Friday, May 30, 2008

It's a funny sort of day

It's been a funny sort of day, one of those days when you feel strangely detached from reality. (Actually, the days I feel strangely detached from reality seem to far outnumber the ones that I feel attached to!) You know, when you walk into the kitchen then can't remember why you are there, completely failing to notice the vat of chilli con carne bubbling over on the stove, then walk out again. "MUUUuuuuummMMMMM, you've burned the tea again" shouts DS while at the same time failing to rouse himself from 'doing his homework' (on the Wii?). Ah well, at least I've only burnt the tea. Last year it was the whole kitchen, but that's for another day.

I put it down to the weather. Two sunny days in a row after what seems like years of rain has thrown me completely. That or spending the day filling in our French tax return. A greater work of fiction than Mme Bovary. It's not that we are evading tax or anything, it's just that the French and English tax years don't coincide so I have to do a certain amount of 'intelligent' projection. All well until they phone you, as they did last year, to ask you how you arrived at your figures. ''Errrrr, not entirely sure' I smiled.

I can't seem to concentrate on doing anything and a million and one unfinished jobs surround me. With the return of the sun came the return of the flies so I dug out my lovely silk fringed fly screen to hang over the door - also a good chicken deterrent as mine have no compunction about coming into the house whenever the mood takes them. But I got distracted and left it on a chair, so now Mad Baz is having an eppie in it and it and he are all tangled up. I've extracted him three times but it's obviously the most fun he's had in years and he's straight back in before I have a chance to move it.

He's now alternatively sitting on my lap, walking on the keyboard, deleting my post and nibbling fingers, nose (ouch! Fang up the nostril - nasty!) , toes, anything he can sink his pearly whites into.

I have a broody hen, the first one ever, who's sitting entranced on her little pile of eggs. Boy will she get a shock when he little chicklets hatch and she discovers they are three times as big as her. She's a tiny little bantam but she's sitting on a pile of eggs from one of our Marans, which are one of the larger breeds of hen. I can identify with that. It'll be pretty much like the shock I had when all 10lb 13ozs of DS was handed to me. He had a full head of hair, looked 6 months old and was practically walking (unlike me, who struggled to walk for months afterwards!). I've no idea what we need to do for maman-to-be so today maybe I'll do a bit of research. She looks very contented, all puffed up and oblivious to the world. That must be nice. No need to worry about bills, break-ins, how to get the pool to change from a delicious Chartreuse green to clear blue in three weeks when the first guests arrive, no housework. All she has to do is sit.

I had an appointment at the Gendarmerie today to 'porter plainte' about our losses in the theft at the Salle des Fetes at the weekend. Gendarme Adjoint S was barely out of nappies, with a fresh crop of pimples and a very large gun. It was quite weird to think that this young boy could pull his gun and shoot someone dead. I have a huge horror of guns. Must have been shot dead in a past life. That doesn't however, explain my morbid fear of toilet cisterns. There's no word for a fear of toilet cisterns although I know I'm not alone. I listened to a phone in on phobias years ago and someone else phoned to say they were terrified of toilet cisterns. "Hooray", I thought, "I'm not alone!"

Epibiphobia is a fear of teenagers. I've definitely got that if it means a fear of your children turning into knuckle dragging, hissy fitting teenagers, rather than a fear of teenagers per se. There's even a fear of chopsticks for goodness sake, Consecotaleophobia but no word for a fear of toilet cisterns. I feel robbed!

M. Le Gendarme Adjoint is going to personally interview everyone who holds a spare key for the village hall, probably most of the village I would think, to see if he can get to the bottom of the break in. He's also told us he'll be going to visit M. Le Maire to tell him that he is responsible for our losses. That should go down like a pork chop in a synagogue!

The Conquering Hero phoned to tell me that due to a much better offer, sorry, a business meeting with the director of his current tv series in Dublin, he won't be able to get back on the 14th June to see DD in her starring role in the end of school play then have dinner with some horsey friends. He'd probably rather have dinner with the horses than the friends themselves anyway, which would be useful as he could then suss out which end is which, which would be a huge step forward! Did I mind? Well, not really as he's missed all the shows, both Christmas, end of term and Carnaval for the past three years so I don't think it makes much difference.

CH had to have a tooth removed today and was in much pain. (Much pain.... try childbirth!). He broke it months ago but was too busy to see a dentist so he paid the price when he spat it out with his Aquafresh into the bathroom sink. I was suitably sympathetic, and made lots of soothing noises. Well, you have to, don't you. He called me back later to recount the soft, squishy things he's managed to eat for tea. "Don't write about this in your blog" he told me. "OK", I said.

Tonight is Karate night, which is just an excuse for the mums to nip off for a drink or a coffee leaving our little darlings in the care of the smallest karate teacher in Europe, possibly the world. DS takes it terribly seriously, and you can see that every chop and kick is, mentally at least, aimed at his sister. DD, laughs, pulls faces, gets her feet the wrong way round and farts occasionally! Money well spent if you ask me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mother's Day

Mother's Day (which occurs on a different day here in France) passed in a heady whirl of cards and flowers, chocolates and breakfast in bed, smiling, shiny children and a loving, thoughtful husband. And then I woke up.

Reality hit me in the face like a wet kipper.

"DON'TA", "STOPA", wailed DD as the replay of the Hundred Years War, which has been raging in our house since puberty kicked in, continued into another day.

"MUUUuuuuuUUUUUM" she called in that special whiny way that is genetically programmed into girls at birth. "He's bugging me".

Huge sigh.... all I want for Mother's Day is peace and a day without the inane bickering that they have developed into something of an art form.

DS has sent me an e-card. "Don't forget to smile", it said. Do you think he's trying to tell me something? It's hard to smile when both little darlings spend their waking hours devising new and more inventive ways to wind each other up to the max. DD has made two cards, one with a sweet little poem in French, and painted a little mirror for me.

The Conquering Hero makes a lovely big breakfast with all the trimmings. Yum. Then we set off for a vide grenier in Monflanquin, one of the most beautiful villages in France, though how anything can look truly beautiful on the ten millionth day of rain in the Sunny Southwest is beyond me, in search of that rare thing in France, THE BARGAIN.

We pass by the Salle des Fetes, where a local cat charity is having an art competition and where my little business, Izzy Bean, has a stand selling our gorgeous candles and superb garden accessories. I've got the day off so a colleague is manning the stand. As we pass, I notice two gendarmes standing in the doorway. 'How nice of them to turn up and support us' I thought.

We eventually found the vide grenier and paddled around a damp field looking for suitable 'tudor' looking items for the CH's latest production with mixed success.

Having now not eaten for nearly an hour DD and DS announced that they were ravenous and with the rain falling steadily we headed for the clubhouse (it was at a football club). There we endured that peculiar sort of organised chaos that is endemic in France. Go to the cashier, tell her what you want and get tickets indicating your choices. Go to this lady for your drinks, that man for your sandwich and outside for your chips. All this has to be achieved while negotiating your way through a French queue which is like a rugby scrum but you keep your hands to yourself. Queue is French for tail but a French queue resembles the tail of some sort of Medusa like being, with people joining from all sides, much pushing and shoving and irate calls of 'c'etait moi d'abord' (I was first) and 'Enleve tes mains de mon cul?' (take your hands off my a**e).

Still, the chips were good.

We head home via another town, where we stop for a cup of hot chocolate. The cafe is full so we sit outside and enjoy a bit of French cafe life - looking out on leaden skies and torrential rain. 'Il pleut comme les vaches qui pissent' comments DD. (It's raining like pissing cows!) Remind me again why we decided to bring our children up in France?

We set off for home where I find a message from my colleague to say that there was a break in at the Salle des Fetes and most of our merchandise has been stolen - hence the gendarmes. Don't let anyone tell you that there is no crime in rural France. This is the third break-in in two weeks. The idiot Maire failed to mention this one intsy little fact when the keys were collected nor that he had not had the broken lock repaired although he had had a meeting about it. Only in France! No doubt the burglar couldn't believe his luck that he could just walk into the hall again and nick a whole load more stuff. The gendarmes said we should have slept in the hall - yeah, and take on the burglars single handed. What's the point of a police force then? It's not exactly like they are overworked! End result, no insurance cover and no claim for replacement of our stolen goods.

The perfect end to a perfect Mother's Day.

On a more positive note and with a great deal of maternal pride, I can announce that DD won the first prize in her age group (clearly takes after her mother!) and as her two entries were so good and the judges couldn't choose between them, they created a special prize for the most humourous card. Thassmygirl!

My dad...

wants it to be known that he isn't in his 80s as mentioned in a previous posting. Well, he is, but he wants it to be known that he isn't!!

The Conquering Hero departs....

All too soon he came and went (make of that what you will!) and once again the remote control is MINE all mine!

Truly vile weather marred the weekend with torrential rain which poured through the bathroom roof, conveniently watering my plants on its way down. Thank god because I forgot to. My mum recommended I buy Peace Lilies as they are 'impossible to kill'. Let me tell you, I've despatched more 'impossible to kill' plants than anyone else in the northern hemisphere.

The highlight of the weekend was undoubtedly the Eurobysmal Song Contest, that triumph of mediocrity and block (or should it be bloc) voting. They should let me be the compere which I could well be with old Tel threatening to resign over the clearly biased voting! Each year we wade through it, more for the sake of the children of course, in the hope of... I don't know what? Real talent, great lyrics? It served up the usual mix of songs composed by throwing random sentences into a bag and picking them out ( why do they let them sing in completely incomprehensible English?), the truly bizarre (the French entry looked like a cross between a 70s lounge lizard and an escaped paedophile and one group had women in beards) and the blatently talentless (just about everybody in it).

We always watch it with the subtitles as these are far more entertaining than the songs themselves and our favourite by far was the Spanish offering of 'my lady love does the chikichiki with her pants in her hand'. What on earth does that mean? Any Spaniards reading who might enlighten us? We've also asked far and wide in France and not found anyone who has a clue what the 'Chivers' are that weirdy beardy Sebastien was singing about? Could it really be about a popular English jam - or maybe even a jelly? That's taking the Entente Cordiale a step too far!

A sudden storm put paid to watching the voting but we all knew it would be an Eastern European country and sure enough it was. So, should we withdraw our funding in protest? Should Terry Wogan resign as compere? Should it become a separate competition for Eastern and Western Europe? Oh who the hell cares? It's just some loony singing competition that should have been axed around 1987. It ain't never gonna change the world and I for one was not shocked to the core to hear the Sir Cliff had been robbed of the title in 1853. It just ain't news to me.

The other highlight of the weekend was replacing the cover of our septic tank. God we know have to have fun. Are you jealous? Are you?

Since we bought the house, we've had no idea where this wonder of modern living was located, the useless eejit of an Irish bum we bought the house from having just waved at the steep slope behind the house and said 'it's over there'. In actual fact it wasn't 'over there' at all. It's 'over here' in a completely different direction, stoopid! He was a class act, our vendor. Most people I know inherit at least one piece of beautiful country furniture when they buy their house. Us, we got an old, broken and very used toilet and the mouldiest old washing machine in Southwest France.

Just a quick sewage diversion... The French government is currently carrying out checks on all septic tanks in France to check they conform to new EU regulations. It's estimated that approximately 92% don't. In our area, the rather bizarrely named SPANC (oh how the French love their acronyms!) are responsible for the checks.

The SPANCman duly called at the homestead requesting to see the septic tank. 'Mais oui, Monsieur, if only I knew where it was'. So with the aid of his long pole (quiet at the back!) he prodded and poked around in the area that Useless Irish Eejit had indicated housed our lovely fosse septique. After half and hour, we were no nearer finding it, though I had found all sorts of marvellous information that I just know I will put to good use one day. Like, if you have a party, collect up all the leftover beer and pour it into the septic tank. Clearly the man has never attended one of our parties where the chances of leftover beer are about as likely as our Maire saying something nice about foreigners and even if there were leftovers, the day I lift the cover of a smelly septic tank to pour it in is the day that I ask, nay beg, someone to have me committed. He also suggested live yoghourt and raw meat. Flaming hell, what does this thing need? A banquet? Should I maybe ask it for some meal suggestions or whether it has any preferences for brand of yoghourt? No, the cover once in place, stays firmly in place.

A whole 14 months later, we received a remarkably detailed report about our septic tank and what problems it may pose to the environment, all the more remarkable because until last week we still hadn't found the thing.

However, once found, it seemed that the cover was broken and a new 'couvercle pour la fosse septique' was needed. Looks like a job for the Conquering Hero.

Now, knowing how much he hates bodily excretions - the man blanches at a Tampax advert for goodness sake - it was pure joy to watch him clearing away all the overgrowth round the top of the very full, very smell septic tank, alternatively clearing his throat to hide the fact that he was gagging and looking very green around the gills. I casually dropped into the conversation that as the septic tank is shared with our cottage, we couldn't even be sure that everything in it was ours. Barf-o-rama!

Still, the new cover is now fitted and I can open the bathroom windows without fear of assault from sewage pongs. Ah, ain't life great!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Conquering Hero returns..

It's been all go here with the anticipated return of the conquering hero, alias DH, making his first foray onto French soil in two months. See, I told you he was largely absent. He works in the film and tv and, despite the move to France supposedly meaning he could work less, it hasn't turned out that way.

Anyway, he's managed to sneak away for 5 days although he's only really away in body as his phone never stops ringing and he has regularly had two hour conversations with his colleague back in Ireland, location of his current artistic endeavour. (By the way, in my intro I mentioned the BAFTAs. He was attending as he had been nominated for one. Sadly he lost out to, hiss. Note to self: must work harder to nobble the jury next time).

Fortunately, I've had my truly, truly wonderful aged parents staying with me. My mum is a consumate organiser and could arrange a dinner party for 20 with one hand tied behind her back while arranging flowers and hoovering the house. I blame her for my domestic ineptitude as she is so amazingly capable that I could never, ever compete. My dad, despite being over 80, has the energy of a man half his age, no doubt because of Mum's constant badgering to 'stand up straight', 'pick up your feet', 'don't stoop'. (She only does it for your own good, Dad).

My idea of being organised was getting the ironing down to five basketloads and managing to dust so in their two week stay, Mum was on a mission to get me sorted out, accompanied by assorted (and true) mutterings that 'this house is too much for you to manage on your own', 'how can you possibly be expected to look after a garden this size on your own', 'if I were you I'd strangle that bl**dy cockerel. (Apart from the cockerel comment do you see the common theme?)

By the time DH arrived home all the ironing was done and the laundry baskets empty of dirty washing, a phenomenon that has not occurred since the late 80s in my house. This also gave me the opportunity to do a bit of 'petit bricolage' myself. I had bought some lovely old door handles from a charity shop to replace our revolting 1970s ones so I set about replacing them. All went well until the last one. Why is is always the last one? The screw head had been damaged and no amount of 'screwdrivering' would budge it. So, I thought I'd try to do it with plyers. (do you see where this is going?). I could just about grab the screw head with the plyers so I leaned heavily on to them to try and get more purchase. The plyers slipped, trapping my right b**b between the handles. It made my eyes water, I can tell you! Closer inspection revealed twosmall bruises a bit akin to love bites. Hmm, that should put the cat among the pigeons!

I pleaded with my darling aged parents to stay (forever) but, no doubt exhausted by their 'relaxing holiday in France' they braved the French airtraffic controllers strike to beat a hasty retreat back to the calm of their immaculate house in Sussex.

So, DH returns. Now, he likes the country life, but the sanitised version without the smells and nastiness that often accompany it so when I asked him to hold our big, grumpy ginger cat while I removed a tick from under his chin, he whined 'No', looking thoroughly disgusted. So, 20 minutes of trying on my own, which was a bit like juggling spaghetti, and I was no further forward in trying to free poor kitty from the iron grip of this blood sucking little bleeder and was raked in scratches.

Still, revenge can be found in the most unlikely places.

Can any oeneologists out there tell me whether it was a huge mistake to use his bottle of Chateau la Tour Pin de Figeac 1989 (a personal gift from the cellars of Lord Leith) in my Boeuf Bourguignon, or just a big one?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

10 things NOT to do before you die....

No. 1 - catch your ni**le in a pair of plyers. I did it today and it flaming hurts (and leave a very suspicious looking bruise!)

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Yesterday was one of those day when I marvel that the French could have managed to develop chip and pin technology, put a spacecraft in orbit and and build an aeroplane, yet they can't manage to keep the shops open during the lunch hour. It's like the 21st Century in a 19th Century overcoat.

I needed to buy two things - not your everyday things mind - but two things nonetheless. I needed a new lawnmower and a toaster. A lawnmower that makes toast would have been excellent but sadly that's yet another invention I don't have time to invent.

Living in a rural area, there is no shortage of suitable places to buy a lawnmower. However, with only three hours between opening time and the 2-3 hour French lunch hour, during which just about everywhere, and certainly anywhere selling lawnmowers, will be closed, it meant a mad gallop around the countryside at breakneck speed whilst trying to digest the pros and cons of the different models.

Now this leads nicely on to one of my other gripes about France. How come 'entrepreneur' is a French word, yet the French seem to be the least entrepreneurial race I've ever come across. Too much socialism if you ask me. No-one can think for themselves. Every shop sells the same thing at exactly the same price. Even in the market (sorry Dulwichmum) I looked at the same cardigan at the same price on three different stalls.

Now, I'm blonde, but even I know that if you puts your goods up for sale at a slightly lower price, chances are people will recognise a bargain and you'll probably sell twice as much. If everything is the same price what's to make you choose one shop or stall over another? The appalling nature of French after sales is legendary, so that wouldn't sway you. Whoever you brought it from, if it broke the next day, they'd refuse to refund your money and blame 'La Direction' with a gallic shrug.

So, gallop we did around the various shops looking at the different models of lawnmower. Now what I know about mowers could fit on a lilliputian postage stamp but all I knew was that it needed to be self propelling.

Our very expensive (and only 5 years old) Honda mower has developed a seemingly irreparable problem with it's self propulsion meaning that you have to push the flaming thing over hill and down dale, sometimes in temperatures approaching 46 degrees. I have not so fond memories of a time last year when, due to the imminent arrival of guests in our cottage and some untimely rain, the grass had a sudden growth spurt.

It was a hot day in mid-August and the thermometer registered more than 40 degrees as I pushed the great weight of the mower around the cottage garden.The garden has a slight slope which appeared to mysteriously transform into a 1:3 hill by the time I was half way round. What's that old saying 'men perspire, horses sweat, ladies glow'. Trust me, I was way beyond glowing. I was lathered up like a Grand National racehorse on the final stretch after Bechers, dripping from every pore, in a most unladylike way. In the end, I stripped naked and finished the lawn in the altogether - a liberating experience, but not recommended in suburbia.

So, eventually a suitable model was found (by suitable I mean the cheapest I could find) which was sold in an unmarked box with 'Made in China' in large letters on it and no mention of a Briggs and Stratton engine.

On opening the box at home, the assembly instructions appeared to have been translated straight from Mandarin on Babelfish and were just that, babel, but I've always worked better with a picture so I just used the one on the box and the end result bore more than a passing resemblance. However, the 'spanner' provided for the purpose of tightening the various bolts proved to be a plug spanner which was worse than useless. Now, before you think to congratulate me on recognising a plug spanner, I have to admit that it was in fact my dear old dad who illuminated me on this point. Personally, I wouldn't know a plug spanner if it hit me on the head.

Oil was added, petrol put in and the moment of truth arrived. One pull of the cord and it started straight away. Even our 'easy start' Honda used to need a couple of tugs and that was after I'd called DH to check which lever had to be pulled, which one pushed and did I need it set at the hare or the tortoise? If you have a Honda lawnmower, you'll know what I mean.

The lawn was duly mown (or is it mowed?) and the end result was excellent although if I have a tiny criticism, it's that the self propulsion is a little on the nippy side. You kind of have to jog to keep up (no MBT shoes or funny flipflops needed to tone my bum!) and it does tend to drag you into the bushes. Precision cutting is a little tricky too but hey, it's great for deadheading your flowers!

DH (also known as Mr Brandname) was, of course, horrified that I had bought a major piece of garden equipment without him. "What sort of mower is it?" He demanded. "A lawn mower". I replied. "Yes, but what SORT of lawnmower?". "A GREEN one".

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I lied...

Was it only yesterday I said that I loved my children? How things can change in 24 hours. It all started to go wrong when we had a sudden, very heavy downpour last evening. Earlier in the day DS and DD had been hanging out of the velux window (does that constitute reckless endangerment do you think?) flying some daft 75 cent wind up bird thing which they naturally got stuck in a gutter. After much prodding and poking said bird was removed from the gutter but do you suppose they shut the window?

It was only several hours later, as the rain continued to fall in stair rods, that DS happened to mention to DD that perhaps, possibly, maybe she may have left her window open. I rushed in to find water cascading down the open velux window straight onto her bed and the large pile of ironing that my dearest Mother had spent the last week sorting out, and which, of course, she had been asked to put away.

Now, being as I am a domestic disaster rather than a domestic goddess, the windows were probably last cleaned at the turn of the century, so the water which was now spreading across the bed, the ironing and the floor was a nasty shade of brown. End result, her mattress looks like the last resting place of a serial incontinent. Did I calmy clean up and say "never mind, darling, accidents happen" or did I scream like a banshee with PMT. You guess!

(I'm just having a quick break to restart my heart. My youngest cat just decided to jump onto the desk which is on a galleried landing, overjumped and just about sailed straight over the bannister. I had to grab him by his tail which now looks a good few centimetres longer. Talk about news as it happens eh?)

Back to my blog....

So DD had no option, or rather I had no option, but to let her sleep in my bed with all the midnight whacks in the face, grinding of teeth and speaking in tongues that that will entail - her not me I hasten to add.

When I finally made it to bed after seemingly hours of picking up clothes dropped on the bathroom floor, empty glasses left under the table (where else?), shoes missing their mates and other assorted detritus, I sought (blimey, couldn't remember how to spell that for a minute) the sanctuary of my bedroom where DD was doing a passable imitation of the Vitruvian man, mouth hanging open and snoring gently. Great.

I collected up the jumbled arms and legs and deposited them over to the other side of the bed and hopped in ready to endure another chapter of Carol Drinkwater's 'The Olive Harvest'. I've never come across a writer who can use so many adjectives that it makes my head spin. Still, I press on.

A peaceful 10 minutes pass before DS appears claiming that the storm overhead is stopping him sleeping and can he get into my bed too. (Thank god DH is away!) DS, despite being only 12, is already 5'7 so it's no mean feat to squash us all into the bed, despite it being a superking.

I can hear my mother's doomladen warning ringing in my ears. "You're making a rod for your own back letting the children sleep in your bed" she said when they were but little nippers. But even I thought it was fair to assume that by the time teenagedom was approaching they might have kicked the habit.

So, a very long, very sleepless night, for me at least, followed as I tried my best to hang on to the few square centimetres they had left me, fought for the pillows and prodded assorted snorers and teeth grinders. Eventually at 6am, Basil, my mad kitty decided to come and chew my nose, so that was the end of another rejuvenating night.

Talking of noses, I'm sporting a very sore one today. I tried to peer through a shop window which had one of those security grilles behind it. It created some sort of optical illusion (well that's my story anyway) and I didn't realise the glass was so far forward. I ended up nose-butting the window really hard and now have a slightly swollen, slightly purple nose. Only me...thank god I forgot to spend thousands on a nose job all those years ago.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

School... what school?

Now don't get me wrong, I love my children dearly.... but.... isn't the point of having school age children that they actually go to school? In the last two weeks, DS has had three days off for public holidays, one day off (well, a morning at least) due to teachers being unavailable to teach and one day due to a teacher's strike - about the fifth one this year.

In France striking, along with fraud if the newspapers are to be believed, is akin to a national sport and sometimes it seems barely a week goes by without someone blowing a whistle and shouting 'everybody out'! When I saw all the fuss about the teachers in the UK going on strike with all the accompanying shock and horrorI thought wistfully, one strike in 20 odd years.. if only.

My favourite strike had to be the workers at the Paris Opera who, for some bizarre reason, had managed to slip into the 21st Century with a contract written by Louis the Somethingorother which gave them the opportunity to retire at 40 on 90% of their salary. I guess in Louis's day 40 was pretty damned old but now, for heaven's sake!

Back to schools. My DS's school has this lovely system whereby the teachers don't have to confirm whether or not they are strking until 8.45am on the day of the strike. Fine, but school starts at 8.30. So what do you do? Get them up with the lark and stick them on the school bus only to get the call at 8.46am to say that all their teachers are striking and could I come and pick them up please. This involves a round trip of 45kms in the gas guzzling Grand Voyager - I told you it was rural round here. Or do I keep them at home with all the implications that has on my busy social life (as if) not to mention my sanity. This parenthood business isn't easy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A chicken success story....

Today was market day and I'm pleased to report that I'm now the owner of possibly (or maybe even probably) the ugliest chickens in Christendom (no, hang on, France is a secular country so we can't use any religious allusions) erm... in the Northern Hemisphere.

I set off for the market with high hopes only to find the hall empty except for two old farmers and 4 chickens. Still, I only want two so I wasn't put off.

I approached the first farmer who had a couple of fine birds tied up at his feet and in my best French asked "are these laying hens or meat hens" - it's important to make the distinction, you know. He looked at me wearily, rolled his eyes ever so slightly and replied "Madame, these are cockerels". Oh well, what do I know about chickens, I joked. "Evidently not much, Madame" he answered politely.

The next farmer is one I know well from our village market. He sells the best onions you'll ever taste and he's was, until we got our own birds, the main supplier of delicious eggs to our household. He also sells some seriously ugly chickens. This poor pair were tied together with an old pair of Madame's support hose and looked thoroughly miserable. I asked if they were layers and were told (I think) that they were point of lay chickens and eggs would abound in the very near future. To be quite honest, with his strong accent, he could have told me that I was looking at the original goose that laid the Golden Egg and I'd have been none the wiser.

Madame insisted I held them by their feet to be assured that they were indeed, fine birds. It was then that I noticed their featherless necks. They are 'Cou Nu', literally Naked Necks, a breed that originated in Hungary and has a dominant gene that means they have half the feathers of a normal chicken. (God, I can't believe I'm writing this. I used to have a career, you know! Note to self.. you must get out more).

They are possibly the only type of chicken I can't stand but I felt so sorry for the poor things tied and trussed and probably with only the pot to look forward to so 20 euros poorer, I left with my hens in a cardboard pet carrier that I'd got from my local vet. M. Le Vieux Fermier must have thought Christmas had come early when he pocketed my money - more than I'd paid for my pair of purebred Peking Bantams but he wasn't prepared to haggle.

Time for a coffee. In France you can take dogs into most restaurants but I'm not sure about the rules for chickens. My mother, a farmer's daughter herself, but who escaped the muck and wellies at 17, wryly commented that this was the first time she'd been out to coffee with a couple of chickens!

I smuggled them onto the terrasse and pushed them under the table in their box. It was a lovely sunny day and it was very pleasant to sit watching the world go by with a (shock, horror) half decent cup of coffee in front of me but after a while I thought the chickens might be feeling the heat so it was time to go. I reached under the table and surreptitiously took out my box of birds. As I walked to the door there was a sudden thud and the box felt suspiciously light. Sure enough, the bottom had dropped out, depositing my two very ugly, very bewildered chickens and a pile of straw on the pristine terrasse of the cafe.

M. Le Patron was far from pleased and blustered around telling me that I couldn't bring chickens into the cafe. Me? I was standing with my legs crossed laughing so hard I thought I'd wet myself, looking at these poor, mangy looking birds who'd be so unceremoniously dumped on the ground. A bit of borrowed parcel tape later and we were safely on our way again.

The chickens have now been named Deirdre (after her of the famous acting neck on Coronation Street. If you saw a photo of her you'd see a definite likeness) and Agnes, just because it's a stupid name for a daft looking bird! I think M. Le Vieux Fermier was a little bit economical with the truth as, once we'd untied Madame's support tights it became clear that apart from being ugly, Deirdre and Agnes were also very fat. So fat in fact, that they kept falling over. A sure sign of a bird that's been bred for the table but hey, I couldn't eat anything that ugly so they are safe for the moment.

But now of course, I have questions like, do they need sunscreen in the summer? Will they need scarves in the winter? Would it be feasible to make them feather boas to hide their naked necks? Will I escape from rural France before I lose my mind...........?

It wasn't so long ago that I'd look forward to my subscriptions copies of 'Ideal Home' and 'Vanity Fair' dropping on the doormat. Now it's the latest issue of 'Poultry' that has me listening out excitedly for the arrival of the postman. How did this metamorphosis happen? How did the townie become a 'nouveau paysan' and will it be housecoats and wellies for me this time next year? You'll have to keep reading to find out.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sur le pont.........

Today is a bank holiday here in France. I had to have a little giggle at an article in The Times saying how France had responded to Sarkozy's call to work more by taking the day off. We've been on 'bank holiday' since last Thursday and it's starting to wear thin. It's been an average bank holiday according to French radio - only 13 people killed on the roads. The French have more bank holidays than any other country in Europe.

In France, if the Thursday is a bank holiday then they 'faire un pont' which literally means make a bridge and take off the Friday too. Then Monday is Victoire - VE Day to you and I - so it's another public holiday.

We are heading into the season of Vide Greniers (boot fairs) and Brocantes (antique fairs) so we merrily headed off to a nearby village to have a look at the usual piles of tat and frighten the stallholdres by trying to barter. They haven't quite got the idea of boot fairs yet. They charge huge prices and would rather take everything home than let you have it for a good price. I remember looking at an old 1920s paraffin heater last year. I was only interested in it for aesthetic reasons as plugging it in risked connecting yourself to the French national grid.

The local accent is nuuuuthing like we learned at school and despite my degree level French I am often reduced to a blithering idiot faced with the local patois. Anything that ends with an 'in' like pain, vin, demain is pronounced like a 'eng', so you have a glass of veng with your peng but that's not all. I is often pronounced 'e' and a final 'e' as an 'a'.

So, back to the paraffin heater, I asked how much it was. 'Seng euros' came the answer. Flaming nora! I'd found the original French bargain. 5 euros for this heater. I rummaged in my purse for a five euro note which I gaily thrust into his hand. 'Non, seng euros, seng euros' he continued. Daft man, doesn't he recognise his own currency? 'Oui, cinq euros' I answered pressing my 5 euro note into his hand. By now the vendor was getting quite flustered 'non, madame, seng euros'. Oh for god's sake man, that's why I'm giving you. 5 euros. What do you want? Francs? In desperation the poor man drew a number in the air. 100 euros. He wanted 100 euros for this crappy bit of belle epoque metal. He had to be joking. 'Vous rigolez, monsieur' I suggested but no, 100 euros was the price. He's probably still got it sitting in his barn ready to bring it out again for this year's one in the hope of netting some poor halfwitted foreigner who'd be prepared to pay his price.

So, I set off for today's Vide Grenier with not much in the way of hope of finding a bargain. The first problem is driving our enormous (and needless to say slightly battered) Grand Voyager through the ncredibly narrow streets. We managed it quite well this time and negotiated the centre of the village without hooking assorted hanging baskets on the wing mirrors and driving over people's feet and treasured possessions.

We wandered around in the welcome sunshine looking at the various stands and goods on offer. Hmm, life in France isn't that bad. Then DS piped up. 'Is it time to go yet', 'I'm hungry, can we have something to eat', 'I'm thirsty, I need a drink' and on and on and on and on until he wore me down and we stopped for a bit of liquid refreshment, he a coke, me a coffee - ever in the relentless search for a decent one. In France I find the coffee truly vile. People have suggested asking for an 'allonge' or 'une seule dose de cafe' but it's godawful stuff. Now, I'm prepared to concede that it's a difference in taste and to the French, my Starbucks latte would be like gnat's pee, but must it taste like something that's already been processed by the bladders of at least six cows? God I miss Starbucks! My nearest one is a mere 600 miles away in Paris.

Anyway, I digress, after a little 'pause-cafe' we carried on mooching round. I'm looking for a few specific things all of which I saw people walking off with, clutched under their arms. How do I always miss the good stuff.

Eventually I saw a pretty little pot cupboard, a bit ropy, the veneer lifting and very heavily watermarked on the top. It would be a bargain at 20 euros. The vendor obligingly removed all the stuff he'd piled on the top so I could have a better look. I enquired after the price, he contemplated for a few moments, no doubt noticing my accent so he could give the the 'prix anglais' (Price for the English) and said '300 euros'. It's just as well I wasn't drinking a take-away coffee or I'd have spat it out all down the front of his shirt. 300 euros! He really did have to be joking! I passed and moved on.

Sitting in the sun on one of the other stalls was a lovely old teddy. The man told me that he'd got wet overnight so he was drying him off in the sun. He could do me special price for the bear - a mere 100 euros. 'Well, you don't often find them in this condition' he told me. 'What, soaking wet?' I remarked as I walked away.

I did find a few little things - three very old iron hooks for hanging hurricane lamps for 12 euros and two lovely old embroidered pillow cases for 10 euros, so it wasn't a wasted day and there's always next weekend......

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Anyone for chicken.........

Being as this is la France Profonde, no self-respecting person would be seen dead without chickens. So, thanks to a friend who was moving back to the UK I became proud owner of Three French Hens and a stunning cockerel, a huge mass of black and white Brahma. Well if you're going to have a cockerel why now have one that's a statement?

My three French Hens and one French Coq lived in blissful harmony until a 'fouine' (stone marten) came a-calling and brutally murdered two of them. Bloody thing only bit off their heads and left the rest. What a waste.... although I did briefly think about whisking them down to my fearless French neighbour Chantal so she could do the business and we could all enjoy a very large chicken curry... but in the end I couldn't do it so they were rather unceremoniously dumped in the large poubelles at the end of our lane.

Two weeks later and M. Fouine came round again. He hid under the henhouse and ambushed my poor cockerel as he went to bed for the night. Off with his head, leaving me with about 4kgs of dead cockerel. Now I felt that M. Le Coq deserved a better burial but being as we are on bedrock, the chances of digging him a grave without the aid of either dynamite or a rock breaker were minimal so after much deliberation I opted for chucking him in the woods so the local wildlife could dispose of him.

I lugged all 4kgs of him into the woods in my trusty Tubtrug, selected a spot on the edge of a steep drop, said my fond farewells and threw him down the slope. Thing is, I nearly went too. The only way to stop myself was to let go of my Tubtrug and hope for the best. Poor M. Le Coq cartwheeled down the slope in his 'coffin' before coming to rest against a tree with his big yellow feet sticking out!

So, I set off in search of new chickens. You'd kinda thing that this wouldn't be too difficult living as I do in the middle of the French countryside.

I'd been reliable informed that a local market was a good place to start and on arrival I was faced with two benches of old farmers facing each other like some sort of avian standoff, clutching baskets of eggs with cages of rabbits at their feet and piles of chickens, all looking like they had seen better days, with their legs tied together to stop then escaping.

I hung around a bit to see what the form was. An old boy arrived, selected his chicken and was handed it, legs bound, whereon he hung it from the handlebars of his bike and wobbled off into the sunset with the poor bird swinging. All a bit too 'paysan' for me I'm afraid.

I didn't fancy wandering round the market swinging a chicken 'handbag' so I beat a hasty retreat.

Oh well, there must be somewhere else I can get them.

My first blog....

Today seems like an auspicious day to start my blog. My darling husband hereinafter called DH is is tuxed up and living it up in Luvvieland at the BAFTA awards in London while I am 800 miles away in La France Profonde, cleaning out the bedroom of my darling pre-pubescent son (DS), complete with crusty old underwear hidden behind the bookcase, empty glasses under the bed growing the cure to most known illnesses and more dust than I know what to do with and wondering if that bloody cockerel will ever stop crowing.

That's me... living the dream... not!

So where am I? A question I ask myself regularly! Home for me is a crumbling 200 years old farmhouse with a kitchen so old you'd probably have to carbon date it. Said kitchen lacks one important element... an oven. Who on earth designs a kitchen without an oven? So I have one in the barn next to the house (well, why not!) Cooking in winter time is interesting to say the least. Our lovely ensuite bathroom, of similar age to the kitchen, is a former (some may say still is) pigsty, complete with 14 single glazed windows all round and no ventilation. What illnesses can't be cured by the bacteria growing in DSs bedroom can certainly be cured by the black mould growing incessantly in there. I'm sure half the old farmers in the vicinity hide down the lane from our house to catch a glimpse of me in the altogether through one of the many large, curtainless windows.

After two years of freezing winters, due to the discovery last year that there is absolutely no insulation in our roof, we fitted acres of reflective aluminium stuff all over the roof, giving the house the feeling of sitting inside a space station.

Outside are my 5 cats, neurotic golden non-retriever, and my small flock of hens (do hens come in flocks?) consisting of YamSing, my lovely Peking bantam, Daphne, his erstwhile and very put upon wife, Neige, the only survivor of my original Three French Hens and Forrest, the Charolaise cockerel who arrived a couple of weeks ago, supposedly as a mate for Neige, who can't stand him - well would you when he crows approximately every 40 seconds!

Somewhere outside too, is my darling daughter (DD) who is romping in horse poo with our neighbour's daughter. Oh to be 10 again!

Well, I must finish and go and sort out my 35 sets of sheets. Why on earth do I need that many? Another question to ponder as I watch the hens copulating in the front garden. It doesn't get any better than this.....!