Monthly Archives: October 2010

Being a meddlesome wench

Mary, in The Secret Garden is accused of being a meddlesome wench when she wants to find her way into the secret garden, and that’s pretty much how I feel about our side garden.

When we first got here, it was only accessible via the secret passageway between our house and the annexe. It’s the only way to get to the annexe house, and it was completely overgrown. It was impossible to get through. It was completely covered in ivy and vines and miscellaneous shrubs. When we moved in, there was a diseased cherry, and the other trees.

Now we’ve cleared a lot of the undergrowth, cut through brambles, hacked back the ivy, it’s looking a little better. The annexe needs new windows and new shutters, a new door and a whole new interior, if not a new roof!

From the road

Having said that, the annexe is waterproof and has decent sized rooms. It’s definitely a good guest house! You can see the pear tree, now bare, against the annexe. You can also see, next to it, the quince and the other pear tree that winds through it. Both need pruning back! The outside of the building needs painting, and I’m not sure why the roof over the secret passageway is at an angle to it. It doesn’t line up with the house, the edge of the house, the annexe or anything else. Odd!!

When we first got here, the gate was overgrown and locked. We’ve hacked our way through the brambles, ivy and vines and now the gate opens.

The gate from the road into the secret garden

Both the gate posts are in need of TLC, having been vandalised by ivy, and the gate, as you can see, needs to come off completely. I think it was only the padlock holding it all up and together!

We bought a cute little picket gate kit from Brico Depot, which Steve put together and I’m in the process of painting. We went for the cheap paint on special offer – such is our life now – which said ‘Vert Irlandais’ and was more ‘Irish green of the Irish tricolour than the green over Connemara’. Still, I like it. We have got a big double gate to replace at the back, and I will probably paint that in the same colour. I’m all about the gates!

The new gate!

I am, however, also all about the customising. Expect to see some white and gold customising! Would butterflies be too camp?! I can see Steve skipping up the path if I paint it with little flowers or butterflies, but it definitely needs a little ‘je ne sais quoi’

With a new gate, white arches with clematis, wisteria and vines twisting through them, the hedge back under control, this will be beautiful – although it takes a little imagination right now! I feel like it’s the season to strip it all back to the ground, and when spring comes, it will be like watching a butterfly-garden emerge from a winter cocoon.

We have a little ‘w.c.’ up in the back of the yard, as you do in France! It forms the corner between our house and the road, so we can’t remove it. Steve’s idea is to turn it into a water feature. I think not. Water features need cleaning and looking after and fussing. I’m thinking of a shady fern-and-hosta retreat – the secret garden faces west and gets very little sunlight in parts, not least because of the huge hedge.

Le dooublay-vay-say

The door and any wooden structure will be going on Jake’s bonfire, come Friday. I’m thinking shelves and ferns and hostas. You can see all the ivy all over the floor – it’s rampant! I have already been out on mammoth secateur trips, and I’m making in-roads, but it still needs a lot of work! The path needs clearing out again, the ivy pulling up and back, and this will be a cute little corner to the garden. There is a stone table thing there, too, though we’ve no idea what it once was. It’s neither stool nor table. It’d be good for plants in pots, but it’s collapsing, so it will be removed!

It’s not particularly good as a garden, being right next to the road and overlooked by the house over on the other side, but it’s good to look out on to. Both back rooms in the house have shutters that open up onto it. New shutters are needed. Steve will make these and I’m wondering if the green isn’t a little bit too much for the shutters as well? If I had my way, I’m thinking dark red. When the walls are painted again, it will all look quite splendid!

Anyway, it’s all a long way off! It needs a lot of love and tenderness before it will look half way like I want it to look!

The Secret Garden

We have a little garden between the road, the annex and the house – which you can reach by a secret passageway, or by an old rusty gate that was completely over-grown with vines and ivy. In the corner, between the main road and the side road, there is a small toilet. By toilet, I mean hole with a box built over it, and a cupboard around it. We can’t dismantle it completely because it forms the boundary between the house and the road. So we’ll be ‘working with’ it. I think it will make some kind of shady tree area. Most of the garden is in the shade, facing North and West, with the house in between. There are a couple of vines twisted over a rusty frame. I’m loathe to destroy the vines, but I’m not taken with the rusty frame. It’s not a nice looking vintage frame, just a rectangular, cheap frame that has served a purpose but isn’t very attractive. It’s got to go!

We’ve taken a few things out already, because it was completely overgrown when we arrived. An ancient cherry has been chopped back, seeing as it was growing over the hedge into the road, and it was covered in thick moss. There are a couple of hazelnuts, two pear trees that need a little love, a quince and a few indiscriminate and as yet unidentified bushes. The floor is overgrown with ivy. A lot of the trees have been easier to prune, mum-style, now the leaves have fallen, and I’ve cut the hedge right back. There’s still a lot to do. I think, this is going to be my fern and hosta garden. Shade-loving plants that give a little sanctuary from the road. It’s not a place you’d sit, really, seeing as it is right next to the departmental road, but it still needs something doing with it. Something low maintenance.

I’m quite taken at the moment with Marianne Maison Jardin, which is a seasonal magazine with lovely ideas. There’s a a gorgeous ‘wood-house’ ornament which I shall have to scan and show. It’s just a stack of logs, side on, with roof tiles, set up like a little house. You can’t get in it, but it’s still lovely.

Marianne Maison Jardin

Being on my best behaviour… Or… rewards for blogging

Sometimes it’s a weird universe, this blog universe. It’s like writing a diary and wishing someone would read it. In fact, it’s more like knowing people are reading it, but not knowing who they are (apart from people who accidentally do searches for ‘women farting in men’s faces’ who end up here by some random twist of boolean mathematics) and feeling strangely like I’m being the deliberate cause of voyeurism. I originally started blogging so friends and family could see what we’re up to without having to say ‘we’ve been to La Rochefoucauld today…’ and now it’s a bit more than that.

Yesterday, a site that I regularly post on, AngloINFO Poitou-Charente asked me to blog for them about life in the Poitou-Charentes. That’s pretty cool! The site has recently started running blogs (some back as far as August) and the P-C didn’t have one, so I’d offered my blogging services. I am nothing if not arrogant enough to assume my life is interesting to other people!

My new banner for AngloINFO

Well…. according to one of my old bosses, in all likelihood. She once put ‘be more humble’ as my perfomance target, since I’d just submitted a perfect threshold application. Threshold is what you (used to?) have to do in England to get onto the upper pay scale in teaching- or like an appraisal for pay. No-one I know ever failed it. It had 10 categories and I had worked extremely hard, having had a very average first couple of years teaching, to be ‘excellent’. I went from having ‘satisfactory’ lessons to having ‘excellent’ lesson observations. Anyone who believes this is a natural development is wrong. I know many ‘satisfactory’ teachers who are still just that. I’d started getting regional acknowledgement with my department (and VERY much with three of the department, who were brilliant – and even all the others who just turned up every day who were sound teachers, if a little dated) being awarded ‘Leading English Department’ for Lancashire. I was proud of that. Maybe that’s a sin, but hey-ho. I’d taken our results from mid-table to top-table. Out of 90-odd high schools, that’s pretty good going. We all worked hard.

And, as a reward for our hard work, I was told to be ‘more humble’ – obviously it’s okay to be good, just not tell everyone else about it!

My problem is, if I enjoy something – and that’s usually because I’m fairly successful at it! – I tend to want to share my enthusiasm. I could have handled it if she’s said ‘be less enthusiastic’ or ‘try to be mindful that not everyone is as excited about change as you are’ – but ‘be more humble’?!

How does one become more humble? Do you have to walk around rubbing your hands together like Uriah Heep, saying ‘I’m ever so ‘umble?’ Do you have to hide your light under a bushel, because that’s not okay either, according to Jebus. How would one know if one had become more humble? Is there a Hay-McBer assessment of humility? Can it be scientifically quantified?

I really don’t think I did myself ANY favours whatsoever by going and asking her how you become more humble and asking her when she’d know that I was more humble, and asking if my performance-related pay was related to my humility.

Yep. Humility is not on my list of qualities. Maybe that’s why I blog?

In all honesty, it’s as much about saying ‘this is a fabulous world’. I’m not so good at art. I’m good at photography (or, my camera is!) but I feel more comfortable with words. Words are my paint. And this is a lovely world I want to share with you!

Words, too, are my atoms. I can re-create in here a world for you that is my world here. That’s pretty cool. Words are better than atoms, for atoms must be finite. There are a limited number of atoms in this universe, surely. But new words come along every day. That’s pretty great. Mind you, on the science parallel, maybe the letters and punctuation are my elements, and I’m just putting them together into new compounds. And that’s pretty amazing.

So… blogging. Why do I do it? Not as a way to encourage voyeurism or through a lack of personal humility. Through a desire to share, to be connected, and also through a desire to create something that shows you my world. I like it here. It’s pretty. And we all need more pretty stuff in our life. It’s full of reality. A little bit of glamour never did anyone any harm. Neither did focusing on the positives. If it’s okay for Pollyanna, it’s okay for me. And if I’m a little bit like the ‘Brilliant’ character from The Fast Show, I make no apologies at all!

As Shirley Bassey says: “I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses.”

I’m aware of the irony. This blog is an excuse for my blogging ; )

It’s the little differences…

Recently, some posts from back home, particularly to do with Essa Academy, the school which the muggers attended, have been popping up on my ‘people found your blog who searched for…’ – and recently, Essa Academy Deputy Head, or She-who-is-too-busy-to-deal-with-violent-robbery. It makes me wonder what I’m going back to in November.

There are many ways rural life changes you, and many ways France changes you – here are some of the ways!

1. There isn’t the ever-present McDonald’s everywhere. In fact, one of the McDonald’s in Angouleme shut for lack of business. I don’t have to deal with Jake’s constant requests for a Chicken Select meal every time we drive down the dual carriageway. In fact, fast food is a no-go in general. Sure, I still stick a pizza in, but it’s always home-made. I’m sure Steve used to have takeaway pizza at least once a week. Jake saw a sign for a pizzeria yesterday – see, ‘see-it, want-it’ – it reminds me of that episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Dewey watches an advert with a blue cuddly toy on it which speaks to him personally and was a class satire about the power of advertising on children. He got giddy about pizza and then forgot about it by the time we got to the petrol station. Such is life in France. In England, there’s McDonald’s hovering on the periphery of every child’s consciousness all the time. Here, our nearest McDo is 20 minutes’ drive away, at the back of a car park, and the one time we went, it was so bad that we never bothered again. Now, I’ve got Jake eating some food that’s the same as ours – he’ll happily eat mash and jacket potatoes alongside chips, which he wouldn’t a year ago, unless it was pre-packaged. Bolagnaise, chicken in sweet and sour sauce, meat pie… the boy is a changed man. And no pining for McDo every time you drive past.

2. Pre-packaged stuff in the supermarket looks very plastic. It probably does in England, but here, it looks SOOO unappetising. Like it was deliberately designed to put you off. In the supermarket, we have 4 freezer rows. One has ice-creams and sweet stuff; the second has frozen veg and chips; the other has meat and fish. The final is mostly made up with pizza, a few frozen rice dishes and a few quiches. None of these endless rows of pre-pack, frozen chicken in batter, or fish in batter, or Aunt Bessie’s *though I confess I miss Aunt Bessie’s yorkshire puddings very much*. If you want it, cook it yourself.

3. Things that are oddly missing. Frozen or fresh sweetcorn. Weird. Canned, fine. Fresh, No. Chillis with more punch than an old women’s bitch fight = non-existent. Things that are weirdly expensive: raisins (in this land of grapes!) sultanas, oats. Clothes. You get used to planning to grow your own ‘weird’ veg that nobody wants, or making do without. No flapjacks for us.

4. The sad loss of English cheese. In England, cheese rules. Japanese people think British people smell like sour milk, and it’s probably all the cheese we eat. We have a range of fantastic hard cheeses, crumbly cheeses and soft cheeses – some of which are worth export, beyond cheddar, surely? Red Leicester, for one, perfect melted. Double Gloucester, your perfect cheese-and-tomato-sandwich cheese. Lancashire, acid and flaky. Caerphilly. Stilton. In a British supermarket, you can buy Italian cheese, French and Swiss cheese, Austrian cheese, Spanish cheese – and the full complement of British cheeses to boot. Yes, there’s a lot of Cheddar, but you can buy at least 5 Italian cheeses, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Gruyere, Emmenthal, Edam, Jarlsberg… it’s a smorgasbord of cheese. In France, you can buy rows of Camembert and Brie, goat’s cheese, a bit of Comte or Gruyere – and stuff you if you want to buy anything else! You can find a few packets of Italian cheese hidden away, but they just don’t do hard cheese like ours. English supermarkets are a whole lot more cosmopolitan, as are our eating tastes. You have to ‘go French’ if you move here. And mostly that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes, it’s imbecilic that they don’t import the best, most yummy stuff from other countries. National pride in your cuisine is one thing; failing to accept other countries have something to offer is another.

5. The TV is less pride of place than it was. We watch DVDs a lot (having worked our way through series 1-8 of 24) but it’s not constantly on. I don’t miss it. I want to watch French t.v. to learn the language, but other than that, I can’t see I’ll ever be connected.

6. Instant coffee is a big no-no. It’s on a shelf with chicory coffee. It’s almost like it’s not coffee at all. In fact, it makes me wonder, how the hell do they make it so it dissolves??! Weird! It frightens me a bit now I think about it. No Alta Rica to be found here.

7. All French houses have a coffee pot (that I’ve seen, anyway!) or a stove-pot. You have to have proper coffee, with coffee beans, or at least ground coffee. Not instant.

8. Your ‘vie quotidienne’ (daily life) is very different. School being only 4 days gives you a different rhythm to life. It’s like a mini-weekend. Jake is much less tired and seems to enjoy school more. Also, everything other than Leclerc shuts down at lunch. You can’t just nip to the bank or post office in your lunch time. If you aren’t ensconced in a café, you aren’t out. There’s no point. You have to plan ahead more, too, deciding on Friday what you’re eating on Sunday and Monday – since you won’t be getting to the supermarket. Even the giant Casino supermarket shuts on Sundays. And some places are shut on Mondays, too. In fact, plan on stuff being open for a couple of hours a week either side of lunch and you’re about right.

9. Plan to get your petrol or use a credit card (not at the moment, anyway!) since petrol stations shut too, apart from the 24/7 credit card pumps. And they shut for lunch. And a lunch time shut means up to three hours. Right when you might want to go somewhere. I’ve seen people pull in at 12:01 and still be sitting there at 2:59.

10. You have to get used to not only French numbers, which for me are a hundred times more difficult than actual words. I can learn words. I can remember fosse septique and plinthes and portail. I can say je voudrais deposer deux cheques, s’il vous plait, but it took me an awful long time to learn my postcode (seize cent dix) and I’m still a long way off with our phone number. I can do the zero-cinq quatre-cinq easily enough, but then I get mixed up. And why would 16110 be sixteen-a hundred and ten? Why is it four-five in my phone number, and then sixty-five? Why not forty-five, sixty-five, or four-five-six-five? What’s with mixing the tens with the units?! And how do you know until someone says?! I still can’t remember my birth date (quinze – always escapes me) and you don’t say ‘the fifteenth of December’ you say, ‘fifteen December’ literally speaking. What’s with that?! I’m yet to master my year of birth. We do nice ‘nineteen-sixty’ tens blocks. In France, it just as well might be one-nine hundred-and-sixty, or a-hundred-and-ninety-six-zero or something weird. 2010 is easy enough – deux mille dix, but numbers before the millennium scare me. As do times. The 24 hour clock is in full swing here, and it’s bad enough not being able to remember what falls between douze and dix-huit when pushed, but when you then have to deal with ‘is quatorze heures’ two o’clock? I instantly think 14 must be four o’clock. The man in the bank looked alarmed when he said three o’clock and I wrote down five o’clock. Bloody numbers!!!

It’s the little differences, as Vincent Vega would say.

Les plaisirs inconnus

A title stolen and translated and adapted from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures… a little piece of Manchester pop culture makes its way into Charentais life… a significant part of my teen years to boot.

Last night, we went for a bit of an evening wander – and I was treated to the boys’ ‘cycle route’ up through Les Hauts Ecures and across the fields. Well, many wasted foraging opportunities! The path was lined with blackberry bushes, the fruits of which are now blackened and withered, but still huge and fat. There were mounds of sweet chestnuts and walnuts too – and I can’t believe the boys didn’t think to tell me of this!

It had been raining all night and most of the morning, so it was lovely to see the evening sunlight break through above the final, paper-thin rows of maize.

The quince jelly didn’t get finished last night, alongside the apple crumble on account of the gas going. I should have known we needed to replace both last week rather than wait! Nothing is as inconvenient as your gas bottle going when you are in the middle of tea. Luckily the chips and quiche were just about edible. It never goes at a convenient time!! Life in England is much more convenient – or in some parts of France I guess.

We have bottled gas, so we need to change it every so often. No gas on tap, and no gas central heating. Oil is our central heating method. We paid 400 euros for the remaining oil, but I have no idea how long it will last. I’m damn sure Mme Arrouet had it running day and night because this house was bloody boiling when I came last October and December. Again, you need to get Fioul refilling and keep an eye on it! Electricity might come in through the door, but French systems trip ALL the time if you do too much together. In all honesty, my dad’s house is worse, but that’s because he has about 200 electrical products running at any one time. 3 Fridges, 3 de-humidifiers, lights, televisions on standby – his kitchen lights are 2000 watt! Put the kettle on and the toaster and you risk having to hunt for the switch in the dark – and not knowing where the fuse will be. It could be in the craziest of places, like the odd toilet in the back bedroom. You kind of get used to not having things on tap. You can’t just switch heat on – it takes a while to warm up! Firewood needs collecting; fires need stoking; grates need cleaning.

But it’s all worthwhile!

Quince jelly – la confiture de coing

We have a fabulous quince tree in our secret garden, which had 20 or so huge, globe-like, weighty fruits hanging pendulous and heavy from it, making the branches sink under them. Some of them gave way to rot (my fault… I have to get better at picking things quickly!!) but we had 7 heavily-scented fruits left after I’d given four of the biggest to my dad’s neighbours. This morning, I decided it was time to turn them into jelly.

Again, I found my way to the cottage smallholder and the recipe for quince jelly here. I washed them first to get rid of the fluff, and then cut them into pieces. They are very hard and it’s a good job I had the internet to peruse or else I’d have left these a lot longer than I did in order to ripen up!! They were a soft pear-like yellow. I covered them with water and they are currently boiling. Apparently, they can take 3 hours or more. Larousse says only 30-40 minutes, but that doesn’t seem enough to me. They’ve turned a deep peach already.

1 hour later, they softened and the water is a deep red (not sure how!) – they are soft enough to mash. I’ve mashed them and put them through a fine mesh sieve (I don’t hold with muslin!) and now it will be left for 12 hours to drain through.


Il fait froid ce matin!

Just a couple of photos of the beautiful space around us!

Looking up from the top of our garden to Les Hauts Ecures…

Looking down towards Agris…


I love misty days like this back in England, but you don’t tend to find so many of them, sadly. Plus, living on estates in the city, you just don’t see these stretches of sun-lit fields. I used to love driving up to Clitheroe or Chorley to work on days like this – despite the length of the drive. I’d got up with the Moll, we’d let the chicken ladies out and then patrolled the property as is our morning habit, and it was just TOO gorgeous. The sun was breaking through the cold and turning everything from white to silver; there was a smell of wood smoke lingering in the still air, and the houses at Les Hauts Ecures were smoky through the early morning mist. The chickens have gone from subtle Grandmother’s Footsteps behind us when we walk anywhere to running at full pelt behind us in case we have any food. You’d think they were undernourished! I was followed around by Moll, at my side, then the chickens, with Basil watching from the distance, a little bemused by the expansion of my daily patrol. The leaves have turned on all the grape vines, now, and Autumn is about to give way to Winter.

Je fait mon nid

I’m in full-on nesting behaviour. Not least for cleaning out the chicken house and putting down new flax, but mainly for getting out my sewing machine and arranging my sewing table. It took a while, but I’m getting round to unpacking. Looks like I might be staying a while. I’ve got the fabric for the draught excluders, and I hope to make them tomorrow. At least then, I won’t have a cold French breeze billowing around my ankles.

The main only user of the sewing machine so far has been Jake. He loves a bit of sewing, mainly because it is a machine. He was talking to Steve about the ‘piston’ – which I take to be the mechanism that makes the needle go up and down. He is well able to thread the machine and wind the bobbin on, and he has used more of the embroidery stitches than I probably ever will. He sewed his name and has spent the evening trying out all the different stitches. I love this side of Jake. He’s a gun-toting, cap-blasting fire-starting smoke-monger, and yet he likes my sewing machine. A man in the making who is perfectly at home with his creative side. As I write, he is sitting illustrating a poem (for his homework!) and Steve is sitting in ‘Steve Corner’ drawing too. A creative little household, tonight. I like the addition of the table to the living room – since Jake has already adopted it as his place in the room. It’s nice to have the three of us (and the Mollster, lying in front of the fire) engaged in creative pursuits, albeit with 24 as a backdrop in the warmth locked away from the cold. It’s the kind of winter-time pursuits I dreamed of.

What’s weird is this change on Jake – he used to leave homework until Sunday night  – way after his bath and tea – usually in tears of frustration and sulks. Now he’s showing us his schoolbooks and getting excited about doing homework. I have to say a lot of it is to do with the school. After half term, they are starting ‘la lutte’ in P.E. Wrestling. Indeed. How to make a 10 year old boy very happy indeed. He will also be doing ‘endurance’ – whatever that involves – in preparation for cross country running in February. I love that he’s already excited about going back to school. I love that he hasn’t sulked once about going to school. I love that he wanted to bake cakes for his classmates and have a party for them. I love that he comes home and talks about what he’s done. I don’t know if it’s just because we’re in the thick of it together, the only English speaking people, or if it’s because we’ve become surrogate friends, or if he’s growing up in a lovely non-English way where it means he hasn’t sunk further into Kevin-The-Teenager behaviour. He has occasional moments, but he seems a million times more content. And the little boy lying in front of me saying

“Give us a kiss, Moll!”

and the man behind me asking

“Jake, have you got a pen? I’ve got a puzzle for you…”

are two people who aren’t caught up in the stresses and pressures of English city life. By the way, the puzzle is the ‘As I was going to St Ives’ puzzle. Jake’s gone back to his table and is now writing  out the sums to go with it. The answer is one. But I’m not going to tell him.

Ah, and here comes the almost-sulk. But gone like a quick cloud. After all, it’s half-eleven and these two have been in each other’s company for several hours. A peace longer than an hour is to be celebrated as much as one between Israel and Palestine!

Walnut and Gorgonzola pasta

A quick and delicious pasta dish – good for post-foraging!

400 g fresh pasta, preferably home-made. If you haven’t got it yet, Phaidon’s fabulous recipe book, The Silver Spoon which is at least a thousand recipes under one cover, is a must-have! Unfortunately, mine is still languishing in England and there’s no way I’ll be able to bring it back in December seeing as how heavy it is. Still, I’ve got a good few recipes to heart. Basically, it’s 400 g of 00 Italian flour, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks. Give it a lot of kneading and leave it to rest. When it’s rested, form into pasta shapes, farfalle or tagliatelle.

200 g crème fraiche

100 g walnuts (or to taste)

200 g gorgonzola, or other smooth blue cheese.

Put the pasta on to boil. Heat the creme fraiche and gorgonzola until the gorgonzola has melted. Add the walnuts and heat. Then mix in the fresh pasta. You could always add a few sultanas, but Steve is not a sultana fan so I left those out. Equally, bits of chopped apple would be lovely, if getting a bit Waldorf salad!