Tag Archives: life

I try to be like Grace Kelly…

…but her looks were too sad.

Today’s Much Love Monday’s soundtrack is Mika with Grace Kelly.

Sometimes a little Freddie (Mercury) makes everyone feel a little better.

So… here’s Monday once again

What do I have Much Love for this sunny Monday?

  • the sun returning and finally being able to get in the garden to sort it out
  • being able to start the strimmer myself. You may think this is a paltry achievement, but petrol tools with a pull start always freak me out
  • the firework show at Exideuil and the very lovely company
  • doggie play dates
  • the spaniel romance between Dillon and Tilly. It’s one-sided as yet, but as soon as she realises Dillon is going to leave her alone and they can grumble about pups in peace, things will be fabulous
  • Heston who is as smart as a whip and can now also sit and wait for a treat. Ten days, two tricks. Clever boy
  • Tilly who has also learned to wait for a treat – who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? It must really irritate her that a puppy can do it. I think she could have, all along, if she’d wanted to, and maybe she feels a bit shown up by the puppy
  • Noireau – mauser general who can catch on command, even though he’s partially sighted
  • Summer pudding. Ah, fruit. How I’ve missed you
  • Grand garden plans
  • My new garden patch, which has grown from nothing to something beginning to be marvellous:

I’m also coming towards the end of the work year… whilst I have some clients over the summer, many are on holiday or take a break, so I finally have some time to catch up with people who I’ve not spoken to or seen for a while. I’ve finished the script I was translating, and it’s excellent. I can’t claim any credit for it of course, but it was really pleasurable work. The GCSE papers are almost finished. The writing questions have been really nice to mark  – there’s been a lot of variety in what they’ve written and the candidates seem to have written really well, compared to last year. They had to write a script for a radio show, and it’s really been good to mark. They’ve written in interesting ways and it’s been a nice format for them. The other piece was a letter to a celebrity persuading them to come to school – and it’s nice to have a variation from Steven Gerrard and Katie Price in a similar vein on a previous question. Jamie Oliver gets lots of mentions, as does David Beckham. It seems an awful lot of English school children are bothered about healthy meals, not just one little girl in Scotland. Several politicians have had a look-in as well, which is good.

The system might still be as frustrating, but it’s reminded me why I do it – so English children get the mark they deserve. I enjoy reading what they have to say. It’s like having 1000 teenagers telling you what they think. Nobody gets that experience and it’s interesting to see, from my perspective, how many children have switched from ‘fame’ being a shallow concept to ‘fame’ being something of note because you have achieved something. The Queen, Alan Sugar, various football managers, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Boris Johnson and even David Cameron have had a look in, and there are far fewer names I don’t know. It’s a little sad to me how many of them are men. Is this a reflection on the percentage of boys taking foundation tier, or on the fact that many women in the public eye are famous for nothing, or for having big boobs, rather than for having any actual talent? I think their responses are a whole lot less shallow and more thoughtful than they were in 2007 or 2008. Perhaps austerity, recession and positive national pride for the Diamond Jubilee and for the Olympics have brought out more thoughtful responses. Or perhaps the public is just tired of plastic people who have nothing to offer. Either way, it makes for good reading!

The summer holidays are also bringing several very exciting summer guests and people I’ve not seen for a couple of years. I will be very, very glad to see them, let me tell you!

Still waiting…

… seriously, it seems like summer is never going to arrive. I keep having a couple of days of mad activity in the garden and then it rains. The grass is epic. We can’t strim. We can’t mow. I keep hoeing back the weeds. I know we need the rain, but the cold is getting to my bones. I’m still in two jumpers and I’ve not had my shorts on for more than two days so far this year. It’s tiresome.

In actual fact, the temperatures aren’t that much different than last year, but it just seems so cold because we’ve had such little sunshine. It’s almost June and it feels like we’re way behind. Plus, our cherry tree has very few cherries – will be surprised if we get a kilo from all of them. Steve’s just informed me that the tree up the road is heavy with them – but I can only assume ours were having a bad year because of the weather when it blossomed. On the other hand, we’ve got hundreds of peaches this year – and we did last year too. Apples also seem thin on the ground. Bloody weather!

Beans… we have.

Broad beans

Peas, we have as well.

You’ll also remember a little planter I made?

Welcome to March

which was based on this:

From Diggerslist

But ended up being my own ‘Welcome’ twist… now I realise I need huge pots – or bigger ones at least! and that I need very low growing plants – because these calendula are far too big and it now looks like this:

So next year, I will separate these pots up and maybe do them in another way. The beauty of recyclable products! However, I am going to do one near the entrance gate because I think it’s cute.

I’ve also done my planters, too. I love verbena, so there’s lots of that:


I’ve also painted some 50c pots with gloss paint and put in succulent cuttings from our overgrown succulent can:

Sempervivum in an old rusty tin can

The sempervivum is very easy to propagate – you just separate the hen from the chicks! I’ve potted these up in white painted terracotta pots:


There are two final touches. One is a vamped up decoupage pot (Verity – I promise I’ll do yours! I do!)

Decoupage on plant pots

And the other touch is the painted tins. I sprayed these with primer then sprayed them green. Some have holes punched in the back so they can hang, like this:

Cheap and easy

And the best thing about these? They cost buttons. I can spray about 30 cans with a can of 4€ spray paint and a 3€ can of primer. A bit of wire and I’ve got a hanging garden. It’s not exactly Babylon, but then who wants that? We all know what happened to Babylon!

My little garden, still with its knickers, grows on apace:

Steve hammered up a ‘Noireau-proof’ fence, since Noireau seemed to think it was his own personal toilet. Poor boy – but I don’t want him digging up my babies! And, for the meanwhile, the knickers are staying.

Meanwhile, the red onions have gone to seed. Nothing to be done about that. That damned warm spell then the cold weather has fair tricked my onions – so I shall now enjoy their flowers and then save the seed. Only one problem in saving the seed of things that bolt – you get other stuff that bolts too.

Oh well.

You have to make the most of what you have, even if that means bolting onions…

What’s new pussycat?

In this amazing and glorious weather we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, we’ve got a lot done outside. I even mowed the grass for the first time since last year. I know I did it a lot earlier last year, and my grass REALLY REALLY needed it, but the rotavator has been hogging all the petrol, I was busy last week and Steve was painting the house. I’m leaving off posting a picture of his painting until it’s all done, mainly because it looks kind of worse, being half done, than it did before. It’s looking wonderful, though. It looks like a brand new house. Amazing what a lick of paint can do. At 8.99€ a tub for a giant-sized tub of paint, it’s a bargain as well. Hopefully, it won’t all wash off or something.

We’ve even got trees growing paintbrushes!

I have repotted a lot of our plants on, and I’ve even done something a little cute with some cheap terracotta pots. I’ve painted them with black gloss paint, then added ‘Yokoso!’, ‘Welkom’ and ‘Bienvenido’ – though Jake asked a) if I didn’t know any words in English and then b) asked if I’d forgotten how to spell welcome. Bah.

Hopefully, give it a couple of weeks and this will start to have some plants in. I’ve planted a whole load of yellow and white plants in it – think it will look mighty fine! I’ve gone for short, bright, colourful things – a mixture of various different marigolds in yellows – to be honest, I might make a bigger series – this was a 28″, 22″ and 14″ series. Given that the pots themselves are less than 2€ each, it’s not an expensive way to decorate. I’d totally stolen the idea from Diggerslist

which of course looks a lot smarter than mine on account of the fact that their plants have grown already. I confess I looked at the picture and then did it my way. The next one I do, I’m going to run a piece of pipe down through the holes so that it’s a bit more stable. They’ve also got a lovely red door and I’ve got cement bricks. Oh well. Steve’s painting will no doubt get round to rendering these bricks, or, at the very least, painting them. And then it will look pretty too. I’d not done ‘Home Sweet Home’ because I like to be a bit more original and not COMPLETELY steal someone’s idea. I love the gloss paint, though. I did all my lettering by hand. I really, really, really want a Cameo stencil cutting machine. I guess I could make my own stencils with OHT sheets and a stanley knife, but I’m too impatient and too lazy to do things properly.

I’d done Yokoso! first and then thought about German and Italian, but then that accidentally looks like I’m welcoming people to some kind of Axis powers summit, so I’d gone for Dutch and Spanish. Steve thinks it’s amusing I’ve tucked them away behind the gates but I don’t want anyone to steal my treasures and also, if it’s only me that sees them, so be it. I might do some for outside the house though, since he’s done such a good job of tidying it up. I thought about doing Kanji lettering, but my Japanese handwriting is not good and it’d look rubbish, so romanji it is. You wouldn’t believe how many languages I went through to get to these. If I do another, I might do an ‘England/Gaelic/Welsh version’ with Welcome-Failte-Croese on it, though that might make people think I know Welsh and Gaelic, though I do not. An Irishman once taught me to ask how to go to the toilet in Gaelic, and I can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyll-gogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch after a summer holiday in Anglesey with the Ellisons. Japanese is easy after you’ve mastered Llanfair.

In the garden, the beans and peas are almost ready to be staked. Potatoes should be in by now, but Steve’s been too busy to rotavate another time, so I’ll be either digging the plots over (not much of a chore anyway) or planting them anyway. I still hold by the Good Friday planting – it’s a reason not to plant until Friday, anyway!

The propagator is still in full-time use – I guess it will be until the weather heats up properly. It’s a marvel. Whatever goes in pops into life. It takes away all those will they?/won’t they? moments when I wonder what will come up. At the moment, it’s gloriosa in there, as well as some passionfruit – not been too successful – and some Super Marmande. Given that temperatures are due to dip, I’m glad I’ve not planted any tomatoes outside yet.

Since I’ve finally given up Madame Verity’s tresor, I feel I can share with you my joyous vide-grenier find:

If the truth be told, I’d sprayed it with degreasant and it has come up like new, which is a shame. I liked it tatty and unloved. I love the whole cheesy ‘Bromance’ picture, those nasty, nasty suits, the cheesy faces, the lilac suit, the hairy-hands-guy, the tie-pin, the fact it says La Vérité (I think I’m going to rename Verity ‘La Vérité’) – she needs a La in front of her name for when she’s being flamboyant, like I do when I am La Lee. For 1€, it was a worthwhile find. It was in return for this little grannified tea-pot she bought me:

I think this ‘tit-for-tat’ (or ‘tatt-for-tatt’) vide-grenier game needs to stop before we end up with a house full of ‘treasures’ and have to do our own sale, hoping that there might be some ladies out there doing a similar thing as us who will take the whole lot off our hands.

I’m not safe at vide-greniers. I’m still regretting not having bought those Nana Mouskouri LPs. Who’s to say when I’ll see them again?

Probably the next vide-grenier I go to, in all honesty…

Have a lovely Wednesday, all!

Sugoi, desu ne?*

* I go all Japanese around blossom and beautiful stuff. It’s my default language of admiration and awe.

Yesterday, I finished delivering all my papers across the region – such a hard job, driving through the beautiful countryside stopping at gorgeous towns. Yesterday, it was the turn of Chasseneuil, Roumazieres-Loubert, Chabanais, St Junien and Rochechouart.

First stop is a little café in Chasseneuil where the wonderful proprietress told me her customers were ‘greedy’ for the magazine and she has to ration them. Chasseneuil is a sleepy little town that hasn’t really moved on much from the 70s. A lot of the shops have tired old displays and it’s definitely like a step back in time. Ever since the by-pass went in, the town hasn’t exactly died so much as stagnated. Having said that, I like it. I like the feeling of being in a completely different era, one with few cars and old shops with tired displays. The Madame in the café is like a breath of fresh air in a town where an Intermarché and a Lidl in need of a ‘relooking’ rule the street.

Next up is Roumazieres. Truthfully, I don’t like this town. It’s got little by way of anything interesting. The buildings are dirty, the people seem less polite – the whole place is out of step with the rest of the Charente stops. It just seems scruffy and uncared for. There aren’t any flower displays, there are no beautiful buildings. Even though Chasseneuil is a little tired, it still has THE most beautiful Art Nouveau town hall with beautiful tile work and lovely details. Romazieres can’t even offer that.

From here, it’s a little windy way from Romazieres to do a couple of drop-offs in more remote locations before getting back to Chabanais, which is an utterly charming little town. It sits astride the Vienne river and although it’s desperately in need of a bypass (in the process of being built) since all the traffic from Angouleme to Limoges has to pass along it, including hundreds of articulated lorries, it’s quite lovely.

St Junien is the biggest town on the route, and I like it a lot. There are ample shops, bars and restaurants. It always feels busy, too, which is rare for France. Plus, I get to do drop-offs at the wonderful Moulin de Tin Tin, a treasure trove of lovely household stuff as well as jewellery, handbags and clothes. A true delight!

I parked near the church and walked over to drop off magazines at Giac’s bar – only to see the most beautiful trees in blossom.

It’s at times like this that I’d love my film camera to hand. Truth be told, it doesn’t get so much of an outing any more. It’s becoming impossible to get good quality film (I only use Fuji for colour work because of the greens and the blues – amazing colours) and it costs a ridiculous amount to process. Black and white I can process myself, even though the film is still pushing on for 5€ a pop. So I use my cute little digital my mum, sister and brother bought for me, but it doesn’t have manual focus and the aperture range is limited, which is a shame. Oh the things I could do with a digital SLR! I think I need to start saving for a second-hand one because I miss what I can do with an SLR. Still, the shots don’t come out too bad at all!

If you’re a photographer, you’ll know what I mean when I say I’d like a better depth of field. I could make those blossoms pop out like you wouldn’t believe! Still, I always try to get the balance between remembering that a photograph is just a way of capturing a moment – and it should never be better than the moment was, or detract from the moment. And the warm wind, the petals blowing across the square like snow, the smell of the magnolias – a photograph could never do it justice!

This magnolia stellata was a couple of days past its prime – and another Japanese moment – mono no aware – simultaneous sadness and joy. The joy of the beauty of a thing and the sadness that it is fleeting and transitory. It was utterly magnificent. I had a magnolia (a tiny little one!) back in Manchester, and I’d love one here. I made do with a couple of 1€ purchases of some rather tired-looking perennials. I’ve still got to decide where to put this flowerbed of mine. I’m stacking up pots of perennials and need a suitably appropriate place to put them.

I love magnolias. They’re a kind of gift you get from the previous house-owner who perhaps had the kindness to plant one – as they’re not the kind of thing you can buy and see in all its magnificence by the next few years. I love the huge trees with tulip blossoms – but they’re years and years worth of growth – the kind you acquire rather than buy.

It is, however, days like these when I realise how lucky I am to have such achingly blue skies that almost make my heart hurt because they’re so, so beautiful. I think this time of year is a perfect time of year. Everything is still new, so alive and vibrant. It’s not too hot – the nights are beginning to get warmer – the breezes are delightful. The garden is manageable and beautiful and green. The chickens are laying. The animals are enjoying sunbathing and dirt baths. I wake up with the pear and quince tree in blossom outside my bedroom window. It’s light. The evenings are long and cool. All those dark little seeds are beginning to put out leaves and stalks. Everything is gentle and new.

Steve’s in the process of painting the outside of the house – it seems to have taken years off the house and given it a new lease of life. Amazing what two big tubs of cheap paint can do! Mind you, I’m a little worried it will a) put the rest of the house to shame b) put the rest of the village to shame c) blind people who come round the corner, used to seeing a grubby little vision, not a glowing edifice. I hope they aren’t so distracted that they drive into the house.

Spring has sprung…

A lyric from one of my favourite songs ever.

I had such a crush on Ian McCulloch and his debut solo album Candleland is just amazing. As is the album this is taken from. I love a man with back-combed hair, it is true.

Anyway… Spring has sprung. It’s maybe a little later than last year, since this time last year, my ornamental plum had flowers  on March 1st and yesterday it had its first flowers of 2012 and that’s one of the beauties of having a diary or a blog is seeing what you were up to this time last year. I notice my flower garden did not do so well – combination of repeated trips to the UK in May and then again in July – and because it was so dry. Also, I tried a few packets of seeds, but they were very old and came to nothing.

Evening plum blossom

One of the things I love very much about this life is the renewed life that spring gives you. I just didn’t feel it the same in the UK – mainly because there are still arctic breezes that cut through and stick a knife right in your ribs. Yesterday, I got in the car and it said this:

It sank to 22 degrees, but it was still a bit of a shock to see!

I thought as I drove to my afternoon appointments that all the winter cold is forgiven just for one day like this. I can live with it knowing that the landscape goes from one under snow to one bursting with life in a month. And it is true, winter did give me a time of rest, hibernation and a time to earn a little money indoors.

Yesterday's drive to work...

This is what I came here looking for… proper spring, wide-open countryside, empty roads, greens and blues. You can see why I don’t miss the traffic and the M60 and the M61 and the traffic lights through Bolton and the sitting and the waiting for four turns of the lights to actually move up far enough to get through to the next bit. I miss many, many things about the UK, not least that Bolton feels like home and when I need to retreat, this place still feels like somewhere I’m visiting rather than somewhere I know like the back of my hand.

I think that’s partly to do with the fact that in England, by and large, most of my routes involved six or seven main ways to get there. Even when I worked in Clitheroe and had to drive 30 miles from my house to work across some beautiful landscapes, mostly it was fairly bleak – though I always loved the drive across from Preston to Clitheroe – which is a straight, fast road  (not unlike the ones we have here) that slipped through Pendle Vale in the shadow of Longridge Fell and then Pendle Hill. On a good day, you can see all the way up to the Lake District – and yes, I would have loved to have lived in the Lake District and maybe one day I will be able to buy a house in the Lake District – one day when I am a millionaire. One of my great aunts and her husband had a house in the Lake District – I still remember that house. It was amazing. They live outside Penrith now, and I love it up there too, but it’s not the same as having a house in the shadow of a huge hill.

Beautiful photograph from Geoff Rollinson. Click to visit his gallery

So yes, I miss this. I miss those days when we had training up in Cumbria and I had an overnight stay in Grange-over-Sands or Ullswater. I miss our training days in Ambleside. When I was an English teaching consultant, we often had our meetings up around the lakes. My very first one, fresh out of teaching in Clitheroe, was in Grange. It was May – our meeting started at 10:00 and having been used to setting off at 6:50 to make it to school for 7:30, then teaching all day before rolling in back at my house around 6:30, after all the traffic had gone – it was a complete shock to the system. My predecessor, Mary, who had moved to be an English consultant in another county and was thus at the meeting, had been for a run before the meeting. Two ladies sat drinking tea and reading the paper. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Whilst I think it’s true that you are probably only appreciated in paid employment for about six months (the time it takes for your bosses to grow accustomed to your efficiency and talent and then just to expect it, before, finally, getting frustrated if you do anything remotely human and non-robotic) I think maybe the same is true of jobs. I did work too hard at that job and invested far too much in it. Maybe I should have been a little lazier and enjoyed it a little more? That morning, I’d set off at 7:00 from Bolton to drive up – most people stayed over the night before. I ate in a Little Chef and they had breakfast in the restaurant. I was far too decent to take £15 for a breakfast from the tax payer. More fool me. I still am like that. There are some people in life from whom the tax man makes money just to support those others. I guess that was me.

Our hotel, that first meeting

So there were times I enjoyed my drive to work. There were times my offices were conducive to creativity. For the rest of those times, I had an office at the end of a dark corridor, or in a musty old building, or an office in an under-stairs cupboard formerly used for cleaning materials. Now I always stop to make sure I appreciate what’s around me – and even in the winter, I have the privilege of always finding beauty around me. I could have stopped in fifty places yesterday just for a little look about and to snap a photograph. Perhaps I should.

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...

The end of the year

Back in Manchester, the year ended on December 31st – with a bang, not a whimper. Fireworks, drinks, celebrations, clocks striking midnight. And that’s that. It’s over. New year starts. Resolutions are made. Nothing much changes. It might snow. It might blow a gale. There might be gallons of rain. But October looks like November which looks like December and January and February.

It gets darker, sure. The clocks go back and evening sets in earlier. But cities are good at creating an artificial sense of time. In Japan, the emperors cut down the cherry trees so their blossoming did not remind them of the passing of the seasons. Really, they should just have moved to the city. Thermostats and central heating and all-year-round tomatoes and oranges mean that it gets a little difficult to feel the seasons.

Here, it was warm yesterday afternoon. It’s been dry and the grass has finally given up. Apparently rain is due next Friday, but I’m not holding my breath. But in the morning, there’s a definite nip in the air. My bedroom temperature this morning finally dropped under 16 degrees. I’ve remembered a lot about how houses used to be cold.

My brother and I used to sit around this strange hot-air-blowing-vent-thing in our house of a morning. We ate our cereal sitting cross-legged by the hot air. Double glazing hadn’t been invented yet and my mum was frugal. It taught me valuable lessons that I think our children won’t know – what it means to have to put on another layer – why you need to wear pyjamas to bed – the glory of a hot water bottle – why double glazing was the best invention ever. That was the expansive 80s – yet when I talk about it, it seems as far away as toasting bread on an open fire, kippers for breakfast and Queen Victoria’s mourning.

In reality, the year goes out with a whimper, not a bang – like a balloon slowly deflating rather than popping. Each day gets a little shorter. Each morning gets a little later. Each day is a little colder. By this time last year, we’d had our first frosts. It’s been a little too warm for that yet, even though it’s the middle of October.

The poplars are now bare; the vine leaves are changing colour slowly. The plum trees in the garden are turning. I spent yesterday raking leaves to make for leaf mulch. I might have been sweating, but the world knows something I’ve not registered properly yet: it’s the end of the year.

We’ve not had a fire yet – though I suspect the day isn’t far off when I beg Steve to make one (man’s job. “I am man. I make fire.” says Steve. “I am woman. I do everything else.” say I.) and last night, I dug out my pyjama bottoms and a long-sleeved top. I’ve already put the blankets back on the bed.

Last year, we had oil for the central heating, but going through €50 of oil a week isn’t my idea of sense, so this year, we’re oil-free. Not only that, but our mighty burner has not got a thermostat, so it’s impossible to regulate. It’s off when you need it on. It takes hours to warm up. We have to go outside to switch it on. I might be regretting it later, but the thought of spending €1000 on keeping the house warm is enough to put off those regrets. Steve’s chopped wood (okay, so he does two jobs) and I might splash out on some electric blankets – maybe. The bed feels damp when it’s cold, and sometimes, March feels a very long way away when it’s 10 degrees in my bedroom.

Right now, the mornings are cool. I’ve shut my shutters and they’ll stay that way til March. I’ve a hole in my window frame that I’m going to plug up with mastic. I think a new window is in order next year. Maybe a double glazed one. How utterly luxurious!

The problem is that the day heats the lean-to and thus the house, which means that in the afternoon, the house is roasting. So if you light a fire in the morning, you let it go out in the afternoon because it’s warm and then spend all the afternoon in a warm haze with the doors open, wasting all the residual heat from the fire.

I love autumn as it finally gives way to winter. I love frost on berries and edging leaves. I love the crisp crunch of leaves underfoot, and the crisp grass (not that we’ll have much left by the end of the year!) I love hats and scarves and gloves and knitting. I love jumpers and coats. I love cold blue skies and pink cheeks. I love the low sun and the warm afternoons and I love having blankets on my bed. I love pyjamas and hot chocolate and hot water bottles. I’m glad the countryside year fades rather than pops. I love this rest time and the time to contemplate next year’s growth, planning out what I’ll do and where. I love these long, dark evenings and the time to rest. The world slows down. There’s less to do. I’m now only doing two hours in the garden each day, not three. It’s nature’s way of giving me a rest after the heat and hectic pace of summer. I like to think that the natural order of things is how it should be.

Now the only thing that could improve it would be to have a great Galway pub down the road, one with a roaring fire, a sad-eyed guy playing a guitar and all my friends and family in there. Winter evenings are meant for company. We tend to our roots.

On swans

A swan, as you will know, floats around gracefully looking wonderful. So wonderful in fact, there are various ballets about them. Nobody did a ballet called ‘Duck Pond’ or ‘Goose field’. Elegance, effortlessness, beauty, grace.

You only have to look beneath the surface though and you see they are flapping like mental under there. Not very graceful at all. All that work just to give them the appearance of grace. All that effort just to hold them up and keep them in the same spot, or floating along looking serene.

Many women I know are like this. If you aren’t like this, you are either spoiled or a princess or Paris Hilton. In fact, I’m sure Paris Hilton has her flappy feet moments, not to malign her. Even Posh Spice, mortal enemy #1 – you just know she has flappy feet underneath that. Big flappy feet. That gives me some comfort. If you are a woman and you DON’T sympathise with this post, I despise you. You are obviously a spoiled princess. Get off my blog.

Take me. Steve, this morning, sees me happily ensconced in my messy corner with my laptop and a coffee. I’ve brushed my teeth and my hair (a rarity for both to occur!) and I look serene, like I had a good night’s sleep and I’m just checking up on the Telegraph. I’m in relatively clean clothes, and Tilly, all clean and scrubbed, is sitting next to me. I don’t look very Carrie Bradshaw, but I look more Carrie Bradshaw today than Grandma Clampett. By 8:15, I had managed to get into ‘swan’ position.

At 7:30, it was a very different story. In fact, I need to take you back to 03:10 yesterday morning. I have been mainly flapping with occasional swan moments since then. Well, if I were going right back to the beginning, it’d start with the day I first started work, but that would be a very long blog. This just repeats the latest flapping and swan incident.

03:10 yesterday morning… Cesar, the dog from up the road who comes down here because a) he can and b) it’s nicer here had arrived the night before. His owner (who apparently was ‘born early’ – whatever that means in French parlance – I suspect ‘dropped on head at birth’) had turned up the night before and told me not to take Cesar back to his parents’ house, as they were away, but to look after him if he turned up. This is what you get for going on and on about how he might cause an accident on the road and there might be insurance claims. This was how I got through to him. When I said ‘your dog might be killed,’ he said ‘I can always get another one’ so animal welfare = not his strong point. So, Cesar had turned up. Normally, I walk him home because he frightens the cat but tonight, Steve got a dog bed and blanket and put it in the porch. Cesar is not allowed in the house as he pisses everywhere. Each morning, as he wends his way down here, he stops off at M Richon’s house and if the gate is open, he goes in and pisses in their house.

Anyway, at 03:10, Fox (our ginger cat) had decided to come back. Cesar barked like mental. Tilly barked like mental. I decided I could get no peace so I got out of bed, put Cesar on the lead and walked him back to his home. He ran off when we got there and ambled in the corn field. He was enjoying himself, so I left it at that. Luckily, the moon was out or else I’d have been in the pitch black.

At 3:20, I got back and Tilly had pissed on the dining room floor, which I only re-waxed a couple of weeks ago. I got out the specialist floor cleaner, cleaned and then left it to dry. Naughty Tilly.

By 3:40, I went out to call Fox and check if he was alright. No sign nor sound of my little gingery angel.

By 3:50, I got back into bed. I read a book for a bit, hoping I’d go back to sleep. I didn’t.

By 4:30 I gave in and got up. I decided it was a good time to mop the kitchen floor. No men or beasts getting underfoot. I swept and mopped times 1. Then I swept the front room whilst that was drying. Then I planned a lesson. I mopped the kitchen floor again because I don’t like it being mopped with dirty water.

That’s pretty much how the day unfolded. Washing up. Hanging washing out. Mopping floors. Cleaning windows.

I have a theory. It relates to The Elves and The Shoemaker. You know, that fairy tale about a shoemaker who goes downstairs in the morning to see that ‘elves’ have miraculously made a load of shoes and cleaned up after themselves. My theory is this: the shoemaker – man. The story-writer – man. They both missed the main point. There were no elves. Elves do not exist. Women, however, exist. The story really should have been called ‘The Women and The Shoemaker’ since it was quite obviously women’s work afoot.

Consider the evidence: the shoemaker goes downstairs and by some miracle the shoes are finished with beautiful, tiny stitches. There isn’t a woman still reading this that hasn’t got up before the menfolk and done something, and we’re well-known for our neat and tidy craftsmanship. Like in this house, the menfolk come out of their pits and don’t even think how it even got so clean and tidy. It just is. And if they had to think about it, they’d probably be thinking of elves too.

Remember, the woman had been given a heads up by the shoemaker, and probably decided to play a trick on him. He told her he was going to wait up. I bet any money she paid some dwarfs to sit and work in there just to maintain her mystique (and to have a bit of a laugh at her husband’s expense, since it hadn’t even crossed his tiny mind that his wife might be the one making the shoes) And it’s the wife who makes them the clothes in reward for their efforts. If indeed that took place. She’s grateful on her useless husband’s behalf.

So, here’s to all the swan women who do all the housework, all the cleaning, the gardening and work too, and bring up the kids. Now we’re being told off by reports telling us we shouldn’t have tried to have it all, but I don’t remember signing up to say I’d be the one doing everything.

I’d like to put a quote in here from a harried friend who stropped and shouted at her husband. She had loads of housework to do. In her words, the house was a pit. He said ‘it looks okay to me’. And therein lies the problem.

I watched the latest Outnumbered last night and it reminded me that in all comedies, women are the ones who hold it together these days. Mrs Simpson and her four children. Mrs Griffin and her four children. Lois and her many children in Malcolm in the Middle. The Brockmans in Outnumbered are just the latest in a line where harried women try and hold the family together. Outnumbered was more gentle in it’s approach to ‘men as hapless children’ but they still broke a washing machine, ate grey ‘puree’ for tea and you were left in no doubt that the mum is not only the heroine but the glue to this whole family. I don’t know. Maybe it’s our fault as women for doing everything. Maybe if we did less, men would do more. I doubt it. I know that if I don’t do a thing, it won’t get done. In reality, I suggest we do it because we love men so much. We indulge them. Like Peter Pan, when Wendy sews his shadow back on, and he says ‘Oh, the Cleverness of Me!’ – Wendy just says, ‘Of course, I had nothing to do with it…’ because like Wendy we indulge men and their funny little ways.

Now let me stop with my whining. I have lessons to teach, grapes to squash, apples to core and quinces to jellify. I will leave you with these two quotes.

 “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Charlotte Whittam

And the next reputedly from Ginger Rogers when asked about dancing with Fred Astaire.

I did everything he did... just backwards and in high heels

Here’s to being swans. Here’s to fabulous women. I never have been so proud to be a girl. And men, if you’re still with me… buy your ladies some flowers, make them a coffee and clean up the milk spill. Whether they’re wives, sisters, mothers, friends or lovers they do a damn fine job of looking after you.

Welcome to Autumn

Autumn has been long in the coming. The first leaves started falling in mid-July. You don’t notice how early Autumn starts when you live in the city. It’s definitely the season of harvesting.

French people are all ready for Autumn. I saw my first scarf-wearer in the supermarket in the tail-end of August when it was still 27 ° out there. Their logs are all collected and chopped, and I smelled my first wood fire in the air the other evening. Hopefully, they were just testing. Our fire hasn’t been lit since March and I don’t want to light it until September is out. We’ll see, though.

The preparations are underfoot to get all the grapes in (I’m making juice concentrate to freeze this year… a lot of effort went into the wine harvest last year, and to be honest, whilst the wine was potent, it tasted like anti-freeze) and to prepare the garden for Winter. You might laugh. It’s only just September and it was 25 ° yesterday. Steve chainsawed the big beech hedge. I pruned the little bits. The hedges in the garden are now done, the soil has been dug over once – though I’ll do it again and then rotavate it before Winter really gets here. Pots are being emptied, the compost heap is at full capacity and I’m thinking about bonfires. Any wood we prune goes to kindling.

I battled yesterday with the bittersweet nightshade that seems to have sprung up from nowhere in a patch I cleared in April. It’s not quite as toxic as deadly nightshade but it can still give you a good dose of poisoning and is toxic to many animals. If Steve goes missing, you know how I killed him. What amazed me was that the chickens – ever interested in whatever is being dug up – were pecking around, missing the berries and finding the insects. Even they know. I worried about them getting paralysed or hallucinating (not sure how one would know that a chicken was hallucinating though!) but they seem fine and are all present and correct this morning. The Cicely M. Barker Flower Fairies illustration for deadly nightshade was always one of my favourites – he was a Middle Eastern boy with a purple and gold turban – and I think it’s always been instantly recognisable to me because of that drawing.

After I’d reduced the size of the patch quite considerably, I decided it was about time I cycled somewhere. I’ve been so busy it has escaped me. It was early evening by the time I set off and I did a 20km circuit in the most pleasant of circumstances (except the for the bit where I cycled into a cloud of insect and I accidentally ingested some). It was warm and the cornfields smelled like breakfast cereal. The best time for everything smelling like breakfast is in May, when all the wheat and corn are ripe. It’s amazing. It smells like warm cereal – none of the yeasty smell of bread – but it’s gorgeous. There are a couple of innocuous, tiny peach trees about a kilometre from here which I could smell from a good 100 metres away. In fact, I could smell the peaches before I even knew the trees were there. In many other places, the smell of fermenting fruit left to rot is boozy and thick in the air. Pears are the strongest. Then in other places, there’s a grapey, clean smell – hard to explain, but I know precisely which type of grape it is. We have some that smell like that too. And late cow parsley adds to the scented melange.

I cycled past hedgerows almost devoid of blackberries, and some still with fat, huge blackberries waiting for someone to come along and harvest them. The sweet chestnuts are starting to fall, and their lime-green armour litters the floor. Walnuts are everywhere.

As I cycled back, the sun had sunk on the horizon and the sky was all shades – dark blue, indigo, lavender, lilac, soft pink, muted oranges. The moon was up already, ghostly and ephemeral, but it was still warm and the last downhill stretch coming home was delicious.

I guess that’s what I’m living for these days. How I love Autumn.


The bottom line on people

I decided last night at 1:27 in the morning that people generally fall into two categories: cat people and dog people.

I don’t mean people who like either dogs or cats, but that they are like cats or dogs. And before you laugh, I once wrote a list of ’20 people you’re likely to have at a conference’, comparing them to animals. For example, the hedgehog – someone who sees the light and curls up in a ball all prickly.

Cat people and dog people. I’m a dog person. Mostly. It’s possible that we swap, depending on our relationship with someone. I can think of a time I was a cat person, but it isn’t very often.

Cat people:

aloof, deliberately whimsical, like their own space, want to come in when THEY want to come in.

If you live with a cat person, you will find that they come to you when they want, rather than when you want. They like a bit of petting, but on their own terms. Mostly, that’s in the middle of the night when you’re trying to sleep. They like luxury but will gladly piss where they sleep if they don’t have to clean it up. They might be fighting machines but they still like to sleep in the warmest, most comfortable spot and luxuriate. Girl cats take very good care of themselves and like to preen. Boy cats like to strut. Cats are hyper-intelligent and a bit wild. They have the ability to completely manipulate dog people. For instance, if you find yourself getting up to get their breakfast at 6:00 a.m., you’re a dog and they’re a cat. If you put a plate of food aside for them, you’re a dog and they’re a cat. A cat might go a little crazy from time to time, but mostly they are uber-composed. They’re cruel sometimes and they can be mean, but they do such a good job of looking cute that you’d forgive them for eating that butterfly and tormenting a mouse. You can’t put a cat on a lead (or if you do, it just looks peculiar!) because they aren’t meant to be collared. They’re the dom. You’re the sub. Got that?

They like to be independent and would rather hang about alone. They might have a little friend or be forced to live with other people, but if they’re being cute, they’re doing it just to trick you. One of those cats will be more like a dog, I promise you. They’ll be a scaredy-cat.

Cat women are fierce about their children, even if their children are feral. Cat women can quite easily hang about with other cat women, as long as the order is respected, otherwise, claws are out. They are perfectly good at ganging up on innocent victims and terrorising them. They kind of hang about out of a loose sense of needing someone to hunt with from time to time, rather than out of loyalty.

Cat men are used to being loners. They might find a cat pack who’ll let them rule for a bit, but they know their rule is only as long as they’re allowed to hang around. A show of weakness and that’s it. They’re forced to prowl alone.

Dogs are the opposite of this. Dogs like to be in a pack. Dogs are loyal and friendly in a kind of senseless manner. It’s easy to trick a dog. You can pretend to throw a ball and a dog will run after it. When they come back, they look at you as if to say: “Hey?! What happened?” You can be mean to a dog and only when it’s very, very threatened will it attack you. Dogs like to be with other dogs and they like company. Dogs eat a lot and they don’t care what they eat or when. Dogs are also a bit needy. They need someone to look after them and clean them up. Dogs are helpful. Cats wouldn’t herd sheep, now would they? Cats are too busy plotting the downfall of mankind to herd sheep.

A dog will always be happy to see you. A cat will pretend you’re not there. And when they are forced to acknowledge your presence, a cat will say: “Oh… it’s you… have you been somewhere?”

If you leave a cat, it will rub its paws together and say: “Oh, goodie. All night singing with my friends… I can go prowling again! I can eat mice and leave bird wings on the doorstep.” A dog will say: “Don’t go. Why are you going? Where are you going? When are you coming back? How long will you be?”

Dogs can be terribly clever but also very stupid. You come across stupid cats, like the one we rescued and now belongs to my sister, but he’s stupid with sharp claws and an innate ability to attack you whilst you sleep. A stupid cat is still a dangerous cat. A stupid dog is just funny.

Dogs get giddy if you give them a present. A free bone from the butcher’s is like a gourmet meal. A ball is as good as a Ferrari to a dog. If you get a cat a present, it probably won’t like it. It might toy with it a little. It’d rather play with a paper bag or a box. Dogs get giddy about walks, cats, postmen, strange noises, other dogs, getting up, going to the door, their tea. Cats get giddy about cat nip and that’s only because it’s a drug.

Dogs will lie on the floor or in a pile of dirt and not care. They like it a lot if you let them sit with you, but that’s not because it’s more comfortable, but because they are near you. A cat will sit where it likes and if you have to sit somewhere else, so be it. If you go off and do something, a dog will want to know what you’re doing and follow you. A cat won’t even care.

Dogs are so full of emotion and perplexity that the years have enabled them to develop eyebrows. Every dog has sad, expressive eyes and looks permanently baffled by life when they aren’t with you. A dog can guilt you into giving them space on the settee or letting them get into bed with you. A cat will bully you into it. Cats haven’t developed eyebrows because they are emotionless like Mr. Spock. Humanity fascinates them and interests them a bit. If they had eyebrows, they might be permanently raised, but that would imply some kind of reaction to the world around them, and they can’t have that. Cats have poker faces so you don’t know what they’re up to, and only if you’ve really studied them can you tell their feelings. A dog has a great big tail to give themselves away, and a pair of eyebrows. Dogs are that easy to read that nobody is in any doubt what a dog feels.

Dog people are fine to live with other dogs, as long as they’re clear what their role is. Dogs are fine to live with cats too. Dog people get on with everybody and like to be social. If dogs are neurotic, it’s usually because of the company they keep. Cats can be neurotic, but more often than not, if they have a personality disorder, it makes them psychotic. Think Hannibal Lector. Cat person. Expressionless. Well-groomed. Predator for sport kills. Dogs’ tails and eyebrows and growls and barking give them away. If a dog is going to attack you, you know it.