Monthly Archives: February 2013

Different strokes for Different folks

It’s been a week of racism in unexpected places. First, Titan’s boss Maurice Taylor, writes an epic letter to the French government, which is ‘leaked’, accusing the French of working three-hour days and not being in the same league as China, competitively.

Then the French get all defensive about it.

As you would.

Nobody likes to be accused of laziness, and if laziness is anywhere, it’s not in the French private sector. Two-hour lunches, sure, but not laziness. French public sector? I could agree with them being lazy, to some degree. They’re bloated and unionised on the whole, and it’s because of that that French labour costs are among the highest in Europe. Industry is holding up a bloated civil service. Plus, it takes anyone in a sizeable workplace twenty minutes just to say hello to everyone in the morning what with all the kissing and being polite.

However, few places can compete with China in terms of competitiveness. That’s what happens in a non-unionised one-party country of vast human resource. If you want to be ‘competitive’, pay peanuts, abuse human rights and look to slavery as your economic model.

But… Titan’s letter could have been written to any begging industry minister in Western Europe, pretty much.

Though the French have taken it very personally and there are cries of racism from every corner. But is it? Well, it’s not. Not really.

It’s the kind of plain-talking, brutally honest, out-of-order speech of a egotistical man who got 1% of a Republican ticket in the USA and who gives a toss what he thinks?

Honestly, the best thing the French can do is shrug and admit that he’s a bit right and a lot of an imbecile. France can’t compete with China. Cheap is China’s USP. And France’s fat and sweaty union bosses have fought a long time for a two-hour lunch and high pay for their workers. In fact, they’ve fought long and hard for everything that makes France (and every other unionised country) “unproductive.”

Because, ultimately ‘productive’ often means flagrant abuse of everyone else’s human rights. If you don’t believe me, watch “An Inspector Calls” and read a little Marx.

But the first thing that happened was this uproar of racism against the French.

Hello?

The French must be one of the last nations on the politically correct boat. I’m not passing judgement on that. They just are. They’re about the only nation who feel like it’s okay to pass comment about everyone else in the world and that’s how it is. The Dutch? Don’t like how they congregate in villages and bring their own groceries when they come on holiday.  Chinese? Meh. Northern Africans? Black feet. (Pieds-noirs is still a term I hear in the supermarket about anyone from south of the Mediterreanean, although it originally meant Algerians). I heard all of these things when I was in the supermarket café.

Just this week, for instance, I read a comment on Tripadvisor about a restaurant near me. It’d be very nice, the comment said, if it weren’t for the English voices.

And then I read another one. A French woman in an English party had overheard the waiter in the same restaurant issuing a polemic to the chef about the bloody English at her table, thinking she was English too. How dare the English ask for wine before apéros?! Hooligans!

Out of fifteen reviews, five mentioned something negative about the English. Seven of the remaining reviews were by English people.

I thought it might just be that restaurant, so I looked at another very popular restaurant. One with an English clientele and an English chef.

Three French reviews. Very nice, they conclude, even if the chef is English.

I can just imagine the outrage if an Indian or Chinese restaurant in England had reviews saying “unexpectedly nice, despite the fact the chef is Punjabi/Chinese/Vietnamese”.

Part of the problem is, I know, that the Charente has a frustratingly high percentage of English-speaking residents (including American, Australian, Kiwi, Scottish, Welsh, Norwegian, Irish and even Mexican residents) and that it IS irritating to feel like you’re living in a ghetto of immigrants if you’re French. There are lots of English-speakers who can’t or won’t speak French. BUT… I’d like to think the English-speakers contribute more than they take. AND we are often the ones who keep restaurants running. Many would have dried up if it were not for truckers or chèque dejeuners or English-speakers.

Sure, many French people holiday here, and in Charente-Maritime. 70% of French people holiday in France. But then lots of other nationalities do too. Having spent some time last week researching the area for an article, I realised that virtually none of the tourist sites had English options; that means that if you are non-French-speaking, you just aren’t going to use the sites. There’s no reason in this day and age not to open yourself up to the rest of the world. Sure, when I travelled in Brazil, there weren’t many sites in English either, but that was 2003 and I met precisely zero English-speaking people on my travels.

France has one great thing going for it. Itself. It is the most-visited tourist destination in the world. That doesn’t include the 70% of the French population who visit here. That fact is France’s USP.

Yet it would seem that it goes out of its way to make it hard for English-speakers to visit and that, given the overt racism on Tripadvisor, it would prefer Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Spanish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, American, Canadian, Australian, Chinese and Korean people not to come here at all. From what I’ve seen, some French people feel it’s okay to go out of their way to use language as a way to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

And that is not a good thing.

I know I feel the apologist coming on. I speak the popular English and I don’t agree with all the crazy political correctness in the UK. However, I know in the time before the doors open in England to Bulgarians and Romanians, someone somewhere will be ensuring that all our important social and legal documents have an appropriate version in Bulgarian or Romanian. I also know that should someone express surprise on a popular global review site that someone is a good chef despite their nationality, that would soon come to the attention of the masses who would decide that that is NOT okay to say that, not in public.

If it’s not okay for Maurice Taylor to be racist, making stereotyped, racist, generalised comments in private, how is it okay for many French to make racist, stereotyped, generalised comments in public and not receive the same level of challenge?

That is something I do not understand.

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Perennial flower beds

I love perennials. Of all the things, they are the simplest. Not to mention they give you that great cottage garden look. It is unashamedly English of me. What’s not to love about a cottage flower garden? None of that structured nonsense and neat hedging. Not a space unused.

I love the way all the plants become one, blending into one another. It’s like painting with flowers. You get to take all of these great colours and use the garden as a canvas. It should be frilly and flower-filled and full of life – a perfect, practical blend of whatever you want. There are no rules except “fill the space!”

If it’s medicinal or useful, all the better. It should be practical and self-sustaining, requiring little more than some compost from time to time, and the occasional lifting and splitting of crowns.

See how beautiful they are? This is Anne Hathaway’s garden. The wife of Shakespeare, not the sexless Catwoman. I’m pretty sure Anne Hathaway didn’t really have a garden like this but it would be pretty cool if she did, with all the lupins and foxgloves and delphiniums.

The best part about a perennial bed is how easy it is.

Take mine, for example.

Yesterday it was looking so scruffy that I didn’t dare photograph it for fear of my mother coming over to help out. Thirty minutes later and it is cleared up. All the deadheads have been removed. All the ground has been raked over. The achillea is already big and healthy, having not even died back this winter. The marguerites have also had a good winter and their crown is huge too. Then there are little, unexpected things, like the signs of lupins and  aquilegia which I hadn’t expected just yet. The campanula are also putting out leaves too. Six flowers that are just raring to go.

Last year, I put in some annuals as perennials can take a year or so to get going. In fact, when you look at it in August, it seems to be mostly annuals and dahlias.

DSCF2594

But in there, there are lots of little pots of things for this year, and having cleared  out all the dead remains of last year’s annuals, there’s a lot of life.

In fact, that’s just reminded me to plant some of the scabious seed I saved. I also saved some of the Pink Surprise calendula, though it would be a surprise if it were really pink, since it looked very orange to me. My mum sent me a huge pack of aquilegia seeds, which I’ll see if they grow – I love aquilegia with an incomparable love. It’s tiny and delicate and pretty.

Brilliant
I’ve also bought another pack of Lidl’s 29 cent limonium seed. These statice are just beautiful.

Sans titre

Progress…

Around this time last year, the snows were beginning to melt and I was gearing up for a big season of planting. I put the beetroot, onions and carrots in on the last day of February. Despite how warm it’s been in the day, it still feels very cold and early in the year for such crops. In 2011, we had plum blossom already – albeit on the trees in the courtyard. It shows no such sign of doing that yet.

Yesterday, I finished pruning back the longest row of vines – some 30 or so. The rest are still under water so they can wait. I’ve probably got about another 60 or so to do, having done the two longest rows.

If it continues to be dry for the next couple of days, I should be able to turn the soil with the rotivator as it’s just annual weeds now. Yay. I’m so sick of digging. I’ve got blisters like you wouldn’t believe. However, digging is the best way to get the convolvulus out. Unfortunate for me!

RhubarbThe rhubarb my mum sent me has got its first shoots.

I have about 10 baby Alicante tomatoes, 2 banana chili plants – not sure what went on with that seed, since I planted 10. I also have another 8 “special” cauliflowers.

The ‘merveille de quatre saisons’ cauliflowers I planted are almost past baby leaves.

Today I planted another dozen ‘gardener’s delight’ tomatoes, a tub of kale and a few lettuce seeds. I just keep on going until my lean-to is full and then in April, I can plant them all out.

cauliflower seedlingsAnd yet we’ve still had a little time to play in the garden lake…

I love how Tilly just tolerates him leaping around her. He’s a fruitloop when it comes to water. It seriously sends him crazy giddy. He plays like this all day. You can hear him leaping through the water even in the dark.

The closest vegetable patch is just like a slurry pit. I went to test how wet it was and nearly lost my wellies to some serious suction. It all still stinks and bubbles. It’s very strange. There’s noticeably less water now although it’s still flowing fairly quickly. The top two patches are dry enough to dig, and soon will be too dry to dig unless they get some water.

You can also hear the digger in the background. I don’t know what they’re doing. It’s ERDF up to something. I suspect they might be burying cables and putting in new junction boxes. Good. It’ll stop it looking like a third word country with all the wires everywhere. Plus, hopefully they are putting in new wires and so I won’t have so many powercuts. The only place I’ve ever been with such power trouble is Cuba – and they were scheduled brown-outs.

I just can’t wait for the day they run mainline plumbing through here. Considering I live only 7km from a fairly large town, and 25km from a city, it’s a bit rustic to still have a septic tank. I don’t mind, but I just know I’m going to need a new septic tank and I’d rather pay to be connected to the mains rather than get a new one installed. I just know if I fork out for a new septic tank, they’ll run mainline sewage pipes through within the year. I’m blessed with luck that way. It is never going to happen, though.

As in many countries, if you live in a rural area, you are less likely to be able to access the power and sewage networks. In England, I never even really thought about turning the gas on or switching the radiators on; it never even occured to me that people might not be able to. In England, only 7% of houses aren’t connected to the gas network. In France, 23% aren’t. That’s higher than Wales or Scotland, which are also much more rural. It’s not so bad. It means I’m frugal with my gas and electric. If it were there, it’d be so tempting to just switch it on.

 

Quality of life…

I was very sad to hear that Richard Briers has passed away. I can’t say I much remember watching The Good Life when I was little, but when watching it as an adult, it’s not just funny but very relevant to my life.

For those who aren’t in the know, Richard Briers played Tom Good alongside Felicity Kendall’s ubër-cute Barb. On his 40th birthday, Tom quits his day job and decides to turn his detached house in suburban Surbiton into a smallholding, complete with goat. I model myself after Barbara Good. She was a woman before her time.

GoodLife3BBC_468x426

It reminds me that this whole ‘back to the land’ theme is nothing new, and being frugal might be the fashion in this age of austerity, but it’s all happened before.

It’s funny, because it’s a kind of comedy version of some of my life – quitting ‘the rat race’ and going from being a ‘thing’ consumer to someone who only gets clothes for Christmas. Plus, it’s nice to see that other people – if only characters in a 40-year-old sit-com – get enjoyment out of a rotary cultivator and a chicken laying an egg.

I think the show was a bit ahead of its time, but the ‘make do and mend’ attititude certainly seems to have resurfaced periodically throughout the last hundred years.

It’s funny that we probably have all grown up in various ages of austerity – whether it was the war and post-war rationing, the 70s or post-2008. The ideas are the same, the sentiments are the same, whether it’s the Joads talking about the faceless anonymity of the banks who can and do act with complete impunity, granted powers to do things like charge you 250€ for going overdrawn, but not bothering to notify you because they’re coining it in until you realise (not me, by the way…) or insurance companies who, when you have had everything taken from you in a robbery, quibble over payments and locks and bolts, despite the fact they are among the most profitable companies in the world. You can see what drove the Joads crazy.

And it’s the same with work. Like Tom Good, you spend your life working hard on some pointless commercial whimsy, whilst the arse-lickers like Jerry Leadbetter get the offices and confess that they don’t work as hard. Anyone with ethics and values and morals better choose not to go to work for a corporation.

I’m not quite so gung-ho as Tom and Barbara. I took a kind of middle road, working less (though I know I’ve just spent the best part of six weeks slogging through fourteen- or fifteen-hour days, I get a ‘rest’ now – consisting of gardening and housework!) and being more frugal. I stitch up holes in socks. I repurpose clothes. When jeans are no good for wear, they become gardening attire. When they’re no good for that, they become dusters and glass cleaners. Then I wash them and shred them and they fill my Moroccan stools.

One thing I have realised, though, is the trashy quality of cheap French clothes and shoes. In England, you can buy a perfectly good outfit in the supermarket for less than £50, including shoes. Some of my best shoes came from outlets and cost less than £10 and have been worn to death. I got two pairs of Clark’s shoes from Kendal for £10 each and they’re still good. Practically the only shoes I ever had to throw away were a cheap pair of slip-on turquoise shoes that I wore to death and then they stank and fell apart. Here, I bought a pair of trainers that cost me 20€ – the cheapest pair I could find – and they’ve peeled and come unglued. If it were just glue, I could cope with it, but it is not. The upper material has fallen apart. That was November. I’ve probably worn them four or five times a week and never out for walks because I always wear my boots. I don’t know why France’s cheap products are not as well-made as English ones.

I’m pretty sure the French would pass scorn on English cheap clothes, pointing out that they’re ethically indefensible and suggesting, like the horsemeat scandal, that we don’t care if corners are cut. I wouldn’t mind but just as many French and Italian products have been taken off shelves. If English things are made in Romania and China and cost less but last, why are they different from the French things made in Romania and China that cost more and fall apart?

Luckily, Asda and Tesco deliver clothes to France now for £5, so you know I won’t have to spend 10€ on three pairs of ill-fitting, uncomfortable underwear that last 2 weeks as I did last time I bought ‘French’ and I can instead buy the Asda underwear that I’ve been using these last five years. Sometimes, going global is not a bad thing.

I wish that some of the English ethic could have come to France with me – things that make it easy to avoid being ripped off. Price comparison sites for a start. If I want to compare insurance, I pretty much have to go to four or five brokers and compare, like I did in England in the 70s I guess. There’s no such thing as a quick quote. The appointment will take 20 minutes or so. Just for a quote. There are some price comparison sites, but they aren’t accurate and they don’t include some companies, so they’re practically useless. And there’s no supermarket comparison site. With a recent study in France of the average trolley of groceries (over 200€ worth!) my local supermarket was the cheapest in the region, and Casino at Gond-Pontouvre was the most expensive, with another 20€ on each trolley full.

I’m sure I’m either the poorest person in France, or the most frugal. My weekly shop is never more than 40€, including animal food. I watch everyone else rack up triple-digit bills at the checkout and it hurts my eyes. They’re not even buying bottles of whisky or 500€ bottles of St Emilion, just the standard, usual things. 200€. Wow. I know what Tom would have said and done.

So, I will continue to live like the Goods, eating boiled eggs for tea and spending my days in the garden. Like the Goods, it might be a naïve and innocent and amusing to some, but at least it’s honest.

And bless Richard Briers. Few men had a twinkle in their eye like he did.

 

This year, I’m hoping for more Mediterranean weather because I want to grow some aubergines. Last year, I got a small pack of seeds from T&M, thinking 8 seeds, possibly 6 plants, would be enough. The year before, one of my dad’s neighbours gave me a handful of his, and they were fantastic. So that spurred me on to put the packet on my seeds list. I ordered the Moneymaker variety, thinking they might be nicer than the Black Enorma which are fine, but a little less flavour-ful than I like.

Aubergine Berenjena Berinjela Eggplant Melanzana

I’m in love with this aubergine photo from flickr. It’s part of why I like aubergines so much – they have such amazing colour.

Aubergines need a long growing season and need warmth to get them started. Really, they should be one of the first things you plant if you plant aubergines and you want to make the most of them. You can plant them outside, just as you would with tomatoes, but then you can only do it in late March or April, and they just won’t be as far along as ones you start inside and plant out later. They need it warm (18°-21°) and like to be surface-sown under a fine layer of vermiculite or compost. It’s a solanum, so essentially the same family as tomato and I plan on treating mine just as I do tomatoes.

Given the success of my 29 cent Lidl seeds last year, I figured I might as well make the most of theirs. I bought two packets – one just a standard packet and then a packet of an aubergine a little more interesting. In fact, actually, it’s the cheap one that is the interesting one because that just says ‘mixed’ and it could be anything in there. The other is a more select variety that cost me a little more. I’ve put them both in the propagator and will see how they get on.

I confess I love all things aubergine and could happily eat them every day. I’ve also been told I have to make some Baba Ganoush, so I’m going to use this David Lebovitz recipe. I love David Lebovitz. His food blogs always inspire me, and I like them because he usually uses ingredients that are easier to get in France. Plus, he doesn’t do that awful thing of just having cup measurements that I can never get my head around.

I could just live off ratatouille, of course, or chickpea and aubergine curry. Or griddled aubergine. Vegetarian moussaka. Aubergine stacks.

Mostly, the gardening is restricted to pruning and weeding at the moment. I did another row of vines yesterday. The Bellonne is still merrily running through my garden, though it seems to have brought a fair bit of algae with it, as you might expect since it runs underground in lots of places. So… as a consequence, my garden smells like a duck pond. Not a nice duck pond either. A stinky, foul, Godforsaken duck pond. Not so nice.

The ground is still too wet to dig properly, so I’m leaving it for a few days. There’s nothing that needs planting in anyway, and it’s not as if I don’t have plenty of other tasks to do. I’ve cleaned out the potting barn again, since it just fills with dust and leaves and detritus over the winter. The detritus, specifically, relates to the animals, since the chickens like to go in there and if it’s wet, Tilly will go and do her business in there too. Grrrr. I’ve washed a lot of my pots out ready for filling and I’m mostly just tidying. Inside as well as out.

I can’t believe I gave the house a really good clean just after Christmas – barely six weeks and the filth in here…. it’s almost unspeakable. Everything looks worse in the sunlight as well. I blame the dogs.

Right, back to work.

A time to gain, a time to lose

Today’s Much Love Monday is brought to you by The Byrds with the Pete Seeger classic of Turn! Turn! Turn!

Partly, you can’t beat a bit of jangly guitar and a bit of 60s psychedelia coupled with a little spiritual message on top. Sometimes we all need a little reminder that the seasons move on.

The blue skies could not have come too soon for me. The grey and the rain and the short daylight hours were messing with my mojo and making me crabby. Couple that with a big pile of GCSEs, being tired of poking the fire and being giddy to get outside and you can understand why it was beginning to feel tedious. It feels like it’s been a long winter. And no, the worst is not over yet. Météo say that there’s a couple of -6° nights left for us this week yet. But a blue sky is more than enough to get me through to the real warmth.

Not only that, but the cranes have made their appearance. Saturday afternoon, it was like we were under the flight path to crane party central. The French call it a prenuptual flight, which is kind of sweet. Eggs are on their way, Easter is but a few short weeks away and I have green shoots.

Those cranes always make me feel better. There’s something reassuring knowing that nature knows what it’s doing and the country is gearing up for spring.

Much Love for this statement: “no more portions”. It means there’s nothing left to mark and finally, it’s over. Of course, the last week is not so bad. Once you have done your allocation, you wait for the day when it’s a big free-for-all on what’s left. That means you can mark what you want to mark instead of having to mark everything. If there’s a question you don’t like so much, you can avoid it. I’ve marked another 600 of one question, on top of the 228 I had to mark. It got a little tedious but it’s really helpful because you end up REALLY knowing that question.

So, between the end of the marking and the brightening of the weather I’ve been out with the dogs. Heston has been working on his ‘stop’ and ‘turn’ commands. He ran off last week – he’s done it three times now since we’ve been going outside without the lead in August. He is so completely distracted by something that he chases it. Twice, it’s been for water. He races off and I find him in a pool of water, splashing around as if I’m a complete spoilsport for not putting it on our usual walk.

I’ve been trying to build in some training and mental exercises on our walk and get him to walk better on the lead, since he likes to be in front and I fall on him. He will walk beside me as long as he’s not too distracted and we’ve been stopping and weaving and turning with the clicker. Though he doesn’t cover as much ground, apparently, it’s more stimulating and therefore more tiring. Fewer of my toothbrushes end up being eaten and he’s much less bored.

He’s so smart that he usually picks up a command in four or five repetitions (took me ten minutes to teach him to sit, as a puppy) and when he masters it so quickly, you can understand why he’d get bored of doing it. He even knows which toy to bring, whether it’s ‘rope’ or ‘ball’ or ‘carrot’.

I know people who aren’t that smart.

Tomorrow, we’re going to work on ’emergency!’ which is a ‘come here as fast as you can’ command. It’s the kind of command you only need to use in real life once or twice because it’s the one you’d only use outside of training in a situation where you really need him to return straight away. Thus, I’m equipped with a packet of ham and a pig’s ear.

To be honest, he’s less bothered about a treat, and more bothered about a ‘good boy’ and a pat. Tilly will do anything for a treat. I think she’d learn to speak if there was a treat in it.

She was hard work at first. She learned sit pretty quickly, and ‘paw’. That was it though. To be fair, I didn’t need to train her. She’s very obedient and apart from a nervous bladder (and sometimes a stubborn streak when it’s time to go out for a wee!) she’s generally very happy. She likes to be near me, but not too near me. She likes to chew on a bone about 8 or 9pm, or else she gets restless and ferrets through the bins or roots for biscuits. She hides things, she guards stuff and she grumbles, but generally, she is a very content little dog. For a rescue, you can’t ask for much better.

However, she does her lessons alongside Heston and she is very happy to do so as long as there is a treat in it for her. It’s lovely how much she has come on and in a way, I wish I’d done some training with her before I got Heston. She’s not smart though. It takes her ages to learn a thing, and then she mostly does it because Heston has.

Much Love, then, to doggies, to sunshine, to warmth (even if it is just a hiatus) and to the end of tedious tasks.

When the Monster stops growing…

I confess, I’ve not been much of a reader these last weeks. I’ve been early to bed, but mostly I’m tired and so it’s straight to sleep for me. I finished Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals which had me laughing out loud and actually took me two weeks to read. I loved it. The descriptions of all the creatures in matchboxes and accidental dogs were wonderful. It’s funny, because I’ve used the bit with Geronimo the gecko before now – it’s perfect for teaching paired sentences in a conflict – but only ever read bits of it as an extract.

Let me tell you, it made me pine for Greece and for warmth.

Then I moved on to Faye Kellerman’s Cold Case because I love police procedurals and I hadn’t read it, but I’m afraid it did not really get me going. Too many characters, too much incidental, unnecessary religion and family stuff, and too unconvincing. I’d read a couple of hers when I was in the UK and a member of the library, but remembered why I didn’t read any more. It’s weird because I love her husband Jonathon’s writing. He does the Alex Delaware books.

Now I’ve gone for a classic and I’m continuing my Steinbeck journey with the one I’ve never read – The Grapes of Wrath. It seems strangely familiar, banks eating up those low down on the pecking order. In times of recession, it’s kind of familiar to read about hardship and then know that whatever hardship we have, it’s nothing like this. Not only that, it’s a place and a family at the mercy of the weather – now I know last year’s weather left me with a much reduced crop, but even so… not the same. I can sort of see why Steinbeck was so attracted to all the Bible stories – it must have seen like the seven years of famine there. It’s the first I’ve read that’s neither picaresque nor allegorical and it was weird at first. I just read the bit about the banks, which seems so very familiar:

“We can’t depend on it. The bank – the monster – has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

I did one of my photography projects on Dorothea Lange – the eminent Great Depression photographer whose images captured the sentiments of a decade. I love her because she was a woman in what was a man’s world and she got some amazing candids – no doubt because she was a woman. She was an immigrant, a polio sufferer and a complete female role model. She was also a pioneer in the world of documentary photography and that is also too cool. The whole Grapes of Wrath world is the one she photographed.

I’m also loving it because, despite having taught Of Mice and Men more times than I can count, it’s still one of my favourites. Steinbeck feels so comfortable to me. I confess, too, anti-American Dream stuff really quenches my literary thirst. If I had to pick a Mastermind subject, apart from my encyclopaedic knowledge of Criminal Minds and the likes, Post-WWI American Literature would be my go-to subject. Poetry, drama, prose. I’d take it all. Sometimes, I wish I could go back to University and do it all again. Only this time, I’d stay on and do a PhD in something esoteric and unusual. Like Eugene O’Neill, Maxim Gorky or the Theatre of the Absurd. I’d have liked to have been a world-famous expert on something niche.

So, what have I read this year?

  • Freakonomics
  • Dude, Where’s My Country
  • On Chesil Beach
  • Follow the Money
  • Hija de la Fortuna
  • Cold Case
  • My Family and Other Animals

Already, I’ve forgotten what most of them were about.

 

 

Finding your purpose

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget who you are in life, or what you want out of it. In amidst the wind and cold and rain, with a few seedlings here and there, it’s easy to long for central heating. Sometimes, when I’m dripping with sweat, wondering why the hell I wanted to plant 10kg of carrots, the first thought that comes to mind is “I could buy these in the supermarket for 10€.”

And then, something happens to remind you why you do what you do.

That thing for me was the horsemeat scandal. It’s not the horsemeat per se that is the problem. It could be human for all I care.

It’s the fact that we have no idea at all about what goes into most of our food and what processes are used to make it.

And that was one of the reasons I wanted to be much more self sufficient and have myself a hard-work acre of land in France.

For many years, I was a vegetarian. I am a child of the Eighties: a teenager who hung around in radical bookshops in Brixton, a girl who was brought up in the socialist heartlands of the North, a student of Marx and Engels, a member of Greenpeace and every other reactionary agency that I could find to join as a young radical. I am little other than the product of a Thatcherite Britain, a girl brought up with a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ canvas bag that she used to cart books to and from the library. Call it middle-class white girl angst. Forget Catholicism. The Eighties did a good job of making me feel guilty about the state of the world.

In my little hometown, a couple of animal rights organisations used to leaflet outside a row of shops. I picked up a few from various agencies, opening my eyes to battery farms, intensive milk production, the fur trade. Don’t even get me started on all the hormones and chemicals pumped in to animals to keep them ‘healthy’ and fatten them up. It’s like BSE and CJD never happened – most of the food industry carry on, blithely feeding the public exactly what we ask for.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m here, trying to do just a little less damage and live a less greedy lifestyle. I was moaning about not having central heating yesterday, but today I’ve remembered one of the reasons I like wood is that it’s carbon neutral (though, okay, I burn through a few litres of petrol cutting it!) and I can be proud of my ridiculous electric bill. I was only just thinking of installing a small solar charger in the lean-to so that I can charge my laptop and camera free of charge.

And that’s why I moved here. I moved here because I want to eat better food. I want to eat crops that have been cared for and nurtured, and that care is the reason they taste good, not because I’ve pumped them full of water and fertilisers. I want to know my apples aren’t covered in pesticides, that my cucumber isn’t full of e-coli. I wanted to be able to add more of my own home-grown stuff to my diet.

If I had it all my way, and if I had the skill, I’d eat only stuff that came off my own land. Not like that family they found in Siberia who lived in a dark, smoky hut and nurtured their only blade of rye, living in isolation for 50 years. I don’t think self sufficiency should be that hard, or that total.

However, if we all ate a little less meat, if our fields weren’t needed to feed cattle, then there would be more to go around. It seems silly to me that we expect meat prices to be low when it’s really such an expensive commodity. It reminds me of the imported cherries I saw in Japan that worked out at £40 a kilo. Things should be expensive if they have a big carbon footprint or are expensive to produce.

But as the world’s population grows, it’s inevitable that there will be more famine, as land is misused for cattle fodder, and that prices should go up. It can’t go on forever, this have and have not mentality. The group of people who have access to meat and expensive foodstuffs is just going to get smaller and smaller as the group of people who are hungry grows.

That’s not how I want to be.

So, with that in mind, how does my garden grow?

My first cauliflowers have leaves, as do my first leeks. The chilis are beginning to put out leaves and my alicante tomatoes are out of the propagator, making way for more tomatoes. This week, I’ll be able to put in some more chili peppers and some more tomatoes. I’ll also put in some more brassicas to start off.

It’s going to be a long time til they’re ready to go in the garden, but I will be ready.

And this year, I want more than ever. The more I grow myself, the less I have to depend on the rest of the world to feed me.

Sure, I’m not right up there yet, Ms Holier-Than-Thou being carbon positive and completely self-sustaining. I’m lucky to be born in a place and time that affords me such ethics. An accident of birth means I can afford to be all guilty about meat and what I eat. But I won’t lie. It does feel good to eat my own stuff. I just had an omelette for tea, made with my own leeks and peas from last year. The eggs come right from my hens who are perfectly free to wander wherever they please and eat snails and worms and snakes if they like. For lunch, I had tomato soup, made with last year’s tomatoes and a handful of herbs I grew and dried. I like that about country living. You get to have days where you can live off the fatta’ the land.

Now, all I have to do is remember all of this when my arms ache from pulling weeds.

 

I’m laughing at clouds

With all this persistence of rain, could anything be more appropriate for Much Love Monday than Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain?

If I hadn’t already given Heston a name, I would call him Gene, because he definitely likes splashing in a puddle or two. It’s like a drug to him. If he sees water, he must gallop into it at full speed, skip around in it, play chase it, play bow to it and then try and splash everyone else as they come past. As you can tell, he’s loving the garden being under water.

It rained pretty much constantly from Saturday evening through to Sunday evening, and what had been a big puddle turned into a small lake. It’s up to the barn now. There better not be any more of that wet stuff otherwise I’ll have to go and live in the attic space.

What was once this:

054Is now this:

DSCF3161

 

Oh well.

And Saturday’s less-wet fields now look like this:

DSCF3163

 

If there’s a good freeze now, I’ll be able to skate over it.

Some météo programme I watched said it had been the darkest January in 60 years here. There were fewer hours of sunlight than every other January I’ve been alive. I went all Morlock (apart from eating the happy Eloi creatures) living in the dark and doing little other than work and walk the Hestonbiest.

The five or six walks we’ve been on, I’ve come home soaking wet from thigh down to ankle – must get some Sprayway pants. I used to borrow Steve’s and they’re very useful indeed.

I’m currently coveting these gorgeous things:

It’s not too bad being in the rain if you’re suitably attired. My boots are dry, my feet are dry, my body is dry. My legs get wet. Plus, I need a hood. My waterproof coat does not have a hood or hat. That’s a little silly. My showerproof coat has a hood, but it’s not waterproof. You really learn the difference between waterproof and showerproof when you’re out in a rainstorm. One means you get home dry. The other means you ought not to have bothered.

Anyway, with all this abundance of rain, I am hoping for an excellent growing season. My cistern is practically full. I’ll have to drain some water out if it doesn’t stop raining in the next couple of days. I just want things to dry out a little now. Including me.

I’ve now finished one great big work project for all intents and purposes – the GCSE marking – and it’s now just time to soak up any last papers and make a quick buck here and there. Well, not so quick, and not so much of it. Oh well. Better than a kick in the teeth, and what else would I have been doing in this damp? Tomorrow, I start another largeish month-long project, but it is also holidays for children in our region from 16th February, so a few of my usual lessons will be cancelled for ski trips and outings and family time.

So, Much Love to:

  • water-happy dogs
  • Gene Kelly
  • sprayway
  • a high water table for once
  • replenishment
  • finishing the cursed marking
  • the approaching holidays
  • Spring, which doesn’t seem to be getting closer, but it so is
  • waking up at 7 and it beginning to be light – that’s the first time it’s been anything other than pitch black at 7am for weeks.

Luckily, the sun is out this morning – a little – and I might be able to get in a fairly dry walk. I doubt it though. On several of those walks, it started raining as soon as I left the house and stopped the moment I got home. That’s just devilment.

Have a lovely Monday wherever you are. I hope the darkness and murk breaks a little to give you some sun if it’s cloudy where you are.

 

 

Sundays, streams and frosts

Apologies for the absence – it’s marking season and I’ve been connected via digits and retinas to the computer for not-so-fun activities. Still, since the weather has been so bad, it’s not given me too much heartache. I can get a fire going, sit in front of it with my laptop and mark away until I get fatigue. That happens very quickly these days. Plus, I’ve had a lot of other stuff on, including delivering a session on how to teach bilingual children to read in English. Oh, and deliveries.

Another thing that’s driving me crazy is that I had a really good CD of classical music that used to really keep me going through the marking, but it’s lost. Boo. No other music will do.

So, here’s the weekend in seven shots…

DSCF3136Frosty fields and standing water…

DSCF3142Curious George..

DSCF3148Early morning sunshine… A little different than the grey that’s been sitting over us for the past who knows how long…

DSCF3153Polytunnel waiting for summer…

DSCF3135Garden still under water. Not standing water, any more though, since the Bellonne river has returned. It usually sinks into a karst near Taponnat, some 7 or 8 km away. The only place you can really see it over here is on the road from Agris to Chasseneuil, where the road curves down into the valley. The Bellonne is marked, but I’ve never seen it run there. Now, you can see the river running through the field on the other side of mine. It goes through my garden, under the troll bridge, into the field and then into the Tardoire.

DSCF3160Obviously, it’s not deep, but it still runs pretty fast.

And yet it’s still raining. Oh well. Nothing’s growing and Heston loves playing in it.

DSCF3145Last… some leftover carrots!