Monday, 16 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Just a very short but seasonal blog as I am in the middle of writing my Christmas Cards (yes I realise it is a tiny bit late so for those of you who are hoping to receive a card from me before the 25th, please consider yourselves wished a ‘Happy Christmas’!)  I blame ‘the french’ for the fact my cards are late this year, as exchanging Christmas Cards is not high on their agenda so the choice of cards  (and the price and the quality) leaves much to be desired.  Also, unsurprisingly, they are in French – which my UK friends and relatives would find confusing, if not pretentious.  So I decided to order some online.  Then I got side-tracked by the ones you can put a photo on.  Then I had to go and buy a Santa Hat and by the time I had persuaded the dog to pose nicely (the hat was for her, not me) and worked out how to upload the photo, it was 8th December. 

Turning my attention to presents I decided to chain myself to the computer and spend the evening on the Amazon site.  I was doing exceptionally well, arranging for some items to be gift wrapped and some to have different delivery addresses and I was also taking the advice of Health and Safety gurus by taking regular breaks from the screen so as to avoid back-ache and eye-strain.  Unfortunately these breaks seemed to involve trips to the kitchen to refill my wine glass so it should have come as no surprise when I finally clicked to view my ‘shopping basket’ to find that everything was due to be delivered to my Aunt in Dorset! 

This year, now that I am working at Beautiful South, I get to experience an ‘office’ Christmas – although this one is perhaps slightly different as two of us are English and the other two are French.  Anna and I started the festivities by bringing in Christmas cards for everybody – which were received with great joy and much kissing and hugging and then a discussion about what a ‘warm and lovely English tradition this is’ and ‘what a shame it is not so popular in France’!  So no cards from them!  The Secret Santa idea went down much better – they loved the concept of choosing a name from a hat and anonymously giving a 5€ present.  This morning we all arrived clutching our gifts and dropped them into a large bag in the kitchen  Just before Anna brought the bag out to distribute the presents she double checked that ‘nobody has put who they are from’ have they’?  ‘No’ they replied ‘nor who it is to’.  Cue more explanations and a frantic dash to the kitchen with pens by Les French!  But it was a great success and I love my leopard-print scarf and would have had no idea who it was from had Eve not been wearing the exact same one as she left the office later....!

Unlike the French, who do not even appear to have a translation for ‘Boxing Day’ I will be taking a proper holiday so, see you next year and have a very Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Grape Expectations

A few weeks ago we were woken up by shouts from the bottom of the garden and when I stuck my head out of the window I could see the vineyard owner waving and calling something.  With some elaborate hand gestures and further shouting I finally understood what he was saying – ‘On Coupe’ was the message, and ‘On arrive’ was my reply.  Grape harvest day had arrived.

The best thing about the vineyard at the bottom of our garden is that we don’t own it.  We have keys to the gate so can walk the dog, eat the grapes and collect the old vine stumps for firewood.  Everytime we meet the owner he complains that there is no profit in wine anymore – and then asks us if we want to buy it !  Having heard him on his tractor at all hours of the day and night weeding, pruning, spraying etc the answer is always a polite ‘non merci’ but we did offer to help with the harvest and now it was time.

They had obviously started much earlier in the day as by the time we arrived they had stopped for their mid-morning break of red wine and spicy sausage – which we declined.  We were handed a bucket and a sharp pair of secateurs each and then followed a brief lesson – always place your hand under the bunch of grapes and not near the stalk while you are snipping, (he showed us the scars where he had not taken his own advice) and never ever put the secateurs in the bucket (I can only imagine the damage this could cause to the wine presses) and then we were allocated a line of vines. 

To start with it was quite enjoyable and there is a great feeling of satisfaction in finding a huge bunch of grapes hiding behind some leaves and we soon learned that some vines were more productive than others and some only produced some straggly bunches, but they all needed picking.  There were 6 of us in all – the vineyard owner and his wife, my husband and me, a Catalan man and a Belgian whose main job seemed to be to bring us empty buckets and tip our full ones into the trailer.  We had guests staying at the time and ‘E’ (using initials as he has such a distinctive name) came to join us for a while and made himself extremely popular when he made regular trips back to the house to bring out a jug of iced water which we drank out of plastic champagne glasses that he found in a cupboard – a surreal experience!

After two hours of back-breaking work, the trailer was full and I was looking forward to a break while it was tractored over to the co-operative, but Belgian Bucket Man had other ideas and left large crates at the end of each row so we could continue working while he was gone.

Finally it was lunch-break and we shared a bottle of Rosé before leaving them to eat and sleep in a shady corner of the vineyard while we went back to the house to see our guests.  The afternoon passed much the same as the morning but was becoming more and more painful – grapes do not grow at the same height (bad design !) and to strip a vine involves bending, stretching, and crouching and I was beginning to get complaints from muscles I didn’t even know existed.  Also did I mention it was 30° ?   But finally we reached the last line, there was much shaking of sticky hands and lots of grateful thank-yous and at last we staggered back up the garden, where I collapsed into a sun-lounger and my husband managed to jump straight into the pool without complaining about the water temperature !  I also have to mention here that while our guest ‘E’ was not on water-carrying duties he had filled his time by moving and restacking our log-pile closer to the house ready for winter so he was as shattered as we were – he is welcome here anytime !

Now that my muscles have recovered and the scratches on my legs have gone and my fingernails have grown back I can look back on that day as being one of the highlights of the summer. 

PS.  Two days later Mr G, the vineyard owner turned up at the front gate holding a box which he said was a present to say thank you for our help.  I peered in hoping to see some shiny bottles only to see – grapes…. !  To be fair, they were big juicy Muscat grapes and not the smaller variety we had been picking but it was a little too soon for me to face another grape !

Sunday, 11 August 2013

A 'Guest' Blog - by a guest!

This week the perfect guests have been to stay.  They took over all dishwasher; pool-cleaning, bin emptying and garden watering duties and also took themselves off in their hire car every day to explore the area and they have been so enthusiastic about the visit that they even volunteered to write this blog.  So over to my ‘guest’ blogger, Tony .....

The offer of a week’s holiday in the P-O was just too good to miss - but what about the chien?
My hostess (Mme. Caroline) was welcoming, but did warn me of the dog.  It was bound to be a fierce one and I am not very good with mutts.  I devised a cunning plan to deceive everybody (and their dog) by playing ball with the thing.  Literally.  Tennis, football and handball have been undertaken; so much so that Loulou has now become absolutely devoted to me and will not leave me alone. We have indeed bonded and I now refer to her as the CGV (Chien a Grand Vitesse). She has become almost too affectionate - several times I have awoken to something wet and shiny in my lap only to find the mutt’s  nose resting la.

Anyway we are off for a walk in the vineyards now
 hullabalou Loulou
don’t bring Loulou
  I’ll bring her myself

Is the P-O a happening place?  Well judged on this week it is.  We hired a car so as to explore the area and have most certainly done so. Several great trips and the two most frequently heard phrases in the car have been “Look at that” and “bloody traffic”!

Always something happening and lots of traffic to follow it. On Tuesday we popped over to the delightful Prades, sightseeing combined with a wonderful market selling local fresh foods and artisan products - very popular with people driving in for miles (or kilometers). The highlight for us was the fight between two pairs of stall- holders (probably husband and wife but you can’t tell these days), when packing up for the day one had knocked over part of the others display.  A lot of shouting from the guys, but the real drama came from the two women who went at it like a pair of fishwives (well in this case a greengrocer and a dress shop owner). Peace was barely restored by the appearance of Arthur Bostrom’s brother (the “Poloseman” in Allo Allo) who told them twice to be quiet and then gave up.

The next day saw a trip to Collioure. Superb.  I can’t add anything to all the delightful things there. Well there is one – market day is Wednesday!   Selling local fresh foods and artisan products - very popular with people driving in for miles (or kilometers) etc etc. get the picture?

By the way avoid St Cyprien on a Friday unless you like markets selling local fresh foods and artisan products  - very popular with people driving in for miles (or kilometers).....

So now we have becone wise to these markets and moved the planned trip to Ceret from Saturday (market day) to Sunday.  Brilliant idea and Ceret and  Amelie-les-Bains are both absolutely gorgeous and well worth a visit. Who would have thought that they could host both  the XVIIIth national Petanque championships AND the Folkdance festival at the same time in fact the same weekend (today) 

Bouchon* is a great word!

*Traffic jam

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Animals of the Pyrenees-Orientales

On my way to the garage the other day I spotted two llamas and a camel tied up on the roadside.  I managed to take a quick picture but it was only as I was filling the car that I looked up and spotted a trailer containing 3 lions parked next to the pumps!  The circus was in town so while this is not ‘the norm’ for the area it made me think a bit about the different kinds of wildlife I have come across since moving here.

Wild pigs were my main concern but I have had very few sightings – one I saw lying dead by the road and I heard one snort and run off as I walked along the country lane to the village so I’m guessing it was more scared of me than I was of it – if only it knew!  I’m still not sure what was coming into the garden and digging holes around the fruit trees a few weeks after we moved here as there was only a very small gap under the wire fencing at the bottom of the garden but, once we had blocked the hole with a plank, something was making a lot of banging noises trying to break through the barrier so I assume it was a very cross Sanglier.

Reptiles have never been top of my list of ‘cute’ creatures and I would still love to meet the first Frenchman who looked at a frog and thought ‘hmm, that looks tasty’.  We have a lovely pond in our garden with everything a frog could wish for and yet they still prefer to jump into our pool and we regularly have to scoop them out with a net which can take ages as they are very clever at holding their breath and hiding behind the pool alarm mounting.  Perhaps we are luckier than our friends who live near Toulouse and have to deal with snakes in their pool.  Readers of a nervous disposition should perhaps skip to the next paragraph - the only encounter with a snake in our garden occurred last summer when I called my husband to watch a frog jumping around in front of the hedge, and then screamed as it was chased and caught by a snake.  I’m ashamed to say that I had to ignore the whole episode as I wasn’t sure whose side I was on...  I have recently come across 2 more snakes – one of which I couldn’t avoid running over as it was crossing the road.  In the rear view mirror I could see it was still wriggling but I am still wondering, why did the snake cross the road....

And still on the subject of reptiles, there are the lizards.  I don’t mind the little normal ones who tap-dance their way across the terrace in the heat of the day but the Geckoes with their big sticky feet make me feel a bit uncomfortable, particularly as one seems to be living above the polystyrene false ceiling in my office.

Which reminds me, I am literally suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’.  In March a very determined bird (apparently a Redstart) insisted on flying into the house and making a nest in the boiler room next to my office.  At first it was quite amusing as the female soon realised when the patio door was shut or not but the male was regularly to be found shocked and stunned (as was our Son when he came to visit as being 6’3” tall he often found himself directly in the flightpath).  Luckily the birds soon found a new access – through the office, via the Salon, through the bathroom window, into a Verandah and out through an opening around the exhaust pipe connected to the old generator (every home should have one!) and we no longer had to keep the patio doors open for them.  Now the birds have flown the nest and we no longer have to duck when moving around the house.

And finally, to dogs and cats.  I always assumed they were just cute pets but here there are many wild ones.  Apart from the fluffy little dogs that are carried around in handbags in the town centre, many dogs here are ‘working’ dogs and spend much of their time roaming around protecting their territories.  Just the other day two dogs rushed out of a field by the roadside and attacked the car as I was driving.  In winter we have to be very careful when walking around the vineyards as the hunters don’t seem to pay much attention to the ‘no hunting’ signs and if we hear barking and the sound of bells (which are tied to the collars of the dogs so the hunters don’t shoot them by accident) we turn and go home.   The cats aren’t much better as there are so many abandoned ones that they turn feral.  On one occasion we had stopped at a roadside fruit stall and a wild cat suddenly shot out and attacked the dog!  Luckily the stall owner had a bottle of water to hand so after being drenched with water and beaten with a plastic bottle it ran off hissing.  Just another day in the French countryside!