in dog leads in my efforts to retrieve them.

Fortunately, the waiter was very understanding. He survived the canine welcome, gave them a log of bread each, and supplied us with new beers and napkins. Jack gave him a big tip at the end. We ate there several times.  

Later on, we decided to explore the old harbour to have a look at the food producers. Traditionally a whaling port, nowadays it is packed with battle-hardened trawlers.

On the dockside, fishmongers were preparing their catches for sale. I was captivated by one magnificent lady. Amazon-like, this seasoned fish-stacker effortlessly lobbed her catch around like feathers. I certainly wouldn’t have messed with her.

As the week wore on the weather changed. It was glorious now, but the swell was still high, which meant the old pier was too dangerous to use. How on earth the skippers of those small trawlers negotiated entry into the port beat us, those seas were huge.

We sat on a bench with a couple of ice creams, waiting for the next boat to negotiate entry. For some strange reason, an ebullient lady draped in a floaty kaftan (possible ex-surfer) eyeballed Jack and planted herself next to him. Apropos nothing at all, she launched into a discussion about the local birdlife, which was more of a speech, really.

Then, to his horror, she announced she wanted to show him something special. Before he could respond, she started rummaging around the folds of her frock and plucked an IPad from a voluminous pocket.

“Here, you must look at my darling,”

“Honestly, there’s no need.”

“I can see you will love him. Everyone does. This is Siberus, my pet wolf. He is famous.”

Yes, it really was a wolf, something to do with The Game of Thrones. I was riveted, but not Jack. He was distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve never seen a grown man consume an ice cream so quickly. Wallop! Down it went. We made all sorts of appreciative noises about her beloved and escaped.

Poor Jack. He was still looking a bit twitchy about the entire social encounter, so I left him in the apartment to recover and took the dogs for a ramble.

We headed to one of my favourite beaches. Backed by immense dunes, the shoreline seems endless. And it has a remarkable collection of features.

During World War II, the occupying Nazis built a series of blockhouses as defences against the Allied invasion. As it happens, the concrete structures were unused. Now they serve a happier purpose as home to curious crabs and other crustaceans, and easels for graffiti artists.

The dogs and I had a closer look. The art had changed from last year. The new messages about saving the planet were a brilliantly ironic twist. There’s no doubt, the French are passionate about protecting their environment.

The whitecaps on this beach were incredibly impressive. Rubber-clad surfers were strewn all over the place; riding the white horses, in them, or napping on the beach, spent after a watery pummelling.

A couple of pretty French girls wandered up, one clutching a surfboard that looked heavier than the pair of them. They asked if they could stroke the dogs. I nodded, knowing what would be going through Aby and Max’s minds. A cuddle? Rrrreesult!

I asked how the surfing was going. The lass with the board replied in English.

“The waves, they are confusing, it is too hard.”


“Yes, they bump into each other, I cannot stay on my board. Today, it is my first go.”

Wow! Sure enough, the breakers looked horrifically chaotic. These conditions looked more suited to experts than novices.

“Have you tried the other beach? The surf might be easier there.”

“I will drown! These waves, they are three times bigger than me, I will definitely die.”

Her friend gave her a quick hug and suggested she have one final go on their beach.

“No, I am too tired now, I will probably die here too.”

That was that then. We all decided it was far better to enjoy the beach and play with dogs in the sun instead of facing imminent death. We took some pics and parted. A gorgeous pair of girls, who I sincerely hope didn’t bother with that surfboard again during their holiday.

Our final day was peerless. We made the most of it with another trek. Watching the surfers, it struck me that there’s an awful lot of bobbing around. Clearly, I have no real idea of what’s involved, but I presume they are waiting to ‘catch a big wave’, and it can be a long wait.

Every now and again, a gigantic barrel wave appeared way offshore. Cresting, growing, curling into a monstrous cask of immense force, it peaked before smashing back into the sea. Surfers appeared on top, sometimes through the middle, but more often than not in the folds of the wave. It was mesmerising. No wonder these courageous sportspeople need naps.

Our week came to an end too quickly. One last Frisbee session, one last shared portion of heavenly oysters and a head of hair that now resembled a cat’s hairball. It had been a fantastic few days. And did Jack enjoy it? Well, aside from one incident I'll tell you about in my newsletter, yes, of course, he did!  

Another perfect holiday