what day is it? what month is it??

as a retired person i am used to asking my fellow retiree, aka mr mcgregor, what day it is as they all seem to blur together sometimes. especially in the school holidays when my various activities are on holiday too.  but since the arrival of doom virus and the following confinement all over europe i am having great difficulty not only with which day is it but which month it is.   yesterday i looked at the calendar and found myself disbelieving it was the eleventh day of june.  june? JUNE?   how can that be?

confinement hit us in mid march, the day before my birthday and on the day we should have left to go on a short break to a pretty town in provence.   since then we have had to come to terms with not making any trips, at first the permitted distance was a kilometre from home then one hundred kilometres and now as far as the french border….but no further.  we have had to carry pieces of paper to prove who we are, where we live and where we are going. Later more shops opened and we started going to them wearing our masks and now almost everywhere is open but we can’t assemble with more than nine other people.   while grappling with all that who had time to notice that er…time was passing.

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we have had a beautiful spring which saved a lot of us from extreme depression but now the early summer is pretty wet and gloomy which is having an effect on my morale and, no doubt, on other peoples’ too.   a normal june  (will there ever be a normal june again?) would find me making sausage rolls as the various group activities drew to a summer closure.

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the rock crowd would be having its annual ‘assemblee’ followed by a bbq and rock soiree.  later there would a pizza night up at hugo’s fabulous place in the hills with music and dancing into the early hours.

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the homework club would be organising a meeting to ‘faire le point’ and a picnic on the banks of a local plan d’eau to round off the school year.

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my monthly ‘ladies wot lunch’ would be meeting for the last time before september, sharing plans for the summer and family visits.   the weekly english/ french group would be trinque-ing a verre and wondering how to hang on to the vocabulary we had learned.   gym classes would draw to a close.   i don’t know how they celebrate the end of the year as it was my first year with this association and what a strange year.

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only secours populaire would be soldiering on but they would be discussing the closure of the antenne in august although the weekly distribution alimentaire would go on just as it has done all through this awful time.

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and we should have been doing a ‘collecte’ this month to replenish supplies!

the village fete committee would be selling tickets for the fete de la musique on midsummer’s day or the weekend closest when we would all convene for a meal in the ‘place’ for a catch up and ‘bopping’ to the accordian music provided. 

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and our crazy kiwi friend up on the hill would be celebrating christmas in summer as she has done ever since landing in our lives, borrowing our elderly christmas tree in a pot!

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that’s a normal june.  and normal june would have followed a normal may and a normal april.  we did do some of the usual things around easter which this year fell in april.  traditionally we always get out the garden furniture from the cave on the easter weekend and we did.

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but it didn’t follow a week of cleaning and readying the gite for the hoped for summer clients.  with travel restrictions in place for the forseeable future there seemed no point. even when things eased up in may i replied to a tourist office enquiry that we would not be opening.

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i really don’t feel like cleaning up after strangers and the cleaning has to be much deeper than usual and there are various procedures to be put in place.   i couldn’t face it.

in may we managed to get out and buy the veg and flower plants to keep us busy and to bring a little normality into our days.  but it was odd not to have any visitors.  may is often a month when family or friends choose to come and stay.

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the weather is good, the countryside looks stunning and the children are in school so everywhere is reasonably calm and getting around is enjoyable.  we did catch up on jobs that needed attending to that we couldn’t do under the confinement but that was soon achieved.

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and now here is june.   the bars and restaurants are open but as we are both in the susceptible over 70s group the advice for us is stay close to home as before with only occasional sorties!

we had talked back in the winter about maybe camping this month, the quiet but warm month, at a pretty spot below puy mary about ninety kilometres away from here.   we discovered it when playing broom waggon to gav on one of his long bike rides a few years ago.  we liked the village and went back to the campsite  later on the same summer.

 

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but the last thing we want to do now is share a sanitary block with other people, something that we happily did before however antiquated the facilities.   the sale and rental of camper vans is going through the roof according to the news as people realise the efficacy of being able to take a holiday but remain in their own, hopefully, healthy bubble.  our tent couldn’t provide that and as far as i know campsites are only opening for camper vans.

and so it was a shock to realise that half the year has slipped away. and all i can remember doing with any regularity is the daily search of the news for the death rates and infection rates as we all yearn to see them diminish and bring an end to this fear that we are all living under.  plus my daily posting on facebook of my garden wander to keep my spirits up.

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oh, and the weekly facetime homework club with a couple of eleven year olds plus instagram…plus…….  an interior and screen orientated life.

but…. this won’t do!  this way lies depression and a waste of days.  so i have decided that we need to get out.  safely,  of course, but out!  i announced this to mr mcgregor as we drove to a medical appointment the other day and enjoyed the scenery we hadn’t seen for three months.  how about a day out somewhere, taking a picnic to some tranquil spot in the countryside preferably near one of our many rivers where we can sit and stare and maybe find a quiet walk as well?  ‘not more than an hour’s drive’ demanded himself.   he knows how i can get carried away and we end up driving for ages.   so at last i can dig out the maps, play around on google earth to see if places match up to my imagination….like a ‘normal’ june….. now i just need the weather to cheer up….

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then…on y va!!

 

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once around the block

we went for a walk the other afternoon.  so? i hear you thinking.  well, due to the confinement, or lockdown as english speakers call it,  going for a walk is not the simple or, dare i say it, enjoyable experience it once was.  before setting out you, or in this case both of us, have to fill out the attestation that must accompany an individual on every step beyond the perimeter of home.  exercise is allowed but cannot be undertaken for more than an hour and can’t be more than a kilometre from home.  lou has been around the block a few times and when i googled the furthest point it transpired it was 100 metres over the kilometre.  we hoped the gendarmes wouldn’t have google maps to hand if we were challenged.

identification has to be carried as well.  early on it was a subject of hot debate on various facebook groups as to whether brits needed to carry passports or if driving licences would do.  we take both as lou say our address is on our driving licence which seems a sensible precaution.  eventually we were ready to set off.

as we approached  the end of our drive the neighbours called a greeting.  we often chat over the fence and discuss various garden plants and sometimes even swap some.  it seemed odd keeping well back and shouting the length of their garden.  just then friends from further up the hill, a mother and daughter,  walked out from under the railway bridge and also called out a cheery bonjour.  they made to step towards us and we instinctively moved back.  this was all so unreal and so unlike our usual greeting which would have been kisses all round.

reassuring each other ‘tous va bien’ and a final shout of ‘seulement un heure’ from the neighbours we headed off.  turning round the first left we passed a neighbour’s barn.  this barn had been the venue for a repas de quartier, the first ever held since we moved here.  these repas are jolly affairs where the neighbours in a particular corner of the commune meet up for an evening of food, drink and chat.  ours was organised by a chap who is a chef by trade and lives opposite said barn.  he cooked up paella and the rest of us brought along the aperos, salads, desserts  and alcohol, of course.  it was a lovely evening and we got to know people we had previously only nodded to.  i pondered ruefully that it may be a long time before we can enjoy such a gathering again.

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by now lou was pacing ahead, comme d’hab, while i stopped to take photos.  about now i began to feel very vulnerable.  all my previous lockdown excursions had been in the car and here i was maskless and not inside my metal bubble.   but around the next bend the beauty of a bank of iris made me forget those misgivings and begin to enjoy being outside and stretching my legs further than the limits of our garden.

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we had said to ourselves just a quick walk up to the ‘horse’ field, so named for our grandson because of the white horse that lives in it.  highly original!

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by the time we got there, several photos later (butterflies, barn doors, arum lilies…) we decided to carry on around the block as we still had forty minutes in hand.  the road looked as if there had been a snowstorm.  thick white blossom from the nearby poplar trees carpeted it from side to side.

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(i had read about a red alert for poplar allergy sufferers.)   just here we had a chat…at a safe social distance… with a gentlemen who was restoring the roof of the barn next to the house he had bought a couple of years ago.  once again, i thought about how we would have shaken hands, agreed we were anglais and spent some time in idle talk if the virus wasn’t hanging over us plus the time allocation of our jaunt.

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along the ridge, under a fabulous oak just bursting into leaf, down the hill and a swing left over the railway line.  no trains for weeks now which we miss but the local cats are enjoying as they strut along the tracks as if they own them.

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then we crossed the main road by the old farm house being restored.

about now i became aware of a bird singing away in the trees to our right.  i was convinced it was a nightingale but was waiting for its familiar ‘peeep, peeep, peeep’…and as we turned onto the track across the fields it came! so a nightingale to complete the feast of the senses.

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all along the walk i had been excited by all the briar roses out in bloom.  i started off thinking they were a type of wild mock orange blossom but my new app on my phone identified them as roses.(thanks, bro)   whatever they were they were beautiful.

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by now i had lost lou what with photos and identifying plants with the app.  checking my watch i began to hurry up.  an hour isn’t long enough to take in everything but it certainly concentrates the mind and senses.  this part of the walk takes you between fields that lead down to the river cere.  one was full  of buttercups while the one opposite give views across the river and up to the hills above the village

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this path is often the start of my bike rides but those aren’t allowed at the moment unless the bike is being used to go shopping.   the river comes in sight briefly where it is joined by the mill race.

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we have a mill at port de gagnac.  now it is a wood mill but our neighbour who lives to the east of paris remembers it being a flour mill in her childhood and the miller covered in flour looking like a ghost.   the millrace lives up to its name and rushes through its banks and after heavy rain will flood into the farmer’s field.

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this one!

and we got back within the hour…just

yesterday our prime minister gave a speech outlining the new conditions for deconfinement.  we won’t need the attestation anymore after 11th may if we are designated as living in a green zone but if our area is designated red….it will just be around the block for the duration!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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centre of attention

when we bought our holiday home in gagnac in 1990, the nearest telephone box was down at the port de gagnac.  we had neither phone or television to begin with and certainly no internet connection.  I had a very basic computer in my classroom but we were at the very beginning of understanding how it was going to develop and take over our lives.  slowly we got more connected. lou had a mobile phone that he had to go out and wave around in the street outside to get a decent signal.  we bought a television and a French canal package so we could watch the bbc world service and, for a short time, became addicted to a French quiz show called ‘fa si la chanter’, a gallic version of ‘name that tune’.  by the time we retired here, fourteen years after discovering the village, the internet was a must have.  we lost no time in getting the phoneline (we had finally put one in) upgraded to carry the internet too.  meanwhile I discovered that the big building opposite the plumber in biars was not just a library and cinema but had a ‘cyberbase’ where we could use the computers with the first hour free as we lived here.  this proved very useful then and later when we moved on to our retirement house from the ‘gite’ and had to wait for internet connection.

this building, the ‘centre social and culteral – robert doisneau’ was going to figure quite a lot in my life from then on although i was unaware of it at the time.   after the cyberbase it was the cinema that caught my attention.   every so often there would a ‘vo’ film, version originale ie in a language other than french and, often English.  i soon became a member of a little band of  regular face, not all expats, who faithfully turned out for the english language offerings.  i noticed that ken loach seemed to be favoured and then discovered there was an earnest group dedicated to choosing films that appealed to them and asking for their showing.  it does mean that for the French cinema goers the uk is a rather forsaken land as portrayed by our ken. ‘i, daniel blake’ caused several french friends to speak to me in sorrowing tones about the land of my birth!

soon after moving to gagnac I was abducted one night by a young neighbour who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who whisked me off to ‘geem’.  I found myself part of a small group of local young mums who shared the driving and who helped improve my french slang as we sweated through our step classes.  later, I took a daytime pilates class with the same gym prof and that was held in the small ballet studio tucked away on the first floor behind the cinema screen.  here I met an older group of early retirees and the occasional brit.

wanting to improve my French, and thinking that reading books may be better than entirely relying on the sometimes purple prose of the local paper, led me a few years later to the french reading group run by the library.  this group took itself very seriously.  all the authors we read were acamedie francais members and i struggled to read them let alone discuss them with anything like fluency.  some other foreign members dropped out but, pigheadedly, I stuck at it.  after five years i decided enough was enough. i had found some french authors i enjoyed reading and took my leave of the group promising to continue reading french literature.  and i have.

around 2011 i heard from a dutch friend that the library ran a homework club for the college kids (college being the equivalent of uk secondary school but finishing at 15 years old) and they needed an english speaker.  i had regretted not being able to help out in primary school over here, problems with insurance etc so went along and offered myself.  marine, the lovely, smiley girl who was organinsing the ‘clas’ as it is referred to welcomed me, if not with open arms but a stream of rapid french.  she soon came to recognise my confused expression and does try hard to slow down for me.  mind you, i have become a better listemer!  so for several years now i have been part of the team of ‘benevoles’, volunteers, at the centre.   every Christmas we are given an apero evening as a thank you and presented with two cinema tickets and a card made by the ‘jeunes’.  at the end of the summer term we adjourn to a nearby ‘plan d’eau’,  a lake in a country park, with our individual offerings of picnic food, ‘boissons’ courtesy of the centre.  my offering is always sausage rolls, which rapidly get gobbled up.

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alexia and marine cooling off in the plan d’eau.  it was a very hot summer.  marine now organises the primary school sessions and alexia organises us!

I have always been impressed with the range of activities the centre lays on for all age groups in the community which it announces via flyers and three monthly brochures.   as well as the cyberbase, library and cinema, there is a toy library with regular games evenings for families.    there are English classes for children once a week, cookery workshops, poetry sessions, arts and crafts and storytime for the toddlers, advice for parents. you name it, at some point it will be happening.

in the run up to the french lockdown it was a worrying time as it seemed sensible to avoid gatherings such as rock and gym but I felt guilty abandoning les jeunes.  then the announcement was made that schools would be closing on 13th march and immediately my phone and inbox was full of messages cancelling everything!  this was followed by the countrywide ‘confinement’ or lockdown, as we refer to it, on 17th march and everything went very quiet as we all adjusted to a new way of existing..

as lou was no longer popping out for the paper every day I began a subscription to the local paper to try and stay in touch. It was hard getting used to staying at home so I was very pleased when, after a week, i received a message from marine.  the ‘jeunes’ who were now supposed to be working from home (a lot aren’t!) still might need some support with their homework.  would i be interested in helping out? of course I would.  as an oldie which puts me in an at-risk group it is hard to not be able to volunteer to help someone somewhere.  so I said yes but, please, keep it simple as trying to do anything by skype or facetime would challenge my IT skills not just language ones.  i was reassurd that it probably wouldn’t be a problem as only about eight families had asked for help.  I didn’t hear anymore but the folk from the centre haven’t been inactive despite working from home.  as i followed the local news in biars the centre began to be featured quite a lot.  the writing group has put up some challenges for anyone interested in responding.  if i had more confidence in my french writing acumen i might be tempted as the proffered subjects are interesting.  then there was a reminder that the centre is there to help with working your way through french bureaucracy, a challenge for anyone.   then there were links to facebook where the librarians dedicated to the younger children have been sharing ideas for activities and reading stories.  origami anyone? accordion music?

a couple of days ago, i had another message from marine.  a collaegue, alice, is usually in charge of the cookery workshops.  ‘lots of people are cooking more during lockdown’, the message said, ‘do you have a recipe you could share to alice and thus to the community? maybe after all this is over we can have a get together with all our favourite foods?’  it is as my sister says, nothing happens in france without food and drink being involved, not even in this desperate times.

now, can i translate my sausage roll recipe into understandable french?

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masking? who’s asking?

when we went on our long overland trip to china we expected to see people wearing masks in the highly polluted cities there.  we hadn’t expected the same thing to apply to ulan bator, the capital of mongolia.   there, despite the crystal clear skies over the vast plains surrounding it, the city suffers from smoggy skies as do all the people living there.  in beijing although anticipated it was still a shock to see the sun shining through a sickly yellow murk and the taste of that murk in the back of your throat..  wearing a mask seemed so little to counteract the threat but most of the people we saw did and we were grateful to be only visiting rather than living in it full time.

since the covid-19 pandemic arrived the arguments have gone back and forth about the efficacy of wearing masks to protect ourselves as well as others..  do they make the wearer complacent, falsely assuming his or her immunity is guaranteed by one?  do they really work if not the same quality given to top ranking doctors and health workers?  whatever the right answer is a lot of people have taken it into their own hands, literally, and made masks for themselves while others have created mini enterprises making masks at home to offer to pompiers, gendarmes and anyone else who interacts with the public on a daily basis.

I was one of those people who tied a scarf around my face and hoped it was of some use.  when the ‘experts’ began to change their minds about masks a few days ago there was a rush of self help videos on facebook showing how you could make one either the no sew way or not.  I tried a no sew one which involved folding a scarf several times. it looked like a facemask but the thickness of the folded material threatened to suffocate me before I even left the house! then I found what looked like a fairly simple method based on just a few seams and basic materials I had kicking about the house.

now sewing and I do not have a good track record.  my maternal grandma taught me to knit but my tension was and is too slack so everything ends up big enough for two of me.  baby clothes knitted for my grandson probably would only fit the three year old he is now.  as for sewing I avoided it for years. until, that is, I hit the technical school at 13.  I was one of the last year group in kent to take the 13+.  I didn’t make the grammar school but scraped into the local technical school for girls.  there were two options, commercial – shorthand and typing or the o level stream.  that was my parents choice for me and part of that stream was domestic science ie cooking and sewing.  cooking started from our second year and we made our cookery aprons in our first year.  I wore an apron from home for the first six months of cookery classes as my apron took me a year and a half to finish.

however, as a mum of two boys i soon became adept at mending and even took up patchwork, briefly, after retirement.   sewing machine have i none and no desire to own one but a little light hand stitching wouldn’t faze me…i thought.  assembling my materials i watched and re-watched the video.  nailed it, i smugly told myself as i got out the iron to press in the pleats..  sewing the two rough edges i began to try and work out where these edges would ultimately be.   it became clear that i had turned the whole thing once too often and my carefully pressed pleats were, in fact, the wrong way round.  back to the drawing, or, in this case, ironing board.  next came the fixing in place of the the elastic loops that would attach the mask to my ears.   another video viewing and the loops were duly pinned into place.   i made a cup of tea and adjourned to the garden balancelle to do my ‘little light sewing’ in the sunshine.

realising the imprtance of the elastic loops and the rather powerful strength of the only elastic i could find in my sewing box (a present from my mother in law, a trained tailor, years ago) i decided they needed to be very firmly sewn in.  so i did just that.  but as i continued the seam i began to have some doubts.. reveiwing the shape under my hands i turned it right side out and realised i had succeeded in placing my loops so that they would be inside the mask rather than outside!

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spot the mistake?

it was a standing joke when i was teaching that design tech and i were not good friends.  latent dyslexia was how i excused myself!   so i began the laborious task of unpicking all those savagely inserted stitches i had just done.  loops pinned in i turned the mask right side out several times to convince myself that i was finally getting there plus checking the video one last time.. the tinkly background music was really beginning to annoy….

our elderly cat wandered over, probably with the intention of joining me on the swing seat but after watching my stabbing at the material for a while he walked away to find a calmer spot..  but then it was done.  i turned it right side out, pulled down the pleats as shown and tried it on, pulling the loops behind each ear.   it worked and looked like a mask.   and no blood had been spilt.  with a natty pocket into which i attached a double sheet of plastic i was ready for my next outing.  would anyone spot i matched the gite curtains?

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freezer finds

in the days before lockdown the news was full of reports of panic buying in the uk and, to a lesser extent, here too.  loo rolls disappeared virtually overnight.  in a video call with our eldest son I talked about possible difficulties to come when food buying.  ‘don’t worry, mum,’ he replied, you’ve a freezer full of ratatouille!’ a bit of an exaggeration but yes, there are certainly several packages out in the cave freezer.

back in the 70s we lived on a small co-owned housing estate opposite the village church. we were all young families and one of the mums discovered that there were allotments behind the church with several free and only 50 pence yearly rent.  the domestic freezer was fast becoming the must have piece of kitchen equipment and we chatted about how lovely it would be to grow and freeze our own produce rather than haunt the new frozen food shops popping up on every shopping parade.  lou, my  husband, took some persuading that this was a good idea..all that digging he mutteered.  however, he finally gave in and once he became the renter of a large patch of weed covered ground his inner mr mcgregor burst through.  so much so that i had to beg to be allowed a small corner to plant herbs.  our first bumper crop was cabbages.  lots and lots of cabbages.  i remember days of chopping, blanching and bagging up cabbage.   i assume we ate some too.

from then on every garden we subsequently owned has had a vegetable plot plus various green houses, cold frames, soft fruit netting etc etc. our present garden is no different except it is the biggest so far and extends into an orchard with several elderly but still productive fruit trees.  so every summer lou is out there planning and planting, sowing and swearing over things that don’t grow and things that attack his precious produce.  i have learnt to say yes, when offered yet another lettuce.  refusal brings on a hurt look and a ‘shan’t bother growing any more’ retort.

gluts are an occupational hazard.. we live in a region of rain and strong sunshine so everything grows…a lot.  plant one courgette plant and it will behave as if it wants world domination.  turn your back and you will find a marrow-size fruit has bloomed overnight.  i have searched the internet for recipes and we have tried everything from courgette quiche through to spicy courgette chutney (not at all bad!).  when we had a small restaurant in the village we pressed our surplus onto the owner/chef.  this is usual in our countryside.  offers of fruit and vegetables reach their zenith in the autumn as everyone is inundated with potiron (pumpkin) and squashes.  the courgette syndrome all over again!  we once had a pumpkin plant that escaped onto the railway embankment where it festooned itself amongst the brambles and bushes hanging its yellow fruits like so many lanterns at Chinese new year.

but the ratatouille is a deliberate act of preserving for later by us.  lou grows onions, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines as well as the aforementioned courgettes so I have all the ingredients to hand.  I cook great vats of the stuff and use it later in a variety of different dishes. sometimes we even eat it straight.   ‘mush’ is how it is denigrated by ‘that’ son.  ‘waste not want not’ I return.  the ratatouille is joined by a lot of soup too.  those pesky pumpkins plus chicken, thickened with lentils and split peas, a favourite of mr McGregor.  every roast chicken dinner is followed by the boiling of bones and the making of soup!  and fruit.  lobbed into the freezer for making crumbles later.  much later.

so this enforced stay at home has meant I have been rummaging in the freezer to use up anything that could still be considered edible without bringing on a bout of food poisoning on top of our other worries.

and look what I found.  bought on our last trip to blighty (at christmas, go figure) just in time for good Friday…. result!

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petit dej!!

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old dog, new tricks

as the enormity of the lockdown hit social media began to flood with encouraging homilies to comfort those stuck at home; those people working, home schooling or just stuck at home! then came jokes about how clean everyone’s homes would be.  well, if housework is the summit of your leisure time, maybe?  following that, exercise became the focus and joe jumped, and is still is, I imagine, around uk tv screens and youtube exhorting all ages to follow his moves.  more recently france3 has adopted the same idea but this chap is much beefier than joe and rarely cracks a smile. plus his moves are seriously difficult. lou said he could manage yesterday’s…until I challenged him and rolled out my yoga mat…getting down on the floor was a struggle let alone the move!

next came the virtual visits.  museums all over the world opened their doors to the captive audience.  hard on the heels of this sporting and cultural onslaught came the notion that we should all be using this time to learn a new skill.  hmmmm. after fifteen years living in france I feel I have never stopped learning new skills.  not just the language which is an ongoing challenge (more later) but learning to navigate french bureaucracy and the daily exercise of things that you knew by heart in the old country but that are done differently in this new one. personally i was quite happy to find i had more time for the garden and books. new skill? pah!

but thinking about it i have learnt a new skill, perforce one that has been forced on me by the new circumstances in which we find ourselves living.  shopping, especially food shopping has never held much appeal.  from the early years of our marriage it fell to me to shop for food as lou worked weird hours and continued to do so all our working lives.  i soon devised a method that suited us back then and which survived into retirement.  the big shop is once a week , on a thursday, fridays too manic, and, once here, undertaken during the French lunch hour. I hate crowded shops and will abandon shopping trips just to avoid them.

but as I have written before shopping is now a scary ordeal and one I will avoid if at all possible.  early on I idly googled ‘drive’ shops near here.  in the uk it is known as ‘click and collect’.  I knew there were no shops delivering so this would be the next best way to avoid going into supermarkets, a health hazard for all concerned.  I discovered that a supermarket in the other direction to the one I use every week had a drive facility.  so I set about learning how to use it.

firstly I had to register online. this necessitated formfilling.  I was reminded of the jokes about scrolling down forever to find your year of birth and the humbling experience of being told your chosen password is weak.  how ridiculous to feel proud when you stab away and get your password through!  once registered I was ready to create my first order.  with hindsight aka learning, I use the computer now but back then, all of two weeks, I used my phone from a supine position of the kitchen sofa.  a modest list was finally arrived at after a lot of cursing as I tried to figure out the organisation of the ‘rayons’.  compote with biscuits? pourquoi?  then to confirm the order and choose a slot.  I noted the first available one was almost a week away so future orders ought to be done well in advance – learning!  slot chosen it was smoothly moving to paying online, confirmed by the bank (natty sending of a code to confirm all is legit) and the arrival of the email to say I had an order to be picked up etc etc….

so a sigh of relief.  then the day arrived for collection and the self doubt began.  it said on the email present yourself at the acceuil, I didn’t want to go into the shop.  the cash hadn’t been taken from my bank account, why not?  would I need to swipe my card? touch buttons?  was this actually going to be any better than doing my usual supermarket shop?  in trepidation i filled out my attestation, checked i had my passport, tied the scarf around my face, dug out my gloves…..

a very quiet drive to the supermarket.  a lovely day that made me wish I could just keep driving to somewhere away from all this. but I was on a mission.  I swung into the car park and noticed a few cars around and one or two people about. I parked close to the entrance and reluctantly approached the doors.  straight away I saw several posters for drive customers. open your boot, stay in your car and ring into the shop.  slight flap as I tried to memorise the number but then sanity took over and made me look at the email that lou had printed off for me.  there was the phone number, bien sur.  first girl had a problem with my name, all French people do. why not an ‘i’, why ‘ea’?  the major embarrassment came with the second girl I was put through to.  she said something with what to me sounded like a question in her voice.  someone for the shopping?  yes, I replied, me, i’m here in my car.  as we struggled with my incomprehension, it dawned on me the poor girl was saying someone would be out with my order.   oh, the shame.   I wanted to call her back and apologize for being a stressed out old brit whose language skills were inadequate.

a few minutes passed and out came a girl pushing some grey boxes.  from these she loaded carrier bags and a box of beer into the boot and wished me a bon journee.  I wanted to fall on her neck with gratitude but confined myself to a merci bien and a bon courage….

since then I have collected a second order and have another lined up for a week’s time.  that last one was stressful as slots were disappearing fast as more people suss the excellent service.  one last bit of learning happened on my second visit.. the two red posts at the back of the car park that I was too stressed to notice properly are the designated place for ‘drive’ shoppers.   mind you, with another car already parked I still did my social distancing bit and parked a couple of spaces away. the learning goes on.  still old but still learning new tricks!

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a little kindness goes a long way

today is the three week anniversary of the first full day of lockdown which was, coincidentally, my birthday.  cards and parcels had arrived beforehand so I was able to start the day with some semblance of normality.  but later, I had to brave the pharmacy as both local ones had been ‘deborde’ the morning before as everyone tried to beat the midday crackdown, me included.  too frightened to join the lengthy queue I was obliged to go out again, attestation and passport in hand.

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bretenoux was a ghost town.  the usually busy brasserie where, every Wednesday lunchtime, I thread my way through the diners outside to buy my loto tickets and wistfully wonder about stopping to eat, was shuttered with its tables and chairs stacked.  I decided to skip loto betting for the time being.  the pharmacy was almost empty but I still had to wait anxiously as only four customers at a time were allowed in.  I lurked outside but was waved in by the staff.  I still had to wait tho’, scarf around my face and keeping to the farthest corner.  finally served, I hurried to the little épicerie close by for a few last items, not wanting to brave the bigger and busier supermarket, collected a book put by for me at the presse and regained the comparative safety of the car.

but still not finished as we needed bread, the weekend loaves from the village baker always need boosting by midweek.  I pulled into the big boulangerie, noting I was the only car in the car park.  the girls inside, one a neighbour, were masked and gloved and there were stripes on the floor to help a potential queue keep its distance.  only baguettes and ‘peng’ were available but a pain would do.  I moved to gaze longingly at the patisserie display.  the girls smiled. ‘ well’, I said, ‘it IS my birthday, the most bizarre I have ever experienced.’  more smiles and ‘bon anniversaires’ as I chose two strawberry tarts.  one girl wrapped them while the other got my peng and I paid by sans contact card, a boon at the moment.

back to the car and a quiet drive home, uninterrupted by a stop by the gendamerie, to my great relief.  I had all the documents but even so….

later I got out the tarts for our 4pm gouter   as I lifted the paper packaging a rectangle of decorated icing revealed itself.

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I hadn’t seen her slip it into the package.  I suddenly felt birthday-ish. I was so touched by such a sweet thought when so much else is occupying them.

now three weeks into lockdown I am remembering that gesture and am reminded that in difficult times like these despite all the stresses and strains we must remember to…

be kind.

 

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Sounds

P1060986Nursing my morning mug of tea I hear a light aircraft beyond the bedroom window. Not an unusual sound you may think but these are unusual times and our skies have not been criss crossed by vapour trails for many days now. I get out of bed but can’t see a plane, light or otherwise. Yesterday there was a helicopter flying high and towards the north. Probably returning to the Paris area from Toulouse or Cahors having brought one or more seriously ill patients to a hospital there. We are in the grip of a worldwide health crisis with a virus that is decimating communities and bringing each affected country’s health service to its knees. Here in France we are on the twenty something day of lockdown, a restriction put in place on 17th March in a desperate effort to slow down the spread of the virus. To leave home we have to fill out a form stating our reason for going out which we choose from a list of permitted activities. So far we have used shopping for essentials and exercise.

Each outing is, for me, a time of stress, of held breath, of overwhelming feelings of vulnerability which hardly lessen when I return home as the rigmarole of cleansing everything I have bought, worn , touched, has to happen before I can begin to relax. There are bags of shopping waiting in the workshop for me to brave touching. My shoes sit on the doorstep after being sprayed with diluted bleach, the clothes  I wore in the washing machine…. This is our new reality but it doesn’t seem real. All around us the spring is happening, trees blossoming, birds singing, plants pushing up and the sun shining. This is a comfort but you find yourself wondering if you will see another one.

The internet is a godsend and a nightmare. Family keep in touch from their respective isolation points around the world but the screen can also tell of death rates, tragedies, new horrors to come…

Our horizon narrows as housework becomes the main activity of the day followed by a bit of gardening, some Pilates, a dance in the kitchen then some reading, not forgetting to check out with family and friends on WhatsApp, Facebook and email. Trying to do an online shop for collection becomes a major frustration as the alternative is physically frightening, shopping in a supermarket with other people, surfaces that may be trying to kill you..

Keep positive, you tell yourself.

It’s hard

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Expect the unexpected!

The usual faff – sandwich buying and new boots for Lou before the pretty drive to lac de guery (once you leave le mont dore behind).  The car park wasn’t that full but families were arriving all the time. We got into our boots and set off for the Lac. I had been to the tourist office (part of said faff) to ask for the brochure of balades familial but she didn’t have it and said it was easy, just look for the papillon jaune, yellow butterfly, and follow them ‘autour du Lac’, words that would come back to haunt me later.

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It was lovely to be walking again in the sunshine and an easier walk in view after yesterday with all the climbing (!). The lake sparkled in the sunshine and an excited child ahead reminded us of Kai and his chatter. The pine trees smelled lovely in the warmth and I noticed pussy willows beginning to burst. After a short walk we noticed an information board to our left telling us to look out for woodpeckers and the path also moving away from the lakeside and up into a beech wood.  And up. And up.

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Eventually we were climbing up a steep and rocky slope, very glad we had sticks to use against the possibility of plunging back down. We looked around for the yellow butterfly and there it always was, painted on a tree up an impossibly  steep, and to us, treacherous slope. On came all the family groups plus others descending. There was the roar of a stream to our left and finally we realised we were being led up to a viewpoint of a thunderous waterfall. We had actually seen it just before from another angle across some vicious tumbled rocks that a couple of teen-agers skipped across for a closer look!

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After that excitement the path levelled off a little and we felt somewhat relieved but confused as to the direction it was taking us. Finally we arrived at a gate and passed into a meadow. The family behind us branched off to the right but then settled down to a picnic.

We soldiered on alone glad of the sunshine and soft grass to walk on. But on and on away from the lake that we could no longer see. Eventually, convinced we had somehow got ourselves onto the wrong path despite that flaming butterfly we turned back. That meant back down the horrendous slope. This time we followed a rope trail down over the rocks and roots but still not easy and still scary. Down through the beech wood and back to the lakeside we went.

Looking along the lake edge away from us we found two plank bridges and then an extremely muddy and shadowed steep rise beyond. No way, we both decided. Back to our starting point and regroup!

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At the log cabin Lou bought himself a beer in the boutique (no cold ones at the tiny food counter) and I got myself a cappuccino from the machine. 50 centimes, a steal. Outside there was an empty picnic table so we ate our lunch. It was half past twelve, we’d walked (!) for over an hour and needed the rest. Squinting at the map I could see that the so called sentier de decouverte, balisee with that dratted papillon, was where we had been walking and would have eventually turned sharp right and brought us back to where we were sitting, presumably without any heart stopping slopes to traverse. At no other point apart from the beginning did it go ‘autour du lac’.  Rtfm, our boys would say but for manual substitute map!

After a while Lou said he was ready to walk again and why not follow the track that said ‘ferme de puy may’ 2km and maybe the buvette signposted ‘1 hour’ maybe one and the same.  Why didn’t I look at the map? Why was I so trusting? So off we went along a broad track that is usually the start of the ski de fond at this time of year if snowy.  Up we walked – yes, up again. The path split and we went right hoping it was the way forward to somewhere or other.

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We found ice on the track and some snow at the sides and several walkers going in our direction or not. The pine trees gave way to open grassland. The redundant signs for skiing pistes were a sad reminder that we shouldn’t be able to do this at this time of year but were giving us a taste of what summer walking would be like. Each time we visit la bourboule we tell ourselves we ought to come up in the summer!

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The sun went on shining out of a clear blue sky but the wind came up and got stronger and stronger. I was glad I had brought my woolly hat and stuck my hood up over it in the end.

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And still the track went on and up with dots in the distance becoming returning (?) walkers or cyclists. We kept telling ourselves that perhaps around the next fold of land we would see something resembling a building. But no, just mountain tops in the distance and rising small hills around us.

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At last a building in the distance and a cattle grid across the track. Soon a sign announced the ferme de puy may and the height we were at. 1398 metres. My calves felt most of them.

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The farm turned out to be a ruin with evidence that maybe in the summer some sort of buvette parks up there. For now another sign told us the buvette was a further two kilometres.  Decision time. Walk another two kilometres with the slight possibility of a sit down and hot drink or turn for home?

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We turned for home although on a different day and in different circumstances we thought we might have gone for it. So now it was all downhill, gentle but down. The wind still blew and when a couple with two small girls, grand daughters? walked with us for a bit I wished the girls had some nice warm hats on!

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Some cyclists whizzed past on some odd looking bikes we had seen for hire at the log cabin. No pedals but some sort of power output. Getting back there ourselves it was choc and fizzy drink from the machine and the bliss of taking off the boots.  Looking at the map – finally –  I could see we had been headed towards the banne d’ordanche. A decent circuit if you gave over the day to it…and knew properly  where you were going!

So back to the Aviation hotel, so named because in the thirties, the Banne was famous for the gliding that took place there with the aviators staying at our hotel. Nowadays it is still a favourite place for model aircraft flying.

As it was his birthday we, I, had booked the table du trappeur, an intimate little restaurant with lots of wood and old skiing memorabilia scattered about where we had enjoyed eating in the past. The chap had said it would be second service and I was convinced he said eight fifteen. In fact he gave me the book to write  my name and number in and I thought I wrote it against 8.15. But when we got there at ten past he said he wasn’t ready, could we come back in a bit. So we walked up and down and presented ourselves ten minutes later. It then was  could we wait twenty minutes? I looked aghast and he told me I had booked for 9.15, The second service.  Bum! We couldn’t wait, we were hungry.

The birthday boy was very kind about it and we set off to try and find  a restaurant that would still accept us. The street was empty and the other places looked full. Normally at this time of year service finishes fairly early. Lou had looked at a menu board outside one place and had commented on the potee d’auvergnate, a ribsticking monster of a mountain dish. We went in with some trepidation but we were welcomed and offered a choice of table.

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Suffice to say, Lou got his potee but my steak was off so I settled for truffade which turned out to be much better than anticipated. For dessert Lou tried a verveine, ice cream soaked in eau de vie’. My poire royal, meant to be a  similar boozy concoction turned out to be a mistake by the waitress who gave me  a poire belle Helen. Just not your night smiled Lou.  Maps and menus – not my day!

 

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If at first…..

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After a certain amount of faff we finally arrived at the small parking area below the Roc de Courlande, the morning’s walking destination. A jolly family group came skipping down as we began. ‘We have to go up by the path to the right’ I confidently told Lou.

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After half an hour of trudging upwards with the Roc being slowly left behind us I called a halt, admitted failure and we trudged back down!

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Taking the jolly family’s route we soon saw the right turn up towards one of the three statues of the virgin which are sited on the Roc. Suddenly there was a shout from Lou behind me – the sole of one of his, admittedly, elderly walking boots had fallen off.  So we gave in to fate, stopped and ate our lunch (freshly made sarnies bought that morning from the baker in la b, part of the faff) perched on rocks above the virgin with a fantastic view in front of us.

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With a change of footwear back at the car we cut our losses ,or rather Lou’s, and drove up to the espace nordique of Chasteix- Sancy that we hadn’t visited before. Finding a cafe/bar open it was a cappuccino and a beer taken in the glorious sunshine. Time to count our blessings.

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Not wanting to waste that sunshine we backtracked to la stele, where we usually raquette walk, which had been virtually deserted when we came past earlier. There were still only a handful of cars parked up , perhaps Lac de Guery was similarly quiet? With only ski de fond signs to follow we struck out on Les Mouflons, just under four kilometres.

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Not far but far enough in the event as there was a fair bit of climbing….again. A black piste for ski de fonders, brave souls. We did find a fair bit of snow too where the trees provided shade.

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Luckily no one’s shoes fell apart and the tiny bar was open for tea and juice when we got back. A nearby monument to fallen resistance fighters reminded me how lucky we are to have our freedom to do this.

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So back to our room to watch the rugby.. ….again

I had hoped that a quick swim between the rugby and apero time would relax the aching muscles. But it was not to be. As I slipped into the water I realised the advertised temperature of 29/30 degrees was not happening and this swim would be invigorating rather than relaxing! After a few lengths avoiding some excitable children, clearly impervious to the chill factor, I trudged back up to the third floor and relaxed under a hot shower.

We took aperos in the bar opened up just for us (!) where I enjoyed a kir made with birlou, a locally produced sweet liqueur made from apples and chestnuts.  A bottle to take home, I decided.

Dinner was booked at the rather quaint Hotel de la poste et Europe.  The dining staff seemed a bit flustered but relaxed when I said we had booked. A straightforward menu with not a huge choice but with the mountain dishes well to the fore. I was surprised that half the dining room behind Lou was empty. Then about 8.45, late by French standards, in came the hordes. A coach party, we decided. Finishing off with creme brulee (me) and fruit salad (him) we left them just starting on their soup.

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We wandered along to another favourite restaurant to book the birthday dinner before climbing the seemingly ever steepening road back to the hotel.

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