Monthly Archives: January 2013

Episodes of sub-psychotic rage…

and possible Tourette’s *

It struck me yesterday that I have had a whole month without medication. That might not seem like a big thing to you, but it is something I have been working towards for five whole years.

For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007 after years of treatment for depression. I’ve been treated for mood disorders on and off since 1991 and, like many people, managed to ride through the good times and only saw the doctor when it got really bad.

I’ve always tried to be both honest and sensitive about it. It doesn’t define who I am as a person, in the same way as having diabetes doesn’t define who anyone is. But, there’s no stigma to diabetes. Yet I have had to have several intense occupational health interviews to check I was ‘fit’ for the classroom.

It’s ironic, really.

I had three days off in fifteen years of teaching. After the first three years of teaching, I never once had a performance review that was less than perfect. When I finally handed in my resignation, with nowhere really to go, my boss said I was a flawed genius. I laughed. Of course I am flawed. I am a human being. And a genius? Not so much. He was the same boss who, when I told him I was being treated for severe and suicidal depression, told me it couldn’t possibly be true because I was the happiest person he knew.

Having seen a very close friend be hospitalised and only later realise she was in the flings of the most crazy mania, I vowed I would never be secretive about it ever again. I spent such a long and exhausting time covering up my illness that it made my life nigh on impossible.

At best, it is absent from me completely. I forget that I am anything other than just me. At worst, I barely make it through the day. My moods are glacially slow, with rapid shifts within them – I tend to follow a huge curve up or down for a year or so, more sometimes, and then within that, I have hours which deviate from the general trend. This is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to manage.

I tried for a very long time – between 2003 and 2007 – to be med-free when I really, really needed to be medicated. I tried to manage it myself, and when that failed, I tried cognitive behavioural therapy – which did little for me. I was too far lost for it to even make the slightest impact. Thoughts and moods snowball and you are taken over by a tsunami of whichever mood prevails. At first, the medicine wasn’t enough. I could manage, but it wasn’t a therapeutic dose. The doctor upped my dose and eventually, I began to feel like myself again.

That’s the worst part, I guess. Sometimes, depression takes every single thing you are and turns it upside down. For a generally happy, sociable, lively person, depression turned me into a secret zombie. I say secret because like many people with a mood disorder, I was very good at hiding it. It makes me tired and defeated and sad and apathetic.

You can see why someone wouldn’t want to feel like that.

Hypomania, however, is a beautiful thing. You float, you are filled with energy. Everything is lovely and it feels like the universe is conspiring to give you love and positivity. A notch higher and everything seems too slow, frustrating, and anger rises to the surface instantly, pushing you over the edge into aggression and ugly, awful behaviour.

Finding something to take the edge off isn’t an easy task.

Plus, like many people with a chronic, medically-controlled disease, you long to be free from medication. And even though you could be, you know you have to do it right. You can’t just stop. No. You have to tail off. A long tail. Many drugs give you something I call ‘the zaps’, which kind of feels a bit like someone has an electrode in your brain and is jolting you from time to time. Plus, come off too soon and it’s like taking a plaster cast off too soon. You’re just not fixed yet. So over an 18 month period, I have cut my dose little by little until I was on so little that it would be barely noticeable. Then I stopped. Now it’s a month later.

Strangely, I second-guess my moods in ways I never did, even when I was on the smallest dose. Am I sad? Is it just grief? Is it something else? How tired am I? How am I sleeping? How am I eating? What am I eating? How am I coping with the long nights? How am I keeping? How are my energy levels? It’s like running a constant diagnostic in the background, and then trying to analyse if what you see is ‘normal’ or not. And I wonder at my motivation for wanting to live without medication. Plenty of people live medicated lives for all of their life. Nobody said to me that it was time to drop the dose or that I’d had a period of wellness conducive with removing one or both of my medications. It was just a thing I did. So then I experience all of this doubt about whether it was the right decision or whether I should keep taking them. Sure, I feel tired and a little rundown. I wonder whether it’s just my immune system after the beating it took at Christmas. I wonder if it’s the winter.  On days like Monday, where it was 8° and blue skies, the world seems like a wonderful place. Then the clouds come over and I feel lethargic and frustrated. I’ve worked a 14-hour day and I’ve had enough.

But then, when I was having a brief interlude from marking, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory. The one where Sheldon takes Penny to hospital and is filling out her medical form. He asks about her mental health. She snaps at him. He writes down “episodes of sub-psychotic rage” and when she calls him an ass, he writes “possible Tourette’s”.

It makes me smile because not only is it funny, it reminds me that everyone – even fictional characters on sitcoms – have moods that can be interpreted one way or another. Normal is impossible to judge even as a trained professional. It’s ten times tougher when you are in charge of managing your own moods.

So far, I think I’m doing okay. I know the warning signs well enough by now and this time, I’ll be first in the queue for treatment, not desperately holding on to some idea that “normal” = unmedicated. Still, I will be very glad when the current batch of marking is out of the way and I can relax a little. I hate doing it. Really, I need to find myself a non-stressful, rewarding and relaxed job that pays well enough to cover the bills.

If you know of one, can you let me know?

I jest of course. I am lucky to have a non-stressful, rewarding and relaxed job. Most of the time, anyway.

Ironically, whilst there are very few ‘triggers’ for moods, stress is definitely one for a lot of my bipolar friends. And work-related stress is a biggie. If I had a wish (apart from wishing for unlimited wishes, of course) it would be that everyone in the world could do whatever job they found rewarding for 35 hours a week, and that the universe would still function.

I’m a complete hippy at heart.

Anyway, I wanted to share my mini-milestone with you. I thought about not sharing it or saying anything, but then it kind of goes against my plan to talk about it if it’s relevant.

If you notice any episodes of sub-psychotic rage, be sure to let me know!

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Perennial herbs

I’ve not been idle whilst it’s been raining. Oh no. Yesterday, I did a ton of marking and even found time to squash in a little planning.

I’ve been planning a perennial herb garden for somewhere or other. I was thinking of putting it here ↓

DSCF3129but seeing as it has been under water twice this year, I might look for a drier spot.

One place I’ve been thinking is along the edge of my vegetable garden. There’s plenty of space and it will also serve another purpose: keeping the dogs (and other things) out.

César, the resident castrato labrador of the village, likes to wander around willy-nilly. You can often hear his arrival by the barking he sets off at every other house along the road. I think, out of the 14 houses in my hamlet, at least half must have dogs. César is a very happy chappy. He stops to say hello at every house. And, at every house, he is met by barks.

He used to love to play with Molly, and he’s not sure about Heston yet, but he still comes to say hello with astounding regularity. He, however, is not always my best friend in the Littlest Hobo category on account of he once had a tug-of-war with Heston using Rita The Chicken as his rope. I blame Heston. César had done nothing but sniff up until that point, but he must have thought it was fair game.

Anyway, César has now found two other petits copains – a blond lab cross and another black dog. They sometimes make a little foursome with a chasse dog who lives at a house in Les Hautes Ecures, up the road. They do nothing but play, but they love to play.

And, recently, they’ve been getting a little closer. One day, César is going to show them how he gets in my garden (via a surprising number of entrances, I must say) and then I’ll be back to getting mad, dragging various dogs back to their various owners with a il est gentil, mais… and a fierce look.

Not that my neighbours care.

A stray pack of dogs seems to be par for the course round here.

Plus, if they get in and play tug-of-war with Rita again, I may not be responsible for my actions.

Not only that, if mighty César can get in, foxes, martens, badgers, wild boar and the likes can all get in. I even had a wild boar in my garden once. And yes, it was of the animal variety.

So… I need to replace the 100 metres of chicken wire along the edge of my property. Whilst I’m in there, I might as well put in a couple of raised beds and build myself a perennial herb garden, so I thought to myself.

This is kind of what it looks like right now. The red diagonal line is the fence line.

ladyjustinehouse

So, the first thing in will be some Angelica. Angelica, the medicinal herb that grows by the wayside here and has been used for everything from curing the plague to adding to Chartreuse, is a statuesque creature and will look really good at the back of a big border. It’s biennial sometimes, unless you chop its flowers off, but it seeds happily. Also known as wild celery, you’ll definitely know its candied form – the bright green candied peel you get.

Angelica can be anywhere between 1-3 metres. It can tolerate slightly shady sites, but as you can see, this is a South-East facing site and it has sun virtually all day. It likes a slightly acid soil, but I don’t think the soil round here can deter it since it grows very well along the side of the road.

I’m not sure about the seed yet – whether I’ll buy a small plant or some seed. Apparently the seed is not viable for a long time and so I’m wary of buying a packet of it.

Then, in front of the Angelica, I’m planning on rosemary, sage and oregano. I don’t have masses of luck with rosemary or sage – but oregano likes it here. The rosemary and sage are easy enough to buy as small plants here.

I love the smell of oregano. I have one plant in the polytunnel and it perfumes the whole place. It’s one of my favourite smells – maybe it reminds me of pizza. I think I could quite happily breathe in that warm smell all day. In the early spring, when it’s still cold, I go in the polytunnel – always five or six degrees warmer and sheltered from the wind – and crush a few leaves of it. It grows right next to a thyme plant and they are very happy indeed. I’m happy because they crowd out the dreaded convolvulus.

I thought, since I got a bit carried away with just how many plants I could cram into a three-metre-squared spot last summer with my perennial flower garden, I might even indulge in a little prairie-style planting. After all, that ground is doing nothing except growing weeds and grass.

Raised beds mean that I don’t have to work it too hard, either.

DSCF2594This was my first perennial flower bed last year. It got full and busy pretty quickly!

Hopefully, like the perennial bed here (well, I put some annuals in to fill the gaps!) it will be pretty easy maintenance.

Then I can put a bed closer to the house in the courtyard. That will be more sheltered and better for annual herbs.

I’ve got other perennial herbs that I want to plant prairie-style as well, but they can wait. It’d be nice to have lots of useful AND beautiful plants.

 

Garden leave

With the garden having been under water for – count ’em! – seven whole days – and no jokes about rice, please – there’s been precious little to do in the garden last week. It was also pretty cold – never got above 4°C – so little point planting. Since I was preoccupied by marking the exam papers of England’s youth, it didn’t bother me too much. It did make me reassess my plans for this square of land – not much point planting things in it that don’t like a really good bath in cold water every so often.

I am seriously considering investing in a growlight. Yes, I’ve got that geeky. Just imagine how much more stuff I could grow! I’ve been overwhelmed by the fact that some dedicated growers can get so much out of less than I have. One guy got 6,000lbs out of 1/10th of an acre. That’s just insanity!

I’m also trying to increase the range and variety of the things I grow as well, so that I’ve got a real balance. On one acre, it’s feasible to get 75 different varieties of things, if a little crazy. We’ll see. I’m not sure I can do 400 varieties when it’s just me!

I definitely think the spring worm has turned. Yesterday on my walk, it was too hot for a coat – just jumper and t-shirt weather – and I saw three butterflies. I think it was 11° or so. Unless we have a lovely snowy surprise, it would seem that the worst is over. At least, the butterflies thought so today. There’s plenty of gorse in bloom round here as well.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if you could plan the weather according to what you needed? I’d kind of like to have rain one day a week, or even two, and then beautiful blue skies like I had today. Don’t mind seasons, just don’t like moisture overly much. It’s why I live here.

In the city, there’s so much to do when it’s wet. It’s why I’m convinced that Manchester got all industrialised. There was nothing else to do.

When it’s persisting down, it reminds me a little of Kyoto, the rainiest place I ever was. I spent a lot of time hiding under umbrellas. The great thing about it is that there isn’t very much wind and so you can have all manner of nice umbrellas. Everyone in Japan has an umbrella, it seems, and there’s never spoke rage when you accidentally get hurt by one.

img005This is at the Heian temple in Kyoto. See how disciplined the umbrellas are? In England, it’s not like that. Umbrella use is akin to wielding a sword in the UK and I’ve sustained many an injury. Not only that, but in Manchester, the rain doesn’t just ‘fall’ – it kind of permeates every part of your being. In fact, an umbrella is more of a sort of shield. In Japan, you can make the most of the rainy days.

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This is by the canal at the side of the shrine. It was just about in walking distance from where we stayed. I guess you can understand a little of my fascination with blossom when you see pictures like these.

img003

 

I think I need to dust my scanner and rescan this though! Lots of dust specks…

Anyway, I’m feeling very glad that I took advantage of the mid-winter hiatus to get some stuff done. I can’t say I enjoy the rain like I did in Kyoto, though it was even more lovely when it stopped. Japan is a very watery country, it always seems to me. Despite the neon and pachinko parlours, much of it is very muted and soft. Despite the shinto orange, for example, it all still feels very gentle.

I hope the rain holds off this week and my garden can dry out a little so that I can get on with my preparations. I’m just thankful I’m not under snow. It was this time last year when it all descended and didn’t disappear again for way over two weeks.

Keep your fingers crossed for me!

 

Life: not what I thought it was

Today’s Much Love Monday is brought to you by the effervescent, ebullient and thoroughly entertaining band, The Wonderstuff, with The Size of a Cow.

Last week was a tetchy week in cyberspace with fallings-out and arguments and people feeling they need to put other people right. Few of these involved me directly. Maybe it’s because it’s been so wet, but it does seem like lots of people felt right nadgy for want of a better phrase. I think it’s the weather and the time of the year, personally. Last Monday was apparently ‘Blue Monday’ when credit card bills appear and people realise winter has been long and wet and snowy and hard. I put snowy in there just to stop it sounding so rude. Words can betray you.

Anyway, like Alanis Morrisette with her Thank You song, I could sarcastically thank everything that made last week particularly nadgy and crappy. Or… I could thank the 7,011,308,391* other people in the world who managed not to piss on my parade.

So, Much Love to the 7,011,308,530 people who DID NOT fall out with anyone on a ladies-only forum I frequent. Or, since it has limited membership, 1,042 women. That 1,042 women manage not to fall out more frequently is quite something. Much Love for their usual good humour, fun, pictures of hot men in kilts and advice about just about everything under the sun.

Much Love to the 7,011,308,844 people who DID NOT send me an anonymous troll email from a disguised ip address to berate someone over whom I have no control, no tie and no link. That anyone would go to the lengths of setting up a fake ip address, a fake email and then sending me comments is tantamount to the fact they are plainly just stealing oxygen from the planet. Talk about finding a way to add ‘NO COMEBACKS’ to your comment. I can’t reason with you, I can’t respond to you. Or… so you thought. But I can call you an oxygen thief and refuse to publish your comment. Who the hell sets up a fake email just to send a nasty comment?

Oh, yeah. A coward who doesn’t want to listen to reason.

Much Love to the 7,011,309,326 people who DID NOT drive in my boot in the snow, in 6 inches of water or in the dark when there’s black ice.

Much Love to the 7,011,309,472 people who DID NOT cause a queue in the supermarket by paying with cheques for three different bags of shopping.

Much Love to the [insert estimate here] English teachers who DID NOT teach their students that they can introduce a quote with a semi-colon and tell them they’d get more marks for it. First, I have to rant about how it’s not right (and it’s not okay) and then I have to admit it’s a moot point because it would gain or lose you exactly zero marks either way.

Much Love to the 7,011,309,887 people (or, French pedants, to narrow the field) who DID NOT phone me 11 times (no kidding) and leave me 3 messages (no kidding) about a hyphen they thought I’d misplaced in a French word. First, having to explain it was a franglais joke, committed with full consciousness of its fault, then having to point out the inherent racism of the fact that they do not ring Le Figaro up to tell them about their errors, when Le Fig, among others, make plenty of them made me very mad indeed. The Telegraph are ALWAYS inserting apostrophes where none are needed, The Guardian was known for many years as The Guradian because of its typos. I don’t reprimand them on their errors. Maybe I should. But I put one hyphen ‘wrong’ and I get 11 phonecalls (from the same pedant) to put me straight. The fact that I’d done it on purpose completely dumbfounded the old battleaxe. The fact that I explained that in England, Spain, Portugal (and perhaps many more countries) only REALLY strange people go to the same lengths eluded her. If the French language dies, that’ll be why. At least English and Spanish don’t have tenses they only use in writing because they sound weird. Now, if only Le Fig can learn to use the Passé Simple correctly, and everyone in the whole of France understand that espérer does not take the subjunctive, but souhaiter does and that croire doesn’t, except in negation. Oh là là. No wonder us bloody foreigners make errors.

If you’re one of the 7,011,311,001 people who managed to be kind and polite, notably to me, or at least not to agitate me like a splinter in a wound, then you are the recipients of my love.

I know it’s not the first Tuesday in February, but maybe there should be a class like this. Here’s the list, if you’re bored.

Also, thanks to the people who DO NOT USE osmosis wrongly when they mean how an idea spreads. It’s diffusion. An idea should spread by diffusion, not osmosis. Osmosis is liquid-based. Scientists should feel more angry about the abuse of the word and the misunderstanding of a very common scientific principle. The Spectator is one culprit. Maybe I should find their journalists, ring them at home 11 times and try to explain the word to them?

*despite the fact I type fast, the world population clock kept changing. It was hard to type fast, even though I was angry.

I need to finish with a little Miles Wonderstuff Wisdom and stop building up my problems to the size of a cow.

My animals and other family

For the last few nights, I’ve been in bed by about ten. That electric blanket is my best friend. Last night, I thought it had broken and I nearly cried. Fortunately, it was just the thermostat and the connection and I woke up feeling warm. This is good because my extra duvet is in the wash, since Miss Tilly went for a roll on it yesterday, having come back in covered in dirt.

For a small, pretty dog, she sure does love dirt.

DSCF3108

Anyway, I’ve been making the most of this cocoon of evening warmth and catching up with some reading. I’ve finally got round to reading My Family and Other Animals which is something I’ve wanted to read for years and years and never have. And… I’m really enjoying it! I’ve always thought it would be cool to grow up in such a bohemian family who just jetted off for a few years in Corfu. I’m just jealous of anyone warm right now.

I’m only on chapter five, but I’m really enjoying it and I’m very sad I left it til now to read it; not only is it clever and funny, but it’s also a lovely description of all the people who he met. It reminds me of the holiday I had in Zakynthos with Andy, and although we spent a lot of time in the hotel, we went for a few days out in the mountains. I love the Greek islands. I keep looking at boat holidays around them and pining for warmth and blue and islands and sea.

I went to Kos town with my sister in 2001 and we had a great time. It was NOT a good year for us, but we had a great laugh, except for when I suggested we cycled into town and my sister insisted that we walk. I gave in. She sulks big time and whilst I may become a whirling dervish of tempers and swears, a bit like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil with a Tourette’s swearing problem, my sister has mastered the pout. We only stopped being cross at each other (I don’t know why she was cross at me, because I’m the one who gave in. However, I give in and I make you suffer for it… maybe that’s why we were walking the three kilometres in silence…) because we saw a woman with a terrific moustache.

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Can you tell I’m missing sunshine?

I dropped some magazines off today with a guy who reassured me that spring is definitely on its way. I hope so. However, I can’t get last year’s 17 days of snow and -15 temperatures out of my head. I’m not being lulled into a false sense of security until April is out. Cast ne’er a clout, and all that.

So, what have I read this year?

  • Freakonomics
  • Dude, Where’s My Country
  • On Chesil Beach
  • Follow the Money
  • Hija de la Fortuna

Honestly, On Chesil Beach was a bit of a flop. Literally. I wouldn’t mind if Keira Knightley played the lead in that. She’s neurotic enough to frighten the life out of her husband. It’s no Atonement. I like him. I don’t like her. It’s just too… Ordinary. As the Guardian said, ‘one messy outburst and it’s over.’

Ah well. I’ll carry on enjoying Gerald Durrell. I might continue reading books about warm weather just to remind myself that winter will end.

il me manque

Though I love France, there are still things I miss about England. One of those things is Chinatown. Manchester has a huge and vibrant Chinatown, sandwiched between the gay village and Spring Gardens. You can only get to it via side streets and you could easily miss it totally, despite the fact it is huge, complete with shops, banks, supermarkets, bakeries, bookies… and, of course, restaurants. And, of course, the obligatory Chinese New Year celebrations, with real Chinese dancers.

img116You might laugh at me saying ‘real Chinese dancers’ but I am always disappointed by the fact that the New Year procession dragon is always manned by Westerners.

My favourite Chinese restaurant in Manchester is Pacific, which serves Chinese food on one floor and Thai food on the next. It’s about as trendy as you can get with white table cloths and beautiful orchids. Across George St is its opposite, a fantastic little place with about ten tables and as much plastic Chinese memorabilia as you can get. Yang Sing is always popular – and always packed – since its foray into media. In fact, I have a picture of Kurt Hummel, a.k.a Chris Colfer, my favourite Glee actor, coming out of Yang Sing. That’s how popular it is. But there’s something for everyone here. There are all-you-can-eat buffets, cheap food, fusion food, high end food, aspirational food, soul food…

img210Not only that, there are five or six really good Japanese restaurants, including Sapporo Teppenyaki, my favourite, and there are noodle bars and chains-a-go-go, including Tampopo and Wagamama, as well as some less franchisey places.

Not only that, but I would guess that pretty much everywhere in urban England has access to a great Chinese takeaway. You can also buy lots of Chinese products in your usual supermarket, and if you’ve got a Ken Hom cookbook and he says you need black bean sauce and rice vinegar, you can get it. No problem. Most supermarkets do a Chinese meal deal selection of Chinese food as well.

So…

Rural France…

Well…

there’s a handful of Asian restaurants in Angoulême, including our favourite King Long. But a King Long experience (no smutty laughter, please…) is very different from the English experience.

Let’s start with the fact that you can get boiled eggs and lettuce, cucumber and tomato if you feel like it in a typical Chinese buffet in small-town France. Piece of baguette to go with your noodles? Why not?

Well, why not for me is a pretty big why not. Yang Sing don’t offer you a piece of Warburton’s medium sliced white bread along with your Kung Pao chicken. You can’t get a prawn cocktail alongside your spring rolls. You don’t find a typical Bernie Inn slice of melon and a cherry in a Chinese buffet, just in case it’s all a bit wild for you.

Let’s get something straight. I know that Chinese food in China is not like Chinese food in the rest of the world. But, wherever I have travelled, Chinese food outside of China has been relatively similar. Call it the McDonald’s effect. Greek black bean pork is remarkably similar to Spanish black bean pork. Sweet and sour is always sweet and sour whether you’re in Amsterdam or Antwerp.

So why is it that French Chinese food is so… different?

For starters, the hottest thing you’ll find is the beef salad. The ‘sweet and sour’ pork is in actual fact porc au caramel which is essentially pork in caramel. Nice, certainly, but no kick. They have noodles, they have rice. They have dim sum and spring rolls. But… they have no spice. On the other hand, you can buy Chinese-style frogs’ legs, which is weird. It’s weird because the frogs’ legs probably come from China (France are the biggest importer of Chinese frozen frogs’ legs) and it’s weird because frogs’ legs are probably more like a lot of the real Chinese food you get anyway. Forget beef and pork and the likes.  However, despite the cultural adaptation, chilis are not really on the menu. Or anything spicy.

Another example… wasabi. I knew wasabi in Japan that could melt your nasal cavities and burn your tongue out. Here, you could probably eat it by the spoonful and think it was just a mild green paste.

Now, the French like Japanese food. Or, at least they like to pretend they do, giving all those Michelin stars away to Japanese chefs. Sushi is fine. Sushi is great. Let’s face it though: sushi is essentially a tuna sandwich. Fish and carbs. Maybe with some cucumber.

But, as I learned in Japan, Japanese food is infrequently spicy. Tasty, sure; spicy, no.

So Japanese food is not that much of a diversion from French food as it turns out. It appeals to the flaccid French palate.

When I want a bit of hot and spicy, though, I’m stuck. It’s just not… French. In England, our local chippy did a hot and spicy chicken soup that would clear your sinuses in five seconds flat. Here, the Asian soups taste like soapy water. I’m sad about that. I blame this on the French palate, not on the Asian restaurants, because they all kind of taste like that  outside Paris and Lyon. It’s precisely the same reason that the only place chili can be found is in a paste in the ethnic food aisle. Sometimes – sometimes – inner city supermarkets or produce markets have them, but only if you hunt.

However, I am a good cook. I don’t mind making sauces and stuff. I make a mean hot and spicy sauce. Finding real Chinese ingredients that don’t cost five hundred pounds is a little more difficult, though I confess my local Leclerc now has four metres of noodles, pastes and soy sauce. Just to put that in perspective, it has twenty metres of Brie and Camembert. I have to make do. I make a sauce from garlic, onions, ginger, ketchup, plum jelly (what? you don’t put fruity jam in your sweet and sour?!) star anise, fennel seeds, brown sugar, cumin seeds, soy sauce, orange juice and Nam Pla. Oh, and two teaspoons of home-made hot chili sauce. Because trying to find a non-weak-sauce sweet and sour is like trying to find the impossible. Forget black beans and yellow beans and the likes. Lemongrass? Forget it.

My nearest Asian supermarket is 120km away. I keep meaning to go, and I will do one day, but until that time, I make do with plum jelly spicy sauce, LJ style, and boiled eggs in the buffet. Strange as the Chinese experience is in France, it is more than welcome. Usually it’s my only excursion, food-wise, and I very much look forward to it. Plus, they do the best ice-cream.

Don’t tell me your local Chinese restaurant doesn’t have ice-cream? I know. It was weird to me at first.

Anyway, beggars cannot be choosers, and I love King Long anyway. Whether I’d eat there if it were in England, I don’t know. The French obviously love their work because it’s packed every day. The sushi goes first, and that tells you all you need to know. One day, I’m going to empty a bottle of real wasabi paste into the condiments placed at the side of the sushi. But, do you know what? I bet those French people don’t even normally try it. It’d just be wasted.

Winter’s long tail

Given that some French folk will plant nothing outside until the very last threat of frost is passed in the middle of May (the 11th, 12th and 13th if I’m not mistaken) which are called the Saints de glace – or the ice saints – you may think me a little odd to plant already. I’m a little precoce. 

Us growing peasants depend on the Saints de Glace being the last frost date and I’m way out of the starting-gate. However, since I’m in the balmy Poitou-Charentes, renowned as being the second sunniest and warmest region of France, I’ll go off the Charente Libre last frost dates. Last year, we had a frost on the 17th April which killed off some of my things, so I’m not making that mistake again. Still, that’s only 12 weeks away, and I want to get a bit of a head start.

The first things I’ve planted are things that don’t need heat, don’t mind a head start and don’t mind being replanted. Root crops, so I’ve found, don’t like being moved. No point doing anything that grows underground yet.

However, surface crops don’t mind being replanted as much. So, leeks, cauliflower, cabbage and the likes can all sit in a tray until the world gives them enough light and warmth. Other surface crops like a bit of warmth on their bones before they get going and these are the ones that get a bit of propagator help.

My running order is roughly this, for the propagator:

  • tomatoes
  • chili peppers
  • peppers
  • aubergines
  • basil
  • cucumbers
  • tender flowers

Virtually everything else will grow in its own good time outside or just in normal unheated pots. I grow five different types of tomato (apart from last year, which was a wash-out) including beefsteak, cherry, salad, plum and an heirloom or special variety of something or other. Therefore, from now until March, there’s bound to be fifteen or sixteen little tomato plugs in the balmy warmth of the propagator.

I’ve been amusing myself lately over amateur gardening advice. There are a string of threads on various French forums I follow about planting out. I smile at the people who say they are planting out in February, regardless. Notably regardless of everyone else’s advice. Last February, from 1st February to 17th February, my garden was under six inches of snow.

That’s the great thing about the internet. You can be faced with a wealth of knowledge that says one thing, and you can completely ignore it and tell everyone else they’re wrong. I love it when people who have no idea what they’re talking about try and give advice to others. I guess there’s a lot of that here in France, where people who have never had a garden are then faced with a potager. Even though I never had the chance to grow vegetables much, I did take good care of my UK garden. And… I read book after book after book on the topic. Blogs, websites, videos, Gardener’s World magazines, free ebooks, Reader’s Digest books… you name it, I’ll apprise it. Luckily, I must have soil in my blood, since my mum’s family had a smallholding in Gloucestershire, and gardening came to me as easily as the memories of feeding the goats and the smell of over-ripe plums.

It does seem a shame though that so many people just randomly ignore good internet wisdom. Life must be very frustrating for people who don’t like to research and learn, ever convinced they know what they are doing. Plus, let’s face it, seeds come with instructions. Plant now. Harvest now. How can you be happy to blithely do your own thing when it fails so very frequently?

I confess to being a bit of a devil with one woman bragging about what she was planting. I just kept saying ‘so you must have growlights or a propagator then if you’ve planted that now…’ – she didn’t reply. No point being ridiculously competitive over what you can get to grow at a certain time of year. Nature is nature. You can grow what she says you can grow, unless you’re a bit of a scientist.

I laugh, too, at the people gaily sprinkling their wood ashes on Charentais alkaline-neutral soil without any nitrogen-based fertiliser, and at the people with expensive soil-testing kits. Nature is very good at telling you what soil you have, if you have mop head hydrangeas for example. Acid soils make them blue. Alkaline soils make them pink. They’re like reverse litmus paper. Other things like acid soils, like rhodedendrons and heathers. If it’s Japanese or Chinese, it probably likes acid soil. Another way of telling is whether you are in a hard water area.

So, if I want a Japanese garden, by and large, it will be in pots. Blueberries, bilberries and other native USA fruiting bushes like an acidic soil. Potatoes like an acid soil, as do sprouts and carrots. I put some ashes on my new brassica patch, because they like it alkali. I dig lots and lots of compost and chicken manure into the potato patches to be. I also have to pay attention to drainage, although my soil is not too bad. Chicken litter, mixed with sawdust and well-composted, is perfect for my soil. Things that have nitrogen in them are very good for slightly, temporarily, lowering the ph of my soil and making it drain more easily.

I’m at the lowest point in the village and the bottom of my garden gets waterlogged when the water table rises. My vines are right up to their feet in it. The water table is almost as high as it was last May right now, and my puits is full. A puits, by the way, is a hole. A kind of aquifer or well. And mine is full. It’s only the second time in three years that I’ve seen it with any water in. If it rains any more, the garden will flood very easily. I noticed this morning that the Tardoire had broken its banks in the fields opposite.

Do you think I’m doing a good job of being a garden geek? Honestly, I try hard, but I am so very behind in things. My mother is the real garden geek. I hope that I’ll be half as garden-wise as she is in another twenty years time.

So, what’s in so far?

  • broad beans
  • a row of peas
  • cauliflower ‘merveille de toutes saisons’
  • Pepper ‘Sweet Banana’
  • Tomato ‘Alicante’
  • Leek ‘Musselburgh’

I plan on adding a couple more things every week, then when April gets here, I’ll plant everything out in a great rush of planting joy. There is definitely much more light. It’s almost light now until 18:30 on a bright day. Roll on Spring!

 

 

And the award for most unlikely pop band ever goes to…

…The Housemartins, who bring you this week’s Much Love Monday tune, Happy Hour.

I loved this band, including the young Fatboy Slim. Their dancing is just about the least likely, least effective ‘boy band dancing’ ever. It’s amusingly bizarre. It’s like a bunch of nerds from school at the school disco. That’s one of the main reasons I like them.

I love nerds. Nerds are the loves of my life. I have been known to kiss a nerd from time to time.

My favourite fictional nerd is Dr Spencer Reid. Poor Spence just had a girlfriend who he’d never met, and she was murdered by a SWF. If only Dr Spencer Reid were a real boy. I love his ties and his tank tops, his glasses and his accidental hair.

What’s not to love about him?

Another fictional geek love I have is for Greg Sanders in CSI. Not quite so smart, but just as cute and geeky genius.

Now tell me girls, who doesn’t love a man with a pipette and a bunsen burner?

In fact, geek girls are just as cool. Abby Sciuto and Penelope Garcia are my two favourite geek goddesses. Smart is cool.

When I lived with Andy, he had lots of nerdy science-geek friends. Some verged on Aspergers’-like antisocialism; some tried hard to shake off the geek label. One or two embraced their inner boffin. I loved them all. They mostly worked in the tech/fixit department of Dabs, a computer company, and had Chuck been out, I’d definitely have christened them the Nerd Herd. Pete, one of my boffiny boyfriends, an actuarial wannabe, no less, got a first in Maths from UMIST – about as geeky maths-boffin as you get. I used to  look at his notes and revel in the incomprehensible splendour of reading something that made no sense at all to me.

It’s easy to have a crush on an expert, especially an expert in something difficult. It’s also easy to have a crush on a geek even though they’re weird. In fact, we love them because they’re weird. Intelligence is definitely a good thing.

So what else am I Much Loving this Monday?

I’m loving my friends, of course. It was one of my birthday parties on Friday. We went to the Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet in Angoulême where we ate all we could eat. We also guffawed, laughed, snorted, joked, cried and then had sensible conversations about knitting, crochet, cake-making and seeds. I got knitted socks, seeds, cake and a book for musings. What could be better?

I’d asked a couple of other friends who are ‘not the usual crowd’ along, mainly because it’s nice to have such a diversely amazing group of people about me, and the first thing one of them said to me on Saturday morning was “What a great group of women!”

It is true. Mostly, we did a lot of laughing at this top 25 best autocorrect errors which is pretty funny. In fact, it’s very funny. Bitchgobblet potatoes and chicken vaginas… I howled laughing. I like the ones that are between parent and child the most, because they are so funnily inappropriate, like where the father tells his concerned offspring that he had to take Mom to the emergency room and inject her with an epic penis. It’s funny anyway, but that’s the last thing you want to hear from your father. I can’t read them again because they make me wheeze laughing. The cold has almost gone, but not quite enough.

So, on with the marking, the surviving the cold, the attempts to stay warm. When will winter be over? I’m tired of it already. Actually, even though last year had very stupid weather, and an April and May cold enough for fires, by 28th February, it was 16° again. That’s five and a half weeks. Sure, we had three weeks of below zero weather, but it got warm quick. That means it’s not that far to go. It’s funny… I usually go to the BD festival in Angoulême (that’s bande dessinée for any kinky types, or cartoons, not bondage and domination!) which is at the end of January, and it’s always been absolutely arctic. Looks like this year will be no different. I think this year’s average January temperature will be lower than last year’s though. Last year, we had a few days where it was 11 or 12 degrees. Not so this year.

To bring a little light into my life, I have planted some seeds to go into the propagator. I’m also seriously considering getting a grow light. I’m getting horticulturally geeky. That’s bordering on obsessive. The electric propagator I’ve got is a bit like a seed oven: put the seeds in at the right temperature and boom, there they are. Unless they are bad seed or they are too dry or too wet. It’s actually the best invention. It takes all accident out of growing stuff and makes it much more reliable.

The things that get the earliest start are the ratatouille veg. Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers. They’re hard to get growing and enjoy a long season if you treat them right. A friend has given me bounteous seed, one packet of which has gone in today: Haddon’s Seeds sweet pepper ‘Sweet Banana’

I’ve also put in some Alicante tomatoes, though I think the seed might be a little old. I’ll see. It’s your typical salad tomato. Once these babies germinate, I’ll put in the next lot – aubergines and more tomatoes, I think. Maybe some chili peppers.

Anyway, enjoy your Monday. I’m off out to walk the dogs and sandwich in some GCSE marking. I need a bit of joy this Monday!

Silent Sunday (and a bit of waffle)

DSCF3096My cool after-party birthday gifts. My new zen haiku poetry journal, a cake from Deb, and a huuuuuuugggge pile of seeds. God I love my friends.
DSCF3093Charlton and Heston being lovely boys. I did try to take a photo on Verity’s black sofa, but all you could see were a few teeth.
DSCF3091This week, I have mostly been wearing cool socks my friends bought me in order to feed the chicken girls and being glad I’m off the fashion police radar. Like they’d let me wear nutty crocs and red stripey socks.
DSCF3098Not that any socks can live up to a hand-made pair by Sarah’s mum. Perfect.
DSCF3079A picture of the divine weather last week…
DSCF3094And a picture of the dirty weather this week. Urgh.
Enjoy a peaceful Sunday, y’all! I’m going from creative writing about killers on the loose to an analysis of the form of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, with a little detour around some phonics and GCSE papers.