Done! :-(

We took our time choosing the company to install our photovoltaic panels and central heating system; we phoned their previous clients; nobody seemed to have a bad word for them.

They were due to start work on Monday, installing the photovoltaic panels on the garage roof, but didn’t turn up so I emailed; no reply. I phoned the landline and mobile; just the answerphones. Nick went to see them today; both the house and the office are shut up. It rather looks as though they’ve gone bust and done a runner – with our €7000 deposit.


I learned how to tile floors last summer with the intention of doing all the tiling, but am so busy teaching that I simply haven’t had the time; so Nick is tiling the bike shed floor and making a lovely job of it. It needs to be finished before our visitors land on Friday as Kieran has nobly offered to let Martin have his room. Originally, Kieran was going to sleep on the first floor above the bike shed, but it now looks as though Joel will start work on the roof next week and it could be a bit draughty sleeping under a tarpaulin. So the bike shed will just have to double up as a bedroom!

Sometimes, we get a reminder of how many words there are in French that we either don’t know, or don’t know well enough. I sent Joel a text last week asking about the colour of the roof tiles; well – I thought I did; he never replied, but turned up today, bemused and asking why I wanted to know about the colour of the pipework! I’d used tuyaux instead of tuiles; at least we could have a good laugh about it, but I did feel an idiot!

Another first!

Nick wished me luck as he set off to join the cycle club ride this morning; I certainly felt in need of it, I was desperately nervous.

One of my English students has a chai (an armagnac distillery); he’s retired, but continues to make armagnac as it’s a passion of his. He’s a member of a 4000 strong group, world-wide, known as the Musketeers of Armagnac. He had a busload of tour operators and press visiting the chai this morning as part of a tour of the region, looking at future tourist destinations. His English being pretty basic, he’d asked me to be the translator for the visit.

We’d had a run through how his still works, so that I could find any words I didn’t know, then the bus arrived, disgorging its load of Lithuanians, Japanese, Russians, Australians, Belgians, Dutch, Bavarians, Czechs, lots of French and even one man from Harrogate! The visit went smoothly, then the tasting began; by the time they’d got to tasting the fourth armagnac, it was quite difficult to make myself heard above the hubbub. This being Gascony, drink is never served without food, so we brought out trays of ham, foie gras, duck neck stuffed with foie gras, duck breast, cheese and bread, all prepared by the owner’s wife and followed by local speciality croustade; all washed down, of course, with red wine.

I exchanged cards with a few of the visitors, some of whom have promised to send me their photos, so I’ll post them if and when they arrive; but now it’s back to the reality of the house being a tip and only a few days till Alex arrives with her family. I finished grouting the tiles in the arrière cuisine on Friday; it looks really good, but I’m particularly pleased with my hand-painted tiles, that I did in Margaret’s class back in Harrogate.

La fête de St. Mont

This weekend is the fete de St. Mont; a celebration of all things related to St. Mont wine. The grapes are grown in and around several villages in this area and each village celebrates this weekend; the wine showrooms are all opened up, cleaned and polished, to welcome all comers to taste, and of course, buy their products. There are cheese makers, artists, jewellery makers, ham producers……. everyone gets in on the act. At the first stop, you buy a wine glass with a string attached, which you hang around your neck; this way, it doesn’t matter how much you drink, you never lose your glass!

You can eat in any of the villages; the group of friends we went with decided we’d eat in Lupiac, the birthplace of the legendary Dartagnan, as the meal there was being prepared by the jeunes vignerons (young wine growers), who have a reputation for providing good food. They lived up to their reputation; we had a lovely meal in a very convivial atmosphere. Some Musketeers of the Gers equivalent of the Sealed Knot were putting on a demonstration outside the Dartagnan museum, so we listened and watched to learn how a musket works, then chatted with the guys afterwards; I was fascinated to learn that their costumes are all made entirely by hand, just as they would have been in the days of the Musketeers. A labour of love indeed! As we left Lupiac, dozens of quad bikes arrived for lunch, fresh from the local mud bath by the look of them and their quads.

We visited another couple of wineries after lunch; one had an art exhibition, with the paintings hung from the huge wine stores, another was a lovely old chateau which has been bought by the Plaimont group of producers, but whose sole inhabitant is the 87-year-old lady who has lived there since she married the vineyard owner, now long dead. The plan, I gather, is to wait till she dies, then renovate the chateau and turn it into a conference centre.

Useless fact of the day; when Musketeers of old needed to clean the barrel of their musket, they used to wee into it!




Funky Celtic mayhem

It’s been a pretty frantic weekend! It started on Friday evening, with a gig at the Salle d’Animation in Nogaro, featuring “Funky Style Brass”, a group of nine young musicians from the Toulouse Conservatoire. The first clue that this may not be quite what we’re used to came as we arrived – the hall was empty apart from the mixing desk in the centre of the room; so we stood with everyone else. We were far from the oldest there; one of the things we love about the French is their “give anything a try” attitude, and there were people from 2 years old up to well into their seventies. The band was great; real showmen, dressed in a variety of outfits, from pink tutus worn with Doc Marten’s and pigtails, to scarlet mohican-style wigs, to chicken costumes and they really could play. The only downside, for us, was the music – a sort of rap-meets-bandas-meets-post-modernist-french-music-hall! We stuck it out for a couple of hours before admitting defeat.

On Saturday lunchtime we’d been invited to the inauguration of a new, teaching kitchen at a nearby village, the mayor of which is one of my English students. There were all sorts of local and not-so-local dignitaries as well as the whole of the village population. Naturally, the apero dinatoire, a sort of finger buffet, was amazing; aperitifs, soup (not so easy with your fingers!), pizza, quiche, roast beef to die for, prunes in bacon and all manner of other delicious delicacies, followed by cheese and dessert and washed down with huge quantities of red wine.

We got home with about an hour to spare before we had to leave for the St. Patrick’s day gig, so, not knowing whether or when we’d be fed again, had a quick bite to eat and loaded the Renault up with my guitar etc. The bistro in Panjas is quite small and the band, which numbered eight, took up about half of one of the two rooms; it was soon difficult to move at all as people poured in for Jean-Paul’s St. Patrick’s Day special. Because I didn’t know many of the songs, I was put where I could see the harpist’s music and the other guitarist’s fingers and told to just play what I felt like! It was slightly chaotic, but great fun and much appreciated by the crowd; some cycle club members were there, and asked if we’ll play at a cycle club dinner soon, which everyone seemed quite happy to do.

Ade and Julie came to lunch today; it was good just to sit and chat and wind down after what’s felt like a whirlwind few days.


Since being here, the thing I’ve missed more than anything else (apart from family), is the band I used to play with back in Harrogate; I play my guitar regularly, but it’s just not the same as being part of a group.

When a friend came round yesterday to see if we had any eggs to spare, little did I realise where it would lead. His wife was making a cake to take to a flower arranging course in Nogaro, but had run out of eggs. Was I going? No, I knew nothing about it. Well, I was welcome to go, if I took a cake. Flower arranging’s not usually my thing, but looking at the stack of mending I’d just started to tackle, it seemed strangely appealing! So I threw together a quick shortbread, gathered up secateurs, cocktail sticks and a craft knife and left Nick and Kieran to do the washing up!

At the end of the afternoon, not only was I amazed to find that I had a quite presentable table decoration; but talking to the woman who ran the course, discovered that her husband plays in a local Irish band I’d heard of, EtCeltera. We’d planned on going to see them at the bistro in Panjas on Saturday, where they’re playing for St. Patrick’s day. But I heard myself asking if they were looking for a guitarist and yes, Michele said they were and could I make it to the rehearsal that evening? So, rather nervously, I headed off to Aire, where I met with a great group of people, a mix of French, English and Norwegian, and including some pretty good musicians who play an amazing array of instruments; guitar, banjo, fiddle, harp, tambour, penny whistle and mandolin, to name but a few. I don’t think they were looking for a guitarist so much as willing to welcome anyone who’d like to play with them. The rehearsal was the most relaxed I’ve ever been to, with “other halves” manning the bar (this being the armagnac region, nothing happens without plenty of lubrication), and going on till after midnight, at the end of which I was told to turn up at 6.30 on Saturday to set up, and to wear something green.

Back to winter!

It doesn’t seem possible that just three days ago, we were outside in T-shirts! We thought spring had sprung and summer was just around the corner; but no, we woke this morning to a quiet blanket of snow that’s turned the trees to lace and the land as far as we can see to a winter wonderland.

The sky was still heavy and snow still falling when Nick and I went out for a walk (I’d cancelled today’s lessons as I didn’t fancy driving), but later, as the sun was setting, the sky cleared and it looked so beautiful. It’s very cold, though, so I suspect that we won’t have much fruit this year from the trees that are already covered in blossom.

The lads had dug out half the bike shed floor yesterday, with a view to mixing and laying concrete today; needless to say, that didn’t happen.  I made the most of my “day off” by trying to sort out the paperwork that has somehow accumulated over every surface in the spare room. I must have made some progress to judge by the amount of paper I’ve shredded! Perhaps Alex, Graham and Izzy will have somewhere to sleep at Easter after all!

Half term hols

It’s been half term here for the last two weeks; plenty of time for the French to take off, en masse, to go skiing in the mountains.

I thought I’d have time to catch up on some DIY, maybe do a bit of spring cleaning, prepare for our Easter visitors (now so numerous that some are having to stay at a friend’s house!), but no; my private students didn’t want a half term break, so I agreed to carry on. And not just my usual lessons; a young man phoned; he was taking an English exam to allow him to study in Australia, and please could he have some intensive English tuition while he was home over the half term holidays. Again, I agreed. At 7.30pm last Friday, I finished the last of fourteen lessons over the fortnight and I was nearly on my knees. It’s not just the lessons; planning each one takes me at least 2 hours! Next holiday, I’m having a break too.

Nick and Kieran decided last week to fill the gap above the doors in the garage; they cut pieces of wood to fit, then filled in the holes with old bricks. All that remains to be done is to crepi the bricked-up parts and the outer walls and it’ll be finished!

This weekend we’ve had a bit of a break, sort of…. Nick and I have done a lot of gardening so that we can sit out for meals at Easter if the weather’s kind. It was so lovely today, we were working in T shirts; it seemed unreal, speaking to Alex this afternoon, that it was snowing in Harrogate!

But it’s back to work tomorrow; we’re hoping Joel might turn up to get on with the next phase of building and for me it’s back to preparing Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s lessons and possibly, fingers crossed, grouting the tiles in the arrière cuisine.


Becoming an auto-entrepreneur is recognised as being the simplest way to set up a business in France, so it’s the route I’ve taken with my language classes. But all things are relative and simple isn’t the word I’d choose to describe the hoops I’ve had to jump through.

When filling in the original forms, I asked several people what one question meant; none of them knew; I ended up going to see the nice man in the local tax office, who made several phone calls on my behalf and concluded “You tick yes, but don’t ask me why!”.

Last week I received an email saying that they’d changed the dossier numbers of all auto-entrepreneurs, since January 1st. Since I only set up on January 1st, I don’t understand why I wasn’t given a new number to start with, but……   There was a link in the email to allow me to change to my new number, so I filled in all the little boxes, going through the reams of paperwork containing INSEE numbers, SIRET numbers, dossier numbers, social security numbers, declaration numbers…… you name it, to find what I needed. However, after numerous attempts over the next two hours, I received an email telling me that these co-ordinates don’t correspond to anyone in the system! A lot more searching led, finally, to a way of contacting them by email, so I’ve sent copies of all the papers they may find useful and I’m waiting for a reply. Perhaps if I don’t exist, I won’t have to pay taxes????

There’s been no sign of Joel yet, but Nick and Kieran have been keeping themselves busy with the task of putting drainage in the garden. So far they’ve laid 40metres of piping, some with slots cut in, to collect the water, the rest left intact, to drain it away into the well.

A pilgrimage

The frost still lay thick on the ground at 8o’clock this morning, as Nick set off to join about twenty other intrepid cyclists from the Nogaro club on the annual CODEP 64 ride. Their destination was Lourdes, in Haute Pyrenees, departement 64, where they would meet up with other cyclists from all around the area for lunch, then cycle back home again; 180km in total.

The weather was glorious, the sun soon burning the frost away to leave a day of clear blue skies and temperatures around 15ºC. The route was relatively flat, too, much to everyone’s relief; that is, as flat as it gets when you’re riding into the foothills of the Pyrenees! When they arrived at the Lourdes Cycle Club clubhouse, an old railway station just south of the town, there was a barbecue; sausages and ventreche (belly pork), to be piled into baguettes, followed by cakes and dried fruits and washed down with the inevitable red wine.

Nick was a little concerned that he’d done very little by way of training and certainly nothing approaching this distance, but he needn’t have worried; he was strong enough to do a large portion of the return trip on the front of the group, sprinting up the hills a few miles from Nogaro, and didn’t even have the decency to feel tired when he arrived home!

Joel’s back from his hols now, so tomorrow could well be back to the grind; I think the next job will be replacing the roof, so no more lie-ins for a while!