For Kate and Rob!

Kieran tells me that Kate and Rob have been complaining that there hasn’t been a blog to read over dinner recently; humblest apologies and here’s one to make up!

We’ve been busy; Nick and Kieran have finished putting up the upstairs ceiling in the new house, but the French don’t plaster the whole lot, just fill in the edges and screwholes (600+ of them), which is my job. So Kate, you’re the expert at this; please will you come to give me some lessons in how to do it.

The lads have also built the wall that will be the edge of the kitchen and have attached the rails to the first wall; next comes the insulation and plasterboard.

Apart from all the work, it’s party season, with village fetes, music festivals and end-of-year (school year) parties all over the place. Nick went to the cycle club party last night, several local clubs had hired the motor race circuit at Nogaro for the evening; it was well attended, with over 80 riders racing round part of the circuit, a bit more slowly than the cars and motorbikes that normally use it, but pretty fast for pedal-power. Once the racing was over, there were aperitifs at the clubhouse, to restore spent calories. No photos, though, as Nick forgot to take the camera.

For my part, I had the choice of the Pilates or band parties; the band won and we joined with other groups who use the same building, qigong and dancing among others. Everyone took food and drink and when we’d eaten, we started to play for the assembled crowd, even Alain, the other guitarist, joined in with the dancing, leaving me to work out the chords to stuff I’d never heard before. A few bum chords here and there, but on the whole, I think it sounded OK.

Last weekend we played at a music festival; I’m just waiting for Michele to send me the photos, to do a post.

Watch out photoshop – here I come!


Nick and Kieran have come back from their respective weeks away filled with new enthusiasm and energy and are working like men possessed. They’ve finished installing the first, thin layer of insulation in the roof, put up the support rails and have started putting in the thick insulation and plasterboards.

The scaffolding they’re working from now has at least two layers of planks on it, at 90º to each other, after a plank snapped under Nick yesterday, depositing him unceremoniously on the floor. Fortunately he suffered no more than scrapes and bruises.

Graham kindly took time out today to give me a lesson in using photoshop, hence the panoramic shot of the upstairs of the house. The beams and rails aren’t really bendy!

A week in Provence

Nick had a fantastic week’s cycling in Provence, covering 550km on his bike and with glorious weather for almost all of it.

His intention was to join the elite group of cyclists who have done all three ascents of Mont Ventoux in 24hours. He was with a group of six cyclists, staying in a gite set amongst olive groves and cherry orchards, a lovely place, if not perfectly suited to the requirements of 5 blokes and one woman; Nick and Alan ended up sharing a bed!

Nick and Philippa set off to ride the first two routes on Saturday, before the night-time ascent organised for 2am on Sunday. But by the time they reached the top for the first time, the storm clouds were gathering, so the second route couldn’t be attempted. They did a lower level ride, had dinner and got a couple of hours sleep before heading off for the night-time ascent of the “Giant of Provence”. Breakfast was served once they’d finished and the day dawned bright and sunny, so Nick and Philippa set off to attempt the “3 in a day” challenge a second time. This time, Nick made it and Philippa did the mountain twice in the day, a feat not to be sneezed at.

For the rest of the week, the group cycled around the hills and valleys of the Provence countryside, between picking and eating huge quantities of cherries from the trees around the gite and visiting superb markets, selling local produce. Nick did the Ventoux another twice, bringing his total to six ascents in as many days.

Modern art?…… definitely getting old!

Yesterday was my birthday, so Julie and I planned a Girls’ Day Out. One of my students had raved about an amazing modern art exhibition in five locations in and around Condom so that was the wet weather option (so I thought), with a trip to some pretty villages, including Larressingle (little Carcassonne) for the dry.

It was grey, but the forecast was good; I’m slowly learning not to trust forecasters. The first restaurant we tried for lunch was full, the second was a creperie and when we tried to order the only thing on the menu I could eat, we were told that they only serve that in July and August, but that the crepes contained neither milk nor wheat flour, or I could have pasta……. we didn’t eat there either. But third time lucky; we did find a lovely restaurant in Condom and the rain was easing as we left.

So my “indoor option” – we followed little red signs along tiny, single-track roads that wound round parts of the Gers neither of us had seen before, till we found a building with a big art exhibition banner on it. We parked up, but could find neither door nor window in the building, so I went down the track to ask some workmen if they knew where the exhibition was. “What, in those sandals?” was the incredulous reply, “It’s over there, under that gazebo, but the track gets muddier, then it’s long grass. You’re going to get very wet!” I reported back to Julie; it was quite a small gazebo anyway, perhaps we’d give this one a miss and go on to the next.

Miles and miles of tiny, winding roads later we saw a ruin on the top of a hill; this must be what we’re looking for, and what a lovely setting for art; so we parked, the only car in a huge swathe of grassland, cleared specially for the event. As we approached the ruin, we facetiously wondered aloud if the red ribbons strung from the opening in the wall were the piece of art – Oh……..yes, they were! This information, from the erudite lady on the door (well, door-hole) reduced us to two giggling schoolgirls and left us with the impression that maybe we’re getting a bit old for this modern art lark. The explanation that the ribbons had been attached to arrows and fired from bows at the openings cut no ice at all….. it was beyond us! Should we go to see what else was on offer? No, tea and cake sounded a lot more appealing.

I had rehearsal in the evening for a gig we’re doing next Friday; French music – not at all what we usually play, and only one tune I recognised in the whole lot; a French version of “Camptown Races”. We had a quick run through each of about 40 songs; I jotted down the chords to each one as Alain played them; slick it won’t be, but should be fun as most French people know them and will be drunkenly singing along anyway.

Nick’s home tonight; I hope he’ll be impressed that I’ve finished the tiling in the arrière cuisine while he’s been away.

Market day meets French lesson

We held today’s beginners French class at the market in Barbotan, a little spa town half an hour’s drive from here; the idea was to get my students to put into practice what they’ve learnt over the last few months. If I’d hoped to be impressed by their skills in a “real” situation, I’d have been sadly disappointed, as they struggled either to understand or to make themselves understood. With the onset of summer proper (we hope), numbers have dwindled to a mere three elderly ladies, who can barely remember what I told them 5 minutes ago, never mind last week or 2 months ago! Bless them, they all take notes throughout the lessons and claim to practice during the week, but make almost no progress, with their stoically English accents and total incomprehension of tenses. They’re horrified when we do pronunciation practice and I suggest that they need to learn to spit to get the French “R”, or when I try to get them to make an “oo” shape with their mouths whilst saying “eee”. They’ve all lived here for years; it’s incomprehensible to me how they cope at all!

After half an hour in the heat they’d all had enough, so we adjourned to a café; I tried to get them chatting in French, but I should have known better!

I left them looking for garlic, having reminded them for the third time this morning what it was called, and headed off to my next class with some flowers and a bar of home-made soap that they’d given me for my birthday. Frustrating they may be, but they have hearts of gold.

A battle won, but is the war over?

One of the jobs that’s fallen to me in Nick’s absence in that of feeding the animals. Anyone who knows me will know that animals are just not my thing; Hugo I can cope with and the hens just need a few scraps throwing into the pen each day but the goose is another matter entirely. Every time he (yes, it’s definitely not a goose of the egg-laying variety) sees me, his head goes down, he hisses and then launches himself at me, pecking wildly at any part of me he can reach – it’s really scary. So when I have to go into the park to feed him, I arm myself with a solid piece of bamboo to fend him off. The first three mornings he went on the attack, but today when he saw me, he ignored me! I just hope he remembers to do the same tomorrow.

Last weekend was wet again, the rain only letting up for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon, so while it was dry I went out for a walk, meeting several like-minded neighbours en route and finding masses of wild strawberries, tiny bursts of intense flavour, along the roadside. I took the camera, so I hope you like the photos.


Music; high-brow and otherwise

There was a sax concert in Nogaro last night, put on by the Conservatoire de Musique in Tarbes; sure to meet people there who I know, I went along. The poster said eight saxophonists, but perhaps French saxophonists’ counting skills are similar to those of French cyclists – a ride billed as 50km turns out to be 80km.

The stage was full of saxes (and saxophonists) of all shapes and sizes, a keyboard, drums and three singers. They were joined at various points in the evening by the choir from the local primary school, who made up for what they lacked in tunefulness by raw enthusiasm, as they pushed and jostled for position on the front row, two little girls nearly coming to blows at one point. The teenage sax players from the Nogaro school of music also put in an appearance and were rather better behaved; the stage of the cinema-cum-theatre was absolutely packed!

They played an eclectic variety of music, from Carmen to a piece by Offenbach to jazz numbers and Singing in the Rain, or “Seenging in ze Ren”. A good evening’s entertainment, even if the music was rather more structured than I’d hoped.

It was a far cry from the sort of stuff we play in EtCelterra, the Irish band I’m in, which is so laid back it borders on the horizontal. Although everyone joins in with Nellie, the soloist, on some of the choruses, they all sing the melody; so I suggested putting in some harmonies. They thought that was a great idea and I could write harmonies to anything I like; this doesn’t take into account that my music reading is of the “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” standard! It doesn’t help that the French music notation works on the “Doh Ray Me….” system, so when Alain tells me what key a song is played in, I have to refer to my translation list! I’ve written a harmony to one song so far, but working out the notes on the guitar too took such a long time that it took me about 4 hours to do two lines of music! So I’ve bought a mini keyboard and have labelled the keys, in English and French, with the notes; maybe, one day, I’ll be able to remove the labels.

This and that, and cycling a mountain.

It’s ages since the last blog – is it wrong of me to hope you’ve missed it?! You may think that now that summer has finally arrived, we’re sitting around, drinking wine and having barbecues, so nothing is getting done. Well, we have had a couple of barbecues and the lads do their fair share of wine drinking – all part of the effort to be a French as possible, you understand, but we’re still working hard too.

But I didn’t think gardening, stacking a trailer-load of firewood we were given, or even putting the first layer of insulation into the roof were terribly blog-worthy, even though they’re pretty time-consuming.

So I’ll give you a sneak preview of the big story in store next week, (fanfare plays….) well, provided Nick remembers to take a few photos, anyway.

He set off today for Mont Ventoux, aka the Giant of Provence, a solitary mountain near Carpentras, whose summit is at 1912m. It’s a legendary climb for cyclists, frequently featuring in the Tour de France and is the site of the death of Britain’s Tom Simpson during the Tour of 1967 (yeah – a pretty serious climb). The lower slopes are shaded by trees, but the top portion is completely barren, like some sort of moonscape; it’s usually bitterly cold on the top and frequently blowing a gale.

The official event is to ride up the mountain overnight, setting off at 2am on Sunday; but Nick being Nick, this isn’t enough. There are three routes to the summit; he’s going to cycle two of them during the daylight hours of Saturday, followed by the night-time ascent of the third. One would be more than enough for most cyclists; it certainly was for me when we rode it a few years ago.

Apparently there are over 500 equally deranged souls who are taking part in the event, so I hope to have some spectacular photos when Nick gets back next week. Of course, it’s not worth going all that way for a couple of days, or so the reasoning goes, so he’s staying the week. Ho-hum…