Monday, 7 December 2015

'Tis the season to eat Hob-nobs!

The South of France can by no means be mistaken for Australia, but in a similar way, Christmas here just doesn’t feel quite right.  For a start, the sun is shining and the temperature has been hitting 20 degrees recently, there are no carol singers knocking at the door – just the firemen and refuse men calling to offer season’s greetings and a calendar (for a small donation), and, unlike England, where feverish Christmas preparations began in the shops in September, here the shops only become ‘Christmassy’ around the end of November.  Christmas Cards haven’t really caught on, and the final straw is that Christmas only lasts one day here –Boxing Day doesn’t exist and everybody is back at work!

I was feeling very ‘Bah Humbug’ about the whole thing, until yesterday, when I finally discovered the true Spirit of Christmas – the annual British Christmas Marché at St. Jean Pla-de-Corts.  While most of us who have chosen to live in France must have all said at one point or another that we wanted to integrate, live the French lifestyle and adopt local customs, there does come a point where you have to cave in – and Jammie Dodgers are my weak-spot! 

This market has a great range of stalls with local wine producers and artisans offering a great range of presents, but the stalls which always seem to attract the most attention (and not just from me!) are those offering ‘delicacies’ from the UK which are hard to track down here.  I am talking about Mince Pies, Jacobs Cream Crackers, Christmas Puddings, Crackers, Chocolate Hobnobs and Jammie Dodgers! 

While the children eagerly look forward to their meeting with Santa, the adults look forward to meeting another ‘legendary’ figure – Mister Saucisse!  This is actually a guy called Tim (who confusingly this year was wearing a Santa outfit) who makes his own range of sausages and descends from somewhere above Carcassonne to deliver to various towns and villages around the Languedoc.

I was so filled with the Christmas spirit that I went off to Perpignan this morning to continue my Christmas shopping and realized that there is actually something very important that the French do so much better than us.... to hear those magic words 'c'est pour offrir' - and then to have your purchase whisked away and expertly gift-wrapped - is music to my ears!  

Wishing everybody a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Update on Injury

I would like to begin by saying a big thank you to my brother – who, even after all these years continues to delight in finding ways to embarrass his sister.  No I didn’t know he was taking the photo, yes it was a windy day, as usual I am wearing the dog’s lead and carrying her tennis ball (surely that is her job?), and I didn’t spot the ‘Access Handicapes’ sign until later! 

So a brief update on my foot.  That photo was taken one week ago and as you can see, I could manage stairs and get around without the crutches.  Today (4 weeks after the accident) I can at last wear proper shoes again and just need one crutch if I am on stairs or uneven ground.  It has been a very frustrating month – no driving, missing several telephone calls (as I could not run to answer the phone), but at least for me it is temporary and I can see an end in sight.  It has made me much more aware of how difficult life must be if you have a permanent handicap.  La Poste in my village is a particular case in point; it has recently been completely renovated and they have installed a long and winding ramp for wheelchair access.  Once you get to the front door there is a button and a notice which informs you that to gain entry you need to ring the buzzer and pull the door towards you at the same time.  Difficult enough when you are on crutches but completely impossible if you were in a wheelchair! 

But for me I can see an end in sight – particularly after something which happened today.  We were in the town of Amelie-les-Bains (a thermal spring resort where many old people go to ‘take the waters’) and I certainly didn’t feel out of place hobbling around on my crutch.  We were there to view a new property for sale and in fact the 90 year old owner was more speedy on her crutches than I was!  After the visit we were walking back to the car when an old man in a café started chatting and he asked me what was wrong with my foot.  He then asked me to have confidence in him and gestured for me to put my foot on his lap. He waved his hands over the affected area and asked me if I could feel anything.  Apart from ‘embarrassment’ I have to admit I could feel a certain coolness and it was as if the pain was being sent away and he said he practiced ‘biomagnetic healing’. Despite the fact that my partner has not stopped laughing and muttering things about ‘old men and women in short skirts’ I actually feel it might have worked!  Watch this space – you may yet see me on Strictly come Dancing!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Can I have my pocket money please?

With so many different passwords and pin numbers to remember it is always a relief when the words ‘Code Bon’ appear on the payment machine at the supermarket.  The pleasure is greatly reduced when it is followed by the words ‘Paiement Refusé’.  This is quite a regular occurrence and I can assure you it is not because the account is overdrawn.  No, it is simply that, according to the lady at the bank, I have spent enough money for the month.  Seriously!  I have the money in the bank and yet somebody has decided that I can only spend a certain amount each month!  And this is ‘normal practice’ in France.  To be fair, the bank  did explain that I could continue to use cheques and also to draw money out of Cash machines but the debit card would remain ‘blocked’ until a certain period of time had passed.   Obviously I am not going to starve but given that I don’t have a cheque book for that account, and there is a daily limit on the amount you can draw at a cashpoint, this is a problem.

To be fair, in normal daily life, having a monthly spending limit isn’t a problem.  But when is life ever normal?  The first time I came across this problem was when I was furnishing our first apartment.  My shopping spree ground to a halt on day 2 because I had already reached my limit for the month – ‘frittering it away’ on beds, sofas, appliances etc!  You can (and I did) telephone and ask for a ‘temporary increase’ on your limit but I find it very annoying to have to ask somebody for permission to spend my own money – and also to have to explain why.

Apart from the monthly spending limit, the bank has now come up with a new way to attempt to govern my spending.   My brother has bought a holiday home here in the region and has asked me to oversee the renovations.  As he doesn’t yet have a French bank account he is transferring money into my account and I am buying materials and paying tradesmen on his behalf.  Simple?  Apparently not.  When the first transfer arrived the bank lady actually rang me to complain that I hadn’t warned her that some money would be arriving in the account.   I did mention that, although I am not greatly experienced in the world of banking I believed that it was perhaps normal practice for banks to expect occasional deposits into accounts and accept them without being surprised.  I don’t think she appreciated my sarcasm and we have a ‘rendez-vous’ next week....

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

'Bigfoot' in the Pyrénées-Oriéntales

On Monday evening I was carrying a tray of glasses outside and accidentally trod on a football that the dog had kindly left by the step for me.  My left foot collapsed under me, the tray flew into the air, and I landed on the terrace surrounded by shards of broken glass.  On first inspection things weren’t too bad – a few cuts here and there, a scrape on the top of the foot, and I managed to hobble around for the rest of the evening.  By the morning my foot was twice the size and I couldn’t put any weight on it but still assumed it was just bruised and managed to ‘skate’ around the house on a towel.  Thank goodness for tiled floors!

By 11am, having discovered that there were just two plasters and a cough sweet in the medicine cabinet I decided that I would try to get to the Pharmacy for some sort of support bandage.  Using the clutch was so painful that I drove all the way there in 1st gear rather than use it again.  I don’t know how many customers turn up wearing just one shoe and clutching an umbrella for support but the lady at the pharmacy was lovely and came rushing to the door to bring me a chair to sit on.  She took one look and said that I needed to go to ‘Urgences’ for an X-Ray as she thought it was broken.  She then lent me some crutches, helped me to the car, gave me a lecture on not driving, and asked if she should call the Pompiers to take me to hospital.  I actually burst out laughing at the idea of being driven to Perpignan in a shiny Fire Engine but she assured me that it is a normal part of their job.  I politely declined her offer and promised I’d get a friend to take me.

If ever you have an emergency, Phil is the person to ask.  As soon as I rang he dropped everything (seemed almost pleased to have an excuse not to go to the French Class with Jeanette!), turned up with a bag full of cold drinks, and off we set – and I much preferred being driven in a classic Audi convertible rather than a fire engine!

We were really impressed by the exterior of the hospital – shiny new building, manicured lawns and FREE parking, but inside it was another story; a poker-faced Receptionist, queues of people, a burly security guard and signs everywhere asking people not to attack the staff!  It reeked of smoke as there were groups of people (mainly the nurses) smoking right outside the entrance. Another ‘similarity’ to the UK health system was the fact it took 5 hours to get through the triage and X-Ray departments.  I was finally ‘signed out’ at 6.30pm by an enormous Russian doctor who spoke French with an even worse accent than me.  He said there was nothing broken but there was a bad sprain (is there any other kind?) and handed me lots of prescriptions to take to the Pharmacy.

I left the pharmacy with enough painkillers to warrant a visit by the drugs squad, a pair of purple crutches, a number to call to get a nurse to call in and inject me every day for 10 days with something to avoid blood clots, an enormous ski boot (to fit my enormous foot), and advice to wear flat shoes.  Who says the French don’t have a sense of humour!

As I always try to look on the positive side of life I will just mention that over the weekend I noticed that I had lost my little ankle bracelet  - and now that I am wearing the natty ski-boot I don’t need it!

And as a final ‘foot-note’ (sorry!) many thanks once again to Phil and Jeanette for all their help – and particularly to Phil who carried my handbag as if he wasn’t at all embarrassed!

Thursday, 7 May 2015


It comes as no surprise that the traditional salutation when raising a glass with anybody here is not  ‘Cheers’ or ‘Bottoms-up’, but ‘Santé’ – meaning Good Health to you.  Health appears to be a national obsession in this country and conversations about cough remedies and digestive problems can last for hours.  Even the tiniest village has a pharmacy, and they even provide ‘bags for life’ emblazoned with their logo.  The only time I have ever felt the need for a large carrier bag at a Pharmacy was when I frequented Boots in the UK at Christmas during their 3 for the price of 2 promotions and my purchases had very little to do with health.  Anyway, I digress, but having set the scene will continue with my story.

At the AGM of the village tennis club, it was decided (after much debate) that all members of the tennis club should produce a medical certificate to show that they were fit enough to play.  The cynic in me did wonder if the local doctor was on the committee, but I said nothing, and made an appointment. 

He carried out the usual blood pressure checks and listened to my heart and he then asked if I was in good general health.  Knowing that I was going to have to pay around 20€ for the ‘medical’ I thought I might as well get my money’s worth and mention the fact that I had lost a bit of weight recently and was feeling a bit tired. He started scribbling on a form and I found myself leaving with a ‘prescription’ for a load of blood tests.

The tests were done at the local Laboratoire d’Analyses and I was told I could pick up the results in two days’ time.  This is what motivated me to write this blogpost as I was extremely surprised about this.  I had expected the results would be posted through to my doctor and that I would then make an appointment to see him to go through them with him, but no, you are left to read them on your own.  I was very much hoping that if they had discovered something terrible there would have been some kind of warning on their computer so they would have taken me into a side room rather than letting me read that I had some incurable disease, so I took the envelope home with me.

I have never felt the need for a degree in Bio-Chemistry before now, but unless you have one I don’t think there is any chance of understanding the 4 pages of results I was presented with.  I recognised a few words (mainly my name and address) and all of the results seemed to be within (or pretty close to) the ‘normal’ range, but I have no idea what I have been tested for.  I was a bit proud to read that I had an “ultra-sensible TSH” but when I googled the term I discovered that is just the name of the Thyroid test, so I gave up.  There was nothing written in red telling me to rush to the nearest hospital so I am assuming I am fit and healthy – which is what it says on the medical certificate given to me by the Doctor before sending me off for all the tests!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Making an exhibition of myself.

I’ve just returned from an all-expenses paid long weekend in London – but there’s no such thing as a free holiday – it was The France Show again.  We arrived on Thursday afternoon and having spent a long afternoon at Olympia putting up the stand, we walked to the hotel to check-in.  Of the three rooms we had booked, one was OK, one had no windows and the other appeared to be a cupboard.  Anna and I sat in her room (the OK one) while Eve went down to sort things out.  30 minutes later she reappeared, having been shown a variety of alternative rooms and causing chaos at reception with her french accent as she had asked for ‘hairy’ rooms rather than ‘airy’!  By this time we were all too tired to go shopping (an expression I never thought I would use) so we headed straight for the bar and discovered that it would be £9.50 for a large glass of wine!  Eve did some quick calculations, realised that we would obviously need 2 glasses each and decided that it would be more economical to order a bottle of Champagne – I think that is the french definition of being ‘frugal’!

The opening day of the show passed by in a blur as it was extremely busy and we were on our feet and talking to clients from 10am until 5pm.  Most people still want to be ‘within walking distance of a Boulangerie’ even though I am sure they have never walked to a local shop in their lives; others start chatting about wanting a property with a pool and a large garden to run a Gite business and then deliver the killer blow that their budget is just 80k; and many others are just there to start their research and are not yet ready to buy, and when I ask why, the usual response is that they are waiting to sell their house in the UK or have to wait for their retirement – but I particularly liked the response from one man who (in front of his wife) stated that he was just waiting for his father-in-law to die!  Despite our aching feet (and after a quick stop off at the bar) we managed a short shopping trip then retired to our hairy rooms for an early night.

The show is split into two sections – We were in the Property and Sensible Stuff part and on another floor was the Food, Wine and Can-Can dancer department (probably not the ‘official titles’ so don’t quote me!).  Access between the two floors was by lift, and our stand was opposite the lift doors.  The good news about that was that ours was the first stand people stopped at on arriving, the bad thing was that every time the lift arrived there were the most delicious smells wafting in from the various cookery demonstrations going on downstairs and by lunchtime it was just too tempting.  I managed a quick visit to check out the stalls downstairs and I have to say it is a great advantage to be wearing a big ‘Exhibitors’ badge because it means you don’t get heckled by people wanting to sell you ferry tickets, caravan holidays or magazine subscriptions.  Having spent several minutes gazing at jars of Confit d’Oignons and speciality bread I suddenly remembered that I actually live in France where products like that are readily available and what I really wanted was Cheddar cheese and smoky bacon crisps!

On Saturday night Eve and Anna said they hadn’t got the strength for a big shopping expedition but just wanted to head back to Kensington High Street in an attempt to track down Paddington Bears for their children.  I politely declined their kind invitation to join them as I had discovered that the biggest shopping mall in the UK was just a 20 minute walk away from Olympia – so I jumped in a taxi and spent 2 hours (and not too much money) in my idea of heaven!  We met up in the hotel  bar later (sadly they were bearless) and enjoyed some excellent fish and chips washed down with champagne (still being frugal)!   

On Sunday morning many of the exhibitors were very quiet to start with (having apparently spent more time drinking than shopping the night before).  Not least of these was a gentleman who I shall call ‘George’ who treads a very fine line between being a ‘loveable old rogue’ and a ‘dirty old man’.  He always seems to be staying in the same hotel as us - which explains our early nights rather than staying in the bar as the more he drinks, the more attractive we get!  During the shows he seems to spend more time in the wine bar than on his own stand but on this last day I pointed out to Eve that he was there, and holding a mug of coffee – when she pointed out that while he might have been holding a mug, the chances of it containing coffee were remote!  The day passed by in a flash and having spent 30 minutes dismantling a stand that had taken 4 hours to set up, we arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time to visit Hamley’s and stock up on Paddington Bears (them) and to check out the Ted Baker sale (me) and then collapse onto a plane and sleep. 

Same time next year!