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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The end of the beginning and the beginning of une nouvelle année

It has been a long year and a short one. Frustrating and rewarding. Fulfilling and disappointing. It has been our first full calendar year in France, 9 months of those with our own house and something like 7 months actually living in it.

I am not sure quite what I expected and so I do not know whether to feel pleased or disatisfied with our, and more specifically, my achievements over 2006. On balance I think I can forgive myself that I have as yet not developed nor earned anything from my own business. The kindness of friends and family has yet to meet bounds and it seems the getting used to being transplanted is quite enough for the moment. I won't, however, be allowed that luxury in another 12 month's time. If resolutions were the thing then earning some money would have to sit atop my list. Now all I have to do is to string together the moments of enthusiasm and positivity, the flashes of inspiration, to form a continuous garland of possibility and to create something both meaningful and real. No problem!?

Almost 700 people have visited these pages since I managed to install a counter. Some of those regulars, some purely by accident and some looking for I know not what. I hope they found something of value, just as I wish love and light to all who read these words.

Bonne année à tous!

Friday, December 08, 2006

A quote for Christmas.

A post was overdue but I couldn't let this quote go without sharing it here on my blog. Good for all year round, it seemed quite poignant at a time of the year when we attempt to be more sharing and the spirit of the season evokes a greater degree of goodwill to all (men).

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."

Attributed to Edmund Burke (1729-1797) English Parliamentarian.

Paris follows...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Magnificent in grey and orange.

Our resources did not allow us the luxury of a summer holiday this year indeed our last time away was some 18 months ago when we had a great week in Marrakech. So our soujourn in the French capital was much looked forward to, and needed.

The lovely people at the SNCF shared their 25th anniversary celebrations (justifiably, as the investment made a quarter of a century ago in the highspeed rail infrastructure would be unthinkable today) by selling tickets at 5€ each and our fortune in obtaining them owed more to my inquisitiveness then anything else as they were being sold on the linked UK internet site when in France their site crashed, the phone lines melted and would-be cut-price travellers queued endlessly at railway stations around the country.

Checked the view from Tatieflat on arrival: yes the Eiffel Tower was still there and twinkling away on the hour (some Parisiens think it vulgar but they are probably the same old vampires who objected to the Tour in the first place). A sigh of contentment and the holiday was underway.

We rarely do a great deal in Paris: just being there feels such a huge treat. I adore the grandeur of the place, the chic greyness of the buildings, the ceramic frames around the advertising posters on the Métro, the feeling of being on a film set with a photographic opportunity around every corner.

This time though I was determined that we would do more with our time. So, after the obligatory shopping trip to Carrefour Auteuil to stock up the fridge, we headed towards the centre to see the Christmas lights at the Grands Magasins. I was immediately struck by how much orange there was everywhere, seemingly très tendance this year and the main colour of the better lights at Printemps. Somehow the French can get away with colours and colour combinations that would look at best naff and at worst tacky were they to be displayed in the UK. We took in the Fragonard perfume museum - worth a visit and free.

Friday evening we went to see "Une Vie en Rose et Noir" at the Théâtre Dejazet, near to La Place de la République. Essentially the life story of Edith Piaf, this sensational piece of theatre enthralled us. It could so easily have been a "Stars in Their Eyes" imitation but no, Nathalie Lhermitte remained blonde and tall for the majority of the piece. The fifty or so in the audience somehow managed to give an impression however, that of a hugely appreciative full house.

Sunday was the first of the month and so many of the museums and monuments throw open their doors for free. A slight exaggeration as most now have scanning devices and security checks but you get the idea. So on Sunday we were enthusiastic tourists. First stop La Sainte-Chapelle, built almost 800 years ago for Louis IX, a place of royal worship surrounded by intri cate stained-glass windows.

Then on to La Conciergerie where many of those, including Marie-Antoinette, were sent to await their fate at the guillotine. Then a half hour in the rain huddled together under an umbrella that threatened to escape, to climb the vertiginous stairs up the towers of Notre Dame cathedral. Even the announcement that the very top was closed owing to the blustery winds did not bother us and we had an excellent view of both gargoyles and the wider expanses of Paris though the Eiffel Tower was hidden in the clouds and mist.

After a quick late lunch at BHV we took a chance on the Louvre. I am almost ashamed to say I have never really been. I have been to the booking hall before it achieved its full magnificence beneath the pyramid but no further. The weather had broken and the late sunshine cast a fabulous light on the stonework of the building. The pyramid, perhaps Mitterand's best legacy, juxtaposed against the palace works superbly. I marvel each time I see it. Of course we often forget that in fact, in terms of architecture, it is the palace which is the more modern.
We "jumped the queue" or rather we chose not to join the 200 odd standing like sheep at the main entrance but found instead a group entrance through which we passed in something under 2 minutes or whatever it took to be scanned. There wasn't time to do much so we felt we had to go and see the obvious ie the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. No need to describe either but what really impressed me was the building itself. It is astonishing! One gallery is almost half a kilometre long!

Later we emerged via the pyramid to see the moon through the glass before strolling via the Tuileries gardens towards the Champs Elysee where we took the Métro home. A wan looking little boy of maybe 2 or 3 carrying his precious cuddly rat arrived in the carriage in a pushchair. Max wanted to steal the rat. I saw myself many years ago a serious slightly sickly child. I experienced the hurt of another papa pang, but that is for another time.

On Monday following lunch in the 15th with Max's (ex)-Uncle (can you divorce your uncle?) - an entertaining raconteur with tales of the occupation and general condemnation of political figures and politics today, we walked back to Printemps to take photos of the lights and to admire the window displays.

We sadly failed to achieve our main mission whilst à Paris, which was to find somewhere that stocks the exceedingly delicious Poulain chocolate spread. Once tasted you realise that Nutella really is for kids.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Paname! On y va!

Let the drizzle drizz. Let the wind blow. Let the temperatures tumble. For this week we are headed for Paris.

Without being disrespectful to the splendours on a smaller scale that make up the fine flemish city of Lille, I have to eulogize a little about a city with which I have been smitten since first I visited it almost 30 years ago.

There is something about that city that immediately evokes an array of different images all of them lending themselves to be photographed, painted or captured in some way. I was surprised to put it mildy to discover that the reconstruction of the French capital was in part influenced by Napoleon the Third's exile in London during the 1840s and his goal to modernize and improve sanitation as much as it was deter revolution via the barricaded medieval streets. Haussman's work is still very much in evidence and gives a grandeur, a magnificence which makes Paris, for me at least, a majestic and impressive city in a way that London is not. There is a congruence about Paris which by its very lack makes London equally fabulous albeit differently.

So, back to the long weekend. Not having had a break since a week away in June last year when we went to Marrakesh, this is a long-awaited trip. Long planned too as I successfully acquired TGV celebratory tickets back in September and so the travel is cheap as is, as ever, the accommodation generously offered by Max's aunt and godmother. The sight of the Eiffel Tower from the flat always always moves me for some inexplicable reason. To think the Parisiens, or parigots, of the time detested the iron structure and looked forward to its early demolition.

Our time coincides nicely with the first Sunday of the month when many of the museum's and galleries are free. I have to confess that I have never really visited the Louvre apart from a 5 minute foray into the foyer once. It always seems so busy and I cannot bear crowded museums. Probably not much hope then this time as tout le monde et son chien will be trying to get in.

I have booked a show though. It is a bit of a surprise for Max. Inexpensive at only 14€ a ticket , and very much off whatever the parisian equivalent of Broadway is, the piece is entitled "Piaf, une vie en rose et noir" and is described as a play with music. A trifle obvious perhaps but whose voice captured the essence of Paris more than Edith?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Internecine Strife

Only last week the Parti Socialiste (PS)voted for Ségolène Royal as their official candidate for the presidency in the elections which take place in April 2007. This put an end to months of speculation and brought the French presidency within the grasp of a woman for the first time.

Despite her convincing win with over 60% of the votes cast in a 80% poll and the margin between her and the other two candidates being some 40 points, there will, it seems, be a period of manoeuvering whilst the big names of the Parti Socialiste attempt to put themselves behind their candidate whilst also establishing some clear blue water between themselves and Madame Royal's iconoclastic approach to politics. They simply cannot understand why and how this political "lightweight" has swept all before her.

There are three battles going on in this presidential campagne. That between the two main candidates Ségo and, although yet to be annointed, Sarko and then the internal struggles in both the PS and the UMP of which Sarkozy is president.

Neither party can believe that the are have arrived at a position where the preferred candidate is one whose main attraction is the ability to bring in the popular vote without slave like adherence to the party doctrine. It is almost as if everything that has been agreed between the great and the good of each party has been sidelined. There is fury that Sarko is being seen as a shoo in and rather unsubtle reminders are appearing that the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) is more than just Petit Nicolas as the diminutive Interior Minister is, not necessarily kindly, dubbed.

In a land where people actually appear to think for themselves and philosophising is still a popular past-time indeed a way of life the fact that none of the other potential candidates (including the current president) would appear to have an ice-cube's chance in hell of even getting into the second round of the election doesn't seem to have fazed the furious elite of the main right wing party. Would they put up a spoiling candidate and, inevitably, lose the presidency to Ségo rather than see Sarko victorious. Nothing would surprise me.

Perhaps in the past the oligarchy that runs France could have relied on votes because of their status but now things appear to be changing: the call for change is growing and there is an expectation that the new president will make a real difference and reverse the gloom the French are feeling.

It amuses me to see that the greatest dinosaur of them all, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front far right party, or maybe he IS the party as they too appear to be suffering from internal struggles, has convinced himself that his time could be coming and that he will be in the second round of the election. He appeared on television the evening of the PS candidate election and I have only one word of advice for him: don't. He appeared old, old-fashioned, bumbling, disagreeable. Politics have moved on and the past is not on the agenda. He might well bring change but not the change that the vast majority of the French want.

The mere fact of being a woman seems to represent change in itself and for that reason many are considering their vote. Perhaps reflecting what happened in the UK in 1979 although then the Labour government had seen its popularity all but disappear in the wake of union strife and the winter of discontent.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pleased not to Pineapple Punch

November is birthday month for us. Both Max's parents, my mother, his aunt/godmother, my young aunt, his grandfather's widow, my oldest nephew, my brother-in-law and assorted friends ALL celebrate their anniversaire in the month of November.

Being in Rumaucourt this weekend reminded me of the "treat" we are missing out on now that we have moved to Lille. Jean-Michel, Max's papa, owns and runs the village shop in Oisy-le-Verger, a few kilometers, wisely, from where they live. This Thursday evening once the shop closes at 19.00, he and maman will repair to the stockroom where , with all those associated with the business (helping, cleaning etc) they will gather around a trestle table on an assortment of chairs.

Then begins the imbibing of the Pineapple Punch. Martine brings this, her speciality, in a big saucepan, the kind with two side handles.

Now said cocktail could have the potential to be extremely quoffable, indeed fun. A drop of rum perhaps. Let me assure you that it is not. The recipe is very short and to the point: take a bottle of inexpensive sparkling white wine, add the contents of one tin of pineapple chunks. Done.
Somewhere along the line some ingredients have surely been forgotten, removed on purpose for whatever reason. The resulting concoction is as drinkable as it sounds. All sit around in happy mode - this is a birthday celebration after all - and accept a glass of Pineapple Punch, even daring to request not too much fruit. Can anything with such obvious "lumps" in ever be good?
Ladle into glasses and "enjoy".

Monday, November 13, 2006

How much a vote?

Being a Brit abroad in the EU I have the right to vote in local and EU elections here in la belle France. I don't, however, have the right to vote in the general nor presidential elections. Rightly so as I am not a French citizen. So that leaves me the option of registering to vote in UK general elections as a non-UK resident Brit.

Not a problem. Except in order to register there is a form to complete, a form which has to be witnessed and signed by another British passport holding non-UK resident.

Right. I don't know any such person in Lille indeed I don't personally know any other British passport holding non-UK residents in France. I know some French people but that is it.

Possible solution, or so I though, would be to contact the British Consulate in Lille and ask if it would be possible for them to help ie to do the deed for me. A speedy response to my email of enquiry came winging back with their response.

They are able to help but for the statutory fee of 30€. Hang on a mo'. That doesn't sound right. So, I have to pay for a British official to sign my application to be registered as an overseas voter? Isn't that so close to a Poll Tax as to be, a... Poll Tax? Since when have we had to pay for the vote? Since being a rich person somehow qualified you to make national decisions perhaps?

I gave it a little thought - not much you understand - and made a decision. Based on the probability of there not being a general election any time before 2009 why should I rush into registering? The likelihood of finding another willing Brit abroad is good.

I subscribe to an internet site for expats (grimace), called Total France . It is excellent for requesting information and advice about living in France as a Brit and I posed the question of whether paying for this Consular service was appropriate. The responses were few in number and mostly offers to sign for less €€€. The question was raised whether having left the UK one should have or indeed be interested in having the vote still. Since I am not thus enfranchised in France then I think the answer should still be oui, or, more appropriately yes. Were I to be offered the opportunity of voting in (probably) Ségo or Sarko then I might well be tempted to relinquish the right.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

On se tutoie?

It's Wednesday and day three of our shower room installation. All is looking well though the room itself will require decorating and flooring indeed the ceiling is rather temporary too! Having plumbers in the house has been a bit of a challenge. How does one behave with total strangers having the run of one's home? Huddled up against the cold (the heating has not yet hove onto the horizon I sit with my computer in the kitchen on constant alert that they may at any moment ask me a question or need something from me. Indeed this has happened already on a number of occasions so I am less concerned about it now though I still have one concern. Vous or tu? Using vous is not unfriendly, merely respectful. Then again tu seems better with the younger one who must still be in his teens and wouldn't expect formality from someone very much his senior. Luckily I have not had to tempt a tu with the older one - though probably not more than late 20s - as it is the lad who does all the running around and otherwise they are together and I can vouvoyer with no risk at all.

Monsieur Le Chauffagiste was supposed to meet us on Monday evening to bring us up to date with progress and to give us a tentative start date for the installation of our gas central heating. He didn't show and since then has not replied to our calls and voicemail messages. What to think? Probably not a lot though it seems increasingly unlikely that he is going to turn up any time soon. Brrrrrrr.

One result to report which sadly does not bode well for the heating. We arranged a service call for our water softener after months of moaning to anyone who would listen that the blimmin' thing doesn't seem to have made any perceptible difference. Anyway Monsieur L'Adoucisseur determined that the evacuation pipe was too small and that the thing has regenerated but once since it was installed back in June. It should have happened on average once a week. So the upshot is that we have been enjoying water as hard as before. No wonder I couldn't get much foam out of my shampoo. All fixed now and working with noticeable results. Downside is that the person who fitted the device originally is also the person who is supposed to be fitting our central heating...

PS Saturday morning. The shower leaks

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pulling yourself together

It has been a while since my last pseudo philosophical musing and so I am going to allow myself some further pondering in this post.

Have you ever noticed how attached we become to everyday things and everyday actions? We tend always to do certain things in the same way and not because that is the best way but because that is the way we have done it for a long time. I guess that is what we call habit. Well I fell into a habit recently and only when I started to question it did I realise that therein was a worthwhile lesson for me to have and to share.

It concerns the curtains in the main bedroom. There are two large window separated by perhaps a metre of wall, and the curtains are in pairs in other words a pair for each window. Inconsequently they are in a sort of swirly endpaper patterned material bought years and years ago in Alders in Croydon.

I digress. The curtains are hung on rails and have a pulley type open/close system via a loop of string. Both strings happen to hand down in the centre between the windows. For weeks I would attempt to choose the right strings to open the curtains in the morning so that with a simultaneous pull of both the curtains would swish open. I also, somehow, managed to persuade myself that if I succeeded in doing this then it would be a good day. In other words what I was doing was setting myself up to fail albeit on a very minor and insignificant task. If one set opened and the other did not then the day would be OK. If both remained stubbornly closed then, well, let's just say it was unlikely to be a red letter day.

One day last week, as usual I had made the bed and went to open the curtains , the very minor revelation occurred to me that in fact I should be looking at this in a much more positive way. If neither curtain opened then I had the opportunity to try again and the likelihood was quite high that I would succeed before very long, if one set opened then I had at least half succeeded and only had half the task to complete, and if both sets slid open then let there be light!

The point of this little fable is that we very often focus almost exclusively on our failures, on the things that didn't turn out quite right or were for some reason a disappointment. Far better to look for and to enjoy the successes in our lives that are there simply waiting to be noticed.

Did you hear the joke about the man who went to the doctor saying he felt like a pair of curtains..... Of course you did.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bureaucracy is a French word

Is it really over 2 weeks since I last put fingertip to keyboard and punched out a few words for this blog? Apparently so. Since then autumn has really set in though kindly and gently and the maple tree in the garden is now totally red, yellow and gold. With a puff of wind the leaves tumble and I try and scoop them out of the pond at least once a day before they sink to the bottom and turn into something rather less attractive. In the interval my translation work rather dried up, probably because my supplier got cold feet when she discovered I was not registered for TVA and so she couldn't recover 19,6% of my fees. Had I been charging VAT of course my charge per word would have been the bargain of the century but then again -given the excellence of my work (cough) - it already is! I have had one more document this week extolling the various wonders of Dunkirk a little too lyrically methinks to bear much relation to the truth, but then again the French language is somewhat more flowery than modern day English and part of the job of the translator is to work out what the hell they really mean. Also our friends Nick and Hamid (our second set of Civil Partners) were with us till this afternoon. We must be doing something right as everyone so far has professed to enjoying our home, our company and indeed Lille. They had a day in Paris - or at least a few hours given the drive there and back - and checked out the wonderful Swimming Pool Museum (thanks Alan H). So what about bureaucracy? We received another of those dreaded recorded post letters from the town hall in Lille yesterday. Monsieur L'Architecte de la Mairie doesn't like our new windows and wants us to change our project (not realising that our windows are made and ready to be fitted). He wants us to reinstate the upper lights on the ground floor windows, hide the very small housing for the roller shutters and,this is the best bit, have the windows in an unspecified dark colour. The window company first said they would obtain any necessary permissions, then changed their minds to say that none were needed. We thought we had better do the right thing and the window company nevertheless went ahead and made the windows. We are at stalemate. We only wish the architect would come and see the street. It is a hotchpotch of styles and changes over the last 100 years, and yet the great and the good who make these decisions (based on the town architect's recommendations) must think it is a quasi conservation area full of quaint little workers' dwellings which should be preserved for our patrimoine. Our proposals are inoffensive, neutral and improve the aspect of the house and yet we are penalised for bothering to go by the book. Despite the fact that our new windows would look almost identical to those in the house opposite we have been given a very CDGaullian "Non". The window company have "never heard" of the regulations to be found in the Lille Urban Plan. Right. They want to go and argue the toss with M. L'Architecte. We want him to too! Watch this window...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lille 3000

Struggled not to attempt an excruciating pun for the title of this post and - you will be glad - gave it up as a bad thing. Last Saturday evening saw the inauguration of Lille 3ooo a three-month festival of all things Indian/Asian in the metropolis. I had questioned the reasoning behind the decision wondering what relevance it had but once I discovered that Lille 3000 is to be a biennial event with a different theme each time I was more than open to its possibilities.

Taking coals to Newcastle came to mind as friend Hamid was with us, a Bangladeshi for whom we had to promise heaven and earth in order that he would be granted a visa to visit us.

Throughout the festival there are elephants standing some 6 metres high (20ft if you must) along the Rue Faidherbe running from Gare Lille Flandres to the Place du Théâtre. They stand majestically, in pairs facing each other, a dozen of them forming proud "trumphal" (there got one in) arches. The station itself is illuminated like some brilliant temple, as is the La Voix du Nord building in the Grand' Place.
Admittedly we did have to wait well over an hour but when the parade arrived it was superb and more than made up for the wait. The air was autumnal but not cold and we could see fire and coloured smoke moving intriguingly towards us in the Rue Nationale. Then suddenly the incessant chatter was masked by the noise of the procession which swept passed,
litterally swept though with fire, falla giants, over 1000 dancers, musicians and singers. The air was filled with spice and incense and the night throbbed to a Bollywood beat.

We took our time to walk back up towards where the parade had started in order to see the elephants in all their nighttime glory, bedecked in glowing jewels.

Of course there were some negative feedback on the local paper's website opinion page on Monday, but we thought it a huge success and hope that the standard is now set for the rest of the season. More information can be found on the Lille 3000 dedicated website.
Final photo courtesy of La Voix Du Nord.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A nice little earner

How swiftly fortunes can change... Only two days ago it seemed as if I was staring at, at least, a very steep incline if not a sheer cliff face and then yesterday, plaff I was dropped straight back into the world of work and earning a few sous.

The translation work I was half hoping for didn't arrive but a whole PowerPoint presentation did and then another 5 documents for translating today. My neck and back are absolutely rigid. Now I must make the effort to get myself properly registered as a travailleur indépendant at URSAAF, bite the bullet and accept that they will want the bulk of what I might earn. Hence the little

Gorgeous card arrived from Clara Bo today - only 2 days in the delivering unlike the English teachers' resource book which arrived yesterday one day short of 6 weeks to cross the Sleeve: by pigeon relay perhaps?! Back to the card. The message on the front said that friends are the people who know you and still like you. How true. We often speak of people as friends but they are no more than acquaintances as we know very little about them and/or they haven't volunteered information.

Now what shall I make for dinner....

Monday, October 02, 2006

Off colour but in the pink?

Today is a non-day, a was it really worth getting up at all kind of day. Or at least it was. Max was called to work to cover for a sick colleague and we had said goodbye to the last of a run of guests so I really did have the house to myself and I am feeling pre-cold or lurgyish. Add to that the first really poor autumnal weather we have had - apart from in august! - following a record-breaking september.

For some reason, maybe because the frustrations of bureaucracy, and especially the self-employed kind were close to the front of my mind, perhaps because the juicy prospect of some translation work was being dangled in front of me - yet to materialise - and I realised I might have some difficultly in getting paid as I have yet to register as self-employed. Two reasons: I have no work, and I would be expected to pay a minimum amount of cotisations even without an income. Or so it seems.

So I accessed Ségolène Royal's blog (the favourite for the socialist party's nomination as presidential candidate), and strung together a few - I hope - pithy comments on the burden put on self-employed individuals in France. Rather like picking the fruit before it has formed let alone before it has matured the state takes so much more than it gives entrepreneurs. It offers them little in the way of support but expects them to take care of themselves when their contributions are enabling so many other people to continue to enjoy very generous state benefits and unemployment benefit. How can a one-person operation be expected to do this well before the income they derive from their hard work even reaches the overall average?

I suspect Ségo may have some sympathy but how much? The top discussion theme on her blog was about encouraging all salaried employees to join a union...

Then Clare, whose fleeting weekend with us ended only yesterday morning, created another beautifully crafted post on her blog - Lemon Soul - painting me in colours I don't always see but should perhaps try to discern more frequently. It certainly gave me a well-needed boost. How true though that it is often our friends and close ones who are able to see the real us, to pierce the self-doubt and misgivings, to spot the ability and the potential in us. Or at least to give us the affirmation that we need.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Food and le fin d'été

Apart from a 3 day window the last 18 days have been marked by visiting friends and the indian summer that was so longed for to counterbalance the misery of August. As I type a shower or rain falls outside but any rain we have had over that period was not enough to diminish the positive effect of the warmth and sunshine we have enjoyed nor to penetrate the guest bedroom where a bowl stands ready. Repairs have been scheduled and soon we should feel, once more, feel confident under the protection of our tiles.

We have discovered: another good restaurant, Le Melting Pot; the Jardin de Plantes where, although the roses were past their best, the dahlias impressed yet we couldn't quite determine whether the orangerie was accessible or not; the museum of art and industry at Roubaix, known as La Piscine and indeed realised in a 1930s public swimming pool.

Food is always a favourite area of conversation and of activity when Clare is around and her nutritional needs a small but interesting challenge. I had thought of preparing a salad of endives with pomegranate before receiving her gift of pomegranate molasses - a bit of a coincidence - and look forward to preparing perhaps the dish she recently offered friends at a feast to inaugurate her new flat and soon to be fabulous new life, see Lemon Soul in the Links. None of us could come up with a blue goat cheese but sheep was also fine and we went a-hunting only to finally be reminded by the charming woman on the cheese counter at Auchan that, of course, Roquefort, part of French fromage royalty, is made with sheep's milk; a chunk of deliciously creamy yet tangy Roquefort was duly purchased. The salad of endive, beansprouts, pomegranate jewels and Roquefort looked wonderful, tasted divine and was simplicity itself to prepare.

Whilst on the same shopping expedition - for food porn as Clare will have it - we were seduced by moules from Mont St Michel and so we bought a couple of kilos and the requisite simple but flavoursome ingredients with which to achieve a good Moules Marinières. This was a big thrill as I have not prepared mussels for many years and certainly not in France ever. Yesterday evening we were à deux at the kitchen sink cleaning and sorting them and noting the blueness of their small shells. Clare did the lion's share of the chopping - celery, shallots, garlic - I added carrot and fresh deep green parsley, and soon the pot was full and the mussels burgeoning. We allowed ourselves a little self-applause agreeing that the final dish was amongst the best moules we had ever eaten.

The shells are sitting just outside the back door waiting to be washed and crushed for the garden.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A wall of lights

We collected our dear friend Margaret from the Brussels Sud airport ie Charleroi. It was a suprise as we had supplied her with instructions about getting the shuttle bus to Brussels Midi train station and from there picking up a Eurostar to Lille, or at least that is what she thought she would be doing. When we looked at the map we realised it was only an hour away by car and that the route was straightforward. So we borrowed the diesel from mamanpapa and found our way there. It still intrigues me every time we cross over a european border in the Schengen area: only weeds and dirty windows, no border police and customs people. What a huge step forward for europe and its peoples, one that is taken for granted by some and probably not realised by many in the UK as it is not included in the Schengen area.

Margaret is a very special lady. She brings love, warmth, calm and learning with her. In the incredibly short week that she spent with us we managed to fit in two sessions of reflexology each, plus one for maman, learned all about emotional freedom techniques including tapping and EmoTrance (see Passion for Health) sprouted all the beans I could find that had been lurking in my impromptu larder ever since an overenthusiastic visit to Planet Organic, made fresh juices and nut butter, drank champagne, played cards and had a superb meal at Le Compostelle This is now our favourite restaurant closely followed by La Cave aux Fioles.

How we also managed to fit in the visit to Max's parents, a day in Bruges (only 45 minutes away from us), a stroll around the citadelle and a visit to Lille zoo - , plus a morning at Ikea, I shall never know.

She wanted to buy us something for the house and we were unsure about what would be - suitable until I remembered Natures et Découvertes a heavenly shop full of things you could buy for other people and indulgences for yourself. I narrowed it down to three things: a machine that produces a soothing array of background noises such as waves on a shore, the sound of spring rain, summer evening insects and also emits wafts of essential oils at the same time, then there was the salt crystal lamp, then the wrought iron screen holding 36 coloured glass tealight holders. Max made the final decision and the latter won. It is now standing in the corner of our sitting room next to the fireplace. When the candles are lit they give off a kind, warming light and shine magically.

All too soon 7 days had flown by and we were saying a slightly choked goodbye at Lille Europe as Margaret took the TGV to Paris CDG and thence to Leeds-Bradford. Come back soon!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Voting all over the place.

Last Friday we made a small but meaningful step in our transition when we registered to vote in Hellemmes-Lille. There are differences between us in that Max as a french national is entitled to vote in all elections whereas I am only able to vote in local and european polls. Equally I am entitled to register to vote in UK general elections though I need to find a fellow registered Brit to sign my form and it appears that UK democracy is held hostage to the post as voting forms are sent out anything between a week and 3-4 days before the election day. Quite how that equates with 3 days to get to France and 3 days to be received back in the UK I am not certain but ther seems to be a major chance of my vote not being allowed.

It is somewhat academic in any case as none of the main parties attracts currently. Blair will have quit and his replacement will probably be the - suddenly - jovial Mr Brown. I cannot take David Cameron seriously, not because he is younger than I, but because he appears to be attempting to bestride so many bandwagons at once he is in serious danger of doing himself a real mischief. He has been compared with a younger Blair attempting to inject some realism into Tory policies and thus making the Conservatives more electable yet there are two more powerful forces at work over which he has little say. Firstly Labour- or more accurately Blair - has stolen the middle ground and Conservative policy is no longer readily identifiable as different. Secondly, the more likey scenario, should the Tories regain power, is that the Labour government will have been rejected rather than the nice new caring Conservatives fully embraced as the torch carriers to the future.

As a person with much sympathy for the Liberal Democrats I cannot understand the election of the might Ming as leader. Their immediate positive appeal for me has all but disappeared and their chances of bettering their performance reduced unless they benefit from the anti-Labour vote. With three or four years to go before another general election it is more than likely that Mr Campbell will have been replaced by a more youthful and more appealing leader.

It is about leaders. The idea that we don't in truth have a quasi president is clearly wrong. The leader epitomises their party, giving it a face, a voice and a presence. Gerneral elections determine who our next leader is going to be as well as which flavour of government will govern.

This is where other systems differ. Here in France it is more than possible for a president of one political persuasion to preside over a government of a different hue. Interestingly the president appoints the Prime Minister. Currently the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is not even an elected member of the French parliament.

As I am not enfranchised for the presidential elections I feel a sense of independence and thus allow myself , if not a platform, then at least the opportunity, to comment and perhaps to clarify events in the lead up to the election next May.

The key players are as yet unconfirmed yet fixed in the collective mind of the French nation. They are Ségolène Royal for the left (an untidy muddle of socialists whose elegant disagreements give the UK Labour party the air of a marriage made and conducted in heaven), and Nicolas Sarkozy for the right. Neither has yet been annointed though the latter is unchallenged apart from the unlikely event of Chirac's restanding or the aformentioned patrition and unpopular Prime Minister throwing his made-to- measure hat into the ring. I think the right are going to bite the bullet and back the man they have variously hated and feted to continue their current 2 terms in power.

The left is another story. Ségo, as she is called, is equally hated and equally feted though not in quite the same way as enjoyed by her putative presidential opponent. The dinosaurs are lining up to, increasingly less subtly, rubbish this charismatic woman who is so far ahead in the opinion polls that the other supposed contenders are but dots on the horizon. They don't seem to have understood, despite the rout back in 2002, that merely being around for a long time does not give you precedence for a bash at the presidency. This is especially true in today's France where agreement that the winds, if not the gales, of change need to blow and soon. Whether either party has adequate breath to maintain the changes is another matter.

Madame Royal is a woman. Obviously. This immediately makes gives her a disadvantage in a country where being a woman is still very much a lesser occupation than being a man. Whatever politically correct phrases are wafted about? I believe this to be true. Ironically her gender is in equal part an advantage. Her election as president would give the left and politics in France something new, something fresh. But will the behemoths of the Parti Socialiste (PS) make way for the people's favourite or will they patronise them again with a more correct candidate? The polls show that every other potential socialist candidate would suffer defeat by Monsieur Sarkozy; ignominious defeat too. Were they to ignore the popularity of Ségo then that would be a well-deserved defeat and, finally perhaps, the wake-up call that they so badly need.

What of the other socialist candidates? I can expound only on one though it is worth adding that a François Hollande is the partner of some 25 years of Royale. They are unmarried parents to 4 children. They have announced the possibility of a simple marriage but this has not yet happened so there is the potential for an unmarried mother as president with a senior member of her own party as the new belle Bernadette.

Although not officially declared, the big loser in the last presidential election, Lionel Jospin, has made it known that, if called upon, he would be willing to accept the burden of the highest office in the land. The sheer vanity , indeed hubris, of this man is evidence of the distance between the political elite and the electorate. He, along with the rest of his colleagues, lacks what Ségolène Royal has in spadesful ie the common touch.

Just as the British monarchy could not understand the appeal of a certain princess who had not been tested over long rigorous years in the correct way of being properly royal, just as they balked, horrified, against her contribution and assimilating her attempts to modernise the institution (excuse this long sentence), the PS risk alienating themselves and their chances. By doing "the right thing" the left may be left behind again.

The thrill of being right - but not always.

Today, very early, in fact over breakfast, I learned that I should have more faith in myself and my knowledge and abilities. I learned that there is little to be gained by not standing up for what I know to be correct. Indeed I realised that I had crossed a rubicon in my ability in speaking another language.

It all started on Friday evening when I checked in to the indispensable website and forum for Brits and English speakers in France, A bit of a debate was rumbling on about how to request someone slow down their over-enthusiastic delivery so that they might be better understood. I volunteered voulez-vous parler un peu moins vite svp but was shot down in flames by the next contributor who told me point-blank that I was using the wrong verb. I attempted to explain and offered an example in English knowing from my training as a teacher of English as a second language that there is much confusion between can/could/would even for many native English speakers. They were having none of it and insisted that I was wrong.

I have always used vouloir to indicate a polite half imperative request eg if you would like someone to do something for you, rather than tell them to do it you ask if they would like to do it, thus voulez-vous fermer la porte? It seems that the everyday simplification of English has made its contribution here as pouvoir was favoured as in pouvez-vous fermer la porte? ie Can you close the door? Can, of course, questions the person's ability eg if their arms are full they may not be able to comply with this apparent request. Better by far is could you close the door and, by implication, for me, and even better, would you close the door for which the French voulez-vous fermer la porte although literally do you want to close the door is a better everyday translation.

So, Sunday morning I had almost forgotten about this minor linguistic spat when Max reminded me that I should speak to his aunt who, before retirement, was a French teacher. His parents asked why and as soon as we started to explain they both agreed, indeed vociferously, that vouloir is absolutely correct in this context.

I allowed myself a microsecond of smugness but am now basking in the warmth of knowing I can rely a little better on myself.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Moules moules moules

We have just experienced our first Braderie. The whole of the central part of Lille is filled with c ten thousand stalls selling bric-a-brac from "antiques" to car boot clutter and commercial wares. The city was rammed with the 2 million extra visitors expected to dawdle (the fastest walking speed achievable) along checking out the bargains.
We were able to share the weekend with good friends Tiff (of Paris semi-marathon fame in this blog) and Stuart who eurostarred over and took part in the Lille Semi Marathon on Saturday morning. Lending support to our two athletes was no easy task and we scuttled from one vantage point to another to wave and shout encouragement. They finished in just under and just over two hours which is a RESULT!!!! It was an incredible sight seeing something over 3000 runners set off on their 21.1 km course taking in much of central Lille but thankfully not too many of the cobbled streets. The results show that 3413 finished race.
Again, having visitors meant we got to see parts of the city we have never seen before. The old town is a veritable maze of street and I always go wrong somewhere.
It is traditional to eat moules frite at the Braderie so we duly queued outside Aux Moules and let them add our empty shells to the mounting pile outside. The idea is to have the biggest pile of shells of all the restaurants. I think it is obvious from the top picture that Aux Moules had a very good chance. Thankfully though the weather outdid all expectations and was occasionally really pleasant, it was never so hot as to give rise to a nasty old mussels smell. Certainly the heavy rain was nowhere to be seen and most restaurants made good use of the extra outdoor seating they had arranged.
Having seen Stu and Tiff off at Lille Europe we had a final wander around the stalls. I was disappointed, though not surprised, at the amount of litter and debris around. Inevitable I suppose when bins are at a premium and people are not always as considerate as they could be. The cleaners worked all night and by Monday morning everything was fresh and clean again.

It seems as if we won't be having a late cheap holiday as Max is not entitled to any paid leave at all for the rest of 2006. He is apparently earning it now and will have the grand total of 14 days to take throughout 2007. Just another area where the state interferes and lays down how many and how and when etc. It is just the way it is and now my incredulity has dissipated a little I can cope with it just as I am learning to cope with the ludicrous over-the-top and quadruplicated bureaucracy that is the norm in France. Bof!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sitting on roofs, kicking off moss, and using rubber paint.

Just had one of those freaky moments when you feel as if you have been close to another dimension in time. I took a t-shirt out of the wardrobe in the bedroom and carried it across to where the dressing room will be, then it disappeared. There was no-where for it to have gone and I had taken it nowhere else. It just vanished into thin air. I looked in places I knew I hadn't gone and under things I had not picked up, down the side of things and even in another drawer. Either I imagined it, or I thought I had seen this particular garment and neglected to actually take it from the wardrobe, or it has slipped into another dimension. I am feeling a bit phased by the experience. On revisiting the site of this "paranormal" occurrence I obviously found said pice of apparel almost immediately. It had simply slipped off what I had temporarily placed it on and I hadn't remembered. Am I losing it?!

Feeling slightly agrophobic too. Guess my confidence is at a bit of a low ebb this afternoon, today, this week, recently. Exacerbated by the fact that I might have to speak in a language which is not my own, I am not drawn to going out on my own. It isn't that I cannot or do not, nor that I cannot communicated with success when I try but I think I am avoiding it.

Maybe I am just going a little mad?

More practically I had not realised what a range of products there was available to mend one's roof. I ventured out with Max to our local Castorama (it is a bit like B&Q) this morning. Our kitchen roof has sprung a leak and we think we have pinpointed the source to an existing repair where there is a crack in the cement and fibre corrugated panels. It isn't a very glamorous roof covering I have to admit. We settled on some rubberized paint stuff that sounds miraculous were one to believe the side of the tin. We shall be more than happy if it works and then gets us through the winter. Pic somewhere around here if the loading thing works. Scraped off a whole load of moss too, hence the title. addendum - it rained during the night and now the leak has moved along the panel - rats!!!

Well at least it hasn't rained today, yet. My mood is not improved by the weather which has been less than kind for the last two weeks I think. I ventured into the garden on our return with a new garden saw which, of course, I had to try out. Amazing, and only 3,99€ in Lidl. Several additional branches have literally bitten the dust in preparation for letting in the sunshine should it every return in any appreciable quantity.

Have done some "work" ie put some time and effort into getting paid work but my heart is not yet in it. I have been without any income for almost a year now and I have to do something about it. Waiting on the possibility of perhaps the prospect of maybe some occasional work or not with the tourist office in Lille. Should be doing some 1-2-1 english teaching with one and possibly two students both at "friends" rate. If I smoked it wouldn't be enough to keep me in fags for a week.

Of course one of the benefits of blogging this is that I have released it into the world and it is no longer wholly mine, but is shared by the handful of kindly - or misguided - souls who read this virtual diary of mostly nonsense and occasional lucidity.

Suggestions welcomed!

PS have switched to Blogger beta but the photo upload function is as dodgy as ever. Tried for the nth time and no luck.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What shall we bring?

Our guests invariably ask us what we would like brought from the UK and, just as invariably, I can't bring to mind anything that we really want. So, on our recent visit, prompted by the birth of niece, Savannah, I made a list of stuff we either cannot get in France, haven't yet sourced here or have found but appreciably more expensive. Quite an odd combination of things:

  • walnut pieces - not halves, we can get those but, of course, they are pricey whereas the bits are much cheaper and mostly what I use
  • vege-gel - or some kind of non-meat gelatine. I would probably avoid as anything like that has rarely worked for me and I have memories of gorgeous veggie terrines made with agar agar, which, when extracted from the mould would gracefully spread all over the plate.
  • Marmite - the perennial favourite, of some, and although purchasable here it is about twice the price.
  • Marmite biscuits - A&Ps fault as we had not come across them before, and they kindly brought some with them but, trust me, they are fantastic.
  • Maldon salt - for Max's papa.
  • Salad sprinkle - a mixture of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts from Holland and Barrett.
  • oat cakes - preferably rough and organic!
  • porridge oats - Sainsbury Taste the Difference whole rolled ones
  • soy sauce
  • acqueous cream - great for general use and fab for feet.

I couldn't resist selecting the photo to accompany this post. Savannah is 2 weeks old today. Bon Anniversaire, chérie! We had an all-too-short time in the UK. Savannah was obviously the highlight but getting to see three nephews too was wonderful, as was seeing all the Grantham-based family, and, briefly, some good friends in London as we passed through yesterday afternoon.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

PMA, quotations and a new niece.

We are in the UK over the next few days, primarily to see our new niece, Savannah. Looking at the weather forecast I see that we won't be escaping the coldwave that has locked itself into northern France. The temperatures during the day are less than they were during the night only a couple of weeks ago.

Flicking on the PMA* switch, that means that my window boxes and hanging basket won't die whilst we are away!

In our absence a few quotations.

When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago
- Friedrich Nietzsche.

Ain't that so? However well sorted we think we are, we are still the sum total of all our life experiences whether or not we have dealt with them.

There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Listen to it! And drink lots of water too!

The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake - you can't learn anything from being perfect.
- Adam Osborne.

Some more PMA* needed for this. Takes a strong person to see through the moment and realise that even in the negative there is learning and development.

Life isn't a matter of milestones but of moments
- Rose F. Kennedy

Of course it is both milestones and moments but don't live only for the milestones because the moments are more easily attainable,enjoyable etc and sustain us as we move towards the milestones.

* Positive Mental Attitude!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Favourite flip-flops

I found an article about James Blunt (appropriately pronounced Bleughhhhhnt by the French) and emailed it to the wonderful Sir Christof of Rhythmshop - see link on right - who promptly namechecked me and started a bit of a survey to see what irks people.

My contribution was "Dave" Cameron if anyone is remotely interested.

Then I spoke to another very dear friend, and writer of the sublime Lemon Soul, about the best things in life being free. We had a brief chat and agree that actually that is not always true and I suppose it would be truer to say that it is the little things that make you happy, the things that you don't generally notice au quotidien.

Well, my Gap flipflops bought in the sale - the only time to buy Gap clothes which are otherwise extortionately priced - some 3 or 4 years ago, make me very happy. They are more substantial than the average flipflop- thong if you are from the english-speaking southern hemisphere - (Philippe Fauloppe if you are French)- more robust and more durable than your average pair which never seems to last beyond one summer.

Seldom do they wear out as such but the rubber either cracks around the hole through which the retaining bit goes or - as has happened to mine - the retainer thing has come off. I have repaired it three times. The first twice with superglue, which despite claims rarely seems to stick. Now I have reinforced the repair with a small nail to hold the glued pieces which had come adrift.

I am very happy to have them in working order again at least till next time when I may have to accept the inevitable and throw them away. I have spare pairs, though they are not of the same quality. I should have bought two pairs when I had the chance but then I had no idea at the time just how meaningful my footwear would become.

BTW one thing I do not like is to see men wearing flipflops around town. No idea why not but to me they look plain wrong. DON'T DO IT!!

Managed to get a photo under the wire for this posting! What the heck is wrong with the Add Image function at the moment?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Quarter past nine and still 30C!

The windows are open in an effort to persuade even the feeblest breeze to make a welcome detour through the house. The back doors are open wide inviting in whatever air might be passing however far from fresh it may be. For some reason today feels as if it should have been the hottest day so far during this period of exceptional weather and yet it fell short of the record set last week but a few degrees. Perhaps we have reached and gone beyond the point where our bodies can deal with this heat?

At least we don't have a hosepipe ban so every other day but only twice a week - I use a watering can when I feed the plants - I give the most recent plantings and the container plants a good soaking. Strangely I have not heard any other hoses being employed and I am wondering why.

The frogs were back to their full complement of 3 today and all were basking side by side alongside the pond. Just as I cannot imagine gnawing at one of the limbs of, for instance, a lamb, I can no more imagine devouring the back legs of a frog. I did once many years ago and it is true it does taste a bit like chicken. That said why don't people eat chicken instead? The plastic bags of frozen froggy legs - or cuisses as they are called - look pathetically sad in the deep freeze at Auchan. I can never stop myself from wondering if there are retirement homes for amputee frogs with little prosthetic back legs. So sad...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fish gotta swim!

I seem to be on a bit of lyrical roll currently, but never fear, I am not going to wax, lyrically or otherwise, in this posting about any messages in Showboat. Today my thoughts are with patience and again I have been inspired by the garden or more specifically, by the pond.

There it lies all green and murky and not particularly inviting. We were told that fish lurked somewhere within though we had never seen any sign of anything pescatorial. It is the home to three very patient and diligent frogs. They sit either on a small ledge, or on the side, or with their heads just above the surface of the water and wait. They wait all day. They wait for the possibility of a fly who might chance by and whom they might, if they are quick enough, lasso with great dexterity with their incredibly long tongues.

One found its way into the house last week. It tried to press itself into the brickwork in corner of the hallway certain no doubt of its imminent demise at the hands of the giants towering over it - though more accurately Max was more a tremble at a safe distance. Scooped into a plastic containter and repatriated, it does not appear to have repeated the trek since.

A short while ago I concluded that the supposed fish(es) were a figment of the previous owners' imaginations as we had seen not a fin. I imagined that should they - or it - have shifted its domicile to the great pond in the sky, then its last mortal remains would have come floating to the surface. Then suddenly, last week, I caught a glimpse of something moving in the pond, darting in a very fish-like manner around close to the surface of the, admittedly, green water. It was a fish, just the one fish, but a fish nevertheless.
We anguished for hours as to whether the poor thing had come to the surface to seek the oxygen it no doubt could no longer find at the bottom of the pond. We even looked at pumps in the local DIY stores. But no, it seemed happy enough skimming along. We bought it some v expensive food and today, having not seen Monsieur Carp for a few days, he appeared and - to my enormous pleasure - was eating the food. He likes it! Look he's eating it! I could not have been more delighted had I been an Italian mamma whose family had wiped their dishes clean.

So patience did pay off as it does for the frogs who seem to get by on their occasional fly.

I also heard from LilleTourism today having waited only four months and still I have no firm appointment but at least I shall be seeing a director. Watch this space.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Friends we lost along the way

Bob Marley wrote and sang the evocative lyrics to the song "No woman, no cry", in other words, don't cry for the loss of a friend, and maybe rejoice in what is left behind to us from knowing them.

Of course one person's interpretation of the written word , be it creative or otherwise, is another person's claptrap , yet increasingly I wonder about people who have been in my life and are now no longer part of it. Instinctively I still sense loss and yet I also now realise that often the knowing of those people has left something behind, something valuable, their legacy perhaps woven into the template that is me.

Whether I thought their particular attributes positive or not, and at some time their positive traits would surely have outweighed the negatives, I wonder whether I have avoided befriending similar people since or maybe I just treat people differently now with a little of life's experience behind me: keeping a distance, arms length, kid gloves ...

I have an every growing list of friends who have disappeared into the mist. There are those who no longer walk this earth and those who, without my really knowing why they no longer can or want to be part of my life, have distanced themselves from me, and then of course those whose names I have actively chosen to delete from my address book and about whom I do not fret for lack of contact!

Emma and Stuart, Clare, Matthew Smith, Bill and Geoff, Derek, Liz, Charmayne and Mark etc etc. Where are you?

It is said that we have many friends for now, some for a while and a few for life, and whereas that is undoubtably true, the loss of a friend for whatever reason is not easy to bear. This is especially so for one for whom making friends was a difficult, if not painful, lesson to learn. Put another way it was learning the real value of friends myself and not as a received wisdom: as a child I put all my energies into a few friends, often one at a time, and did not surround myself with mates. Not being obsessed with football and other such activities meant I did not acquire vast cohorts of acquaintances: this was of concern to my late father who, on reflection, I realise was mirroring his own apparent failings.

So celebrate our friends, keep them close and cherish them. They may not be with you for the whole of the way.

Enjoy the memories and the words:

No, woman, no cry;No, woman, no cry;No, woman, no cry;No, woman, no cry.
Said - said - said: I remember when we used to sit In the government yard in trenchtown,
Oba - obaserving the ypocrites As they would mingle with the good people we meet.
Good friends we have, oh, good friends weve lost Along the way.
In this great future, you cant forget your past; So dry your tears, I seh.
No, woman, no cry;No, woman, no cry .ere, little darlin, dont shed no tears: No, woman, no cry. Said - said - said: I remember when-a we used to sit In the government yard in trenchtown. And then georgie would make the fire lights, As it was logwood burnin through the nights.
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge, Of which Ill share with you;
My feet is my only carriage, So Ive got to push on through.
But while Im gone, I mean: Everythings gonna be all right!Everythings gonna be all right! Everythings gonna be all right!Everythings gonna be all right! I said,
everythings gonna be all right-a!Everythings gonna be all right!
Everythings gonna be all right, now!Everythings gonna be all right! So, woman, no cry;
No - no, woman - woman, no cry. Woman, little sister, dont shed no tears;No, woman, no cry.

Monday, July 17, 2006

England 4 - Germany 1

Conscious of the fact that I have not blogged for a fortnight (zut alors!) here is an update on life in Lille. The header is not the score from a recent football match in a well-known tournament but our tally of visitors was augmented over the weekend by an impromptu visit from my cousin Marion from Germany. She drove from Lippstadt (where I was born) in around four and a half hours, underlining the ease with which people can get around on the continent. We don't have a car that would happily do the journey at the moment and getting there by train to return the visit is possible but rather pricey - or maybe it seems that way because we have become used to cheap air travel - at something over 100€ each.

We had a great weekend and were able to show Marion the town in it's best (sun) light and at a time when parts of the centre of Lille are temporarily pedestrianised for the summer. We had lunch on the pavement outside a restaurant in Old Lille (or the Old Lille as they will insist on calling it) and I was reminded how nice it would be to have another income and the ability to treat ourselves like that more often. Note to self - must get on with it! At home we ate outside at every meal starting with one of Max's famous risottos and followed by another outing for our old Delia fave, the warm lentil salad with goat's cheese and rocket.

The garden is looking lighter now that we have pruned back some of the trees and given the plants beneath them a chance. In addition to the three frogs who bask all day long in pond number one, this morning I espied for the very first time a fish! Just the one though, skimming the surface for food probably.

Our friendlier neighbour, Mamy, has given us a pot of jam made with our very own cherries - I printed off some labels using the computer to design a Bonne Mamy label - and also we couldn't get out of acquiring what must be the ugliest chair ever. We are hoping to offload it onto les parents who can then get rid if they find they too detest it!

I don't think I will be able to keep this image here permanently!!! Yuk.
We have covered it with a throw but it still lurks on the top landing and is not much improved.

Have added another link - see right - to Charles Bremner's Paris blog in the Times. Very interesting and well written, take a look.

Expecting 38C on Wednesday. This is le canicule that wiped out so many elderly french two years ago, stuck in their attic rooms unnoticed and forgotten. It was a real wake up call and now at the merest hint of a heatwave we are given information and asked to check on our neighbours. Ours of course just give us their old furniture!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Toujours le temps qui court..

So go the French lyrics to the music many english speakers will know as Could it be magic as variously interpreted by Barry Manilow, Donna Summer and Take That! It was in fact written by Manilow but based on Chopin's Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20. Now, in the french version it tells of how time passes quickly and things change.

It could be the theme tune to my time thus far in France. In the course of almost 8 months I have lived in the countryside with one partner, 2 parents-in-law, 2 dogs, 4 hens and 2 canaries, found and bought a house in Lille, moved into it and am now living in the splendid isolation of being 20 minutes from the centre of a city of some 200000 people in a conurbation of some one million souls. I do not mean to be dramatic nor I intend to mean that I am lonely - far from it. It is early days and not having yet secured any clients for my coaching business means I spend at least half the day alone, though now I have both an internet connection and a phoneline and an office, things can only improve.

There was never any serious expectation in any case that everything would fall into our laps: the cost of alterations and improvements to the house would well exceed the budget we fancifully had, lack of amenities, motivation and communications have held me back from earning a crust, the grindingly slow way in which anything happens in France have given us some frustration, but all will be overcome. None is insurmountable. Some need to be rescheduled.

The possibility of planting lavender in the garden at 1630, looking forward to harvesting the cherries from our own tree, eating a crop of our own strawberries (make that the crop!) have added to the quality of our lives and helped reshape our approach and attitude to everyday living. I noticed on the plans we received yesterday in connection with recovering the kitchen roof, that we have perhaps the third largest garden in the area. Some responsibility!

We have welcomed guests to our humble abode such as it is set in a traditionally industrial quartier which has a good and honest feeling to it. There are troughs and hanging baskets of flowers in the centre of Hellemmes, unspoilt and unstolen. When I think back to the saplings snapped for the drunken fun of it along Wimbledon Broadway I know we have made an excellent choice.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Salad v Leaves, the joys and benefits of words.

This is the meal I have just eaten:

Dressed sliced avocado with tomato
Potato omelette
Mango with soft cream cheese

This is the meal I have just enjoyed:

Ripe slices of avocado and vine tomatoes dressed with lemon and extra virgin olive oil garnished with chives
Spanish tortilla made with red onion and organic eggs served with a salad of oak leaf leaves lightly dressed in a lemon and Dijon mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with roasted seeds
Ripe mango pieces spooned with fromage blanc and finished with a sprinkling of demerera sugar and walnut halves

As they say in the USA, go figure!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Not just a bowl of cherries...

I started writing this post last week but was not pleased with the way it had turned out. It seemed a little preachy, a little proselytising, a bit too touchy feely, even for me. In the interim I have been devouring Alan Bennett's superb collection of recollections and diary excerpts - " Untold Stories", and his writing had given me a push in the right direction. His use of language eg not being afraid to use less than modern constructions, good grammar, anglo-saxon derivations (you know what I mean) when it makes sense to do so, fills me with admiration and is a joy to read. Most of all he writes in a very detailed and yet very economic way. He doesn't get carried away with flowery prose but uses words carefully and for their very specific meaning or specifically for their double entendre. Reading Bennett makes me proud to be an adequate user - of the English language that is - and encourages me to up my game.

So it was I determined to rewrite this piece and to make it less pretentious and more accessible.

Following my sojourn in London, one of the very first things I noticed on my return to Hellemmes, was something noticeably red, or rather obviously red things, half way down the garden. I hurried, indeed precipitated towards cherry tree where its fruit were almost fully ripened indeed some have already cascaded to the ground and lie like so much colourful punctuation in the grass. I found one that appeared to be ready to eat and enjoyed it, not so much for the flavour - OK but nothing fabulous - as the fact that it was from our our tree in our garden.

As I made my way back towards the house, I sensed a superb fragrance in the air the source of which soon became apparent: the honeysuckle had blossomed. I had wondered whether we would have the prolifically flowering kind or the less generously endowed yet more fragrant one. There was no doubt now that this was the latter. I looked around and took time to notice properly the burgeoning geraniums, the cherry tomato plants ladened with maturing fruit, the grace of the new olive tree and the beauty of the hanging basket crammed with petunias, fuchsias, and verbena. In my rush to get to the cherries I had missed these equally wonderful plants.

I wondered to myself how often in my rush to get to the cherries in my life I had managed to to bypass the equally intoxicating perfume of the honeysuckle, and the summer scent of tomato? I promised myself that I would give time to more than just the seemingly important, the most obviously "urgent", and to try to keep everything more in context, to give the positive at least equal billing with the negative.

Life is rarely, if ever, just bowl of cherries and even cherries have stones.

PS Having now spent time harvesting, not only is it really hard work and very difficult, but half of the fruit, despite looking lusciously dark are in fact beginning to rot. Appearances can deceive!

Summer in the city - a visitor in London.

I have recently returned from a few days in London preceded by a day in Brighton attending a family wedding. People seemed rather impressed that I had come "all the way from France" and were taken aback when they found that their journey was in fact longer and more complicated than mine. Total time taken including waiting time, four and a quarter hours. Actual travelling time just under three hours.

Brighton was as belle as I have ever seen it and the crowds not overly spoiling of the atmosphere on the Friday when I arrived. The sun blazed from a cloudless blue sky and I was enjoying myself. My lodgings were with friends close to the station - I was warmly welcomed into their very lovely flat, and the wedding took place amidst the splendours of the Royal Pavillion and then afterwards at the, less salubrious yet more than adequate, Old Ship Hotel.

London was perfect. I had lost much of my love for the capital with the passing years and the frustrations of working and paying the price of living there. Without those ties this glorious city regains its attractions and sees them enhanced when clement summer weather allows for looser, and less clothing and sitting outside eating and passing time with friends.

My grateful thanks to all who welcomed me, gave me shelter, food, drink, company, time, cards and presents - an iminent now passed birthday - and a very welcome plaster, during my sojourn in the city where I had spent the whole of my adult life until last year.

As the Eurostar sped me homewards to Lille I looked forward to getting back to my new reality and confirmed to myself that the reason I had enjoyed London in June so very much was simple: I didn't live there anymore.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wishy Washy

Thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross whose wonderful words were echoed back to me this week with the quotation:

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within”

Now isn’t that so true and wonderfully put?

Perhaps the fact that Blogger is not accepting pictures at the moment brings me to another stained-glass window moment. Not having images to help me bring this piece alive I guess I shall have to work extra hard at making it sing from the page.

As I wait for the weather to break - as surely it must - and the humidity soars, I am reminded how we can find learning in everything if we look hard enough. Indeed, there are many lessons to be drawn from everyday life. For example, I feel there is something of a parallel to be drawn between washing machines and the way in which our lives seem to be set to the fastest possible speed or cycle where everything needs to be done now or sooner and the latest is passé before most of us have had an opportunity to try it out. We bought our new shiny machine some while before moving into the house as I could never imagine not having one, nor going to a laundrette, so, as with dishwashers we consider them to be an absolute necessity. Ours boasts AAA energy features that I don’t understand but imagine to be good for the environment, and a host of programmes that I will most likely never use proudly displayed on a little screen. We just missed out by one model on having a machine that speaks to you! I am rather glad of this though it is fun to imagine quite what it might say to you. Is it advice? Approbation? Information?

If like me you are not very interested in washing machines and only know that you must have one then you probably use the same basic programme nearly all the time and others very occasionally. How like life this is: we do the same things week in week out never making big changes nor learning new things.

I had always assumed the faster the spin setting, the better as it meant a shorter drying time. I was wrong and now I know that clothes need far less ironing when spun at lower speeds. Think “drip-dry” (not that is giving far too many clues to my age). This is a lesson to us all. Rather than take life at a breakneck speed perhaps we should just slow down, take our time and enjoy not developing so many wrinkles! How much nicer is washing and life when done more slowly.

Over to Kate Bush: -
Out of the corner of my eye
I think I see you standing outside
But it’s just your shirt
Hanging on the washing line
Waving its arm as the wind blows byAnd it looks so alive
Nice and whiteJust like its climbed right out
Of my washing machine Washing machine Washing machine

Go on, laugh! I have obviously had too much time away from the real world. However, we are back online with phone connection, TV till it is coming out of our ears – though I seem to have gone off it except for our fave Plus Belle La Vie
We even managed to watch it on this very computer whilst eating pizza yesterday evening thus achieving my wish to always sit at table whilst eating but not missing the goings on at Le Mistral.

Monday, June 05, 2006

In the meantime...more nosh.

Heavens to Betsy a week has passed since my last post! Here I am back in Rumaucourt having escaped the house where I was playing a game of musical rooms (and chairs): it felt as if every time the music stopped there was less space for me to "be" in. The reason is mundane enough ie works continue but on a sporadic basis so it is not worth reinstalling rooms in between. Consequently there is plastic sheeting everywhere and even the garden was out of bounds as the rain continued to fall from a leaden sky.

So to the countryside where there is also an internet connection.

The news on the phone is getting better: we have a line, somewhere. It all seems potentially sooper dooper with access to different options via the internet and the promise of two boxes of jiggery pokery due to arrive any day. We even have a phone number which, interestingly, begins 0870 as it is one we could take anywhere in France were we to move and stay with the same telephony provider. Telephony, now there's an interesting word. I remember the good old days when we just had telephones!

Sadly I cannot share my photos - yet - as I do not have the right cable to download them onto the computer, but yesterday was another gourmet Sunday and this time we spent most of the afternoon outside. Papa was keen on a barbecue and indeed it was the right weather for it. Parasols and sunloungers seemed to fill the courtyard and everything looked very jolly. If you are semi veggie though, BBQs are not your best friend. Luckily I thought about giving a little colour to some large prawns still in their shells as a starter with a v tasty sauce craftily concocted from mayonnaise, cumin, turmeric and lemon juice. Papa was the only person profiting from the charcoal for his main course and sadly the first effort turned into carbon whilst we weren't looking and the second attempt fell on the floor. No idea what it was as meat hold no interest for me, but the dogs did well out of it! the other hand he had put together a most delicious mixture for our main dish which was cod en papillote. On top of the filets, or maybe they were cod loins (whatever they are) he had piled a mixture of soft goat cheese and creme fraiche, and surrounding the fish were diced tomatoes and a medley of different fresh herbs from the garden: thyme, parsley, chives and rosemary. It looked divine (picture to be inserted at a later date) and tasted heavenly. Which is were we came in, thank you Betsy.

Toodle pip for now.

Quick update 11 June - photos (when Blogger lets me) of the fish and the bulgar wheat salad (previously unmentioned and so delicious it was nearly all gone before I could take a photo!).

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Fish 'n' cabbage

Today in France is Fête des Mères, Mothers' Day, interestingly shared only it appears with Sweden, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Whilst having a day to fete mothers is a shared practice around the globe the date itself is not - for more info. The UK and Ireland are the only countries to link the celebration directly to the church calendar.

Max's mother, Renée, is even more deserving than usual this year as she is holding the fort at the village store whilst Jean-Michel convalesces after his back operation. So, Max took over shop duties this morning and I set to work in the kitchen. It has been the loveliest day in a while with only short periods of being overcast but otherwise the sun is shining and warming us beautifully. My mood was lifted and soon I was singing along to the radio and peeling and chopping away. On the menu was, a starter to be concocted, a choucroute aux fruits de mer, and an apple and date crumble.

I am very aware as I type this that I am once again treading on the toes of my great friend and creator of Lemon Soul - a blog not to be missed, see link to the right - but it cannot be helped as in France food is very much linked to everyday life so special events necessarily have added culinary importance.

What a joy it was to cook with gas again - we have those horrible halogen jobbies in the house, soon to be replaced - and it wasn't long before the crumble was in the oven and browning gently. The recipe came from the rather nice site called Chocolate and Zucchini, where Clotilde's enthusiasm for food and cooking are more than compensation for her occasional lapse into american English. Snobbery intended! Call an aubergine an aubergine I say and not an egg plant! By the way, I think I would go for the rubbing in method to produce my crumble next time as it was more a big lump of dough than a crumble once I had whizzed it in the processor.

I wanted to keep the starter simple, not only because this was to be a lunch but also because the main course was going to be rather filling. We didn't manage to find any smoked haddock for the choucroute so cheated by adding some smoked salmon instead and so to four smallish unneeded offcuts I added some succulent slices of cantaloupe melon et voilà, almost instant starter. Melon goes well with Parma ham but for us non meat eaters it goes just as well with the strong taste of smoked fish, especially salmon.

So to the pièce de résistance. The recipe said it was "easy" and on reflection it was not difficult but rather fiddly trying to get everything ready to asssemble at the same time. I shan't go through every process as this is not a food blog, but suffice to say that the fruits de mer included cod fillet, salmon fillet, mussels, big juicy prawns and surprisingly inexpensive langoustines. The latter apparently can be translated as scampi or Dublin Bay prawns. Suffice to say they look spectacular but a good prawn will always get my vote.

The sauce was a concoction of much reduced riesling with the cooking juices from the mussels, cream and butter.

The resultant meal was a success. We contemplated eating outside but occasional cold gusts of wind meant we compromised and drank the rosé cava al fresco but ate inside. I could have done with a bigger dish on which to display the sauerkraut and its garnish in all its glory but it made quite a spectacle in any case.

I think this is going to be one of those halcyon days which you always think you will remember but probably don't. In the end it doesn't matter a lot as it is the enjoyment of the moment that really counts and today is replete with wonderful moments.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Back to the country and connections

A brief explanation of my apparent absence from the blog world. We have been in Lille doing house things and entertaining our first guests. The latter was a most enjoyable experience and we feel a sense of vindication of our decision given favourable feedback on the house and Lille. The weather was, for the most part, attrocious with strong winds and torrential rain.

Still no internet connection and "any day" has stretched into "any week". We have come back to Rumaucourt for a long weekend - today is a national holiday - and Mothers' Day on Sunday, as well as an internet connection.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

At last, wisteria!

From my vantage point in the office at what I am going to call chez nous campagne, I have a perfect view of the wisteria that atops the kitchen door which gives onto the cobbled yard. It is divine. Long delicate grape-like bunches of pale lavender coloured flowers hang delicately amidst the fresh, cool foliage. A wisteria in full bloom never fails to fill me with positive, slightly nostalgic feelings and to improve or further enhance my mood.

I have had an extended relationship with this superb shrub. Fascinated since a visit to Sissinghurst, once the home of Vita Sackville-West, many moons ago, it has been an ambition of mine to possess a wisteria, if such a thing were possible.

Back in 1988 when recently moved to a house in London, SW19, we were given maybe 3 small sticks purporting to be wisteria. These we dutifully planted and tended with some success, at least on the leaf front. The fence beside which I had planted these fledglings was swathed in wisteria potential. The garden immediately behind was the home to an established shrub which blossomed abundantly every year to my part pleasure - from the first floor back window - and part disappointment and envy. This chagrin was compounded by our next-door neighbours who somehow managed to get onto such good terms with said wisteria's proprietors that they were allowed to unfurl many metres of foliage and flowers and deck them around their own garden. Instant wisteria!

Of course this was completely unacceptable and unreasonable. We were scandalized and outraged, quite justifiably.

I moved out of the house after six years without seeing as much as one frond of flowers on our authentic plant. True to form of course the next year it flowered.

One of the biggest thrills of becoming the new owners of 34JJR is that at last I have a mature wisteria plant, indeed the main stem is almost a trunk as it is so established. I think perhaps Madame Herbeau may have been a little over zealous in her pruning and the late spring means that it was nowhere near as advanced as the one I gaze at here. No matter, I have that to look forward to maybe in a couple of weeks and certainly next year.

I shall wait wistfully.