Follow by Email

Friday, 1 March 2019

Interviewed by the author, Kathyrn Gauci

My guest today on A Literary World, is author and confirmed Francophile, Beth Haslam. I was honoured and excited when Beth agreed to do an interview with me as I am a great admirer, not only of her books, but her passion and sparkle for all things French. She is both a raconteur and has a great eye for photography, as you will see here. If any of you have ever thought about buying a place in France – and I know many of my friends have, including myself – and you want to know what life would be like, then read on. You are in for a treat. So without more ado, kick off your shoes, relax with a glass of wine, and let Beth transport you into life in France.
Welcome to A Literary World, Beth, we are delighted to have you with us.
It’s such a treat to have this chat, Kathryn, thanks very much for setting things up so nicely for me.
1. What made you move to France?
Semi-retirement was beckoning so Jack, my husband, and I decided to buy a second home. I’m a passionate nature lover and for years had romanticised about observing wildlife and pottering about with the dogs on our own land. Jack, a mechanical engineer, did not share these thoughts at all. However, as an obsessive maker and mender of innumerable, generally oily things, a chunk of land suited him well too.
As country folk intending to spend much of our time outdoors, a decent climate was important. We quickly ruled out the UK, because of our unreliable weather and the comparatively high cost of land. Europe was the answer.
France, which suited our modest language skills, also ticked the majority of our other boxes. Accessible, sound bureaucratic infrastructure, southern locations with great weather, and the happy discovery that property and land prices were much lower than the UK.

2. When did you decide to become an author?
I’d love to say something frightfully grand like it was a calling. Sadly that’s not the case. It was an accident really, in the main due to our domaine (estate) hunting adventures. They proved to be so extraordinary that one day Jack remarked: “D’you know, you should write a book about this.” So I did. I thoroughly enjoyed telling our stories and found, to my delight, that others enjoyed reading them. The series has developed as a consequence of our continued escapades.
3. Can you tell us what your books are about?
They recount our country estate-buying endeavours in France and our lives here as we have settled in. The first bit sounds easy doesn’t it? My painstaking property research implied that it should have been a simple enough undertaking to accomplish. It wasn’t.
Jack and I, along with our two fat dogs, set off to view several domaines over three weeks. Why bring the dogs? My idea. It didn’t go down well with my husband, who has the patience of a gnat and therefore becomes easily irritated. Nevertheless, I had special reasons.
At the time we thought it would be a tame, semi-holiday, you know, pop into a lovely old homestead to see if it clicked with us before driving off to the next. The reality couldn’t have been more different.
Natural disasters, near-death experiences on crumbling roads, dog catastrophes, eccentric aristocrats, mix-ups with the Cathars and a dead car. You name it, it was chucked at us. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Our final buying decision arose out of another mishap. It turned into a perfect example of serendipity.
We eventually bought and embarked on a project that has changed our lives. Our exploits continue today as does the series.
In some ways, my books are a story of our gradually developing love affair with France and her people. It burgeons with each month, each year that passes. Moving here is the best thing we have ever done.

4. I noticed you have a keen eye for photography, whether it be the French countryside, architecture, or your animals. Were you always interested in photography?
You are very kind. Sadly I do not possess any technical prowess, I am, however, an inveterate snapper. As someone who adores wildlife and plants, come rain or shine I’m out there every day with the dogs recording our rambles with photos. They are nothing special, just snapshots of the simple wonders that surround us. Sharing some via social media is a lovely way to reach folks in far-flung corners of the world.

5. One of your passions is growing your own produce. What do you grow? Have you expanded into areas you never imagined, and has it been easy to do this?
Thank you so much for mentioning my beloved veggie patch! My first forays ended with mixed fortunes.

Our soil is clay based. The summers and autumns here are generally hot and dry. This transforms the earth from boot-clinging claggy mud in the winter to a concrete-hard substance better suited for hard court tennis players as the year progresses.

I found that crops such as plump peas, slender haricot beans and pretty much anything that fruits above the ground were a joy to grow and gather. The root crops were a different matter altogether.
Come harvesting time, with trowel in hand I stared lovingly at my magnificent chubby-topped carrots, parsnips, radishes and turnips. Every one a beauty. All set solid in the ground.
I hacked around the edges with my armoury of garden tools to no avail, reducing my crops to a collection of battered has-beens with chipped edges. Temporarily thwarted, there have been no more forays into root planting for me since. I’ll have another go one day using homemade raised tubs instead.
My current above-ground varieties comprise the usual ‘greens’ and salad veggies. Garlic too, of course, it’s a must-grow crop here. These, together with a goodly variety of citrus and other fruits, are contributing towards my heady goals for self-sufficiency.
6. Most of us associate France with good food and wine, my readers would never forgive me if we didn’t talk about this. Can you tell us what are your favourite dishes?
We live in a region that used to be called Midi-Pyrénées (now Occitanie). It’s a rural area famed for excellent food, also the longevity of its inhabitants, although having seen the vast quantities of foie gras and cheese consumed here I sometimes wonder why.

We regularly dine at friend’s homes where we get treated to regional favourites. One of the most memorable was the first invitation we received to supper with a revered fruit grower and his wife (their home is shown in the photo below). Both in their eighties, they’re a charming couple. It was madame’s first go at entertaining l’anglais, and she evidently decided to add a touch of internationalism to the canapés.
It was quite dark in the farmhouse kitchen, so identification was difficult when madame plonked a mountain of meat in front of us. As we dutifully cooed at it, I suddenly realised what we were looking at. It was a great big pile of Spam.
In spite of being a die-hard carnivore, if there’s a foodstuff Jack really dislikes, I’m afraid it’s Spam. He complains that it’s full of unidentifiable substances and should have been phased out when ration books were dispensed with. I glanced at him, hoping he hadn’t realised what he was looking at, equally hoping the gin and several glasses of wine already imbibed might have mellowed his attitude towards this reconstituted luncheon meat.
Madame glowed with pride at her pink pile. Monsieur said she had hunted high and low for the one dish she’d been told was a particular fave amongst all English people. It was such a thoughtful gesture, we just couldn’t let her down. The plate was ceremoniously pushed towards us. Our hosts watched, refusing to partake themselves, plainly thrilled at the thought of pleasing their guests with such a treasure.
Satisfied they had achieved their aim, it was monsieur’s turn to inject another wow-factor with his production of the main course. A dish that originated from Gascony, out came a large casserole dish full of what appeared to be grease. I was fascinated, poor Jack, still recovering from his Spam overdose, was horrified.
Monsieur said it was his home produced confit de canard, a traditional preparation method popular before the days of refrigeration. He had slaughtered several ducks at the end of summer and then salted, cooked and stored them in fat to preserve throughout the winter. “Erm…so, this makes the dish around six months old?” asked Jack, tentatively. “Ah oui!” came the triumphant reply.
Spooning large portions on each of our plates, monsieur assured us the meat would be tender as the fat had continued the chemical process of enhancing both the flavour and texture of the meat. And he was right. It was absolutely delicious, even Jack enjoyed it. I later learned the word confit is the past participle of the French verb, to preserve. That made sense.
Another French couple we know well are from the north. It was Andrée (featured in the photo here) who introduced us to the amazing Flamiche au maroilles, a cheesy wonder on a pastry base originating from le Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It can be served as a canapé, light supper accompanied by a green salad or whenever you fancy a savoury snack. I loved it so much I inveigled my friend into allowing me to write a blog about her prowess with the dish. Here’s the link.
The French are famous for eating most body parts. Nothing much gets wasted here. A favourite in our area is gizzards. Generally duck or goose, our lot are apt to sneak them into as many dishes as possible.
Gizzards are not a foodstuff I would go out of my way to choose. That said, after my first experience of eating Salade Landaise at a restaurant, I’ve become a covert fan. My proficiency with the language was still very poor at this stage, and I gaily assumed gésiers was an interesting word for a salad vegetable. Not so. I quickly discovered that landaise salad is a mix of lettuce, sweetcorn, tomatoes, pine kernels and a curiously unidentifiable selection of warm objects.
I munched my way through with relish before asking about the ingredients. I confess I was surprised to learn that the wrinkly bits were gizzards. Morsels of Bayonne ham and lardons, bacon pieces, had also been used. It was excellent.
A stalwart in our parts is French onion soup. The best I have ever tasted was in a super little restaurant I dined at with my sister in our principal department city, Montauban.
The proprietor directed us to a table lit with a cute chintz lamp. We settled down and listened to our three menu choices. Everything was homemade here, she said, describing each. I had no idea which of the mouth-watering options to go for, in the end plumping for onion soup, side salad and ham-filled croissant. We both did.
What an inspired choice!
Mammoth portions soon arrived. Everything was a taste sensation, especially the chunky soup. Smoked, caramelised onions in a broth laced with white wine and Cognac, the melted, toasted cheese topping made it a culinary triumph. Each mouthful yielded comfort – just the job on a nippy day.
Two other foodstuffs the French here are mostly crazy about are mushrooms and cheese. They tend to get picky about precise varieties, though. Aficionados of anything that grows attached or close to a tree, where fungi are concerned, our locals particularly adore cèpes, girolles, chanterelles and trompette de la mort (trumpet of the dead, a blackish mushroom which looks as ghastly as it sounds).
As for cheese, no main meal is complete without a revered goût (taste). Restaurant trolleys heave under the strain of multiple varieties presented after the main course has been consumed. Soft cheeses, hard, blue-veined (Roquefort, of course), extremely smelly, there are far too many to name. But they are all deeply loved. My favourite is Saint Agur, a mellow blue cheese produced in the Auvergne with a winning combination of buttery, salty, sharp flavours.
7. Favourite French wine?
I confess I have three.
I do enjoy rosé. It is light, adaptable and a perfect aperitif. My favourite is local to us. The Gaillac rosé is produced in the wine region of Toulouse, south-west France.
As for whites, we are undoubtedly spoiled with many fine varieties. Among my favourites is the French crisp Pinot Gris. Thought to be a mutation of the red grape Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris’ skins are not green like other white grapes, but instead have a greyish blue hue, which gives them their name.
For the more sophisticated palate, I think it’s hard to beat Chablis, an excellent dry wine renowned for the purity of its aroma and taste. Chablis provides the perfect accompaniment to fish and light meat dishes or just on its own, chilled and sipped gently on a sunny evening.
As for reds, my absolute favourite is Chateauneuf du Pape. The first vines were planted by the ancient Romans in the Southern Rhone Valley. Chateauneuf du Pape (The Pope’s New Castle) takes its name from the period when the Pope moved to Avignon in 1309. It is indeed a noble wine.
8. Favourite French movie?
Amélie, a very famous movie about a young waitress in a Montmartre bar. Struggling with her own isolation, she spends her time observing people and letting her imagination wander. She has set a goal: to do good to those around her. The path of Amélie is coloured by encounters with quirky characters including Georgette, the hypochondriac tobacconist and Lucien, the grocery clerk. It is sensitive and wonderfully entertaining.

9. Favourite French music?
I have an eclectic taste in music. As an early music singer and therefore Baroque lover, I’m naturally drawn to composers such as Charles Gounod. Johnny Hallyday yodels out of my radio most days as does Charles Aznavour, both still national heroes. But there is one particular type of music I’m drawn to. In our part of the country, no fête is complete, no spectacle is ended without it, and summer markets reverberate with it. It is those cheery strains of an accordion. It is quintessentially French, and I can’t help but love it.
10. What advice would you give to others who want to buy a house in France and have a lifestyle change?
As a couple of business people we thought we had everything nicely buttoned-up, you know, organised. We had no idea how different things would turn out to be. I would say, be brave and follow your dreams, but have a plan. Be flexible and expect the unexpected.
Try your best to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture. Surround yourself with locals and celebrate their local customs. Before long they’ll become part of yours too. Your life will become enriched, and you’ll end up firm friends with utterly delightful people.
11. What’s next for you?
I am dying to start work on the next episode in our French adventures. I’ll need to adopt a pretty disciplined approach, though, as this year will be busy as usual. The privilege of owning a sizable domaine brings with it daily responsibilities to the buildings, land and animals we share it with.
We will also continue our Reeve’s pheasant breeding programme. Watching those magnificent cock birds with their ridiculously long tails strut their stuff among the wild boar and deer gives us enormous pleasure.
When I find a millisecond, I’m determined to visit three fabulous villages. Rocamadour in the Lot, Dordogne, Bruniquel in our home department of Tarn-et-Garonne and Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn. I am also waiting for one of my history-loving pals to come and stay. She’ll be my perfect excuse for a return visit to one of my favourite places on earth, Carcassonne in Languedoc.

Here are tourist links for you to enjoy and what I hope to experience soon.
So, yes, it’s going to be another action-packed year, another where I’m sure there won’t be a dull moment. That’s life here in rural France, and I love it.
Thanks again so much for having me on your blog, Kathryn. It’s been an honour and a pleasure to spend time with you.
Thank you for sharing so much of your life with us, Beth. I also share a love of the same wines and accordion music – so much so that both are mentioned in my WWII novel Conspiracy of Lies. Claire Bouchard enjoyed Bal Musette and she was also a connoisseur of French wine – La belle vie.

The links for Beth’s books.
Twitter @fatdogsfrance
I would also like to give a special mention to Susan Allen, Owner and Editor in Chief of The English Informer Group, (Do check it out, fellow Francophiles. You will be well rewarded.)
Susan very kindly featured an earlier interview I did for Beth’s blog. Thank you Susan.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Guest blog: Kathryn Gauci

I have admired this author's work for a long time. Her writing is fluid, well researched and hugely entertaining. With that combination of skilled artistry, you can imagine how excited I was when she accepted the invitation to appear on my blog. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing Kathryn Gauci, prizewinning author and all-around super lady. I'm certain that once you've read this you'll become as hooked on her books as I am. 

Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Beth. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I began writing about ten years ago after a long career in textile design. I really enjoyed my work. It was exciting and took me to all parts of the world. After over thirty years in the industry – the last fifteen which were spent running my own textile design studio in Melbourne – I felt I needed a sea change, yet still wanted to do something creative. As a designer, part of my work was to put out trend directions for clients. This necessitated transporting the client into another world through images, colours, and of course, words. My clients often commented on how I had taken them on a journey which they were immediately immersed in. That was the point when I thought I could take this further. It was a leap into the unknown, but I’m glad I did it.

The Greek Connection

Taking on the mantra of write what you know, my first book, The Embroiderer, did just that. Before settling down in Australia, I worked in Vienna and Athens. I was in Greece for six years during the seventies working as a carpet designer. The Embroiderer is the result of everything I came to know and love about Greece and its history. Naturally, an appreciation of Greek culture and history cannot be understood without knowledge of Turkish history, as Greece was a part of the Ottoman Empire from 1453 until 1913, although a part of Greece gained independence earlier in 1829. As a designer, I also love the Turkish arts and their history. I have travelled widely in Turkey and Istanbul is one of my favourite cities - so many layers of history. Naturally, combining all this was the place to start and not an easy thing to do, but it had all the ingredients I wanted - a love of history, travel, food, art and textiles. All this, spiced up with a plot around superstition, treachery, and of course a good sprinkling of romance, is what The Embroiderer entails. It is an epic set against the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1822 until the Nazi invasion of Greece in 1941, with a shorter modern day beginning and ending set in 1972. It is all based on fact. The Embroiderer was also taken up by a Greek publisher and translated into Greek.

Continuing the Greek theme, I decided to write two more books, this time novellas expanding on my Asia Minor theme. Next came Seraphina’s Song, a Greek tragedy set in the slums of Piraeus in the 1930’s. It is the story of Dionysos Mavroulis, a man who has hit rock bottom and picks himself up again by learning to play the bouzouki. In doing so, he falls in love with Seraphina – the singer with the voice of a nightingale – who he meets at a local taverna. But Seraphina is under the influence of the boss of the underworld and he would never let her go. In order to win her for himself, Dionysos sets out to become the finest bouzouki player of the day. But all does not go according to plan. Seraphina’s Song has also been taken up by the Greek publisher.

My latest in the Asia Minor theme is another case of write what you know. The Carpet Weaver of Usak brings in my knowledge of carpet weaving and history. Set between 1914-22, amidst the timeless landscape and remote villages of Anatolia, it is the haunting and unforgettable story of a deep friendship between two women, one Greek Orthodox, the other a Muslim Turk: a friendship that transcends an atmosphere of mistrust, fear and ultimate collapse, long after the wars have ended. In 1914, the tentacles of The Great War threaten to envelop the Ottoman Empire, Uşak, the centre of the centuries-old carpet weaving industry in Turkey, prepares for war. Carpet orders are cancelled and the villagers whose lives depend on weaving, have no idea of the devastating impact the war will have on their lives. In 1919, in the aftermath of the war, the tenuous peace is further destabilized when the Greek army lands in Smyrna and quickly fans out into the hinterland. Three years later, the population of Stavrodromi and Pınarbaşı are forced to take sides. Loyalties and friendships that existed for generations are now irrevocably torn apart. Their world has changed forever.

The French Connection.

This really touches on my love of writing WWII stories. I have always had a thing for this era. It started off as a young child growing up in England after the war listening to Glenn Miller and other music of the war years, together with the films made about the war – Casablanca and The Third Man. When I went to work in Vienna in the early seventies, Vienna still had a little of the feel of The Third Man – areas were still being rebuilt after the bombing and there was still an undercurrent of the war. It never left me. Working in the studio, my fellow designers told me stories from a Viennese perspective. The company where I worked as a carpet designer was located in what had been the Russian sector and one of the older designers fought at Stalingrad.

When I decided to write my first WWII novel, I chose to set it in Brittany and Paris rather than Austria. I have been there many times and read so much about it under Nazi occupation. The setting combined my love of travel and history. The result of all this research was Conspiracy of Lies and I am proud to say it has won several prestigious awards, including the Book of the Year Award 2017 from Chill With A Book. Conspiracy of Lies is part historical, part thriller, and part romance. The protagonist, Claire Bouchard, is a composite of the real-life heroines who served behind enemy lines. She is both tough and vulnerable at the same time. This will be available in Greek later this year – 2019.

The second book, is another novella - Code Name Camille – which I wrote for The Darkest Hour Anthology: WWII Tales of Resistance with nine other award winning WWII authors. The setting is Paris.  When the Germans invade France, twenty-one-year-old Nathalie Fontaine is living a quiet life in rural South-West France. She heads to Paris and joins the Resistance, but a chance encounter with a stranger exposes a traitor in their midst who threatens to bring down the entire network. Here again, I bring out my love of art too. With this story, I wanted to take the reader on a journey to the Paris we have all come to know – the bridges of the Seine, the architecture, the artists in Montmartre, and the haute couture world of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The royalties for The Darkest Hour Anthology are being donated to The United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington. To date we have surpassed 7,000 sales and it is N0. 1 Bestseller on Amazon in Historical Fiction Anthology and has hit the best seller list of USAToday.

If I had to say anything about my writing it would be that first and foremost, I want my reader to be taken on a journey – one they never expected to go on.

And I must be in love with the subject. If I am not, how can I expect readers to fall in love with it? It’s a busy life. There is so much reading and research to be done, but I enjoy it all. You never know where it will take you next.

Thank you so much for allowing me to tell you about my stories and give you a glimpse into my writing journey, Beth. I’ve enjoyed it very much.

All books are available through Amazon and online retailers.
Facebook author page

The Darkest Hour Anthology website:




To follow me on BookBub:

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Launching Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV

I promised to let as many folks know as possible, so just in case you weren’t aware (and apologies if you are)’s official, my Fatties are back!

Our adventures resume where they left off in Fat Dogs 3. You’ll read more about old friends and acquaintances, and meet new people along the way. One or two of these turned out to be tricky customers who end up testing Jack’s patience to the max. Mind you, that’s not overly difficult. Others, though, were gems.

One such couple, Jacques and Murielle, are so delightfully nutty we now look forward to each meeting, wondering whether their latest stories can possibly better their last. They always do.

For this preview snippet, try to imagine yourself at our local auberge, when Jacques held up his hand.

“We have a hunting story,” he said.
“Please tell us,” replied Jack. “I’m sure it’ll be much more interesting than the drivel we’ve been listening to recently.”
“Well, I was in the bath,” announced Murielle.
That stopped us in our tracks.
“Oh?” we replied in unison.
“Yes. And a fox walked in.”
“Did it? Are you sure?”
“Yes, a big one. Jacques! I shouted, there's a fox in my bathroom.”
“You are mad! I replied,” cried Jacques, warming to his role.
“But there is! It’s standing looking at me.”
“So,” continued Jacques, “I rushed in, of course, convinced she had gone crazy, but no! there it was, a big fox!”
“Yes! I told her to stay there and went to fetch my shotgun…”

The conclusion to this extraordinary yarn was as eccentric as the beginning.

I also tell you lots of stories about animals. Sam, of course, you know, but not all. Naughty Ginger, for example, is a newcomer. For this next extract, you’ll just have to remember how much Jack ‘dislikes’ animals…

Jack held the kitten at head height and began lecturing it about mountain climbing security measures. The kitten studied him, then extended a tiny paw and patted his nose. He brought it closer still.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard it,” he chuckled.
“What?” I asked, reaching for the camera.
“It’s purring. It’s purring like a little vintage tractor.”
“Awww, you big softy.”
Jack gently lowered it to his knee, where it contentedly played climbing games at a more sensible level.

Poor gruff Jack. He was putty in that kitten’s paws.
Our adventures take twists and painful turns. Drama was never far away.

The forest gate swung open and out hurtled the Polish team’s truck in a cloud of dust. It ground to a halt next to us. One of the men was propped-up by a colleague in the cargo area.
Przepraszam, gdzie znajduje się szpital?” cried the driver.
We had absolutely no idea what he had said. We paused, helpless.
He tried again.
Szpital. Szpital! Erm…” he paused, searching for the right words.
Leon jest ranny, źle krwawi... Zranił się w nogę.
This was getting us nowhere.
The man was frantic. We shrugged, wanting to help, but couldn’t work out what the problem was. He pointed to his colleague, beckoning urgently. We rushed over to find the man bleeding copiously from a leg wound.
“Hospital. Now!” cried Jack.

So that’s enough tasters from me. The book is published on 1st February, but you can preorder a Kindle copy now using this link. (A heartfelt thank-you if you already have.)

I’m so excited about sharing our latest escapades with you and look forward to hearing your comments. As you’ll find in Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV, there’s never a dull moment in our sleepy corner of France. I just hope it stays that way!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

French Reflections 2018

Here we are, already at the beginning of a new year. Can you believe it? 2018 seemed to fly by. Part of me wonders why, but when I think of all the stuff that happened, there’s no wonder I blinked and nearly missed it. Here’s a highlight from each month. 

January 2018
Carol singing takes place in the first or second week of January. Incongruous, but then we do live in a quaint part of France. It involves several churches in the same diocese and is a highly organised affair. Sometimes. 

As the bells chime 2.30 pm-ish, a band of ‘volunteer’ singers burst into song in church one. Not everyone has the latest carol sheet, so it’s
quite normal for one or two to launch into an entirely different piece. Nevertheless, a small congregation encourages us through the performance, occasionally wincing at the tone-deaf enthusiast with an unusually loud voice.

Our short recital ends, we pile into cars, and singers plus congregation travel in convoy to the next church. The process is repeated with double the numbers. And so it goes on until we reach the final church. Inevitably, some of the congregation (and one or two carollers) have been lost along the way. They still have last year’s order of play and are sitting in a freezing cold church wondering where everyone is.  

The final venue is always the principal church in the diocese. By now we’re very late. This church has proper singers with a proper choir mistress. And she’s very severe. Those who can still sing are allowed to join her ranks while the keens-but-croaky are sent to the congregation. 

Supporters have swelled to nearly a hundred now and are rewarded by a stirring concert from a group who have been given the same carols and sing them in the same order. Our afternoon ends with refreshments. It’s consistent. The worst coffee in the world washes down slabs of the best homemade cakes I have ever tasted. It’s a perfect start to the year.

This month marks the first major festivity. The annual Spectacle Vivant (performing arts event). Last year we went for the first time and loved it. There was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to return. Unfortunately, Jack, my husband, wasn’t so keen. 

“Do we really have to go?” 

“Yes, of course, we had a great time, you even enjoyed the meal.”

“I’m sure I didn’t.”

The event was enticingly titled: Carnaval de Venise. We arrived and walked into a secretive world of the masked ball. A large troupe of performers strolled about the room wearing extraordinarily lavish costumes. There were china whites, gold leaf, rich velvets, satins and feathers. Pantaloons, cage crinoline dresses, taffeta and organza, it was impossible not to be impressed.

The masked entertainers sashayed to mystique charged baroque rhythms. They posed for photos, videos too. They knew they presented an incredible spectacle and played their inscrutable parts effortlessly. After a final float they glided off, leaving a trail of delicious privacy behind, and a roomful of delighted diners. It was another stunning event.

He’s nutty, he’s adorable, and you may have come across him in my Fat Dogs books. It’s Jean-Luc, our artisan painter and decorator. Only this month he was involved in his other passion, pruning vines. 

It’s not just the admiration I have for his expertise, it’s the wonderfully eccentric way he executes the process, last year being typical of his behaviour.

Assuming a forensic scientist approach, he fell to his knees and eyeballed our vines. Reading glasses were put on, removed, and replaced. Wagging his head he sucked his breath, trying to determine the best course of action. 

Là? Ou là?” he asked himself, pointing his instrument at the clipping options. Once the decision was made, that was that. His secateurs whipped into action, and the deeds were done.

We surveyed the result. What used to be a collection of knotty vines with multiple arms wound around wire supports, was now a line of knobbly-kneed stumps. It may have looked like a plant war zone, but he’d done it again. Those vines produced oodles of grapes.

In return for agreeing to try a new coiffeuse in the distant city, Montauban, my sister promised to stand me ‘a fab’ lunch. 

After a horrifically long salon session, we walked through a passage into a tiny quadrangle. Ahead was a deliciously inviting eatery called Crumble Tea. The intimate dining area was filled with a hotchpotch of tables, cushioned chairs and cosy bench seats. It was just like home.

The proprietor directed us to a table lit with a cute chintz lamp. Everything was homemade here, she said, describing each menu choice. In the end, I plumped for onion soup, side salad and ham-filled croissant. 

Mammoth portions soon arrived. Everything was a taste sensation and especially the chunky soup. Smoked, caramelised onions in a broth laced with white wine and Cognac, the melted, toasted cheese on top made it a culinary triumph. Each mouthful yielded comfort, quickly putting my coiffure experiences into a proper perspective.

Madame reappeared to tickle our taste buds with her list of puds. Again, agonisingly difficult though it was, the complicated sounding sponge cake with several different fruits inside was the clincher. We munched our ways through, washing each delectable mouthful down with a sip of exotic tea. What a treat!

“I want to buy my neighbour a pair of peacocks,” announced Di.


“Yep. All you have to do is find a breeder, and we’ll nip over and buy a couple.” 

Still in denial about the whole process, I found one. We drove to the department, Gers, to meet monsieur. He was dead keen.

“You have come at exactly the right time,” he said, with a parrot on his shoulder, and pointing at a peacock fanning its tail feathers. “The Javanese males are beginning their courting displays.”

We were entranced by the billowing tail feathers covered in blue-green eyes. Soon other males began to sense spring was in the air. Many copied, outshining the finesse of their competitors next door.

The next pen contained Sri Lankan blues. The males’ iridescent cobalt heads and necks dazzled, outdone only by their fabulous tails as they were gradually unfurled and fanned alluringly at their mates.

“These birds are rustic,” monsieur explained, “they can withstand hard winters. You can buy this pair if you want, they are five years old.”

I duly translated to Di, whose eyebrows shot to her hairline.

“Have you seen the length of its tail?” she hissed. “We’ll never get it in the car! Ask him if he has any six-monthers that’ll fit into a normal bird carrier.” 

Sadly there was no prospect of buying youngsters from monsieur.

This month was all about vehicles – and mud. We had experienced abnormally wet weather. The heavens opened in mid-December and forgot to stop. Flash floods, deluges, mudslides, we had the lot.

Happily, there were one or two respite days. As the sun peeped through soggy clouds, we decided to spend the evening nature watching. With Jack driving our ageing 4x4 Range Rover, we shimmied and skidded into the forest to my favourite observation hide. 

We approached a level surface. Mud spats flew, the tyres spun, forward movement ceased. Sticky stuff, clay-based soil. The car glued itself to the mud. It was stuck. 

Jack decided to use the Jobber’s (4x4 utility vehicle) winch to pull it out. The Jobber was fetched, winch hook wrapped around a tree and tow rope attached to the car. Point of information here: Range Rovers are hefty vehicles.

As the tow rope and winch cable took up the strain, it was clear something had to give. It wasn’t the Range Rover, or the tree. A rifle crack twang signified the end of the cable as the hawser snapped. This was awkward. 

H’m thought that might happen,” Jack mused, sounding remarkably balanced under the circumstances.

With nothing else to try, we abandoned the car to the forces of nature overnight.

The following day brought Nathan, our French forester. We explained the situation.

Pas de problème,” he quietly murmured. Nathan, practically born on his tractor, has spent years wielding it around the forest pathways. It would drag the car out in no time at all, he said.

We returned to find the Range Rover settled further in the mud. To avoid dragging it deeper into the sludge, the tractor had to pull the vehicle upwards. Easy-peasy, Nathan had a lovely big chain that would yank it out in moments.

Merde!” (bit sweary), Nathan exclaimed, morosely surveying his sunken charger. The tractor had joined the fate of the Range Rover and was well and truly stuck. Now we were in a pickle. We had nothing else that could attempt a tow and were fast running out of vehicles.

Luckily a farmer friend came to our rescue. Gilles arrived in his tractor. It was positively enormous. Pulling into the carpark of stranded vehicles and muddy dogs, he threw open the cab door and zoomed down the ladder.

Absolute gent that he is, Gilles condoled about the general merde-ness of the conditions. He assured us he’d have our vehicles on terra firma in no time at all. And he did.

And it was back to the quest for buying unusual fowl for Di’s neighbour. I had been told about a lady who bred exotic geese. With the advantage of having normal length tails, they sounded just the job. 

We drove to a ramshackle farm near Lauzerte. Ready to do business, madame took us into the first barn. We followed the sounds of cheeps through the splintered doorframe into the gloomy interior.

Voici le premier groupe,” said madame, pointing towards a cluster of small creatures.

Masses of goslings waddled around on a thick bed of sweet-smelling straw. Fluffy, tubby, with strange little knobbly heads and teeny-tiny wings, they were beyond adorable. After several ahhs, I left Di to have a bash at conversing in French with madame and wandered into the adjoining barn.

This housed two even larger groups of goslings. It was impossible to count the closely-packed mini-honkers, but there must have been hundreds of them. I admired these wonderfully healthy animals. It was clear where madame spent her money.

I re-joined madame, and Di, who was now looking anxious.

“We’ve got ours. Erm, she grabbed them by their necks and stuck them in this box. Hope they’re okay.”

“Oh right, well, perhaps that’s the way they should be handled.”

“You’ll have to ask about how to look after them, I haven’t got a clue what she said.”

I peered into the box at four indignant, knobbly-headed shriekers and discussed husbandry requirements with madame. She had selected 10-day-old chicks, and they were already whoppers, nicely chubby and covered in yellow and buff-coloured down. They were going to be perfect. And they were.

I had started some weeks earlier, but this month saw the main work on my shutter and garage door project. It was one of those where, up to my elbows in wood glue and sawdust, I felt a tad daunted. Nevertheless, they were badly in need of some TLC, so I had to get stuck in.

Every piece was removed, reminding us that old shutters weigh a ton. Each was washed. Rotten parts were replaced by carpenter Jack. Each was hand sanded, machine sanded, mended where necessary and washed again.

Ready for painting, I relished the task. For a while anyway. Two coats on each side, four for the new sections, my enthusiasm eventually began to wane, as did the dogs’, who morosely saw many walk opportunities disappear into the murk of a paint pot. I’ll always be grateful to my cheerleading Facebook pals who encouraged me to crack on and complete the task. The end result may not be perfect, but they’ll do nicely for the next 10 years.

Holiday-averse Jack finally agreed to us having a short break. Our destination was Capbreton.

Aby and Max, our two Australian Shepherds, came too. Extra bouncy, super affectionate, and devoted swimmers, our mutts have never seen sand before. With mercifully few sun seekers around, we headed off to la plage

Our mutts didn’t know what had hit them. Leaping around, making trial holes, testing shells for crunch value, they dashed randomly across the beach towards the surf. At this point, I started getting nervous thoughts. Should I have packed canine lifebelts? What if Aby decides to say hello to that surfer – waaay out at sea? And Max, once he starts swimming…will he stop?  How far away is America anyway? Luckily help was at hand.

A small breaker doused them as they were in mid snuffle. And that was it for mademoiselle Aby. If a dog could pout, she would. For her, it was strictly toe-depth only after that. Max was equally shocked but braver. He trotted in and out, tried to eat the milky surf – bad idea – and then settled for paddling.

The next morning, with the beach to ourselves I took the dogs for a tennis ball workout. As someone who has a clinical problem with the simple technique of throwing, I should have pointed away from the waterline. I’ll admit there are now two or three castaways en route across the ocean. Happily, I had back-up. Frisbees.

Soon it was time to go, one last Frisbee session, and the discovery of a sandcastle. Aby eyed it suspiciously, wondering how the moles in Capbreton managed to make such tidy hills. Max blundered up soon after, forgot to stop, and that was that. No more sandcastle.

We said goodbye to those sea views, that sea air and took our mutts back home. Were they confirmed seadogs now? Perhaps not surfers, but they did love those beaches!

The month of my birthday and the present I’d wanted for ages. A Lensball. It is an ultra-clear sphere made out of K9 crystal. It is an incredibly hard, scratch resistant material most commonly used in lenses and optics. The idea is for the wannabe arty photographer to capture breath-taking images.

On my first photo session, I enthusiastically grabbed my Lensball with its dinky crystal base. I immediately dropped the base, chipped it, disproving the ‘near invincible’ claim, but luckily not the ball itself. I haven’t played as much as I would like, and my first forays have been dead amateur rather than spectacular. I shall be practising much more this year. 

Early one morning we heard pitiful meows in the garden. Real gut-wrenchers. We went out to find a scrawny-looking black and white Felix cat clinging to the top of a spindly tree. 

Jack climbed up to rescue the howling moggy, who decided it wasn’t so keen on being rescued after all. A short tussle ensued followed by success. Any thanks from the stuck one? Noooo. After unstapling itself from his chest, the skinny survivor fled into the forest. And that was that. Or so we thought.

 A couple of days later Jack heard plaintive mewing behind the woodpile. We peered into the tiny gap between the logs and wall, and sure enough, those same gorgeous golden eyes stared back.

We trapped the youngster and brought her into our home. A trip to the vet confirmed that she had been part-socialised but was fearful, especially of men. She was emaciated and covered in fleas. Aged around six or seven months, it seemed clear that she had been dumped in the woods. We named her Cleo.

Today is a different story for this fragile young animal. Still often scared stiff, she is gradually learning how to play, how to interact with humans and has gained lots of weight. Our latest newcomer to the family is also helping, and it is she who was our final highlight of the year.

Christmas started off as planned, tamely. Even the turkey obliged, giving us reason to celebrate a happy family feast. Later on, Di and I took the dogs for a walk and returned to find a family at our door. Strange, since we live in the middle of nowhere.

The lady was with her children. They’d found a little one abandoned while walking in our woods, she said. A little what? I wondered, alarmed. 

“Here it is, can you keep it?” she asked.

Her son came forward and plonked the bundle in my arms. With that, they quickly left.

A kitten!

Christmas night saw Aby and Max in a tiz, Cleo having a hissy fit and Brutus, our adult cat, giving us a ‘you lot are lost causes’ look before retiring under the bed. And the kitten? It settled right in. 

Mindless of Christmas tree lights, ignoring the TV and loving the attention, it precociously played on us all evening before zonking out on my lap.

I took it to the vet for a once-over. Dr Arnaud told me it was a female between two and three months old. It was undernourished but aside from that in excellent health. He added that it was well socialised and was sure it had been discarded. 

“Are you prepared to keep it?” he asked. 

I think he knew the answer.

In spite of being a female, we named our newcomer Claus. She’s already running us ragged, and we adore her.

So there you have it. 2018 was another unforgettable year, one that reminded me how lucky we are to live here in this magical corner of France. And it was one brilliantly supported by you. Thank you so much for that. I sincerely hope 2019 brings health, happiness and lots of fun for all of us.