May 22, 2017

ST EMILION–THE GITE.

One dreary afternoon in January we put the TV on and watched the first episode of James Martin’s newest series, called “James Martin’s French Adventure”.  We were in the UK, Nick was still recovering from his heart attack, we were both feeling slightly bruised and the weather was grim. 

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I like James Martin, he has less of the pretentiousness of some other TV chefs, possibly due to being a Yorkshire lad, doesn’t mince his words or suffer fools and yet is passionate and particular about his cooking.  He does it right but not in such a way as us ordinary mortals couldn’t have a bash at it ourselves.

The first episode was filmed in St Emilion, where he apparently started his cooking career when only a teenager and barely tall enough to reach the worktops.  We enjoyed the programme so much that we booked a gite in St Emilion for a week and here we are.  I also bought the book from the series, which is delightful not just for having all the recipes but lots of photos of his trip around France which are gorgeous.

An interesting fact is that James is now the very proud owner of Keith Floyd’s old Citroen 2CV.  You can see it on the front cover of the book, with original dents, and his joy at owning it was positively tangible.

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This is our gite.  It’s in the middle of the town, is a one up, one down little house without any outdoor space or parking but it serves our purpose very well.

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The view from the house is lovely.  St Emilion is without doubt a very pretty and fascinating old town.

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The gite is small but comfortable for two people.  It’s a beautifully renovated ancient town house and as far as we can tell it’s a kind of back-to-back with the house joining on behind being several floors up on the next street.  Maybe ours is built into the rock, it’s hard to tell.

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It is very tastefully decorated in a modern yet shabby chic kind of way.  As we get to know it we realise that it’s a little bit “style over substance” and as always we have found ourselves heading to the supermarket (in Libourne) for things we simply can’t manage without for a week.  Like a chopping board and a washing up bowl.  We also bought some small wine glasses.  There are plenty of wine glasses here but they are all huge.  I suspect that previous visitors have been more interested in eating out and tasting wine than cooking their dinner.  The oven looks like it has never been used.  There are no oven gloves.  We fancied boiled eggs for our dinner tonight but there are no egg cups.  Poached will have to do instead.

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The bedroom is light and airy and also very cool as the house only gets some sunshine from late afternoon.  The bed is very comfy.

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The bathroom is part of the bedroom, something we are used to from our own ensuite bathroom chez nous.  The difference here is that the loo does at least have a door on it, thank goodness.

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There is no soap dish, but plenty of hot water.

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The staircase is not for the faint hearted.  Very steep and narrow with no handrail.  We’re getting used to it.

More soon !!

May 18, 2017

GARDEN AND OUTDOOR WORK

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One of the things we really liked about this house when we were house hunting was the size of the garden.  Big enough to grow some flowers and a few vegetables but not too huge.  Some of the properties we looked at had vast amounts of land, including orchards and vegetable plots.  We felt we needed something that was easy enough to look after while we were in residence and not so big that it would be a nightmare to tame if we had been away for a few weeks.  In that sense we got the perfect house and we are very pleased with the garden.

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Our last major project in improving the house has been to repair this wall.  It’s on the end of what we call the “little house”, the spare outbuilding or barn that is potentially another dwelling, or “maison des amis”, that is ripe for renovation.  Virtually every house we looked at had one of these.  We don’t really need an extra house so we use the space as garden storage, but we have always intended to get the wall fixed and finally it came to the top of our list.

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Chipping off the old render revealed some interesting stonework underneath and this has been preserved in the finished wall.  We love it, Nick is very proud of it and it makes a huge difference to the ambience under the wooden shelter where we eat outdoors in the shade on warm, sunny days.  The new wall makes the area look cleaner, brighter and generally more pleasant to sit in.

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Nick is the gardener of the house.  I tend to mention plants that I like and he finds sensible alternatives that we can actually grow in our soil, which is mostly clay.  We were very impressed with a display of alliums with huge pom poms at a nearby château a few years ago and Nick found something similar that was more in proportion with our garden.

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They have been in flower for quite a long time and even when the flowers turn into seeds they still look attractive and interesting plants.

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We both love roses, especially fragrant ones.  This one we call Lulu’s rose.  It was a gift from our friends Tim and Gaynor last summer after she had died and we planted it close to her favourite spot for snoozing in the sunshine.

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This climbing rose, which has large, blousy blooms, has a very strong scent and we get a waft of it every time we go in and out of the house. 

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This climbing rose has grown from a cutting taken from one we grew over the front of the little cottage that we had in the village.

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Both of these have been grown from cuttings of roses in our old house in the UK, a lovely memento of the garden we had there.

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These two were purchases from French supermarkets.  Roses are very expensive in France and we tend to swoop if we come across any plants that are reasonably priced, plant them in the garden and hope for the best.  These have done very well for cheap roses.

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We call this one Barrie’s rose.  It was a gift to me from him and his partner Edith when I retired in 2013.  It’s a fabulous vivid pink colour and I treasure it.  We still miss Barrie – it’s now two years since he died and this rose reminds us what a good friend he was.  We have many happy memories of times spent with him in our little house in Le Grand-Pressigny, mostly of us all sitting on the terrace, a glass of wine in hand, discussing this and that as the sun went down, the swifts went in and the bat formation team came out.  Happy days.

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This rose is in the hedge along the boundary.  The hedge was a scruffy ramshackle collection of overcrowded shrubs, trees and bushes when we moved in and we have gradually thinned it out and allowed some of the better plants to thrive.  This has done really well after being allowed to grow and breathe.

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Of course we have other plants than just roses.  The fabulous poppies came from Nicole and the clematis was also there when we moved in, choked by surrounding ivy and other unattractive bushes that almost covered the front of the house.  The pelargonium is a new purchase.  We lost all our geraniums over the winter – the prolonged cold spell did for all of them so we’re having to start again this year.

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There are a few fruit trees in the garden.  The cherry tree has a good crop of cherries this year and we’re hoping to get to them before the birds do this time.  We planted a gooseberry bush last year and it’s produced a few fruit which are almost ready for picking.  We have grown broad beans for the second year and they are also almost ready – just as we finish the last year’s beans from the freezer which have kept us going over the winter.

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The weather forecast for this week spurred us on to get the garden into shape for the summer.  Two warm, dry, sunny days were predicted, with little wind.  It has been a very windy year so far but for two days we could get on with the work, mowing, hedge trimming, potting up the geraniums and tidying with only a light breeze to cool us down. 

Then the forecast changed.  By Wednesday lunchtime we were supposed to be having strong gusts of wind, heavy showers and even hail.  So we were up early to get the job finished before the storm hit.  Daisy watched from her usual vantage point in the roof of the shelter as we toiled away.  As we drove to the tip with the trailer full of rubbish the temperature hit 29°C.

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Gradually the blue skies disappeared and heavy clouds formed, coming in from the west.  The temperature dropped by 10° and a strong wind started to blow.  Luckily the storm arrived later than expected and I had time to fetch my washing in – dried by the sun and ironed by the wind – before the first raindrops fell.

It has now been raining, on and off, for twenty four hours.  The rain is much needed for our garden – which is now ready to go for the summer.  When the rain stops !!

April 21, 2017

TULIPS, SOME PROGRESS AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE OWL.

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We have had a magnificent spring so far.  Ever since Nick arrived back from the UK on 5th March we have had barely a cloud in the sky and some really warm days.

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The garden is loving it.  We had a good show of daffodils, swaying gently in the breeze, followed by the tulips, which have been glorious. 

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Tulips are possibly my favourite flower.  They come at a time of year when we really need them.  After a long winter we need their bright colours to cheer up our gardens and who can resist having them in the house, to lift our spirits.

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Nick should get all the credit for our display of tulips this year.  He planted the bulbs last autumn to give us little forests of tulips all over the garden.

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We have tall and sleek ones, short and frilly ones and crazy two tone ones.

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I think my absolute favourites are possibly this little clump of short and stubby ones which are the most amazing orange colour.  Tulips come earlier here in France than we get them in the UK.  Which is good news for a tulip lover like me.

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Another piece of good news is that as of this very morning we are one step nearer getting my carte vitale.  A letter arrived giving my number in the French system and requesting an up to date photo for the card itself.

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I have to say that since my last post I have asked the right questions of people who have used the French health system and now understand how it really works for UK citizens.  I had got it completely wrong and it is much simpler than I thought.  The carte vitale is not essential to get treatment, it just makes the process easier.  Maybe I will write a post about it one day, if for no reason other than to have it written down for my own future reference.

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Just to prove the point, I had to visit the doctor in the village recently.  It’s all so different from in our home town in the UK.  There, I would have to jump through several hoops to get an appointment quickly.  Certainly, if you are really ill you will get seen on the same day.  If you have something less urgent to discuss you would be lucky to be seen in less than three weeks.  If you need a referral or a blood test either can take several more weeks to get done.

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When I phoned the doctor’s number mid morning on a Saturday, I was told to come down to the surgery for 12.15.  The surgery is in a ramshackle building with peeling paint, cracked, ancient tomettes and nearly as ancient magazines.  The door was propped open to let in the lovely spring sunshine and I was the only person there, the place seemed deserted.  I sat opposite the door so that I could hear the birdsong and watch the cats playing in the courtyard.  There were no automatic doors, no computers, no severe looking receptionists, no coughing and grumbling patients, it was more like sitting in a friend’s front room waiting for the kettle to boil than waiting to see the doctor.

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Which brings me to the point about the owl.  When people ask what it is about living in France that I love so much, I am sometimes lost for words.  Where do you start?  I could rabbit on about how the tulips come early and how you can get to see the doctor the same day without having to be seriously ill.  I could mention the almost total lack of litter, bad language and bad manners, and point out the deserted roads.

How much do these things matter?  Each one doesn’t matter very much by itself but when you add them all together they amount to a feeling that life here is better than it could ever be back in our home town in Derbyshire. 

When we were looking at this house and thinking about buying it the previous owners were very keen to point out that an owl was nesting in the barn.  I was curiously impressed and when he said “but of course you’re not going to buy a house just because it has an owl” I remember thinking that in actual fact I couldn’t think of a better reason at all.  If a house has its own owl, it can only be because it’s a really good place to live.  Sitting in the sunshine, admiring the tulips, listening to the birds, contemplating the lack of traffic noise, I realise that the owl was right.

March 18, 2017

SOME THINGS CHANGE, SOME STAY THE SAME

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I returned to France in mid February, unbelievably a month ago already.  Nick stayed behind to complete his rehabilitation programme at the hospital and followed two weeks later.  Now that we are back we are trying to rediscover normal. 

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During the last month the weather has been mixed.  Horrible grey days, drizzle, tremendous winds, and also some sunshine to lift our spirits.  One of the reasons for my early return was to check on the house.  There was some damage after storm Doris a few weeks ago and since then more in the last high winds.  All has now been sorted, thankfully.

On one of the recent bright and sunny days we took a familiar walk around the village and the route around the château that we used to do almost daily with Lulu.  I still find these walks painful.  I can visualise her trotting along ahead of us, enjoying being off the lead, stopping for a good sniff here and there.  It will be some time yet before the joy of remembering her will overcome the sadness of being cheated out of having her with us for more years. 

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It is incredibly coming up to ten years since we set foot in the village for the first time.  The little house below the château where we used to live looks pretty much the same as when we left it.  The house below has new owners and has had a lot of work done to improve it, turning it from a scruffy dump of a place into a smart town house.  I wonder if we would have got on with our new neighbours.  Rumour has it that it’s a holiday home and I wonder if there will be a lot of noise when they are in residence.  One of the great joys of our little house was its peace and quiet, despite being in the middle of the village.

Further up the hill the two cottages where the very old couple lived are now shuttered up and seemingly empty.  Someone said that both of them were now in an old people’s home.  I shall miss seeing them pottering around and seeing their bright geraniums on the window sills.

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This view of the château is one I never tire of.  It hasn’t changed much recently, except that the electricity pylon has now gone, all the cables having been buried underground. 

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The château itself hasn’t changed much, not since it was reinvented and reopened several years ago.  Displays and events come and go but it remains a beautiful, tranquil place, with lovely views over the village.

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Walking back down to the village from the track behind the château the view is exactly the same as it has been for the last ten years.  I love it from either direction.  Going up there is the promise of a lovely walk where we’re unlikely to see another soul.  Going back down there is the promise of a glass of something in the bar in the village, always something to look forward to.

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The village evolves gradually all the time.  The florist was closed for a while and we were so pleased when it reopened a couple of years ago.  Now we are sad to hear it is closing at the end of the month and the shop will be empty again.  I imagine it must be hard to make a living from selling flowers and plants in a small village.

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One of the two bars has been closed since mid December.  There are new owners who are apparently taking over in mid April.  It will be nice to see it open for business instead of shut up with whitewashed windows.  Especially in the summer it will be good to see happy people enjoying the sunshine at its tables outside.

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We have come to a decision, of sorts, about our house.  We had changes planned for this year, mainly upstairs.  A new ensuite bathroom in the main bedroom, decorating, lowering of ceilings and air conditioning.  But we’re putting all of that on hold until we find out exactly what the outcome of the French elections will be and, of course, that awful word, Brexit.  If we find that living in France more or less full time is no longer an option or what we want, there seems little point in spending money improving what would become a second home again, especially considering that we are unlikely to recoup that money if we decide to sell the house and move back to a smaller one for holidays only.  It’s money we could use to buy a better house in the UK if the tables are turned and we end up spending most of our time back there.  This is not something we would want but we think it’s best not to tempt fate.

My carte vitale has still not arrived, five months after I applied for it, so we’re still faced with the prospect of returning regularly to the UK for health care and so on.  Our dream of living permanently in France is not looking as realistic as it did this time last year, which is when we made the decision that that’s what we would like to do.  Which just goes to show, you never know what’s around the corner and planning something is one thing, actually achieving it is another thing entirely.

Bon weekend !!