Monday, 7 July 2014

Dining in the dark

Do you remember the traditional 1980s style dinner-parties involving table-cloths, polished silverware, flower arrangements, and well-dressed guests drinking Blue Nun wine and enjoying prawn cocktail followed by chickien kiev?  Saturday night was nothing like that.

Preparations started in the morning with a trip to the supermarket – in Spain - as the prices are so much cheaper.  In fact I totally misheard the butcher and thought he was asking me for ‘Treize’ euros (13 euros in french, which I thought was reasonable) but he actually said ‘Tres’ (3 euros in Spanish – even better!)  Spending an afternoon slaving over a hot stove has never been my idea of a good time (I’m surprised M & S hasn’t gone bankrupt since I left England) and bearing in mind that the temperature that day was 38 degrees, we decided to cheat a little.   A lot actually.  Having decided on a slightly Moroccan themed menu we tracked down a restaurant and asked them to prepare a Tajine and sat and had a beer in the shade while they cooked it. 

The hardest part of the rest of the afternoon’s preparations was the immense amount of time it took to peel the stickers off the newly purchased plates and glasses – and also trying to stop all the sun-lounger cushions from flying into the pool as by this time a strong wind had picked up and outside was not just an oven, but a fan oven.  With just 5 minutes to spare (just time to apply a second layer of make-up and drag a brush through my hair) everything was ready and the guests arrived.  I had invited my ‘young’ tennis partners and their wives and my first surprise was not just how brightly coloured their clothes were but the wonderful presents they brought – plants for the garden, champagne, home-made conserves, etc.  All very generous and very welcome. 
While my command of the French language is OK on a one-to-one basis, when there are 9 people talking at once I find it very hard to keep track of what they are saying but it was an evening of fun and laughter – mainly at my expense I fear!  Hopefully the fact that the evening didn’t end until 1am speaks for itself, and I learned four valuable lessons.  Firstly, never/always invite Joel to your house – he never stopped taking photos all night and it felt a bit like an invasion of the Paparazzi (although many thanks to him for forwarding all 64 photos), secondly, if you have a dog who is addicted to playing with tennis balls it is always useful to invite tennis players to a Soirée, thirdly, I need lights in the Pergola – due to the high winds the candles kept blowing out and nobody could see what they were eating, but the final and most important lesson is to invite French friends more regularly

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Wimbledon here I come!

The ‘twilight’ zone continues here, as last week I found myself playing in the semi-finals of the Men’s Doubles in the village tennis tournament!  This was surprising for several reasons: firstly, I never signed up to play – apparently there was a meeting at the tennis club one evening when I was back in the UK for a weekend and when I returned my ‘boys (the 70 year old men I play with) proudly announced that they had signed me up for the competition and that I would be playing with somebody called Dominique.  I was amazed that they had found another woman in the village who played tennis but ‘Dominique’ turned out to be the man who runs the local wine shop!  We won the first round without playing as luckily (for us) one of the opposition team had broken an ankle, so on the Thursday night we played our first match.  We lost 6-1 6-0, partly due to the fact that Dominique had been drinking wine all day, partly because it was the first time we had played as a ‘team’ so either both of us ran for the ball or neither of us did, partly because our opponents Romeo and Giles had hair-styles like plastic Lego figures so I coudn’t keep a straight face , but mainly because they were much better than us.  At the end of the match (and I use that term loosely) Dominique turned to me and asked if I was free to play the next evening as we were now in the semi-finals.  It turned out that Romeo had stood in for somebody at the last minute and was already due to play in the next round which meant that if he won again, he would be playing in the final against himself!

The semi-final match was even more of a débacle.  We were playing against 2 of my ‘boys’, Francis and Jean-Jacques, and I had a slight hope that they might be a bit kind to me but absolutely not, they were out to win, although they still couldn’t resist shouting ‘leave it’ whenever I looked as if I was going to hit a ball that was going out (apparently one of my many faults in tennis!).  We were beaten 6-1 6-0 and my only comfort is that they went on to win the final so we obviously stood no chance!

There were no surprise invitations to play in the Finals on Sunday but in the evening we went to the presentation ceremony (all competitors were given a first-aid kit emblazoned with the logo of the Conseil Générale) and this was followed by drinks (served by Dominique, naturally) and a ‘Grillade’.  Trestle tables and chairs were laid out and about 20 of us sat and shared a good meal.  All of this took place on the car park beside the tennis court but despite the fact that we were surrounded by broken glass, litter and graffiti it was a convivial evening – and lovely to meet the various wives and partners of my tennis friends who were equally interested to meet L'Anglaise who plays men's doubles! 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Country Life - and not a stately home in sight!

Despite having lived here in the wilderness of rural France for nearly 3 years now, country life is still a bit of a mystery to me.  I can only differentiate between the various fruit trees when I can actually see the apricots or peaches appear, and despite having spent a back-breaking day picking grapes I have no idea what variety they were, so when I spotted that it was ‘Open Farm’ weekend in the area, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to find out what is actually going on!

A friend suggested starting with a winery in a nearby village – which I will call Mas Nightingale in the unlikely event that the owners can speak english or read this.  We arrived just as a ‘tour’ was starting so joined the 5 other couples who were assembled in front of 7 neat rows of vines in the courtyard of the Mas.  We were then greeted by the owner and his enormous white dog who had eyes like a wolf – and seemed hell bent on eating a small terrier dog that one of the visitors had brought with them.  The first thing I learned was that while I am 90% fluent in French, the 10% of vocabulary that is missing seems to involve the descriptive words for varieties of grape, but I did manage to understand that Muscat de Rivesaltes does not actually have to come from the town of Rivesaltes.

The owner then led us into a converted barn where he had created a mini museum of scenes depicting the old and traditional ways of producing wine, featuring particularly scary looking life-sized dolls.  He proudly explained that the faces had been made by a craftsmen in the village and were all based on local residents – which makes you wonder what sort of village it is!  He pressed a remote control and the doll that was supposed to be him started reciting a poem about how the months of the year affect the grapes, then at the next scene a doll showed how to harvest the grapes (while the maddest looking doll glared at him and moved her head from side to side) and finally we moved on to the scene where some small children were treading grapes while a drunk doll showed how to put the corks in.  We were then led down some narrow steps (almost being knocked flying by the large white ‘wolf’ who was still chasing the little dog (now hiding in a handbag) into the Cave where they keep the barrels at a certain temperature.  The owner pointed out that the floor was paved with large tiles because the Mayor often visited the cave and his mistress liked wearing heels.  I would like to think that this story is true.

Naturally the tour finished with a ‘tasting’ and there was much more discussion about what foods would best accompany the wine, which gave me my second important lesson – forget the old English tradition of white wine with fish and red wine with meat – and choose the wine first!  We bought a selection of bottles and then went on to the next ‘Open Farm’.

As well as vineyards and orchards, this region is full of Olive Trees – so the next visit was to an Olive Farm.  Again the first thing I learned was that there are even bigger gaps in my French vocabulary than I had ever imagined – but I think it is excusable as the farmer was a huge Gerard Depardieu type with long hair and great enthusiasm and a strong Catalan accent!  I understood the part where he gave us some bread to dip into bowls of delicious oil, while he complained about the current preference for people adding lemon or garlic or herbs to the oil (despite the fact that he had bottles and bottles of ‘adulterated’ oil on a shelf behind him in the shop) but when he plugged a computer into a giant screen and started a film, I was lost.  The film was easy to understand – it showed a huge tractor with scissor-like forks with flat sails attached which was positioned under an olive tree while a man with an electric rake shook the branches so the olives fell onto the sails, then the tractor was reversed, the sails were lifted up and closed like the wings of a butterfly, and then the olives were tipped into a trailor.  What was difficult to understand was that whatever Gerard Depardieu was talking about seemed to have nothing to do with the film.  I recognised occasional references to the difficulties in making a profit and complaints about the thieves who regularly steal his newly planted trees and watering pipes, but am completely baffled about the part where he was mincing about as if wearing heels and carrying a handbag – unless it is in some way connected to the story about the Mayor’s mistress at the Winery! 

Will definitely continue my ‘education’ same time next year.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

A 'Cat'astrophic Day...

I recently wrote a blog entry about how much I loved living here because no two days are ever the same and I detailed strange events that had happened during a 5 day period.  All that pales into insignificance compared to a recent set of very strange experiences that happened over a 24 hour period – and I apologise for the length of this blog but it was a very ‘full’ day!

It started on Sunday evening when my new kitten vanished into the dark and windy night.  Luckily no cars were passing at midnight or they would have seen a lunatic woman in a hideous pink dressing gown standing in the road shaking a bag of cat biscuits and calling his name!  I left the outside lights on and the kitchen door open all night and didn’t sleep very well – mainly imagining what other strange animals might try to come into the house.  The next morning, fearing the worst (although actually the dog looked quite pleased) Loulou and I walked up and down the road looking for a dead body in the hedge, then I prodded the murky depths of the pond with a stick, then grappled with the pool cover imagining that he must have fallen in chasing a lizard and drowned, but luckily found nothing.  We then went to ask the neighbours to keep their eyes open – they are in their 80s, very fit and healthy and are out gardening in all weathers, but I was still rather shocked  to see Madame squatting over a bucket next to the water butt as I approached.  I hid behind a large cactus plant until she had finished and she didn’t seem at all embarrassed to be pulling up her tracksuit bottoms as I greeted her (happily we are on kissing terms not handshakes)   I was almost convinced I had been hallucinating but I googled it later and apparently fresh urine makes perfect compost accelerator, but it has made me wary of accepting their gifts of home-grown vegetables...

My friend Vicky then arrived to carry on painting the living room and I had to leave for work – although the fact she had brought the 5 dogs again made it unlikely that the cat would be brave enough to return while I was out.  At 3pm I received a phone call from the plumber saying that he was at the rubbish tip and that he could see smoke on the top of the hill near my house.  I explained that although I was out there was no problem as my friends were at the house and hung up.  About 30 minutes later I rang Vicky to make sure that everything was OK, only to find that she had left 2 hours earlier.  On a positive note, it took my mind off the missing cat but I then had to ring the incontinent/eco-friendly neighbours just to make sure that my house wasn’t on fire.  It took a fair amount of explaining but they reassured me that everything was OK.  (Later I heard that the Mayor’s vineyard had been on fire but luckily it is not that close to the house). 

Shortly after that I was driving back down one mountain on the way to the second viewing, with the clients following in the car behind, when I heard a motorbike behind me – but when I looked in the mirror there was nothing there.  I then realised the noise was coming from the back of the car so I pulled in to the side of the road but could see nothing (nor could the bemused clients) so I explained to them that I thought I had a stone in the tyre so not to be surprised by any strange manoeuvres I might make once we got to the straight bit of road.  I then proceeded to wiggle the wheel and stamp on the brakes occasionally but nothing would dislodge it so I carried on driving to the next rendezvous almost convinced that I had a wasps nest in the boot but arrived safely in Cassagnes, 20 kilometres up another twisty mountain road.  When we had finished viewing the final property we all spotted that the back tyre was now completely flat.  The clients just happened to have a very handy electronic tyre inflator so they very kindly helped me – but to no avail, the tyre just would not inflate.  I then faced the embarrassing situation of having to unpack the entire boot area (bag of dog toys/dish/water bottles, supermarket shopping, beach towels, christmas decorations (?)) only to find that my car was the type that only came with a puncture repair kit and not a spare tyre. The breakdown service said they would send someone out within 45 minutes.  The policy here is that they get you to the nearest garage, not necessarily a tyre specialist and not necessarily near to where you want to be so the fact I was in a remote village miles from anywhere didn’t bode well.  There was obviously some event going on in the village that afternoon as well-dressed people carrying flowers and/or glasses of wine drifted in and out of the Mairie where I was parked so at least there was something to look at to pass the time, and when at last the breakdown truck arrived, everybody came out to watch, and who could blame them as it was an enormous black and yellow ex-army type vehicle with flags and flashing lights everywhere.   The mechanic found a huge piece of metal in the tyre and couldn’t repair it so was then thrilled to entertain the assembled crowd by using a remote control to engage the gadgets to raise and lower my car several times before towing it off to the garage.

The garage was in Ille-sur-Tet, a town slightly more in the direction of my village (which was a bonus) but by this time it was 7pm and the garage was closing so they would see what they could do to the tyre in the morning, and called for a taxi to take me home (paid for by the insurance company).  I was relieved to know that I would be home within 20 minutes but my hopes were dashed when the taxi driver then announced that he would be picking up another fare from Perpignan ‘on the way’ (local residents will understand my rage at this detour!).  It turned out that he was picking up an elderly person from the Clinic and taking him back to his home in Prats-de-Mollo, a village at the top of the Tech Valley.  Despite the fact that the patient seemed to be still suffering mild effects from the sedatives, he was aware enough to question the route that the driver was taking and had to be reassured several times that taking the ‘wine-route’ and dropping me off on the way would be a short cut!

I finally got home at 8pm, completely stressed and exhausted, to be greeted by an extremely excited dog who managed to convince me that what I really wanted to do was to play with her in the garden, rather than dive into a bottle of wine and relax.  Eventually, with my guilt at leaving her for so long assuaged by an epic game of football and double-portions in her food-bowl I was able to pour myself a generous glass of wine and sat out on the terrace while my Pizza cooked.  I half-heartedly called the cat’s name and heard a rustling sound from the bottom of the hedge.  Given the fact that I have seen a snake under there I thought it was pretty brave of me to investigate but, armed with a tennis racket, I managed to pull some branches aside and peer in and found an extremely shocked and exhausted kitten staring up at me.  It took quite some time to manoeuvre him out from his hiding place as I was terrified of hurting him even more as he was obviously injured, but I was so pleased to hear him purr as I held him in my arms. I had not had him for long and he was usually pretty wary of me - perhaps due to the fact that I had him castrated within a week of his arrival... 

So, apart from the fact that my pizza was burnt to a crisp, my bizarre day ended happily.  And the cat is now doing well – the vet had to operate on some pretty horrible internal injuries and said that he had been run over by a car – but he is now back home with a shaved side and a plastic bucket tied round his head and looks so scary that the dog hides when he appears!