It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

Happy Monday to ya… here’s my third favourite song about straight men meeting transvestite guys for you to help you find a Monday groove.

This song was famously edited by the BBC because of the coca cola bit. Fun fact: the same thing happened to George Formby and his little stick of Blackpool Rock. If you ask me, that song is no less obscene than Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Relax. How Chuck Berry’s Ding-a-Ling flagged alarm bells but George Formby strolling along the promenade with his little stick of rock didn’t, I’ll never know. Any song with the lyrics “it may be sticky but I never complain” boasting of how it gets all the kids coming around to have a nibble is highly suspect in my opinion.

Banned lists always make me laugh. The Cure’s Killing an Arab has been banned by the Beeb. You can still buy The Stranger by Camus, though. Bit rich. You can also still buy 50 Shades of Grey even though I generally read better-written porn when marking exam scripts from foundation tier candidates at GCSE.

Anyhow… enough of the banning of stuff. I like coca cola. And I like cherry cola. Mondays should be about love and not banning stuff.

So what am I loving this Monday? It’s loosely the holidays for me. I’ve got four clients who are off on their holibobs, so I have a little more flexibility than normal weeks – though I have picked up a few extra who are making the most of the holidays to revise or prepare for things. I have Wednesday free and I’m having doggie love on Weds/Thursday afternoon instead of working. I’ve got a photography backlog at the refuge as well – so many dogs are shifting at the moment. So many new dogs in as well, including two little poppets found in a terrible state last week. Much love for Nicky and Jocelyn who are their first step on a way to a happier life. They have their work cut out grooming the dogs who have never known anything by way of care.

I’m also loving

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There are even other things thinking about blooming. Ahhhhhh!

Loving lovely presents from lovely friends

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This is a little paper punch that cuts out a doggie shape. Thanks Sylvie x

I also got something… well… not sure what to say.

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I asked for Pocky sticks – these biscuity little things I had an addiction to in Japan. And I got this. I know gift recipients should be grateful, so I’m going to try my best. Inside, there was a strange powdery stuff. I stuck my tongue in it. It’s hard to describe the texture except as to say ‘stale biscuit crumbs’. It was neither sweet nor savoury. Just a nondescript powder. I asked Rachel if she was sure it was edible. She told me to put it on my face. It made me worry that I might be eating something that really was a facepack or something. Thanks for that, Rachel.

Anyway, I unpacked it and put it on a little plate. There were three gelatinous lumps and then the powder, and a little pot of something that tasted like runny treacle, except not so sweet.

What the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound, right?

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They say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Well, I tried it. I would describe the gelatinous lumps as having a similar texture to dried sputum and the whole combination as ‘claggy, with a hint of uncooked squid.’

If it turns out I ate a facepack and some weird soap, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, have a good Monday. Work, work, work for me today.

 

The delights of a chemical smile

Today’s Much Love Monday is another Bernard Butler classic, this time with Suede and Animal Nitrate. 

He obviously likes singers who have got unusual voices. Brett Anderson has an amazing voice as well – some of his solo stuff and Youtube stuff is great – not just a weirdly androgynous and watered down version of Ziggy Stardust after all. Love is Dead is a great EP – another 2007 piece of genius. Told you it was a good year.

This week is the last week before the holidays. I’ve got a busy morning this Monday – I usually start the week with a little calm, but there were two last-minute contacts for adoptions via Dog::Links and thus Paulo and Calypso will be making their way to their new homes tomorrow. I hope. When they’ve all arrived and are all tucked up in bed, I’ll relax a bit. Paulo is a sweetheart. He is less stupid than Ralf but a little less handsome. That’s my opinion. It’s biased of course, because I love Ralf. He is stupid though. He ate a bag of sugar at the weekend. He’s like a small child in an old dog’s body. Even Heston has grown out of his desire to chew on things or rifle through the pantry for treats.

Calypso was one I could have adopted straight off. He’s off as well. Offers came in from Finland and the UK as well as France – not surprising. He is handsome. He’d been a stud farm dog and then seized because puppy farms are gruesome places. I don’t need you to see shocking photos – I guess you already know. Calypso was in a right filthy mess and had been living in the dark in a barn most of his life. Nicky, the refuge dog groomer, had her work cut out for her on that one. Jocelyn, her willing assistant, said Calypso just stood there and let them do it, gazing up at them in adoration. That’s what a love he is.

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Here’s his Black Pearls photo. He smiles a lot this dog – he’s very Hestony. He’s being coy here. His little mate Droopy is still left. I do hope his name is not a reflection of his stud farm prowess. I can’t explain why names that sound great to French people sound terrible to English speakers.

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Droopy does love cuddles.

This week, in between doggie duties and teaching duties, I shall be continuing to prune my vines. I did 60 or so last week. Only another 90 to go. I think I had a trapped nerve or something – my thigh hurt. I’ve had sciatica before and it wasn’t that (that was the mother of all pain!) but I think this was a trapped nerve. Anyway, it eased off by Friday, though no idea what brought it on. The joys of being old. If I can finish the vines before the week is out, it makes other pruning duties much easier. So far, it’s been a mixed February – miserable rain at points, but sunny too. I’ve done a lot of planting already – some peas and broad beans, a few cauliflower seeds, some tomatoes. I think I need to buy a bigger propagator because I always have things queuing up for it. I did put some flower seeds in as well – though nothing has broken through the soil yet.

Anyway, I’m off to go and see Paulo off on his expeditions and then do my Monday morning errands. Back to the refuge this afternoon for Calypso’s adoption, as well I hope. Keep your fingers crossed that today is a good day.

Black Dog Projects

A while ago, a guy named Fred Levy came to my attention. He’s a photographer in Massachusetts and started a photography series called the Black Dog Project. He has a tumblr blog dedicated to black dogs as well. There’s mixed and contradictory evidence about the adoption of black dogs from refuges. In some countries, like France, there is out-and-out superstition about black dogs. In others, it might be a whole load of other influencing factors. Are there more black dogs than any other colour? Are there lighting issues that mean black dogs are not as easy to see in the refuge? Do they look more aggressive? I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked past people with Heston and they’re giving him the evil eye for a bark or a grumble, ignoring Tilly who is yapping her head off.

What is not disputable, however, is how hard black dogs are to photograph. That’s especially true if you don’t have a camera where you can bracket for exposure. Their coats don’t often gleam the way they do in real-life, and those blacks are hard to vamp up, leaving them looking like a muddy brown or a miserable grey.

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It’s not always true, but they don’t always burst out of your screen like other dogs might. It’s also hard to mess with in post-processing. Okay. It’s not hard if you have a couple of hours to mess around with files in Photoshop and you don’t mind spending hours manually dodging and burning in bits of the image to make them crisp.

It wouldn’t have crossed my mind, therefore, to take photos against a black background. Photo shoots in the refuge are bad enough. For a start, there are cats who wander in and out at liberty and keeping dogs out of their enclosures a moment longer than you have to is a recipe for disaster. And you know cats. They’re all “well, hello, Dog. I think it’s about time you remembered who’s boss around here.” or they’re all shy and skittish. If they run, canine chase instinct kicks in.

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This is Felix, who sadly died recently. He’s sitting up on an electricity box and I’m literally right next to him trying desperately to keep the attention of the dogs who I’m trying to photograph for the Christmas advent calendar.

christmas toupieI’m trying to get a photo of Toupie and Felix is all, “yes, Dog?”

Toupie, of course is all “Cat… there’s a cat up there… there’s a cat… Cat…. Cat!”

All the while I’m trying to get her to sit still amid a pile of Christmas presents for a half-decent photo to get her adopted.

Plus, there are people. There are the refuge staff who walk past, as they are in the habit of doing. These are the primary care givers for the dogs and the dogs are all pleased to see them, as well you might expect.

Like this one of Azor, who’d seen Thomas. He’s going, “Thomas! Thomas! THOMAS! Where’s my dinner, mate? Why aren’t you coming to say hello to me? Thomas? Thomas mate? THOMAS!! Dude??!”

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Me trying to distract him with a biscuit and he’s like “who the hell are you? … THOMAS! Thomas, mate!”

Sometimes that works in my favour and I can lure the refuge staff to stand behind me for a great photo. I did that with Crista this week, a pointer who was abandoned with her six babies on Christmas Day. She just loves Robyn and it was the only way I could tempt her to look at the camera.

Other times, it’s members of the public who don’t realise how much they’re distracting the dogs. One lady was walking backward and forward behind me, a tentative grip on the lead of a tiny little dog she’s trying out and I’m trying to get a photo of Kayser. Kayser hates little dogs. He’s a rottie cross who’s trying to decide just how he’s going to rip the throat out of this little beast in front of him. I ask the lady to move away and she’s affronted. Oh well.

Then there’s the other crazy stuff that happens in refuges. Arrivals. For some reason, people who abandon dogs like to come in numbers. Maybe they feel safer. Takes five people to abandon two dogs on Friday. They’re standing at the gate and Elaine’s trying desperately to wrestle Elios into place.

Of course, then the wind picks up and rips my precariously-taped bit of black silk from the side of the cabin where I’m taking photos. When people offer me “advice” on taking photos, I smile. Professional animal portrait photographers have marvellous things called studios, complete with studio lighting. They have assistants. They have owners they can coax into helping get the dog’s attention. The dogs don’t have to be on the lead. They aren’t stressed. They aren’t surrounded by chaos. They can take a whole afternoon to get six or seven perfect shots of one or two dogs. They don’t have cats, other dogs, staff members, volunteers, leads, bits of tape, intermittent sunlight, arrivals, departures, barking and a dog that’s only had twenty minutes exercise that day.

I have a yard surrounded by three hundred animals, at least ten busy volunteers and staff members, and a crazy dog on the end of a lead who’d much rather be out on a walk. That’s the real world.

My real world is also one of an amateur photographer. I have an entry level Canon 1100D. I have a standard, entry-level Canon zoom – the one they supply with the camera. I also have a Sigma 70-300mm zoom. They say a poor photographer will blame their equipment and never use it to the edge of its capacity. I use mine to the edge of its capacity and realised I’d quite like a longer zoom so I didn’t have to get in the dogs’ faces. They don’t all like that. So I have the Sigma lens which is just wonderful. I can’t tell you though what I would give for a Canon 5D mk III body (£2299) or even a 7D body (£1135). What I couldn’t do with a Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens (£1089) or even a 50mm f/1.4 (£279). How wonderful it would be to have Photoshop and all its accoutrements. Still, I have a great basic camera, a polarising filter (my indispensible accessory) and picmonkey. It’s more than enough to take great shots. I did want to show you some of the world I work in and then how it ends up.

I started out by having a play around at home. Less stressful. No leads. Responsive dogs. I get a great shot of Heston and I know the black on black is going to work. His tongue’s a bit meaty-pink and that was difficult to get the exposure for, but I do this out of direct sunlight, under clouds and I know it’s going to work.

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I decide that tongue-free will be better than tongues if possible. Then it’s time to pack up kit. Both my lenses, lots of biscuits, black lead, masking tape. Basic but does the trick.

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Here you can see my ‘studio’ – the front of the pound reception, where stray dogs are dealt with. Just so you know, there was a giddy little shih-tzu about a metre away behind the door, doing his best to distract everyone. Notice the fact I took this at ISO 6400 – the fastest ISO it’ll do, so I don’t have to use flash. Even so, Kayser is moving and agitated! I love the fact the backdrop is being help up by a very willing volunteer’s leg. She’s trying desperately to stay out of the shot but it gives you an idea! Actually, my ‘failure’ rate for photos is quite low. I take about 200 and about 30 make it through to final cut. Sometimes that’s just because they are duplicates and I’ve gone for the best. Sometimes it’s because the dog yawned or blinked. But I’m used to working on film where it was costly to make mistakes. I get rid of a good number of shots that are okay. Very few are complete failures like that one above!

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This one, not only distracted but blurry too…

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This one, Thomas has just walked by to get something from the van.

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Then I get one where he’s kind of looking at me, but it’s not brilliant. Workable but not brilliant. Look at his tail. Gorgeous lad! I have to tell you that Eloy peed on the backdrop about half an hour before this shot as well. Now that’s hardcore animal photography!

Once I get the photos home, I then have up to 50 shots to edit, crop and improve. Sometimes I add names or the refuge details depending on the project. First thing in is a brutal cropping. Next up is a quick exposure adjustment, a little messing with the curves (techno-jargon a-hoy!) perhaps a little dodging and burning. No photo can take more than 10 minutes of my time, especially when I have 50 photos to get through. 5 mins is my usual time – and often more like 2 minutes. Crop. Adjust. Save.

I did get a perfect shot of Kayser, but as the project isn’t unrolling until March 1st, he’s staying behind doors.

Here is one instead of Rex, adopted on Friday following a short trial period with a lady I know. He is still bouncy and bonkers and lovely. I did one of him anyway, just for fun. I think you can probably see why I’m so pleased with this set of photos. I’ll, for once, let the image do the talking.

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Rex is a great example because he’s giddy and not keen on sitting still, especially when there are lots of distractions. Let’s just say that the black dogs project was tougher than the oldies. For a start, oldies don’t have crazy energy. There are a good few black dogs who have been a devil to photograph simply because they are so bouncy. Salma and Darius, Elios, Fidèle, Hoogy, Manix… mention these names to any number of volunteers and you’ll see involuntary muscle spasms as arms remember being pulled more than they were ever expected to be. I suspect this is exactly how Heston would be in the refuge. Out of it, he’s still lively on the lead, but he gets to let off steam. Darius is just looking for cuddles. He preferred to get in for a cuddle with a volunteer than pose for his close-up.

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It’s such a shame for this guy. Anyone who came to see him would think he’s insane. All he is, is a veteran refuge dog who has little by way of restraint and who just wants to be your friend. Super cuddly and super loveable. Look how happy he is to get a bit of love.

To finish, a few words for Darius.

Darius…. I hope this project works for you, because I love you and I know the other volunteers love you too. I hope the rest of the world gets to see how special you are. You really are a diamond in the rough. One day, someone’s going to see that, as soon as they get you home, you’re going to be an absolute darling.

 

I feel well enough to tell you

What Monday isn’t made a little more wonderful by Bernard Butler and David McAlmont? Not very many.

David McAlmont has just got the most amazing voice. It’s one of those big, powerful voices with a huge and immense range, which is good enough to thrill me anyway, but when he sings, like only a handful of singers, his voice reaches into the heart of you and gives your insides a squeeze. He’s got one of those voices that you can’t do anything else to when you hear him – you’ve just got to listen and that is that.

What’s not to love about that?

Besides, Bernard Butler is a god of the guitar. He’s no Johnny Marr but he’d get a silver medal in my Olympics of floppy-haired indie guitarists. It’s always hard, in the wake of great bands, to carve out something new and different. The 80s brought such an amazing wave of great music in so many forms that the mid-nineties just seemed to struggle a bit. If you don’t believe me, look back at the greatest albums of 1996 or 1997 and tell me how many of them are by bands who got to grow up, or bands who any staying power. If I tell you that Peter André’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ was the 9th biggest single of 1996, you can see how desperate things were. Happily, there was a lot of very mellow and lovely acid jazz that year and I think I spent most weekends at the Boardwalk in Manchester. I managed to avoid most of the nasty knock-off boy bands and girl bands. Ask me what the late nineties brought and I’ll tell you B*witched, Boyzone, 5ive, Cleopatra… ah, the heights of shite.

Luckily, Pulp, Suede, The Verve and Beck stepped into the breach for the Indie sound, but by and large, I’m yet to be argued into thinking the mid- to late nineties gave us shedloads of great musical moments. Some years are like that. Other years, you should just stop everything to just listen. 2006. Now that was a year in music. 

So apart from David McAlmont’s fine vocals, what am I loving this week?

♥ Cold is almost down to manageable proportions of snot. I know you wanted to know that.

♥ Friends who send you Vaseline lip balm. Lip balm is much less of a phenomenon in France, and Vaseline still has seedy connotations. I don’t know why. Anyone in a good sex education class knows Vaseline is not a good lubricant. Bad enough having chapped lips without being sniggered at. It beats putting chocolate-flavoured lip-balm on my nose.

♥ These three little guys. They arrived at the refuge as a pack of seven, found huddled up under their master’s bed after he’d died. Edge has found a lovely home in the Dordogne, Tino is with a wonderful refuge volunteer, Brigitte, and Usty has been taken to a foster home. All within two weeks. They’d all been at the refuge for over five years. There’s not a real reason for that. The trouble is they look like German Shepherds, but in reality, they are tiny. Anyone who saw them on the internet would expect a big dog. They are little, shy boys as well, so not so good at coming out and saying hello at the refuge to anyone who drops in looking for a dog.

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♥ knowing that warmer days and longer evenings are on the way. Not much going on by way of gardening last week, what with the temperatures not getting above 4° for most of the week. A little snow is alright when you know you have wood for the fire. Here’s hoping for a fine spring, rather than the wash-outs of former years.

♥ Seeing Ufo, the big black labrador adopted before Christmas. He’d been at the refuge for seven years. He looks absolutely magnificent now. He was on fine form. He might be old, but he’s still living like a puppy. Ralf’s like that too. He’s learned (well, learning!) recall and he’s all “Whooooooo! Look at me!!!! I’m coming back to you!!!!!” – not bad for the age of thirteen. There are just two dogs now who arrived in 2009 – Nichman and Paulo. Paulo is lovely. He’s my current love. He’s a huge, ancient labrador who always looks at you as if to say, “Yes, can I help you?” when you pass his enclosure. No reason he’s been there six years, either. Nichman, now that’ll be a rehoming and a half. No cats, no dogs, not bothered by people, snacks or treats. He’s not a looker either. Poor Nichman. I suspect I’m going to do a mahhoooooooseive Nichman campaign for Mr Unloveable.

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This is Paulo. Who wouldn’t love this cheery fellow?

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And this is Nichman. Coming up on twelve and six of those years at the refuge. Pulls like a team of huskies, loves playing catch, not at all interested in people, hates other dogs. Hmmmm. How to write an advert for this guy?

Wolf is off to Germany on 20th February. He’s got a lot of admirers. Mainly it’s because he’s a handsome honey who is actually a little shy. Hopefully there will be photos of his first nights – sure it will make a lot of staff and volunteers cry.

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Of the ten long-termers from before Christmas – Ufo, Dalton, Edge, Tino, Usty, Paulo, Nichman, Salma, Wolf and Cachou – there will be three remaining by February school holidays. I think that’s just fabulous. The Division 2 long termers will be tough to rehome too – lots of dogs who are not fans of other dogs or who need a special someone. Darius, Dusty, Douggy, Fidele, Elios, Noah. Mind you, I’m looking back at that Division Two list as well and can see a lot of happy rehomings. Young Tino (who was my favourite), Djibouti, Chupa, Anna, Artiste, Alaska, Fairbanks, RG, Charly, Skype, Fly… We’re talking some seriously difficult-to-rehome dogs here: bouncy, nippy, pully, energetic, suspicious, big, black – you name it, they had some reason they weren’t adopted as quickly. There are now 12 dogs who have been at the refuge since 2012. In September last year, there were 33.

Anyway, on that little reflection, I feel a lot more buoyant. Time to get busy and start my Monday for real.

French Friday Connection

031There is nothing in France like the hand-made sign, and that is as true of the high street in town as it is of the tiny village grocery. Out of the cities, it feels as though there are far fewer chain stores than there are in the UK.

In England, privately-owned bakeries have all but disappeared. Greggs, Hampsons and Greenhalgh’s bakers have largely taken over. I can’t say the British have the same love of tradition or bread – though most bakeries carry a good range of products. If you go to Greggs, it’s because you want a pasty or a pie, if you ask me. And why wouldn’t you want those things? You can be snobbish about Greggs if you like. I miss the cheese and onion pasties.

There aren’t that many people who buy bread outside of the supermarket. I do miss crumpets, especially a Warburton’s crumpet. I will never find a multi-seed brown sliced loaf that goes just perfectly with strong cheddar and Branston pickle. Is there anything like a Hovis loaf across the entire globe? I doubt it. I miss malt loaves, bagels, custard tarts and cream cakes too. Crème patissierie isn’t quite the same. Things in French bakeries don’t change much and they don’t take much on board by way of ‘foreign products’.

There is a weight of tradition behind French bakeries and the stock doesn’t change much. Cookies and muffins are still a novelty here. My most local bakery carries a small range of products: baguettes and ‘pain’, the large, thick baguettes. There are ‘boules’ and occasional products with different flours. If you want patisserie, there’s apple turnovers, croissants, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, Suisses and a handful of other occasional products. After a while, you get to know the best bakeries for particular products – the bakery in La Rochefoucauld does the best eclairs, and my local bakery does the best pain aux raisins.

You can buy a facsimile sliced loaf in the supermarkets. It has a two-month sell-by date. Most of them are entirely square and virtually crust-less. The brown version is tolerable if you absolutely have to. Sandwiches in packets have never taken off, and that is because they are utterly foul. I don’t know why but the French haven’t mastered putting sandwiches in packets. The bread disintegrates. I suspect it is everything to do with the fact the bread has to have a long shelf-life because they don’t have the same packet sandwich sales as the UK, and therefore the bread is worse quality than some of the pre-prepared packet sandwiches you can get in England. Eating in the streets is still not the done thing in rural France. I remember it being like that in the UK too, when I was young. You just didn’t eat and walk. It wasn’t done. Now you eat, walk and check the internet.

Rarely in rural France though.

And let’s face it. Why would you buy a cheap sandwich, a coke and packet of crisps, or a McDo or Quick when you can have a three-course sit-down two-hour meal for twice the price? It’s a no-brainer.

The bakery is the only place you can get stuff that is good to go. It’s for that you see so many baguettes with the end eaten off. French people are partial to snacking before they get home to eat, just like the rest of the world.

One Fine Day

Ah, a little throwback to my Sunday morning 60s extravaganza yesterday, with The Chiffons and One Fine Day

because The Chiffons, The Ronettes, The Crystals… there are just some things that should keep going through to Monday morning.

Truth be told, I spent most of yesterday feeling quite yuck. Wood fires and being too wrapped up, plus meeting lots of sickly students during the week left me suffering a little yesterday. I’d intended to start planting up seedlings but only got as far as getting the packets out and putting in some cabbage seeds. I started the yearly ‘taille’ of the vines – cutting the vines back. I’m not too fussed about frost damage to any of the vines up near the house, if there is snow this coming week. It didn’t take me long to realise that vines are quite like weeds – they grow everywhere and take a lot of damage.

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Feels like a long time til they’ll be looking like this again.

The snowdrops are beginning to make an appearance – every year I think they’ve given up and are not coming back, but they push up quickly and yesterday, some of them had burst into bloom. I was thinking I’d go to Angoulême on Sunday morning for the comic strip festival. It’s always in my memory as the most bitterly cold weekend of each year though, so it didn’t take much to persuade myself not to go. The town is split over the ‘vieux’ town up on the top of a promontory, and the old town which runs down to the river at the bottom. It’s not the best place to be when there are icy winds blasting up from the Atlantic coast. Plus, the festival is usually split between a couple of squares up at the top, and the museum down at the bottom – it’s not a walk for the faint-hearted in cold weather, let me tell you. There are buses, but with my current germ levels, I don’t think public transport is advisable.

This week will hopefully be the last busy one for a while. I need some of the quieter weeks again! Today, I’m running a self-assessment and reflection workshop in the morning and then a long, long evening of teaching. Hopefully the weather will hold up and I’ll be able to give the dogs a bit of a run in between so that they don’t end up stir crazy and picking fights with badgers again.

What is bringing me the love this week?

♥ Finishing a hat I was knitting and moving on to a pair of socks – they’re bright yellow and for a friend – if knitting in yellow doesn’t put a little cheer in your year, nothing will.

♥ Friends who drop everything to give you a morale boost when you need one. I don’t need one very often, but it’s nice to know there are people who share my moans and who can always bring me out the other side without me making some dramatic prima donna flounce.

♥ Just even being able to think about gardening. It might only be a thought, but it’s there. Getting my seed box out and locating my secateurs is joyous. Less joyous is putting on wellies and realising a mouse has probably been living in one. Luckily, he seems to have disappeared.

Not loving this sore throat and headache though, or the fact that when you’re self-employed, you just have to get on with it. No sick days for me! Yes, you’re right. I need to stop feeling sorry for myself and get busy!

French Fridays on my mind

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What would France be without a tabac? The tobacconist’s sign is up there with the pharmacist sign as being one of the most often seen on the high street. Many of them have this jaunty little tabac sign to help you find your nicotine fix.

Like the UK, cigarettes are incredibly expensive. I gave up smoking long ago, though I was reminiscing with a lady I know about buying a packet of twenty Regal for 75p. A packet of twenty cigarettes can now set you back ten times that, if not more. Still, smoking is a popular habit in France, and a third of adults smoke. Funnily, most of my UK friends smoked, but few of my expat friends here smoke – all that countryside living must be good for the psyche (either that or we are all too poor!) Only a sixth of the UK population smoke by comparison.

I have a little (well, he’s 17 and 6 foot 2) student who loves politics and information – we’ve been looking at the OECD data about the UK and France. Interestingly, educational levels between the two countries were virtually identical, though France spends much less per capita on educating its youths. The big shocker (or not) was how transparent UK politicians are in comparison with French politicians. French politicians are legally obliged to declare only 7% of their private interests and fundings. Sounds ripe for corruption if you ask me. I love these lessons that go off at a tangent and you capture the interest of teen minds.

Other than that, it has been a busy week – racing about here and there at the beginning, then committee meetings today. Ralf has been my time-thief this week – he caught a badger yesterday. I’m guessing it was old or infirm or dying as it was out in the day. I suspect he has been hiding out for some time near my cabin, as the boys have been hyper-interested in sniffing him out. He must be out of sorts to be able to be caught by Ralf, who is the least fast and least agile of all my beasts. The battle must have been a good ten minutes – he was out there whilst I was on the phone. I could hear Amigo going mad. I went out to have a look and there was Ralf with a jaw full of badger. It took me a few seconds to find a way to extricate them from one another – I’d (dangerously) think nothing of stepping in to sort out a dog fight, but those badgers can be savage beasties and I didn’t fancy Mr Badger turning his attention to me. Still, old or ill, he doesn’t deserve to be mauled to death by Ralf, to say nothing of what Ralf could catch. I ended it with a garden broom and a watering can. Mr Badger trotted off and Ralf looked a bit bemused. His lip was bleeding, as was his ear, so we had a quick trip to the vet. One shaved face and one antibiotics shot later and we were back home. He seems none the worse for it today, but I’ll wait and see. Heston’s usual bark fanfare on going into the garden has obviously served as an impromptu wildlife warning – he was waiting for his daily walk and getting nowhere – it was nothing but rain yesterday.

Anyway, it’s bedtime for me and time to settle down for the night.

Have a good weekend and keep out of tobacconist shops!

Breaking out of this two-star town

If I ever need a Monday buzz, The Killers are sure to give it to me. They never made an album I didn’t fall completely in love with. This is Read My Mind which I love because the video reminds me of everything I loved about Japan. That’d be everything. I loved everything about Japan, except it being quite so far away and expensive to get to.

I love Brandon Flowers’ lyrics as well. He always has such lovely-sounding words. More sound and fury than sense, but hey ho. I miss those pachinko parlours and the lovely eccentricity of many Japanese people. I miss Japanese school children in their little sou-westers and vending machines selling coffee on every street corner. I never quite got over the anachronism of women in kimono on city streets, a bit like you never get over seeing old French men on bicycles with a baguette. I miss bowing as well, and the way Japanese ladies cover their mouths when they laugh. I wonder if I’ll ever go back again, but I doubt it somehow. Seems strange to think it was nine years ago!

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Apart from my Japanese nostalgia, what else is bringing me a smile this Monday?

♥ Hot chocolate. Oh hot chocolate. It’s winter. It’d be rude not to.

♥ White Collar. How handsome is Matt Bomer? He is perhaps the second most handsome man alive after Joe Manganiello (Alcide in True Blood) Ladies, if you’ve not seen Magic Mike and you fancy a little pulse-racing handsomeness, both of my favourite dark-haired hunks are in it. Sadly, both True Blood and White Collar have finished. The last season of True Blood was a bit crap. In fact, a lot crap. Ah well. Time to find something new to watch. I have been loving James Spader in The Blacklist.

♥ All the people who are now involved in dog walking and refuge work over the past year – it’s turned into a movement! I had to work on Saturday for the last Woofer Walk, but it’s amazing how many lovely people have stepped forward to start walking dogs regularly at their local refuge, or who have taken on a dog, fostered or adopted. It does the spirit good to know that there are so many kind and generous people in the world. Yes, you have to pick up the pieces of humanity’s failings, but LAARF is turning into a veritable army.

♥ getting my seed box out. I went down into the potager yesterday morning. I think I’m going to have my work cut out. Shears and secateurs are at the ready. Luckily, I’ve got a couple of months at least before I’ll start planting anything out other than beans and peas, so I’m hoping this spring won’t be a wash-out like last spring.

Luckily, it’s been appropriately cold and wet – no serious snow (yet – not too late!) and no serious flooding, though the water table is very high here (keep your fingers crossed it stays appropriate!)

Last January looked like this.

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The year before, like this:

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And the end of January 2012 finished like this:

At this point, the world has yet to make its decision

French Fridays #3

029This Friday I thought I’d share my love of French signposts. Forget slick neon or electric fanciness. Handpainted, wonky signs pointing a multitude of directions is definitely much more French.

What I love least about French signs (well, the proper municipal directions ones) is that more often than not, they are RIGHT where you need to go straight on/turn left or whatever. Now I know that means England is all Nannyish, putting up signs a good 100m before a turn, but it does help you prepare a little. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in frustration behind someone who’s looking for  a turning, or who changes direction at the last minute. Probably far fewer times than I’ve driven past a junction and had to do a U turn, or had a trail of frustrated drivers behind me wondering when the hell it is that I’m going to turn. It’s not so bad when there’s only one town on the direction you need to follow, but if that town is five or six on through others, it might well be at the bottom of five or six other signs. Now if you have to read a sign, find a town on a long list of towns, then turn right, the likelihood is you aren’t at your sharpest. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to put the sign 100m before the turn? Would that be confusing? Would people try to turn into the sign? Would it stop the dreadful palaver at roundabouts as the world and his wife try to read a microscopic sign underneath five or six others? Don’t get me started on those signs that say “toutes directions” and “autres directions” – “all directions” and “other directions”. How in God’s name am I supposed to know if I want ALL or OTHER??

I can’t even see the point of investing in a sat nav in a country where many houses don’t have numbers yet and many roads don’t have names. I live in a numberless, nameless house and it is by sheer luck that mail gets to me, I know. Having said that, I read something recently by someone else (sorry – can’t remember who!) who each Christmas sends a card to a friend with the most basic of details on it – like his first name and the town he lives in. It always gets there. The fact that someone could send me a letter addressed to my name and the nearest big town and it would probably get to me is perhaps the real reason signs are so bad in France – because everyone instinctively knows where everything is.

I jest of course. Given the French penchant for hiding their cars/presence and the fact that I have yet to acquire this secretive habit, most drivers will happily stop at my house to ask for directions because they can see a car and a light on. I have created a little map of all the people in my hamlet and just distribute it ad hoc to anyone who stops and beeps outside my house so that they don’t have to stop at every single letterbox to check the name on it. It seemed wisest. Either that or UPS have put out some kind of missive to their drivers to encourage them to stop outside my house if they’re passing.

On another sign-related note, there used to be a sign to my tiny hamlet. It was in a village two over. It said 6km to Les Ecures. They took that sign down a while back and I despair of anyone ever finding my village at all. I’m very sad they took it down. On what premise did they decide it was no longer useful? Perhaps an extensive traffic survey to ask how frequently people checked the sign and whether they used it to find my hamlet? I feel a little incensed that some town hall busy bee demoted my hamlet from being ‘important to know where and how far away’ to ‘not important enough to know where and how far away’

(Though if I’m being honest, a sign directing people 6km to a hamlet of about 20 people, well, it’s a bit unnecessary. Having had it, however, I miss it. It’s true what they say. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.)

Good luck to anyone, by the way, following this sign to Le Foucauld. Not only does it lead you over one of those silly “from the right” priority roads (There are still roads in France where some little track joins the main road, yet the people on the main road have to give way to the track people. There’s no dotted lines or stop sign or anything so rational, except, you’ve guessed it, a sign right on the junction you are supposed to instinctively know has priority over you) but it also leads you over a non-existent roundabout that all the locals know about but none of the tourists, and directly up a one-way street. I’ve no idea where this sign thinks the 2ème feu is. In my opinion, that would take you to the train station up a one way street. Not only that, but Google Maps reliably inform me that it is, in fact, 500m from this spot to the restaurant. Oh well. The thought was there.

January blues

Yesterday was Black Monday – apparently the most depressing day in all the year. I don’t know about that. Apart from the mud and the cold winds, January is always an invigorating month for me. It’s February that seems often like spring won’t get here fast enough.

I’m still on my clear-out mission. It’s tough. I have always been a hoarder. As a teenager, I had the bedroom of nightmares. I kept every single thing I ever bought and I was mad for junk purchases. I managed to get this down to six boxes of keepsakes that I have had throughout my life – things I have treasured and things that evoke memories I had long since forgotten. I decided it’s time for a delicate sprucing and have been using this blog post from Slow Your Home to give me motivation. Going through one box the first time, I pulled out anything that I’d forgotten what it meant and threw it away. I guess that happens. You keep a keepsake and it becomes meaningless.

After that it was all the rail tickets for regular journeys I made back home from Sheffield, where I went to university. For the last three years of university, I had a boyfriend back in Manchester. He’d come to visit me every other weekend, and I’d come to visit him in return. Usually, he drove. I didn’t have a car, so it was usually the train for me. That coach trip across the Pennines might have been a couple of quid cheaper, but it was hours longer and used to make me sick as a dog. All those winding roads disagreed with me unspeakably.

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Finally, it’s the turn of cinema tickets. Some are films I remember, like seeing Up! with Jake in Bolton one Sunday afternoon. We’d go quite regularly to the Cineworld in Bolton, just the two of us. There’s nothing like going to the pictures to watch cartoons with kids. We loved that dog Doug. Other tickets are for films I vaguely remember. Sometimes I can remember who I saw them with, and sometimes not. Up and Under with Zoe after school one night. Afternoon showings of Cool Runnings and Addams’ Family Values that I saw with three children I babysat during the school holidays. The Crow, that I saw at the cinema in Bury with Phil one Tuesday night in July back in 1994.

Not any of those cinemas are like the most fantastic cinema of my youth: the Mayfair in Whitefield. It was one of those classic old-fashioned cinemas built in the post-war years and then demolished in the the latter part of the 1990s  to make way for a block of flats.

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Who’d got off with whom on the back row was always up for discussion on a Monday morning. If you want a trip down Memory Lane, by the way, this guy’s flickr stream is IMMENSE. I love all these old cinemas. The Mayfair was one of these. A new multiplex opened in Bury on a new out-of-town commercial site, but it never had the same feeling. I think that is derelict now if I remember right. Andy’s best friend Paul was the manager there for a few years. It’s sad to see all these old Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings turned to Kwik Saves and Bingo halls. I don’t care much for the old Pilsworth cinema though. I bet it was only open twenty years or so. Seems a short shelf life for a building. I’ve got some old stubs for the Odeon in Sheffield, though I can’t remember going there much. I think it was under a by-pass. I remember a lot of concrete.

I loved living in Sheffield – it’s a much greener city than Manchester, and much more hilly. I love the Yorkshire-ness of it and the names. Nether Edge. Crookes. Halfway. Greystones. Millhouses. I say it’s much greener, and it is when you are walking out of the city to where the housing becomes affordable and you can find student digs cheap enough. It wasn’t very green in the city centre, though I suppose it is very different now, twenty years later. At the epicentre of all the town’s concrete fly-overs and underpasses, there was this big concrete roundabout. On the first week back at uni, known as Freshers’ Week, there were always warnings about that roundabout. It was quite a magnet for drunks who’d take a dive into it and break their necks in an alcohol-induced stupor. The bit where I did my studies, up Eccleshall Road, is now very gentrified. The Nursery Tavern still looks the same on Google Streetview, but I can see an M&S Simply Food and signs for shops selling artisanal bread. There’s even a Starbucks where my favourite pizza restaurant was.

I’m kind of glad to see that the place I lived are just as scruffy-looking and studenty. What’s the point of being a student if you don’t learn how cold bedrooms can be without your parents to pay for central heating, or how to live on £8 shopping a week? I used to walk everywhere because I was too cheap to pay the bus fare. It was only a half-hour walk each way at the most, but I loved those walks every day. I was kind of glad to see Primark and Poundland occupying stretches of concrete around that weird roundabout world. Some things don’t change.