Monthly Archives: April 2010

tondeuses et ponceuses: Emma’s practicals #1

There’s a certain amount of French you learn when living a day-to-day life: it’s a long way from Jean-Paul Sartre. La tondeuse, the lawnmower, is as yet a problem. Steve went to get one from Brico, but was put off by the price. We’re still in discussion about whether we want one to push (no!) or a self-propelled one.

La tondeuse = lawnmower (and also hair clippers – hence the ‘tonsure’ of the monks, I guess!)

La tondeuse à main = push lawnmower

La tondeuse électrique = electric lawnmower

La tondeuse à gazon = petrol lawnmower

La tondeuse (tracteur) autoportée = ride-on lawnmower

and there’s a difference between tractée and pousée, because one pulls (tractée!) and one you push (pousée). Some of them are called ‘thermique’ (thermal) which converts, apparently, thermal energy into mechanic energy. I have no idea what this means. Is it solar-powered?! Is it ‘gazon’ powered??! I said to Steve that it would help if I knew what I was talking about in English, let alone in French. It’s slow progress. Gazon is apparently turf, so it’s not turf-powered! A tondeuse a gazon is a lawn mower. You live and learn!

My new words of the day:

Le gazon – the lawn, turf

L’éclairage – lighting (I’m also trying to work out what my dad’s car needs doing to it. Another thing I know nothing about in English, let alone French)

L’echauffage – exhaust

Le chantier – building site; builder’s yard

La ponçeuse – sander

La location – renting out

Le tire-bouchon – bottle opener; corkscrew

The worst fact is that I’m sitting here with the internet connection, and Steve’s out in France needing to know what there is on offer…. it’s not easy!

We’re still waiting on a sander. La ponçeuse à parquet. We can order one, but we don’t yet have a cheque book for a deposit. They won’t take a cash deposit. They don’t want a visa deposit. Only a cheque. You can’t use cheques in many places, but you can in ‘location’ which, as I found out this morning, doesn’t mean ‘location’, it means ‘rental’. Highly confusing!

I also tried to sort the van insurance out, but to no avail. I’ve not got the information, which is in France. Needless to say, this doesn’t make it easier. Also, it won’t accept that Steve’s been driving for how ever many years, since you don’t get your driving licence as early in France. Grrr.

Still, I know now how to ask for a tondeuse a parquet, and I’m getting better at giving numbers out over the phone. It’s all a learning curve!

What with fixing Jake’s inner tube on his bike (yes, I know the boy assisted and I told Steve I’d assisted, but let’s get real) and with ordering sanders and lawnmowers, I think I need to spend an afternoon with new nail polishes and eye shadows. You can see from my new learned vocabulary what it’s like for me! I’m going to lose all sense of being a girl!

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Lost in Rouen

Somehow I have come to realise that I have inadvertently got into a drama. Steve is not good at directions. He likes to think he is, but he isn’t. I can go a way once and remember it forever, like I did with that tiny mountain road in Kos (not that there are many roads on Kos!) Steve, not so. He’s been down the motorway 3 times, which is the exact same amount of times I have. Yes, I’m a passenger, but I actually do quite good navigation/driving, and I don’t forget my way.

I had said he should stop at the hotel in Abbeville and go the rest of the way tomorrow. I had said I’d book the hotel. I had said it wasn’t important. I had said he’d ache. I had said he’d feel better for the break. He’s not me. I once did a Manchester-Dover-Rotterdam-Angouleme 26 hour drive, handing over the driving at the 25th hour. No, I’m not proud of it, but I still did it. I was a little wobbly, but that was all. And when I slept that afternoon, I snored louder than I ever had before.

Steve doesn’t like being lost; he doesn’t like road signs and he hates not being sure of where he is.

Me, if it got late in a foreign town, I’d find a hotel, no matter how flea-ridden (like some I’ve stayed in in Earl’s Court!) or expensive (the Heathrow Hilton is sooooo worth it when you’ve flown back from Cuba on Cubana Airlines and you have had endless delays and you have giardiasis) and bunk down, emerging a little more refreshed. I can find a hotel anywhere. I have an instinct. Plus, wherever there’s trains or planes or buses, there’s a hotel. It’s not illogical.

Steve manages to find a huge town where he can only find two hotels. How is this??!

I think I must have an innate travel-sense. In Casa, last year, when I turned up late at the airport, I found the nearest cheery looking taxi driver and told him I needed a mid-range hotel. I know he has his favourites and maybe commission, but he took me to a good place.

In Rotterdam, when we couldn’t find where we were supposed to go, I hail a taxi (find a tube station, find a taxi!) and get him to take me there. I memorise the route, leaving the boy and the man behind, then I get a taxi back, and I drive us in the car to where we are supposed to go. Taxi drivers know stuff. When the man and the boy get stressed and lost, I sail to the rescue. It doesn’t matter what language, I can always find a taxi and he can always find me a hotel.

Usually, I have to say, I am super-organised. I book hotels in advance. I print off maps. I memorise where they are, where you turn out of tube stations or train stations. I have addresses and names. I have back-up plans. I know when I will arrive and where. When I drove Abi and my mum to Italy, I had every detail planned. Where we’d stop for petrol. Where we’d eat. What time we’d get to the ferry. What time we’d arrive at the hotel. Where the hotel was. (I am a fan of choosing hotels on the outskirts of town – they’re easier to find and easier to park in – and they’re often signposted. Plus, you aren’t driving like a tourist through a foreign city, with all it’s one-way signs and so on) I had paid in advance. I knew what time we’d set off, when we’d pass into Germany and then Austria. It was pre-euro, so I had francs and deutsch marks and fennigs and lira. I knew how much the tolls were (all pre-internet too!) I had a map of the hotel in Germany, and I had a list of all the roads. I am the best (and worst) of my Gramps, who did everything the same as I did. I have vague recollections of when he’d make us leave in the middle of the night and when we’d sometimes need hotels impromptu, but in general he planned everything to the tiniest degree. I’m just as anal. Anal, maybe, or perhaps I should be more positive and say ‘survival of the fittest’. I travel, a lot, in countries where I don’t speak the lingo easily. And yet, I don’t get panicked. Planning takes the majority of the credit for that.

Still, I am resourceful. Like in Casa, where I was getting a bit blase about the whole ‘book in advance’ thing, and ended up going off a taxi-driver’s recommendation (excellent, I must say! – the hotel wasn’t listed, and it was a fancy ‘local’ hotel, not a chain. It was lush!)

Also, if I’m getting to a time when it’s going to be late, I stop. I check in somewhere. I never leave it too late. I always have a credit card and cash. I have learned from life!

Much of this seems to have by-passed Steve, who called me at 8:30 to say he needed to stop and he was lost. Then he got mad at me, as my directions got more and more obtuse to him, and more and more straightforward to me. Head for the town hall. All towns in France have signposted town halls. It’s what they do. But that panicked Steve. I found an Ibis online (good old Ibis!) and directed him… an hour later, he’s still lost. Luckily, instead of me having to drive out over there and sort it out for him, he found two English bikers on their way to Le Mans, staying, ironically, at the Ibis. Of all the hotels, in all the land, they had to be staying at the one I suggested….

Now he has a bed, he feels a bit better and is a bit more rational. He accused me of wanting to laugh at his plight. In reality, I wanted to get all Jeremy Kyle and say ‘you’re a grown man. You sort yourself out. It’s a huge town. Of course they’ll have hotels, and, by the way, why are you ringing me now to ask? Did you not think it might have been better to stop off about 6 and ask then? I could have booked ahead, but no! You had to leave it to the last minute, when you’re in a panic and then yell at me, like yelling will find you a hotel. You’re lucky I didn’t end the call and leave you to sleep in a bus shelter. Bah!’

I can’t wait til the morning when he tries to navigate his way out of Rouen. Hmmmm. I guess further irate phone calls are in my near future. I know now why I do things myself; it’s because I do them properly. Next time, he won’t go unsupervised, believe me!

But, in the background to all this, my car is falling apart and I’m waiting for an RAC man, sitting in my car wearing a niqab and a kaftan. Don’t even ask.

There is a God, and he’s pissing himself laughing. And then he’s being kind and sending along British bikers staying in Ibises to help Steve, and bringing me RAC men who don’t even question why I’m covered from head to toe, except for my flip-flops.

Luckily, Jake is at his aunt Deb’s house. Thank the lord for Deb. I was struggling juggling two plates. Three would have been ridiculous.

Surviving my own existence

Things are a little easier today. I’ve lost last night’s angst which plagued me. I think I was bothered about having to spend so much on my car, especially when so much of it is damage that’s just caused by roads in the area. It gets a little easier the closer I get to France. Sometimes it’s hard to face up to the fact it’s a long time away, when I want to be over there and earning money.

Steve is on his way over tomorrow. He’s decided to bike over on his motorbike, which I don’t like the idea of, especially when so many drivers are complete idiots. I’m also unsure how he’ll get over there when he needs to fill up every twenty minutes! I know he wants to be violating the lanes around our house, but I’d rather he got there another way! I don’t think that I’ll settle until I know when he’s there and he’s safe.

Still, after our recent black swan event of the Icelandic volcano which shut down European airways for a week, it makes you realise that sometimes we don’t know we’re born!

I’ve been thinking about Paris a lot recently. I was there last in 2004 with my brother. It seems like forever ago now. I was doing some photography, fulfilling some ambitions. I finally – a little adolescent, I know! – got to see Jim Morrison’s grave (and appreciate that of Colette and Oscar Wilde, which I wouldn’t have done at 18, when “The Doors” came out as a film and I first got into Mr Morrison and co.) I’d love to go back to Paris again, and having it on my doorstep, practically, will be wonderful. Don’t know if I’ll ever go, but I can dream. I did a whole load of photography there, really sinking into French life. It was clichéd, I know – eating pain aux raisins in Montmartre with a café crème, watching the painters set up for the day, the sun rise over the city – but it’s the Paris I love. Walking down the Rue de faubourg-St-Honoré, dreaming of a Coco Chanel existence, this is the Paris I love.

I’d gone with Al, my brother, who loves France about as much as I do, and he made me walk a long way, back from the Arc de Triomphe to Montmartre, all because of his phobia of the métro. I still have the blisters! I deliberately left a lot of things undone in the anticipation of doing them. I would love to go to the flower and bird market on the Ile de la Cité, to see Paris at times when I haven’t already. It’s a long way, physically and metaphorically, from Les Ecures, but I hope that I’ll be able to make my way up there from time to time.

I think I trekked all over Paris that week. Al got a fantastic shot from the first stage of the Eiffel tower. I got my Chanel sunglasses – a little beginning of my fashionista status, which died a death in 2007! I was hooked on the cross-processed images

http://www.quarlo.com/083005.html

Unfortunately, this guy hasn’t posted anything for ages – last seem to be about 5 years ago, but I did, and do, love his images. I wanted to capture Paris in the same way he did with New York. His candid shots are amazing. His photos are like haiku: they capture season and time, a little quirky zen-ness about them.

http://www.quarlo.com/080204.html

He has an eye that sees things in an interesting way. Definitely taught me a lot about how to look at Paris and Kyoto!

All the gripes of my day….

I’ve had just about enough today! Could do with getting back into bed until next Wednesday when all my cash has cleared and I can get over the things that are griping me!

1. Clients who don’t pay when they should and inconvenience me. I’ve had a few clients recently who think it’s fine to pay me next time, especially with bigger cheques. I feel really tight saying ‘no. I’ve got a business to run’ as some of them are friends. The same with last minute cash cancellations. When they don’t pay, I don’t eat. It’s that simple. What I hate is that they do it face to face. They look me in the eye and say ‘can I pay you next time?’ I guess I should walk into Nationwide Autocentres today and say that to them.

2. Because of this, I had to postpone my car service from last week. Not only that, but I’ve been having to borrow money from Steve to pay for things like brake discs and pads when I shouldn’t have to. It’s really naughty of them not to pay, and it makes me feel bad for asking. Likewise, not turning up when they pay session by session. I guess I’ll chalk it up to lessons learnt and things not to do in France! Whether it’s £20 or £200, it’s all the same. I can’t buy the stuff I need to get through life, because I haven’t been paid. I charge low prices when I could charge more, and yet people take advantage of that. Maybe I should learn the more expensive I am, the more they’ll value me.

3. I’ve got three or four bills I can’t pay until next week, when I should have paid them this week. I hate being backed up. I hate that they’ve caused this. I hate that I’m not more business-minded enough to say ‘No. I’m sorry, but no pay, no deal. Now fuck off.’ Next time, I’ll ask for payment up front. Lesson learnt #2

4. I paid £90 for two holes yesterday. Brake discs with four holes = £15. Brake discs with five holes = £43.00 Plus VAT. Joy. I’m paying for less. Luckily, I have Steve to thank that I got anything at all. He coughed up the rest. He also fitted them. Last time I had new pads and discs, I had a £350 bill. I paid £100 for parts yesterday. I’m a lucky girl. I have to say, the last few months have taught me a lot about relying on family and friends. And it doesn’t feel good to rely on them, but what can you do? Lesson learnt #3

5. People are ungrateful. You do them favours and it just isn’t enough for them. They think I’m being awkward when I offer advice and that I’m making their life hard, when in reality what they’ve asked for is dumb. So dumb it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lesson learnt #4. Don’t do favours for friends who need your skills and then interfere. If I ask someone to do something for me and then interfere when I couldn’t do it myself, then I should be shot. I kind of griped about my mum pruning my hedges, but really I was grateful! I appreciate ‘mum’ pruning! Sometimes it’s needed! I don’t ask people to do me a favour, like when Steve and Dean laid my floor, and then complain about what they’ve done, when they did it for free and they didn’t have to. Maybe this teaches me to be more grateful!

6. I am right about a lot of stuff. I’m right about how things will look. I’m right about my areas of expertise. I know what works. And when people who don’t know what works try and tell me how to do it, it properly pisses me off! Especially when that person is a no-nothing, over-rated, self-inflated, pompous arse who for the last 20 years has systematically blanked me or forgotten who I am. Knob jockey! Lesson number # blah… people don’t often change, especially those who are blessed with a certain surname. Once a wannabe, always a wannabe. It must be hard having no other talents and being unable to adapt.

7. I’m being punished financially… 180 euros for two ‘new’ tyres – one of them has done 1,200 miles and I need another. £120 for a new CV joint which should have lasted 150,000 miles, but because of the surface of Bolton’s roads, it makes my mechanic think I’ve been driving off road in rallies. 3 and a half years ago, I made my first complaint. Tyres/axles, it’s all the road surfaces. My sister got 2 punctures last week. Britain is a shithole. Our roads are covered in glass and cans and litter and bits of metal and nails. It makes me feel sick that this ‘cost’ is as a result of the council’s negligence. That’s £50 for an MOT, £80 tax, ridiculous insurance, and about £600 of new parts on a 50,000 five year old car. A car which shouldn’t need £600 worth of parts.

Financial responsibility is a heavy responsibility, man!

How much do I need a cigarette right now??! I’m sitting here in the freezing cold, unable to turn up the heat on my ridiculously priced gas and electric bills, unable to pay for car parts, waiting for my bank to clear cheques. I hate this side of life. And all the while, my crops are withering because some shitty volcano in Iceland has decided to spew its effluence into the universe to remind us that Black Swan events are here for always, and that Mother Nature has her way of putting a spanner in the works of mankind!

That’s entertainment

I walked to one of my client’s today, and it really reinforced the Bolton I won’t miss.

Slate grey tarmac dappled with old, trodden-in chewing gum; dirty concrete slabs; phone-boxes with the receiver torn out; smashed glass on double-yellow lines; an abandoned can of Kestrel Super Strength on the Con Club window ledge; shuttered shop windows. Buses and lorries spew out noxious diesel fumes, belching and farting along the street. Alongside them, a full spectrum of grey cars protects cross mothers who shout at sullen children, vacant businessmen, van drivers on their way home from the Monday grind. Gordon Brown’s face is everywhere, gloating over his work like Ozymandias; as powerless as TJ Eckleburg – the Conservative advertising strategy only stretches to cynicism, not belief. The pub is shut up now, with cheap MDF panels covering smashed windows. The paint has chipped and the sign is broken.

Some lurid yellow forsythia blossoms break free against the grey. It might be April, but there’s a bitter wind yet. Dandelions are the area’s only successful bloom, visible everywhere, although the grey gloom blanketing us shuts out the sun. Some blousy, brash daffodils line up in regimented rows between red brick walls and paving slabs that serve as gardens. This isn’t what Wordsworth envisaged. I think Betjeman should have widened his dislike of modern England. Come, friendly bombs.

Quick ideas for designs #1

Colours I'd like in the kitchen, and some ideas for storage

I’d like a huge blackboard in the kitchen, if there’s any space! I want recipes on it, and tips and ideas, and phrases! I don’t know where it would go, though!

I think I’m going to go with a light blue, the colour of my Wedgwood china, and a light peach colour. It’s a combination I’ve stolen from an image, but I think it works well. It’d be an open shelving system and I’d have curtains under the sink, but the other shelves will be open. I think, other than the basics, I’m going to use the secret passage way for the pantry, since it’s cool and out of the way. Then I can keep my pans and so on in the kitchen.

Flooring: possibly a peach vinyl. Ironically, my current kitchen floor colour is perfect!

Walls: white/peach white with white bracket-less shelves and blue tiles. Then I can have lots of peach and blue colours. I’ll have a peach/beige work surface or a wooden one, and possibly a small island. Lots of room and lots of space. Peach and blue and white bunting along the shelves. A peach or blue blind. Steve’s bringing his gas stove, which isn’t ideal. I’d much rather have an electric fan oven, since the oven is so temperamental, heat-wise. It’ll do for now, though!

Our other worry is how we get everything out over there, especially with Dad’s van being out of order (HS! Hors Service, I believe!)

Summer in the sun; winter in the shade

Another fabulous spring day to help warm me up, and leave me with a nice taste of England in my mouth. Steve’s going back to France on Monday for another 10 days, ostensibly to water my veg and keep things in order! Hopefully everything is warming up and growing over there! I can’t wait to see how it’s getting on, yet I have another month before I can get over there. Not so good. Still, it leaves me with plenty to do here! A little spring cleaning never went amiss!

My favourite spring cleaning site: http://www.flylady.net/ I love this site. It really brings the joy to cleaning. I wish I were the kind of woman who could do this all day. I have to say that this has probably really helped me with the ‘little and often’ approach, and the ‘de-cluttering’ processes. I’m still having all the design dilemmas. I think it will have to be cream in most of the rooms – they’re so dark, without the shutters open. Even with the shutters open, the living room is dark. There’s some lovely vinyl flooring (cheaper than tiles!) in sand and light colours, which I like a lot, though it would show the mud, of which I suspect there will be a lot! Antique stone and slab looks seem to work well. I think with cream walls, possibly with a wallpaper insert, it would look really good! The ceiling needs painting white, too.

And some of the things I love about the English spring!

I wouldn’t like you to think there’s nothing I like about England… There’s a lot I will miss.

My garden and house are two of those things (and about the only two things that aren’t people!) especially since everything is coming into spring bloom. I know I have a flowing currant in France, but this was one of the very first things I planted. I always loved the smell. My mum has (had??!) two in her garden, a red and a pink, and I loved the pink the most, but the red was the one I found. King Edward VII Ribes Sanguineum.

Ribes Sangineum King Edward VII

I know it’s like the most popular, easy-to-care-for bush in England, but I do love the smell of it, and the way it’s one of the first ‘real’ flowers in my garden, after the winter gloom lifts.

And with a bit of a sunny day, it’s nice to see Basil enjoying the sun!

Basil enjoying the April sun

He does love to stretch out and sun-worship. Yoga for cats. I’m sure he’ll equally love the space in France, being able to watch the swallows, lying on the grass more frequently. He’s an old man, now, and I hope the journey is smooth for him, but I’m sure retirement will be happy!

The other things I love are Dicentra – I’ve got a couple (and I’m taking them with me!!) One is a little further on than the other…

Dicentra

The other isn’t far enough on for photography! I have a couple of aqualegias I love and I’m very much looking forward to having more! I think I want some kind of planted garden at the house – there isn’t a ‘garden’ as such at the moment – it’s all fairly functional – but I’d really like to build up a collection of plants for a proper garden. Maybe on the bit Jake considers his football pitch!! There’s space at the back behind the cabin and polytunnel, too, which is a bit more private. So my dicentras and aqualegias will be coming with me!

Aqualegia

I hope, as Spring progresses, to document some of those I shall be leaving behind, as well as those I will be taking with me!

J’en ai ras le bol!

Already, England has made me sick.

At the moment, I’m mostly sick of R&B. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few R&B tracks in my CD collection, and I don’t mind a bit of Rihanna from time to time, but I’m mostly talking about that sickly spin-off of rap with smarmy, smug singers. I don’t think it’s humanly possibly to be more full of yourself than an R&B singer, or a person who likes to turn it up to listen to when ‘cruising’ around Bolton of an evening.

I’ve kind of gone off Beyonce since it’s all about the booty and the bling and the rap-star boyfriend and the losing your roots to warble a bit. All that ass-shaking is a bit too much ‘look at me’ and ‘I need your approval’ and ‘Aren’t I great’ and when I hear it pounding out on Sainsbury’s car park, well, it’s like me listening to some weird Japanese music, it’s so out of place.

Why I despise it, I think, is the whole cheesy, image-conscious, lacking-in-soul vocals and bling/glitz pointless glamour. The whole point of disco was that it was fake and phoney and unnecessarily cheery, but R&B takes itself too seriously. It’s about actually believing that cubic zirconium is diamond, not just celebrating the whole ‘cubic zirconium-ness’ of it. It’s about fooling yourself that gold and diamonds and money and ‘hos and biatches are more important than real things, like love and happiness.

What’s worse is that it is Jake’s music of choice. And that he has it mixed in with ‘the Chipmunks’, who sound not unlike some of his speeded-up versions of R&B. And I have to say, this disappoints me, a bit.

Steve and I came to music the way of Adam Ant. Both of us were fans of the be-striped one from about the age of 8. I went to rock via Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Stones, Depeche Mode… and he went via AC/DC and Metallica and Megadeth, but we both ended up at the same point. I liked music that ‘spoke’ to me, that was full of feeling, and I don’t mind admitting, I was never fond of Duran Duran, with their suits and highlights and tans, but I had a little soft spot for A-Ha. And the worst you can say about that is that Morten Harket’s voice reeks of heart-ache. How I listened to Hunting High and Low, the summer I was 12. Some of my friends went the U2 ‘Stadium Rock’ route, but by then I was moving on to more heart-breaking music in the shape of Depeche Mode and Leonard Cohen. Yes, I was a teenage depressive! Still, at least it had heart and soul and feeling. It spoke of regret and sadness and heart-ache and loss. I don’t know why a 13 year old should feel so strongly about it, but I did.

By 15, Appetite for Destruction awoke an entirely different set of emotions: anger. It’s so fuckin’ easy when everybody’s tryin’ to please me…. And I went via the angry train for the next few years, visiting ‘Rage’ along the way. So it was lots of Megadeth and Metallica and Annihilator, with a few heart-broken tracks from Hanoi Rocks along the way.

And by my early twenties, I’d settled into a happy medium of ‘angst’, ‘sadness’, ‘anger’ and ‘heartache’ for the main vehicles of my music. If I wanted uplifting, I’d stick on a bit of more funky tunes, but essentially, everything I listened to had real emotions inside it. Damien Rice, Snow Patrol, Leonard Cohen, Hed (pe): they have something in common – feeling.

And I think this is why I detest this false R&B so much. It’s not about love, it’s about sex. It’s not about personality, but about looks. It’s about pretence and glamour and it’s not got anything inside it. It’s self-entitled and pointless.

And yes, my bowl is full of it today!

I’m off for a strong coffee, a cigarette and a blast of something more meaty! If you ask me, R&B is nothing more than an example of everything that is wrong with the country!

La Vie en France

A kind of composite of the week from 31st March when I was internet-free!

We set off at 7:00 from a Manchester shrouded in snow. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t one day before April, and it just compounded our need to get away from the grey. True to form, it was grey all the way down to the tunnel. Luckily, and unexpectedly, the traffic was free-flowing all the way down, almost as if England were easing our exit, and also due to my excellent motorway navigation skills, it must be said, having only the night before had a long discussion with Paulie about whether we should risk the M6 in the hope of getting to the toll road. I said it would be hell on earth. M60 in early rush hour, through the aptly named Death Valley. Trying to navigate past Worsley, which had always been my ‘homecoming’ sign, with its church marking the fact I was back in my homeland. Trying to get on to the M62. Trying to get onto the M6. Getting across the Thelwall viaduct. Stop-starting from there down to Stoke and beyond before finally reaching the toll road and paying almost five pounds for the privilege of being able to drive at a normal speed before hitting the hell of the M1 and M25, potentially, and sitting in traffic waiting to pay a pound fifty to cross the Dartford Bridge. Forget that!

Steve's back yard, last day in March

So we went against all the traffic across Woodhead Pass, 4 miles longer according to multimap and the AA website, but infinitely smoother. And it was clear. Steady all the way down the M1 and then even smoother along the motorway, which was extremely weird. I was expecting 10 mile tailbacks to get across the Dartford Bridge, but no, fairly straight through, although there was a hairy moment when I thought my brakes were going to fail to stop the boot-full of Steve’s essentials. My essentials were make-up and three pairs of flip-flops. His included an air compressor, a box full of tools, several boxes of gardening tools , seeds by the dozen, boots, wellies, ratchets, spanners, paint brushes, hose heads, surge-protected multi-way sockets, plug transformers: in other words, everything useful. I hadn’t even brought my (lovely!) wellies.

It's amazing how much a fluorescent jacket makes you fit in!

I’ve now realised that Steve is notoriously irate when driving. He leaves England to me, and I’m such a pushover, I always go for it. I am not a calm person myself, but I can navigate the worst of the British motorways. We had a pit-stop at the Vallée de Somme, where I inevitably ended up attracting the attention of a trucker. We’d stopped for coffee, as Steve was already tired (one hour into his stint of the drive) and as I retrieved the best 1 € 30 motorway stop coffee, he’d run off to top up with a  Redbull. As I turned around, some Southerner told me Steve had disappeared, and so we passed the time talking about the weather, and the time his wife made him walk 26 kilometres. This always makes Steve amazed. Within 30 seconds of his absence, I’m new-best-friends with some randomer. This happens a lot. I don’t know whether it’s the Northerner in me, or the Nana in me. My Nana is notorious for cornering (non-English-speaking) strangers and giving them her life story. Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces. I have to say at this point, it’s more often them talking to me than the other way around.

We made our way past Rouen (fill up there, cheaper than the motorway!) and then on to the long long long leg to Alençon and on to Le Mans. Once you’re at Le Mans, it’s a bit less boring. You’ve got Tours, then Poitiers… and then you’re almost home and dry, but it’s a huge nothingness between Rouen and Alençon and it seems endless. You see no cars. The road is quiet. No-one goes from Rouen to anywhere else, it seems. If you over take a couple of lorries, it’s a rat-race road-rage-inspiring melodrama! Steve had developed some kind of issue with my time-estimation skills. I’d estimated we’d be at my dad’s by midnight. In fact, we were 33 km out. We arrived at 12:23, after a petrol stop in Mansle, and boy was he sore about it. He whinged from Tours. That’s 1 hour and 15 minutes of pure whingeing. His legs hurt. His (non-existent) arse hurt. His head hurt. His arms hurt. His back hurt. I said many, many times that he should pull in and let me take over, but No! He likes to be a martyr. And he likes to let me know he’s being a martyr. I think it’s a pride thing. He also wasn’t having it that I had driven for 4 hours and 45 minutes with ne’er a whinge. He said it was way less than that. And, if the facts be known, you can get a long way into France in that amount of time. He still wasn’t having it.

I have to say, as an April addendum, we arrived home exactly bang-on-the-nose at 9:00 p.m., just as I said we would. Now that’s accuracy.

So… long journey, long sleep.

Thursday morning, La France, and fine sunshine!

Thursday we’d planned on it being an acclimatisation day. We went to La Rochefoucauld, did a bit of shopping (which is GREAT without the boy – sorry, Jake, but you do love a moan once you’ve got what you want!) and compared prices and looked for toothbrushes. Steve now knows la brosse à dents, not ‘la brosse de dents’, which in my opinion might be a brush made out of teeth – an entirely different thing!

However, on the way to La Roche, it seemed rude not to stop and have a look at the house, being, as it is, on the main route there. Steve as yet still hadn’t seen the house and I was too eager to wait 24 hours. So we stopped for a wander about our boundary. The gate was locked, but we made our best efforts. Just as we’d got about 30 metres past the house, there’s a flood tunnel which seemed to be an excellent place to keep a troll. Seeing as we have (jokingly!) contemplated barring the D6 off and charging a toll, having a Dom-Joly inspired Troll Booth seemed very tempting. Jake could man it and we could make a tidy profit. The tunnel goes right the way under the road, into our garden (nice!) and across to the other side. Luckily, the last time it flooded was 1999 when the Grande Tempête of the same year struck, so we aren’t expecting les inondations on a regular basis.

Anyway, on emerging from the tunnel, it strikes Steve that it’d be a mighty fine thing to climb over the fence and break into our soon-to-be property, seeing as it looked fairly deserted. We climbed over the fence, for Steve’s first look around. I am happy to report he liked what he saw, which is all good because if he hadn’t liked it, it would have been a bit difficult to deal with! Still, having seen the barn close up, having seen the atelier and the rooms there, we took a wander into the garden. I was happy to note several blossom trees, which I suspect may be a mixture of apple, almond and perhaps peach, but time will tell. There’s a beautiful chaenomeles in the garden, which will make leaving mine behind less painful. Here, it’s in bloom. I doubt England is yet.

Madame has left us a ‘chalet’ and a ‘cabine’. In true French-moving-out style, lots of random bits and pieces were left there… a strange clown/cymbalist, several delightfully kitsch table cloths… odds and sods of a life gone by. The chalet hadn’t been open when I went last – Jake’s chalet, should I say – and it was wide open. It was too much temptation to go in and have a rummage, seeing as it was only 24 hours until the property was officially ours. It was full of old Nana-type treasures: drawings done by grand-children decades ago, a picture of a boat, several shelves full of rocks and fossils, a stuffed pigeon, a scary doll, a Magic Roundabout lampshade that I’m sure I had when I was little, a pair of shoes, a hoover with a hand-made cover (it takes toilet-roll covers to the next level), and all kinds of strange things. It was a little like a 1960s caravan.

A fond memory and odd coincidence

We’d made our way out and were foraging around the garden only for Steve to see a car parked outside the house in the courtyard. A car that hadn’t been there before, especially since the gate was locked. A car that was filled with people. After some quiet, frantic debate, we decided to jump over the back fence and leg it. Prendre le clé des champs, as they say in France. Not such a good idea to break in and be confronted by la vieille madame on her exit. We made our escape, drove away à toute vitesse and hoped that was the end of it.

Friday was a marathon of signing and so on. We met the estate agent at 10:30. Steve has now taken to wearing his fluorescent worker jacket wherever he goes. At first, I mocked. Now I’m a convert. I thought it looked a bit – I don’t know – a bit…. practical, but I soon saw the error of my ways. Because the workers in France are also converts of the yellow fluorescent jacket, Steve looked like a native. He got nods from the men on the road-works and no-one batted an eyelid. House insurance is now sorted. Unlike England, you estimate a value for your insured things, for if they need to be replaced or so on. It seemed expensive, at 300 € and I’ll be shopping around. I know it’s kind of an in-crowd set-up, but it seemed better to just go with it at first. I was happy to note I understood most of what was said, especially the money stuff, so hopefully it’ll all be easy eventually.

After that, it was a long wait until we signed on the dotted line. We went to L’Eclerc a second time. Steve is not a fan of croque-monsieur, let it be noted after this visit. We also saw the man who is probably our mayor, Laurent. I didn’t want to be impertinent and go and introduce myself, but I wish I had now. It was very exciting to recognise someone based on their official internet photo. I’m such a geek.

And then, on to the house to agree the meter readings. Not such an alien concept. Madame and her two daughters were there. When the sister saw us, she said ‘Ah…. les voleurs!’ – Yes, we had been seen. Apparently we’d caused a little consternation and Senor Gonzales, the younger daughter’s husband, had been dispatched to prevent an attack. Madame Gonzales laughed it off, but I felt hideously embarrassed and wished for a moment that I wasn’t with Steve – le voleur – let’s just say the break in wasn’t my idea and leave it at that. He knows and I know and several of his friends know what happened at a derelict Tottington Police Station circa 1986, but that’s between Steve and his conscience and a few people I like to tell for amusement.

I let my embarrassment die on the embers of my excitement about signing for the house. We were left with a kind gift of a working freezer, and, bizarrely, a fondue set. Hmm. Très bizarre.

After that, a trip to Maître Ferrant’s, the notaire.

I think many French people worry about the English. I don’t know why. I think they assume Steve and I are a pair of retards. I still think Thibaud, our delightful estate agent, thinks we’ll be back with complaints about the flooding and the road. We have a ‘départemente’ road running alongside us, which Thibaud seemed to think was some kind of detrimental thing. I tried to explain that we wake up to the heady sounds of M66 traffic at home, but he wasn’t quite getting it. He tried to explain that in the rush hour, it is quite terrible, but it’s not. It’s not Manchester-worthy at all. It doesn’t even compare with an A road, let alone a motorway. Perhaps some of the less busy B roads get as much traffic. Let’s just say I can work out the weather by the sound of the traffic outside at home: snow, slow; rain, splashy, dry, quieter than usual. And as for the flooding, firstly, we live in Manchester, which may have a record ‘dry’ spell of 2 weeks, and United Utilities still have to fix the ‘stream’ at the bottom of the street. A pipe burst weeks ago, and they’ve still not fixed it, despite having excavated it twice. I lived in a bog until Bellway finally fessed up that they’d not put drainage in behind my house. So the flooding once every so often, whilst it might leave our garden under water, isn’t as serious as we may have been led to believe. But we did have concern from Thibaud about finding our way to the notaire’s. I’m not sure why. My dad’s had a house here since 2001 and I know the area well. I’ve been to Ferrant’s a few times, and to the (now-boarded-up) inn next to it many, many more. St Anger, as we call it (after the Metallica song, of course!) is practically our nearest town of any size at all.

I like the fact they worry about us, when I’ve lived in metropolises (metropoli?! I thought ‘maybe’, but the red underline of the authoritative Microsoft Word says no to ‘metropoli’ and yes to ‘metropolises’) all my life. I can tell you how to get from Victoria to MoHo, or from Piccadilly to Belle Vue… I know Oldham St and its environs like the back of my hand. I know the one-way Manchester system better than a taxi driver. King St, Deansgate, Canon St, Blackfriars, St Peter’s Square, Albert Square, Chinatown, Portland St, John Dalton St, Quay St…. I don’t ‘do’ getting lost, and I don’t ‘do’ forgetfulness about where places are, not even in places I’ve only been to once. I can tell you where my favourite churrascaria is in Rio, and how to get to Tokyo Tower from the nearest tube. But it is sweet of them to worry about me. And I mean it. I’d rather they worried than they didn’t. And I’d rather they tried to be helpful than not. I suspect, though, that now will be the beginning of all their advice and so on, when in reality, I might look like a dimwit, but really I’m pretty good at finding my own way. Despite what Steve says (though I don’t think he believes it!) I’ve got street-smarts.

Still, I have to suck up my problems with getting unwanted advice and deal with it. I suspect more will follow!

After that, the day blurred. We signed. We got the keys. Mme Arrouet was in much better health and has that lovely old lady thing going on. At one point, she pulled a lemon out of her bag. It looked a bit peeled at one end, sucked even. I don’t know what that was about! And when we were talking about the flooding, she said she once found a carp in her garden. I want to be an old lady with stories to tell about finding a carp in the garden! I very much hope to see Mme Arrouet in the future, and I hope she tells me many more stories about the house, since this is a house with a history. I’d like to know about it, rather than trying to work it out for myself!

Still, at 4:00 GMT +1, we owned our first French property. The deed was done. We got three keys, one for the gate, one for the doghouse and one for the house, and that was that.

And I could finally show Steve about! It felt good, that second time, to open up without breaking in, let me tell you.

Everything was as I remembered it, pretty much. It was very empty, much to Steve’s disappointment and my joy. What I love about it is that it took us three hours to have a proper scout about. And even then, we didn’t find everything. I suspect it will be a house that constantly surprises us. Yesterday, Steve found another room. I like living in a house where you can just ‘find’ rooms you didn’t know about. Today, I realised that some windows we didn’t realise would open actually open.

Yesterday, it was a case of entertaining a little. Isabelle, my dad’s next-door-neighbour, had set us up with the estate agent, and it was as much a thank-you meal for her as it was socialising. I’m a big fan of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ and so any excuse, for me.

After that, it was getting into the work. I’ve made a start on the poly-tunnel earth and started a bit of planting. Steve has been dismantling one of the several outdoor toilets. Essentially, they’re just holes in the earth with a bit of a box around them and  a hole to do your business in – I’m sure they’ll always remind me of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – but there’s one less there today. I’ve been wary of Steve creeping up on me, because I am the queen of the horror-movie scream, but it never fails to amuse him. I’m sure this will last as long as we’re in the house. We’ve also met all of our nearest neighbours. In fact, we’d met those opposite in the notaire’s, an elderly lady and her mother. I love how people live longer here. I’m amazed Madame is still alive, given the amount of asbestos she’s used to build the house. I realised that the beds in the poly-tunnel are entirely asbestos-sheeted.

Asbestos being useful in the polytunnel

We’ve also seen a sullen-looking youth of about 10 or 11 who wanders around Les Ecures looking surly and bored, who will hopefully be an ideal companion for Jake. I was a little worried that there would be an overwhelmingly ageing population but there’s also Christophe just behind us, with a little five-year old lad called Artur, and a 14 month old baby girl. So… two children so far, not so bad.

The people behind us seem to be another ageing family, perhaps with their son living with them. Leastways, we’ve had a little chat and I’ve done my usual spiel about how I read well, write okay, understand a lot and speak with a terrible accent. It usually works. A little modesty goes a long way. And it’s no doubt true.

Today, we realised there’s at least three or four nesting pairs of swallows (swifts? house-martins?) in the grange. I’m not sure when they moved in, because they weren’t there yesterday or Saturday, so I’m guessing they may well have come home for the summer. My mum says we’re very lucky!

Les hirondelles

I’ve pruned back 30 of our 110 (count them!) vines. I’m not sure how I’ll make it through the other 80, but I’ll do my best. That’s one hell of a lot of grapes, and very little to do with them other than make wine. I’m sure there’ll be some grape juice, but even so, we’ll have about a ton of grapes we won’t be in need of. Roy mentioned some kind of open home event in September to get them cut off the vines. You invite your neighbours and feed them, and they pick your grapes. I think I’ll be making the most of that experience! I’m hoping to get most of them done before we go back on Friday, but I’ve been relying on ‘mother’ pruning skills – i.e. cut it back as far as it can go. According to Isabelle, this is the way to go about it. We need to save the pruned branches to dry out in our grange for barbecues and kindling. Having seen how much kindling we’ve used on my dad’s, I reckon that would last us about a week. I can see that it would be good for barbecues, though.

I’ve also been busy in our thyme-smelling poly-tunnel, pulling out a thin layer of weeds and getting it back to soil rather than dust. I’ve hit the 200l mark in water, and it’s only a quarter moist. There’s already basil, parsley, pak choi, dill and thyme and I’m hoping to get the rest down by the end of the week. Likewise getting the potatoes, onions and tomatoes in by the end of the week… like I’ve been saying, the house isn’t going to deteriorate if we leave it. If we leave the garden, we’ll end up with a jungle. I’m very glad Madame has looked after it so well, though I suspect her sons-in-law have more to do with it.

Steve’s been getting busy with the hammer and ‘deconstructing’ the kitchen, as well as the toilets. Cracks have been filled in, and the house is now ready for a lick of paint. I’m sure it’ll look the better for it. He seemed to spend quite a bit of the day watching lizards – it’s his fascination. He isn’t quite so fascinated by the swallows and blue-tits, or the cuckoo, which sounds exactly like a clockwork cuckoo.

It’s only been three days since we owned the house, but it feels like it’s going to be a real good life. I feel all country-side already, except maybe a little more appreciative. I wonder when it’s all going to wear off – this amazing feeling that it gives me. I feel like there’s so much more sky – it seems like the world around me is at least two thirds sky, rather than just a narrow band above the houses and buildings and hills of Manchester. Even then, it seems overwhelmingly grey. Here, the weather seems to change so quickly. We had fine weather on Thursday, a couple of rainy days over Friday and Saturday, and then it’s been sun, sun, sun. It’s the beginning of April and the trees are beginning to blossom. There are five or six cherry trees, maybe ornamental, a tree that’s most definitely a fig, and a few other blossom trees that may be peaches, apricots or plums. I’m looking forward to seeing what grows on them! I was thinking of getting a Japanese cherry blossom, but it seems sad when we’ve got so many other trees! And seeing them against the blue sky, with the swallows flying in between and the cuckoos in the distance, well, it’s literally a dream come true.

That’s not to say it’s not hard work. Both of us have been aching at night, and even at the tail end of our thirties, we’re still suffering from bad backs after strimming, planting, weeding, though I knew it would be a full-time job, I don’t think my body was prepared for it. It’s nice, though, to form our own rhythms. Steve doesn’t eat much unless he’s had some kind of appetite stimulant; he can go days without eating properly and he’s had all manner of herbal remedies to stimulate his appetite. One day here, though, and the fresh air and hard work has made him eat more like a normal person. This is good, as I was worried about being able to get enough food into him to stoke his fires. So it’s good that he’s getting into the rhythm of eating well.

I have to say our other rhythms are more Manchester than Les Ecures. After a late start (let’s say nine thirty) we boil up the coffee, have a cigarette and a coffee for breakfast, watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle and then we’re ready for the day. Unfortunately, this is at half eleven France time, which is almost the time for everything to shut for lunch. We’ll be alright as long as we’ve got everything for our siesta-work-through the evening before – we’ll be fucked if we need something first thing in the morning!

After that, it’s a couple of hours work, a brie-et-jambon sandwich (and there is nothing like a fresh baton from the boulangerie, no matter how pretentious it might seem!) and work through the afternoon until about sevenish. Today, Steve’s fixing my dad’s mower, which had a belt break yesterday, and you don’t want to be without a tondeuse-a-siege when you’ve got land as big as he’s got… and it’s half nine. So whilst we might have a late start, we’ve still got a full day’s worth of work under our belts by tea, and then we finally sit down to rest our weary squelettes at about ten o’clock. I hope this is the way it goes on! A couple of episodes of Six Feet Under have been getting us prepared for the evening.

“A few pieces of skin missing, a few millilitres of blood, back’s gone, let’s see if it works.”

The battery sounds a little flat.

Hmmm. I sense Steve may be a little frustrated! Something about all the tools at my dad’s place renders them unusable. We’d hoped to put our new French mailbox up today. We’d dismantled some of my dad’s endless miles of extension cables in order to get it just long enough. We’d got a drill. We’d got the screws and the masonry bits and the rawl plugs. We found a socket that got us about 2 inches away from the gate post. We found another socket that just reached. And then the drill didn’t work. Story of my dad’s tool-based life.

I know he can’t wait until he has all his tools about. What I like about him (and me) is that we can potter about our jobs without interfering with each other and we’re both entirely productive. Me, less so, I think! But we’re practical people who don’t want to stop. Yet.

And yet it’s not all work. Steve spent about ten minutes creeping round the garden perimeter today in order to sneak up on me and poke me with a stick. I’d just finished pulling up my 250th weed (I count. It’s therapeutic, goal-setting and also a little anal. I admit it.) and I’d slipped out of my camouflage-fleece-lined-crocs and put my foot onto the lush, cool grass underneath my feet. I was looking up at the trees, wondering if they would bloom in full tomorrow when I saw him. I didn’t scream, for once, though given my complete state of peace and quiet, it is quite surprising that I didn’t. He was laughing more at the fact he’s spent ten minutes creeping up on me than the fact that I’d screamed. It must have been funny to watch me going about my daily business, singing to my newly-planted Charlotte potatoes (Bob Marley) and counting off weeds as I threw them to the side, then stopping to slip out of my so-de-rigeur crocs. I love my crocs. I got them today at Leclerc Brico, and they are sooooo farm-yard chic. Perfect.