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.  


  1. A wonderful summary of your year, Beth. I'm glad to say I've read all the blogs and was happy to be reminded of the stories. One thing I want to mention is how glad I am you have restored your shutters where possible and not just replaced the lot. I'm so much in favour of restoration. Well done you! As for your babies, they are just too gorgeous. One of these days I'll get to come and see you! I just know we'd have so much in common despite our different ways of life!

    1. Thank you so much, Val, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my blog. Ah yes, we're keen supporters of restoring where possible. It would be lovely to see you. With our shared love of the countryside and animals we'd never stop chatting!

  2. Great blog, Beth. What a year, there is one land mark incident you missed - the seeds in Max’s coat! That was something I didn’t envy you getting sorted! I’m now looking forward to reading #4 this year! Happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to you all at animal farm!

    1. Oh, Colin, don't remind me, the seeds incident took place the year before. Never again!! :/ Thanks so much for your kind comments and wishes, I do hope you enjoy the latest Fatties installment.

  3. Oh! Gosh that incident seems so recent! Sorry about stirring up old thorny memories ;)

  4. Heh heh heh, don't worry, Colin, it still seems like yesterday to me. It's an incident I shall never forget, and I dare say the dogs won't either! :/

  5. What an interesting year you had. Thank you for telling us about it.

    1. It's a pleasure, Lydia, we had another wonderfully memorable year. Thanks so much for reading my highlights.