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Monday, August 20, 2012

Feeding green caterpillars to the hens

We've had experience of hens before. When Max's parents lived in Rumaucourt they had a few in a  poulailler towards the rear of the garden during the more clement months and during the winter in a converted stall nearer the house. They were a scruffy looking lot though they did lay quite well much of the time.

A couple of months ago our new next door neighbours, Sylvain and Gaëlle, acquired two handsome looking feathered friends and installed them at the end of their capacious garden. Apparently they too are good layers with one or two every day albeit on the small side. However not since we've been feeding them during our neighbours' three week vacation somewhere in the deepest mid south of France. Nary un oeuf . We've been feeding them regularly with the mixed grain as requested plus

lettuce leaves and other quality kitchen detritus. I've even been picking the caterpillars off my sprouting broccoli and practically hand feeding the things to them: to no avail.

Max's mother is a bit of an expert and thinks that they are bored and so wont be big on the egg production front. Apparently it can be too hot for them too. And too cold. Perhaps the caterpillars are the wrong colour, size etc?

I suppose she could be right given that the two small daughters who regale in the space and wilderness that is next door's garden and play joyfully in it most days. The entertainment is rewarded by regular eggs. We are expecting the door bell to go any time now as the next people in this relay come for the keys. I cannot help but feel as if we have failed somehow. I bet they get an egg and it will be down to those tasty green caterpillars which I shall continue to poke through the fence.

21 August 10am
Nobody turned up so far to take the keys so once again I made my way with leaves, grain and broom to bat away the spider webs and...

Weekend audomarois

Three months have sped past without so much a thought of blogging let alone committing words to computer. So much time, so many events and so little summer; till recently.

We're not having a "main" holiday this year so we've been very hopeful of good times and good weather on the shorter breaks that we've enjoyed. They most recent being a weekend in the waterways and marshes of the Marais Audomarois based in Moulle in the Pas de Calais, sister to the Nord in the Nord Pas De Calais region. This was to be an extended version of the occasional get togethers we've taken part in with colleagues both present and past from Max's place of work, plus partners. Originally a "Come Dine With Me" event at someone's home and latterly at other events such as birthday parties (two sixtieths this year alone), it was at the first of these back in June that a plan was hatched to spend time away à huit. I was dubious to say the very least about spending time with people who, lets face it, spend most of their time gossiping about their work. Yawn. So it was, with some trepidation and the hope of lashings of rosé to dull the pain, that we set off that Saturday morning bound initially for La Cousinerie from where -thence sounds far too Swallows and Amazons - we were whisked to St Omer by one of the party and his wife.

Once arrived we waited in our "hosts'" ie the primary arrangers and local couple's, café bar for everyone to arrive, eased into the day by a "petite bière" for some but coffee for me. Early starts require copious amounts of caffeine to jump start the system. Already people were appreciating the ale and looking forward to sampling the local produce mostly from smallholders and independent growers.
A walk along well defined wetland paths later and we were in the forest having lunch. I quickly realised that this was not going to be a weekend of making do and camping fodder, baked beans et al, as the group gathered round to enjoy a locally sourced pâté, some farmer's cheeses and delicious bread albeit made by a new chain of bakeries, Boulangerie Louise, at a good price and to artisanal quality and taste so sought after by the French. All washed down by a quaffable rosé from a box. This was a good sign though I was wondering how far one small box of wine would go between eight...
A boat trip later we were soon in Houlle, next to Moulle, where one of the last remaining genièvre distilleries in the North is situated. We oohed and aahed over the introductory video and were on the point of ecstasy when the dégustation arrived and we were informed that, since 2012 is the two hundredth anniversary year of the founding of the distillery, we were to be presented with either a 20cl sample of the carte noire version of the drink or a recipe book attached to which was a slightly smaller version of the "cooking" variety. Being in couples we did the sensible thing of course and had one of each. The tour of the actual distillery was fascinating, the work of just five people using old and tried methods. It was inevitable that the shop saw good business afterwards, partly since their range is not widely available and eschews the bigger supermarkets,  and somehow Max found himself with a bottle of the red fruits variety and one of the 40% Carte D'Or (good for cooking too apparently).
Our gîtes were not far away and as soon as we were installed, some grabbed the opportunity to get rowing, two, promisingly, went back to St Omer to collect the food and drink, and I sat guard with the ninth member of our group, Pépette, the parrot. She arrived with the very best travelling accoutrements including a 200€ perch/backpack.

Our provisions arrived together with a portable electric barbecue. Tables were purloined from the empty gîte next door, chairs arranged and there was a frenzy of activity in the kitchen. Our lead couple had cooked al dente cauliflower and green beans from the area,  which were seasoned and dressed, large juicy prawns were décortiquéd and various plump sausages and cuts of meat were arranged on the barbie. A salad mixed and tossed, cheeses arranged ready for later consumption and soon the champagne flûtes were ready and primed for the beginning of a feast of good simple food.
Somehow we had chosen the only weekend thus far of the summer when both days were sunny and warm and we made full use of the opportunity to sit outside till the light had completely faded away before reparing to the séjour where we partook of our swag from the distillery as a digestif to round off the meal and the evening.

Another long walk along the canal the next morning had been preceded by a simple breakfast so it was only natural that we should want to sample a beer at the site bar before setting to with the lunch proper. Then after a foray onto the waterways by rowing boat, with some competitiveness and not just a little oar splashing, we, not least our two little otters, Serge and Max, were tucking into more pastries before setting off for home. Stopping for a cheeky snifter at the bar again, of course, to set us up for the journey.

Monday, May 21, 2012


It came, it happened, it went and now we have a new president and the prospect of the parliamentary elections, les législatives,  first round in three weeks. And running with the predictions of some months ago Franços Hollande beat the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, into second place in the first round of the presidential contest and then extended his lead to take the presidency. Much was made of Marine Le Pen's relatively good showing in the first round though it was exaggerated to say the least. The far right had picked up a bigger share of the vote before shared between parties than the new helm of the Front National managed alone. It was, everything being equal, not a huge departure from the time when her father slugged it out for the party of false nostalgia, so, in that sense, the new broom has not exactly swept clean, merely cleaning up in the same places as they always did.
More interestingly Madame Le Pen has put herself up for election to parliament, for, dear reader (thank you!) this political beast is only a member of the European Parliament sitting not so far from the British Conservatives. What shame! Imagining herself a safe ride into "power" no doubt, in her adopted fief of Henin-Beaumont in the Pas de Calais, she confidently put threw her bicorne into the ring believing her beloved serfs would support her all the way to the Assemblée Nationale. Little did she know that her arch rival and complete opposite number, the leader of the extreme left, Le Parti de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who also found support in the presidential elections, would pitch his electoral tent slap bang in the Grand' Place of Henin-Beaumont, metaphorically of course. And even more interestingly, the latest opinion poll shows Mélenchon clinching the seat by a margin of some 10% in a second round duel with Mrs Le Pen. One can only imagine the fulminations at FN HQ. La bataille or perhaps ze battle as we must now call it following the first series of Ze Voice, is joined. Watch this space.

The Voice was very popular in France taking top spot on Saturday evenings with some ease I believe. Not difficult, admittedly, given the lack of alternative entertainment offered by the proliferous other channels. A careful mix of characters and talents both in the judging panel and the contenders ensured that the final was a decent competition between three singers of discernible talent. It is too tempting not to make a comparison with the UK version, which, if the press is anything to go by (answers by email please) was more to do with a duel between it and Britain's Got Talent (won by a performing dog). Would I be alone in thinking Mr Cowell has not really done himself many favours by his churlish putting down of the opposition? Those who have stuck with the newer programme have cited the fact that it is less glitzy, kinder, and more "real" than any of the ITV productions. Anyone who still believes that the X Factor, for instance, is primarily about talent are probably in a very small, or deluded, minority. It is about rating, it is about making lots of money for ITV and Simon Cowell, and giving embarrassingly inappropriately experienced "judges" a work and exposure opportunity. If the winner has talent then so much the better but is not obligatory. BGT's winning pooch and owner may have a brief career but post Royal Variety Performance, without an album to promote, whereto? Seems to me that at their worst these programmes are mostly about exploiting the naïve and feeding the pseudo celebrity machine which endlessly churns out "personalities" without any prerequisite to talent nor personality. I, for one, hope the BBC sticks with The Voice and, head held high, give it another series without the need for the false competition with ITV/Cowell.

The month of May in France is a highly punctuated affair. This week is the only week of the month that doesn't contain a national holiday together with various ponts ie days off bridging the holiday and the nearest weekend.

Meanwhile my wisteria is blossoming beautifully having been the recipient of a substantial haircut last autumn now the blooms are at the best I have ever seen them.

We spent a handful of very lovely days in Lower Normandy ie Easter Bank Holiday Monday in Houlgate by the sea followed by time with family in Le Neufbourg in the countryside and a visit to Le Mont St Michel just before the new park and ride scheme was introduced. Strictly speaking that has turned out to be park, walk almost 1km, and ride, but that is another controversy! 

The island sits almost menacingly a kilometre off the coast at the end of a causeway. The day we visited the sky behind loomed dark and almost menacingly - it could have been Colditz castle. Inside, the tourist excesses aside, the steep windy streets put me in mind of Diagon Alley or perhaps Buttermeade.

The other milestone and highlight of the last few weeks has been Max's sucessful first full marathon run in the Route du Louvre starting in central Lille and ending not far from the site of the soon to be opened northern branch of the Louvre museum. It was a surprisingly good day weatherwise, perhaps too nice as he sustained a painful sunburn and I managed to pick up rather too much colour though did not succumb to my usual sunstroke after just minutes. 

Max about to cross the finishing line looking remarkably fresh given that he had run over 42km.

The finishing line was next to the famous terrils(slag heaps!), looking somewhat surreal in this picture. There are plans to plant some of them with vines and one has been equipped with an artificial ski slope.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

And then there were ten.

Seconds out!  With round one kicking off - excuse the mixed metaphor - one month today there are ten candidates for the presidency of the French Republic left slugging it out in the, increasingly media-centric, ring. And that ten includes, Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist right wing Front National (FN) who, after months of whingeing about the "disgraceful injustice" of a system that requires 500 anonymous signatures from French elective officialdom for any given candidate to become eligible to stand in the first round, has scraped through. Not that it has done her any real good as the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, leading the UMP, confirmed one of the worst ever secrets of the last four years ie that he would stand for re-election,  and has been stealing Le Pen's fire ever since.

François Hollande, the socialist party candidate is the man with everything to lose as he sees his long held lead in the opinion polls diminish to the point where the first round appears to be anyone's. Well, not strictly anyone's, as much as Marine Le Pen, François Bayrou, leader of the Democratic Movement, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far left Leftist Party, would like us to believe as they all, with roughly similar scores in recent opinion polls ie 12-14%, have a last dash chance of getting through to the second round. No, no, they haven't.

It is safe to imagine that a majority of the first round votes will fall to Sarkozy and Hollande and that those two will then battle it out two weeks later to becoming king, oops, president!  I have to admit to knowing nothing about four of the remaining contenders. Yes, I could be accused of sweeping them aside with little understanding of the electoral process and yet since they are likely to achieve less than 5% between them, you'll forgive me for not allocating them their moment of Le Log Lillois gloire. I will however give mention to the widely derided, Eva Joly, (left) the candidate of the Green Party. I'm not entirely certain why she should be so disliked unless it is because she is originally from Norway ie not "proper" French and yet a video of her (no, not that kind of video), explaining the Norwegian political system (which btw is a model to be aspired to) shows her to be a very approachable, affable and considered woman. She was Reader's Digest European of the Year in 2002. Perhaps that is why she is stuck at 2,5% in the polls?

The remaining four wanabees have dignities to retain as intact as possible and potential influence or perhaps even roles in government as seems to be the fashion even where coalition is not the determiner. Bayrou is vaguely centrist, sort of conservative in a nice-ish way, with some support but  he is destined to continue bobbing up to the political surface briefly, before disappearing again till next time. Pity. He seems, potentially, to be a man of some substance and gravitas with little of the showy politicky hubris of say, Sarkozy,  and more statesmanlike than Hollande has thus far demonstrated himself to be.  Le Pen has not managed to hold on to her advantage of last year when, briefly, she led the polls as Sarkozy has merely shouted a little louder  -mostly showmanship of course - about some of the issues dear to her ideology and to the prejudices of her followers. Think UKIP/BNP.  He has thereby managed to close the gap with Hollande but there is as yet little evidence of anything but a win in the second round for Hollande. Of course, events such as have unfurled in Toulouse play directly into the hands of an incumbent who can fluff up his feathers and make some political hay whilst that sad sun shines.

Le Pen has a brilliant idea about withdrawing from the Euro and going back to the Franc. A New Franc - or maybe Franc Nouveau (FN)? - would be worth exactly the same as a Euro and indeed on the international markets we would still trade in Euros, euro Euros rather than euro Francs. Simply genius!  We've been having a lot of fun with that one. Perhaps we could do away with old centimes and just call them new marines?

Sarkozy has told us that if we, I use the term collectively but excluding myself as I have no right to vote in this election, have the audacity not to re-elect him, then he will disappear from political life. Depending on which side of the fence you sit this is as much a threat as it is a promise. And is there anyone "better" to replace him from within his own party.  Then again the French just regroup and rename and voilà "new" party with "new" ideas.

Why do the French continue time after time to support their political elite when that elite has largely failed the country over the last three decades? Probably for the same reason that in the UK either Labour or Conservative governments have done their best/worst for many many decades. The current arrangement in the UK being an aberration although so many appear to see it as an abhorrence.

Just six weeks and a bit and we'll know whether the status quo will continue with or without a new person at the helm, or, and it's a very big or, perhaps the French will vote for something else.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Lost in translation

Bonne Année à toutes et à tous! Being ever so politically correct you have to say that now as the all encompassing but essentially male "tous" is no longer sufficient.

So, where to start after another - guilty - rather extended break from this blog writing lark? OK, let's continue the political theme with a look at the currency that not only celebrates 10 years of active use this very month but also one that is the target of endless speculation, concern and some jubilation both positive and negative. Yes the €€€€€€! Will it survive the year? Now let's get serious here, this is the second most traded currency in the entire world, one that is the national money of 17 sovereign states. It is unlikely to cease to be without bringing down perhaps a substantial element of the world economy. Currencies do not stand alone. And despite the endless articles in such august organs as the Daily Mail which on a good day go so far as to flirt vaguely with the truth as it panders to its increasingly xenophobic middle-England aging readership, the Euro and the EU are not the devil incarnate but the products of political and economic discussion, agreement and reaction to national and international events. David Cameron may well have found his Thatcherite mojo - though not her abundant hairstyle - with his recent "non" but in reality whatever he says and does on behalf of the UK, the reality is, whether as full part, part part or outside of the EU, the UK will be affected by what goes on in Europe.

Staying with politics but this side of the Sleeve, the race warms up ie becomes slightly tepid, for the presidential elections with the news that up to 30% of the electorate would consider dropping everyone's favourite nationalist Marine Jeanne d'Arc Le Pen's name into the ballot box. You have to understand that here we don't - I don't at all not having a vote - put a cross or a mark on a piece of paper, we get a fistful of candidates name papers and we choose the one we want to drop in the box discarding all the rest. reading carefully it seems that the true figure is actually 18% since 12% actually responded that they probably would not vote for her, but hadn't completely made up their minds. Lies damned lies and statistics.

What is undeniably true is that in a time of perceived austerity a return to the "good old days" is an attractive proposition especially for those who claim to have experienced them ie the more mature element of the population. Thus it didn't surprise me at all that, during our visit to our next door neighbour "pour les voeux" ie the official Happy New Year call, she announced that she would probably vote for Le Pen, since she could not see the socialist, and current favourite, François Hollande as president. Our neighbour is in her seventies and has a typical working class background without the benefit of more than basic education so her profile is one that matches well with the target of the nationalists. After all what have such people to lose? In reality of course, it is unlikely that our elderly neighbour will even bother to vote and that, is the true danger of the forthcoming elections.

On Saturday we were honoured to be present at the formal wedding of friends Khadijah and Raymond aka Coco! Apart from having a lovely day and seeing the inside of the impressive Hôtel de Ville  - 1930s administrative art déco - it was a timely reminder about communication and language. In the party of eight including one child there were three non-native French speakers. The bride herself is Moroccan and chatters away in a French that is littered with mistakes but with an enthusiasm that is infectious. It was a relief that one of fully French guests was the one who completely misinterpreted the menu and asked the waitress if she could have the help yourself buffet as a main course when it was plainly already on the list of possibilities. Lesson learned: we can make mistakes, misread or misunderstand the object is not to be perfect but to be understood and to understand back.

The funniest thing and possibly the most irksome thing I have seen on the television for quite some time was Paul Danan's appearance on Celebrity Come Dine With Me. To the sound of a barrel being soundly scraped this bright spark announced that he was Jewish and that he had never ever ever eaten pork. He then went on to explain that even though bacon and sausages come from the well known pig animal that these don't count as pork and so they are OK to eat. A thirty something year old with the mentality of a nine year old, sadly not so uncommon these days as we learn that the lovable twins, Jedward, are to return to the "Celebrity Big Brother" house.  A quick reminder: these scallywags are TWENTY years old!!!

I can feel the blood pressure rising so I am off for a run on the magic carpet in the outhouse. Happy 2012!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Next stop Cannes!

I recently acquired a micro camcorder - think iPhone size - and have been merrily filming away but this is the first minor effort at putting footage together and making what the French call a court-métrage. Bit of fun: our day out in Boulogne for 1€ with the TER Nord-Pas-De-Calais.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Has the DSKK hit the fan?

A word of explanation about my slightly cryptic title. The pronunciation of the acronym of Dominique Strauss-Khan's name in French is Day-Ess-Kah. You do the rest!

Easily the biggest media story in France over the past couple of months has been about the former head of  the International Monetary Fund and his alleged behaviour in New York and, before that, in Paris. It is probably fair to say that in the main he has been fairly treated both in the press and on the television as the French, at least in public, have an almost unswayable respect for the political classes. Except perhaps for a certain Monsieur Sarkozy and even then they go to pains to separate their comments out making clear that anything less than deferential is aimed at the man and not the revered post which he currently holds.

Speculation has been rife about if, when and how DSK can return to frontline politics with opinions varying from claims he has a mental illness (sex addiction) to the potential loss of a "brilliant economic brain". Certainly it seems increasingly unlikely that he will play any major part in the socialists' primary contest to choose their candidate for the presidential elections next year although he was previously seen as the best person for the job, and, if polls are to be believed, would have had a strong chance of taking over at the Elysée Palace. The two, or three depending on your allegiance, remaining frontrunners are all very careful to keep him in the fold yet at a certain distance. Even though the headlines at the weekend were about how DSK had been "blanchi" there is a definite feeling that he is nowhere near whiter than white and that there are now substantial stains on his character whether or not he is ever found guilty in a court. I so wanted there to be a french verb for "bleached" as that seemed more appropriate but they only have "blanchi" so I am offering "blanchi à Javel"!

Interestingly he has been an astute cultural player humbly apologising to the IMF for the embarrassment that the case has caused and yet, at least so far, not making any such gesture in France. Apparently to do so would, in French eyes, be tantamount to a confession. Whilst being a "player" is not necessarily detrimental to a politician's career in France, indeed it can boost it unlike the puritanical USA and more recently UK, it has become difficult to ignore his mounting list of indiscretions and their erosion of the trust that he would need to instill in potential voters.

So at this stage of the game the best he can hope for is to lay low until after the presidential elections next May. If he has been a good boy he could still hope for a high profile job in the new president's government. If not then maybe the proverbial fan may suffer some more.

And to finish off a quick update on the latest polls, which show that François Hollande is still favourite to be the socialists' candidate but that both he or Martine Aubry would comfortably beat Nicolas Sarkozy in both the first and second rounds. Only Ségolène Royal, socialist candidate last time, would fail to topple Sarko. The recent surge of support for Marine Penn appears to have ebbed away leaving her in third position again.

More to come over the next 9 months!

Un gros p'tit déj

There is something very pleasing about introducing people to aspects of your own culture, especially when it is something of your own culinary heritage. Last saturday we were again running in the Lille Half Marathon and I needed to decide on a meal that would make up for the half portion of plain porridge we had eaten around seven o'clock but would be served more towards lunchtime than breakfast. We had already "done" the idea of brunch last year with a rather tasty kedgeree, and in any case this is fairly well established as an occasional event in France. It suddenly occurred to me that we should be offering our guests that well-loved roadside café/restaurant favourite: the All Day Breakfast. And that is what we did.

Of course the concept of this feast would have been lost on the Bopes and Les Oncles without a little explanation which they were given plus the renaming to "Le Gros P'tit Déj" which really sums up what it is all about ie a familiar favourite given higher billing on the menu.

At this juncture I feel I should report our results in the previously mentioned run given that both of us beat our times from last year. Max was not on top form, probably down to not being properly hydrated, and so we decided about two thirds of the way in to run separately. It was rather warm too, a good 6 or 7C hotter than last year at the end and already so at the start. Nevertheless, the training paid off and I clocked an actual time of 1 hour, 56 minutes and small change. Strangely it didn't feel as big an achievement as crossing the line together last year but it felt good all the same. 

So back at Château Newman-Legros much of the preparation had been done by Papa who had stayed behind with his bad leg. The weather at this point permitted al fresco all day breakfasting and he had already installed the parasol and arranged chairs and cushions.  So what was on the menu? My trusty courgette and cheese (Cheddar) scrambled egg provided the main dish along with Toulouse sausage for the carnivores, plus ham, smoked salmon, baked beans, mushrooms, toast, jam and Marmite and waffles. The love it or hate it spread did what it says on the lid ie divided the table though I hope that doesn't mean having to add it to the ever expanding list of British goodies we have to bring back every time we visit the UK. 

Coffee and tea were initially forsaken in favour of rosé wine given the time and the weather, and helped to extend our meal to around three hours around the table. It remains only to say that Le Gros P'tit Déj was a gros succès. To be repeated next year?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How do we solve a problem like Marine?

Very little makes me want to sit right down and vent my spleen: mostly I prefer to mull something over and give it due consideration. However, this afternoon the French parliament is voting on gay marriage, a debate raised by the Parti Socialiste that will almost inevitably not pass as the right wing government has the majority and they are not minded to bring France in line with many other countries in the developed world. Indeed France still considers itself to be a Catholic nation and the right wing parties tend to be the ones who like to be seen to uphold Catholic values.

Now that makes me a tad annoyed and a tad sad. France was one of the first nations in Europe to enact laws enabling same sex couples to be recognised legally with the PACS, but this contract between two people whatever their gender, gives very diluted rights and obligations and is nowhere near to being equal to marriage or civil partnership.  Meanwhile countries such as the UK have brought in equal rights for gay couples and the discussion has now moved on to whether same sex couples should be able to (civil) marry albeit that is the shorthand that many use to describe their civil partnership just as they use husband and wife as terms to describe themselves. The argument for marriage in church is something else again and is not an area for government diktat. I believe that sometimes there is a confusion in people's minds as often civil and religious weddings take place in the same place ie in the church with the register signed there too.

So in France, where if people wed in church they also have to take part in a civil ceremony at the Mairie, just as they do in other countries, you might be forgiven for thinking that it would be easier to separate the two and to allow civil weddings for all.  Mais non! Not whilst there are politicians defending only heterosexual rights. And now Marine Le Pen, the glamorous leader of the French National Front,  has waded in with her jaded and hackneyed declaration that if we allow gay marriage then why not polygamy too?  Perhaps in private she alludes to people marrying their pets? I do hope she is not defending the sanctity of marriage since she has allowed herself to be married and divorced twice already and at the age of 43 has plenty of time left in which to repeat her commitment to this holy institution.

I looked up "Catholic" and saw that the capitalised word pertains to one church as in the Catholic church being the one true church ie exclusive whereas "catholic" lower case adjective has almost entirely the opposite meaning ie

1.universal; relating to all men; all-inclusive
2.comprehensive in interests, tastes, etc; broad-minded; liberal

Such a pity then that the debate this afternoon won't be lower case.

Ms Le Pen is a problem that is not going to go away soon  cf Sarah Palin, but at least she is starting to put her true cards on the table and her catholic appeal may well diminish as her Catholic tendencies become clearer.

PS - fingers crossed the Parti Socialiste will indeed sweep the board next year in which case there is a chance for this attempt at equality.

Rant over.