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Saturday, December 01, 2007

73: Champagne charlies

St Pancras International is currently something of a disappointment. Long awaited and feted as a destination in its own right, this magnificently restored building is an architectural gem. Sadly much of the extensive media coverage and marketing has been frittered as so few of the promised amenities are yet open. A day after Eurostar's first paying passenger service arrived here there was but a handful of shops open. A fortnight later maybe a third are in business. I was invited by Angela - who took pity on my one-wheeled bag and turned up with a spanking new valise - to partake in a flute at the longest champagne bar in Europe. It is certainly enjoying early success and we are grateful to the people who permitted us to join them as seats were at a premium.

As champagne bars go this is nothing special, relying soley on the location with nary a thought to service or presentation. At £7.50 for a flute of house fizz I would have expected the sparkling liquid to have been placed in front of us, at least, if not poured, yet our glasses were unceremoniously plonked in front of us without as much as a paper coaster to take care of the dripping condensation. The manager explained that they had taken the decision not to use coasters as they might look "untidy". This concession to style over substance is surely an opportunity missed, it seemed to me, thinking whistfully of the great German beers for example that arrive at optimum temperature in the right branded glass around which has been placed a branded ring to prevent dripping. If a "lowly" beer can be thus proudly proffered then doesn't the prefered drink of celebration, of luxury, of good times, deserve at least as much? He commented on how they had been the "victims of their own success". Later I wished I had retorted that it is sad how so many can be satisfied with so little.

I still wish St Pancras well. Once fully fitted out - some benches might be nice - and with all the units open, it will be worth a look beyond the in-the-face magnificence of the Barlow shed. For now I cannot see non-passengers making early return visits. As for the champagne bar, expect it to be openly offering cheaper alternatives before long. Perhaps it could become the longest coffee bar in Europe?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Not with a bang - with a cupcake!

Leaving London for Lille on Tuesday evening I travelled on what was the last ever Eurostar to leave Waterloo International. We were promised celebrations and an evening of festivities and somehow I managed to get it into my head that we would be offered mementoes of the Waterloo years or even a glass of champagne. What we actually got was... a chocolate cupcake!

More soon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Autumn in London - Hi Ho Hi Ho

Yes it's off to work I go!

And this rather scary/scared looking pic heralds the new dawn with a new haircut! I wasn't expecting it to be quite so short but, hey, it'll grow soon enough. What is it about being in the hairdresser's chair that makes one feel so devoid of choice or power? I think another centimetre everywhere will be perfect. That should take 2 weeks the rate my barnet sprouts.

I am gainfully employed for a few months working just 14 hours a week for an organisation called Better Bankside a Business Improvement District in Southwark, Borough Market, Tate Modern, Vinopolis, The Globe theatre. Interesting area. It will be fascinating to be an employee again.

In the meantime not much to report from chateau Newman-Legros. Almost crippled myself removing the contents of the loft down two floors to the ground floor and then putting most of it out for the encombrants last week. Of course there was nothing of any real interest to be found except some more original doors which we may just manage to put into use again somewhere. I also managed to put my foot through a little piece of ceiling. Ho-hum.

We cleared out the dépendance on Saturday and put away the, scarcely-used-this-summer, garden furniture. Now we have plans to turn one end of the space into a garden room by replacing both the existing solid doors and the window with, well, I suppose we would call them French windows but, since whatever we buy will be French most likely I mean glazed double doors. Some clear sheeting on the roof and a bit of tidying and Petit Bob c'est ton oncle!

More from London coming soon. May be in Brighton on Saturday - ma foi it's expensive to go 50 miles if you haven't managed to plan way way in advance. Working on it...

Bisous à tous!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Le Marasme

For no particular reason and not because I was feeling especially lacking in sparkle I found myself looking up the French word for doldrums. Now I am not certain if the term le marasme is used in the same way as its English as it appears to have more of a medicinal connection, but it can be used figuratively to describe, for instance, a sluggish economy.

Anyway enough of that. Summer has gone and autumn is here and, apart from a few degrees difference in temperature and the leaves turning glorious shades of gold and red on our maple tree, it has been a seamless transition. I wonder just how many hours less sunshine we have "enoyed" this year and how much extra rain we have seen fall in 2007.

A combination of disappointment with the weather, approaching retirement (still some way off yet within an understandable period of time rather than being too far off to be worried about )and the need for less stairs and more light at home, have led me to checking out the cost of flats in Mallorca. The good news is that they are affordable - just. We have no plans to up sticks and yet that thought is somehow sustaining.

On another front we have almost definitely decided that I should find temporary employment in London. We need some cash to make things happen in the house or else we will be living with zero progress for another year. I also need some motivation and this may just remind me what it is like to achieve and to be recognised for contributing to a team effort.

So, it may not be plain sailing ahead but there is a way out of the doldrums, une sortie du marasme.

Anchors away!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Natural Prozac

I think I have just experienced a little piece of heaven. Two weeks of sensory overload in the Mediterranean. Sunrises and sunsets on mountains. A train ride through a valley of citrus groves. Turquoise sea. Ancient olive trees. Heavily scented figs made into jam and brought back. Pine forests clinging to impossible slopes. Irridescent bougainvillea, delicate plumbago. Sheet lightning, three forks of lightning and thunder simultaneously. Yellow hibiscus. Persimmons and quinces. Sheep will bells around their necks like wind chimes in the distance. Mallorca.

A two-week two-centre holiday in Mallorca has invaded my senses and left me gasping for more more more. I adored it.
Planned for about six months this was to be the answer to our need for a break away from the north of Europe and towards something approaching "summer". Each separate element of travel and accommodation and transport was booked through different suppliers; this could so easily have gone very wrong. But it didn't.

The French don't have as easy access to cheap air travel as do the Brits and though we are only a 15 minute drive from our very own provincial airport at Lille-Lesquin, low-cost from there is limited and flights otherwise expensive-probably because Air France have such a hold on the market. The answer lay north of the border in Brussels with scheduled flights on Iberia. This made for rather a convoluted journey involving Eurostar to Brussels-Midi, (quick tip - any Eurostar ticket with destination Brussels allows the holder to continue on to any other Belgian station), the shuttle train to Brussels International Airport, a flight to Barcelona and another to Palma Airport, Mallorca.

Having not flown for two years I was surprised that Iberia charge for everything. Their "fresh healthy" menu boasted a number of sanwich variations, all of them involving ham. I had almost forgotten that in Spain the pig is virtually a vegetable. I self medicated with 2 cans of Heineken, being an improved though not enthusiastic flyer.

En route to our first accommodation in Port Sóller we went wild in the aisles at the conveniently-situated Carrefour just moments away from the airport. Soon we were following the booking agency's good directions through two tunnels hewn through mountains and we arrived in Port Sóller easily enough. Tiredness, slight ambiguity and lack of light lead to us panicking for half an hour and attempting to break into a construction site whilst furiously attempting to reach the agent on the mobile. Phew! She didn't answer as our apartment was actually two blocks further up the hill. When, finally, we found the right place and threw open the terrace doors all the stress and frustration melted away and we knew we had made a great choice. The terrace has a panoramic view over the port and the lights on the water made it appear quite magical.

Port Sóller is a small and not overly commercialised resort, which still has a small fleet of working fishing boats. Most of the harbour has now been given over to a marina where some rather impressive, but not outrageously so, yachts sink their anchors. A quaint original (1913) tram links the port to its parent, Sóller some 2kms away, which in turn has its own antique train (1912) to connect it to Palma, the capital.
Being outside in the sunshine and eating outside is like having your batteries recharged. Waking every day to look out over mountains, forests and the sea is like taking a natural Prozac. How could anyone find this less than stunning?

Yes, of course we fell in love with the place and were soon leafing through property magazines to see if our new dream was realisable. It may be, but for now property is expensive, very expensive, and even a small place in a pleasant spot with maybe a bit of a view and some outside space is likely to be in the region of 500,000€ +++. That lottery win is long overdue.

We visited Sóller nestling in the valley behind the mountain that shields it from the sea and enjoyed its leafy main square with the aforementioned trams rattling through. We drove to Valdemossa where Chopin holed up with George Sand in a monastery and where the latter wrote a disparaging novel about Mallorca in the winter. Ironically this is now a top tourist buy. Apparently Michael Douglas and Zeta have a house close by. I can understand who though was not interested enough to go take a peek. The town is pretty and worth the investment of a morning but was too touristy. Come buy your Chopin teacloths here!
On the way back from Valdemossa we stopped in Deià where the writer and poet, Robert Graves elected to live until his death in 1985. He was perhaps most well known for his novel I, Claudius, which was made into a TV series by the BBC in the 1970s. We of course confused him with Rupert Graves of Room with a View/Maurice fame, and even Rupert Brooke, he of the The Soldier "If I should die think only this of me: that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. ". One of the very few pieces of writing that has made me feel patriotic. I visited his grave on Skyros.
We duly did the train to Palma and a rare treat it was too. Shambling along the ancient track it wends its way through the mountains and groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives. We had the carriage all to ourselves. We took the rather less romantic coach on the way back. We have been to Palma before staying on one of those Easyjet inspired long weekends in February about four years ago. We stayed in a delightful old-fashioned hotel - the hotel Born - just at the top of the Royal Ramblas near to Zara, the clothes shop, which we visited every day! Palma is bustling and gorgeous with its surprising cathedral and royal palace right on the seafront.

Our week in Port Sóller over we left the apartment with only slightly heavy heart knowing that we had a villa with pool awaiting us. We took the mountain road as we had plenty of time before we were due to take temporary possession of El Clavet, and stopped off approximately halfway at the Monastery in Lluc high in the Tramuntana mountains. A brief wander around the medicinal garden where we lunched on our purchases from a stall set up by what might have been the local WI group. There were a lot of doughnuts being made too.
Cala St Vicenç, a small, very British, cove of jutting rocks, cliffs and small sandy beaches and turquoise water, was the nearest place to our villa. I wouldn't have chosen to stay there full time but it was nice to go and see the sea occasionally and to sit and enjoy a very reasonably priced cerveza grande. El Clavet is situated just outside of the resort in semi and rather splendid isolation.

El Clavet, I have no idea what it means and have not been able to find out. But as far as I am concerned it must mean something very special. Holidays for me usually require there to be a palm tree within easy view and there are five between the house, a converted finca, and the pool. Set back from the main road and reached via a long dusty drive lined by kiwi vines and persimmon trees, El Clavet is truly magical. One other place in the world has as powerful an impact on me: The Old Priory, Dunster in Somerset.
The house is set in the valley between two steep mountains, surrounded by lemon, fig, pomegranate and quince and cactus - that's the flora. As for the fauna there were hens at the back, one solitary pink (under the mud) pig - Naf Naf - and a drove of black ones with piglets. I almost forget the cats - two young adults and their two kittens all of whom ate well during our residence.El Clavet is my kind of house.

We were seven for week two and an additional car had been arranged. Consequently most of our trips out were split along national lines ie the Brits and the French. No matter. We ventured first into Port de Pollença, something of a disappointment but not a bad place, and not quite tacky but a source of "typical" Mallorcan souvenirs and postcards. Then we tackled the market at Alcúdia, - we didn't bother with its port - quaint, walled and ramparted, it was a thrill to buy locally grown produce including white onions, imperfect but delicious and cheap tomatoes and stripey purple aubergines. We ate well too.

Pollença, our nearest town of any size was a pleasant surprise. Almost as lovely as Alcúdia but less of an obvious tourist magnet, this little town boasts a flight of steps which climb almost to the stars and at the top I mused that there seemed to be less dissonance between the man-made and the natural as if dwellings had sprung organically from the ground. Of course it is probably more to do with their use of local materials rather than brick or concrete. On the subject of stars I have to mention that the clear night sky was almost as poridgey-thick with stars as I have experienced in New Zealand.

What a joy it was to imagine for those few days that this was how we lived, to dream that life could be like this always. All too soon of course we were hitting the road and I am back on the Rhodiola.

A first for this blog - two short and rather grainy videos.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tripping up on the light fantastic

Looking outside to yet another overcast day albeit one which is not exactly grey, more dull/bright, I wondered exactly where summer is hiding. We enjoyed a beautiful if unexceptional day yesterday and managed to eat both lunch and dinner outside for the first time this year. We did eat lunch and even breakfast outside in April but of course the days are still short and by dinner time it was decidedly chilly and dark! Yesterday we were still outside at 11pm though by then we had donned cardies or jumpers and were indulging in a small cognac whilst scannning the night sky for stars and meteorite showers.

Disappointing as the weather has been since April I wonder whether our expectations in general are unrealistically high these days. I don't think I mean unrealistic in the same way the meteorologists try and explain away our fixation with summer sunshine as being founded on our holiday experiences - hello! since when was a lighter shade of grey typical summer weather anyway? - but rather how we have become a bit superlative about everything.

For example, using the word "nice" is virtually sneered at these days. We are not allowed to have a nice time or a pleasant evening any more. These days we have to have a fantastic time or a fabulous holiday or a superb something or the other. And when we don't? No wonder there are so many of us popping some kind of happy pill or just putting up with feeling less than ecstatic.

Perhaps it is time to make "nice" acceptable again, to promote "pleasant" to its rightful place in our everyday vocabulary. With the pressure off maybe we will start to feel satisfied with a less than incredible, mind-blowing, mega, stupendous, brilliant time?

In the meantime I would be happy with some pleasant weather although I am trying to organise some Rhodiola to support my enfeebled efforts. Of course when we get to Mallorca in September the weather had better be amazing!!!!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Hotter than July - 1000+

Just returned from a week in London to the hottest weekend of the year - warmer even than April maybe! - at 32C. And what a summer it hasn't been so far. Somehow, the weeds have flourished and spread yet the butternut squash which I grew from seed are at best disappointing and I wonder if they will indeed yield any fruit. Something of a life metaphor in there somewhere but, hey, it is too hot for my brain to disentangle it from the undergrowth that covers my vegetable garden. The slugs too are back in force chomping their away through some marigolds and dahlias. I am increasingly nimbyistic about such creatures realising that they too are battling against the elements for survival yet asking myself why they cannot go do it somewhere else.

London was the way it always should be but seldom is when one lives there ie fun! No rain that I can remember though I did once borrow Angela's rather decorative umbrella which features a kind of impressionistic view of Paris. I did not have the opportunity to unfurl it.

Apart from A&P's fun company I was lucky enough to eat out four times during the week. The Terrace Café at Somerset House is much to be recommended when the barometer is set fair and especially when a friend is treating you - thanks CW1. Having experienced the 20€ bottle of wine in even the most moderate French restaurant I find myself almost forgiving the £16.50 at the shallow end of their wine card.

Tas in Borough High Street if not fanTAStic - ha ha - was good value and tasty - the aubergine thing was dee-lish! - and nowhere near as ear-drum splittingly loud as Brindisa the tapas place on the corner. Why is London so NOISY?!
Friday lunchtime saw us in Kingston and following two capuccini at Carluccio's we found ourselves slurping down noodles in Wagamama - still dependable in the noodle world much in the same way as Pizza Express is for pizzas.

Nigel produced his usual delicious fare on Friday evening. It is not so much that the food is always so good but that he is exceptionally able to produce it with such ease and seemingly no stress. That is a real skill. New old recipe for the summer must be Delia's avocado soup, a pistachio coloured cold starter with a smooth and creamy taste perfect for whenever we have a modicum of warmth in the air.

I am tempted to mirror Charles Bremner and to announce that blogs will be sporadic over the holiday month of August. It is visit central chez the Newman-Legros with Polly and Ellen from tomorrow for five days, Dawn, Dean and Darcey for a long weekend then the return of Margaret for a week to include a long weekend in Paris. Then we head for two weeks in Mallorca. Bring it all on!

Oh BTW - I note with some incredulity that this blog has now been viewed 1001 times!

Monday, July 23, 2007

(Hors) Service clientèle

Time to return to a hoary old chestnut for all living in France - bureaucracy! After a while you learn to give in a little and not allow the endless forms and attestations, delays and frustration to raise your blood pressure. Occasionally you need to let off steam and appropriately my latest encounter with the mediocrity which permeates the French public sector has to do with the world beating, speed record breaking TGVs of the SNCF whose customer service still runs as if steam trains chugged along the tracks. It is an excellent service and rightly the envy of many a country but I now have an image in my head of a fonctionnaire in the cab trying desperately to find where to put the coal...

I successfully booked three return tickets from Lille to Paris on the website and received confirmation of the journey, my payment in full together with the seat reservations. I made the mistake of choosing the option to print the tickets myself and there lies the rub - only the aller tickets popped up! No matter what I tried the retour tickets just weren't available to print.

A quick email to the Service Clientèle elicited a rather unexpected response. Apparently the solution is for me to buy the return tickets again - no guarantee of the promotional price I managed to book - then, having used those tickets, to send them together with the confirmation, the email I received in response from online help team, and my bank details. So, that would be my money and my time being used to resolve the problem?

Got Max on the case and several phone calls later we have a promise of a return call this afternoon. Apparently the difficulty was caused by my having chosen to come back to Lille Europe rather than Lille Flandres ie we arrive back in a different station to the one we leave from. Given that tickets in France are booked as singles this seems dubious...

Steam emitting from my ears I have fired off emails to the Prime Minister, the President and - it hasn't come back yet so it may have arrived successfully - to the top woman at SNCF. Will it change anything? Will those people ever get to personally read about my plight, I doubt it somehow. I cannot pretend for one moment that my angry - but well structured! - tirade will make any difference in itself but maybe, just maybe, with time then things will start to improve. Vive la France!!!! Vive la révolution!!!!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Flaming June

Going on for 19h00 and at last the sun is pushing its way through some fluffy white clouds and I could almost imagine that this is June and not early November. Mustn't complain? Why not? Yes, I agree that compared with parts of the UK we have escaped lightly and that we should be grateful for little mercies et tout ça BUT it really isn't how it should be - is it?

Tomorrow and indeed for the next 10 days the forecast is set for at least showers and at worst deluges of rain.

Accentuating the positive, my first successful attempt at sweet peas is looking like a success with an abundance of buds about to burst forth the next time something like summery weather calls by. Next to the pond the unidentified but enormous plant continues to burgeon - I wonder if whatever it is will be edible?

Having continuing problems with French workmen and the admnistrative bureaucracy. A pleasant enough fellow came round three weeks ago to give our kitchen (extension) roof the once over and we have been awaiting his estimate ever since though even three weeks ago the first possible date he would have been able to do the job - before we were anywhere near knowing the price - would have been early October. No wonder they are so lax with their paperwork. We are also expecting a grant from the region and three months of waiting have elapsed and as we are now on the threshold of the great summer shutdown it seems unlikely that anything will happen before at least la rentrée. Given that we shall need the money for the roof perhaps I shouldn't be too bothered about the delay?

Let's get positive again! The sales started this week and it looks as if some bargains are up for grabs. An article in the paper suggested that the discounts may reach 90% this season. Perhaps Max and I will be able to treat ourselves to something for our holiday in September when it simply must must must be sunny and warm for the majority of our break in Majorca. I prefer to spell it Mallorca - a remnant of my Spanish O Level I guess - but was going for the alliteration.

Will soon be back in London for 9 days to help a friend with a business start-up. Given my singular inability to find any enthusiasm nor motivation for my own it seems like a good idea. Not sure we have ever been apart for quite so long. Thankfully Angela has free calls to Europe!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Almost blue

A wave of rationality and proportion swept over France yesterday when the blue tsunami failed to materialise and hence the massive majority expected for Sarkozy's UMP is not to be. Indeed the UMP lost seats overall and their majority will be less than in the outgoing parliament. Their highest profile candidate, Alain Juppé failed to secure a seat and thus has been forced to resign from Prime Minister Fillon's government.

For the PS this is almost a win and they can, with some legitimacy claim that the French people have voted for them to provide the checks and balances required in a functioning democracy. Given that 40% of those registered decided not to vote it means that something less than 30% of the French have actively supported UMP candidates. We now have a government with a good majority but not one which will allow them to ride rough-shod over the wishes of the nation.

Some asides. The FN again failed to secure a single seat in parliament. Their only candidate in the second round was the recently made-over Marine Le Pen, daughter of the irrascible Jean-Marie who declares his intention to carry on despite his party's abject failure.

Another snippet concerns Ségolène Royal, the PS candidate for the presidency. She was forced into announcing that she and her partner of 29 years, the lumpish and charisma-bypassed party leader, François Hollande, have gone their separate ways. This was an open secret throughout at least the latter days of the presidential campaign. Now the churlish and supposedly correct anti-Royal brigade are making subjective remarks about how she "lied" during the campaign by not revealing this sooner.

I am beginning to regret taking out a cheap subscription to "Paris Match" as it has turned into the official Sarkozy fanzine. Endless spreads of the French first family at different functions and oleaginous copy. I hope their circulation falls.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cherry envy

When will the grey skies clear and allow summer to start in earnest? Yes we have certainly paid for April ie ever since! And why do I have this interest in the sun? Apart from the "free" hot water we obtain when the day is bright, this year we have attempted to make more of the garden and it appears to be stuck ie everything is there and making attempts to burst forth but growth is stunted and unimpressive. One of the courgette plants has disappeared either because it rotted in the damp/wet soil or because - more likely - the slugs found a way over the blue pellets I had thoughtfully provided for their delectation. I have a mental image of a kamikaze gastropod dragging itself across the "mined" soil determined to sacrifice all. Anyway everything else though living is only growing timidly and the fuchsias look more end of September than mid June.

The cherry tree is having a year off. At least it has gone part-time and there are hardly any cherries worth harvesting. As I gaze across the neighbours' gardens from the upper floors of the house I note with some envy that next door but one has a tree that is veritably dripping with plump red fruit jewels. Can this be fair? There is no way they are going to be able to harvest them all so I guess many of the top ones will simply go to supplement the local wildlife diet. Too bad that slugs don't do trees, eh?

Not all is lost however as this weekend we are in deepest darkest France, or as deep as it gets in Nord-Pas-de-Calais - and that is surprisingly deep and dark with the far right's candidate coming second and thus in the second round of the general election tomorrow just down the road - visiting the Bopes. They have two cherry trees in their immense garden, one of which is equally heavily ladened. I did some extensive sampling this afternoon along with the raspberries which are also plentiful. I feel sure that we will be taking some home tomorrow in our 20 year old Corsa. Belated Joyeux Fêtes to the old lady who celebrated this milestone on 3 June in a garage near to where I am writing this. She is now fully fit and raring to go. We won't even touch on the bill but to say it was large yet generously discounted.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Something of the night

The election is over and the recriminations begin. Sarko sunning himself off Malta on a friend's yacht is criticized both for this unapologetic display of luxury and also for choosing a top notch restaurant to celebrate his victory on Sunday evening before appearing on stage at the Place de la Concorde for a concert of celebration attended by many showbiz friends, and even - perhaps more surprisingly - by is wife.

Ségo was knifed in the back within moments of the result being officially confirmed by one of her reluctant lieutenants - the ceaselessly ambitious Dominique Strauss-Khan, who had at first put himself forward as the PS candidate, then declared himself available to be prime minister in a Royal administration and now - having rubbished the campaign he was supposed to be an integral part of - declares himself willing to become the new leader of the socialist party. Methinks he does self-sacrifice too much.

Somehow the question most needing an answer is left hanging in the air losing neither its freshness nor its pertinence. How has Sarko managed to convince a majority of the French electorate that he is now suddenly a more effective Sarko than the man who over the last five years has held considerable power in government? Plus ça change?

He is a good speaker - better than Royal though she was improving from her rather wooden beginnings - and a bit of a charmer. He exudes power and competence and has answers and solutions to everything that is thrown at him albeit in a rather pat fashion. He has more than enough confidence - that has never been in doubt- but as Ann Widdicombe famously commented about the equally suave Michael Howard, there is something of the night about Sarko.

To listen to the commentators and to the supporters of this president elect the mere fact of his election has somehow transformed the fortunes of the land. One thing is certain and that is the fortunes of the rich will be multiplied - not a bad thing as wealth creates jobs creates spending power etc etc - and yet his promise to be the president of the whole of France is just words. It will only be once actions have been taken and the nation has proof of his intentions that we will see who exactly is part of Sarkozy's France.

Royal warned that there might be protests should Sarkozy be elected and she was proven right. Of course those who should know better interpreted her words as a call to revolution and yet anyone who had bothered to visit the poor districts of Paris or any large town in France would know that the protests were either born of desperation that the man who epitomises in their eyes a France whose doors are firmly shut to them, or they were extremist anarchists who riot given any small reason.

We breath a collective sigh of relief with the news that that Petit Nicolas's election has persuaded the godfather of French pop/rock, Johnny Hallyday, to return from his self-imposed tax exile in Switzerland. The latter land being the alternative to the preferred Belgium where Johnny declares his heart to reside. Johnny's fragrant fourth wife Laeticia was the bringer of these glad tidings.

This is democracy and the right wing have secured another period of officer for their general. Time will tell whether parliament will be more balanced and will be able to provide more of a check to the president's ideas. Rarely in recent history has the reality of capitalism been quite so laid bare. President Sarkozy has promised a land where all have opportunities, all have rights and alongside those rights, obligations (so often ignored by the often least articulate who maintain their rights most vociferously ). Bravo monsieur le président. The right and opportunity of the workers will be to work more and earn more. The right of the elite and of business will be to keep more of what they already make in profit and in investment. That is not his fault but maybe it is the challenge of a fair and just presidency ie to give those who have least the most opportunities accepting that those with more can probably manage alone or certainly with less help. Being seen to be the champion of the more needy than the friend of the greedy could be the proof that France really needs.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Heat dust and lycra

We have just waved goodbye to our frends Stu and Tiff - their second visit - after a 12 day stretch of visitors and now have 1o days "off" before our next invités arrive. The weekend was a success not in small part to the enthusiasm they both have and especially yesterday when we ventured into the unknown and went to see the Paris-Roubaix cycle race.
This gruelling challenge in its 105th year is also known as the "hell of the north" as it includes over 50km of cobbled roads, many of which are in the middle of the countryside and are not in the best state of repair.
We worked out that we were only about a 20 minute drive from the Carrefour de L'Arbre a notorious spot of pavé road and so set off with hats and umbrellas to shield against the August temperatures. We couldn't get too close as the roads were already closed off in readiness but the 4 km or so we had to walk to be in the midst of the cobbles was a pleasant Sunday stroll. Another person's enthusiasm indeed passion, can be infectious and we were strangely enjoying being in the middle of the countryside under the blazing sun with the dust rising around us. We found a likely spot in that seemed to be the Belgian supporters' area and took advantage of the reasonably priced beer available from an almost cartoon-like vendor whose Jack Russell entertained us as we awaited the first bikes.
Suddenly they arrived as if from nowhere and swished - or rather rattled - past us looking impressively fresh given they had already traversed some 240km from the starting point in Compiègne and virtually all of the pavés. Everyone was applauded. It was almost as if the arrival of the cyclists was almost incidental to the overall feeling of being there and enjoying the expectation and the camaraderie.
Back at home we discovered that if we played the recording back in slow motion we could catch ourselves on the television and we had confirmation that the pictured Stuart O'Hagan had taken the prize and we had participated or at least assisted in one of France's favourite sports.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

About time

The clocks went forward (spring forward, fall back) last weekend and I fondly imagined that for one hour France and the UK would share a common time. But no! This is not the case as the UK time officially changes at 1am whilst French time advances at 2am in their respective time zones. Funny old thing time. For instance instead of thinking "oh, I may have something vaguely interesting to blog" whenever that might occur, I though "it's about time I blogged again" since over a month as passed since last I added words to this site. I realise that I have just intimated that perhaps this may not be interesting. Whatever.

Almost an entire year has passed since we signed the papers and Chateau Newman-Legros became ours, a fact evinced by the annual main blossoming of the magnolia tree. It is a sign, a punctuation in a series of events, some recurring, and a sign that can make us look back or forward and to review what has or has not happened in the intervening period.

Ever guilt stricken at not having done something or at least not enough of something I feel slightly comforted that I have started to prepare the sitting room - enfin - for decoration. Yes stripping wallpaper is strangely therapeutic in an "off with old" "start from scratch" way. The need for relining is not.

The website software is on its way too, therewith to develop Newman-Legros Coaching. Rather later than imagined. I cannot say it was ever properly planned.

Our unofficial lodger was dislodged yesterday. A friend in need etc but not for too long and 2 months seemed rather longer than that. Then there was the car situation... He went of his own accord and will be back for at least a fortnight during May when, despite having an HGV licence he needs to undertake a course and acquire a qualification to drive a van. Where does French officialdom get off?

And next week a VIP arrives for their first visit. Yesm, finally, my maman is here for a week! Indeed April is abuzz with visitors and in May we have 10 days in the UK.

Oh, and the picture? the view from our apartment in Port Soller next September, our first holiday in over 2 years.

About time.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Collateral Damage

Having initially fallen in love with the garden here at chateau Newman-Legros we soon came to realise that the shady arbour we fell for was the result of an overabundance of trees which had been left to grow overly and possibly illegally tall. Not only did we court danger with seemingly more frequent high winds but also the ground beneath saw scant light and was not other plant friendly. Of course there are also all those fallen leaves...
So, having considered getting someone in but done nothing about it - mostly because of the expense - we took up our 75 year old neighbour, François's offer of help and the loan of most of the equipment including a fearsome looking tronçonneuse- chainsaw to us. We had three targets which, at first I thought of merely trimming but then realised needed taking out completely: a tatty and ragged birch tree which was neither use not ornament being hidden behind three others its purpose expired some time ago; an unattractive conifer which did indeed serve as one half of Max's hammock support but little else, and what we think is a kind of maple. The latter was due only a slight reduction, the formers complete annihilation!
Of course we were more than glad for the help and presence of both our voisin and our semi-official lodger to up the macho load. That said it amazed me that both were so focused on their objectives that they seemed blind to anything and everything else. Theirs appeared to be a scorched earth policy ie if it is in the way ignore it for any and all examples of life be they nascent or more substantial suffered as collateral damage beneath their feet or at their hands. Despite my repeated - though not nagging mehopes - requests for care to be taken of, amongst others, my lavender and thyme, we will not see the irises in bloom this year. Tant pis! We have saved ourselves a pretty centime I suppose though I must source replacement chains for the chainsaw as a gesture of thanks to François.

About a mile away as we chopped Mr Le Pen was making his policies for his umpteenth bid for the presidency. Reading this morning on the internet I see his party would stop all benefit payments to the non-French and close the borders. Oh dear! Somehow I wonder if it isn't about time the French far right did a little clearing of their own garden as they are stuck firmly in the undergrowth with little chance of seeing the light nor of the reality in 2007.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I'm in love wiz zer veecar of deeblay

Perhaps I shouldn't admit to this but it is true! And I know that anytime very soon now my heart will be broken when the series is no more. Now let me explain. French television is, to be kind, rubbish. Yes yes there are occasional masterpieces of the televisual art to be devoured greedily like the tiny and rare truffles that they are but grosso modo there is little in the way of original programming and a typical evening will centre on either a light entertainment show when the same troupe of artistes appear to flog their latest product, or a light-hearted discussion show in which the audience sits around the celebrities (often artistes there to shamelessly flog their latest product) who are "in the round" and encouraged to give their thoughts and opinions which are eagerly lapped up by the adoring publique. This is the kind of show I have taken to referring to as the "let's all sit round and clap" approach to cheaply produced TV. Did I mention that invariably these shows are as close to interminable as can be? Actually they do run for anything up to 4 hours. Yes every soirée is a telethon in France.

So, thank goodness for Dibley, a little piece of English heaven served in appropriately sized portions and guaranteed to entertain. It is not nostalgia or even nostalgia by proxy. I have no wish to live in a small, incestuous village in middle England, but it has a gentle humour and is lightly played by a cast who rub along very nicely thankyou very much.

Of course it runs on a channel we have to pay for and is not dubbed but subtitled in French. It is almost impossible to ignore the text and we find ourselves both listening and reading, checking the translation.

Update: The radiators have arrived!!!! We are expecting them to be fitted on Monday followed by the solar panel. The suspense is almost unbearable. Meanwhile back at the window company the irritating person who manages the branch continues to take us for fools and lies to us as much as he tells the truth. Apparently the replacement windows(for the ones that were lost - though of course their (window) pain was equal to ours and it was as much as we could do not to rush over to Boulevard du President Hoover and console the delicate cherubs) have been available for days but he somehow only managed to get round to informing us today as he was awaiting a cheque from us for 4000€. Perhaps he had chosen to ignore Max who had told him in no uncertain terms that they would not get another centime from us till the windows were in and we were satisfied. I feel a strong letter to their parent company coming on.....

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Stumbling home

Since my last foray into the blogging world I have been to London, and Colchester the oldest town in England or something rather like that. Now I am back. Thank you Eurostar for cancelling my return train and rescheduling me just one hour later as it has entitled me to a half price return. I adore it when that happens.

London was the kind of fun that is almost impossible to experience when you live there and have to work to pay for the privilege. Meeting up with friends, admiring the sights, taking the transport without being in a constant hurry etc. Most of the niggling things that bug me in France exist in the UK and I was reminded of them. I was equally reminded of the extortionate cost of getting anything done to your home and how unreliable such persons so employed can be. Something of a relief then as I was starting to wonder if we had been specially selected to have the merde chucked at us sans cesse.

Good news for those who might be following the progress at chateau Newman-Legros; the rest of the rads are due to be installed week commencing 12 February together with the solar panel AND the sitting room windows are apparently going to be installed on 19th. I wonder if they will be changing the glass in the future bathroom and fitting the lockable handle to the garden doors at the same time.

Lille is a little sad having waved adieu to Lille 3000 till 2009 and to the elephants which played sentry along the Rue Faidherbe. So it is with a slightly self-assured pride that our maire, Martine Aubry, announced that she had negociated the retention of four of the pachyderms. Almost a herd rather than a pride. They were supposed to be making the trek back to India where they were to take part in film projects etc. So now we have big hefalumps and littlelumps and we will be asked where they should be displayed.

The presidential campaign heats up and Sarkozy is starting to look the moer serious candidate though Ségo has yet to reveal any real policies. My guess is that this will make or break her and she may find hersefl struggling to beat off the challenge of the "third man"who, surprise surprise, may not be Le Pen but a certain François Bayrou. Still plenty of race left but Sarkozy is looking like a winner with Bayrou maybe the kingmaker.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I used to be indecisive... I am not so sure.

With the annointment yesterday of Nicolas Sarkozy - or Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa to give him his full name - as the candidate for the major centre-right political party for the presidency the battle lines seem set for a confrontation between Sarko and Ségo, the socialist party nominee. The nearest challenger appears to be Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National yet he has still to garner enough backers in order to be able to run in the first round in April. To all intents and purposes, unless all those who are still undecided swing behind Le Pen, it will be Ségo and Sarko in the second round.

Unless of course the current incumbent, Jacques Chirac, decides to try for an independent third go. His wife, french first lady Bernadette, seemingly supports this possibility and yet how seriously are we to take the challenge of someone whose presidency has been marked not by its successes but by its singular lack of progress nor change. There are whispers that Chirac detests the idea of a President Sarkozy so much he would prefer to split the rightwing vote and let Ségo become the first woman president. There are others who believe that his effect on the vote would be less of a problem for Sarkozy who would still go through to the second round against Ségo. Would Chirac risk this kind of humiliation?

From my vantage point with the benefit of notional neutrality ie I cannot vote for anyone in the presidential election, I find myself recently reconsidering the way in which I would vote were I to be enfranchised. An early supporter of Ségolene Royal I am now beginning to question whether her, and her party's apparent unconditional support for the workers could ever make the changes necessary to drag France out of the doldrums. The latest suggestion from her partner and leader of the Part Socialiste (PS), François Hollande, is that people who earn more than 4000€ a month net (ie after social security contributions but before tax) should expect to pay more tax. He was rapidly slapped down by his "wife". It would be interesting to know just how well that was received by the man who might otherwise have been their presidential hopeful.

Having done a rough calculation I believe the equivalent salary in the UK is something like £38K before tax. Yes, higher than average but hardly enormous.

As someone who is about to launch himself onto the self-employed system in France selfishly, though I don't believe for a microsecond I would be subject any time soon to a "higher earners'" tax, I do believe in enterprise and in encouraging the creation of wealth in balance with the establishment and maintenance of the rights of both the employed and those who attempt to make a living themselves.

I am increasingly unsure that the PS have the ability to make any real changes for the good of France although their overall stance is one that is attractive in the longer term in a country where the kind of rights they aim to support and even to extend were affordable.

The idea of a woman president appeals. The need for change appeals more. Who is in a better position to make those changes and to incur the wrath of the "workers". Maybe it is time for the man who they are calling the French Thatcher. I cringe to think of it but wonder if there is indeed any other way.

With three months still to go it will be interesting to see if the electorate move away from their almost equal support for the two main candidates. One thing is certain and that is the voters see the contest as being Sarko/Ségo and it would be a challenge for any of the others to change that. Will they start to move in greater numbers towards one rather than the other. Watch this space...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Something about the number 7

This is the first posting of 2007 and this blog has been hit over 700 times. Max and I celebrate 7 years together this year and the digits of the number of our house add up to, you guessed it, 7. OK all a bit tenous perhaps but then again believing in luck or, more precisely, good luck, is one way of being open to it and to enjoying it. Count your lucky stars they say. You might not even be aware of their existence nor what or who they represent if you did not...

Anyway, this post is a bit of a catch up and a little look forward too. I recently told a good friend that she should counter every negative thought with at least two positive ones: one to neutralise the negativity and one to move forward with. That is what I am going to try to do as well.

We have a tendency to see the negative first and are almost programmed to be negative, more especially when it comes to thinking about ourselves and our talents, abilities and potential. We are not this we are not that, we are so self limiting. We make endless, unrealistic and certainly unrepresentative comparisons.

So what were the highlights of 2007 in no particular order?
  • Moving into our new house and having various works done to it
  • Welcoming our friends and family to spend time with us there
  • The summer
  • Max getting a part-time job which then became full-time
  • Having a functioning shower-room on the 2nd floor
  • My niece being born and going to see her
  • Our long weekend in Paris
  • The kindness of our neighbours
  • Our French Christmas guest needing a training session in what to do with Christmas crackers!

There may be more and for most there is certainly a counterpoint or two (and when it comes to having works done, many many more!) that I have actively avoided! If I had to chose one as the most important or perhaps most satisfying it would probably be welcoming frends and family as one of the reasons for acquiring all this space was not to use it just for us but to throw it open to our extended family.

The new year has started well. Though Max might say it was pants (you had to be there). Our new windows are going in as I type and we will benefit from their insulation qualities both heat and noise though it is not really noisy here as our guests would confirm and I have become used to the sound of the street. On the garden side we are protected from most sounds by a natural barrier of gardens. The weirdly mild temperatures persist during the installation of the windows which, of course, is a huge relief for he who is at home and experiencing temporary lack of protection from the elements!

I shall be in London shortly in connection with some work - yes paid! - I will be carrying out throughout the rest of January and possibly into March. The only downside to that is we never can get to see everyone we would like to.

I am getting to grips with the complexities of being self-employed in France and am almost certain that - having thought the contrary - I am entitled to be taxed under the simplest micro-entreprise regime.

We already have one definite visitor arranged, others pencilled in and, we hope, both return visits and new visits throughout the year.

Oh! Almost forgot. Our television service provider has suddenly made TF1 available to us. Despite the overall quality or otherwise of French TV, not having TF1 has been a little like not having ITV! Perhaps that is not a bad thing but then again it is always nice to have the choice.