Tag Archives: family

The stars are brightly shining…

Amid all the commercialism, it can be easy to forget the ‘real’ message of Christmas. The first and most historical is that those there Romans once they’d put aside their heathen ways were unlikely to win over the dark nations without a few parties. The most significant of those are Easter and Christmas. I know people get upset about all the bunnies and eggs at Easter, but they’re as much a part of the festival as anything: rebirth, renewal, spring. New life. And Christmas? It’s no secret the Romans married it to Saturnalia, the festival to celebrate the passing of the world from long nights and remind us at the darkest of times that the light will return.

Christmas Eve walk

For me, Christmas is about that – the returning light. When you’ve had darkness from five o’clock until nine o’clock – all those sixteen hours of darkness can seem like they’re never going to disappear. Winter hits me hard when it first arrives. I’ve got a friend who gets depressed around the middle of June because he says it’s all downhill from there. In a way, he’s right. The days darken a little every single day after that, and by bringing all this light and shiny life inside, the berries of holly, mistletoe, the evergreen pines and ivy, the baubles and the lights – we remind ourselves of the natural order of things: just as light disappears, so it returns.

It’s also about a family. Whether it’s about the holy family or about your family, for some of us, it’s the only time we have with our nearest and dearest. This year is the first in many years that my sister and her husband haven’t worked on Christmas Day – and we all struggle to make sure everyone sees someone who’s family. It reminds us of the importance of the people who we love – whether they’re a happy accident of birth or whether they’re the people we’ve found through life that bring us a lot of light and love.

My garden - Christmas morning 2011

The second thing I do is ring family. The first is open my presents. That’s natural.

Whether it was those early mornings as a child when we’d all get up to get presents out, sitting around in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, or whether it’s a little later as a grown-up opening them on my own, presents are my family’s way of showing how much we care about each other. And it’s never been about cost. Sometimes, we’ve got a lot of money. Sometimes, we’ve got none. Either way, the best gifts are those that show how much our families or friends know us and care, no matter if they cost 79p or nothing, or whether they cost £200. It’s our way of saying ‘you mean the world to me’.

My sister’s was the first I opened yesterday and I was weeping as soon as I opened it – with joy, of course. Toffee Crisps. Not really my chocolate of choice, but a real family thing – as much as Blue Ribands used to be. My sister has ALWAYS got Toffee Crisps in her fridge and it’s just this thing we have between us – me snaffling her Toffee Crisps. I might live in the land of the chocolaterie these days, but a Toffee Crisp isn’t just a Toffee Crisp – an inelegant, bright-orange, sugary treat – it’s sisterhood. There was all sorts in that hamper, and every single one of them was thoughtful. From spices that cost the earth here to instant coffee (it’s all about quality in France and do you know what? I just can’t always be bothered to brew the cafetiere… and British instant coffee might be the source of ridicule – it’s on the shelf with chicory coffee and the French see it as some terrible throwback to the war, but our instant coffee beats much of their cheap ground coffee hands down!) and Viennese biscuits and hair dye, every single thing in that box was a treasure. Yes, hair dye. Over here, it costs a small fortune and I can’t fathom why. The home dye job is about the easiest way to do something about being glamorous.

Abi's Christmas Hamper... mmmm....

My mum’s also got me laughing and smiling. How well she knows me! Wool was the first thing out – three huge, rich burgundy balls of wool and a cute cardigan pattern. That’ll keep me busy for a couple of weeks and help beat off the darkness! Some netting to keep the birds off my sweetcorn (of course, I’ll plant them their own corn!) – an Alys Fowler recommendation I’d seen in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago and thought ‘Yes!’ – and my mum just must have known, a thousand kilometers away that’s what I was thinking. A weeding pad with ‘Keep Calm and Get Weeding’ on it – oh how I love it! All kinds of knitting accoutrements – and nothing I already had. How can someone know that you are missing 6.5 mm needles and stitch holders??!

Mum's Santa Sack

My Nana doesn’t need to give me a gift at all – because she IS my gift. I phoned her and she reminds me of all things I had forgotten – how me and Abi went down to the beach on Christmas morning in Mexico and watched the sun come up over the sea, then she says we went to her room, all three of us, and sang a carol at the door. I don’t remember doing it, but it sounds like something we’d do! I do remember ringing her room and telling her she’d need to pack her suitcase and go down to reception. We were trying to prank her but I was laughing so much that as soon as she answered, all she heard was me going ‘hee-hee-hee, hee-hee-hee’ and Abi and Al laughing at me laughing. Imagine getting a phone call of someone laughing insanely and saying nothing! But my Nana had sent me some money to spend in Moulin de Tin Tin – my current favourite shop.

Yesterday, the day was bright and cold – I’d set off to my dad’s about elevenish. I make no bones about it – my dad’s roasts are a masterpiece. Cooking is my family’s way of being a family – whether it’s a slice of Mary cake or whether it’s a Sunday roast. Al was cooking for his girlfriend, her daughter, my mum and step-dad. Abi was cooking for her husband and my Nana. My dad was cooking for me and my step-mum, as well as assorted guests. We have it down pat and I would challenge you to find any family that are so kitchen-gifted. There’s never a let-down. I’ve eaten Christmas dinners at other people’s houses and they are never the same. Never. Our family’s gravy is thick and sumptuous. Our roast potatoes are crisp and fluffy and crunchy. Nobody (except my sister…) does carrots like my Nana. If I had a last meal choice, my family’s Sunday roast would be it. Dad had done scallops and bacon on a bed of rocket and salad leaves, then the standard turkey with pigs in blankets, stuffing, roast, boiled and gratin potatoes, roasted leeks, sprouts, gravy. Brenda had done her Christmas ice-cream bombe and an apple topless tart. Then cheese. All this after a mountain of aperitifs, champagne, wine, crackers, dips, nuts, cheeses, charcuterie, dried sausages, gherkins, sausage rolls, sloe gin truffles, chocolates. I’m not eating again for weeks.

My own efforts seem a little humble. I’ve made most of my presents this year, and whilst there are some I can’t put up yet because they’ve not yet reached their recipients, I’d done a set of paintings for Brenda and my dad. I thought it would be nice to do their wedding love song words on a kind of painty-collagey thing with a photo I took of their wedding rings, all in a kind of  a heart shape. I’ve also been busy with the jigsaw and the dremel and I’ve done some other stuff, but I’m not putting that up yet!

Painting I did for my dad and step-mum

My best gifts, as always are the things that no-one could put in a package – not easily anyway! My mum, dad and respective step-parents, my sister and brother-in-law, my brother, my Nana. Family are a blessing when you get a good one! I know not everyone is so lucky. My dogs and my cat – who always bring light into my life, no matter what the weather and really are the best friends you can have. And then my friends, those people who make my day a whole lot brighter even if all I do is bring them to mind. The night was star-bright last night – and you can’t put a price on that beauty. This morning, I watched the sun rise from the warmth of my little house and with all these things, I am one blessed creature!

The little lights of my life...

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been away for a few days. You might have noticed. You might not have. Mostly, I’ve been getting abuse from my family and their respective spouses and friends. Sadly, I’ve quite enjoyed that abuse.

Mossy's birthday kebab

It was Mossy’s birthday. Mossy can mostly be described as: offensive, smelly, unsociable, rude, abusive, windy and silly. He was 40. I don’t know how that happened. He’s kind of a bit like Keith Richards. Nothing can kill him now. According to him, he’s a suave lady-killer who spends his days saving lives and saving the planet. He doesn’t. He takes ‘samples’ and mows lawns. He’d decided we had to go to Galway. Lucky for him, my sister organised it, or else he might have ended up very far away from the destination like the men did when Mossy arranged my bother-in-law’s stag do in Barcelona. Apparently, the airport was in France and they spent more getting to the hotel than they did on the hotel. Not only that, but it transpires that one of the stag party not only had to go solo across Barcelona in an Elvis costume, but he also decided to urinate in said costume rather than remove it, because it was hard to get out of. I don’t know how men would handle jumpsuits or playsuits. Just as an aside, I don’t like ‘playsuits’. What’s the point in them? They look like rubbish pyjamas in the kind of fabric your nan bought off the market for a tenner for 20 yards.

He was upset I spoilt his kebab with candles

The day started in fine spirits with a pint and a breakfast at Manchester Airport (oh, Manchester, so much to answer for…) and the English getting pasted by the French at rugby. I did the decent thing and ordered coffee and an English breakfast. I don’t get much by way of English breakfasts these days. Pete, the bother-in-law, convinced me he was having porridge and a banana. What’s worse is that I believed him. He had a pint in his hand as he told me. I don’t know why I believed him. I did wonder why he’d not ordered something non-alcoholic if his arteries are in trouble. I even believed my sister when she said she was having granola. I’m so gullible.

Bit moist in Manchester
Bit moist in Manc

The plane was one of those tiny 30-seater things. I’ve never been on such a small plane. It was cute. There were only us and a few stragglers on it. Galway airport made Limoges airport look like an international transport hub. There was someone behind a little desk in a shed asking for passports. Having said that, they had a better shop than Limoges airport, and there were plenty of vending machines.

Quay St. Galway, Ireland

We checked in to our accommodation – some student apartments – apparently Galway is a student hub and many of the hotels and apartments were full. And then it was time for the real drinking to commence.

I want a little coat for Tilly. And some boots so her feet don't need washing!

Abi and I tramped round looking for somewhere to change money. Luckily I was prepared for not being able to find an exchange and for the banks being shut, being a French resident and all. The others all went to find a pub. They didn’t get far. The pub was precisely 10 metres from where we left them. Nothing like being picky.

We spent a bit of time in here... a Welsh pub in an Irish town

Mostly, the rest of the weekend was spent in pubs or taxis or the apartments. It was absolutely pissing it down for most of it. That damp rain that soaks you through. I was used to it. I’m from Manchester. One question remains. Why, when Abi and I spent the exact same time in the wet, did she look fine and I looked like a drowned rat? How does that happen?

Lovely little instrument shop

Plus, I realised the downside of wearing my glasses. I’ve gone back to glasses for a month or so. Apparently, this is to give my eyes a break. I don’t know how that works. My eyes hurt more, I feel dizzy and I spend all my time trying blindly to find them because I’ve put them somewhere. I need big Deirdre-style glasses so my vision isn’t restricted. Stupid glasses. Not only that, but my brother has the same pair, virtually. I tried his on. It transpires he doesn’t really need them – no difference whatsoever and I think he’d been ripped off by his optician since they made no difference. Either that or he was trying to make himself look more intelligent. It didn’t work.

The view of the public toilets... not sure why men use public toilets as a landmark when describing where they are

Most of the weekend was spent insulting people (the men) or being nice (the girls) Pete gives out most of the abuse, mainly in Mossy’s direction. To be fair, he deserves it. Mossy is deeply offensive. Every time I spoke, he gestured at me and said ‘IIIINNNNNGGG LIIISH!’ as if I had accidentally slipped into speaking French. I gave him a gallic shrug. He renamed it a garlic shrug. Pickles got some abuse, mainly for being a skinflint and a cradle-snatcher (he isn’t – well, he is a skinflint – but his girlfriend is twenty-seven – twelve year age gap) and most of the insults revolved around him buying meals for Emma from the children’s menu, or having to get her teacher’s permission to take her away on holiday. I’m sure Pete keeps people round as foils for a bit of his comic relief.

Seahorses in the aquarium - Mossy's birthday treat

Galway was lovely. It’s precisely what I wanted Ireland to be when I went to Dublin and I was sadly disappointed. Plus, I’d stopped expecting people to look like Westlife and remembered that Dolores O’Riordan, Sinead O’Conner and Shane McGowan are Irish. In the aquarium (well, in the building, not in the actual aquarium… he wasn’t a fish), there was a man with auburn shoulder-length curly hair who looked all celtic and Irish with his pixie boots and piratey belt and beard. He’s an extreme example, but there were lots of quirky looking celtic people. I loved all the pubs with their wooden snugs and alcoves and open fires. I loved the Guinness. I loved the music and despite the smell, the company wasn’t bad either. I love my sister and brother. They’re lovely. I’m a lucky girl. And Peter, Pickles and Mossy just gave me time to sharpen my wits on them. A little verbal swordplay never did anyone’s wits any harm, although to paraphrase Beatrice in Much Ado, the last time we had a battle of wits, most of their wits went limping off the battlefield and now they’re all left with only a tiny bit of sense left to govern them.

I like quirky signs!


Writers’ retreat

I’m a notional member of ‘the writers’ retreat’ – a group online who spend an hour every so often writing just for fun. The goal is that you spend an hour writing online in silent pursuit of pleasure. I say notional because its time zones don’t work for me, being in the middle of the night, but I usually spend an hour anyway. It’s not very silent tonight – I have a bad case of the hiccups and Tilly is growling over a bone she tried to hide in amongst the magazines behind Steve’s chair – Jake is still chatting with his dad and Cops is playing in the background. Still, it’s my best attempt at a silent world for a silent hour of creative pleasure.

So… perhaps two topics to discuss – both linked by a rural village.

One is a piece of rural England that is seen as the doyenne of rural Cotswold villages. Busloads of American and Japanese tourists arrive there each day to sample ‘rural’ English life – a village as Stow-on-the-Wold. It is filled with Wind in the Willows sentimentality in a way – even the very name so quintessentially ‘English’ – harking back to an England perhaps long gone, preserved in a living museum to English village life gone by. When tourists think of English village life, they think of this: tea shoppes and antiques shops, painters’ galleries and quaint boutiques, ancient inns and hostelries. This is my mother’s world. Her family ran The Bell Inn for some time, and owned a smallholding on the outskirts of town, known as The Mill. I can’t remember much about The Mill except for the fact it had an old Mill on it, of course, and that I remember my uncle built cars in a workshop not unlike the workshops Steve now has on hand. There was a field of goats at the front and a chicken pen. The first time I went there, I was perhaps 10 or 11 – and it seemed like a different world to me.

The house inhabited by my maternal grandfather and Aunt’s family seemed like it belonged to another world than mine. Steps led up and down – nothing was even. The front room, I remember, seemed to be full of stuffed animals and strange objects. It was ramshackle in ways that cottages are. With no even planning, dark corridors led to rooms unexplored. I don’t know if it was really like this, or if time has done something strange to my memory. I remember the lanes seemed the greenest I’d ever seen as we went down to The Mill. My uncle Bill developed his own photographs, I think – I don’t know where – and I have a photograph of my brother and mum putting up a tent outside in an overgrown garden that seemed almost magical compared to our own very neat back garden which was middle-class suburbia through and through.

There’s a little of this wildness where we live now. Steps connect all the rooms – the floors are all on different levels. Secretive doors merge into the wallpaper and we discovered another attic a good two months after we’d lived here permanently. The land is a triangle, too, which my mother reminds me was the shape of The Mill. It’s nowhere near as big as The Mill, but maybe a little of it will remind my mother of the place she grew up.

It was into this rural kingdom of English gentility that my Dad arrived. I don’t know how he got there, why he ended there or what happened, other than in snatches. An inner-city Manchester boy in his urban clothes, with his wealth of 1960s experiences arrived in a town that was probably still in shock about Elvis and The Beatles, so lost in Greensleeves and Elgar it was.

He gave me a little snippet yesterday that brought back some of that quaint and charming English magic – he worked in a little restaurant in Stow called, aptly, The Stowaway. This is so resonant with so many images. Not just the pun on the name of the town, but the whole notion of stowaways (despite Stow being miles from the sea!) and I see wooden panels and dark interiors well used to hiding people who don’t want to be found. He says it was small – only 20 or so covers a night – and only two rooms – the restaurant and the kitchen – with two rooms upstairs to sleep in. English people do ‘small’ so very well – it’s probably impossible for Americans and Canadians (that’s you, Wendy!) to imagine how small English rooms and houses can be. I see oil lamps and oilskin tablecloths, odd chairs that don’t match – a far cry from white table cloths and linen that I imagine the world where my mother worked to be. My dad said he and the other guy who ran the place slept upstairs, and that his friend kept a rifle to pick off the rats.

Those of us in the end of our teenage years can sometimes live life so romantically and ambitiously – no fear to guide us – that our stories of those times seem a world away from the world we inhabit – finally – as ‘grown-ups’. No wonder they all seem so interesting to those of a younger generation – when they finally decide to listen to the days when their parents were more than their parents – the days when their parents were actual living, breathing people, intrepid teenagers. It reminds me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Before you were mine’ where she looks back at her mother with an awe and a fascination for the woman her mother once was, before she belonged to the poet.

I look back at the teenage me, living in rooms in shared houses with students or friends, cooking meals for 16. Once, I went down to Brixton to stay with a Venezuelan friend, hopped over the barriers to the tube, got off at Camden – where Camden market seemed so new and so fresh – even though it had been a mecca for the peculiar and the unusual way before 1990 when I arrived there. I worked with Jewels, my Venezuelan friend, in a radical bookshop selling copies of socialist propaganda, feminist texts, Marxist texts. We stayed in his squat in Brixton, making pancakes on a calor gas stove, sleeping on fake animal skins, dying our hair matching colours in the bathtub. We talked for hours and hours, long into the night. He laughed at me and said I would fall asleep talking. He was the first person I’d ever met with his lip pierced – not once, but twice – nothing like the be-pierced youths of England today. And he was the first person I’d ever met who had ‘good’ tattoos – not just skulls and the usual hard rock images done by Dave in Bury. He had an eagle in full flight across his chest.

One night, we hopped over the heavily-secured fence into Brockwell Park – the heart of Brixton – and lay looking at the stars.

“No matter where you are, or where I am, you know you can always look up and see the same stars.” He told me. He was right. I look up most nights here, and often think of what he said. No matter how big the world, we still share the same view of the universe and whenever I need to feel connected, I know I can look up and know my mum or my sister can see the same stars. He taught me to go beyond myself, beyond my small town values and to think big. We talked only of big ideas, as only teenagers can still do, filled with passion about society and history, literature and music. I still think he was the person who knew me best in all the world. He was an exotic hummingbird to my Manchester sparrow – and he brightened my worlds and broadened my horizons in ways I could add to my life. I like to think that when I look at the world maps, wondering where to go next, his spirit of fearlessness and bravery makes me as intrepid as he was.

We walked one July night to Clapham, picking up pink rice from a Turkish takeaway along the way and eating it with our fingers. He said he had a friend who was having a get-together and maybe we should go. We walked by the house, where strange creatures came and went through the doorway, and we spent the night with people playing guitars. I remember very little except for a beautiful black woman singing her heart out. It was a woman who would later be known as Skin, in a band called Skunk Anansie. And she could sing!

The 18-year-old me would be wide-eyed at the 38-year-old me I’ve become. I don’t know whether I’d be amazed, or scornful. I know I’ve not changed that much. Maybe I’m much more cynical, but I still possess – and relish – the ability to be wowed by things. A cat watching a computer game, Molly cuddled up with Fox, Tilly hiding her bone in a pile of magazines, cherry blossom and chickens all still make me smile.

And so here’s part two of the tale of two villages: from Stow to Les Ecures. Stow is upmarket, antique-y and wealthy in ways that rural France is often not. There’s none of the polish and yet there is still most of what real Stow life was probably all about: village schools and church bells, green fields and the distant sound of shotguns. We are 14 houses, a handful more residents, a good few dogs and a bend on the road between one village and a small town. Nothing exciting happens. It can bring no romantic dreams of tiny, darkened restaurants sandwiched in the middle of a village – it has little so romantic about it. M. Richon with his yellow sou’ester and wellingtons is about as exciting as things here get. The old lady (and her mother, maybe!) who live opposite us and a little farther up. Arthur and his family, our very clean cut and delightful neighbours. A Dutch couple who have painted their shutters a wonderful shade of lavender. An older lady I’ve seen once when she came to tell me about the perils of the road. Michel, the farmer, who regularly waves as he tootles past on his tractor.

It’s not romantic. There’s nothing wonderful or daring about it. It’s not some unusually named restaurant in a village, or a squat in Brixton, but it’s my home. I hope I’ve not lost the fearlessness of my teenage years when I walked through Brixton on warm summer evenings, but I feel a little less rough around the edges, a little softer. A little more like my mother and father – a little more ‘straightforward’ – and yes, a little less awesome and amazing in how different I am from the teenage me – I feel like I’ve had the rough edges polished from me – perhaps as my father has had as the years have gone by.

It reminds me, though, in a very zen kind of way, that tough stuff is needed to polish diamonds. It’s not an easy job and it requires a lot of friction. Maybe such is true of life, too, that it takes a lot of buffing to smooth the rough edges and become just a little softer.

My hour is up. Tilly is silent now – she’s lost her bone for growling at Bird. Bird is sitting over my shoulder, his eyes shut, curled up in a ball. Fox is stretched out, a sofa to himself. Molly is sitting as close to me as she can possibly get and I am thankful for her soft warmth. Jake has gone to sleep and I’ve lost Steve to the world of some computer game and here we sit, all of us bound in 20 metres square, all of us in our solitary, comfortable universes. And, most thankfully of all, my hiccups have disappeared.

on fait les choux gras

Everything seems to have been such a rush recently – so much seems to have happened in such a short period of time, which makes up for those weeks where we were sitting waiting for the chance to go to France and sort out Chez Blanchard, and whilst we’ve been waiting to sign for Les Capricornes – a name I shall explain later!

First, it was getting my house on the market, with the delightful Home Information Pack. Effing HIPS. Bah. Labour job-creating, money-wasting nonsense. Took ages to complete, then I swapped companies, on pain of small claims courts threats to the original company (does the small claims court still exist, by the way? It seems to have definitely slipped out of vogue!) and then the new company ended up being cheaper, faster and suddenly everything was on the go. House signs were erected, visits were arranged for initial voyeurs, the house was cleared out, my mother hacked some bushes, I vacuumed – and that doesn’t happen very often! – and cleaned the kitchen. More things were boxed up, thanks to my local supermarket’s free wine boxes. When we move in, we’ll look like complete winos, though that is a role we intend to take up only when we’re over there! I’ve labelled everything in a bizarre obsessive-compulsive way, with a ‘theme’ for each wine box, and then sub-categories. Cups and saucers are all wrapped up in newspaper, books are sorted and packed. I have accumulated an inordinate amount of cups and saucers. I like a lovely cup and saucer. Now I sound like my nana, I shall explain. I have my delightful Wedgwood tea set and several beautiful Habitat mugs, a few Whittards’ cups and saucers, and some other beautiful china. I always used to mock my nana’s insistence on a china cup and saucer, when I was in my grunge phase and didn’t care about matching mugs, let alone cups, and heaven forbid a saucer would be used for anything other than putting underneath plant pots! Now, a couple of decades on, it seems like a travesty not to enjoy good tea from a china cup, or a fresh coffee in anything other than a Habitat porcelain mug. And whilst I may be forced to abandon the suits and shoes for a life on a petite fermette, I shall be wandering around in my wellies (more about them later) in a suitably flowery frock drinking tea from a china Wedgwood cup. It is the last bastion of culture, the last bit of ‘Margot’ in my new ‘Barbara’ Good Life. So they’re all packed carefully and ready to go.

But whilst viewings have been frequent, which has been fantastic in a recession, with mixed reports from the papers – the housing market is on the mend, it’s at pre-recession prices, it’s at a standstill, it’s dead, it’s recovering, it’s alive, it’s dead –  ad infinitum – the viewers have been a little odd. I’ve had neighbours knocking on for a look-see with no intention to buy, weird couples, a woman who seems to have married some kind of illegal immigrant half her age who can’t speak English, a good few weirdos who march round the house as if to say ‘is that it?’ and I wonder what they expect. I bought the house on first sight. I loved the staircase, and it was big enough and in my price range. Similarly, Les Capricornes. It was big enough and it was in our price range. It’s roughly where we wanted it to be. It needs work, sure, and it’s not ‘perfect’, but it’ll do. And I wonder what some of these buyers want with £110,000. Do they expect a mansion???! Sure, it’s little, but with the average house price now being a quarter of a million pounds (How did it ever come to that??!) and usual-sized family homes going for half a million, it does make you wonder what they expect.

I have been doing my best with a good ‘sell’ job. Ann Maurice, House Doctors, eat your heart out! I’ve focused on the unique selling points, the quality, the garden, the added features, the fact that the house over the road is on for £20,000 more…. for a foot wider, an ensuite and a smaller master bedroom…. but no nibbles. Not even a little one. Now I wonder if we’ll ever sell, and that in itself brings complications. Pessimism tastes horrible.

Despite this, I’d been over to France to sign the compromis, effectively guaranteeing that Madame will sell and we will buy. 90,000 euros by April. No worries! Now I worry about exchange rates, buyers’ markets, unsellable houses, realistic pricing… And it’s a trauma! Luckily, my fantastic accountant has sorted everything out for me, tax-wise, and my tax bill isn’t too big. That’s one relief.

So it was a wet Thursday morning that my sister Abi took me to Liverpool ‘John Lennon Airport’ (how that must grate upon Mr McCartney’s nerves! Liverpool could at least have named the train station after him… especially after he brought LIPA to them! Can he do no right??!) and a quick Ryanair flight from snowy Britain into snowy France! To give them their due, Ryanair may be like a charabang to Blackpool, but they get you there and they do so without fuss, and mostly on time. And later, they really proved their worth.

Limoges was kissed with snow – and it looked beautiful. I cried a little on the descent, simply because it was so gorgeous, and with a little luck, a small part of it might be mine! Dad picked me up, and as we drove back to St Angeau, it was snowing a little. Then it really started coming down. Dad’s house looked fantastic – like those Christmas ornaments you get of houses with snowy roofs and shutters, lit up. There was a blazing fire and it was toasty warm in there, though it was cold outside. Swamped in a huge sofa, in front of a roaring fire, watching the snow fall outside… it was perfect. We had supper with Brian and Lesley, two of my dad’s fellow villagers, and I realised how relaxed and laid-back everyone is here.

The next day, I took my father to sign the compromis. I like to have my dad about, even if I am 37 and know more french than he does. I don’t think you ever really stop feeling glad you’ve got your parents there, even if you are approaching middle age. Maitre Ferrant was charming as usual, the estate agent, Thibaud, was on holiday in the Dominican Republic, and instead of Mme Roses, I met M. Roses, which was a little surprising, to say the least! Madame arrived, looking very frail and tired, and I realised what a marvel she really was. I really took to her. At one point, I just wanted to say ‘well, we’ll ALL live there!’ She’d come with her two daughters and their respective husbands, and we all crammed into Maitre Ferrant’s tiny office. I have to say it was very convivial, despite the obvious sadness that Madame was giving up her home of 40 years, and they were really wonderful.

M. Ferrant whipped through the reports. We have some asbestos. We have a little lead in the paint on the shutters – not a problem as long as you don’t lick the shutters, he joked. And we have an infestation of capricornes. Lots of capricornes. And some vrillettes. Some kind of insect, he explained. You can treat it with a toxic liquid. No problem. I did want to ask what capricornes were, but I liked to let my mind wander a little. My dad’s a capricorn. So’s Steve, and Dean, our very good friend. My sister is almost a capricorn. I had a vision of a house infested by December’s and January’s children, all being goat-like and capricious together. I understood it was some kind of insect and left it at that, my imagination free to go as wild as it wanted.

It did seem that the French are much more glib than the British about sorting out housing issues. Asbestos? just be careful when you get rid of it. Lead? Don’t injest it. Capricornes. Just kill ’em. Meh. I liked this attitude. No drama. No expensive builders and pest-controllers coming out to suck their breath over their teeth and present you with an enormous bill.

I signed numerous pages, which were then signed by just about everyone else. I realised we’re in a flood zone, but apart from mud slides in 1999, further up in the village, it’s not been a problem. I’m coming from flood-unundated Britain and feeling a little worried about it, but then I remember the house has been there since 1850, and it’s still there.

The energy efficiency document was the most charmingly sad thing about the house. Mine in Manchester is a good B. It’s efficient, warm, double-glazed, insulated and so on. The only advice was to get solar panels (what, are you kidding???! I’ve paid £30 for some nitwit to tell me that solar panels would work in Manchester??! Has he never BEEN to Manchester??!) and the EPC man chortled as he said it, knowing full well it was some government-spin that would be utterly unworkable in Manchester and take 20 years to make up for its initial cost. But Les Capricornes, as I named it there and then on the spot, was an F. Only a G is worse. An F. Poor house! I’m not sure what you have to do to be an F, except be a total waste of energy, but it was quite sad, but quite sweet! Likewise, the same advice adorned the french EPC report about solar panels, and I had to wonder whether some Bruxelles bureaucrat had devised the same piece of advice for all houses, except those A* houses with it installed already. I’ll make that house an A if it kills me to do it! Nothing makes a challenge for a teacher except to see some poor predicted grade for some hard-working delight. I’ll take that F and give you an A, I vowed, silently. The only teacher in the room, I didn’t want to raise suspicions about my mental health.

After that, we went back to Les Capricornes a.k.a The Triangle on account of the shape of the land, to get some further pictures – since French estate agents don’t care for Ann Maurice, thinking ‘if you can’t see the potential yourself, then knob off!’ Ann Maurice wouldn’t be a popular lady in France, on account of the fact that most ‘vielles maisons’ seem to be sold in a complete state of disrepair. Madame’s daughters (in their sixties, no less, just in case you were imagining some youthful french ladies) were just my type. They’d brewed some good strong coffee, got two cakes and were chatty and really friendly. They liked my prenom and kept saying “Emma-Jane!” with delight, though I pointed out that only my grandmother calls me this! We joked about English traffic, and were bewildered by the notion they still held that London is constantly held in a pea-souper of a fog, like Victorian London might have been. I blame Ladybird books. I had the same notion until I was about seven, on account of a Ladybird book about England.

Then Brenda, La Belle-Mere, my father and I took a wander about the snowy grounds. Everything we saw delighted us further. Grapevines. An orchard. A polytunnel. Several sheds. Several lean-tos. A barn I’d forgotten about. A cabin for Jake. A forge!

I hadn’t seen the forge before, and yet when my father pointed it out, you can hear my tone of disbelief on the video I was recording.

“A forge??!”

Steve would love this. He hasn’t yet seen inside, and I know – I just know – that he can’t possibly imagine how wonderful it is yet. A forge. He’ll be made up! A wood-work workshop, a metal-work workshop, a barn, a hangar, a tractor, the land, the vines, the cave, it was all just a little too much to take in.

And yet, when I lay in bed, late that night, tucked up against the snow, I was possessed by a terrible fear. What the hell were we doing??! I know little about farming, except for a couple of weeks in my youth when I visited my maternal family’s smallholding in Stow. Steve and I are city babies, grey through and through. We’re English and we’re city babies, with a confused child who doesn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. Would my house sell? Would we get out of the country alive? It was all a little too much. And yet, that vision of Steve’s face when he sees the forge. It’ll all be worth it! I started to imagine the curtains, the living room, the kitchen I’d have… and it more than made up for the worries and the doubts.

On the day I was due to return, Papa and I set off for Limoges in the dark, not really taking on exactly how much snow had fallen. When we got to the airport, the plane was allegedly still going to land, so Papa dropped me off and I milled about, waiting for the call. It didn’t come. I overheard someone talking about how it had been diverted to Bergerac. I had visions of the time Abi and I were trapped in Cork airport, with 11 other hens, for her hen weekend. We’d been there for 9 hours when Aer Lingus told us the flight had been cancelled because some daft baggage handler had driven the baggage truck into the side of the plane, rendering it unfit for flight. By that time, we were fraught. Or at least, I was. We were put up in a hotel, given sandwiches and told we might be able to get a space on the Monday flight, but if not, the next one would be Wednesday. It was absolutely out of the question, they said, to transfer us to Dublin for a flight, or to replace the plane. One of the girls with us was supposed to be going on holiday, several of them were nurses with shifts to run. North Manchester General would come to a standstill! So I envisaged a cancellation and I waited to hear.

But better than that. Ryanair would transport us to Bergerac and fly from there. I know I was alone in thinking this was jolly good of them, since they could just say ‘oh, bugger off home and try your luck on the next flight that can get in’ but they didn’t. Within an hour, they had three coaches for us, and off we went, down the snowy roads (just having to put the fear that if they can’t land a plane, can you really transport 50 people on a coach out of there???!) across to Bergerac, where we hopped on the plane and were taken back to Liverpool. Lucky I’d chosen ‘John Lennon Airport’ – Manchester was closed. Just out of interest, what would they rename Manchester? “Noel Gallagher Airport?” (Now that would piss Liam off!), The Buzzcocks’ Airport? Mick Hucknall Airport? I’m sure there’s no-one quite as saintly for us.

Steve and Jake were late. Ironically, it took them longer to get from Bury to Liverpool than it took me to get from Bergerac to Liverpool. The snow was pretty bad. Steve was full of a cold. I’ve not often seen him so ill. And yet my excitement was brimming over. He was delighted. I knew he would be.

Now we have the house, the hard work starts, all the worrying begins…. and I’ve still got Christmas to get through!