Monday, June 30, 2008

(A bit too) Up to Close and Personal

Never let it be said that life in Southwest France is dull (although it often is!)

This is what I found in my laundry basket today...

And this is what DS trod on when he went out after dark to shut up the chickens

and this is who is living under the roof of the chicken house...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mouth open, foot in!

Never one to miss an opportunity to make a complete prat of myself, I made the most of the chance I was given today.

DS had a schoolfriend over for the day, a really nice kid from a nice family with a mother who wears fashionable clothes, doesn't have aubergine hair and has probably never line danced in her life. In other words, my sort of girl.

Said kid is a whizz at basketball and already plays for the under 15s French national team and sadly for DS, will be leaving at the end of term to take up one of only 5 places at a specialist sports college. Poor DS, every friend he makes leaves the area, some even the country!

Philippe, the papa who I've only met twice, came to pick Friend up so I invited him out onto the balcony while his DS got his things together.

I'd spent several hours trying to mend our parasol which was now lying in bits around the balcony. He politely enquired as to whether I would manage to mend it.

Ever keen to show off my grasp of the French language, and argot (slang) in particular, I used a phrase oft repeated by my neighbour.

The fact that the two boys, who had by now joined us, guffawed and ran into the garden laughing like drains, and the father's gave me a slightly shocked look and raised an eyebrow should have alerted me to the fact that I'd made a faux pas.

We bid our adieus and I rushed to check out my expression in my dictionary, worried about what I might have said.

Well, what I meant to say in response to his question about whether I could mend the parasol was 'No, it's had it' but what I actually said was 'no, it's completely f***ed'.

Ah, well, there endeth another friendship before it's even started!

Hanging by a thread!

Second attempt... the last one was wiped out by one of our regular 10 second power cuts, that despite EDF spending 300,000 euros last year to upgrade our power supply. It was better before!

So, where was I...

Well, it's taken me a few days to get over the trauma of DS and DD's visit to the Indian Forest, one of those 'swinging through the trees' adventure parks with zip wires and rope swings and stuff. I do really quite enjoy them but after damaging my arm getting thrown off a horse last year, my days of being 'Jane of the Jungle' are sadly over. But that's where the Conquering Hero comes in.

By fortuitous chance, the dear boy was home this weekend and didn't baulk when I told him that he'd be taking the children. Sadly (for him at least) his interpretation of taking the children differed slightly to mine. He thought he was taking them in the car and then watching their aerial exploits proudly from ground level. I knew that he was actually going in the trees with them!

I did question his attire - silky shirt and sensible shoes - but then he doesn't own a pair of trainers or hiking boots, which were the footwear of choice of most of the men. He did, when we were courting, once turn up in a pair of trainers but I told him he looked ridiculous and to throw them away.

He was always a more debonair dresser and, in fact, once when he was working on an advert with Clive Anderson, the wardrobe lady asked what 'look' he wanted for it and he pointed to CH and said 'I want to look like him'. Sadly, age and a receding hairline have taken it's toll and with everything going south or maybe West, or maybe even East depending on which way he's facing, he now dresses for comfort rather than for aesthetic value.

Just getting there was difficult enough as we had our first summer guests arriving in the evening and the swimming pool resolutely refused to turn it's usual sparkly, clear colour so I had to indulge in a little bit of floculation (quiet at the back!) For those who don't have to do annual battle with swimming bloody pools, this involves dissolving some sort of hazardous chemical in a watering can (which you'll then forget about and use to water your plants resulting in premature death) and liberally sprinkle it on the surface. It then collects all the particles which are in suspension in the water, making it a bit cloudy, and it sinks to the bottom like grey cotton wool.

Fabulous! Then all you have to do is get the pool vac, hoover it all from the bottom and Bob's your Uncle, the pool is clear. Except it's not because every time you try to hoover it up, it floats off in the water, only to sink again in a grey, wooly mass just as you put the pool vac away. So, you get it out again and keep hoovering away, tempus fugits, it's already 15 minutes past the time you were supposed to rendez-vous with a friend in the village to go in convoy to Dordogneshire, where the Indian Forest is located, tempers are flaring, it's already well into the 20s, you've got a face like a well ripened radish. You get the picture.

Eventually you're ready to go, you get to the village 45 minutes late, friend has gone (never to show up at the Indian Forest or return your phone call later that evening) so you head off.

The Karate King has seriously underestimated how long it will take us to get there, failed to mention that a village en route will be closed for it's weekly market or to remind us that the French have this irritating habit of only signposting roads in one direction - usually the one you aren't going in so we end up in Sarlat, several miles north of where we should have turned off. Eventually we arrive well over an hour late but thanks to the joys of air conditioning, my face has now faded to a light, boiled saveloy pink.

CH looks at me curiously as he is put into a harness and given gloves and a carabiner. "I thought I was only watching" he says. "Did you my darling" I reply innocently. Now bearing in mind that, apart from blanching at adverts for sanitary items, he gets faint standing on a chair, his hesitancy to propel himself along cables 30 feet up in the air was understandable but he could hardly back out now, could he?

He takes his place with the children in the queue to do the Initiation which involves ensuring he knows how to attach himself safely to a zip wire, can make it across a steel cable 'bridge' and swing across a yawning gap on a rope swing all from a height of about 4 feet off the ground. By the end he was feeling quietly confident so I left him to go off on the 'Kid' course with DD, while I had a little rest in the shade and brought the picnic up from the car.

Big mistake, because I missed the drama of the day. Having successfully finished the 'Kid' course, he and DD set off on the next level up. All was going well until he came to another rope swing. It's a bit like a zip wire but you have to hang on to a rope which has a large knot to take your weight. Lack of suitable footwear meant he lost his grip halfway across and was left hanging in thin air. Unable to pull himself up, he was reduced, according to DD, to shouting for help in English with a French accent!! Oh, the humiliation... for me that is! I once got stuck on a zip wire and was absolutely determined that I wouldn't have to be rescued. I managed to pull myself hand over hand to the end, pulling just about every muscle in my body on the way. But men aren't made of such stern stuff and the CH now looking more Conquered than Conquering dangled on his ropes until a rescue plan was hatched.

It's probably just as well I missed it all as I'd have refused to let him be rescued and insist that he got himself out of trouble. I'd also have consulted the nearest divorce lawyer or better still just opted for the simplified Muslim version 'I divorce you' three times and had done with it. Whatever, I'll never be able to show my face in the Indian Forest again!

There was a ladder a few feet away from him but that was too easy so they tried to pull him back up onto the rope - a brave feat considering he's 6'4 and weighs, well, quite a bit. Eventually they opted for swinging him to the platform at the other end from whence he decided that enough was enough.

He came and found me, recounted his sorry tale ("Don't laugh, it wasn't funny") and threw down his harness in disgust. His short career as Tarzan is well and truly over.

I'm not one of those parents that stays on the ground egging my children on to certain death, in fact, I was quite certain that the day would be the last of their short but happy lives but we all made it to lunch without serious incident.

A good day was, eventually, had by all. It is, after all, one of the times when you can 'legally' dangle your children 30 feet in the air without fear of prosecution. And all in the name of entertainment!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Who dun gone and tagged me?

Help, help, I've been tagged by Jaywalker. Now I'll have to tell you something about myself......or will I? I'll leave you to decide..

1. Where was I 10 years ago.

Now that one's easy. I was heavily pregnant and wallowing around like a Minke whale on steroids eagerly anticipating the arrival of DD. She was transverse (lying sideways for the uninitiated) so I looked like I was carrying an oversized watermelon. It's not a look I'd recommend for anyone.

On the plus side though, I didn't realise I was pregnant until week 22 which is pretty damned pathetic for a second time mother. I mean, you'd sort of think I might have noticed that something was missing from my life. In fairness, the Conquering Hero was away 9 months of the year (I'm not even sure how he managed to impregnate me to be honest but I guess I must have been there), I was dealing with my gorgeous but super-spirited and extreeeemely high maintenance DS and we were in the process of renting out our house and moving to Ireland to join the CH, who was Kissingballyangels at the time so there was a lot going on in my life. But, it did mean that I only knew I was pregnant for 18 weeks so it went by pretty quickly.

Two of my closest girlfriends were also pregnant at the same time and I have a lovely photo of us all posing with our bumps. There was Jennifer, already on her 4th, looking glamourous with a bump like a small football neatly tucked up her clingy top, MR, positively glowing after trying so hard for years to have the first of her two beautiful daughters and me..... to be honest looking absolutely shagged out, frazzled, no make up and taking up a good half of the photo all on my own. Pregnancy didn't suit me one little bit, not least because I couldn't stand kids. Never had any intention of having my own until a slip up with the mini pill and a course of antibiotics. That said, I adore my lovely children (from afar) and wouldn't be without them for the world (for a few hours of peace it might just swing it though!)

2. What's on my to do list today?

Couldn't tell you or all those people out there would know I haven't actually done things I claimed to have accomplished weeks ago. Suffice to say, it will say the same tomorrow and the day after no doubt.

3. What would I do if I was a billionaire?

Well that's obvious. I'd keep a little bit for myself then spend the rest on charitable causes.

Would I heck as like? I'd spend, spend, spend. I'd buy a proper house in France instead of one that's falling down bit by bit (OK, a bit of an exaggeration), I'd buy a big house by the sea in the UK where I could go when I needed to get away from the snail like pace of rural France and where I could wear Jimmy Choos without fear of sinking in the mud. I'd buy a plane so I could fly around the world to buy the important things in life like M&S knickers. You don't realise how important they are until you can't get them!

I'd take my children to all the places they want to visit, buy my single parent brother a house, pay off my sister's mortgage., make sure my parents didn't want for anything and maybe, possibly, let the CH retire. But only maybe.

4. Five places I've lived

Bahrain - a four year party, getting groped by the Emir (whoops, another Fatwa!), questionable parties with questionably members of the Royal Family (oh, bums, another Fatwa), waterskiing, sundowners and dancing on Jim's coffee table. Hey big Spender on the table of La Taverna, crashing in to a Sheikhs car then scarpering... memories, memories!

Cyprus - six months in a hotel opposite Robson Green in his black underpants and Jerome Flynn and his sulky, I-just-wanna-smack it face. Long drives in the mountains with my friend Maggie, sunshine, snow, lemon trees and a 5 star hotel all to ourselves. Bliss

Prague - too many cobbles and the unforgettable double barf of DS and DD in the back of the car.

Tunbridge Wells - not the original 'Disgusted of' but a close second

France - oh yes, that's where I am now.

5. Three bad habits

Only three.... not sure I can narrow it down that much. Hmm, let me think....

6. Five jobs I've had

1. Airstewardess
2. Picture Framer
3. PR accounts Director
4. International Woman of Mystery
5. Leaver of old ladies in baths

Right, that's me then. I would now like to tag Goodbyetoallfat, Hadriana (when she's back from marauding around Europe) and Frenchteen. Apologies to anyone who doesn't like being tagged. I leave it up to you to decide if you want to play or not.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ooh, I feel like I've been away for weeks! Unusually for me, I've been leading a relatively busy social life this past week or so. Actually, it's all stuff revolving around the children but hey, you have to take your entertainment where you can get it.

Last Wednesday evening, DS and DD had their summer concert at their music school. We are incredibly lucky to have the wonderful Beauville Arts, run by Clare and Jonathan Mallalieu, two talented music teachers who run their very successful music school in a nearby village. DS, having played the cello and saxophone, is now trying his hand at the electric guitar, while DD plonks her way through piano lessons with more enthusiasm that skill although she regularly produces music that belies the lack of practice she devotes to it. I keep telling her if she practices more, she'd be a virtual virtuoso, but with 'Horseland' and 'The Saddle Club' on 15 times a day, well, when's a girl to find the time and her first love will always be horses.

For the first time in months the weather was good so we were able to sit outside in the garden of Jon and Clare's gorgous old presbytery and listen to our offspring, and a few of the adult learners, show off their new- found or newly honed skills with varying degrees of success. Sympathetic murmurs accompanied those who lost their way while wild clapping was reserved for the adults who managed to reach the end of their pieces. Bizarrely, the third piece was called 'The Conquering Hero Returns'. I looked and looked, in case he was planning a Zorro style entry, but no, he definitely doesn't arrive until Friday.

DD played a 'Mini Rag' with some complicated fingering (well, for Grade 1 anyway) which she managed really well, despite repeating one bit twice. Doesn't she look the picture of concentration!

DS played 'Californication' by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers - one of my favourite songs. As I sat in the garden on a beautiful, balmy summers evening, listening to DS and Jon strumming away, I felt a moment of sublime motherly pride.

The evening finished with a band, which had been hastily put together for the evening, playing a very creditable version of 'Imagine', which we all sang, warbled and wailed along to. Then it was time for aperos and chat before term ended for the summer.

In July I get a much needed rest while DS and DD go on a residential music and drama school run by Jon and Clare. If anyone reading has children over the age of 8 I would highly recommend there summer schools. They have people from all over Europe who come to take part. Over the course of 6 days they will put on 'The Sound of Music' from scratch, from sets to costumes, culminating in a free show at the end of the week. But better still, they stay there! All week! Whoopee! Freedom for me!

Of course I shall miss them terribly.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Huuuuuge Thank You

In just over a month my blog has been viewed more than 1000 times. Now I know my mum has been busy, so it definitely isn't her, which means it must be....... YOU!

Thanks very much to everyone who has taken the time to read my ramblings and especially to comment or to blogroll me.

This is the most fun I've had since I had a root canal filling last year! Vive les Bloggeurs!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Debunking the Myth

Today I had a social event! It was a Ladies Lunch at a splendid little place run by a jolly Belgian (or could be Dutch) couple who converted an old barn into a 'venue' where they run a series of themed lunches throughout the year. It's the only place you'll find Indonesian food in my neck of the woods.

The company was lovely, all bright, funny ladies who's company I enjoyed. We got onto the subject of the myriad books about 'living the Dream in France' and how totally divorced from reality most of them seem to be.

Much as I hate them I seem strangely drawn to them, rather like a lemming to a clifftop, and read them from cover to cover with much pooh poohing and rubbishing. They represent, to my mind, a totally false view of life in France for the average person and should be banned as they just lead to impressionable folk upping sticks and leaving their comfort zone for a rural French idyll that, frankly, doesn't exist except in the minds of a few deluded authors.

After all, if life in Provence was so wonderful, why did Peter Mayle only write about the first year? Maybe because after your talked about your builders, local cuisine and goat racing, there's not much else to write about!

John Burton Race wrote very prosaically about life in the Southwest but only stayed a year and Rosemary Baxter, who wrote the lovely 'Life in a Postcard' which heavily influenced me (OK, I admit it!) with her stories of renovating an old chapel in the Pyrenees and how much she loved the local village school, left after a few years when she discovered that a French education is very likely a blight on any child's life in the global world. Strangely, if you read her website, it appears that she is still happily residing in France but if you read the French version, there's a link to an article which tells of her eventual dissatisfaction and her decision to move back to the UK.

In almost all of them, the sun never ceased to shine, the shiny, happy locals are constantly on your doorstep with offerings of chutneys and jams, homemade pate and elderflower wine and life is just rosy.

The only one that came anywhere near the truth was by Susie Kelly who discovered that her neighbour in rural Charente was actually an international drug smuggler. Now that's more like it!!

I recently read a monthly newsletter by a reasonably local author who has just written a book. In it she talks about 'Glorious June' and the local town bustling people enjoying aperitifs in pavement cafes and bistros and I'm forced to ask if we are truly living in the same place.

So here's a bit of a reality check.

June has been far from glorious and has rained nearly every day, if not every day. Anyone eating outside would need at least thermal underwear if not a wet suit and name me one other time when you'd gladly sit and eat your lunch six feet from the exhaust fumes of a car! Anywhere but a pavement cafe in France and you'd be wearing breathing apparatus.

Markets are full to bursting of ripe, local fruit and vegetables but many are not so local unless Morocco and Spain are now part of France and all except the very few organic products (organic farming counts for less than 6% of all French fruit and vegetable) are liberally laced with pesticide residue. The heavy and consistent rains this year have decimated the plum crops and, despite this being 'cherry time' a blight has killed off most of the fruit this year. Deaths among French farmers from cancer are three times higher than the average population. This is believed to be due to the cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and other 'cides' that are sprayed on the fields. In my area, 80% of the food crops are believed to be contaminated by the vast amount of GM crops planted here.

When you ask people why they moved to France you often get the same reasons.

Easier pace of life - well I have to get up at 6.30am to get DS up to the village to get the school bus, then back home to get DD ready, then drive her to school. Even the simplest job is made more difficult by the fact that the shops shut for hours at lunchtime. If I had a euro for every time I had to leave before I finished all the jobs I had to do I'd be living in a chateau! It may be easier for those who are retired, who's life isn't dictated by catching the school bus and the school timetable, but for me, well I find it just as hard, if not harder.

No crime - WHAT? Crime in France is no different to the UK. When I read our regional paper there is usually a couple of murders, plenty of anti-social behaviour, burglary aplenty. Domestic violence in France is appalling as is child murder. My theory is that most English people that move to France speak very little French and so can't read the local papers or understand the radio so they live in blissful ignorance of the realities of crime here.

Good schools, firm discipline - wrong again. The French school system is deeply lost in the 1950s with a curriculum which is totally unsuited to life in the global world of the 2000s. IT isn't even a core subject and is not even taught in many schools. DS's college has numerous computers which have been broken for the past 2 years and he hasn't had a single computing lesson since he arrived in France. DS refers to it as 'death by worksheet' as most of the time he is expected to fill in countless worksheets and as for having an opinion on anything, that's a no-no. If teachers are sick the classes are cancelled and they strike at the drop of a hat.The education system seems designed to produce a nation of followers to do the bidding of the ruling elite who go to the Grand Ecoles in preparation for taking over the country. The government even pours in double the amount of euros to these elitist schools that it provides to the rest of the state education system.

France is also seeing a dumbing down of exams to make pass rates higher and this year many students haven't even finished the syllabus because they've spent half the year on strike. Never mind though, special dispensation will be given to all those who manned the barricades and blockaded their schools. Will the same dispensation be offered to those law abiding students who were prevented from attending classes by their more radical classmates I wonder?

Striking is a national sport, as is driving badly and fiddling your taxes according to the French press.

As for behaviour, in 2006, the last year for when figures are available, there were over 80,000 serious incidents in French schools. These include incidences of bullying, physical violence both to teachers and other pupils and theft as well as, worryingly, unauthorised people in the school grounds.

But children have so much more freedom... Would you let your child wander around the empty countryside in the UK? Why would you do it in France then? Children are abducted on an almost weekly basis here and children are nearly twice as likely to be murdered in France than in the UK.

And yes, French teenagers binge drink too. In fact, the problem is now so bad that the government is bringing in measures to help deal with it.

French country life is very different from English country life. French villages don't just appear to be dead, they really are! With the exception of a couple of months in the summer, you might never even see your neighbour. Most have no shops or cafes, no French version of the WI, in fact, absolutely nothing goes on. You also have to accept that you are living in a cultural desert where an old man playing an accordion is considered entertainment! And soft drug usage is as common as smoking a Gaulois.

Public transport is non-existent which does of course help to keep the teenage binge drinkers off the streets as they can't get to the towns so they do it in the privacy of their own homes. Local cuisine is generally duck, duck and more duck, beef is more suited to resoling your shoes, pizza is as exotic as it gets and French chic doesn't exist outside Paris. I still fly back to the UK to get my hair cut as I live in fear of ending up henna red or aubergine, or like the woman in our local supermarket, with leopard-spotted hair!

The local electricity supply is likely to be pretty unreliable and many people struggle to run a tumble dryer and boil a kettle at the same time. I even met someone who couldn't use her electric sewing machine and turn on a light at the same time. And this from a country that exports 60% of it's electricity production. Perhaps they could cut it to 55% so I could use my hairdryer and turn the iron on at the same time!

The ADSL connection is on and off like a bride's nightie (a quote I've plagiarised from one of my lunchmates today) and that's assuming you get it in the first place.

And the French, are they really so shiny and happy? Probably not. Unemployment is 10% countrywide, nearer 20% in the country and up to 60% for the under 25s in the banlieus of the large towns and cities. The French are the European leaders in the consumption of Prozac and have the either the highest or one of the highest incidences of suicide across all age groups in the world!

Alcoholism among the 'expats' because of course that's what we are, not economic migrants like the Eastern Europeans who go to the UK, is very high. Is it really the cheap wine or is it, more likely, the realisation that the 'French Dream' doesn't really exist?

On the plus side though, I live in stunningly beautiful area which takes my breath away on the odd days recently I can see it through the rain. The heathcare system is very good, although time will tell how long that will last, the croissants are delicious and my children are bilingual, which must surely be some benefit in the future.

So, if you are considering a move to France just remember that the grass may be greener but that's probably because it's liberally laced with pesticides and genetically modified!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sunshine and Diets

Today the sun shone and I started my diet. The two are not really linked in any way except for the fact that they are both long overdue. DD is now nearly 11 and my protestations that I'm 'post-natal' don't really cut the mustard any more so it's time to shift that post-baby spare tyre that's been residing around my waist since 1997.

The internet is awash with different diets all promising a whole host of wonderful results, not to mention the sort of names that just beg you to click on that mouse. I particularly liked and Mostly they are just links to some sort of herbal remedy found in a remote jungle in Papua New Guinea or the powdered testicles of an rare Amazonian beaver. Either way, if they really worked wouldn't we all be using them? I mean, Duh!!

Instead I opted for Ian Marber, the Food Doctor. I bought his book years ago as I'd heard good reports but I need a good story to keep me interest and, well, to be honest, his just wasn't good enough so I gave up by the end of the third chapter.

The first week is some sort of hellish - invented by a psychotic thin person- detox when you eat old vegetable peelings and rice crackers but hey, I can do it.

Breakfast looked good on paper. Porridge with natural yoghurt and cinnamon. My bowl of brown vomit looked nothing like the lovely photo in his book but I pressed on anyway. Prison food! That's what it was. I love porridge, natural yoghurt and cinnamon but somehow when you put them together you get a bowl of sick that doesn't taste a whole lot better either.

The mid-morning snack is clearly penance for some hideous wrongdoing in a previous life. Clear soup with two slices of pepper and a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds.

The soup is made by boiling up assorted vegetables with some parsley. No problem so far. But then you chuck away the good stuff and you are left with 'clear soup'. Wrong. You are left with the water you boiled your veggies in. 'Add a pinch of cayenne pepper if you want it to have a little kick', said Mr Marber. The only little kick I wantedwas my foot up his backside for daring to call boiled vegetable water 'clear soup'.

By this stage I had a raging headache (no doubt all the badness leeching out of me) and the sort of hunger that made chewing on the bread board an appealing prospect.

Lunch was a triumph! 25g of tuna, 50g of broccoli florets and 4 cherry tomatoes with the juice of half a lemon. 'Start off by making a marinade with the lemon juice' spake Mr Marber ..... and what? You can't make a marinade out of lemon juice on it's own. That's just, well, lemon juice. Don't dress it up as haute cuisine when it's just knackers food, Mr Food Doctor. The only problem was that I'd forgotten to buy broccoli, so lunch was just the tuna and tomatoes. It looked bit lonely sitting on the plate!

Never mind, we've got afternoon snack coming up. More clear soup (Oh God, I've lost the will to live!) with the tasty addition of a crispbread and cottage cheese sprinkled with Garam Marsala. I mistakenly ate a rice cracker (cardboard packaging couldn't have had less taste) and then convinced my self that there was some sort of chemical synergy going on which would be completely ruined if I didn't have the crispbread so in the interest of science I scoffed a one with more cottage cheese. Point of order, Mr Marber, you don't say how much cottage cheese you are allowed to have. I managed to get a whole tub on my rice cake and crispbread!! Tee Hee! I never thought I'd see that day when I'd be looking forward to bingeing on cottage cheese.

By now I was looking longingly at the cats and thinking, can 20 million Koreans really be wrong? Dinner was tomato and rosemary soup with shredded omelette. The only problem there was that in order to shred an omelette it has to have form and substance. Mine have neither. What we ended up was more akin to soup with scrambled egg in it.

"So when do you start eating real food again" enquires DD looking worriedly at her bowl of soup and scrambled egg. (Well if I'm going to suffer, so are they. They are responsible for my extra pounds after all!)

Soon, very soon, please God!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Oh B***er it's raining again!

"Oh b***er, it's raining again".

Thus started my day in the Sunny Southwest of France. Still Southwest but definitely not sunny.

"Don't swear, Mum" shout DS and DD in unison from their place under the stairs where I have decided to keep them until puberty passes. It's for the best, you know! When I had my two little darlings rather closer together than planned (or not, as was the case) I thought that at least I'd get the nappy stage out of the way quickly. Of course I completely forgot that they would, later in life, hit puberty at the same time.

DD seems to have been suffering from PMT for the past year - I dread her getting her little hands on a firearm - and DS has his own personal little black cloud that follows him everywhere.

It was one of those 'organised chaos' days which are becoming more and more a feature of my life these days and which isn't helped by, well, living in France.

"Quick, we've overslept, get dressed" I shout to DS.

"What's for breakfast?"


"There's no milk"

"B***er" (again). "Toast"

"There's no bread"

B***er and thrice b***er. Now I remember what I forgot to do yesterday. Go shopping.

"We'll get a croissant from the shop".

We jump in the car and charge down the hill, safe in the knowledge that Ma Chere Voisine is in Burgundy so it's safe to travel at more than snail's pace for fear of meeting her charging up the hill à toute vitesse. She's always running as late as me but about 10 minutes before, leading to many near misses, accompanied by smiles and waving, as we screech past each other on our single track lane.

We arrive at the village. B***er yet again, we've missed the bus. This is not an unfamiliar scenario as I am, by nature, pathologically late. I dash into the shop. B***er, the boulanger hasn't arrived yet.

I grab a packet of chocolate biscuits and throw a few Euros at Gilles, the owner, who mimics driving a racing car at me. He's a regular witness to what is now affectionately known as the St Amans Dash - A hare-raising drive to the next village to try and catch the bus, with no regard for the safety of myself, DS or small animals. There used to be one stop before the next village but the family moved thus depriving me of a few more precious seconds in which to catch the bus. Selfish, selfish people.

I spy the bus in the distance, looks like we're in luck. I screech to a halt, offload DS who's still complaining that chocolate biscuits do not in any way form part of a balanced diet, and nearly run the poor boy over in my haste to get back to take DD to school.

I see the white van of the boulanger outside the shop. I grab a croissant for DD as we pass, not forgetting to give M. le Boulanger my best 'you're supposed to be here at 7.30am' look.

DD duly fed and watered, we set off for her school. We pull up outside and it looks suspiciously quiet. No cars, no teacher, no children. DD reaches for her school diary. "MUUuuuuummMMM", she cries, "It's a vaqué, there's no school today". B***er, b***er, b***er!

France has this bizarre system where some children go to school for 4 days a week, others do an additional Wednesday morning. To even it up, the ones that do the extra Wednesday morning, don't have school one Wednesday a month. Are you with me? Do you see why my life has the capacity to be so complicated? Why, oh why, can't they all go to school at the same time?

"OK, well I have to go shopping so you'll have to come with me". Shopping with DD is always an expensive experience and one I try to avoid at all costs. We drive the half hour to the nearest metropolis and pull up in the car park. I grab my bags and run... straight into the automatic doors, which fail to open up and let me in. Bemused onlookers stare. I notice the shop opening hours. It doesn't open for another half hour. Well what are they all doing here then? The fug of cigarette smoke should be a clue. It's the staff having a last fag before work.

For heaven's sake. What sort of country is this that the supermarkets don't open till 9.30am? No wonder it's nearly bankrupt. How come 'entrepreneur' is a French word but they don't have an iota of entrepreneurial spirit? There are two cafes in the complex. Think of all the money they could make if they opened up before people went to work, instead of an hour after!

I don't have half and hour to wait so we head across town to a different one. Now, this supermarket recently put together a panel of English/Dutch residents to advise them on how to improve the supermarket. I don't know if that's why this one opens an hour before the other one.

We buy our shopping then pop into Lidl for some gourmet peppers and a few other bits that I need. Bizarrely Lidl is the only place where I can find pumpkin seeds around here.

I pick up the regional newspaper to read about a young boy stabbed to death by his father. As the checkout lady goes to scan it, she stops to read the headline. Much ooh, laa, laa-ing (yes they do say it but here it's more oh, lor, lor with a rounded mouth like you are blowing out a candle). Then the lady behind me in the queue joins in. She hadn't heard the story so she wants the details. The checkout lady duly obliges and flicks through the (or should I say MY) paper to find the story. Meanwhile, I stand there politely, surreptitiously checking my watch as I have to pick DS up from school at 11.30am. (8.30am-11.30am! Hardly worth getting up!). By now a few more people have crowded round to read, discuss and otherwise comment on the story along with a few choice suggestions about what to do with the father.

I stand there.... politely.... the smile on my face becoming a little bit more 'fixed'.

Eventually, the discussion draws to a close, my now well-thumbed newspaper is scanned and handed to me and I have 10 minutes to get across town and pick up DS.

If there's one thing that I've learnt about life in France, it's the art of being patient!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Domestic goddess or domestic disaster?

"Oooh, don't you just love Nigella" exclaimed a visitor the other day espying a copy of 'Nigella Bites' propped up on the bookstand in the kitchen. "What's your favourite recipe?" "Errrrm, well, any of her chocolate ones" I blagged, guessing that as she's a little bit 'broad across the beam' as my dear Papa would say, chocolate must figure somewhere.

I could, of course, have just have fessed up and admitted I've never even opened the book and that in actual fact, I change the cookery tome on the bookstand every few weeks to make it look as if I do actually read, nay, cook from them. "Do you like to cook?" asked visitor. "Oh, all the time" say I, hastily shoving the wrapping from a Lidl lasagne in the bin. Lidl! Do I hear a collective gasp? Well, let's be honest, without Waitrose, what does it matter where you shop? While visitors often wax lyrical about French supermarkets, I am just constantly amazed at what the French manage to shove in a tin and I long for Waitrose, or an M&S Foodstore at the very least.

"And all this lovely fresh produce too!". Well yes, fresh when it left Spain or Morocco but then at least it may be less coated in pesticide residue than your average French offering. I recently did some research into this after a fatuous comment on a web group I used to belong to about how much safer you are eating French fresh produce. Wrong. It has, on average, double the levels of pesticides, herbicides and other cides than anything you can find in Blighty. The average French fruit, vegetable or cereal farmer sprays his fields with no less than 24 chemicals according to my organic neighbour, although she may of course have a hidden agenda.

But back to my cooking. I don't actually own a single cookery book. I live in a house full of them but they all belong to CH, who is, fortunately an excellent cook. It was one of the qualities I was looking for in a mate. A good cook to make up for my failings in that area, with long legs to offset my short ones and a small nose to improve on our 'family' one. We recently discovered a long lost (since 1910) branch of our family in the US and well, put me in a dress and call me Martha, there it is, the family proboscis, alive and well across the generations! It was a gamble that paid off, by the way, as I subsequently gave birth to two leggy children with cute little noses.

CH thinks I fell in love with his dark good looks and witty repartee, but in reality it was his genes - or at least some of them.

My culinary disasters are legendary as you would expect from someone who cooked for their first dinner party with their mother on the end of the phone giving step by step instructions, or who left their sausage plait in the school toilets during the summer holidays leading to a rat infestation, or indeed made a trifle, forgot to put the fruit in until the custard was already atop, left it (again) in the school toilets and had to suffer the indignity of the headmistress, while trying to track down the culprit, referring to it in assembly as a 'milk pudding' - the cheek!

My absolute triumph though was my Weevil Curry. Back in my dim and distant past I was living in the Middle East (with a flatmate who was a superb cook so I must have some sort of inbuilt radar). After a drunken day out waterskiing I offered to make a curry for the assembled masses, curry being one of the things I was pretty good at. I made a lovely fruity Iranian curry with marmalade and big juicy raisins but, my mental processes being slightly impaired by a surfeit of alcohol, I forgot to check the raisins for weevils first, absolutely de rigeur in the Orient. So, in they went with the raisins, hundreds of the little blighters.

I started trying to fish them out and rinsing the chicken under the tap but realising that it was hopeless task I thought 'hey, extra protein' and turned the heat up under the saucepan to make sure they were all nicely cooked at least.

"Wow" exclaimed my guests (of whom only one is now dead) "this is the best curry you've made by far".

"That'll be my secret ingredient, it's a little something I bought in the souk" I said, not entirely untruthfully, while pleading lack of hunger as my excuse for not having any myself!

Slightly food related but equally as bizarre as my cooking, I took DD shopping in Agen today (a fairly large town). We were walking along the rue de la Republique when we notice a large, very dead fish lying on the pavement. Being as we were a good kilometre or so from the nearest water source and with no Poissonnerie in sight, it was rather surprising. After a quick check around for a bearded bloke in a long white dress with a basket of loaves and 5000 followers, then a glance skyward to see if it was raining cod and herring - after the weather we've been having anything is possible - I had to admit defeat. There seemed no rational excuse why there was a dead fish lying on the pavement. Weird.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Can someone tell me if the first signs of puberty are the complete inability to locate the dirty linen basket? I'm picking up DS's socks from the bookcase, the window sill, the barn floor.... I know that by the time boys are in their 20s they've long since lost the capacity to put their dirties anywhere except the bedroom floor so is this the first sign?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A social occasion.....almost

Yesterday was my day for manning our local cat charity's shop in our village so I thought it a good opportunity to ditch the housecoat and wellies and put on heels and a decent set of clothes and scrub myself up a bit. You never know who might walk in. We're not short of celebs in our neck of the woods... Windsor Davies, Roger Whittaker.. jealous, eh?.. so it wouldn't do to be caught naked from the neck up just in case a passing paparazzi happened to want to catch a quick shot.

I do actually have experience of paparazzi, it may surprise you to know. Back in the real world, before kids and chickens and rural life in France, when my shoulders pads were for power dressing rather than pain relief from 'axe swingers shoulder', CH and I were invited to the Irish Derby as guests of Guinness. As CH was, at the time, working on Ballykissangel, the stars of which, Dervla Kirwan and Stephen Tomkinson, had just got engaged and Ballykissangelmania was at its height, their appearance caused something of a media scrum. Word had also leaked out that day, that Dervla's character was going to be killed off. I think our chauffeur's words were "I hord they's gonna fecking fry ya" (she was killed by a faulty fuse box - quite possible that I'll go the same way too!)

I spent the whole day being told to "move out the way, love", "can you just stand aside", "we only want Dervla and Stephen in the shot" until in the end I was forced to point out a) I was with child so would they be a little more respectful and b) we were the guests not them. They were only there because we'd asked them. Despite it all, we had a lovely day and they were a really charming couple.

On a brief aside, I just Googled Ballykissangel to double check that it was a faulty fuse box. Have you any idea how many fan sites there are? There's even a heartfelt Tribute to Assumpta Fitzgerald. You can leave you own tribute (mine would read something along the lines of 'You do realise she's not real, don't you?) but sadlythe Tribute Page wouldn't load.

Anyway, I've digressed for long enough. So, I carefully chose my wardrobe, not too smart, not too casual, and put on my heels ready to face my public. I'm a recent returnee to heels, having not found them useful in rural France where I left more of them stuck in the mud than on my feet. Unfortunately, I've now got fallen arches which my mother blames entirely on 3 years of welly wearing, and she's encouraged me to buy something with 'just a little heel'. This is a woman who never let a flattie on her feet until after her 70th birthday, when advancing age and gin and tonics took a toll on her balance. (That's a gross misrepresentation of my dear old Ma, of course!).

I picked up my trusty Mulberry bag and headed for the door, on the way checking my reflection and thinking "Hmm,not bad. Not good, but not bad either". I didn't notice one of the cats sitting in the doorway, and unused as I am to my heels, half tripped/half jumped over him in the style of a three-legged steeplechaser taking Bechers in the Grand National and dropped my Mulberry bag in an inconveniently placed pile of chicken poo.

For the second time in two days I was forced to reflect on whether I really am cut out for rural life.

Monsoons, French Style

Woohoo, I go away (not literally, just from cyberspace) for a couple of days and I've passed the 500 views mark - and only about 200 of them are me! Mind you, the other 300 could well be my mum!

Well, what a weekend chez nous! France seems to be confusing itself with a the Indian subcontinent (but without the sun) and we've had some serious monsoon-type weather for the past few days. Like erstwhile Pioneers, we battled the rising floodwaters, sandbagging the house with 25kg bags of salt intended for the swimming pool (OK, not very pioneer-like!), moving things to higher ground, clearing gutters, digging out drains.... and all the more unlikely because we live on the top of a hill!

The Sunny Southwest, as the estate agents love to tell you, has months of sunny weather and a short winter of about 2 months. "Sometimes you can even eat Christmas Dinner outside in your shorts" they exclaim excitedly. OH REALLY! Well in that case, how come it's rained since last October, it's June but I've still got the heating on, the farmers, rather than irrigating their fields, are removing them from the road where the rainwater has washed them, the chickens are taking swimming lessons and the dog smells like a ripe old Brie?

The last two weeks have taken the biscotte though. Days of torrential rains, leaving the ground completely waterlogged, gave way to some real Monsoon downpours over the weekend with disastrous results for people living in the valley below us. We sat, smugly, on top of our hill, thinking 'I'm alright, Jaques' and looking sympathetically down on the valley folk as they watched their swimming pools fill with muddy water for the second time in a year and the insurance agents counted the cost of yet more flooding and revelled in the opportunity for lots of sharp intaking of breath and explanations that it's the wrong type of water, the wrong type of disaster, "beh, oui, Madame, this is surely an act of God and désolé we only cover the farmers for that".

All that changed on Saturday though when the ground heaved a huge Gallic shrug and gave in to the rising water table and yet more rain.

Water poured down the drive and into the barn while we struggled to get everything off the floor, including my lovely new mower (I blame the CH) and ten sheets of plasterboard which are intended for finishing off the ceilings in the house.

I cursed the fact that I hadn't cleared out the horses' stalls as turds floated off into the distance and spent 10 full minutes on my knees in the mud and water trying to unblock the drain in front of the barn (thank god I haven't had a manicure since 2004!) but when I realised that water was actually coming up it I knew I was fighting a losing battle.

Our house is built into the hill with the barn attached, then steps down to a smaller barn then steps down into the house. It was imperative we kept the water away from the steps and the house - although I did have a sneaky thought that if it got into the house I might be able to get my knackered old floor replaced. Bit like the time last year when I nearly let the fire in the kitchen take hold so I could get a new one but that's for another day. Mind you, at this point enough water was pouring through the bathroom ceiling that it would hardly have made a difference if the water had made it under the door!

The roof sprang leaks everywhere, in places where it has never leaked before, as the waterproof limitations of the old roof tiles, handmade over the thighs of a hundred virgins (or something like that) became apparent. I'll tell you something, a few of them had pretty chunky thighs!

No sooner had it started than it stopped and within half an hour the waters had receded leaving a thin blanket of mud over everything.

Sunday afternoon, Rebelote (which means 'here we go again'). I stood for about 10 minutes waiting for a ruddy-faced, smiling farmer to come along with just the right implement to sort out our impending flood. Well, that's what happens in all these daft 'Living the Dream' in France books isn't it? Personally I'd sue all the authors for misrepresentation. Neither farmer, nor shiny, happy wife clutching home made preserves (or more likely in our area some unidentifiable part of a duck) arrived at my door and I realised we were on our own.

DS, friend of DS, DD and I spent an hour out in the storm digging run offs from the drive to try and divert the torrent which was now pouring down the drive, into our other barn, filling up the pool that I was desperately trying to empty at the same time to stop it overflowing... I've been in India during the monsoon and this was just the same. Our hill turned into a river with floodwater cascading down taking lumps of the road and alarmingly large rocks with it. One of our fields had a 3 metre wide torrent pouring through the middle.

My hard work clearing out the gutters had exactly the wrong effect as now all the water from the roof of the house was pouring down onto the little terrace at the side and the drain couldn't cope. It started to make it's way under the door and into the cellar. Ah well, that'll save washing the floor.

I was soaked through to my underwear, hair plastered to my face, mascara making it's way down my chest, CH's designer waterproof coat was anything but and my sooper dooper Italian, very chic, neoprene wellies proved about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Not for the first time I asked myself if I'm really cut out for this country life.