When we moved into our new house, nearly 4 years ago, we installed a temporary island in the middle of the kitchen; an old table top on reclaimed legs, the barrel that Didier made us at one end of it, topped with a circle of chipboard, both pieces covered in plastic tablecloth. The idea was to see if it worked. It worked very well, so much so that we almost forgot that it was meant to be temporary.
However, a few months ago, Nick decided it was time to make the real thing; he’d got enough oak for the frame and we bought some beech blockboard for the tops. Maddy and Dom had brought us a circle of toughened glass for the centre of the barrel top on one of their visits several years ago. It would be an enjoyable project, working with real wood.
The frame construction took a long time as Nick wanted to do it properly; he had to buy a big new planer before he could really get started as his old one couldn’t cope with the oak and started to smoke after only a few passes! Once all the wood was planed to size, he cut mortise and tenon joints for most of the base, which he brought up to the kitchen in pieces, for assembly. He cut curved slats for the shelf and put in a space to store chopping boards and trays on edge, an improvement on the original. The other alteration was a drawer in the end, to store sharp knives and aprons; he had to cut the dovetails by hand as the router wouldn’t behave itself – another tool that’s been used nearly to death!
I varnished the frame while he made a start on the tops; the barrel top is made in eight sections with a space in the centre for the glass, to show off the barrel.
I thought it might be a good idea to have some sort of detailing on the tops, so I ordered an alphabet stencil and researched sayings about wine, finding four of the right sort of length, that we both liked, in English, French and Latin.
Finally the tops were ready, so I sanded and stained them; the stain claims to be light oak, but Nick’s had it for years and it’s darkened over time – oxidised perhaps? Being made up of lots of pieces of beech, the different blocks all took up the stain differently; not at all the finish we’d envisaged, but it looks great, like an old farmhouse table.
I’d drawn out the wordings for the stencilling full size on lengths of paper, to work out the spacings, so I nervously started the painting – I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Once the lettering was complete, I sanded it all down, to age it, then gave the whole lot a few coats of varnish to seal it, followed by a coat of beeswax.
Hooks for tea towels and oven gloves on the sides, handles on the drawer and it’s finished. I have to say we’re very pleased with it.
Now that Brexit has actually happened, we have to apply for residence permits, known as cartes de séjour. We’d had a look at the rules on several occasions over the last few years, but had got no further than that, putting it off as everything bureaucratic is so complicated in France. We didn’t believe the powers-that-be when they announced that the procedure would be simple, it certainly didn’t look it from what we’d seen, with lists of documents required; translated birth certificates, utility bills from the last 5 years, proof of income, maiden aunt’s father’s dog licence……. You get the idea! However, we couldn’t put it off any longer, we must get our applications in before June, so we set aside the whole of Sunday to get on with it. We found the lateest version of the website (there have been several) and this time were pleasantly surprised; passport, proof of arrival date and a utility bill from 2020,that’s all! They’ve even translated the application form into English! So it’s done and I can’t tell you what a relief it is! We’re on our way to being legal, post Brexit residents.
All we have to do now is wait to be given appointments to go to the prefecture for photos and fingerprints.
Next we have to hope they sort out the driving licence fiasco; it’s no longer possible to transfer a UK driving licence to a French one, since the Brexit withdrawal agreement didn’t cover that, so people whose licences have recently expired either have to give up driving or take a French driving test. We’ve got until the end of this year to get a French licence, so that should give them enough time to sort it out – shouldn’t it?
When we went into our first lockdown and weren’t allowed to cycle, Nick decided that it might be a good idea to get a bike home trainer; unfortunately everyone else had had the same idea and there was none available.
First lockdown ended, we had a few months of freedom, but Nick kept looking – still nobody had any in stock. Finally, 2 weeks into our second lockdown, he found one; but by now the question arose as to whether or not we’d use it enough to justify the investment. In the end we ordered one and took delivery just the day before lockdown finished.
Nick loves it, especially as it means he can do a hour’s hard workout at the end of the day, when the winter days are short and as the weather’s not been good recently, he’s been using it regularly.
It’s a very strange experience; you put your bike, minus back wheel, onto the trainer and plug it into a laptop, then choose from hundreds of rides that have been filmed all over the world. There’s everything from short, easy, flat rides around Amsterdam to extreme routes in the Alps or the Dolomites and as you ride, the resistance on the back wheel alters with the gradient, making it feel quite real.
Other aspects aren’t as easy to get used to though, such as not needing to slow down for junctions and corners; and it’s almost impossible not to try to lean as you go round bends, in fact we both find we close our eyes as we corner at high speed!
My first ride left me unable to sit down for several days as it’s a bit of a pain to swap bikes, so I rode Nick’s; he has a plan B, but today he put my bike on for me and I did a virtual tour of Barcelona. There were plenty of eye-closing moments as pedestrians stepped out in front of me, or when there was fast-moving, heavy traffic to be negotiated; but I’m sure I’ll get used to it, or find another ride on quieter roads.
A good idea? As I listen to storm Bella’s winds howling outside, watch the hail bouncing off the balcony and am surprised (not to say a little scared) by the ferocity of the unseasonal thunder and lightning storm, an indoor workout definitely seems the better option.
We woke to frost one morning last week; it hadn’t been forecast quite so soon and all the tender plants were still out, including the citrus trees.
By the afternoon the weather was gorgeous, brilliant blue sky and lots of warm sunshine; time to move the citrus to their winter residence on the terrace, then we’d put up the greenhouse around them.
We moved small tender plants indoors and cleaned the terrace, then Nick strapped himself into his new back support corset, finding new sympathy with women from the 18th century.
For the next two hours we pulled and pushed, levered and shoved and eventually got one tree onto the edge of the terrace. It was becoming quite apparent that this wasn’t going to work; it’s horrible to have to admit it, but we’re getting too old for this level of physical exertion; and it’s not going to get any better in the coming years.
The sun was dropping and the temperature with it, we had to find a plan B; a dig through the cabanon revealed some fleece, which we wrapped around the trees for now; they look like Halloween decorations, but it gives us time to decide what to do next.
Along with many countries, we’re in lockdown again. The same rules apply as last time; we can only go out for work, shopping, doctors visits and one hour a day for exercise, within 1km of home.
Nick took it very seriously last time, not leaving the confines of our land for the whole two months; thank goodness he’s a little more relaxed about it this time. We can go shopping by bike, so when it’s a small enough shopping trip, we do so, frequently “getting a bit lost” on the way home. We also have a short, 5km, loop through the village; Nick can get round this 6 times in the hour, though for me, 5 times is an achievement.
Once Nick’s back felt better, we got back to work; I’d never really liked the paint job I’d done on the bedroom furniture, and Nick had since added a top to the chest of drawers that fits right into the corner, as well as plinthes around the base of the chest of drawers and the bedside chests. So we emptied the drawers and I repainted it all, a distressed finish on the bodies and a crackled effect on the tops. I’m much happier with it now.
I’ve never had a proper dressing table mirror, and have used a tiny, stand alone mirror, an eighteenth birthday present, for the last 40 years; so Nick decided it was time to put that right. He’s making a swivel mirror on a stand that will have two little drawers in; most of it will be painted to match the chest of drawers, but the mirror frame and drawer fronts are to be oak, treated with vinegar with rusty nails soaked in it, which ebonises the oak, then rubbed with liming wax. It gives a beautiful finish. Worth waiting 40 years for? Probably. I’ll post pictures when it’s finished.
Having completed all the painting I could, I spent a few days cleaning, then the next few weeding the potager prior to covering it for the winter. I planted broad beans and mange tout, barrowed the contents of one compost bin onto the potager and raked it over, then turned the next compost heap into the empty bin. I was on a roll, there was no stopping me……. until my back gave out the next morning.
I really should know better by now, but at least spending a few days in bed gives me time to read; PG Wodehouse, Joanne Harris, Isabelle Allende, David Mitchell….. It’s a while since I’ve managed a book a day.
Everyone goes through patches in life where nothing seems to go right, and that’s been the case for us over the last few weeks, leading up to our second lockdown.
It started when, having worked very hard with Kieran, then spent 2 days chopping firewood for winter, Nick hurt his back.
He couldn’t get out of bed, so I called the doctor, whose receptionist informed me that the doctor doesn’t do house calls and Nick would have to go there; I don’t know which bit of “he can’t get out of bed” she failed to understand. It transpired, however, that she told the doctor, who tried repeatedly to call us, but the phone wasn’t working and he didn’t know where we live.
After two weeks in bed, it began to ease, much to our relief. The weather had been unusually foul, wind and rain every day, so at least he hadn’t missed much cycling.
Our internet and phone had been hit and miss for a while, so this latest failure convinced us to change internet suppliers. I sorted a new contract and set about cancelling the old one, but they don’t make it easy. It’s claimed that you can cancel online, so I tried, only to be told half an hour down the line that they’re only joking (ok, it didn’t exactly say that, but that was the message); but I should try by phone. So I tried that too, with no option of speaking to a real person; but they didn’t recognise our phone number – the one they supplied. After much searching ( their FAQs don’t, of course, cover “how to cancel my contract”, though they do show how to cancel your cancellation of contract!) and a lot of head scratching, not to mention the air becoming a bit blue, I eventually found a site with an address to send a recorded delivery letter to and, joy of joys, an example of said letter.
I copied it out, signed it and put it in an envelope. The whole, delightful experience only took a little over 4 hours!
I took it to the post office, along with a couple of parcels, one of which was fine, but the second, carefully wrapped, was unacceptable as it has to be wrapped in cardboard, not paper. I bought a box and asked about the recorded delivery letter. “Oh dear, it’s the wrong shape of envelope, this envelope is too short for the label”. The best idea would be to buy a special envelope, whereby I’d get an email on receipt of the letter; all I had to do was take it home, fill in various things on the PC and bring it back. I explained that I didn’t have time for that – surely I could do it on my mobile, couldn’t I? Yes, of course, she’d even help me. What I had yet to learn was that she’d never actually done this; I spent the next hour and a half (no exaggeration) in the post office, my phone being passed from one member of staff to another as they failed to make it work. They tried on their own phones and the computer, but with no joy, till eventually the boss came in and sorted it in only half an hour. Afterwards she told me that I should have installed the post office app, then it would have been so much easier and only takes a couple of minutes.
As I left, they all thanked me for my patience, so at least we parted on good terms, but Nick thought I’d left home.
So, between these nuisances, the birthday present for my granddaughter in England which arrived here when I know I clicked her address (thanks Amazon) and various other irritations, it’s been quite a frustrating few weeks.
Fortunately Nick’s back is lots better now and we were able to spend the last day before lockdown cycling; the weather is back to normal for the time of year, with warm, sunny days and beautiful autumn colours. The freezers and cupboards are full of home produce, the wine rack is well stocked and we’ve plenty to do, so the next few weeks will pass quickly enough, I’m sure.
The French have a very different attitude to houses from us, the English; when an elderly person dies here, it is quite normal for their house to be passed on to their children, one of whom moves in, keeping everything exactly as it was.
So when Alice’s uncle died, leaving no children, his house passed to his brother and sisters, who knew they’d have to sell it, but who wanted it to stay in the family. Alice and Kieran were the obvious choice, so they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Built in 1934, it’s a beautiful, art deco house in a village not far from Dax. It has arch topped windows, spacious rooms and a big, but manageable, garden.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, yes, in a way. Uncle B had lived in the house for 30-some years, but had done zero maintenance in that time; in fact, all he’d done was to fill the place with junk and memorabilia of his many voyages to far flung places. There was almost no room even to walk in the house, due to “stuff” absolutely everywhere. It’s taken the family months to clear the majority of it and even now there’s enough furniture, crockery, glassware, paintings, books and more besides, to furnish another two homes. What remains has been claimed by various family members, but until this weekend was still cluttering the house, making it impossible to do any work.
Kieran and Alice invited us over for a couple of days busman’s holiday, so we packed the camper with working clothes and tools. It’s great to see Kieran so fired up about the project; he, of course, has all the skills he’ll need, having worked with Nick for so many years. Alice, on the other hand, has never done any DIY, so it’s going to be a steep learning curve for her. She’s keen to learn, however, which is a good start.
Nick and Kieran spent Friday doing what they love best – demolition. The big kitchen had been divided into three small rooms, so the walls came down, leaving us better able to see what will be a beautiful dining kitchen. That done, they spent the rest of the time clearing furniture etc. into the garage.
My job was window renovation; the frames are oak, and so are solid even after all the years of neglect; however, there’s almost no paint left on most of them and very little putty around the glass. Several panes were broken and had been patched up (for years!) with old calendars. Kieran got glass offcuts, as you have to order in advance if you want glass cut to size, and putty, so I set to work replacing the broken panes and starting to reputty the rest. Kieran assures me I’ll have some help, which is just as well as I could spend the next 5 years just working on the windows if I’m on my own!
Alice started sanding the inside of windows; I think the poor girl has just realised the enormity of the task they’ve taken on.
We came home on Saturday night, tired and feeling our age after a heavy couple of days. The weather had taken a nosedive while we were away, from a sunny 27°C on Thursday to a wet, windy 10° on Friday, but nothing had prepared us for the journey home. The rain became heavier and heavier as the wind got stronger and stronger, the wipers couldn’t cope with the deluge as we crawled along, the sides of the camper buffeted by the wind. In one village every road was under water, the drains couldn’t cope at all; there were huge plumes of water spraying from our wheels all through the village and some houses looked as though they may well have been flooding. It had eased off a bit by the time we arrived home, but the rain gauge had recorded 76mm in the preceding 48 hours. Very strange weather for September!
It was that time of year again; so much to harvest and process from the garden; tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, beans……… And it’s been so hot for so long, seriously hot, 45°C in the shade one day. So we get up early to work in the garden for as long as we can, then spend the afternoons blanching, freezing, drying and bottling our produce. It was also the season for thunderstorms.
And so it was that I was in the arrière cuisine one day, chopping veg for ratatouille, vaguely aware of a bit of thunder rumbling around, but it didn’t sound very close; when suddenly there was the most enormous crack. I dived for cover, wondering who’d been shot. When I’d recovered a bit I had a look out of the window; everything looked quite normal and two men walking up the road were unarmed and harmless looking. One of them asked if I was ok, as apparently he’d just seen one bolt of lightning land just in front of the house and another just behind; oh, and had I seen a white cat anywhere? We looked around the house; no burning smells, the only apparent damage was to the internet box, which was completely dead. Later that night we discovered that most of the lights in the house had been frazzled and two days later that the water heater had also suffered and was no longer working. Of course August, when this happened, is holiday season; businesses are closed and it’s impossible to get anything done. Everywhere I phoned I had to leave a message, most promising to ring back at the beginning of September, though only two actually did so. Fortunately the electrician who wired the house had taken his holiday early and rang back within a week; he fixed the lights and was able to repair the water heater when the part arrived; he ordered it with express delivery so it “only” took 10 days. Thank goodness we’ve got a second water heater in the gite, so we didn’t have to visit neighbours, begging for showers. All in all, we were lucky, it could have been a lot worse. It rained a bit here, but some places nearby had hailstones, leaving fields full of maize shredded and vineyards, almost ready for the harvest, stripped bare of both leaves and grapes; such a sorry sight.
I wrote this blog weeks ago, before we’d discovered that the lightning had also fried the mother board on the PC I use to post it; so I had to wait for Kieran to visit and replace the damaged part.
A couple of weeks ago we went to St. Gaudens, in the camper, for a few days. Various people have found this a strange choice of destination and admittedly it’s not the prettiest of towns as, whereas its geography is similar to that of Pau, where the “Promenade des Anglais” has breathtaking views of the Pyrenees, the foreground to the view in St. Gaudens is a big, ugly quarry. There are some interesting parts, though, if you look hard enough, such as the old cloisters with computerised fountains. Hardly the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but pretty nonetheless. The town also seems to have more than its fair share of eccentrics and oddities wandering around the town centre, accosting the clients of the bars and restaurants, before being chased off by the proprietors. However, it does have a good selection of restaurants, a lovely market, a good camping car site and access to some very quiet roads, with enough cols to keep even Nick happy. We noticed a signpost to the chapelle de St. Jacques, no longer a church, but a centre for contemporary art; a pleasant way to pass some of the afternoon we thought. We weren’t impressed with the exhibition, but there were some women outside the front door doing weaving, something I’ve been wanting to try my hand at for quite some time. It transpired that they had an artist in residence for a month, a weaver, who was working on a large woven artwork for the chapel, a sort of community piece as she was teaching courses and all the students’ work would become part of the project.
She invited me to join them the following morning, and asked if I could bring any old bits of clothing, T shirts, etc. I explained that we were camping, so all my old clothing was brought to be worn; so I was excused, though I did find a second hand clothes shop in town, so was able to make a contribution. The technique doesn’t use a frame, but lengths of warp fibres, attached to a hook in a wall, running through a “lices” ( I don’t know how that translates to English), which holds the threads in position; the other ends of the warp threads are tied to a piece of dowel, held on the wearer’s lap by a belt around their back. This means that the piece of work can be any length. The 2 hours passed so quickly as I learnt how to use the lices and shuttle to weave strips of T shirt, then how to introduce a bit of pattern. I was the only one on the course, though other people, friends of those who work there, called in for a chat during the morning. I was very pleased with the result of my labours and took photos and measurements so that Nick could reproduce a lices for me at home. I’ve done a small piece, using wool, denim and organza and I want to make some bedroom rugs as ours are falling apart, but I can’t find anything I like in the shops. It will also be a very useful technique to incorporate into my textile art. I think we’ll go back to St. Gaudens soon, to see how the big artwork turned out.
The photos have come up in reverse order and I can’t work out how to alter them; sorry!
Lockdown has now been over for 3 weeks; shops are open, but cafes, bars and restaurants remain closed for the moment; we can travel up to 100km from home and we’re allowed to cycle again, though if in a group, at a distance of 10 metres from each other. It hardly seems worth going out in a group under those conditions, if indeed the rules are adhered to, and if they’re not, it’s not worth the risk, so we just go out on our own.
Kieran and Alice are both back at work, so we’re involved in babysitting duties and the garden needs a lot of attention right now, so life is, as usual, pretty busy. I’m glad to say that we finished grouting the terrace and it looks good.
We worked very hard throughout lockdown and are feeling the effects, so are trying to get away in the camper for a few days fairly regularly as this seems to be the only way of turning off and winding down a bit. The 100km limit gives us a good excuse to explore the local area and our first trip was to Roquefort in the Landes, a mostly pan flat area, covered in pine forests. We’d driven through Roquefort a few times, but never stopped there before. We set off late morning, ate lunch and went out for a bike ride; mostly the roads around are surrounded by forests, but we spent the first few miles riding past cleared areas, where the trees had been harvested. It was definitely not pretty, resembling a post holocaust landscape of rough, bare earth, baking under the unseasonally hot sun. Nick rode the following day, clocking up 105km, but I stayed at the campsite, partly because I’m not up to riding on consecutive days (I have a tendency to collapse on day 2 if I try) and partly to allow Nick to do a decent ride at a decent speed, instead of pottering along at my pace. We rode together on the third morning, coming home to water the parched garden in the afternoon. We went for a walk one evening, coming across a forestry nursery – lots of varieties of pine trees. I don’t know if it was due to lockdown, but there was a huge pile of discarded baby trees outside the gates; Nick cannot resist the chance to rescue neglected plants, so we came home with a washing up bowl stuffed full of about 4 different varieties of pine. He’s potted them all up, but if they all survive we haven’t got room for them all, so I think our neighbour, Mart, who loves to save/rescue/propogate plants as much as Nick does, will receive a donation.
Apart from gardening, Nick did no exercise during lockdown, whereas I did my best to stay fit, walking or running almost every day; so it seems unfair that it’ll take me months to recover my fitness, whereas Nick seems to be straight back on form. He claims to be finding the hills hard, but you’d never know it! We’d had a fortnight to get back to fitness, so he decided we’d have a trip to the hills.
Nick’s part of the 100 cols club, a group of people who’ve cycled at least 100 cols (mountain passes); they can be anywhere on earth and there’s an official list of the recognised ones. He’s done 225, including many of the big ones in the Alps and the Pyrenees and recently had the bright idea that I might like to join too, but I’ve only done 50-something. No problem, he announced, as I’ve done 3 of the required 5 over 2000 metres for each 100 cols; I can soon pick up another two biggies and for the rest we can do little cols. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced, but I went along with it as I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.
So we set off from the campsite in Oloron Ste Marie, on another scorching day; Nick had marked a dozen or so “little” cols on the map and we’d “just see how many we can bag”. We arrived at the bottom of the first one; it wasn’t even tarmacced; I don’t do off-roading, I’m too much of a wimp, so I waited at the bottom while Nick made the most of his new cyclo cross bike. The second one wasn’t as bad, a bit rough and gravelly, and with cattle grids at regular intervals, but I managed it. At the start of the third one, I was delighted to see proper tarmac and set off with a will; but at a farm a little way up, a woman working on a tractor looked at us askance; “are you going up there?” she asked. We replied that we were; “Bon courage! You’re going to need it, there’s a long way to go!” she remarked. She wasn’t wrong; it was only about 3km, but so steep, 19% at one point! Nick soared up, while I gritted my teeth and pushed with every fibre of my body. I made it in the end, but ready to drop. We descended and turned for home, but soon met another cyclist needing some help with a mechanical problem; once Nick had helped him to fix it, he suggested that we ride back together as he too was going to Oloron, so he and Nick set off down the hillside like greased lightning. I caught up with them when they waited for me at the bottom and we rode along for a while, then he announced that he just wanted to do a couple of little hills here, so why didn’t we come along. My heart sank; I was just about on my last legs as it was. But the hills really were little and he didn’t climb anywhere near as fast as he descended, so I was able to keep up without a problem. We stopped to look at a historic chateau and the French cyclist, whom I hesitate to call elderly as he probably wasn’t much older than us; but he was of another generation, and congratulated Nick on how well I ride. It would be so easy to take offence in situations like these; so many Frenchmen of a certain age simply don’t talk directly to women, but refer to us in the third person, almost as a posession. However, I didn’t take offence as I know none was intended; it’s just a cultural difference which used to shock me, but no longer does. We parted company as we got to Oloron and we went back to the camper for a well earned beer.
Day 2 saw Nick attack several more of these little cols and I joined him again on day 3; though I still hadn’t fully recovered from the first day’s riding and felt unwell at the top of the second climb, so we came home.
Since then it’s been nearly non stop gardening; the weeds grow faster than I can remove them, but at least Nick’s new watering system is better than last year’s was, making that task a bit easier. We’ve been out for a few rides locally; it’s such a lovely time of year for it as the wild honeysuckle, which grows everywhere, is in flower, so that as you ride along you find yourself enveloped in wave after wave of its exquisite perfume.
The heat wave finally seems to have broken and it’s thundering and raining this evening, such a welcome sound. I hope we’ll have some more normal weather for a while now.