Thursday, December 11, 2008

santa's little helper

The builders didn't turn up last week despite the weather not being as bad as predicted, but they were back on Monday and Tuesday and are absent again because it hasn't stopped snowing since Tuesday night. Over a foot and counting. The plan was to get all the masonry work (pool, supporting walls, new lintels and first floor concrete slab) done by Christmas but that's not going to happen now.

The annual battle for the most garish Christmas lights has begun and new-kid-on-the-plateau Poire looks to be in pole position, with M. Slip a close runner-up. I went up to the plateau to have a look tonight and even through the thick fog it looked like Vegas - dancing Santas climbing up the outside of the house, lit-up reindeers and sleighs all over the lawns, flashing lights on all the bushes and trees and all over the house. It's enough to bring on an epileptic fit.

Interesting fact: In 1962 a law was passed in France decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. What an interesting job description that must be.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

bear hug

BB is helping Poire put the roof on his new garage and in return, Poire will help BB with the mill roof when the time comes. Snow is forecast for tonight and all next week, so I doubt much masonry work will be getting done here anyway.

With all his tractors broken down, Mini-B is also calling upon friends to help him deliver bales of hay to the snow-covered fields where his cows are - or where they should be, because for most of this week they've been wandering about all over the road again. Roquin has just dropped off some cauliflowers and reckons Mini-B will be failli (bankrupt) by next year if he carries on like this.

Roquin also told me that there used to be brown bears in the mountains here until 1913, which I never knew. (They disappeared from the French Alps altogether in 1937.) His grandfather used to tell him the story of his two friends who shot one high up in the mountains and while one guy ran down to the village to fetch a sledge (a four-hour round trip), the other guy hugged the dead animal to keep warm - and got fleas. Pah! Serves him right!

Friday, November 28, 2008

secrets and lies

To mix the cement for the swimming-pool walls today, the builders had to break up the sand with a pickaxe and smash through two inches of ice on top of the water barrel. The garage tap has thawed out but we are having to keep it open to prevent it from freezing again until we can move the wood - which we can't do until the enormous pile of sand has gone.

BB spent all day wrestling with coils of armoured flexible PVC tube for the pool - which in sub-zero temperatures is extremely difficult to unroll and cut - whilst trying to avoid impaling his eyeballs on the reinforcement rods sticking up all over the place every time he bent down.

People keep stopping to ask why we're digging such a big hole in the basement so we're having to pretend it's a cave (cellar) otherwise we may have difficulties when we come to applying for planning permission. Apparently, the planning authorities can come to your house before they grant permission to make sure you haven't started the work already - and if you have, they can refuse your application. It's probably the worst-kept secret in the village right now, so we'll just have to make sure we don't fall out with anyone!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

too much information

The builders are back, it's -8 outside and in no particular order of severity:
  • a block of ice has formed in the internal workings of the crane making it inoperable

  • in order to thaw out the crane (and the workers) they've lit a bonfire on top of the (PVC-coated) earth pipe for the crane

  • the water tap in the garage has frozen

  • access to the water mains to turn off the water and prevent the garage from flooding is under five tonnes of wood

  • the toupie (cement lorry) has arrived and they are now pouring the base for the swimming-pool on to a slab of ice.

All of which is far too much information for me!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The builders arrived at 7 o'clock this morning and after clearing the snow off the materials started putting in the reinforcement for the pool. Work on the foundations for our current house and the garage was delayed in previous winters because BB refused to pour concrete in cold weather because he said it would crack (setting us back months but conveniently allowing him to have very long skiing holidays) - but he doesn't seem to mind when other people are doing it!

He came back from the écurie tonight with the news that Mini-B was off out on a hot date and had spruced himself up by taking a piece of folded-up cardboard and scraping the cow shit off his jeans!

While BB was out, Roquin came round with some eggs and a bag of génépi - a rare aromatic plant that grows high up in the Alps - which I've put in la gnôle with some sugar to make a digestif. The bright green liqueur is a speciality of this region for which you pay a fortune in the ski resorts. What with the génépi and my other homemade liqueurs (vin de noix, calava, kirsch and vin d'orange), I could be on to a nice little earner. At the rate BB is paying the builders, we may need it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

set back

The builders were due to start today but the materials are currently under several inches of snow!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

cracking on

Things are moving at a cracking pace now. Monsieur CAHAL has been here since Monday, knocking down a section of stone wall and digging out the foundations for the new internal walls and the swimming-pool (which we haven't got planning permission for yet!). Just as he finished, it started pouring with rain, so now all the foundations are full of water.

The builder, who starts on Monday, spent all afternoon dropping off materials - sand, sacks of cement, reinforcement bars - and installing a porta-cabin in front of the garage, so it appears they may be here for some time.

There are people in and out of the house all day long now and as soon as I've cleared away the pastis glasses, wiped down the table and mopped up the floor, the next lot of builders or inquisitive friends or neighbours arrive. With our house on constant public display I'm having to do far more housework than I would otherwise like!

Monday, November 10, 2008

budget summit

By the time we arrived home last night it was pitch black (apart from the sparks flying between us) so I got the surprise of my life this morning when I came downstairs and looked outside. Not only has the rest of the roof on the mill gone but the whole landscape behind the garage has changed. Where there used to be a steep embankment covered in vegetation there is now an extensive flat area upon which you could build another house. BB has been busy.

Given the "budget issues", we sat down today to re-visit the plans (for the sixth time) to see where we can cut costs. At the moment we have a long, thin ensuite bathroom in one of the bedrooms which BB wants to make two feet shorter - not for financial reasons but because he says he would "get tired walking to the loo" and it would be "part of his life he'd wasted"! This from a man who spends many of his waking hours drinking pastis.

Elsewhere in the village: Nainbo took the opportunity of his wife's absence last week to dig up her favourite tree - so they're not speaking - and Gribouille's wife wondered why the lawnmower wasn't cutting the grass so stuck her hand underneath so see if the blades were turning - which they were - and cut her finger off!!

budget issues

I'd been looking forward to seeing BB after my trip but when he met me at the airport tonight, things didn't get off to a very good start. He said he'd been working every day since I left (?!) apart from Wednesday afternoon, when he'd gone for lunch chez Nainbo, and Friday afternoon, when he'd been "chatting and having a laugh" with the guy who had taken down the old concrete lamppost in our front garden. The first five minutes in the car went like this:

BC: (incredulously) But you don't do Chatting And Having A Laugh! How much did he charge anyway? A couple of hundred?

BB: (incredulously) A couple of thou more like.

BC: (choking on my Azorean cinammon twist biscuit) No wonder he was Having A Laugh! Laughing All The Way To The Bank more like!

But that was just a taster - an amuse-bouche, a horse's h'oeuvre - of what was to come because he then dropped the bombshell that he's asked Monsieur Chatting And Having A Laugh All The Way To The Bank to do the masonry work (putting in the concrete slabs and some walls) - for a price equal to 70% of our budget! To put it into perspective, that's twice as much as we paid to completely re-do the house we're in now!

BC: (speechless - for no words were spoken) !

BB: Ok. We've got some budget issues.


An hour and a half of silence later.......

BC: So. Did you eat all the PC Dinners?

BB: Yep. They were great. The spag bol was hard work though because I had to transfer it into a pan and stir AND put pasta on!!!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

BYOE (bring your own everything)

Twenty of us arrived for Mini-B's birthday party at the écurie clutching our invitations which read "apporter son propre vin" (BYOB), but which should have read "bring your own table and chair and cooking implements too" because nothing had been done and there was no sign of Mini-B - just a freshly-killed wild boar (shot by Roquin) and some veggies on the office table. He does this every year - announces he's going to have a party then disappears and leaves the rest of us to get everything ready.

Just as we'd finished cobbling together some dining furniture (breezeblocks, lengths of wood taken off the mill roof and scaffolding planks from chez nous) and the boys had rustled up a pot-au-feu over a camping stove (borrowed from Nainbo), Mini-B turned up. By this time I wasn't really hungry, having spent all morning making PC Dinners (as in TV Dinners but for eating in front of the computer) for BB: 2 x spag bol; 2 x shepherd's pie; 2 x beef hotpot; 2 x beef curry (rice included). I'm off to the Azores on my own for a week tomorrow and if I don't leave him oven-ready meals he'll just cook sausages every day and I'll spend a week on my return scraping grease off every kitchen surface with a wallpaper scraper.

Nainbo is also célibataire (on his own) next week so I don't expect much will get done. On verra.

Friday, October 31, 2008

horsing around

We helped Roquin pick his maize yesterday morning then went to help Mini-B bring one of his mares and her week-old foal down to the village from a field higher up. You'd think we were here doing an agricultural course and not trying to renovate a house! There's a little Mini-B at the end of that taut rope in the photo - legs going like a sewing machine in the mud trying to budge the horse!

It's his birthday party tomorrow in the écurie (where he milks his cows). Last year Nainbo's wife, La Blonde, went for a pee in a field, fell over and broke her ankle and had to be taken to hospital. Never a dull momento!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

if you go down to the woods today

BB went off to the Sunday Club today, leaving me to find a recipe for the 10 kilos of figs dropped off by Roquin. He returned with the news that another innocent victim, this time a young guy out riding his mountain bike, had been shot dead by a hunter in a "hunting accident" in a neighbouring département. In our region, the only four days you're allowed to hunt during the season are Wednesday (when there's no school!), Thursday, Saturday and Sunday - i.e. the days when the vast majority of the French population are off work/school/college etc and conceivably want to go out and enjoy the countryside without fear of ending up with a bullet in the head! It's unbelievable.

Mini-B came round in the afternoon to remove a wheel from the trailer he's lent us. He has various trailers for hay baling, muck spreading, mowing etc, but between them all, there are only three inflated tyres, so he has to keep transferring wheels whenever he needs to take out a different trailer. Those not in use are jacked up on blocks of wood in fields all round the village.

BB needs to empty the trailer here tomorrow so he'll have to go and get the wheel back, re-attach it, then take it off again and put it back on whichever trailer Mini-B is using. I'm exhausted just writing this!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

calf credit crisis

I was just about to serve lunch today when Mini-B arrived panting, clutching a couple of bits of old rope, and said he needed a hand urgently. Normally he removes his wellies at the front door, doffs his bonnet and gives me a bisou but today he appeared distressed so I didn't shout at him for ignoring protocol and wiping his boots on the Persian rug.

I thought maybe his C15 had broken down again, or he'd driven it over the bridge next to our house - which wouldn't be the first time! - and he needed a tow, but he explained that one of his cows was having trouble delivering and he needed assistance. His cows are his bread and butter (or rather, his pastis) and he doesn't have many, so if he loses a calf - or worse, the calf and the mother - it's a real blow. So off they scuttled while I tried not to dwell on the significance of the rope - and BB told me not to ask, when he returned an hour later to announce that the calf was doing fine and the mother was sitting up in the hay smoking a cigarette.

As we were finishing (a cold) lunch, Top Modèl and his pal turned up to help on the roof. These young kids - you have to watch them like a hawk when there's demolition work to be done. BB turned his back for two minutes and they'd started attacking the ridge beam - which is the only thing holding up the three remaining A frames - with a chainsaw and a sledge hammer. BB nearly had a heart attack!

Friday, October 24, 2008

first customer

I received the following email today:

Bom dia lady Chou, I am finding you through the intraweb when looking for french hotel and please tell me if you have special price for grandparents when inserted in the familiar group? In picture of bathroom - is that private or convivial? Are you near place of architectonic interest?

José Eduardo Santos Tavares Melo Silva


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

fish wife

We have friends coming for lunch so I sent BB off to the shops this morning to get some vital ingredients because it was windy, so he couldn't work - oh, that new excuse!! I'm on the vodka chapter of my Marks and Spencer Cocktail Bible ("the Perfect Party Companion") at the moment and thought I'd make French Leaves for apéros (2-3 ice cubes, 2 measures vodka, 1 measure oj, 1 measure pastis).

I'd woken up very early (8.30 am) and come downstairs to make a cup of tea and then became so caught up watching the McCain Obama debate on YouTube that I still wasn't dressed by the time BB left, around 10.00 (sluttish behaviour, I know, and most unlike me). Just as he was about to set off, I realised 'the' vital ingredient wasn't on his list and rushed out to tell him - as two hunters rounded the corner.

What a sight I must have looked: standing on the doorstep in my nightie at that time in the morning, shrieking "VODKA" (French translation VODKA), like an old fish wife.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

(cider) suits you sir

I'm going to start a workshop: "How To Hold Your Glass Upright". You can be standing with four or five guys, all with their glasses of pastis tilted at a 45 degree angle, and you'd think the room was listing to port.

In the old house I was permanently mopping up whenever we had visitors - Baby Chou to shoe shop ashishtant: "Do these come with kitchen roll attached?" You've seen Exhibit A and are probably wondering, why bother, but even I have standards!

On Sunday at the fête du cidre Mini-B had an obtuse moment. When we arrived he was standing chatting away to another farmer, glass of cider slopping all over the floor, when a guy in a pristine white T-shirt carrying a man bag (obviously not from round here then) came and stood just behind him. As Mini-B waved salut to us, I watched in amazement as the contents of his glass ended up all over the foreigner's shirt.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

put your hands in the air and give me all your fishcakes

Mini-B came for lunch today - Bloody Marys and fishcakes. There are only three occasions when I feel I really need to vacuum: when there's tumbleweed blowing through the house, before guests come to stay and after Mini-B has eaten here. Today, when he dropped the fifth piece of bread on the floor and miraculously went to pick it up, he asked if I didn't own a hoover! Eh?

After the incident with the Belgians (when he poured beer into his wellies), as a joke I frisked him as he was leaving - and found a fishcake in his trouser pocket.

The boys were clearing up this afternoon, burning everything that hasn't been taken away, and I suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia at seeing our first matrimonial home being torn down - even though the photos of the rooms we lived in resemble productions you'd expect to see in a criminal trial (see 'Exhibit A - Bathroom' below).

They've just finished playing at building bonfires, so now - quid pro quo - they're off to play at catching a bull.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

just call me Bugsy

We've had a bit of rain (and snow higher up) so the pace has slackened but BB was back up on the roof today lifting the last section off the left side. Nearly everything coming off is being "enquired after": the tin to cover woodpiles; bits of wood to build a shed; the old slates for landfill. Someone even stopped and asked if he could take the old storm shelter over the front door. Who needs a skip?

Mini-B is here nearly every day now since he hasn't much to do. He's winding down the milk production side of his business and paying another farmer to do his hay. If he stops selling milk for ten years he gets a subvention (subsidy) under the Common Agricultual Policy which is probably more than he would get for selling his milk. And now that all three of his tractors are broken down (as well as the C15!) due to poor maintenance, it's cheaper to get someone else to do the hay rather than fork out for new machinery.

It's that time of year when we rarely have to go shopping because every day something turns up on our doorstep. In the last few days we've been given: eggs, pumpkins, grapes, cauliflowers and a dead rabbit. Mini-B's mum offered me a live one recently - because she said it "reminded her of me"?! Didn't know how to respond to that really.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

do my ears look big in this?

The demolition of the roof is progressing quicker than I expected. I thought BB would have to remove each rafter and batten and purlen individually like he did the last time (in the house we're in now) but he's cutting the roof up with a chainsaw and lifting huge sections off at a time with the crane. And people are turning up every day to help. It's amazing what a whiff of danger will do - that intoxicating mix of power tools, a steeply sloping badly burnt roof (and probably a pastis or two!) and the guys are lining up.

Roquin came round last night with a bottle of the first grape juice from the pressoir (wine press). He had his cute dog with big floppy ears in tow - which BB said would look great in his sidecar!

Monday, September 29, 2008

... for better, for worse ...

I was going to talk about les coulemelles (parasol mushrooms) ten inches in diameter that Nainbo gave me yesterday (which you cook like big fat steaks) and the bolet the size of a football that Roquin's sister was proudly showing off at the vendange, but I've been on about mushrooms rather a lot recently so I won't.

The vendange has left us with a few aches and pains. To think that I wanted to spend my summer holidays picking grapes in my youth! I'd had enough after half an hour yesterday but at least I didn't have to carry the plastic barrels full of grapes (weighing 50 kilos) on my shoulder down a steep goat track like BB.

He went off to look at a sidecar today after the deal on the one he'd ordered fell through. I was sure this latest obsession would pass - like the unimog and the lada (!?) and the bevel edged swan necked paring chisel - but tonight he suggested we re-new our wedding vows: "... for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for two wheels or three."

He spends all his internet time looking at sidecars - which I told him was unhealthy - so this morning when I found him glued to his computer I asked him, accusingly, if he was looking at them again and he said: "No, I promise I'm looking at naked ladies."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

BB's little helper

I ended up going mushroom picking yesterday after all but with Mini-B and at a much more civilized time - in the afternoon. I could hardly get into the passenger seat of his C15 for all the empty pastis bottles, packets of syringes (for injecting his cows), spanners and bits of old rope in the footwell. Quel bordel! On the way up to the forest we passed lots of parked cars - mostly Italian, who flock over the border to pillage our superior mushrooms.

When you come across a petit coin carpeted in yellow (chanterelles) or black (trompettes-de-mort) it's like finding treasure. The down side is that it takes ages to clean them and remove all the beasties.

BB ventured back up onto the roof today but he had a little helper, our friend Top Modèl. Top Modèl basically did all the work while BB handed him tools and as a result nearly all the old tin has been removed. If we had him helping every day the house would be finished in a jiffy. Tant pis!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

game over

There's been a bit of a setback on the building front. BB was up on the roof this morning when he became paralysed with fear and couldn't move for 20 minutes. When he eventually managed to wrench his hands off the rungs of the roof ladder and get down, he said there was no way he could possibly go back up again - ever. So, not a major setback then. Given that BB's doing all the work himself, he's about as much use as a one-legged man in a butt kicking competition!

Roquin came round this evening with another kilo of mushrooms and to remind us about the vendange (grape harvest) - which we help him with every year - on Monday. There's no hunting tomorrow so he asked if I fancied going mushrooming with him in the morning (at 6 o'clock !!) but why have a dog and bark?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

trumpets of death

The hunting season began last Sunday and there's a cornucopia of mushrooms in the forest at the moment (trompettes-de-mort, bolets and chanterelles) so as a result I spent nearly all weekend in the kitchen pickling and bottling and making terrines and sauces. Mini-B and Roquin gave me half a kilo of trompettes-de-mort and 8 kilos of sanglier (wild boar) and the Combets brought a crate of ripe tomatoes with them on Friday. I also had to do something with the last of my green tomatoes (chutney), my walnuts (Katie Bear's mum sent me an excellent recipe for English walnut cake - thanks Maman Bear!) and finish bottling my vin de noix. It will probably be the last year for our walnuts because the tree is leaning at a precarious angle after the roots were disturbed putting in the new lamp post and will have to be cut down before it falls on top of the house.

You won't catch me out mushrooming during the hunting season. The first husband of Poire's wife was killed by a stray bullet while out hunting and one of Mini-B's horses was shot when a hunter mistook it for a deer!?!? You're not even safe in your own home. Last year a family was sitting having lunch at the kitchen table (a medley of wild mushrooms as it happens) when a bullet came flying past them through the (closed!) front door and lodged itself in the kitchen wall.

BB was removing the last of the old slates on the right-hand side of the roof today when a little visitor joined him up on the ridge - my cat Rhuma. It took him all day to do the final section because it's the highest part of the roof from the ridge to where you would hit the ground if you fell off. He's actually afraid of heights (as am I) so I don't know how he manages to go up there. I couldn't even bring myself to get out of the lift at the top of the Empire State Building.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

le moulin - a history

I did a bit of swotting up before the Combets' visit on Friday evening and searched the archives départementales to see what I could find out about la famille Viard.

The mill was built in 1892 by the maternal grandfather of Leon and his brother Elie as a sawmill which was operated by a single wooden wheel measuring 5.85 metres in diameter. The mill also ground nuts (it took 8 kilos of nuts to make one litre of oil), wheat, maize, clover and hemp using a large millstone (weighing three tonnes, which is still in situ in the basement) and several salvaged components from an old disused mill further upstream. The working part of the mill comprised nearly the whole of the left-hand side while the family lived in three rooms on the right-hand side.

M. Combet told me that when the father of Leon and Elie died, the brothers inherited the mill and the living quarters were divided into two - a ground floor room and first floor bedroom above the working part of the mill (accessed externally) at the front, and two ground floor rooms and a first floor bedroom (above the working part of the mill again accessed externally) at the back. Leon, a bachelor, lived in the front with his mother, and Elie in the back with his wife and four children. (French succession law provides that children automatically inherit part of their parents' estate and the surviving spouse, if there's no Will, is only entitled to a life interest in the property.)

The brothers continued to work the mill together, making windows and doors and even coffins and must have been quite wealthy since Leon was the first person in the village to own a car. After Elie died in 1982 (aged 87) Leon lived here alone until two years before his death in 1998 (at 93) when he went into a retirement home and the individual parts of the mill were bought up and reverted to one owner.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

pucker up

BB was working on the middle section of the roof today where there had previously been a fire - which was a bit scary. Or as he put it, "I did a lot of puckering" - and he wasn't talking about his lips! The last owner but one, Leon Viard, who was the grandson of the man who built the mill, went off to the pub one night after stoking his wood-burning stove and came back to find the building alight. This was about 15 years ago and as a result the front right-hand section of the mill was tarted up internally and had a new roof put on but the middle section - which was badly burnt - remained untouched.

I'm interested to know a bit more about the history of the mill so I've invited la famille Combet round for apéros tomorrow night. Grandfather Combet used to work with Leon here in the mill. I had to check the TV schedule first to make sure the apéro hour didn't clash with "Plus Belle La Vie" (the popular French soap) because the last time we were invited to theirs for a drink, the telly (which I was sitting directly in front of) came on promptly at 7 pm and the three women nearly broke their necks straining to see past me to watch the latest episode. I've also had to stock up on apéricubes (those disgusting artificially flavoured Dairylea cheese cubes) and mini hotdogs (which contain 90% turkey skin and beaks). For all the talk about the French eating well, they don't half like their junk food with the apéro.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

spot the difference

There's been a lot of rain lately so nothing much has been happening on the building front. The crane passed its MOT. The guy was here for ten minutes, ticked a few boxes and charged €300, thank you very much. On closer inspection of the paper work, "don't know" has been ticked for "operator qualifications" and "geotechnical study of the groundbearing capacity carried out" and BB is being very coy about whether these are legal requirements. I hope not for insurance purposes.

BB has started taking off the old roof, so now that work has finally commenced, I shall start posting photos of the progress. It may be a bit like a challenging "spot the difference" competition!!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

the morning after

I nearly broke my neck this morning when I got out of bed and slipped on a boule. Then I noticed half a dozen of them scattered all over the bedroom floor. BB's side of the bed hadn't been slept in but as I made my way downstairs with a growing sense of unease, he walked in the front door - which appeared to be hanging off its hinges.

We left the salle des fêtes separately last night to go to a party just as a huge thunder storm broke. When BB didn't turn up I assumed he'd changed his mind and gone home, so when I was eventually dropped off a couple of hours later and found the front door locked, I banged on the door to be let in. When I got no answer after fifteen minutes, I started throwing boules at the bedroom window (which, thankfully, was open) to wake him up, and when that failed, I resorted to - ahem - kicking the door down. Once inside, there was no sign of BB and I fell asleep.

What had happened was that BB had left the salle des fêtes on his way to the parking when he'd discovered he'd lost his car keys. Not wanting to walk home in the rain, he'd decided to sleep in the car (but only after sitting in the wrong car first - with the owner in it - before realising his mistake).

The comité des fêtes arrived at 7 o' clock this morning to remove the bunting and clean up the field around BB's vibrating car while he lay snoozing in the back.

When all the clearing up was finished BB woke up and went over to the salle des fêtes to see if his keys had been handed in - which miraculously they had. After some saucisse and a coup de blanc he came home to find the front door half-off its hinges, swinging in the breeze.

The worst thing is that the house keys were where they always are - under a plant pot at the front door!

Saturday, September 6, 2008


BB was helping Nainbo fix his chainsaw this morning and when he came back at lunch-time he reported that Mini-B had just been on a helicopter ride over the village. "I'd love to do that", I said, until it dawned on me that Mini-B has neither the money nor the inclination to go on a commercial helicopter jolly. Then he explained that Mini-B had been high up in the mountains where he keeps some cattle during the summer, when he'd passed out cold and had had to be air-lifted to hospital! Something to do with his blood pressure, which is too high then too low!? Anyway - he's fine now.

It's the highlight of our social calendar tomorrow - the annual village fête and boules competition. We've been practising with some ancient wooden boules which were here when we moved in (along with another ten tonnes of merde!). There's always some idiot making a fool of themselves at these things - so there should be plenty to write about on Monday.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

le bungee

The crane erector arrived first thing and spent most of the day oiling pulleys and cables and fixing the wiring. A repair had been carried out by the previous owner which resulted in a fault in the overload cut-out system so that instead of being able to bring the load back in, it went further out - which could have resulted in the crane toppling over! It's now up - and it's very high (17m to be precise). BB has come up with an idea for recouping the huge cost of having it transported here, towed down by M. Bouger and then erected - "le bungee" - offering bungee jumping! Mmmm. I wonder if our house insurance covers that?

The MOT man arrives on 3 September and then, all being well, work will commence.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

guilty m'lud

I was awoken at 5 o'clock this morning by the goats making such a racket (I thought a small child was being strangled!) that I rushed out in the dark with my torch to find them both suspended from the ash tree. They'd wound themselves round the tree so much that their hind legs were barely touching the ground. After I'd freed them I tied them up again under the washing line, as far away from the trees as possible.

When I returned to have a go at milking the mum later in the morning, BB's bleus (blue workmen's trousers) which had been out on the line were a foot shorter! Is there anything goats won't eat?

I gave the goat some cabbage to take its mind off the impending milking proceedings, shaved round the udder with the lady shaver, wiped its bottom with a damp sponge and applied some vaseline to the teat. The goat didn't appear to be "happily eating" as per the goat in the "Teddington Cheese Wire" and tried to head butt me in the privates. With BB holding her by the horns I gently grasped the greased appendage and started pulling but the goat went berserk and peed on me and the smell was so bad that I had to go inside and take a shower.

I think I may pass on the goats.

When I called Mini-B to say he could take them back he told me he's given me a bouc (a male goat!) by mistake. I didn't dare tell him what I'd done to it!

Monday, August 18, 2008

the goat trial

Mini-B arrived at 7 o'clock this morning in his van and started to unload two goats - a mother and her kid, he told me. I rushed out in my nightie and wellies and was leading the goats across the road to the garden when a truck-load of workmen passed, hooting and gesticulating wildly. I thought they were friends of Mini-B's until he informed me that the back of my nightie was tucked into my pants! I tied the goats up near the rose bushes and we went inside for a coup de blanc.

Later in the morning when I went to check on them I discovered that they'd practically stripped my rose bushes bare so I tied them up under the ash tree and went to google "how to milk a goat". The "Teddington Cheese Wire" recommends as follows:

"When milking the goat you can easily disturb the hair on its belly, so the hair under the udder should be clipped and brushed to remove hair and dirt. Just before milking, when your goat is tied up and happily eating, her udder and hind quarters need to be wiped down with a damp sponge and a small amount of udder cream should be put on the teats and hands. It may be a good idea to practice the milking technique with the finger of an old rubber glove with a pin-hole in the tip."

BB went off in search of clippers, udder cream and an old rubber glove, and returned, resourceful as ever, with my Babyliss lady shaver, a jar of vaseline and a préservatif. Whilst I was sitting on the front-door step practising squirting milk out of the prophylactic, a couple of pesky Jehovah's Witnesses went past on their bicycles and were so busy staring at me that they missed the turn and rolled into the ditch.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

make hay while the sun shines

On the way up to the Sunday Club this morning we passed two of Mini-B's three tractors lying abandoned (i.e. broken down) in separate fields, mid hay-making. The cut hay that hasn't been rolled up is lying rotting on the ground after the rain and the rolled-up bales look like burst mattresses.

M. Norbert the lumberjack was there today. His son has just come out of a coma after a serious head trauma. He was winching some wood with Norbert when the steel cable (capable of holding 20 tonnes) which had been passed around a tree stump to use as a pulley, slipped and - like a bow string - smacked him on the back of the head. Luckily he was bending down at the time otherwise the cable would have taken his head off. He's now in a rehabilitation unit and appears to be making a full recovery.

I never realised the countryside was such a dangerous place. If people aren't chopping their limbs off with circular saws or chain saws, they're meeting untimely deaths. Last year a guy we knew was killed in an avalanche here, another was killed when he drove his quad bike into a telegraph pole and the husband of Poire's new wife was killed in a hunting accident. A year before that, Mini-B's uncle was electrocuted when he climbed an aluminium ladder in a thunder storm to replace the chimney cap which had blown off and the brother of the previous owner of our mill died after eating a tin of sardines - granted, they were 25 years past their sell-by date.

Nobody seems to die peacefully in their sleep. Which is a bit worrying given the enormity of our building project.

Nainbo was on at me again to take Rosalea and has suggested that I try a goat as a mate, so I am going to borrow one of Mini-B's to see how I get on. I may even try my hand at making goats' cheese.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

mr shifter part 2

With the hitch professionally welded back together and back in place, M. Bouger returned this evening to move the crane the last few feet into position.

To give you an idea of the constraints - the road is eight feet wide with a steep embankment on one side and a slope down to the river on the other; the crane is just under eight feet wide and 32 feet long and the platform is at a 90 degree angle to the road.

The crane's front wheel had sunk about a foot into the gravel platform but without even revving the engine, M. Bouger pulled it out and then, in a show of tractor gymnastics worthy of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, pushed it back into place. The tractor wheels just seemed to have lives of their own. When M. Bouger asked if he could leave the machine here over-night (BB said he could leave it here for as long as he liked - with the keys), he reversed it up the embankment at a 45 degree angle while the ten of us stood there gawping.

So, the good news is that the crane is finally in place. The bad news is that, to his list of toys of three motorbikes (including one 30-year old Laverda 500 which has never been ridden because it won't start), one mountain bike (brand-new and ridden twice), one pair of snow shoes (brand-new and never used), six pairs of skis (a new pair each season), one rusty old crane (never used) and one Ural sidecar (on order but will no doubt be ridden twice), BB wants to add a tractor. I've said we can discuss tractors when the house is finished - which at this rate will probably be in ten years time!

mr shifter part 1

M. Bouger arrived this morning on a tractor that makes Mini-B's look like Dinky toys, but as usual, nothing went according to plan and I came very close to ending up under a pile of rubble.

BB noticed a crack in the tow hitch of the crane and Poire did a quick repair job with an arc welder, but as the tractor pushed the crane down the slope and tried to manoeuvre it into position on the platform, the hitch snapped in two. If it had happened a moment earlier, as the crane was descending, it would have rolled down and crashed straight into our house, knocking me off my look-out perch at the top bedroom window.

It's now sitting half-on the platform, jutting out into the middle of the road, with just enough room for a small car to squeeze past in the ditch. Two Council members - Fester (the mayor's co-pilot) and our neighbour, M. Toupie - have just been down to see what's going on and Fester suggested that we try to push the (ten tonne!) crane back off the road ourselves. BB just gave him one of his withering looks and rolled his eyes.

Mini-B passed at lunch-time to see how things were progressing and I noticed an odd squelching sound when he removed his wellies and saw that his socks were soaking wet. He'd just been to visit the Belgians who are doing up a house here and they'd given him beer that was so strong he'd poured it into his boots when they weren't looking to avoid drinking it!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

will you turn that cowbell down

Several people have complained to the mairie recently about - get this - the noise of the cowbells worn by Mini-B's cattle. Can you believe it! We're in the French Alps for crying out loud. It's like going on a beach holiday and complaining about the noise of the sea. Turns out that these moaning minnies are citadins (city folk from Paris and Lyon) who have maisons secondaires here. No wonder the locals don't like people with second homes.

You hear stories in the news occasionally about cowbell rustlers. The old ones are worth a lot of money and sell for up to €2000 in some of the posh interior design shops in Méribel and Courchevel.

They were originally used by herdsmen to identify the herd to which freely roaming animals belonged, but Mini-B's cows wear them (very old ones!) more as a kind of GPS system to establish their whereabouts when they escape from his poorly fenced-in fields. He's probably got a new tractor's worth there.

The "proper" farmer, M. Bouger, arrives early tomorrow morning to bring the crane down.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

monsieur slip

There's a guy who lives above us in the chalet next to the field where the crane was sitting and every single day (no exaggeration) in the grass-growing season, if it's not raining, he's out there mowing the lawn - in nothing but a pair of very small men's briefs! Locally he's known as Monsieur Slip (Mr Underpants). His garden is immaculate but when I passed today I saw eight-inch deep tractor tracks going right across his lawn. BB never told me about this. The man must be livid. It's bad enough that he's had to put up with the bright yellow eyesore sitting on the edge of his garden for the last few weeks (clashing with his petunias and geraniums) - but to trash his lawn! I've never spoken to him (he only arrived last year) but I must go up with a bottle of something and apologise - although I've heard he can talk the hind legs off a donkey so I may be gone for some time.

(Talking of donkeys - Justine and Zoé are doing fine but now it seems three's a crowd and Nainbo is suggesting that I take the other one, Rosalea. I saw this coming.)

We picked our potatoes today (about 250 kg), and the beetroots, which I've pickled. I've also left 40 green walnuts from our tree to marinade in some of Roquin's gnole (the pure alcohol he makes with the grape stalks, pips and skin left over after he's made his wine). After 40 days you add white wine and sugar to make vin de noix. I've not tried this before but I've done it with orange peel to make vin d'orange and it's very tasty.

A farmer from a neighbouring village passed today and says he can move the crane down here. He's a proper farmer with proper working equipment. He's going to call back with a date - so fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

sidecar bob

The crane platform is now finished but we can't find anyone to tow the crane down here. The driver of the concrete lorry declined so Mini-B agreed to try last week.

BB spent a whole morning threading bits of old fencing wire through very tight tunnels and pulleys on Mini-B's tractor so that he could pull the new handbrake cable through (which he suspected had previously been someone's washing line, judging by its thinness) so there would be at least one working brake.

But he needn't have bothered because the crane had bedded down in the mud after a couple of days of rain and wasn't going anywhere - not with Mini-B's tractor at any rate. A contact of Mini-B's with a bigger tractor managed to pull it out but his isn't powerful enough to tow it down the steep slope to the mill. It is now sitting in the front drive of another neighbour since BB said it would only be for three days. If we can't find someone to bring it down soon it could be sitting there for three months - which is stretching 'love thy neighbour' a tad! The crane erector was due to arrive on Wednesday but we've had to cancel him - and who knows when we'll manage to get him back.

What is BB doing at this critical planning stage - when he should be scouring the land trying to find a tow? He's off sunning himself in Provence - lying beside a pool as I write! He's down there doing a sidecar course (the latest toy on his wish list) and when he asked me to go with him I said there was no way I was going to be his sidecar Bob. He can stick a sack of cement in the sidecar for balast!


We went on our annual village rando last weekend - a hike from the village up through the forest to the top of the col (1188 m) - which is normally followed by lunch at the mountain chalet of one of the villagers.

The hike was due to start at 08.00 from the salle des fêtes but when I went two years ago there was a lot of faffing around before we set off so we decided to get there for 08.30 - by which time everyone had already left.

Nainbo appeared at his gate opposite with Mini-B's uncle Rouquin, and beckoned us in for a coup de blanc, after which BB and I set off with Rouquin to try and catch up with the others. Rouquin is 65 and knows the mountains round here like the back of his hand because he's spent his whole life working and hunting in them. He pointed out the ruined chalet where his mother brought him and his sisters to hide in 1944 when the Germans arrived in the village and burned down many of the houses. Before the forest was planted it was just meadows where Rouquin would spend summers cutting hay (and carrying it on his back down to the village) and looking after the goats and cows. Along the way we gathered wild chanterelle mushrooms and fraises des bois (tiny wild strawberries).

Due to the forecast of rain, it was decided that the lunch would be back in the village in the salle des fêtes - which meant that when we reached the col we had to walk straight back down again. Two years ago we all sat outside at tressle tables covered with white tablecloths with stunning views of Mont Blanc in the distance - so it wasn't quite the same.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

tour de france

We helped Mini-B pick his 20 tonnes of potatoes yesterday morning - starting at 7 o' clock. There were about 25 of us, mostly Mini-B's relatives, so it didn't take too long and his mum went up and down the row every time the tractor passed two or three times with a little wicker basket containing a choice of refreshing drinks - pastis or white wine! At 9 o'clock we all stopped for casse-croûte of sausages and lard (the fatty bits of bacon you'd cut off and discard) with bread and cheese and white wine followed by bugnes and red wine.

In the afternoon, BB and I and our pal the Duchess went off on the motorbikes to the Col du Glandon to watch the Tour de France riders as they passed over the Col de la Croix de Fer - their second major Alpine col of the day. It was sunny and warm with not a cloud in the sky, and sitting on the back of BB's bike wearing my iPod, it was like being in a road movie with my own personal soundtrack. When we got to the top of the col, the meadows were full of people picnic-ing while waiting for the riders to pass. Some people turn up hours before on the popular routes so that they can get parked and get a good spot, but we were able to park the bikes about 400 metres from the road and only had a 15 minute wait - which was just as well because when the riders did arrive it was all over in less than two minutes!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

wedding belles

We were at our friend Mimi's wedding last Saturday and boy was it a long day.

It began at 7 o'clock with BB dragging me out of bed to show me a stork fishing in the stream. As I stumbled downstairs half asleep with my hair all over the place, he looked at me critically and said: "Take the hair from behind your ears - you look like a biffer. Like one of those American things (sic) that have their children taken away." !

I had no idea what he was talking about and no inclination to ask at that time in the morning and promptly took myself back off to bed.

Half an hour later it was a neighbour's chainsaw that woke me up and after that it was impossible to get back to sleep.

The wedding celebrations began at 2 o'clock with a cérémonie civile in a mairie about 30 km away. We've been to one of these before and they last ten minutes max, which is about the limit of my attention span. This, however, was followed by a bénédiction nuptiale in the cathedral, which lasted a yawning one hour and 20 minutes - although it wasn't without its moments.

The priest had either been at the communion wine or it was his first wedding bénédiction because throughout the whole ceremony he spent agonising minutes flipping through his A4 binder searching for his next monologue (whilst forgetting to tell us to sit down) or coughing up phlegm. People were getting fidgety until we got to the exchange of rings part, which were presented to the couple (where they sat on red velvet chairs next to the alter table) by their 18-month old daughter. Next thing, the priest (still coughing up phlegm), the bride and groom were on all fours searching for the ring which the daughter had dropped. At least it gave the rest of us an excuse to sit down. I even saw a couple of guys taking out cigarettes and almost expected them to start smoking!

After the ceremony we were invited for a vin d'honneur at the salle des fêtes but then had a FOUR HOUR WAIT until the meal with no bar and no entertainment. At one point BB turned to me and said: "I need to go to the toilet but I think I'll hold off. Give me something to look forward to!" It was dire.

The meal, when it finally arrived, was excellent, if a bit unconventional. In between each of the six courses the lights were dimmed, the disco music came on and everyone got up and danced (including the groom's sister-in-law in a wheelchair!)

It was 3 o' clock in the morning when the bride and groom cut the croquembouche (the traditional French wedding cake, consisting of choux buns filled with crème patisserie, built into a pyramid and decorated with fine strands of caramel and served with champagne) after which our designated driver decided it was time to go. The other guests, however, carried on until 6 o'clock, when onion soup was served!

Saturday, July 5, 2008


The carrots were already chilling on ice when I got the call. Nainbo came downstairs this morning to find that Justine had given birth to a female, Zoé. He said he heard nothing during the night - no noise, no fuss - just a small pool of blood on the ground and a wet baby donkey. She's already skipping around - albeit a bit wobbly. Unbelievable!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

sinusoidal alternating bla bla bla

I went into town to do some shopping this afternoon and as I came out of the junction at the bottom of the valley I saw a truck coming straight at me and realised I was on the wrong side of the road. I got the fright of my life! That's the first time that's happened since we moved to France.

While I was out, EDF came and switched on the 3-phase electricity in the garage and a load of steel arrived for the crane platform. When I asked BB to explain to me in layman's terms what 3-phase is, he said: "You realise that monophase is a sinusoidal alternating current. If you have three monophases 120 degrees out of phase then ........" He carried on in this fashion for ten minutes until my eyes glazed over and I lost the will to live.

A horse breeder friend of Nainbo's has confirmed, once and for all, that Justine the donkey is pregnant - and it's not twins - and the birth could be very soon "depending on the moon". The locals make reference to the moon frequently, particularly where the potager is concerned. You're supposed to plant climbing vegetables, such as beans and peas, when the moon is in the ascent and root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips etc, when it's in the descent. You're also supposed to pick certain veg when the moon is full since they say it intensifies the flavour. According to Nainbo's horse buddy, donkeys are also more likely to give birth round about full moon - which is tonight. Watch this space.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

crétin des alpes

When I was down at the lake this afternoon for a run and a swim I bumped into Madame La Mairesse and her second-in-command in the car park. After the obligatory bisou (cheek kissing) and "oooh isn't it hot", I bade them bonne nage (have a good swim). They both looked at me like I was a cretin, which is exactly how I felt as soon as the words were out of my mouth. As if the mayor is going to go off swimming with her deputy (who looks like Fester from the Addams family) - at least in broad daylight anyway. Not to mention the fact that she has a swimming pool chez elle (the pool house for which is bigger than her house. That's like living in a council house and driving a porsche). I should have realised that they were down there on official mairie business since the main topic of discussion at the réunion d'information (public debate) last week was what can be done to improve the facilities down there.

Something has uprooted my basil plants and also left a large bottom-sized depression in the middle of my lavender bush. BB suspects our resident badger, which has a set at the bottom of the garden. A few years ago I found an injured badger in our wood shed (I assumed it was injured as it wasn't moving but I could see it was breathing) and phoned the animal rescue service. When I tried to explain about the badger they hung up on me, but knowing my French back then I probably said something like "show us your badger". My friend K Bear (who speaks fluent French) phoned them back and they said "laisse crever" - let it die. Charming! Anyway, it had gone the next day - so maybe it was just sleeping off a big lunch.

Monday, June 30, 2008

don’t say a word

The crane arrived on Tuesday as planned (oh me of little faith) so the next step has been trying to find someone with a mobile crane to come and lift it into place because the concrete base is a few metres from the road and down quite a steep slope. Three times we've waited in all day for a local guy to come and give us a quote and three times he's failed to turn up.

Then, at the Sunday Club yesterday, Nainbo suggested that BB build a platform level with the road, thereby doing away with the need for a mobile crane. BB is really mad at himself for not thinking of this before, especially since such a platform is in the plans anyway (for a parking space and entrance to the front door)! I didn't dare say anything about "bad planning" for fear of domestic violence!

BB is now designing and building this new platform and thinks he may have persuaded the driver of the concrete lorry to pull the crane down here with his lorry. Failing that, we shall have to rely upon Mini-B's "vintage" tractor that doesn't have any brakes. This all needs to be done before July 13 when the crane erector arrives.

We tasted our first potatoes from the garden yesterday. You can't beat new potatoes fresh out of the ground cooked on a BBQ with fresh thyme and olive oil. Unfortunately when I went up to pick them and do some watering at the same time, I left the tap running and as a result there's no water left in the mobile tank. It's a pain having to tow it down here and refill it from the river whilst avoiding being spotted by the guy who works for the forest department.

The latest consensus on the donkey front is that the "pregnant/isn't pregnant" one is in fact expecting twins!

Monday, June 23, 2008

snakes and ladders

On Friday BB lost the plot over getting electricity to the garage. I've been so preoccupied with moving the phone line and getting the crane here that I completely forgot that we need to get 3-phase electricity to the garage to power the crane - which arrives tomorrow. The snakes and ladders game of getting electricity connected in France goes something like this:
  1. Find semi-reliable electrician to do the wiring (can take up to six months - if lucky enough to find one).
  2. Make appointment for EDF to certify wiring (usually three to four weeks hence).
  3. Make appointment for EDF to come and wire up the heads (usually three to four weeks hence).
  4. EDF send out bill (two weeks after step 3).
  5. Once bill paid, choose a supplier and make appointment for fuse carrier to come (usually two to three weeks hence).
  6. Fuse carrier arrives to put in fuse and then you have electricity.

After finding an electrician, EDF arrived and failed the wiring but said the electrician could self-certify the work after sorting the faults. In the meantime, BB contacted EDF to make an appointment for step 3 saying that the wiring had been passed.

On Friday morning they turned up to wire the heads but they didn't have the bits they needed to complete the job, which meant we were looking at a further delay by the time they fixed another appointment to come back.

BB decided to circumvent the system by leap-frogging to step 5.

Off he went to the address on our electricity bills - 60 miles away - to try and pay the, as yet, unissued bill. When he found the EDF building - with no public parking, which should have been a hint - he pressed the buzzer but, being 12.30, got no answer as the security guards were all off having lunch. Spying an open ground floor window, he climbed in and made his way to the third floor where he wandered about looking for an office with somebody in it. After finding an occupied office - and calming the terrified woman down sufficiently to stop her reaching for the panic button - she led him to another part of the building (through two metal detectors), where, it being just after 12.30, everyone was off having lunch.

He then left and returned to wait for some employees to arrive and snuck in through the security doors behind them. The employees called for "back-up" and a manager arrived, who took him to an office where he was told that he couldn't pay the bill as (a) it hadn't been issued and (b) they didn't accept payment in person. By this time BB resembled a mini Vesuvius ("step away from the pencils, Monsieur") and after a "brief and frank exchange of views" BB's cheque was accepted. We now have an appoinment for 3 July for our chosen supplier to come and put the fuse in.

In the meantime, the crane will have to sit up in one of Mini-B's fields.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


My friend Sylvie is coming round this afternoon. I used to go to her house for French lessons but I stopped because it was becoming too expensive. She didn't charge for the lessons but I would arrive at 11.00 am and by 11.30 am she'd cracked open a bottle of white and after a couple of glasses I'd have to get a taxi home!

I got up early to do the housework because Sylvie is the French equivalent of Kim and Aggie. She came round for dinner once and I accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom (I thought she was outside having a smoke and our bathroom door is notoriously hard to lock. You have to insert an old key, the end of which BB sawed off, into a tiny hole in the handle) to find her inspecting under the lavatory seat to make sure it was up to her high standards. I'm a complete salope in comparison - although nowhere near as big a salope as BB (see May 1 post).

I'd just started hoovering when Jurgen, our Dutch friend, arrived. He went out with a famous (much older) Hollywood actress in his youth who whisked him away from the drug dens of Amsterdam to a penthouse in New York and then discarded him six months later. He still talks about it - much to the annoyance of his fiery Italian wife. At school no-one wanted him on their football team because he would go off picking wild flowers when he was supposed to be in goals. He's a vegetarian and non-drinker - the only one I've met since we moved here - and lives in an eco house with a pizza oven in the sitting-room. Anyway, he arrived to give me a bottle of his elderflower syrup - which is very tasty - and a pile of Time magazines - which smell of incense - and I spent over an hour chatting with him and drinking coffee.

Just after he left, Poire arrived with some lettuce and spinach plants he'd thinned out, for my garden. By this time it was after 10.00 am so we had to have a coup de blanc.

When Sylvie arrived in the afternoon she came bearing jars of fruit and wild mushrooms she'd picked and bottled - so I won a lot on the home produce front today.

Monday, June 16, 2008

is that a wallet in your pocket or are you ........

France Telecom finally turned up last Thursday and moved the phone line and on Friday a load of concrete arrived to make the base upon which the crane will sit. Also - BB has now found someone to transport the crane here next week - but I'll believe that when I see it.

It hasn't stopped raining since my return from Scotland so there has been very little activity in the garden (apart from on the weed front. I seem to be the only organic gardener round here because no-one else has weeds. A neighbour stopped the other day when I was picking a lettuce and asked if I was growing grass!). Everyone's complaining that the potager is a wash-out like last year, when we also had a lot of rain, but most of my crops appear to be doing ok so far.

Last night we were invited round to a friend's to watch the France Italy match (we don't have a telly) and Mini-B turned up wearing one of my old shirts - knotted at the waist exposing his midriff. Another couple we know (who have been married for 25 years) were there too being very affectionate with each other. On the way home I remarked to BB: "Isn't that nice that they're still like that after 25 years?" To which he replied: "They're just searching for money in each others' pockets."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

to be or not to be

I'm just back from a ten-day break in Scotland so here's an update on what's been happening - or more precisely, what's not been happening - in my absence.

After that flurry of activity a few weeks ago with France Telecom and the crane man finally turning up and BB starting to remove the tin from the roof, everything has come to a standstill. France Telecom have still not come back to put the line underground and the crane man has gone AWOL. When the first bits of tin came off the roof I rejoiced because I've been waiting six years for this. And just as I thought things were getting under way, BB stopped and explained that he was only taking off a small portion of the roof to make way for the crane.

BB has now "purchased" a crane elsewhere (i.e. put down a €2000 deposit) but the logistics of getting it here from 100 miles away (if the guy hasn't run off with our deposit), erecting it and having it MOTed are too much to bear thinking about. The original crane man was going to deliver it, with MOT, and erect it. Now we have to find - and rely upon - three independent parties to do this, which will not be easy.

The most depressing thing is that a friend of ours is building a new house just up the road and in the last week has installed a crane and put up the external walls.

The latest news on the donkey front is that no-one is sure if the pregnant one is actually pregnant - including Mini-B (who's a farmer!!). We may just have bought a very fat one.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

shoot the dog

I'd decided that I would concentrate on landscaping the garden behind the house this summer and do less in the vegetable garden because it demands so much time but this morning I woke up feeling guilty and decided to make a trip to the garden centre.

On the way into town I got stuck behind a foreigner (a Parisian with a 75 plate*) who was having difficulty negotiating his Range Rover along the narrow winding road but I didn't mind because there was a pleasant smell of wild garlic wafting in through the window.

When I got to the garden centre I went a bit mad (too much garlic) so now I have not only enough potatoes to feed Ireland circa 1845 but also aubergines, peppers, chillies, courgettes, red onions, peas, beans, celeriac, tomatoes, carrots and beetroot for the donkeys - plus a dozen aromatiques for the herb garden. I've ended up with more than last year.

I've taken to listening to my iPod up at the potager and yesterday as I was hoeing and unconsciously swaying away to George Michael ("shoot the dog"), M. Le Juge (host of the dinner party from hell) suddenly appeared at my shoulder and gave me the fright of my life. As I removed my iPod from my back pocket to adjust the volume he said: "Oh. You are listening to music. I thought you were having an epileptic fit."!!

* The last two digits of a French number plate denote the département in which the car is registered, i.e. where the owner lives. From 2009 there will no longer be a local département code, only a sequential number, so you won't be able to tell where drivers are from. Shame.

Friday, May 23, 2008

double handling

Ah yes. The controversial issue of 'double handling' - the process of going to a great deal of effort to do a job - then re-doing it a few weeks or months later. Last winter we spent days building some very impressive wood piles from the trees we'd cut down only to have to take them all down and rebuild them a few feet away so that we could build the new garage. Unforeseen circs BB says. Bad planning I say.

The trench for the telephone line is another case in point - except this time it was 'triple handling'. We initially paid someone to dig it to put in the water pipe to the new house, thinking it would be cheaper and less hassle than doing it ourselves. Wrong. It was the first (and last) time we've hired someone to do something BB is (semi) capable of doing. 'Digger operator' was obviously low on the list of Matey Boy's job skills because as I sat at the upstairs window working at my computer, a dark shadow in the form of an out-of-control digger careered down the slope towards me and the (badly rotting) column holding up the roof. I came within an inch of ending up in the bucket under a collapsed roof. For weeks afterwards our front garden resembled the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme.

To get electricity to the garage across the road, BB had to re-dig the same trench a few months ago but it turned out his digger operator skills weren't much better than Matey Boy's because he hit the water pipe and this time we ended up with a swimming pool in the front garden. I was blamed for not being his banksman, even although I was out of the country at the time. He summed up the episode over the phone with: " Cock-up! Arse! Wet!". He's a man of few words, BB.
This last - or should I say third - time (because you never know!) there were no dramas but it now looks like we're building a motorway through our property, such is the state of the garden.

Friday, May 16, 2008

stud of the dump


Those are the dulcet tones to which I awoke this morning. Gone are the halcyon days of: "Would you like a hot beverage my love?"

It took me a minute or two to get my bearings, because our new bed arrived yesterday and we moved the bedroom to the other side of the house. Because I didn't immediately spring into action, BB arrived at the foot of the bed and dragged me off by both feet. Isn't that grounds for divorce?

When France Telecom came the other week to move the phone lines, they refused to pass the line to our house underground because "it wasn't part of the original brief", thereby leaving us in a worse position, with the new line directly above where the crane is going to be. BB, with the aid of M. Poire's mini-digger, is having to dig a trench himself - for the third time in the same place* - before they will come back and move the line again.

I had to stand in the trench in my nightie, wiping sleep from my eyes, holding a marker to denote where the water pipe is, to avoid hitting it - again* - with the digger. It's times like this when a Wimpey home holds a lot of attraction.

The arrival of the new bed and the subsequent shifting of rooms was another excuse for a clear-out yesterday. I do love a good clear-out but unfortunately BB refuses to throw anything away. So I waited until he disappeared in the van to see Poire and then chucked everything I wanted rid of in the car and raced to the dump. The very nice (and handsome!) man there helped me unload, enabling me to get back before BB did.

* See next posting

Monday, May 12, 2008

brace brace

We went to the Sunday Club yesterday (a few of us go round to Nainbo's on a Sunday morning before lunch for a coup de blanc) and it seems I have purchased one and a half donkeys. When Nainbo said he was buying one, I offered to pay for the price and upkeep of a second, since I'd read that you shouldn't keep one donkey on its own. They become lonely and start calling out for a friend (and end up annoying the neighbours). So Nainbo has bought two jennies - and it turns out one is pregnant! They arrive tomorrow and I can't wait to see them.

I've been on the Donkey Breed Society website which says that "shelter is vital at all times" and invites me to "view examples of well made shelters and enclosures", non of which resemble Nainbo's. BB was called upon (in his capacity as a structural engineer) to give his professional opinion and all he could say was "with that level of craftsmanship I wouldn't let him cut my finger nails."

The front stanchions (legs) rest in two five-litre plastic mayonnaise buckets filled with concrete and as we stood next to it in a gentle breeze the roof swung round and hit BB in the head, prompting him to suggest "a bit of torsional rigidity" (a "brace" to you and I). Hay ho (or, hee haw), at least they'll have some shelter from rain, wind and flies - which is more than a lot of the poor beasts have round here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

the wall

I finally got my tatties planted at the weekend, but only after being led astray for a second time. I started digging on Saturday morning but then our friend and ex-neighbour M. Souffleur De Verre arrived just after lunch with a bottle of wine, so work halted. I managed to get them all in on Sunday but I think I've planted too many. There will be enough to keep us going for about two years. Good job I like potatoes. Some of my favourite dishes from this region include potatoes, one being tartiflette which is made by frying onions and bacon then adding pre-cooked potatoes and some white wine and cooking it all in the oven topped with Reblochon cheese.Yummy! And excellent winter food after you've been out skiing.

BB has started removing the old tin from the roof of the mill and my big project now is to landscape the garden behind the house. I'm building a six metre-long stone wall to create a flower bed to hide the grease trap and this afternoon I dug out the foundations. I'm completely exhausted so after my veggie curry (no potatoes!) I'm off to bed.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

car wash

The plan to plant my potatoes today went out the window at the car wash this morning when Nainbo, who lives opposite the salle des fêtes, turned up and invited us to eat chez lui. After a long boozy lunch of artichoke (with a lovely vinaigrette made with chopped boiled egg and chives) followed by roast duck and cauliflower gratin, I got ready to leave saying I had housework to do - the reasoning being that if I couldn't hoover in a straight line no-one would notice, whereas if I planted my potatoes crookedly I'd be the talk of the steamie for the rest of the summer. (BB's parting words were: "Why are you bothering with housework? My parents arrive in six weeks and you'll just have to do it all again then"!!)

Nainbo's just finished building a shelter for the donkey he's about to buy and asked me to go on the internet to try and find him one "avec une belle tête et deux cils".

Me: What? A donkey with a nice head and two eyelashes?

Nainbo: Non - docile!

Ah - the faux pas with the language. The most embarrassing one was when I went to buy some stamps at the post office in town but there was a huge queue so I went next door to the librairie (where they sell cards and newspapers etc) thinking that they might sell them there. The shop assistant looked at me like I was a stupid tourist and nodded his head in the direction of the post office, so I explained "il y a une grande couille dans la poste", to much tittering from everyone in the shop. It was only later when I told BB about the incident that I realised that what I'd said was "there's a large set of testicles in the post office"!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

fête du muguet

Tomorrow is a jour férié (public holiday) and it's traditionally when folk round here plant their potatoes. Any time before the 1st of May is risky because there's a likelihood of frost - although we've had snow in May in the village every year since we arrived and there's fresh snow on the mountains today down to 1400 metres (and settling in Méribel chez Miss Fit, I've just been informed).

It is also la fête du muguet, when lily of the valley is sold in the streets all over France, the tradition being to give the ones you love a little bouquet for good luck and to celebrate the arrival of spring.

I bought my seed potatoes today ready for planting tomorrow and this year I've gone for four different varieties: Rosabelle, BF 15, Mona Lisa and Bernadette. Last year I only planted a few rows of Rosabelle and because of blight and the wet weather I didn't get a very good crop, but cutting the foliage right down at least resulted in a couple of sacks that lasted until the new year.

There's a matinée lavage voiture (car wash morning) tomorrow being run by the youth committee at the salle des fêtes so I will get my car cleaned at last. I've been meaning to do it myself ever since I bought it - two years ago!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

excuses, excuses, excuses

I've heard some excuses from BB for not getting on with something or another in my time (in winter "it's too cold"; in summer "it's too hot"; after 10.30 am "it's nearly lunch-time so there's no point";) but I heard it all this morning when I asked him to move a very heavy box out of the house and he said he couldn't "because the sun was shining". Eh?

We went to a marche artisanal et vide grenier (crafts market and car boot sale) down at the lake in the afternoon and joined some friends for a drink after having a browse. As we stood at the outside bar watching a sheep dog rounding up some sheep, a guy came in carrying a box full of plastic plant pots and wearing an Edinburgh University scarf - my alma mater - which I thought was a bit of a coincidence - until I realised that Mini-B had been selling all our junk at the car boot sale. I was just waiting for someone to come in carrying the kitchen sink.

hell's teeth

Boxes of stuff that didn't go in the van during our spring clean the other day have been sitting in the kitchen so I decided to go through it all this afternoon to decide what was worth keeping. I came across my 1999 diary (when I was working as a solicitor) and was surprised to see so many dentist and hairdresser appointments. I can't remember the last time I went to either, but I do take care of my teeth. After the missing digits, the other thing you notice here is how bad everyone's teeth are. I don't think anyone goes to the dentist. I'm not surprised though, because BB went to the local dentist a while ago for a clean and polish and after 20 minutes she downed tools and said his allotted time was up. He left with only his top teeth polished and it took a further two sessions to complete the treatment. It's a good job he wasn't in for root canal work!

Later, Mini-B came round with a dozen fresh eggs from his hens and some wild mushrooms he'd collected so I made a mushroom omelette. Just as we sat down to eat, the mayor rang up looking for Mini-B to tell him that his cows were all over the road. This happens all the time but the new mayor is clamping down and has sent him a warning letter threatening court action unless he gets his electric fences in order. (The last mayor wasn't bothered - but he's related to Mini-B!) At the moment his fields are fenced in with thin pieces of wire that look like something his granny knitted. I've seen stronger spiders' webs and they probably carry more current.

At least if he goes to court he'll be well dressed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

spring clean

We've been waiting for weeks for France Telecom to come and move the phone lines that pass over the roof of the mill and for the crane man to come and negotiate the sale of a crane - and they both arrived yesterday. BB can't take the old roof off before the lines are re-routed and we've decided to buy a crane to make his job a bit easier (the ridge height of the roof is 10.8 metres). We now have some nice new wooden telephone poles (which means that we can get rid of the concrete monstrosity that they've replaced) and we have a crane arriving in four weeks' time.

We spent all afternoon clearing out one room in the mill before demolition begins (the whole building is going to be demolished apart from the exterior stone walls) - plastic plant pots, broken crockery, bags of redundant work clothes, books, an old kitchen sink etc - most of which went straight into the van to be taken to the tip/charity shop today. BB then left to go to the écurie (where Mini-B milks his cows) for a pastis and when he came back, the van was empty, Mini-B having claimed all our junk.

He turned up this morning on his tractor (wearing my old Aquascutum mac!) to turn over my potager (kitchen garden) at the same time as a neighbour arrived to discuss a land swap. The current potager is on another piece of land we own about 200 metres away and the only way to get water up to it is by filling a 1000 litre plastic bidon (to which BB welded the rear axle of a car and a tow bar) from the river and towing it up there - which isn't ideal. We want to swap it for a neglected walled garden just opposite the house through which runs a stream. Our neighbour has agreed so now we have to formalise the deal with the notaire. The only disadvantage is that we'll lose our mature fruit trees from which we made our own cider and griottes - cherries preserved in sweetened gnole.

So, it's all happening.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I went to Méribel at the weekend to ski with my friend Miss Fit before everything shuts down for the season.

We worked together as saisonnières in Courchevel and shared a room, in the bowels of the chalet, without windows or ventilation. The combination of the tropical indoor temperature and leaky plumbing from the adjoining bathroom meant that plant life was actually growing in our bedroom carpet. It was like sleeping in a gigantic propagator inside a cupboard.

On my first day there, I woke up in the middle of the night needing a pee and spent 15 minutes skittering through the undergrowth in impenetrable darkness trying to find my way out, inducing such panic in me, that I insisted on leaving the door open and an outside light on thereafter. The last time I woke up in such dodgy surroundings was in Northern Australia in my cheap nylon one-man tent, after a big night out, when the midday temperature had soared to a whopping 45 degrees - boil-in-the-bag Baby Chou. I've never felt so rough!

The snow is still excellent at 3000 metres and with the slopes almost empty and a bit of blue sky, it was about as perfect a day as you can get.

Friday, April 18, 2008

wild horses

It took me a while to decide on appropriate footwear for my riding lesson today but in the end I opted for wellies - not only because they have the highest heel in my shoe collection - but they also have steel toecaps. Thinking ahead, I decided that the chances of M. Bois having an equestrian helmet that fitted me, or having any kind of helmet at all, were pretty slim, so I took along my motorcycle helmet.

When I arrived just after lunch, M. Bois was drinking la gnole - the local 80% hooch drunk at the end of a meal - and persuaded me to neck a couple, thereby immediately breaking rule #4. In light of what followed, however, it was probably a good thing that my senses (predominantly fear) were slightly dulled.

I needn't have deliberated over my choice of footwear either because when M. Bois brought the horse round, it was missing a vital piece of equipment - a saddle. No stirrups for my feet to slip through then. After donning my crash helmet and some jangly beads (I wouldn't want to be mistaken for a deer) I was given a leg up, which, believe me, was no easy feat considering M. Bois is five feet tall and the horse was about 100 hands.

Once up, I had difficulty getting comfortable because the beast was so huge that my legs practically stuck out at right angles to my body so all I had to hold on to were the 'reins' (substitute 'length of old rope'). When M. Bois suggested that I go for a little trot, it dawned on me that I was (a) not getting a professional lesson and (b) going to be riding alone. After a few tentative steps, M. Bois whacked the horse's ass so hard that it took off at a gallop. What a sight it must have been - me holding on for grim death in a full-faced helmet, Indian beads whipping around my neck as we traversed the open fields stirring up hornets' nests. It was absolutely terrifying.

So, to sum up, pretty much every golden rule of horse riding was broken in one sitting