retirement…

Back when I was working I used to wonder about my retirement, those sunny uplands awaiting me after the hard graft of the working years, always assuming my health would still be sound, god willing. Probably helping out in school (once a teacher and all that) going in as a helping granny (not that I was one) rather than a mum; visiting the theatre; joining the national trust; travelling to London for the art galleries that I loved so much (and still do) and getting around to writing that novel we are all meant have inside us.

but we moved to France.

This had been the plan for several years but I suppose a part of me didn’t believe it would actually happen. And when cancer struck ‘i’m only the driver’ I really thought it wouldn’t. In fact, the future vanished and a black hole loomed where our shared dreams should have been. Mercifully, speedy action by the consultant meant he was spared, albiet with only one kidney remaining.

and we moved to France.

For a while my new life was taken up with the learning curve that emigration to a country where you struggle to understand and be understood is much steeper that you imagined it would be. Gradually life calmed down, especially after the seemingly interminable restoration work on our retirement home finally finished and we moved out of our tiny holiday house. By now we had three cats, a circle of multilingual friends and several dinner table anecdotes on creating a new life in a foreign land.

As for my intended activities a few obstacles needed to be overcome.

In order to help out in school it gradually became clear that things in France are very different. No offering my services and having my hand snatched off by a grateful staff. There were issues surrounding insurance, I discovered. In fact, insurance looms large in several extra curricular activities. Before starting any kind of sport activity you need a medical certificate from your doctor confirming you are fit enough to undertake said activity. For the ‘primaire’ school this proved insurmountable without my taking a ‘formation’ to gain a qualification. Not happening! Unbelievably, I managed a short trip away as a helper with my friend’s class of infants despite not being allowed into their classroom on a regular basis. Go figure. Several years later I discovered a homework club where I was welcomed with open arms as a native English speaker. This is with secondary level youngsters. We all agreed that my language skills are not a good enough model for helping primaire children. The ‘college’ kids enjoy pretending not to understand and correcting my grammar.

Visiting the theatre is stymied by those poor language skills. This is a shame as we have a vibrant theatre in a nearby town working out of a sympathetically converted suitcase factory. They hold a music festival each summer which is more accessible for obvious reasons. However, for several years, our own village hosted a story telling festival, something embedded in french culture. I resolutely attended every spring and slowly began to understand more and more. Storytellers use a steady delivery and there is only one voice on which to concentrate that makes it easier. A quickly delivered punchline often had me cursing my incomprehension or appealing to a friend for a translation although the moment was lost.

I’ve not discovered an equivalent of the national trust in France. In fact, one of the odd things we discovered was that our retired status doesn’t afford us any discounts at ticket offices of any attractions we visit. That ‘liberte, fraternite, egalite’ constitution? The only place we have paid less was at an art gallery in Toulouse in the early days where we had to show our passports to prove our ages. I’m not sure which thing pleased me the most, the discount or being thought younger?

Which brings me to the art galleries. Paris is a six hour drive away and we haven’t visited it as much as we could have done despite its having several fabulous ‘musees’. But we have exercised our mutual love of photography and grabbed the opportunity to visit photo galleries and exhibitions when we travel, often the first thing I google. Recently we have discovered a tiny gallery an hour away dedicated to one of our favourite photographers.

We have been known to drive down to beyond Carcassonne, about three hours away, to visit another favourite venue. Living in la France profonde doesn’t necessarily mean we are in a cultural wilderness. There are always exhibitions advertised in the local paper. Some of these might be arranged by a local painting group and be somewhat erratic regarding talent but there are often happy surprises, several of which are hanging on our walls. But it is photos that are the biggest attraction for us both and recently we have had some real treats.

Last month we went to the tiny gallery, la gare Robert Doisneau, to look at black and white photos by two African photographers, Fatoumata Diabete and Malick Sidibe. These were black and white street photographs apparently posed in a pop up pavement studio while others made use of strongly patterned background or clothes to make dramatic images.

Afterwards, we had lunch at a rather idiosyncratic auberge that scatters fruit across its salads. On the way back we stopped at Souillac where an abandoned church makes a beautiful exhibition space, the Salle Saint Martin and about which I had read in our local paper.

The current exhibition is inspired by Nancy Cunard, a 20s socialite, who, we discovered, was a champion of African artists and writers and had once lived in the Lot, our department. Reading the brochure I realised the photos we had just seen were all part of the same celebration and that there were some paintings in another gallery over on the causse the other side of Rocamadour.

So another outing was organised. We drove out to Rocamadour and beyond, through the glorious autumn landscape. There is a particular tree that flares orange and looks magnificent against the limestone of the wild and rugged causse.

I had found a restaurant in Cales,the same commune as the gallery. As the exhibition wouldn’t open until 2pm we had time to enjoy what turned out to be a sumptuous and fairly expensive lunch. The bistrot menu I was expecting is a summer season only offering. Tant pis, we treated ourselves to two fabulous courses each.

We had passed the gallery entrance on the way so easily found it again. The house and attached gallery lay at the end of a long and bumpy track with stunning views. A dog barked and a woman came out with the keys and opened up for us.

The artworks were colourful and naive and there were not many of them. Our eyes were caught by a few photos on the wall and these turned out to have been taken by our hostess. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ perked up straight away, paintings not being his thing, and while I chatted to our lady he leafed through her photo books on a side table. Of course, we bought one, moody black and white prints of scenes from the causse around us. So, replete with a good lunch and a chance meeting, we drove home very satisfied even if a little lighter of pocket!

On Guy Fawkes day we had another foray but closer to home. In St Cere, a local town, the one with the theatre, there is an association called le lieu commun. They are an eclectic group of artists, crafts people, musicians and interested locals who promote and/or agitate about issues close to their collective hearts. A subset regularly chooses three or films each month that are felt to be deserving of promotion by being shown at our nearest cinema. Sometimes they put on exhibitions in St Cere and this week it was a photographic one. More importantly, it was of China, a country we had visited in 2007 and the reason this blog came into being.

I was a little sceptical as I had made the mistake of attending a talk and slide show by one of the members on the theme of local birds many years before. It was poorly attended and the slides were blurry. I had to impatiently sit it out as my departure would have been too obvious as we were so few!

This time was very different. The photographs of Tibetan festivals were colourful and beautifully presented. The photographer was present and very eager to explain her experiences plus she had had several leaflets printed to give some historical background. We were fully absorbed by it all and I felt sad that it wasn’t better attended especially as it is school holidays. Just the sort of thing I would have encouraged my former pupils to visit.

Afterwards we had an excellent lunch in a local restaurant that was full of families with children. An abiding feature of French culture.

And so retirement is busy, just not with the things I had anticipated. Certainly not the rock class that I have attended since almost the beginning and only stopped due to the dreaded doom virus. My last jive dancing had been as a teenager. ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ is notorious for having two left feet and never dancing. And that novel? Well, I took a writing course the second year we were here and was fascinated by my fellow students. I quickly realised who were the talented ones and I wasn’t amongst them. But, as I noted earlier, within a couple of years along came the growth of social media and with it the ubiquitous blog. So here I am writing the words without having to convince a publisher but not being paid for them…swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts! 😊

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Promenade de Roy….cowslips galore

After the steep ascent and even steeper, slippery descent of our walk around Vaillac we unanimously decided to try a flatter walk next time. The weather the following week was unsettled and ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ felt a bit poorly after his second vaccination so it was two week later that we set off for Labastide-Murat, the departure point of the promenade de Roy (I still have no idea why that name unless Roy was instrumental in suggesting it).

We used to go through Labastide-Murat en route for Cahors on our holidays here before the autoroute opened nearby. A pretty town surrounded by farmland although still on the Causse, just, and now edged by the A20. We parked in the place opposite the mairie and I was struck by the hubbub of building work going on. In fact, building work and its associated noise would be the motif of the day.

The first part of the walk follows the GR46 as it passes through the town. I like walking on a GR trail marked by its distinctive red and white balises, not that I could ever contemplate walking the entire length of one. That would involve several days if not weeks! But I assume these paths have been trodden for generations, long before they became mapped and numbered. I like the notion that I am treading an ancient way, long before mechanised transport came along.

We swung right by a stone cross after skirting yet another building site and dropped down a steep but short stony path before joining a small road. There was a path indicating Goudou, a hamlet we would pass through later but that was not our direction at this point in the walk. Facing us was one of the ubiquitous Causse ponds with a stone wall on three sides. To my astonishment it was full of goldfish! Green water with lots of redgold bodies appearing to be sunbathing just below the surface. They sank as our shadows crossed the water but a few came back for a photo..

We continued along the road passing raw looking new houses, one of them resembling a factory unit rather than a home. Glorious countryside around it but just a few tiny windows. Another one further on looked as if it had been designed by the same architect..

Then we moved on to a track between hedges gently descending. Away to our left and ahead I could hear more building noise and that beeping you get when a lorry is backing up.

I remembered from my researching in Google earth that the aire on the motorway, Les jardins du Causse, wasn’t far away. As we got to the bottom of a slope a lavoir appeared on our left and beyond it a pretty fishing lake. Up on the hill and intruding on my photos was that aire and its attendant building noise!

The banks around the plan d’eau were manicured with benches and picnic tables. A spot to return to for our picnic? Maybe the building work would stop for lunch?

We carried on past the water and continued on the GR with the verges full of cowslips. The French call them cuckoo as they arrive at the same time as the bird. We were yet to hear our first one of the year (actually during the next week’s walk!)

I spotted a sign saying we were on the Compostela route. note to self to check later…

Another lavoir beside the track with its water filled with a thick and verdant weed…not what you’d want to wash your clothes in. Did the water run faster into the basin back in the day or was it someone’s job to keep the weed out?

We left the GR at a junction with a signpost that named it the fountain of Goudou. I pondered it was a long way to bring your washing especially as the track then climbed all the way to the village. Imagine humping your wet washing all that way?

We were walking between pastures with views opening up to the right and behind us across the Causse to the west. The noise of the aire had faded and birdsong had taken over. I bent down with my app to identify some thick tulip type leaves and was told it was death heads scabious…a bit disappointing!

Goudou was appearing ahead, a hamlet that straddles the main road into Labastide-Murat. As we crossed carefully the church loomed above us on its slope.

This was meant to be the biscuit break as a small carpark had a bench and a picnic table. Unfortunately the biscuits were back in the car. We slurped water instead.

My mother could never walk past a church without peeping inside and I’ve inherited that curiosity. My eye was taken immediately by a rather gory window behind the altar. I thought of St George slaying his dragon but the body on the floor was human. This needed some online research as there was nothing in the fiche to enlighten the reader. (It was only later I spotted the head being brandished!)

There were some lovely old buildings around the church which I assume is why we were instructed to walk right round it and back down to the road.

A few paces down and a left turn onto a narrow tarmacced track between two houses. Further on this became grassy and was the narrowest path thus far. I’d opted for trainers rather than walking boots and, so far, the ‘facile’ on the fiche was spot on. More cowslips and pastures…

A gentle slope upwards until we reached a t-junction. Around here there was meant to be a ruined windmill but I could see no sign of one but there was a pretty view back to Goudou..

This was another walk down and then up which brought the windmill into view on our left. Well, it made sense it would be on a hilltop! It didn’t look too ruined but had lost its sails. There is another windmill on the southern edge of Labastide-Murat that was turned into a pigeonnier at some point in its history. Maybe this one too? It appeared to be on private land so no chance for a closer look.

Back onto the main road at the bottom of the track turning left and a short walk, keeping close to the side as traffic whizzed past, up to the lotissement of Labarte where we crossed and headed into the fields again.

As we walked an even narrower path between small bushes and saplings just beginning to leaf I realised we were on the path that we’d seen next to the goldfish pond…and so we were.

Back up the short stony path, past the building site, dodging a reversing digger, and back to the car.

We decided that the church car park had been a tad gloomy and that the plan d’eau was a better option for lunch. There was a parked car at the far end but all the picnic tables were empty and the noise from the aire mercifully absent.

After lunch I wandered along the edge of the weedy water near the lavoir and was surprised by a sudden plop. At first I assumed a fish jumping but then realized as I walked further that frogs were leaping from the bank and into the water. I managed to get a photo of several basking on the stone of the sluice and later investigation seems to suggest they were male toads waiting on the waterside in order to mate.

I left them to it!

Now some background on that window.

The church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and has existed since the 14th century despite ravages of the 100 years war when the village was deserted. It was repopulated with the ‘accensement collective’ of the baron of our very own Castelnau Bretenoux in 1457. There was further pillaging and rebuilding until, during WW2 the cure of Labastide-Murat, Abbe Levet decided to completely refurbish the church at Goudou. He commissioned the window ‘La Decollation de Saint Jean Baptiste’ from his friend, Georges Emile Labacq, 1876-1950, a Belgian painter staying at Gourdon who loved the area. Francis Chigot, 1879-1960, a glass worker, in Limoges created the work and it was inaugurated in August 1941 but only after some colours had been changed plus some details such as the ‘biceps’ of the executioner that Labacq wasn’t happy about.

It was only later that I realised the window had been caught in my photo of the entrance ..

So a wonderful footnote to our walk. They should rewrite the fiche!

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Here we go again….again!

Tonight at 7pm, the start of curfew, we go into our third ‘confinement’. It isn’t unexpected as the signs were all there. Rising infection rates and, more worryingly, the increase of ICU beds being filled with covid sufferers. After the lockdown of sixteen departments and then three more, the time had come for the whole of l’Hexagon to go into it too. The first confinement prohibited our exercise to one kilometre from home, last autumn’s extended it to twenty, this time it is ten. We are facing four weeks of limitations and who knows how things will be after that?

Conscious that this was imminent I insisted we walk and picnic last Wednesday. The Depeche had had a small piece about the commune of Cressesac Sarrazac creating three boucles so I had downloaded and printed them off, tout suite. The violet one of 6.3km looked doable, the fiche stating it as facile with faible denivele. Hmm, more of that later.

The weather has been glorious all week and Wednesday dawned chilly but with the promise of high temperatures during the day. L’Hopital Saint Jean was the starting point and is an area we have only walked in once before when we took part in an organised walk that seemed to go on forever. We haven’t joined one since!

L’Moulin d’Antoine at the top of the high street opposite the school was where we found our point de depart. Bright new wooden arrows indicated our direction of passage and off we went.

Across the road and up (up?) a right and then left hand fork. Given that we had driven to the top of a hill to find the village that note about faible denivele was worrying me!

But nevermind, we were soon on a track with fantastic views across miles of the Causse and surrounded by small trees in blossom. These were called St Lucie’s cherry. Then we heard our first cuckoo of the year!

The violet arrows took us down to the main road and then up again before plunging down into a wooded and grassy track lined with cowslips below the village. We came out on a road again and parted company with the blue arrows we had briefly joined by a stone cross marked 1777.

Following the road (down) we took a left up (!) towards a lovely old farmhouse and past a restored pigeonnier that the fiche told us to observe!

From the farmhouse we took a track to the left and wound down (!) to another road. Up…! …to a gate where we were instructed to enter and view the statue of ‘Notre dame des Nieges’. Two elderly sheep stood guard by said gate. A level path to the Virgin on her enormous plinth. Narrow steps took me up to the platform where, to my surprise, I found myself looking down on the village of Sarrazac, known to me as a favourite lunch spot for my ‘ladies wot..’ group.

We had a biscuit break in her shadow and then returned to the gate. Up and over the ridge and onto a narrow grassy track between fields. Coming out onto yet another road, we crossed over and followed the sign for Champ de Lafon.

Once past a large house and garden this was the longest part of the walk that kept us away from ‘les routes’. But also the second steepest! A long drag up between mossy drystone walls with not many flowers but several small brown butterflies.

At the top the views opened out and we could see the church spire and village roof tops of L’Hopital Saint Jean along the crest of the hill across the valley..

Down and up, I groaned. Well, you chose it, replied ‘I’m only the chauffeur’! We followed the edge of a field full of sheep down to a road..again! We saw our first spring lambs of the season…sweet..

Crossing the road our violet arrow pointed us to a broad track running down to the valley bottom past an orchard full of dandelions.

Then, of course, it was up and up to the village centre. Once there we got to the crossroads and opted to turn up the main street for the moulin and skip the last bit of the violet path which was clearly going to take us on one last dip of the roller coaster!

Past the church where I heard my first redstart of the season and on to the moulin, a collection of farm machinery under a shady roof next to the boule pitch where we had our picnic..

Faible denivele…pah!

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Walking season has started…

After one of the wettest winters for fifty years (so the Depeche said the other day) opportunities to step outside, let alone picnic have been non existent. But with the spring slowly beginning and some glorious sunny spells now and then the time had come to put our best foot forward. Plus I was tired of riding the exercise bike with the same view and the horse had started to ignore my apples when I ventured up to his field between the showers.

Through Instagram I had become aware of a new nature reserve at Argentat, a town with a pretty riverside, and, apparently, gravel pits which had recently opened as a biodiversity site. We were still under the autumn lockdown when I first looked it up online and estimated it was just within our new permitted 20km exercise zone.. but that weather!

But a Monday in early February dawned bright and sunny and not too cold so I suggested an afternoon ride along the Dordogne to check it out. The family cyclist does this particular route often but we were in the car. The road is limited to 50km and cyclists have preference. The countryside looked pretty and the sun glinted off the river. We twisted through a couple of hamlets and tried to spot a campsite we’d used back in the 80s. More by luck than judgement we found the reserve. A very neat carpark and lots of smart signs directing us around it. We were surprised to see families there it being a Monday afternoon and a school day. Schools closed due to positive covid cases? We noticed everyone had masks so we put ours on despite being outside. I checked with a family walking in the opposite direction and they said masks had to be worn in Argentat. So be it.

The reserve looked raw still and very bare. It was still February after all. The sun was being overtaken by high white cloud and it felt cold. We walked across the boardwalk that is featured on the website and looked for wildfowl. The commune hopes the place will become a stop on bird migrations but the number of people plus two small girls on noisy bicycles would seem to militate against that hope!

We carried on around the largest expanse of water and, rather than recross it, followed a path next to the Dordogne. The river was in full spate and I hoped no one would get too close. An accident waiting to happen? The path seemed to be leading us out of the reserve and finally, after passing a hide busy with walkers, it dumped us at the boggy end of a gravel pit close to the main road. We realised we had two options, walk back the way we had come or walk back up the main road to the car park. It was walk up the road to the car! Curiousity satisfied we drove home under gloomier skies. We still didn’t find that campsite but I did spot a beautiful arched window in a broken down building. So a photo opportunity at least!

‘i’m only chauffeur’s birthday arrives in late February and ever since we moved here in 2004 we have spent it in mountains in different parts of France stomping about on raquettes. A couple of years ago we decided the time had come to give in to our age and creaking knees and opt for walking in boots instead. Last year we went up to La Bourboule, its closeness making it a favourite, and we found everywhere green. It was a novelty walking on ski de fond pistes we had never explored in snowier times. This year its appeal palled as all bars and restaurants are closed due to doom virus and a 6pm curfew would curtail any after-ski fun.

Happily, the weather of the birthday week looked good and himself said his birthday promised the best of the sunshine. We even made up a picnic in hopes of eating it in a sunny spot. I had found a walk up on the Causse only half an hour away by car and entitled the ‘tour of the dolmens’. The Lot has a multitude of these neolithic remains despite the looting of their stones over the centuries.

Driving to the start at Les Feux I was surprised by how many trees had burst into blossom suddenly. The car park had only one other car and the start of the walk was very well signposted. This was looking hopeful.

cornelian cherry

What followed was a lovely walk through an abandoned village, past dolmens in fields, beautiful blossom my app identified as Cornelian cherry, curious cows and calves, indifferent sheep, honking geese and always between or near drystone walls. We puffed up the hills of the first half, gazed across the Causse to the far off Segala and Limargue and rejoiced in the descent through fields full of birdsong and the first flush of wild flowers.

The only picnic table we saw near the start of the path had a family well ensconced as we came back past it towards the end of the ‘sentier des dolmens’. Tant pis, we picked one of the many big stones decorating the carpark, spread our picnic and relaxed in the perfect tranquility of the Causse.

arrival beer for the birthday boy

Having made a start on the walk and picnic days out, I watched the weather forecast closely and googled earthed to find something interesting but not too challenging after the winter somnambulance. I found what looked like a gem just an hour away from home and in a direction we hadn’t explored last year.

A little village called Vaillac, complete with a chateau, had a walk that looked like the outline of a butterfly on its fiche. Closer investigation showed that halfway through the walk we would come back to the centre ville thus giving us a chance to give in gracefully if feeling a bit puffed! The closeness of the contour lines suggested climbing would be involved. Sadly the chateau is privately owned and doesn’t open for visits.

A goodish day was picked and the road we took is the one that takes us to the motorway, many happy adventures have started at that junction! This time we drove under the A20 and just a little further on down narrow lanes under a blue sky.

I glimpsed a huge chateau on a hillside and suddenly we were in the village of Vaillac. And a very pretty village too. It had looked good on Google earth but that was a summer picture so I was a bit anxious it would look gloomy in early March. I needn’t have worried, it was picture postcard.

I wandered down from the vast church to find the little stream that I believed was the start of the walk. Sure enough, there was the familiar yellow balise clearly indicating we cross over the foot bridge.

Boots on, water in backpacks and two sticks each (remember those contour lines) and we were off.

Leaving the village we turned up a grassy track past a large pigeonnier….

and then climbed…and climbed.. and climbed! Around 90 metres I calculated. Views of the chateau opened up and early on there was a bench handily placed for catching your breath.

those big pale shapes are the towers of the chateau

On the ridge we turned left on a wide track and walked for quite a time between wire fences topped with barbed wire. Protection for whatever was in the fields or repelling marauding sanglier and deer? We could see other deep valleys on our right side away from Vaillac…more googling for another time?

Me with one of those lovely Cornelian cherry trees

Eventually we turned left again, just past some donkeys, and began to drop down into the valley…

Although easier to be walking down, the last part of the path became quite difficult as it was very steep with a lot of loose stones, lethal if it had been a bit damp!

Back in the village we decided we had walked enough for that day and found the picnic table I had identified online and had a very pleasant lunch. The few cars that passed were quite expensive models and I came to the conclusion this was quite a well heeled village, given how beautifully restored the houses seemed to be.

We noted where the second half of the path left the village and will go back and walk the rest of it….when we’re a bit more match fit!

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Moments of joy…

I have been feeling guilty that I hadn’t managed to get myself back to secours populaire on Tuesday afternoons. Before Christmas we had a saga here with our ‘chaudiere’, the oil fired boiler which, we realised with surprise, was fifteen years old, the average life for one according to Google! That wasn’t much comfort as we filled up every camping bidon we owned and turned the mains water on just long enough to flush the toilet. Two weeks it took for two hopeful repairs to prove it was ‘mort’ and the replacement (ouch) which happened Christmas week. We still have a drip pronounced ‘pas grave’ by the plumber as he ignores us to deal with the umpteen broken down boilers during the recent frosts and snow.

Then there was the replacement of our internet with fibre optique. We moved furniture and a lot of dust in anticipation of where the new socket may be located. Then when the two man team arrived they chose somewhere we hadn’t thought of..more moving of ‘meubles’ and more surreptitious cleaning!

So what with that, an unanticipated snow fall and waiting for a possible plumber visit I hadn’t got around to going back to do my volunteering. Then today I read that our ‘antenne’ is closed as someone on the team has tested positive. That’s scary. We all wear masks, use gel religiously and keep our distance. I don’t know if the person contracted it while working at the shop or elsewhere but scary that I could now be isolating if I had gone in.

January is a gloomy month at the best of times but you can ward off dark thoughts by planning summer holidays and spring breaks. But with an imposed 6pm curfew and disturbing new virus variants and horrendous figures coming out of the UK and stubborn resistance here at home of our own significant numbers refusing to fall, it all looks pretty desperate and thoughts of holidays seem far too frivolous.

When the weather was better we could go out for walks which is always good for the morale but wet and windy days don’t encourage being outside for long. Our elderly cat, marmalade, sums it up well. He burrows under the top cover on the spare bed and sleeps the afternoons away hidden from the world. Would that I could too!

I’m trying to keep positive. My Christmas present of an exercise bike is being used every day. I’m up to ten kilometres in twenty minutes, not that it is making an iota of difference to the weight gained over Christmas! I do fifteen minutes a day of Duolingo French lessons, an irritating online course, extremely repetitive and cursed with advertisements but is slowly filling gaps in my knowledge of conjugation. I continue to take photos in the garden and places I go to entertain Facebook friends although the weather and time of year means they might as well be in black and white, the countryside is so grey at the moment.

Last Friday, the day I nearly heaved a sack of old clothes into sec pop, we went to St Cere to take back our old livebox. The relais was an electronic vaping shop. Now those are something relatively new. A shop full of flavours and fake cigarettes. I listened to the sales assistant explaining to a customer how you can mix your ‘aromes’. Wierd. As we were nearby we popped into the camera shop and had some photos taken for our eventual, we hope, carte de sejour permanents. If we ever get called by the prefecture, that is, to go down and be fingerprinted. We did all that in march 2019 but my Facebook group page tells me the photos will be too old. Presumably not the fingerprints? Of course, we emerged with photographs that make us look like elderly criminals as is the way with photos that don’t allow for disguising gestures; the merry smile, the hand under the chin to hide the ones sagging behind. Usually, trips into our biggest local town end with a coffee in one of the many bars but all are closed due to doom virus and not even a chair is to be seen on their terraces.

The beautiful plane trees that shade you so prettily in summer have had their annual winter mauling and stand like so many twisted and bent witches, black against the grey sky (it was a very wet day).

Our weekly drive shop had been unable to deliver clementines the day before so I went along to the Carrefour, a small supermarket I rarely use, but hoping I might find their own brand cereal as well as some fruit. Yes to clementines, oddly carrying a label stating ‘avion’. Do they have customers opposed to air freight? And no to the cereal. But as I queued for the checkout on the obligatory strip of plastic a metre distance from the customer in front I spotted my favourite tea…in tea bag form ..and not costing an arm and a leg! I buy loose redbush tea but the other half (a coffee only drinker) hates the faff of leaves and prefers a bag when making me a cup. My blighty supplies have dried up due to no trips across the channel last year. I took a box and then another…and then a third, just in case. Oh, joy, the comfort of my favourite redbush vanilla tea in the morning when himself brings me that first cup. I smiled all the way back to the car.

And on reflection, I’ve decided that’s what will get me through the next few difficult weeks,months…looking for those little moments of joy each day. Meanwhile, I’ll just finish this cup of tea..

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Calendar crazy

We’re getting to that time of year again…whisper it… Christmas! I know this, not because of the unrelenting volume of Christmas ads on the TV but because I have had the first bundle of paperwork from a charity. The foot and mouth painters,which always seems an unfortunate title, have sent thier usual bundle of slightly naff Christmas cards and a calendar. Gosh, how churlish I feel writing that but one must be honest. I shall send off a cheque even tho the cards were unsolicited and stick them in the card box to be used in the event of running out of my preferred and, in my opinion, more tasteful ones. More about the calendar to follow…

The next bundle to arrive was from the guide dogs charity which I do support. A pen, a notebook, a few Christmas postcards featuring guide dogs, bien sur, with a festive message in braille alongside the printed one. Every year the teacher in me thinks what a useful classroom resource even if it is nearly twenty years since I last taught six year olds the story of Louis Braille. But the most significant thing in the bundle is the calendar. This one is on A4 card and has useful score lines so it can be folded and propped on a shelf somewhere.

When we first came to live here it was in late September and I remember being surprised by the proliferation of calendars at every turn. Of course, calendars are a staple of Christmas just as slippers are or joky onesies but here in France they are seemingly the gift you cannot be without.

Of course, not all are free and deciding how much to pay caused some head scratching for us at the beginning. Our initial experience of this was when the pompiers arrived at the door around the beginning of our first December. Two smiley chaps in uniform stood there obviously assuming we knew the drill. We didn’t. It soon became clear we were expected to buy one of their calendars and to pay whatever we felt was appropriate. This led to a whispered conversation a deux in English hoping we weren’t being understood.

We’re old hands now and invite them in, offer ‘un verre (never accepted) and hand over some notes. Ever since we had an unfortunate incident with the flue pipe at the back of the woodburner catching fire necessitating my calling an emergency number for only the second time in my life, we greet them with heartfelt thanks and a more generous donation. Especially as the majority of our local firefighters are voluntary. I was chatting to a neighbour in the bricolage shop when his pager went off. He headed for the exit immediately, shouting excusez-moi over his shoulder as he went! The calendar is a very professional one, full of smiling pompiers, fire engines and bowsers and photos of emergency situations. I use it to record bookings for our gite.

It was only recently that I realised that the calendar from la poste has disappeared. Our first postlady would always make sure we didn’t miss out. Their calendar was a very informative missive. Not just days and months in its pages but maps of the larger towns in our department, recipes, helpful hints, proverbs related to the weather. There was always a choice available too inasmuch as the different cover pictures. These were a range I can only describe as chocolate box; flowers, kittens, puppies or countryside scenes which included the Pyrenees and Alps, of course. I miss that one but was surprised to see certain of them offered on eBay. I should have kept ours!

10euros on eBay!

Certain shops offer freebie calendars too. These aren’t to be compared with the ones already mentioned. These are the handy to have style, sometimes a simple rectangle of card, printed on both sides and easily slipped into a handbag but more often s folded affair, the business bit inside while the outside carries publicity for the shop and maybe a new year greeting. Our local pharmacy used to have them on the counter but recently they have moved up a notch. When using the pharmacy near Christmas you used to receive a small gift, eau de cologne, then it was shower gel. More recently I have been offered a choice, an eco folding shopping bag or the calendar. I opt for the bag.

Then there are the business calendars. Now these are in a form I had not experienced before. On very stiff cardboard starting out in A4 size but can be bigger, sometimes much bigger. Last year we were given one by the oil delivery man along with the usual printout of the ‘facture’. We got one from the plumber once who came to sort out the boiler.

Until now I have accepted this as just one of those little differences that, as an expat, you notice. But with reconfinement limiting more exciting ways of passing the time, I have pondered why the calendar has become so essential. And I think I may have come up with a possible explanation.

I was chatting about bank holidays recently and trying to explain that the UK bank holidays, in general, are Mondays, neatly tacked onto a weekend. This had never caused me to stop and think until I moved to a country that had its holidays on the allotted date. If it falls on a Monday or a Friday, a cause for a long weekend. If it falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday there is the possibility of a ‘pont’, ie taking a days annual leave on the day in between and getting a four day break. If it falls on a Saturday, not a working day for many, then a gallic shrug but to fall on a Sunday? Quel horreur. So there is a clear necessity to know when the long break possibilities are likely to fall. I have become adept at highlighting all bank holidays on the kitchen calendar…always a version with big boxes for each day so important stuff can be noted, ‘worm cats’, ‘chimneysweep’, payday!

On the subject of bank holidays or jours feries which are often religious holidays another addition to French calendars is the saint days. Every day of the year has an associated saint. Once upon a time French children would be named after the saint who shared his or her birthday. My saints day is 17th January, Rosaline, but as I go by a nickname not many congratulate me on it. But the particular Saint is always mentioned at the end of the TV weather forecast along with the date. Rather sweet, I think.

But I think I have found a much more important reason for all these calendars. School holidays. At the time of retirement there was a heated debate going on in UK schools about the Easter holiday and should it be fixed as due to the fluid nature of when Easter occured there would be either be a short spring term and a long summer one or a long spring term and an Easter holiday that tipped straight into the SATs, obligatory national tests. I have no idea how it sorted itself out but the idea of an Easter holiday that didn’t encompass Easter was a strange concept for those of us at a certain age.

In France it is taken as the norm. The second half of the academic year looks much the same for all students but the first half is a different story, especially to the uninitiated. Despite having a similar population as the UK but with four times the geographical area, there was concern that the ski resorts and other tourist areas couldn’t cope with the press of holidaymakers arriving all at the same time. So for the purposes of alleviating such pressure France is divided into three zones, A,B and C. We are zone C. So now the calendar comes into its own. Close inspection of any one of the forms above will reveal continuous stripes down one side each day/month. Usually blue, green and red, they signify the three zones and the periods allocated for the winter and spring holidays. Without school children these dates have never carried much import for us except when working out when the ski resorts will close. It often seemed that as soon as one colour finished another was waiting to take over. To complicate things further the zones order moves around so one year we may be the last to have our holidays, another year the first. All this only became personal to me when I volunteered for a term time homework club. But I still find it confusing…probably my age!

So, already I have two free calendars but, sadly, I read the other day that, due to covid, the pompiers will not be visiting with theirs. Mind you, with reconfinement and sober reports about a hard winter, I assume there will be no exciting upcoming events to record on the kitchen calendar…other than worm cats!

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‘Come outside…

Two weeks into reconfinement and the prime minister will be making an announcement tonight about how it’s going. He promised at the start things would be reviewed after ‘quinze jours’ and we await his pronouncements but doubt there will be any easing just yet.

The figures are still daunting and, depending on which set I read, our department is either doing better than most in our region…or not!

But I’m doing better. Or, at least, that’s what a friend in the village just told me. ‘You’re looking better than when I last saw you’, she said. I remember that morning, the first Saturday of the last confinement. We passed each other at the village baker and I shrank away from her. ‘You’re very shifty’, she commented. I didn’t like to own up to how frightened I was of not just her but anyone!

Today, I was happily riding my bike, not hiding in the car, and had just hailed two other friends and neighbours as I swept past them. Bike riding was forbidden last confinement but I have recently discovered it is ok this time so long as I stay within the radius of a kilometre from home and only stay out for an hour. I was so frustrated last time as I enjoy a little tootle through the walnut orchards or a ride along the river.

So bike riding has been added to my almost daily walks. The weather is glorious for November and because we haven’t had any frosts the leaves are mostly still on the trees making walking under them a joy.

On the French government website I found an app which gave you a personalised map of the one kilometre radius around your address….except it wouldn’t let me print off a copy. In the end we dug out the oldest and scruffiest map of our area and, with the aid of a pair of compasses, drew a circle around our location. Armed with that it is possible to work out all manner of permutations for walks and rides. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ has just taken a walk with that app that talks to him (remember the lac de causse walk?) and reports he has done over 4km in 56 minutes. We will stay fit after all.

It’s not just about fitness though. For me, the loss of social contact was the hardest thing to adapt to. I loved all my activities and regret the lack of opportunities to speak French in our ‘new normal’. There is still lots of contact happening on social media but it’s not the same. Out walking I have had the chance to say bonjour to fellow walkers, chat over the garden gate to various neighbours and catch up with friends as our paths cross. As we don’t live in the middle of the village anymore I didn’t bump into former neighbours that often. But now that the village is in our permitted radius it is fast becoming a regular event. Which has to be a positive.

If there are any ‘easements’ in tonight’s announcement I must make sure I carry on getting outdoors and keeping the contact going, not just with our glorious countryside but with the people who inhabit it too!

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Second time around

The first day of reconfinement and I have surprised myself. On the first full day last year I had to go out to the pharmacy and spent the whole time stressing about other people and whether the gendarmes would stop me. Had I filled in the attestation correctly? Should I be wearing a mask? Was my homemade gel protecting me? A bright spot was in the bakers as written about earlier on this blog thread.

Back at home we were trying to decide what we could and couldn’t go out to buy beyond food. Bigger worries, fuelled by the TV news, both French and UK, were that it was probably only a matter of time before we both succumbed to the virus and would die in hospital within days of entering with no visitors and unable to say goodbye to each other or any family member. Panicked, we tried to be sensible and posted a paper on the fridge with both boys names and addresses should the worst happen.

That is my overwhelming memory, the fear that gripped me which, amazingly, didn’t stop me sleeping or lead to the migraines I have suffered all my adult life when stressed, but which did colour all my decisions and meant we spent a lot of time sniping at each other as we tried to make sense of what we could and couldn’t do. For example, our communal bins are at the end of the drive but across the road. Do you need an attestation and passport to go to the bins? I was opting ‘yes’ as had read about an over zealous gendarme fining a girl who emptied her bins in her dressing gown outside her house and had no identification on her. Lou said it was nonsensical so insisted on strolling down to the bins as before with me nagging about 135euro fines! The first time we took a walk together I felt naked as all my rare outings had been in the car which I soon realised I was using as a comfort blanket, a metal one between me and potential infection.

Today I took a walk to post some letters and cheerfully filled in my attestation, printed off earlier, ticking the exercise box. I didn’t feel naked nor afraid. I exchanged a few words with the farmer’s son across the road and bonjoured a neighbour. I took photos and revelled in the glorious autumn colours.

Tonight I have pondered this new and very welcome relaxed attitude. Last time we had watched with growing concern as patients were moved from overcrowded hospitals onto trains that carried them to regions less afflicted, others were put on planes to travel over the border into Germany. Horror reports were coming out of northern Italy of doctors having to decide which patient received life saving treatment. And the awful death toll in care homes with tearful relatives telling of not being able to be with their loved ones at their end. Going into confinement seemed to polarise all those worries, presaged as it was by Macron’s pronouncement ‘We are at war!’

Nearer home there were stories of the shortage of gel and masks although the argument about mask wearing was still ongoing. Every outing prior to confinement was a personal tussle as to whether I should be going out to gym or rock or secours populaire. Would I be bringing the virus home?

This time I am equipped with gel and masks, mainly thanks to a talented sister who made my favourites, and have become adept at moving adroitly if anyone comes too close for comfort. As our eldest son says, amongst others, we may have to live with doom virus for a while and need to adapt.

Sadly, the volunteer work I had begun again has stopped due to the shop closure. The message came from our ‘chef’ yesterday but today another has come from the homework club asking could l help by facetiming again. Doors closing and opening.

So I am relaxed. We’ve been here before. There are still unknowns, like the bin visits, but other things have been experienced. The national and international news is still extremely worrying but that is a big concern, the piddling ones that wear you down on a daily basis have, for now, receded…

Photos have been taken over the last few days and are calming, j’espere….

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Here we go again…

Well, the Miers walk around the dolmens is kicked into touch again. First it was a wet Monday that should have been fine, then a dry Friday that was very gloomy, then a glorious Monday but the plumber was coming.. and now confinement again. Not that I’m complaining. The infection figures are terrifying and the hospitals are getting too full. Not just in France but in Spain, Italy and Germany. The UK can’t be far behind. Facebook covid groups have gone into overdrive bringing the news to English speaking expats so, of course, the questions and laments have started.

For people caught between house selling and moving before the end of December Brexit deadline it is one more enormous thing to be worried about. For others whingeing about not being able to go on holiday I am less sympathetic. For anyone who follows the news this has been on the horizon ever since the end of August, one of the reasons we took a break while we could.

Within an hour of Macron’s address to the nation a friend had messaged to say she was ready to drop off anything we needed as she will continue to work and passes the end of our road daily. Macron’s ‘Vive la France’ had been enough to make me feel emotional, her message nearly brought me to tears.

We have to wait until tomorrow to find out which shops will be allowed to stay open and I wonder about the charity one I work in. Our food distribution will have to go on so I assume I can still go in on that afternoon to sort stuff out but it may not be seen as essential work.

The schools are staying open so the streets will be fuller than last time, I imagine, at each end of the day. People were reporting that their local shops were busier than normal but my usual drive order went through for my preferred slot. I shall see tomorrow when I do my regular pick-up if the roads are thronged with shoppers scrabbling for pasta and loo rolls!

Meanwhile, off to bed and try to sleep….

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The long way round

A while ago, back when the days were sunny and long…and very hot, a friend told me about the lac de Coiroux. I had told her we had walked around a lake in the Correze and she told me this one was closer while still being in that department. Of course, i googled it and discovered it was not only the lake and obligatory ‘plage; but had a campsite, a children’s activity centre and a popular golf course. Too busy for us, I decided, in the middle of the summer season but maybe later….

The days are shorter and cooler now and after the last circumnavigation of a lake ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ had commented that perhaps we should try longer walks. I remembered lac de Coiroux and set about finding a randonnee around it. The ‘parcours nature de Coiroux’ popped up, stating it was 8km and ‘facile’. I printed off the fiche which, annoyingly , was one of those vague maps which show a red line but no map details and the accompanying words waffled about the zones we would walk through but no actual directions. I should have smelled trouble!

We had to wait until the end of the week for a dry day so were keen to walk again. The drive was quite twisty once we left the main road towards Tulle but very pretty with the autumn colours deepening.

beautiful colours in the carpark at the lake

We were relying on road signs as the gps couldn’t find any of the villages situated close to the lake. i had discovered that google earth had not just travelled the roads nearby but driven into the carpark so I was able to scan around and had spotted what I believed to be the panneau for ‘our’ walk. The first mistake!

The golf course featured heavily on the signs as we drove closer so it was very easy to follow.

taken as we trudged back from our detour!

Chastagnol, the village in large black print on the map was a tiny hamlet with one of those tiny black name boards attached to the 50k speed limit reminder. No wonder the gps didn’t consider it a destination worthy of the name.

In the car park I realised the sign i had confidently predicted was for the parcours was, in fact for a 9.5 km walk with blue balise to Aubazine and back. The sign for us was at the entrance to the car park and gave no indication at all about where the walk started. After the usual faff of putting on boots and finding sticks we set off up the steps next to the ‘wrong’ walk hoping the yellow balise for ours would soon appear. mistake number two.

At the top of the steps we were faced with the path to the left going to Aubazine and a path in front of us leading past the children’s centre. An excited goat bleated pitifully from inside his shelter while his companion just gazed at us quietly, knowingly? The view of the lake was lovely and himself pointed out picnic tables ‘for later’.

After walking for a while across the grass we entered the trees, still not having seen any suggestion of a yellow balise anywhere. Time for a rethink. Back to the car park and a minute scrutiny of the photocopied piece of the ign map that i always take…thank goodness! According to the map there seemed to be a path marked on the far side of the car park so we set off in that direction. Sure enough there was a large sign announcing the ‘parcours nature’ but still no indication of where it may be. We walked up the road out of the car park and saw a gloomy path on our left marked very clearly with the blue balise. No yellow but a lurid green, plus a plastic sign that had PN on it and arrows in each direction. ‘PN’ must stand for parcours nature’, I suggested, let’s just go for it.’ So we did!

The path was gloomy because it was under the trees, chestnut trees, as evidenced by the ground littered with them. I should have brought a bag. I told Lou.

He was still not convinced we were on the right path but when we came to a junction with a very clear blue balise to the left and the lurid green plus plastic PN to our right, we were mollified that this was indeed the parcours.

The path was lighter now as it ran along the side of fields with cows but still with chestnuts underfoot. It rose and fell and views opened out on our left. The campsite seemed to be somewhere on our right now, hidden by the trees but with occasional signs for it pointing back the way we had come.

the plastic PN balise

And so we progressed. In and out of the forest, past two enormous water towers,

winding through tiny hamlets with big vegetable patches, down tracks with warning signs about cows or sheep on the move….

but always having to hunt for the balise to decide which direction to take. From experience we knew that the paths we were following might not feature on the map. In fact, the water towers were the only thing I could positively identify.

At times we walked along the edge of the golf course, the immaculate greens contrasting wildly with the landscape we had been walking through, especially when we reached an area of logging destruction. The debris of felled trees was everywhere but the wild flowers were flourishing in the sudden light.

malva

Further on we came down onto a wide track and, ever curious, i walked back to its start to read a large sign. It was telling us we were on land belonging to ‘international paper’ and no admittance. However, the plastic ‘PN’ was in evidence so on we walked.

property of international paper?

Back by the golf course, walking between the greens and undisturbed woodland was most pleasant, if you ignored the posters warning of flying golf balls with the power to kill or maim. And remembered to avoid the electric fence of 6000 volts!

A little further on we came to a crossroads of tracks with a beautiful wayside cross. It was carved from wood, decorated with climbing ivy and mounted on a stone plinth.

We looked in vain for a balise of any description. The only one was a plastic PN pinned to a tree just before the crossroads. A large lurid green arrow was splashed across a tree and gave the impression we should walk straight on. To our right, the logging had taken down every tree for about a hundred yards so nothing to pin or paint on. So we continued down the track. Mistake number three!

We could see a house further down on our left and walked past its wood pile. Suddenly we found ourselves at a t junction with a tarmac road. On our right was a name sign. La Chapelle. Lou was scanning his map (I do one each!) and shouted he had found La Chapelle. Right on the edge of our photocopy. I could see the way back and it looked a long walk. We pushed on to the right and just as we were wondering if we were going into someone’s front garden a tractor came towards us. Happily, he stopped and I explained where we had come from and where we needed to go. He told me the grassy track he had just come up wasn’t ‘interdit’ and if we followed it to its end at the ‘chemin goudronee’ (tarmac) we could turn left and then right at Maisonneuve and find the lake straight ahead.

folliw the track!
not our tractor chap but maybe his friend?

What a star! We followed his advice and ultimately made it back to the lake, walking along the main road for what seemed like ages.

in the cheerful chap’s garden

At Chastagnol, a chap working in his garden, hailed us and told us we had profited from the only dry day. Indeed we had, I didn’t want to imagine that extra walk in the open along a busy road in the rain!

lac de coiroux

We made it back…three hours of walking instead of two. The picnic was very welcome!

footnote: himself had chosen Strava to record the day’s walk. 11.6km instead of 8km, that longer walk he wanted!

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