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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.