Good news

I’ve just heard from a young man who I tutored in English earlier this year; he’s been accepted at a university in Australia to do a PhD in marine geochemistry. It was an intense couple of weeks, helping him prepare for his English exam, but this news makes it all worth while!

Flower festival

A friend told us it was the Fources Flower Festival this weekend; Fources is a beautiful little village and since I’m just getting over a nasty bout of bronchitis and hadn’t been out for days, an afternoon out seemed appealing.

When we arrived, along with half the world, the whole village seemed to be involved in some way, as car park attendants, ticket sellers, there was even an army of children and teenagers, armed with wheelbarrows, to help buyers take their purchases to their cars. Every street and alleyway in the village was overflowing with plants and flowers; there were also garden ornaments, jewellery stalls, armagnac and floc stalls offering tastings and a man on a sort of pushbike, playing the banjo.

There were hundreds of varieties of veg on offer; white aubergines, black tomatoes, any number of varieties of pepper; we came home with five different flavours of mint! There were bonsai trees and 10 year-old vines in tiny pots (which they said were NOT bonsais, but came along with Bansai Tree growing kits), lemon trees covered in fruit, and gnarled olive trees in half barrels. The flowers were no less impressive, from the inevitable mass of geraniums to exquisite roses and bird of paradise plants, bouganvilleas in every shade imaginable and lilacs that filled the air with their perfume.

By next year, we may have an idea of what we want in our garden, which sounds like a perfect excuse for a return visit.

A new door

We’ll need, as you can see from the photo, a new door for our new house. I’ve been looking on le bon coin (an internet selling site) for months, but mostly they were too tall, too wide, too narrow or just too tatty; I was beginning to think I’d never find what we wanted. But on Saturday I found it; a double door, the right width, in good condition and only slightly too tall, so yesterday Nick and I headed off for St. Savin in the Pyrenees, a two and a half hour drive away, to have a look at it.

We arrived a couple of hours early and went for a walk up through the forest above the village, up a ridiculously steep path and had a picnic beside a fast flowing stream – if the ascent had been hard work, the descent was just plain scary!

We found the seller’s house and negotiated a price for the door. It’s as well the lady spoke no English as we argued over who would do the negotiating and what price to offer; neither of us likes bartering. Nick won, on the grounds that my French is better than his, so I made our offer and was relieved when she accepted without any argument. She invited us in for coffee before we loaded the door into the trailer; then we had to visit the Englishman who owns the hotel opposite her house (well don’t all English people know each other? It’s a small island, after all…) More coffee, a brief tour of the hotel, a quick look at his art collection, then back to load up the door. It’s solid oak and weighs a ton! We struggled into the trailer with it, strapped it down and headed home after one of the most enjoyable shopping trips I’ve ever had.

You’d better learn to carve, Nick

We’ve ordered the windows and doors, bought the oak for the frame for the stained glass window, and cleaned off loads of tomettes (terracotta tiles) to reuse as windowsills. The lorryload of plasterboard, montants and rails (to attach the plasterboard to the walls), insulation and various other bits arrived today; sadly there wasn’t room in the lorry for the 2 tons of sand and gravel, but that will have to come later. It took a while for Nick and Kieran to carry all 100 sheets of plasterboard indoors, but they did it. Joel’s promised to lend us his plasterboard lifter to help put them in place; not the sort of service you expect from most builders!

Joel and Seb arrived this morning to remove the horizontal beams from the upstairs of the new house. They propped the roof up on pit props and started cutting away the beams, then Joel had an idea; why not leave the bits of beam that support the uprights in place instead of replacing them with ugly lumps of concrete; Nick can carve them into an attractive form. So Nick now has another skill to learn, to add to his already impressive repertoire, that of wood carver (though I suspect a lot of it will be done with a chain saw).

We went to the 50th birthday party of a friend on Saturday; the men had to wear moustaches and the women false eyelashes; some of the men wore false eyelashes too, but then Philippa and Dav are hardly what you’d call conventional!

Ooh, Betty!

They were only servicing the brakes, but when the lads took Betty out for a test drive, water started pouring out of the engine compartment; the water pump had gone. So she’s sat in the garage now, looking very sorry for herself, waiting for the postman to deliver some replacement parts.

I can cope with most phone calls in French now, but not when the caller is Joel, the builder, who speaks SO quickly that I struggle even face to face. I’d emailed him a question (and sent him a text to tell him to check his emails, as he doesn’t very often), but rather than email a reply, he phoned this morning and as neither Nick nor Kieran will answer the phone, it was down to me. After 5 minutes, most of which seemed to be me asking Joel to slow down because I hadn’t understood, he decided it would be easier to come round. The answer to the question about how soon the floor level beams would be removed, to allow the underfloor heating people in, was “Non, non, non, non, non!” Easy to understand, that. We’d got it all the wrong way round; you don’t put the floor down first; that’s the last bit! First we order the windows and doors, contact the electrician, while waiting for them we can put up the ceilings, then fit the windows and doors, insulate and plasterboard the walls, build any remaining internal walls and then, and only then, can we think about floors. That way you don’t get the cold coming in in the winter because the edges of the floors are against insulated walls.

So Nick went to the builders’ merchants this afternoon and ordered 300 square metres of plasterboard as well as heaps of rails, montants and various other stuff, which will arrive on Monday. Tomorrow morning we’re going to Mont de Marsan to order windows and doors, which should arrive about 10 days later.

A friend who lives in the village supplies and fits kitchens, so he and his wife came round for aperitifs tonight and to discuss plans for the kitchen. He’s got lots of ideas for the design and is quite happy to supply it for Nick to fit. Things seem to be moving on apace and after another couple of worrying weeks when, once again, we heard nothing from the photovoltaique company, they finally got in touch; Bosch, who made the panels, have stopped doing so, so they’d had to find another manufacturer; the first supplier quoted them an eighteen week wait, but they have now found someone else and should start work by May 6th – we’re crossing fingers and toes!

What happened to spring?!

It’s just amazing; last Friday we were wrapped up against the cold and the rain, at 6o’clock this evening, just five days later, it was 29ºC in the shade. It’s just a pity Alex and co. had to leave a few days too early.

We held this morning’s French class in the open air in the courtyard of Rosie’s beautiful old colombage house; does life get much better than this?

The peach tree outside the kitchen has been declared dead; it looked sad last summer and showed no signs of life this spring, so sadly, Nick and Kieran chopped it down. Masses of blossom has appeared on the apple, cherry and plum trees and the wisteria has suddenly sprung into bloom, filling the garden in front of the house with its heady perfume. Naturally, the weeds are growing faster than anything else, especially in the potager, where it’s difficult to find the remaining leeks and cabbages under the growth of weeds taller than them! I’ve spent many hours over the last few days weeding there and around the strawberries, which, again, were difficult to find for the weeds. The heavy clay soil is rapidly turning to rock under the heat of a few days’ sunshine and we already need to water every day. It must be about time to plant tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and other veg reminiscent of summer; I think we’re going to be busy.

A great holiday; now get back to work

Spring has finally arrived; sadly, it didn’t start till the day before Alex, Graham, Izzy and Martin went home! But we didn’t let the rain and the cold spoil their holiday; we had various trips to restaurants, to a medieval crafts exhibition in Nogaro, went walking with the Nogaro club, when Izzy amazed everyone by doing the 12km without a murmur of complaint, and had a day in the mountains. Graham and I had a photography afternoon, buzzing about in the Renault (which Martin has christened Betty) and ending up looking round the Roman chapel belonging to a neighbour. Every time we talk to M Rouma about the bishop’s sarcophagus outside the chapel, his story about the assassination of the bishop changes; this time, the then lord of Nogaro was notorious for raping and murdering young girls who took his fancy, the bishop heard of this and remonstrated with him, so the lord had him done away with that very weekend! M Rouma invited us to see the bell tower; you climb up steps only held together by the strength of the woodworm that riddle them; the bell isn’t original, but is still “old enough”, M Rouma’s estimate of its age. The man obviously doesn’t normally have anyone to talk to, so when it started to rain while we were examining every plant in the garden at the end of a 2 hour tour, Graham cleverly made the excuse that his camera mustn’t get wet, so we could get away.

The day in the Pyrenees was great, with beautiful weather and a trip in a cable car, though sadly, as the season was almost over, the sledging area was closed. Graham risked exposure in every sense of the word in order to take pictures of a fast running stream – mad!

One of the highlights for Izzy was finding Hugo’s latest offering; she excitedly described it to Alex in graphic detail; “The bit that kept it alive was squirted out all over the floor Mummy!” A mouse? A bird? No – a rabbit!!

Work continued on the roof, we’re just waiting for the woodwork for the balcony now; and Nick managed to do a bit of work in the bike shed.

The house feels really empty now that they’ve all gone home, but we’ve plenty to keep us occupied between cleaning up and tackling the garden now that the rain’s stopped, and of course, DIY for the lads and teaching for me.

Like driving a big, angry cloud

Nearly everyone else was up and about by the time the noise of Joel and co using chainsaws, drills and various other power tools woke me this morning; last night’s band rehearsal had gone on till well after midnight. Kieran’s comment of  “And what time did you get in last night, Mum?” caused a lot of amusement.

It turned into a busy day; a problem with the electricity supply meant hooking up the generator for a while, but EDF came out to fix it this afternoon. Kieran finished rebuilding a trials motorbike that a friend has lent him and had great fun riding it around the mudbath of our garden, taking Alex and Izzy for rides, as well as letting Graham and Nick ride it, Thanks, John, they had a great time!

We all dashed back in when the sky turned black and there was a torrential hailstorm; I took advantage of us being stuck indoors to ask Graham to give me a lesson in photography, then rewarded him by allowing him to drive us to Aire in the Renault, an experience he likens to driving a big, angry cloud. We nearly lost Martin on one corner, when his door opened itself and he’d have been deposited in the road if he hadn’t been wearing his seat belt! A wander round the shops and the brocante, and a bit of photography practice took the rest of the afternoon; I hope my photos will improve noticeably from now on.

In the meantime, the builders got on with the roof; it’s now watertight and most of the back section is finished. Joel will order the woodwork for the balcony next week; it’s just amazing to see the speed at which things are moving!


Jolly hols, come rain or shine

Alex, Graham, Izzy and Martin arrived for their holidays last weekend, glad to escape from the cold and the snow in Harrogate. The weather here is mixed, but with good days between the rainy ones and at least it’s not cold.

We’ve been on a private tour round an armagnac distillery, followed by a tasting; by the end of the fifth armagnac, the boys were all pretty mellow and not sure which one they liked the best. Today we went to see the remains of a Gallo-Romain villa at Seviac; the mosaics are inspirational! Izzy liked the two skeletons of children best – typical! Then on to one of the official “most beautiful villages of France”, which was, well, quite lovely and almost empty of tourists.

Tomorrow’s market day in Eauze; another chance for Graham to take lots of photos; then over the weekend Nogaro is having an exhibition of medieval arts and crafts. So there’s plenty to do, even if the weather’s not brilliant.

In the meantime, Nick and Kieran are labouring for Joel, who’s started replacing the roof; the bits where there’s wood or chipboard below had to be covered by tonight as it’s forecast to rain again tomorrow, so Joel and his lads worked solidly from 8 this morning till 7 tonight. I can’t believe the progress they made in just one day; it’s looking really good.


Easter in Zaragoza

Nick and I were invited to join a group of students of Spanish, going to see the Easter processions in Zaragoza. We left at 7.30 on Thursday morning and drove down to Spain, arriving at the hotel in the early afternoon. The weather was changeable, but did stay dry for that evening’s processions, which were spectacular. 15000 people take part in the processions; different groups dress in strange outfits, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan uniform, with tall hoods, a different colour for each group, that cover their faces. Each group has anything from a few hundred to a thousand members of all ages from children of about 5 years old to pensioners; they carry or push floats carrying statues representing the stages of the passion of Christ and beautifully decorated with flowers and candles The music is almost exclusively drums; several people carry large, round, base-type drums on straps around their shoulders, followed by dozens of others carrying smaller snare-type drums. They play the most complicated rhythms imaginable and even the smallest of the children were totally focused and well rehearsed; I only heard one mistake in the whole time we were there!

The processions started on Thursday afternoon and went on till about 2 the next morning; there was no point in going back to the hotel early as the sound of the drums reverberated around the entire city from groups processing and playing in different areas, on their different routes. When you stood close to them, you not only heard the sound, but felt it hit you in the chest, it was so loud!

The atmosphere was wonderful; the town was packed with visitors, but people were there to watch or to pray, or both. Sadly, the weather wasn’t brilliant and the Good Friday evening processions were cancelled because of the rain, which could have damaged the statues, but people queued to visit the church where they were housed.

On Friday morning our group visited the fort of Aljaferia, which was originally built by the Arabs, taken over by the French kings when this bit of Spain was part of France, then owned by the Moors. Each new owner added to the building, so it’s an amazing mixture of architectural styles.

We headed home on Saturday morning, calling in to see the disused railway station in Canfranc, once the largest in Europe and which must be one of the highest; then home to see Alex, Graham, Izzy and Martin, who’d arrived in our absence.

We had good news on our return; the photovoltaic man had called round; Kieran didn’t understand all he said, but thinks he’s going to start work soon, so no panic.