Monthly Archives: August 2010

Les Grottes de Queroy

It was a toss up today between Roman ruins and some caves. We opted for the caves – not entirely sure why – and set off cross-country. I think the dog had something to do with it – we could take her for a walk in the forest around the area and then have a look at the caves. There were some impressive-looking photos of the stalactites that reminded me a little of the hall of knives in the Darren Shan stories and I kind of thought it would be cool. Plus, the boy and I had done a little limestone experiment yesterday, dissolving limestone in vinegar as we were talking about why the valley bed of the Tardoire was lower than the countryside around it, and why the stones were filled with holes like cheese. So it fitted in with a little amateur geology.

We got there at a very-English mid-day. There was a camper van there and very little else. The sign for the grottes seemed to point through someone’s back yard. It was all a bit odd and dilapidated. It seemed to suggest that you should talk to the person in the golf shop if you wanted the key to the caves, yet the ‘golf shop’ was a very run-down hut with not a soul to be seen. There was a family playing on the crazy golf, but in all honesty, it was shabby and very bizarre. Everything was overgrown or collapsing.

So we wandered a little further down, coming to the caves. They were locked. Not unusual. The fosse de diable near us also is locked and you have to pick the key up at the restaurant if you want to go in. A little casual, but fair enough. Guess it stops men trying to bury their father-in-laws in holes, as the legend suggests.

Nevertheless, we decided not to let this be a waste and followed the boy down a path. The path of poo. There were several piles of fecal matter that would no doubt entrance the Ray Mears type. And me. It was absolutely heaving with blackberries, sloes and butterflies. We wandered further and further, coming across a strange abandoned hut, a house in the middle of nowhere and not a soul to be seen. If this were England, we’d have met at least 20 other people. You can’t escape the crowds, unfortunately!

The butterflies were crazy. There were blue ones, black ones, ones with eyes on them, admirals, white ones – an absolute disco of butterflies.

But, by then, we were a little bit lost. We were wandering a bit aimlessly. The dog was hot. There were no signs. It was very Hansel and Gretel, and maybe the boy should have been dropping little stones along the path so we could find our way back.

We managed to find some houses and a road, and then a village, and then a signpost and then the car – by some stroke of luck. I was just about praying as we turned the final corner. Moll had been dragging her feet for the last half mile and I was beginning to wonder if she’d need a ‘cochon’ ride, as Jake calls it. Or a cushion ride. Not quite the same, but a piggy back to you and I.

Still, it seemed a bit of a waste to have driven 10 minutes out of our way, had a bloody long wander and then not gone down the caves. Some other cars had turned up and there seemed to be about ten people or so. Enough to make it worthwhile to trek back through the deserted garden, past the abandoned restaurant/bar and see if the golf shop proprietor had materialised.

We left the Moll and went back to the Stephen-King-esque golf kiosk where a very old woman (who I can’t help but think of as the witch in Hansel and Gretel now!) was giving out stuff. I took a moment to have a look, wondering if we’d have to pay, having left my purse in the car, and seeing the ‘tarif’ sign. 7 € for adults and 5 € for children. Almost 20 quid, then, to go down a hole.

Now I like a hole as much as the next man, but it seemed a bit steep, especially since Lascaux II (the replica for the cave drawings’ grottes) and Rouffignac with its electric train are only the same price. And they were guided tours. Surely this ancient old crone wasn’t about to take us down the cave??!

Anyway, by that time, we were hot, tired, thirsty and at the end of our patience, so it seemed a bit much for a trip into the dark. Unless the cave had cave paintings, a train, a museum and a guided tour, it seemed a bit of a rip-off. Now I might go back on my own sometime but Mr Stephen isn’t going to let a 20 € trip pass without some kind of amazing stuff, not when you can go down the grande fosse (or Grand Canyon as Jake likes to call it) for precisely 0 €

This really needs scary Twilight Zone music playing when you look at it

I think a trip to Rouffignac might be in order instead, if we want to look at a cave! I guess, with Blue John Cavern being £8, I would expect something a little more ‘cave-bling’??!

So… Grottes de Queroy: Grotty.

La barriere et des mouches

The gate, it turns out, is not so easy to paint. I’ve spent now almost a week on it (Well, an hour every morning!) and I’m still a long way to go. Still, I painted the top gold yesterday, to Steve’s disgust. The gold bell was what got him the most. Apparently, he doesn’t do gold bells. Jake liked it, though. And he’s got good taste. He must, because it’s the same as mine.

The bells... the bells!

It’s been a bit overcast these last couple of days, but Jake has busied himself with treasure maps, making ‘Karate-Kid’ style dens in the grange and making an ingenious swing from a log and a piece of cord. He seems to be absolutely loving it. He had a bath yesterday morning (and we found that the bath water comes out in the courtyard…. bizarre!) and went for a mammoth bike ride with Steve, before spending the rest of the afternoon making maps and gyms and assault courses and obstacle courses. He isn’t yet for making friends, though I did see two little lads on bikes this morning who must live in Les Hauts Ecures, but he’s not for going out to socialise. Quel dommage!

Jake, the Moll and the obstacle course

Steve has been ‘crepi-ing’ the barbecue – Crepi is a bit like stucco render and is impossible to get on/make stick, but it looks amazing. I’m impressed!

Crepi - what walls use instead of Touche Eclat

Molly has taken well to La Vie Française, spending her days flat out on the pavement next to the road like a true French dog, or rampaging through the big garden. She absolutely loves the space and she’s very good at coming with us ‘helping’ on whatever job we’re doing. She spent the morning next to me and ma barriere, then came with me whilst I pruned back some of our triffid-like grapevines. I don’t know what the hell is in the water (well, Jake’s bath water!) but the leaves are bigger than any I’ve ever seen round here.

Basil has got the measure of Molly though. She had a run up to the house, giddy as you like, from the garden, about 20 metres, and then rampaged into the house. Basil watched her approach, yawned, stretched, stood up, arched his back, puffed himself up to full Basil size and hissed. She skidded to a dead stop and turned tail very sheepishly, as if she’d been caught running naked through church by the bishop.

And me? I’ve been bitten to death (Jake has a bite on his nose and his arm. Steve has none. Typical) am filthy, smelly, sweaty, cut and bruised, covered in black and gold paint, but very happy. I’ve ruined three pairs of trousers and a pair of trainers, but all in a good cause!

Mon plus grand faible

Sundays aren’t a day of rest Aux Écures – I was up at 7:30 painting the gate, and Steve wasn’t far behind me. The trouble is the sun hits the gate at about 10:00 and then you’ve no chance. Hammerite is gloopy and disgusting when it’s warm.

Still, I am loving the hammered metal look. Love, love, love. Chanel need to do a nail varnish in the same colour so I can sit pretty by my gate.

La Barriere

I’m going to paint the top flourish in gold. I like a bit of ornament and flourish. So, there we were, 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, painting the gate, Infectious Grooves disturbing the peace, enjoying that quiet time before the boy awakes and we spend the next twelve hours being butler/chef/hostess/cleaner/test subject/ideas generator and entertainment. It’s now on to the third morning of painting. It’s pretty fiddly, but I’m feeling the zen of it. It’s not like we’re in a rush, anyway.

Steve was in an über-productive mood and chopped down an old cherry tree that had ceased to be productive, cleared the secret garden, weeded, strimmed and chainsawed, whilst entertaining the boy at the same time. I spent the morning kneading bread and putting poppy seeds to good use. Nothing goes to waste chez nous! Then I lay under a tree trying to read, but looking up at the sun and thanking those powers that be that I’m so lucky to have the family who helped me get here, glorious August afternoon as it was, blue skies and not a cloud to be seen.

I know that might sound bizarre, but I contemplated the sky for a good half an hour, counting my blessings and trying to memorise this moment in life when all is well.

My zen moment under the tree

Some things I have been pondering, though, regarding daily French life:

1. Where are all the chilli peppers?! I can’t find a single one in any supermarket! Definitely a case of growing our own! I was going to pickle some plums for plum sauce, but what’s the point in that if you don’t have chillis??!

2. Why is the French paprika, to steal a Steveism, such ‘weak sauce’?

3. Why, when the car parks at supermarkets are vast, do people still fight over places near the doors, even though it’s glorious weather and it’s really not a chore to park 20 metres further away?!

4. Why do people complain about the expense of stuff and then not shop at Lidl, where stuff is way more cheap for the exact same thing – e.g. 40 cents cheaper for cheese in the same box??!

5. Why is the cheap ham nicer than the dear stuff?!

Anyway, home-made potato wedges await…

Je n’etais pas perdu en Rouen….

Saturday 31st July and Sunday 1st August

Despite my better judgement, I decided it would be wise to set off to France tonight, rather than wait until the morning. Jake had been pecking Steve’s head because he wanted to leave, and to be honest, I didn’t fancy a night of sleeping on the floor again. I threw as much as I could in the car… towels, duvet, remaining shoes (which Steve had mysteriously left in his house) cat and boy and set off after a full day of marking and work. I’d been up from half six, but what does a 14 hour drive count when you have a new home to get to?

I left the house in a complete state (sorry, Mum!) including a mouldy tea-pot and several festering cups. I left my couches, several chairs, my photographic enlarger, several boxes of my suits (seems I got practical in the last stages…) and loads of washing I hadn’t managed to do. My garden was a wreck and weeds were in abundance. I haven’t cancelled my TV licence or my mobile phone. Really, I should have stayed another week and sorted everything out (and finished my marking) but that was far too sensible.

Well, if I get a buyer, I’ll be back with a van. What more can I say??!

We had our final McDo and departed. Unfortunately, England decided to bless us with the best of traffic. I drove past the M6 Toll, thinking, “Shall I risk it? Shall I pay £2.50 for an empty road?” But I decided the free M6 would be clear – after all, 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening … how crowded could it be?

“Very” is the answer to that. We sat in traffic for a whole hour. Basil had been relegated to the back seat in his box, and he was starting to meow. All I could think was that it was going to be the journey from hell.

Still, once past Birmingham (and 3 hours after I set off) he quietened down. I stopped for Red Bull and the boy came in to the services with me. Unfortunately, some kind of ‘disco bus’ had stopped – unleashing an army of women dressed up, as Jake said, “Like Gene Simmons” – this really means in platforms and leather, with too much make-up. I’m sure they thought they looked like Playboy Bunnies. I hope they wouldn’t be too distressed that a 10 year old boy thinks they look like a 50 year old rock and roll singer who’s had a hard life. It was very surreal.

The boy had picked up a couple of energy drinks too, much to my horror – I couldn’t face a nowty Jake for the next 10 hours. But, after one sip, he was asleep. I drank them instead and by London I was hyped up beyond belief. I found some cheesy radio station playing stuff from the eighties and I sang all the way to Dover.

Both the boy and the Basil were asleep through Customs. Jake woke briefly when we got on to the train, but then he was back in the land of Nod.

I made it down to the Somme Valley services at Abbeville and decided I needed more hype, so I stopped off and ran about a bit in search of caffeine. Basil was awake so I let him out and he crawled onto Jake’s duvet and fell asleep. Remarkably, all my panics about how he’d cope with the journey seem to have been misplaced.

After Rouen (no getting lost for me…) I went cross-country. I love France cross-country. It’s so unlike England. I didn’t get stuck in any traffic. I watched the sun rise and sank into a bit of a slump once caffeine had reached its upper limits. About 8 o’clock I was flagging. Jake woke up and kept me alert after that. Plus, it’s not monotonous like the motorway. It did seem to be a very long way away indeed.

We got stuck in horrendous traffic at Tours, caused by, guess what, a toll booth over a bridge. Seems the French toll booth system works like Dartford. Then it was a long, long way from Tours to Poitiers and down to Les Ecures – we got there at 1:30, a full 16 hours after we’d set off.

It was great to be ‘home’, though I did nothing but collapse. I let Basil out of the car, thinking the courtyard is secure. It generally is. He sniffed about a bit, then disappeared into the dog chateau, from whence he escaped and then spent half an hour making me crawl through nettles to find him whilst he whined pitifully.

I’d just about coaxed him out of the bushes when Jake roared by on his new motorbike, followed by the Molly Dog. And Basil shot back to the safety of the bushes. It took another hour of coaxing before he came out again, then I transported him to the house, where he sat staring at the dog in disgust.

We went to my dad’s, Steve made tea and then I prepared myself for a night of snoring.

Fact: when I’m very tired, I snore like a bastard.

Steve said he held my nose, pushed me, shoved me, shouted at me, and nothing was having any effect. Basil lay next to me all night, Steve on the other side, and the Moll at the foot of the bed. Tranquility chez nous.

Monday 2nd August.

It has begun to sink in that we’re here for good, with no return date. I spent the first part of the day doing what I’ve become accustomed to doing: racing about and trying to do as much as possible before realising I don’t have to fit it in to a two-week stay. I finished my papers, went to the supermarket, found Lidl – which, as a cheap Aldi knock-off, will suffice. Not sure it’s the same as Bury Aldi, but it does the trick. Lots of bargains. I have to say I was quite surprised to realise Steve hadn’t found it in the extra month he’d been out here – he can smell a bargain. He’s like a discount-supermarket gold-detector.

I did think I’d try and sort out broadband and post everything off and sort out a bank account, but in the end, I gave in to common sense and left it ‘À demain’

After this, I spent much of the day ferreting around the garden seeing what crops were salvageable. Hollyhocks 10 feet tall have taken over. The polytunnel is a seething mass of green that’s totally impregnable. Somewhere in there are some valuable crops, I know. Still… I need a hacksaw before I’m getting in there, as well as a drop in temperature.

Tuesday 3rd August

I managed, I think, to buy all the things we need to set up an internet connection, send my remaining papers back home and get some gas bottles. Steve set up the gas bottles and thus we have a working cooker, complete with our first meal chez nous – pork in a peppercorn and mustard sauce. It’s all good. He struggled a bit with the shower, so I departed to my dad’s to get washed, but other than that, it feels a bit more self-sufficient around here. Jake built a robot, then spent the rest of the day pottering about on his motorbike. He’s content to go up and down, round and round within the garden.

Wednesday 4th August

A rainy one. Woke up to drizzle and it got worse as the day went on, finally hammering it down about 1:00 for a couple of hours. Still, with a cooker and warm water, I spent the day making plum-related products. Turns out, there isn’t very much you can do with plums, other than stewing or baking them. Plum jam. Plum jelly. Plums with cinnamon. Plums with mixed spice. Baked plums. Plums in Galliano. And what’s worse is that I’ve still got a fridge-full left. After that, I moved on to redcurrant jelly and blackcurrant jam, both of which are delicious. The blackcurrants were the tail-end of the crop, so that’s our lot, as with the redcurrants. Steve will have to manage them next year!

La Molly chienne

The boy made some mint sauce for his dad, and then we used my Christmas present ice-cream maker to make some blackcurrant ripple ice-cream. Seeing as it’s the first time I’ve used this this year, it was really exciting. In fact, a lot of this move has made it like Christmas over again. I spend a lot of the time uncovering treasures I thought lost, though I still haven’t found my cutlery and we’re living by using a set of steak knives, three forks and two plastic teaspoons. Could be worse. Each thing I unpack is exciting. You feel the shape, try to work out what it is you’ve packed up, and then unearth a kitchen knife you’ve been wishing you had, or a soup ladle. It’s fantastic. I might pack stuff up just to unpack it again, because it’s like a little mini Christmas.

I have noticed, though, that Steve is much further on with his unpacking. Grrr. He’s also claimed all the available shelving and cupboard space – highly irritating!

Basil has settled down, though he’s wary of Molly. He’s more wary of Steve. He’s always been the alpha male (sorry to all of my exes who thought they were the dominant male in the pack – Basil really was head Alpha here) and he’s a bit disheartened to find another alpha male in the house. He’s been relegated to the edge of the pack, forced to depend on the female pack leader to fight for his position in the tribe. Molly Dog and I have a bond to keep all the males from scrapping. She is absolutely loving it here, spending all her time out in the garden chomping up apples and eating pine cones. She’s found several very large sticks including several huge pieces of bamboo.