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Friday, 6 April 2018

Fancy Lunch?

How I get myself suckered into these situations I shall never know, but they do seem to happen eerily often.

My sister, Di, admits to being a bit of a flibbertigibbet when it comes to shopping. She is apt to visit as many similar shops as possible on a compare-and-contrast mission before deciding that, actually, the item in shop number one was the best after all. I find it an exhausting process. What I hadn’t realised was that these tendencies extend to choosing hairdressers.

Since coming to live in France, she has tried several different salons with varying levels of success. Never truly happy until…

“Honestly, Beth, you have to come to Salon Costeau, it’s brilliant.”

“I’m fine with the one I go to.”

“Really?” she replied, looking surprised, “I think you’d prefer this one. Go on. give it a try.”

“Oh, okay,” I groaned, swayed by her disconcerted look. “Where is it?”


What? That’s miles away!” I exclaimed, sounding as staid as I presumably looked.

“Oh don’t be silly. It’s not that far. We can combine it with shopping.”

And that was it. An appointment was made with Claude.

Off we drove, passing through several towns peppered with hairdressers. Many tried, all rejected.

For the first timer, Montauban, the department capital for the Tarn et Garonne, has a certain stately wow-factor. Standing on the banks of the River Tarn at its confluence with the Tescou, it is an imposing medieval bastide town with romantic qualities. The reddish stone used for construction gives the city a soft, quixotic feel. I like it.

We entered via the Pont Vieux. Commissioned in 1304 by King Philip of France, the 205-metre long bridge took 30 years to complete. Its level surface, a rarity in the Middle Ages, is supported by seven magnificent arches.

We headed for the centre. Like all medieval bastide towns, Montauban has a principal arcaded square. I always think this one is particularly dignified. Two layers of cloistered walkways line the perimeter, supporting red brick townhouses. French windows with filigree wrought iron balconies grace these splendid dwellings. Imagining great opulence behind the coquettish net curtains, I would love to peek inside one or two.

Cafés and restaurants are tucked under the complex tangle of arches, their tables spreading welcomingly onto the square. During the warm months, sunlight basks their clients in this romantic sun trap. Understandably, it is a lunch and dinner hotspot.

A greengrocer’s market stall was positioned on the side of our street. We paused, attracted equally by the sight of super-fresh veg, and the alluring aromas coming from the pâtisserie behind. We decided to squeeze in a quick coffee and an inevitable cake. It’s obligatory in France.

It turned out we weren’t the only ones with the same idea. A handbag-sized dog was sitting on the table next to ours, enjoying a crusty croissant with his elderly owner. Since nobody batted an eyelid we decided they must be regulars.

I dragged Di, kicking and screaming, past the Galeries Lafayette department store. Luckily our coffee break had used up our available shopping time. We arrived at the salon on time.

Claude was exactly how you might expect; a delightful gentleman who wore much more make-up than I. He was also a bit of a drama queen.

Everything might have been fine except that Claude had just returned from a styling course in Paris. He was dying to try out his new techniques, and sadly I was his first victim.

He gasped dramatically at my mundane locks. Pinching Di playfully on the arm, Claude told her he would sort everything out. Just in case my input was relevant, I made a plea for subtle highlights. He giggled at my outrageous idea and reached for his tube of chemicals.

Claude squirted a log of blueish paste on top of his hand. Demonstrating his new colouring technique, he smeared copious amounts of the clay-like substance onto hanks of my hair. It was a time-saving device if nothing else. There was nothing remotely subtle about this man, nor was there any downtime.

While my hair began to change colour, Claude busied himself by painting Di’s nails his latest favourite shade. He said they would go beautifully with the colour of her eyes, océan. This he followed-up with an interesting shade of green on her eyelids. Seaweed came to mind.

Meanwhile, my hair was apparently taking too long to change colour. Claude tutted irritably and grabbed an ultra-modern looking static hair dryer. While my ears cooked, he coyly offered to share his lunch with us. Despite refusing, we were given small pastry pillow cases filled with jam. It was a very kind gesture, which nicely diverted my attention from boiling ears and discouragingly blue hair.

Once cooked, Claude rushed me to the sink, simultaneously washing my hair and his sugar coated fingers. This man was efficiency itself. I was then told to stand in the middle of the salon to be cut.

Claude came at me with a razorblade. I won’t say I was unduly nervous, but it did strike me that scissors might have done just as well.

I stood stock still as he lashed around. Lock after lock fell. Di, who now had even darker green eyeliner on top of her eyeshadow, was looking distinctly anxious. This wasn’t a good sign.

Finally, I was allowed to sit to be dried and styled. I knew this wouldn’t take long – there wasn’t much hair left to dry. I studied the end result in the mirror. A pudding basin of tobacco-yellow striped hair and an extraordinarily straight fringe close to my hairline looked back.

“Fancy lunch?” asked Di, hurriedly.

I nodded numbly, paid Claude, who was close to tears at our decision to leave, and followed her back the arcade.

“Here we go, this’ll cheer you up.”

“It’s just as well I’m not vain,” I grumped, sloping after her.

We walked through a passage into a tiny quadrangle. Ahead was a deliciously inviting eatery called Crumble Tea. Di beckoned me in.

The interior was intimate. Tins of tea lined the walls, looking incongruously uniform next to the graceful arches and modern art. The dining area was filled with a hotchpotch of tables, cushioned chairs and cosy bench seats. It was just like home.

The proprietor, a petite lady, welcomed and 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 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.

Despite being stuffed full, we decided there was just enough room to share a dessert.

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 treasure this place was.

Still remarking at the impossibly large quantity of fruit that had been crammed into the dreamy dessert, we paid our bill, thanked madame and waddled out.

But Di still had one more treat up her sleeve.

“Come on, we’ll go back this way.”

We entered a different section of ancient arches, treading over more centuries-old bevelled flag stones and came to a shop. Talk about extravagant. It was obvious what was sold here. Plants.

Just like the restaurant, inside it was small and intimate. Only this time it was festooned with healthy plants, flowers and objets d’art. I looked around, imbued with gloriously conflicting scents, for once happy to join in the browsing. It was heavenly.

We reluctantly tore ourselves away with plants purchased and headed home. We giggled at our unusual looks, contenting ourselves that my hair would eventually grow back, and Di’s mermaid look was easily dealt with by gallons of make-up remover.

We agreed that Claude had been a true gentleman, and couldn't possibly have showered any more attention upon us. Sadly, though, Di’s latest salon was about to join the others, but not her choice of florist or lunch venue. There was no doubt about it, we would return at the earliest opportunity for another fancy lunch.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Mysterious Masks in France

Would it be the same wacky Italian band backing a troupe of raucous can-can dancers? Who could say? Would it be as exciting as last year? Wait…could it be?

It was the annual Spectacle Vivant (performing arts event) held in our local town, Lomagne. Last year we were dragged along for the first time by our friends, Anton and Camille. We quickly discovered it was a must-attend event, one that brought party-goers out of hibernation in their hordes. We enjoyed it so much, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to return.  

Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t so keen.  

“Do we really have to go?” moaned my wannabe-sociopath husband.

“Yes, of course, Jack, you ended up having a great time.”

“I’m sure I didn’t.”

This year the event was enticingly titled: Carnaval de Venise. It would be compered by the same indefatigable entertainer, Signore Jean-Michel Zanotti. It was worth going along just to see him.

We set out in weather reminiscent of the previous year – so stormy even the birds couldn’t fly in straight lines. Jack aquaplaned us along waterlogged roads, eventually pulling into the venue car park, which had become a paddling pool.

We joined the crush of soggy attendees in the foyer. What a shambles. Everyone had started out looking so nice but conditions had intervened. Ankle-height tide marks on clothes indicated that many had parked in a similar spot to us. Hair dos, crimped for the occasion, were askew, glasses needed windscreen wipers and scarves had become dishcloths. No problem, I decided, it all added to the community spirit. I felt certain we would quickly dry out in this atmosphere of excited anticipation.   

We walked into the main hall to find my sister, Di, and our friends already there. On the whole, they looked less dishevelled than us, although I swear my sister’s trouser hems were steaming. Anton, an Italian, wore his customary trilby and natty cravat. Camille and Susan were damp, but otherwise immaculately turned out as usual.

Throngs milled about, there must have been over 300 present. I glanced around the room. The stage scenery featured a very large poster of the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Occasional tables near the pillars were decorated with assorted pasta. We had returned to Italy alright, and there was more.

The building walls were decorated with baroque Venetian masks of extraordinary beauty. Designs differed. Some covered the eyes only, others included the nose. And there were one or two which covered the whole face. These had extravagant, decorative fins which curved outwards. Each looked like a priceless antique.  

We had come to a Venetian masked ball, and I couldn’t wait to see how it would unfold.

The band struck up and Signore Zanotti appeared from the wings looking extremely dashing. Masked, wearing a tricorn hat and cloak, I suspect he was supposed to look like a Venetian character. It may have been the black shiny shirt, but he looked a dead ringer for Zorro to me. Clasping a microphone instead of sword, he belted out an Italian favourite whilst simultaneously ushering us to our seats.

Diners were assembled on long trestle tables. I was wedged nicely between Anton and Susan. It was her first visit and I had yet to see her blink. This eclectic mixture did take a bit of getting used to.

With elbow room at a premium, eating was always going to be tricky. Fortunately Anton is jockey-sized, and Susan not much bigger, so I would be fine. Di less so. She was sitting next to an extremely angular lady whose upper limbs had already claimed my sister’s side plate. Di was dealing with the potential sensitivities by doing what she does best – chat her new neighbour to death.

Table dressings were tastefully in keeping with the Carnival theme, with the added novelty gift of a fan for each lady. Camille immediately unfurled hers and began flapping, intermittently bonking Jack on the nose as she fluttered. This wasn’t advisable. Judging by Jack’s expression, I feared the fan’s days may be numbered. Fortunately she was diverted by activity at the rear of the room.

Armies of masked waiters appeared. They lowered the tone nicely by plonking plastic beakers in front of us and filling them with fizzy Lambrusco. Actually I love the stuff, but not Anton. As a connoisseur of wines he wouldn’t dream of drinking it.

Poof!” Anton yelled, before bellowing a command at Di’s rangy lady to pass a bottle of Valpolicella. She immediately complied, possibly relieved at the opportunity to stall the incessant verbal flow.

As we sipped our aperitifs, Signore Zanotti crooned a jaunty number, which produced a star performer. Out smoothed a slim man. I would recognise that magnificent, droopy moustache and daringly wide cummerbund anywhere. This man was a plant. Monsieur was the professional dancer. 

He headed towards an unsuspecting guest. She barely had time to jettison her Lambrusco before being whisked onto the dance floor. Thrilled to be the chosen one, she flailed magnificently in the iron grip of Monsieur Moustache.

The sight of only one duo on the dance floor quickly proved too tempting. Diners, young, old and others of indeterminate age, took to the floor and started gambolling to a two-step. But it was not they who caught my eye.

They were extraordinary. They were incongruous.

Two couples appeared, dressed in Renaissance regalia. They wore intricately painted masks with material attached to the edges. This effectively covered their faces and the back of their heads. The ladies had magnificent headdresses, the men, tricorn hats. Their costumes were extravagant, absolutely exquisite.

Ahah! Ils sont le Vénitien costumes!” cried Anton in appreciation of the newcomers.

In my ignorance I did not know the history behind these lavish players. Anton grew up near Venice and knew all about it. He gave me a brief explanation.

Venice Carnival is a centuries old tradition, he said. Events are held during the 10 days leading up to Shrove Tuesday, making it one of the biggest events in Italy. But it is the masks that make it so special.

Anton thought the tradition of the Carnival started in the 12th century. Venetians would hold celebrations and parties from December 26th until the start of Lent, and wear elaborate masks to conceal their identity. These parties were the only time when the upper and lower classes mingled. But it sounded as though things went a bit far.

Aristocrats and peasants played out their fantasies together. They indulged in illicit activities. Gambling, clandestine affairs, political assassinations, it all happened under the guise of the Carnival costume. In the end, Anton said with a chuckle, it all became too much even for the Italians.

The Carnival was eventually outlawed. After a long absence, in the 1970s, as part of a cultural regeneration programme in Venice, the Italian government decided to re-introduce the traditional Carnival as the centrepiece of its efforts.

 I looked around the room, happy to conclude that our rabble rousers didn’t look remotely lascivious.

My moment of history was interrupted by the starter. Out came the battalion of waiters with a tapas Jack absolutely hates. I spied his wrinkled-up nose. For a die-hard carnivore I have no idea why he hasn’t been able to cope with simple slices of salami, finocchiona and pastrami. He maintains they are akin to chewing mouthfuls of rancid fat and impossible to swallow. Fortunately Camille didn’t agree.

Typical of someone who has courageously dieted for years, Camille cleared her plate of meat with a ferocious energy. Spying Jack’s untouched meat, she kindly offered to have his too, leaving him to nibble delicately on a cube of specimen cheese and a pencil-sized bread stick.  

Similar to last year, there wasn’t a moment of downtime for our entertainers. Bottles of wine whizzed up and down the trestle tables, filling glasses to the tune of Signore Zanotti and his band, who had switched to love songs. Anton knew them all and couldn’t resist joining in. Camille was mortified.

Ah non, Anton, noooon,” she implored, as he burst into song.  

Others, inspired by his rich baritone voice, joined in. Soon the room was filled with the yodels of ‘O Solo Mio’. Ladies fluttered their fans in the air and Anton, completely taken by the moment, grabbed the nearest prop. A plate. Fortunately cranial fractures were averted by the arrival of the next course. It was another gastronomic no-no for Jack.

Out came steaming cauldrons of Boeuf à la Romaine and bowls of polenta.

“Argh, why on earth do we have to eat this gunk. It’s semolina anyway, which by the way is a pudding. I never liked it when we were made to eat it at school,” Jack howled.

“Oh for goodness’ sake, do stop moaning,” I chided. “Eat the meat instead, you'll love that.”

Jack smugly pointed at Anton’s plate. Anton, Italian through and through, was the only person in the room with two fat baked potatoes sitting on his plate. Evidently he didn’t like polenta either. Completely foiling my telling off, Anton harpooned one and slapped it on Jack’s plate. The pair of them are incorrigible.

More wine bottles were slewed in our general direction. It did wonders for Jack’s temper and helped wash down our tummy-sticking polenta a treat. As diners feasted, the music changed. Richly textured Baroque tonal harmonies wrapped themselves around us as a new group of masked Venetians promenaded around the room.

 “Good lord, they’re gliding,” gaped Jack. “Actually, they look as though they’re on castor wheels!”

He was right. The posed, they postured, they floated slowly from table to table. No expression, just players performing silently behind their splendid masks and costumes.

The main course proved an agonising experience for poor Camille. She had eyeballed her beloved polenta avariciously, but remained faithful to her diet by dutifully restricting herself to a teaspoonful. Not so lanky lady on Di’s left. She ladled on lashings. I watched, thoroughly impressed at seeing the third dollop slopped on. That said, Di was still in full flow, so perhaps the poor lady had resorted to comfort eating.

The interlude between courses was taken up with activity of a different sort. The band came back on stage. Accordion man squeezed his instrument and Signore Zanotti started a rousing dance number. They turned up the volume which made conversation difficult, but created fervour amongst the keen dancers.

More than a hundred diners leapt or limped onto the floor and began a frenzied line dance. We had seen this last year but it was the first time for Susan. Inspired, she bravely joined a particularly ungainly line and high kicked her way through several tunes.

I think there was supposed to be a prescribed set of moves, but the more avant-garde approach was favoured here. I doubted many of them would have been much good in an aerobics class. But that didn’t matter, they were having a marvellous time. Susan returned with a dusty footprint on her tights, but was otherwise unscathed.

Dessert of tiramisu was washed down with another serenade by Monsieur Moustache and another diner, plucked from her pudding bowl. Such was madame’s thrill at being selected by our dashing professional dancer, she momentarily forgot she was still holding her spoon. Casting it aside with a girlie giggle, she allowed herself to be sashayed about the dance floor in dizzying circles.

The cheese course was served with another increase in volume. By now there was no point attempting conversation across the table, it was just too loud. This was perfectly fine for Jack. He was finally on safe ground with food he could recognise, and gnawed peaceably on several hunks of stinky cheese and bread in socially-acceptable silence.  

Meanwhile, Signore Zanotti sang for all he was worth, creating a fanning frenzy among the ladies. As luck would have it, Anton had run out of plates, so he waved his trilby instead. On the whole it was a much safer accessory.

Waiters swarmed back in with bottles of Amaretto and Limoncello to go with fresh plastic beakers, this time filled with coffee. It was not the first time I felt someone ought to tell Camille, a teetotaller, that Limoncello is fairly alcoholic. She loves the stuff and glugged back gallons, gradually turning a deep shade of pink.

Not so subtlety the music changed again. We were plunged back into the mystique of baroque rhythms and the secretive world of the masked ball. A larger troupe of performers strolled about the room. The range of costumes was extraordinarily lavish. 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.

Anton shouted something about each mask having identifying names. In years gone by, he bellowed, people with different professions wore different designed masks. Today we were being treated to an extravagant selection.

Là là bas, ils sont anglais!” he cried, pointing at a couple who were covered from head to foot in masks and material. How on earth he knew they were English I had no idea. Perhaps we glide differently to the French.

The masked performers were cheered and clapped. 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.

Our day at the Carnaval de Venise drew to a close. Jack had finally found something he could eat, and swore that if we ever attended the event again he would bring a packed lunch. Di had talked herself to a croak, leaving her gangly neighbour looking exhausted. Susan still hadn’t blinked much, and Camille was beginning to turn the same colour as her Limoncello bottle. Anton was as chipper as when he arrived and had avoided smashing anything or injuring anyone. That qualified as a result.

We left to the echoes of Signore Zanotti’s serenades ringing in our ears. They melded perfectly with the early onset of tinnitus. Had we enjoyed ourselves? Absolutely. It had been terrific. It might take a month or two for our ears to recover, but we will definitely be back next year.   

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Accidental Ancient Blog!

So sorry - it seems the cold snap has affected my blog site. Those of you who subscribe to my blogs may have been sent a prehistoric one today. Fortunately this is not a case of hacking, but please ignore it anyway! 
My usual monthly instalment will be published this Saturday. 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Guest blog from Valerie Poore, author of the Watery Ways series

Here's a treat. I am a great fan of Val Poore's writing and have just finished her book: How to Breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics. It's absolutely wonderful, so you might imagine how pleased I was when she kindly agreed to share one of her stories here on my blog. 
I'll be back next month with another installment from France. In the meantime, grab a cuppa and settle down with Val, you're going to love this one.

Now this is luxury! I've been let loose on Beth's lovely blog here and she says I can write whatever I like! Isn't she kind? Seriously though, I had no clue what to write at first. I didn't want to do the usual 'I've been writing since childhood' post (you'd all have been yawning at the first paragraph). So, as I've been reading Beth's posts for quite a time now and I absolutely LOVE her stories of French life, I thought I should maybe follow her lead and tell you all a story about my life in the Netherlands. That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

Before I start, though, I have to say that living here isn't anything like as exotic as the beautiful south west of France. But Holland is an interesting country, and as I've spent the last seventeen years living on a barge in the centre of Rotterdam, it has its own excitement. I should say, though, that given the vagaries of the Dutch climate, these are often provided by the weather.

The story I want to tell you is about the time a tree fell on my barge in a rather dramatic storm. I've mentioned it briefly once in one of my books, but I don't think I ever went into detail about just how much of an impact it made on me – well, the impact was on the boat, actually, but it made a pretty deep impression on me too.

It all happened several years ago when I still had my lovely Sindy dog, a Labrador/Dobermann cross who was very nervous at the best of times, but even more during storms. Sindy had been abused as a puppy and it took me years to build up her trust. On this occasion, it was shattered again with one whopping bang.

But let me set the scene for you. My barge, Vereeniging (Dutch for Society), is a very cosy and homely place. It doesn't have many windows, however, because I have to keep its exterior as close to its original conformation as possible. The harbour where I'm moored is designated to historic and traditional Dutch barges. We are actually museum exhibits – yes, we are! As a matter of fact, the stories I could tell you about how that feels would keep me here for hours, but for now, suffice to say we are quite strictly regulated on what we're allowed to do with our barges. So, going back to the windows, I only have one in the roof and one long narrow one at the back, the point being that no one can see them from more than a few metres away. It also means I can't see what's going on outside unless I open up the hatch and peer out – a bit like a mole coming up for air.

On the day in question, I was staying well inside. It was a Sunday and there was a tremendous gale blowing. Rotterdam is a windy place at the best of times, but this was something else. The tempests were in more than a fury, you might say. The Vereeniging was rocking to and fro, bashing against the neighbouring barges, and things were pretty uncomfortable. Even I was nervous. I couldn't see much, but I could hear and feel every ghastly gust. We hadn't had a storm this bad since I moved on board. To make matters worse, Sindy was absolutely terrified.

I was trying to keep her calm on the sofa, but she was shaking so much her teeth were rattling, poor baby. I couldn't even read my book because for one thing, she kept climbing into my lap so I couldn't see over the top of her head, and for another her trembling made me wobble too so all the words on the page were just a blur. It was a bit like being sat on by a running engine. There we were, then, a shivering, shuddering pair and all I could do was pray the storm would blow over.

I should also mention that there were large plane trees all along the quay at the time and every now and then I'd hear a crack as branches broke off. With every huge blast of wind, both Sindy and I looked anxiously at the hatch. Drrrrrrrrrrrr went my pooch's teeth as her whole body shook. Then I heard another loud crack. And then another. I was becoming very uneasy about this.
'Sindy,' I said. 'I think it's time we abandoned ship. I don't like this at all.'

Now in those days, my partner, Koos, was living on his own boat, which was further along the row of moored barges. I decided we should go and take refuge with him; at least we wouldn't be alone and I could rely on Koos to be a soothing influence on Sindy (and me too, if I'm honest).

Hastily pulling on my raincoat and Wellies, I snapped Sindy's lead onto her collar and started up the stairs. As I pushed open the hatch, the wind ripped it out of my hand and it crashed onto the roof. Then I looked up at the trees on the quayside. Branches on the one in front of the Vereeniging were breaking off and swinging wildly. It was becoming distinctly apocalyptic; in other words, very scary.
'Yikes,' I thought. 'Let's get out of here!'

Heaving Sindy out was another story, though. She might have been terrified inside, but she was none too keen to go out either. Her body went slack like a sack of flour and her paws grew roots into the treads of the stairs. I had wrestle her up her step by step until we got to the top when I unceremoniously shoved her over the front bulkhead of the boat where she stood shivering, her tail between her legs.

Her eyes reproached me.

'I'll report you for doggy abuse,' they said.

Meanwhile the rain was lashing down in stair rods and the wind was howling through the gaps in the buildings behind us. Did I say it was apocalyptic?
'Sindy,' I yelled, after closing the hatch. 'Let's go!' And I made a dash towards the bows of the barge. I led the way; Sindy followed – or rather, I dragged her, sliding her resisting legs across the deck. She either wasn't proving very cooperative or she'd forgotten how to walk. Luckily, the tide was in and the water level was high, which made it easier to get her quickly down to the quay.

I manhandled Sindy onto the plank, shunted her down the slope with indecent haste and hurried along the quayside. Then just as we reached Koos' barge, there was an almighty crunch. I looked back and watched in horror as the tree keeled over. It crashed down, totally buckling my gangplank before it thudded onto the Vereeniging's foredeck. Thank goodness for water displacement; my poor barge would have been flattened otherwise. Thank goodness we weren't in there too; it would have taken quite a rescue operation to get us out.

As it was, it was a miracle there was virtually no structural damage to the Vereeniging. That said, the tangled mess of branches and debris meant we couldn't go home straight away. The council came along the next day to clear it but it was two days before I could get back on board again.

'I thought you said you didn't have premonitions,' Koos commented when he saw what had happened.

'I don't,' I grimaced, 'but I do have a very good sense of self-preservation, so maybe in this case it's the same thing!'

A couple of years later, we had another violent storm and yet another tree landed on my barge. I couldn't believe it could happen to me twice. Talk about Murphy's law! Fortunately, no one was on board then, either, but it caused a lot more damage and I had to have the girders that held the roof hatches in place repaired. Since then, all the trees have been cut down and replaced by saplings, so thankfully we are safe again.

The only risk we have now is from the swarms of foreign tourists who think our boats really are museum exhibits and believe they're entitled to come on board and poke around. Only last week I looked out one morning to find a group of Japanese men and women posing for a photo opportunity on my foredeck. Such is the flavour of life in a historic harbour in the Netherlands! As I said, it isn't as exotic or as beautiful as France, but it's never boring.

Lastly, thank you so very much to Beth for having me here! I'll go back to my own blog now and leave you all in peace!


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Reflections on Another Blissful Year in la France

Here we are again, the end of another year and, wow, it’s flown by. Each year seems to pass more quickly than the other. And I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just life in la France.

Talk about fulfilling. Each month was dominated by wonderful dog walks with our Australian Shepherds, Aby and Max, with sightings of amazing wildlife and beautiful plants. 

Quintessentially southern French stuff too, you know: markets, pâtisseries, dining al fresco and almost unintelligible conversations with our neighbours. But there was much more. Here are just a few examples.

January started in typically ironic style with a carol singing event. (Apparently it’s difficult to secure a suitable date in our local church before Christmas.) Originally intended as a gentle singsong to the local villagers, much to the disgust of my husband, Jack, it quickly turned into an extravaganza.

A merry band of 15-ish carollers, sang in various keys to a surprisingly large congregation. Enthused by early success, our choir mistress instructed us to travel to the next church, and join their band of singers. This was most unexpected. We, plus several congregants, piled into cars and drove in convoy to village two.

Six churches later, we were beginning to croak, but still going strong-ish. Onlookers crowded into the aisles, filling the church with raucous singing and dubious melodies. It was an entirely fitting end to Christmastime.

February as usual, was filled with chilly rambles and examinations of dormant crops.  

But however cold it was, our weekly trips to the local market were never neglected. (I do love our cheese-selling gentlemen!)

It was also the month where we hosted the 80th birthday party of our friend, the trilby-wearing Italian, Anton. Despite struggling with his eyesight and having barely enough puff to breathe, he insisted on blowing out his candles and managed them all in one go. We’re already gearing up for his 90th, and he’s determined to be around to celebrate it.

Later on in the month, Anton and his wife, Camille, invited us to a spectacle in a nearby town. Never having been before, we had no idea what to expect. Wow – just, wow! It was immediately clear that Italy had come to France – to party. Cabaret singers, dancing girls, a feast and a band the Godfather would have been proud of. They entertained us all day and late into the evening. As you might guess, we’ve already booked our places for next year.

March was a month where the banks of our bit of the Garonne River were transformed into a hive of activity. Foresters were hard at it, harvesting graceful lines of poplar trees. They had been so beautiful the summer before, so it was sad to see them reduced to piles of logs, but they do grow quickly and at least they were being put to good use.

The air was heady with exquisite scents of blossoms, which enhanced our rambles still further. 

Less enhancing though was Aby’s accidental uncovering of a rat’s nest. Did you know rats grew on trees? No, I didn’t either.

 April saw the building of our cherished swing chair. Sounds a bit silly to include it here, but it has given us so much pleasure I wanted to share it with you. Having faffed around for ages trying to work out where to put it, we finally decided, and have spent many a happy evening soaking up the sounds of nature and watching the sun go down.

We also began our observation hide renovation project. With 26 miradors, it was always going to be a long job. We’re not finished yet, but progress is coming along nicely.

May is the beginning of the fêtes season in our part of France. It’s a time when household shutters are flung open after a long winter and folks come out to play. Our closest early fête fills the small town of Lavit. Flower stands, food stands, dog displays, entertainers, ancient machinery demonstrated by even older demonstrators, it’s all there. We would later go to several more, but this is always one of our favourites.

I’ll admit to being possibly a tad over-intrepid with some of my dog walks and this month witnessed another slight misadventure. I had spotted an interesting crop of plants way down below in one of the streams that run through our domaine, and decided to investigate. Once in, it took Max a long time to show me a way out. Scrambling sheer-sided banks hadn’t been the plan. Mind you it was worth it, it was incredibly beautiful in that secret watery garden.

June brought a cookery lesson from our super friend Andrée. The dish was Flamiche au Maroilles, a cheesy affair cooked on brioche-type pastry. She kindly welcomed my sister and I, plus furry rabble, to her wonderful home for the demo. As you can see we were all gripped – it’s amazing what the alluring whiff of cheese can do to a dog’s obedience levels! Needless to say the end result was heavenly.

 Les fêtes de la Saint-Jean (The feast of St. John the Baptist) was next on our list of entertainments. Traditionally featuring witches on bonfires to banish them from the area, it is held close to the summer solstice to help bless the harvest. As usual, we provided the bonfire wood and table decorations. The hunters prepared the meal, and Andrée’s husband, Joël, masterminded the entertainment. Nearly 200 pagan revellers turned out to enjoy it, and once again it was a great success.

Jack ruined his own reputation as someone who professes not to have any interest in animals during this period. He found a young deer stuck in the fencing and spent hours freeing it. Happily, he succeeded and the youngster tottered off to safety in the forest.

July dawned with howled, unprintable oaths from my husband. It was our partridge release day. Not blessed with much patience, he thrashed around the bird pen with a net trying to capture our latest crop of youngsters. If they could have stuck their tongues out at him they would. Instead they did what they do best, and galloped around like a gang of Usain Bolts, causing mayhem. We got there in the end and proudly watched our latest brood of younglings enjoy their new surroundings in the forest.

This was a month filled with beautiful plants. 

It was also filled with adorable young animals. Gorgeous deer with melting eyes, rambunctious baby boar protected by car-sized parents. Even a pal’s puppies appeared on the scene at this time. Yes, you guessed it, I was banned from having one!

It was also the period where I witnessed an incredibly spectacular avian display. Sadly an animal had been killed by a combine harvester, but its demise was not wasted. Flocks of raptors flew in to feast. Black kites, buzzards, sparrow hawks and goshawks, I watched, spellbound by their majesty.

August began with the launch of my latest book, Completely Cats – Stories with Cattitude. It is an anthology of stories about cats, which my friend, Zoe Marr, and I co-produced. Our intention through this project is to give financial support to the charity, International Cat Care, and help cats in need. It’s been great fun to work on, the story contributors have been marvellous and we’re very proud of the end result. (Brutus, though his nose was a put slightly out of joint at the time, seemed to approve too.)

This month saw another quirky first for us. We were invited to a Brazilian wedding in our local village and what a brilliant affair it was. The weather was beautiful, but it could not match the beauty of the bride and her groom. It was another event we shall never forget.

The summer here is abundant with plant and animal activity - I adore it. One of my favourite crops at this time has to be sunflowers. Most anywhere we go we are treated to their stunning splashes of sunshine lighting up the countryside.

Typical summer sounds here in south-west France are the dull clunks of pétanque balls as they are lobbed across a gravel court. (Similar to boules, the goal is to toss or roll steel balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet.) For some reason that escapes me, we were invited to the local firefighters’ barbecue. It’s just as well we were surrounded by pros, because the spit roasting the boar turned into an inferno, as did the moules. They were supposed to steam gently between soggy sheets of newspaper, but with a team of deadly keen firemen on hand that was never going to happen.

Post feast entertainment was, of course, a rousing game of pétanque. I’d like to say I was good at it but that would definitely be a lie. Nevertheless, it was another memorable day.

September blossomed with a glorious flower market in our nearest baby town. It was heaven.

It was also a hive of activity in the orchards.

Our mirador restoration project was going great guns, which enabled us to view animals safely from different parts of the forest. Observation sessions like these were absolute bliss.

In our garden it was definitely the year of the rose. We have several varieties and pretty much each one did us proud.

The month ended with a gang of us visiting our local auberge in support of their moules-frites night. Ooh, I do love mussels and chips. We dined outside and watched the stars come out, ending our evening with a stroll through this gorgeous ancient village.

October was a bit soggy to begin with (always a plus point for Max), but that didn’t dampen our spirits for the annual outing to help with the vendange (grape harvest) on our friend’s domaine. This is where everyone pitches in to pick the grapes at a time deemed precisely right by the owner, Yves. Everyone has a job (Jack usually ends up as vintage tractor repair man), and every vine is stripped clean. The end is celebrated with a banquet provided by the wonderful lady of the house, Nicole. We feel incredibly touched to be included in this family affair.

On a routine shopping trip I witnessed a particularly poignant exhibition in Moissac town. It was their dedication to the prevention of breast cancer. The main feature was 100 pink umbrellas suspended above a cobbled street. It was an extraordinary sight.

It was also the month where I had to nip over to Britain with my sister. Choosing to take the ferry from St Malo, we enjoyed a simple, easy drive up through France, and a couple of hours in the city. What a great history it has. Sometime later, with purses much lighter, we boarded our ship for an uneventful crossing.

November featured an unlikely visitor to our domaine. Nathan, our forester, said he had seen a mutant wild boar roaming around the fenced section. Intrigued by his vivid descriptions, Jack finally spotted it. But this was no wild boar, it was a young Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. Word soon reached the hunting fraternity. Deputations arrived at the house to tell us it must be destroyed before it cross-bred with the local boar population and developed a hybrid species. Jack emphasised that it was tiny and, without a stepladder, it would have a job cross-breeding with anything. They wouldn’t be placated but, once again Jack came to the fore and managed to catch the little fellow in a humane box trap. I tell the story in a different blog, but suffice to say he was safely returned to his rightful owner.

Glorious autumn walks filled with exciting discoveries became features of this month. Rusty obsolete traps we can do without, but who knew that Hobbits lived in France? I certainly didn’t.

December flew in with a packed-party agenda. Determined to soak up every bit of Christmas tradition possible, we began by visiting the Christmas night market at Auvillar. Mulled wine, carols, stalls packed with festive gifts, it was another real treat.

Part-way through the month and held in the car park of our local village, we attended the neighbours’ Christmas get-together. Crowding around a bonfire, which I’m certain has melted part of the road, we chatted and gossiped and munched on traditional fare. It’s an event we always look forward to.

We live in a fruit-farming closely-knit community where the giving of gifts is commonplace, and if there is ever a problem, people immediately turn out to help one another. Every year we hold a soirée. It is our opportunity to thank all our friends and neighbours for their kindness and gifts given throughout the year. This time, more than 60 came to join us for Christmas drinks, nibbles, and the horrifically-challenging quiz Jack sets each time. It’s another happy feature of our year.

And while you may think all we do here is party, sadly, that’s not altogether true. But these have been some of the highlights which have made this year so much fun.

With all the festivities nearly out of the way I’ll soon be getting back at work, writing Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV, and Jack will attack his extremely long list of farm machinery repairs and maintenance. But there is, of course, just one more event to celebrate. This year, as the snow begins to lightly fall, December 31st will be just us, surrounded by our shaggy mob of dogs and cat, snuggled in front of a roaring fire. Perfect.

 Whatever you’re up to, or plan to do, I sincerely hope you have a wonderfully Happy New Year.