Holidays

When Alex, Graham and the girls stayed with us at Easter, they were lucky; their first week was the first for as long as we could remember that it didn’t rain. We had a lovely day at the seaside with Kieran and Artie, where we played on the beach, drank beer in a few bars and bought Izzy a skateboard; but it was a lot of driving, especially with a 3-year-old and Graham and Alex were tired, so we decided to do very little for the rest of their stay. So the girls did painting and baking, Izzy played on her skateboard and tried her hand at archery and we went for walks. By the time they left, I think they were well rested, having had a good break. Graham took some amazing photos, but they’re a bit big to load up here; I’ll post them next time Kieran’s over to help.

Now it was our turn; we set off for Jaca, in northern Spain for a few days, bikes fixed to the back of the camper.

The lady in the tourist information office didn’t think much of the cycle route Nick had chosen for us; we only went in to ask if there would be somewhere to eat en route, but we came out with a completely different route to try, one which visited some very pretty villages and was somewhat longer than the one Nick had planned. She said it would be 90km, but could be cut short at a couple of points; she didn’t mention the hills!

I have to say it was a spectacular route, climbing and descending through the foothills of the Pyrenees and we found a bar for lunch, where we ordered two platos combinados. We weren’t sure what we’d get, but eggs, croquettes and chips, washed down with beer, went down very well and the owner was very happy to let me practice my Spanish. The village of Hecho was certainly beautiful, with its ancient buildings overlooking the hillside, but we took the shortcut from there instead of continuing to Aiso, doing 96km instead of what would have been around 120km. As it was, we did 1239 metres of climbing, not a lot for Nick, but I had tired legs by the end; on the final climb into Jaca, on the main road, I had an impressive queue of cars behind me, unable to overtake on quite a narrow, but busy road. They must have been cursing me, by now riding at a snail’s pace!

I must confess to having been relieved to wake the next morning to grey skies and rain; a good excuse for a gentle day spent reading, playing guitar and knitting. Nick rode up el Puerto de Oroel, the nearby mountain pass, in the afternoon, but came back rather bedraggled.

We were heading home the following day, but the morning dawned clear and sunny with beautiful blue skies; we’d have a ride in the morning and go home later in the day. This was Nick’s original route, a circuit ending with the Puerto de Oroel. The climbs were steeper than our first ride, making it very hard work (well, for me, anyway) and there was very little by way of civilization, but Nick had spotted a likely looking village on the map where we hoped to eat and refill our water bottles, by now almost empty. We climbed up to the village; no restaurant; no bar, we couldn’t even find the cemetery where there might have been a tap. I knocked on doors, but there was not a soul in the entire place. We ate our emergency rations of peanuts and flapjack and set off again, finally finding a mountain stream halfway up the col. I’d worried about not being able to ride the col at the end of a very hard day, but in fact, it was the easiest gradient we encountered all day, having covered 76km and 1277m of climbing.

Arriving back in Jaca at 3.30, we found a lovely little restaurant for much needed lunch then packed up and headed home.

One bedroom finished

As part of the renovations of the gite, I decided to redecorate one of the bedrooms. Eventually each bedroom will be decorated on the theme of an artist and we’ve chosen Paul Klee for this one. I could have just given it a quick coat of emulsion, as was suggested by several friends, but never one to make life easy for myself, I took a different course.

We found some IKEA furniture in unfinished wood that I could varnish to match the built in wardrobe, bought a tin of yellow emulsion for one wall, Nick made skirting boards to cover the tatty join between walls and floors, repaired the wardrobe and we ordered some Klee prints.

I painted most of the room white, then did the yellow wall. I stood back to admire my work; it was the most vile colour – hi-viz yellow! That wouldn’t work! So I mixed it with a bit of white and a bit of terracotta and finally got the sunflower yellow I wanted.

Matching the varnish on the wardrobe was no easier, requiring another mixture of various pots to get the right colour, but eventually I got there and varnished the IKEA furniture, part of which Nick had by now altered to make a dressing table.

Then came the fun bit; I didn’t want plain white doors and woodwork. I knew how to do a distressed finish, but wanted some crackled paint too; how I love YouTube – you can learn anything, from felting to how to play the guitar accompaniment to a song, to how to do a crackle effect on paintwork.

I set to work. The door had obviously last been painted before the availability of non drip paint and was a real mess. I sanded it, then applied primer and two coats of dark grey emulsion and rubbed the edges and “worn” sections with a candle so the next layers of paint would be easy to remove. I then liberally applied PVA glue to the bits I wanted to crackle, waited till it went tacky and painted the cream emulsion over the top, taking care not to disturb the PVA; next I attacked it with a hot air gun and like magic, cracks began to appear. Three coats of the cream over the rest of the door and it was ready for distressing; I rubbed the cream off the waxed edges and finally gave it a coat of clear varnish. Then I went through the same process for the skirtings; I have to say I’m really please with the results, even if it was a bit time consuming.

I cleaned, woodworm treated and waxed the old wooden floorboards, spray painted the light fitting, we hung the posters and put together one of the twin beds. The second bed, having been posted with the first, courtesy of DPD, still hasn’t arrived and Graham, as the sender, is in dispute with the company. Fortunately he bought insurance, but this doesn’t seem to be a lot of help as it’s now 6 weeks since the first bed arrived and very little progress seems to have been made. Very frustrating!

One day I’ll make quilts for both beds on a Paul Klee theme, but for now what we’ve got will have to suffice.

We’ve spent the last week cleaning (more here about perfect cleaning) and sorting what looked like a bomb site and finally, the gite is beginning to look habitable, just in time for the family’s Easter visit.

An open letter

Dear son in law,

In less than 2 weeks you’ll arrive here to spend the Easter holidays with us. You know how much we look forward to your visit and that we try to make your stay as comfortable as possible, being well aware that, where tidiness is concerned, you and Nick are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Do you remember last year’s visit, when you had a look around and announced that you’d never seen the place so clean? Well, hang on to that memory; there’s no chance of it being reinforced this year!

We’ve been rather over ambitious in what we thought we could achieve over the last few weeks; there’s still a huge hole in the chimney breast in Immy’s room as, in spite of their best efforts, Nick and Kieran have so far been unable to fit two flues in the chimney, meaning that the wood burner in the gite kitchen can’t be used, though I’m still hoping this will be sorted before your arrival as the weather’s unseasonably cool at the moment.

Being bored with twiddling my thumbs (as if!!!), I decided to redecorate Izzy’s bedroom. Yes, I suppose a quick coat of emulsion would have tidied it up, but you know me – if there’s a more complicated way of doing something, that’s the route I’ll take. Having worked on it for the last two weeks, I’m nearly done, so one room should look good.

Then, rather than just renovate the downstairs bathroom, we thought it better to knock down the wall between it and the débarras to enlarge the bathroom. It seemed like a good idea at the time and on paper, finishing it looked possible, but it’s still an empty shell. Don’t worry though; the other bathroom just needs a good clean and Nick’s still hoping to reinstall the washing machine in the débarras.

Speaking of cleaning; having emptied four rooms into the rest of the house, there’s stuff everywhere. Your bedroom is full of spare beds and mattresses and the bed is covered in paintings; the landing is only passable with great care, as it now houses furniture from the other bedrooms, dust sheets, pots of paint and varnish as well as numerous tools, power and otherwise. The sitting room is currently home to all the towels, sheets, etc. from the cupboard in the débarras, along with almost everything we’ve bought for the new bathroom; shower, basin, toilet, cupboard, tiles…. You can get in there to open the shutters, but only just! And as for the kitchen – well there’s a bit of everything in there, including the shower screen.

Between demolition and sanding, you’ll understand that we’ve produced not a small quantity of dust, which is piling up nicely on every surface.

So please be warned; it will be as clean and tidy as I can make it, but I’ve never been known as much of a domestic goddess!

Love from your rather harassed, slightly panicking mother in law.

A new bathroom

It’s cold at the moment and frequently wet; but the non-gardening season is short here, so we decided it was time to do some serious work on the soon-to-be gite.

The next task on the list was to do a small bathroom remodeling, the least pleasant room in the house; it’s on a north facing wall, so is very cold in winter; it’s narrow and pokey and very much an afterthought, being taken off the side of the débarras (junk/laundry room). We were going to insulate two of the walls, replace the shower and basin, redecorate, etc., but insulating the outer wall would make it even narrower, so Kieran came up with the bright idea of knocking down the internal wall to enlarge the bathroom, a great idea, but a lot more work. The existing plumbing was labyrinthine; the cold water came into the house behind the shower, the pipe then wound its way through the wall, around what used to be a chimney and fireplace, along the wall, up the side of the door, across the top and down the other side, along the floor and round the corner before disappearing through the wall. The hot water did the same, but in reverse! Getting rid of that lot was very appealing.

Nick liked the idea of a suspended toilet, with a cistern hidden behind a false wall, so we bought one, along with a basin, shower, tiles, door and the stuff needed to build a new wall; rails and montants and heaps of plasterboard. The old wall came down and the rubble will be used as hardcore for the campervan hard standing.

We drew plans; it’s going to be so much nicer a space than before, with room for a douche italienne, getting rid of the loathesome shower curtain that always clung to you; the débarras will still be perfectly adequate as a laundry room and we’ll be able to install transluscent fanlights in the top of the wall, allowing light into the débarras, which has always been a bit dark, not having a natural light source. Kieran came over and he and Nick started the reconstruction; there’s a long way to go, but I hope it will be finished for Alex and Graham’s visit at Easter.

Reference: Superior Shower Door & More, Inc. | Sacramento’s Best Glass Shower Doors and more.

A bit of a shock

In France, if you want to practice a sport, you need an annual medical certificate from your doctor and not just for extreme sports; even such gentle forms of exercise as yoga and Pilates require a certificate. Mostly it just means a visit to your GP, who occasionally asks you to go for an effort test at the local clinic. Such was the case for Nick last September; he cycled to the clinic for the test, but felt unwell until the test was finished. He was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, which we put down to stress as, though he worked in hospitals throughout his career, being on the “wrong” side of the doctor/patient divide really stresses him out.

He was referred to a cardiologist who did more tests than we knew existed; everything seemed fine, including a second effort test and he got his medical certificate. But the cardiologist was very thorough; he wanted Nick to have another examination, just to be sure. So off we went to Pau on Friday morning, thinking we’d be done in an hour or so, only to be told he was having an angiogram that afternoon, but would probably be going home by the evening. However, when they did the angiogram, they found that one of his coronary arteries was completely blocked. They inserted a stent then and there, he had to spend a night in the hospital, but is home now and feeling fine.

How long it had been like that, we have no idea; but we’re counting ourselves very lucky to be here and not in England, where probably nothing would have been found till he had a major problem.

Up to now we’ve viewed the medical certificate requirement as being a bit of a pain, but it may just have saved Nick’s life.

Vive la France!!!

Ref.: Best CPR Training.

Christmas surprise

Back in November, Graham invited us over to Harrogate for Christmas, offering so many inducements (wine, port, NO turkey……), that it would have been rude to refuse. His sole condition was that we were to say nothing to the girls and yes, that included Alex. Not easy for me, I’m hopeless with secrets!

We flew to Stansted, from where Graham picked us up. He’d told Alex he was shooting a wedding that day to explain his need for the car and the lack of a precise time when he’d be home. Unfortunately, he forgot to bring the posh wedding clothes he’d got out of the wardrobe in the morning, so when Alex found them, still on the bed, on her return from work, he had to deal with a slightly panicked phone call; it was amazing how easily the lies flowed! When we arrived, though, her face was a picture; she hadn’t had a clue!

We had a great time, taking Immy to see Father Christmas at the Yorkshire museum of farming and having a day in York with Izzy, as well as catching up with a few friends. Alex set off to see Gemma in Australia on Boxing day and the two of them had a brilliant time. There was a moment when it looked doubtfulthat the trip would happen at all; discussing what Alex should take with her, I just happened to comment that as long as she had her passport, tickets and visa, she’d be fine. “Visa?? Do I need a visa???” This was Christmas Eve. I went cold at the thought that all the preparations for her trip of a lifetime could come to nothing, as she and Graham grabbed their phones and started googling wildly. A very long half hour later and she had an emergency visa. What a relief!

The ten days passed all too quickly, we called in to see my brother in London on our way back south, then were home in time for new year’s eve, when we went out with a group of friends.

I hope 2018 is as good as 2017, and for anyone reading this, that this year brings you all you would wish for.

Nick’s maiden speech

The date of the cycle club AGM was looming; this would be Nick’s first speech as secretary and he wanted to be well prepared. For the previous 5 weeks he’d thought of little else. He sat in front of the laptop night after night, typing a little and contemplating a lot; he wanted to get it right.

Gilles, the president, and Jacques, the treasurer came round to help; they approved of what he was going to say and helped correct our less than perfect French. Finally, it could be printed out.

Nick’s was the second speech of the meeting, so he got it out of the way early. He did brilliantly, with hardly a mispronunciation and afterwards everybody congratulated him; they obviously realised how difficult it had been, but he rose to the challenge and it was greatly appreciated.

Helpex no. 2 (greater friends hath no man…)

Having read my blog about our helpxers, our friends from Skipton decided they would like to help too; could they come down for a week’s working holiday? Hardly an offer we could refuse!

A few phone calls to discuss likely weather conditions and possible projects and it was sorted. We had selected some outdoor and some indoor jobs, so were ready for whatever weather arrived.

In the event, it couldn’t have been better, so we could work on the garden. Nick and Dom removed turf, added compost and manure, dug and rotovated and moved the soft fruits in order to make a big, new potager, instead of several small ones. Maddy and I weeded the banking; after the rain of the previous week we could remove the roots that had been inaccessible to the helpxers. We also started weeding the oldest potager, between the garage and the abri, in order to use the decent soil from there to improve the banking, which is solid clay, dug out when the septic tank was installed. We want to make hard standing for the camper van on the old potager, so this served two purposes.

Between all the hard work, we found time to go to a craft fair and a Spanish meal and while Nick and I were at the cycle club AGM, Maddy and Dom had a day out in the Pyrenees. I think they were tired by the end of the week, but it was very enjoyable, not to say productive.

Since they left, work has inevitably slowed down, in part due to wet weather, but we’ve finished moving the soil, hundreds of barrow loads, and have got half the banking covered in plastic, to keep the weeds down. We had hoped to finish for Christmas, but I’m now streaming with cold, so it’s looking unlikely. Nick’s also moved the artichokes to their new home and we’ve planted more climbers on the pergola; hopefully next year the garden will start to look less like a building site.

Operation escargot

Over 1000 lorries thunder their way through Nogaro’s narrow streets every day, blocking the whole road as they take corners that were designed for horses and carts, not transnational articulated trucks, which save €60 a trip by avoiding the motorway. It’s not just Nogaro that’s had enough; several villages along the route between Auch and Bayonne want to stop the noise and pollution this traffic brings with it.

A protest was organised, so we went along to join the convoy driving at 10kph between Manciet and Nogaro and meeting another group which arrived from the opposite direction, having held up the lorries in both directions. We felt very French, Nick driving the Renault, wearing his Gascon beret. There were journalists at the rendezvous point and even some TV crews;  the maires of the affected villages and officials from the Department, in typical French style, made long, rambling speeches.

The plan is to ban the transnational lorries, forcing them to use the motorway, but apparently such a ban is not legally binding and can be overturned; nor, it seems, is it possible for the government to force the motorway companies to reduce their charges on big vehicles as they’re privately run. So we’re not holding our breath; this being France, this is a problem that will take many years, hundreds of meetings and thousands of civil servants to resolve, generating tons of waste paper in the process as they print everything in triplicate.

Such is the reality of life in France, but if we didn’t have the bureaucracy, what would we have to complain about?

Nick’s knackered feet

The weather has suddenly gone from summer to winter; often the days are still gloriously sunny, but as soon as the sun begins to drop, the temperature plummets and we’ve had frosts for the last few nights.

For the last six winters, I’ve dreaded the cold weather as our only heating was a wood burning stove in the kitchen. Getting up in the morning, the first job was to go out, either to collect or to chop wood to light the fire and although the kitchen was toasty within a few hours, the rest of the house was cool, to say the least.

Now, however, in the new house, we have underfloor central heating; I think I must have died and gone to heaven – stepping out of bed or the shower, the tiles underfoot are warm to the touch and the whole house is deliciously toasty. I’ve even thrown out the mangy, but warm, quilted man’s cardigan that I’ve lived in for the last 6 winters!

A student arrived one morning this week for her English class; Nick let her in and I heard her say “oh Nick, you’ve got knackered feet”. We both howled with laughter, to her total bemusement, before I explained to her how we pronounce “naked” in English.