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Monday, December 07, 2009

Merry Madalenas

Food and drink that tastes great on holiday often just doesn't have the same impact when taken home and thus out of its true context. Whether it's the local plonk or distillation drunk over ice or something delicious eaten al fresco next to the sea under a flapping awning , it almost certainly won't have the same intensity of flavour when you are seated at your own table with the doors firmly closed and the heating cranked up. The result is often a disappointment and diminished delight.

So, we don't even give a moment's thought to savouring this treat anywhere but in the sun and on our own terrace with a view of the sea and the bluest of skies: Madalenas with Whisky Cream Liqueur.

One or two madeleines per person arranged on a small plate.
One bottle of Bailey's or local - cheaper - equivalent
Tea for all

There are two techniques.
1. Break the cakes up and pour over a generous serving of "sauce".
2. Scoop out a well in the cake(s) and fill with the liqueur until the sponge is saturated and a small puddle of said liquid appears on the plate.

After a tiring day spent reading around the pool, interrupted only by lunch, this is the perfect late afternoon treat which combines the British penchant for tea and the Spanish sponge cake as the perfect foil for the creamy alcohol. The sun may not be quite over the yardarm but we are on holiday and this trifle-like confection is an acceptable holiday treat.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Bon Anniversaire de PACS

The weather was unforgiving and the traffic unmoving in pre congestion charge London. We made our way slowly, and a little stressfully, in a cab to a rather small and dingey office at the French Consulate. It was there that we concluded our Pacte Civil de Solidarité. There was no ceremony, no witnesses, just the vice-consul and another member of staff, and Peter E who was charged with taking photos on our digital camera. We know that some friends must have wondered why we didn't invite them and we lived with the consequences of not having parents there for some years after, but we had no choice in the matter. It could have all been over in a matter of a couple of minutes as all we had to do was to sign the agreement giving us some,mostly financial, shared responsibilities. And yet we imbued the moment and the ensuing seven years with much much more: a stronger more indelible emotional tie; a feeling of acceptance; a sense of having been recognised officially. The slightly blurred photos are still on the wall in front of me as I type and I see them every day with fondness.

Of course, since then the French forerunner has been soundly lapped by full Civil Partnership with equality of rights across the board in the UK. In France they have extended PACS rights a little eg rights to tax exemption on inheritance were brought more into line with married couples, but there seems to be little on the horizon about progress from Civil Partnership Lite towards the kind of arrangement enjoyed by all France's neighbours.

OK, it's just a piece of paper, and yet it is so much more than that to us. We hope that one day in the foreseeable future it will also be that much more in law too.

Bon anniversaire chéri. Je t'adore toujours. XXX

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

These boots are made for walking in Paris

At last Paris! I so need to get a fix of the city of light from time to time and our recent trip had been postponed when we drafted ourselves in to help with the Bopes' big move. We were able to sell on our, otherwise unexchangeable or refundable, tickets for their full face value via an excellent internet site, Troc des Trains ..

Just sixty minutes on the hourly punctual TGV shuttle; it always surprises me a little just how quickly we can be in Paris. It takes less time than the train from London Kings Cross to Grantham and the change is equally impressive. Disembarking at Gare du Nord the buzz is almost palpable, the place smells of the present and the past and of history and style AND of drains!

We're experts at the Métro these days and already have a supply of Tickets T+ to avoid the queues at the machines. It's Ligne 4 direction Porte D'Orléans, correspondance à Strasbourg St-Denis, then Ligne 9 direction Pont de Sèvres destination Exelmans. The names of the stations alone evoke something magical and historical.

Installed we made our way, as is our wont, to the local Carrefour. Transformed over the last year this underground bunker of a supermarket finally gets to be the kind of emporium that a chic quartier such as Auteuil properly deserves, nestled as it is against the péripherique and just a hop and a skip away from Roland Garros and the Parc des Princes.

Armed with my 24€ voucher and with Max on the trolley we had but a few items to purchase as I had brought most of our meals with us. I remember looking at my list and the voucher and thinking " I mustn't drop this" and, of course, somewhere and somehow, I did just that. I had a prolonged panicked moment - about a quarter of an hour - as we both searched the aisles and shelves we had visited but the voucher was gone, vanished, disparu. My heart is pounding at this point not only at my own stupidity but at the waste at a time when every € counts. This didn't prevent me from buying a couple of bottles of very drinkable Bordeaux it must be noted...

There are few advantages to be had in France for the man in the street but being the holder of a Carte Passe in Carrefour is surely one of them. There is always a till awaiting a Carte Passe holder and if it is not "manned" then someone will magically appear and whisk you through. We explained our predicament to the very helpful and charming cassière who told us we should ring the four digit phone number and speak to the loyalty card team. Unbelievably, but with great relief, we learned that they could cancel the voucher AND reissue it at no charge.

Back at the flat we did manage to watch a little light French TV - their version of X Factor. I am a little confused about this as the existing show, Nouvelle Star, was to all intents and purposes X Factor with the same music and logo format etc. Oh well, one thing I've learned about France is to accept that making things less understandable and more complicated is a way of life. Maybe it has something to do with not taking things at face value but philosophising about it for a moment?

Otherwise the telly was very well behaved and didn't turn green after an hour. I should explain that the set itself remains a plastic approximation of silver/grey but that the picture often suddenly becomes green tinged. Indeed we sat through the last six or so episodes of Mad Men series one on DVD with a fine image.

On Friday we took ourselves off to Belleville. No particular reason but we have seen the brilliant animation of Belleville Rendezvous (Les Triplettes de Belleville) more than once and it has developed a reputation as being a trendy happening part of town. It's definitely on the way up as can be seen by the steep hill we climbed away from the Boulevard de Belleville. Lots of asian restaurants - the pictured one with a strangely off-putting name - and shops, a little grimy but with some nice leafy corners and a park being renovated. This looks like a good place to invest if one had the resources! We were too late for the market and I have it it mind to get along on another occasion. Apparently it takes place Tuesday and Friday up till 1430.

We strolled through the Marais along La Rue du Temple to get to the next point on our itinerary: an exhibition about Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the famous iron lady of Paris, entitled Gustave Eiffel, le magicien du fer. Sadly this was the victim of our postponement: the exhibition had closed two days before. We instead whizzed around another exhibition on the other side of the Hotel de Ville - Bertrand's pad - Latitudes 2009, an exhibition of contemporary art from "overseas" taking in Guadeloupe, New Caledonia, Cuba and the Dominican Republich amongst others.

We resisted the urge to buy some nail varnish for Paco but were intrigued to hear that Uniqlo had opened their first central Paris store only the day before. They had a small presence at La Défense but this truly marked their arrival in France. In Rue Scribe just opposite the Opéra Garnier and around the corner from Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, this is their flagship. It was hugely popular - unsurprising given the price of clothing in France - and on the first day over 800 people waited in line for the doors to open and then for an hour and a half to get through the tills! We thought we'd take a peek but the bouncers on the doors and the lingering lines of people waiting put us off. OK jeans at 9,99€ sounded attractive but ... Following a brief diversion via Le Louvre des Antiquaires where we checked out their exhibition of images of Paris before and during the Haussmann travaux which transformed the centre into the place we know today and which has hardly changed since. Thereafter, off we went to say hello to Tatie and Henri where a bottle of champagne was awaiting our detailed attention.

Saturday was a bit of a failure really. Not totally and not in a hugely disappointing way but most of what we had intended to do wasn't realised. Not that it matters in Paris as just being there soaking up the atmosphere and day dreaming is enough. We worked out a route to see the marché aux puces at the Porte de Vanves in the south of the city. Less well known than its well-established and more permanent cousin at Porte de St Ouen in the north, we hoped for at very least an interesting stroll and at best a real find! Although supposedly open till five even at one o'clock many of the stalls were packing up or even already gone. Our former hope was achieved at least. Our big discovery was that the newish tramway T3 took us all the way to the end of the Pont du Garigliano at the end of which is the beginning of Boulevard Exelmans and a nine minute walk to Tatieflat!

We were invited to have dinner with Tatie and Henri that evening and enjoyed some quality time chez eux and at Le Royal Pereire a reliable brasserie five minutes from where they live. I was encouraged to see that the entire terrace had not been taken over by smokers but that a small section had been dedicated to the deadly weed. Here's hoping this is the start of a trend as it has become something of a mixed blessing sitting on the terraces of French restaurants since the smoking regulations came into operation. We enjoyed a delicious serving of Skate wing with frites.

And so on to the delights of Nuit Blanche 2009. I had previously made notes of events we wanted to see so we headed to Châtelet, found and queued for a free loo - yeeeeeuuuch! - and made our way along Rue des Lombards where jazz was supposed to be playing: zilch. So we wandered over to Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité and wandered straight over to the left bank having noted the thousands awaiting entry to the night's offerings. The queue to get into the Collège des Bernardins wasn't so bad and since we had so far drawn a blank for Nuit Blanche we joined it. An hour later we were admitted and allowed to join another queue for the exhibition Cellula. The photos on their site look nice but not nice enough for us to wait again. The building both inside and out is beautiful and atmospheric and we could have sat and enjoyed a worthy sounding and looking play in the main room that almost certainly contained lots of thous and wherefores so we went our way... out.

Next stop La Grande Mosquée where we had hoped to experience a mirror linking heaven and earth and emitting a perfume plus some kind of music somewhere. Of course we didn't as the queues went round the block! Never mind, we hadn't been there before.

Final attempt Jardin du Luxembourg where, amongst other exhibits, a giant glitterball - La Maîtresse de la Tour Eiffel - lit up the garden and the surrounding area. At this point we were struggling through the crowds. Later we discovered that we were just 2 of 1,5000,000 to attempt the Nuit Blanche challenge. So we saw said orb and having noted the sign telling us that there was an hour's wait - later extended to two - we decided that we had made enough effort for the day and went back to the 17e. Determined to not duck out completely we watched the final two episodes of Mad Men and got to bed around 2.30am. We know how to party.
Up, not too early on the first sunday of the month when many of the museums and galleries and other monuments in Paris are free we headed for the always free Musée d'Art Moderne housed in one part of the Palais de Tokyo. Sadly we found ourselves in the wrong part of the building where there is another exhibition space that is never free but happened to be between exhibitions. So of course it looked as if it was free. We carried on to the Petit Palais
another always free delight opposite the Grand Palais at the end of the Champs Elysées. Lots of nice pictures here and an attractive inner courtyard garden that provided a welcome shelter from the chilly wind.

We debated whether or not to go to Les Invalides but since we weren't able to get a connection on Max's phone to check out whether it was gratos or not we set our sights instead on the Musée D'Orsay. Last time we tried to get in on a free Sunday it was the last day of the massively successful Picasso/Manet exhibition and freezing cold. This time there was almost as large a queue so we again decided against but noticed a smaller building opposite the entrance with only a handful of people outside who weren't even queuing. We discovered that this was the Musée National de la Légion d'honneur et des ordres de chevalerie not only was entrance free but the audio guides were offered for nothing too! And this very visitable space ade for a fascinating account of the history of the Légion d'honneur. Recommended.

The weather broke on Monday and we didn't get to Les Puces at Saint Ouen. Maybe next time. Instead here's a jolly pic of a well known French radio mast.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Equinox knocked - no extra spoons with free moules.

The summer that sometimes was, is over and autumn arrived two days ago. It wasn't exactly obvious as we've been experiencing an indian summer with temperatures into the mid 20s celsius and bright blue skies. We even ate lunch in the garden a few times though there wasn't enough heat in the air to allow us supper outside.

We are living the economic crisis and are quite used to sailing close to the wind with our finances so the offer of moules frites for 7,95€ at Restaumarché was very attractive and the bonus of getting the fourth one ordered free had us beating down their door. OK, so it was never intended as a gastronomic delight though the company was always going to be excellent and the value good too. The buffet à volonté did what it said on the tin and was enjoyed, the mussels were small but sweet and copious and the sauce respectable. The wine at 5€ for a 50cl pichet went down smoothly. It was the dessert that stuck in the throat.

Only Max wanted a pud. He hadn't had much starter and, as is his wont, was only drinking tapwater so a pudding he would have. He chose La Coupe Gourmande mostly because one of the many ingredients was caramel au beurre salé flavoured ice-cream which had ruined us at Berthillon earlier in the year in Paris. A large dessert, he wanted to let us enjoyed it with him and requested a couple of extra teaspoons. "oh non, monsieur" intoned the waitress, "I'll have to charge you for an extra dessert for each spoon" she continued, and then added "besides, you've had a free moules frites".

So we didn't have extra spoons, he didn't order this extravagant confection but asked for a simple two scoop ice-cream instead. It wasn't a taste of ice-cream we were left with, but a bad taste in our mouths.

Having waited an adequate length of time for a bill to appear we got up and went to stand by the till where, eventually, we were given an opportunity to pay. They had been having their own meal so I offer our apologies for having interrupted. But we weren't given the bill, we were merely made privy to the total. Was this usual ? -we wondered - as we were now concerned about the arithmetic abilities of mine host. Were we paying in cash or by card? Why was this important?

We did get to see the bill - which was correct - finally and we left, for good, wondering what on earth that was all about.

Friday, August 28, 2009

This was the week that was : TGV UPDATE

Phew! As the feud - can it be a feud when only one party is actively taking part, perhaps a vendetta then? - continues and suspicions of possible poisoning emerge the hounds are back chez nous not only for their own safety but also because they have so much more space here. The Bopes have signed for a new house! Not a moment too soon either. Sooooo much nicer than their place in Bauvin. It is bigger, brighter, quieter - unless the octagenarian next door is into rap - and there is an ideally sized garden for them and the dogs.

Only fly in the ointment is their decision to move on the weekend we are in Paris. What to do? Tickets non-exchangeable nor refundable. Guilt stricken. Watch this space!
Max found a fantastic internet site on which you can sell otherwise non-reimbursable or exchangeable TGV tix! We managed to sell all four ie they were singles each way for the full face value and can now help out with the move AND we're booked in to go to Paris first weekend in October. Check out the website Troc Des Trains
à plus!

In the meantime the yearned for flower on the lily has arrived, and how!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hotter than July

It has been "non-stop" since my last blog entry. I love the way that French shops advertise their lack of lunchtime closure with that anglo-saxon description aptly of course as taking a break for lunch is quintessentially French though a custom which, in many countries, has been eroded over time. It also implies a sense of activity as if those working in establishments that work through the midday pause are buzzing around like bees, or more likely, wasps, of which we have had plenty. That's when they are not being horseflies or maybe hornet. They appear whenever we sit down to enjoy an alfresco meal just as if someone somewhere has banged the insect world dinner gong!

Two whole weeks have been spent enjoying a "staycation" in other words a holiday at home. That isn't strictly true as it isn't our home but it is in Lille so, technically, we haven't left town. We were loft sitting again for les Vaksmann. Better weather than last year and two lots of visitors albeit only one who stayed over at the loft.

I wonder what the word is for people who like Belgium. It hasn't the best reputation and is often joked about. They are one nation divided by at least two languages with a capital situated in a flemish speaking area but whose official language is French. No wonder they don't get on! Belgophile? I suppose that must be it. Looks and sounds less than lovely - so I suppose it covers the country's reputation. So it is a pleasure to report that Belgium is a delight. Having sampled De Panne we weren't put off by the price of moule-frites and drove via the outskirts of Bruges to De Haan, or Coq sur Mer as it used to be called. I found this enticing description on the internet: "With its many picture postcard villas in the renowned Belle Epoque style, with literally hundreds of little balconies, balcony and oriel windows, verandas with colonnades, turrets and dormers, De Haan is home to that genuine holiday atmosphere. The pink, yellow and cream-coloured pastels of the myriad villas and hotels, the winding paths and the verdure on offer give you that blissful sense of relaxation you are looking for. The coastal resort not only owes its charm to the architectural style, it was also spared from joyless high-rise block developments"

We arrived to find the arts and crafts seaside town enjoying its annual Trammelant festival. This involved a flea market, music, processions and the sunshine helped to make this celebration of La Belle Epoque fun. We did spend rather too much time worrying where the pier was only to discover that it wasn't De Haan but Blankenberge which is thus endowed. Maybe that's where we'll head on our next outing. Suprisingly the nearest pleasant French beaches are almost two hours drive away whilst if we drive via Bruges we can be on the lovely Belgian coast in just over an hour on clear, well metalled fast roads. Simples!

And the weather! Yesterday hit 33C and today it was 32C just after lunch though we have been promised rain this evening and tonight and lower temperatures tomorrow. We'll see. I was thrilled to see that the copiously leaved - or should that be padded? - lily in our little pond has indeed produced buds, three of them, and now I am anxiously awaiting the blooms.

Next on the agenda la Braderie over the first weekend in September when Lille turns into a giant flea market and then a long weekend in Paris. Watch this space. If you've nothing better to do!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Three weeks, three birthdays and three cameras

It all seems so long ago now and yet it was all there to look forward to only three weeks ago. We had an itinerary based on a 70th birthday to which, if the timing was right, we would be adding a new birth and then, given time between train, we factored in Peter E's birthday and a celebratory cappuccino.

So, once upon a three weeks ago, we set off on the trusty Eurostar bound for St Pancras International, where we checked out the new high speed link to Kent and secured a "terrace" table at Le Pain Quotidien. This reliable chain, although it does serve coffee in bowls much to JC's dismay, was founded in Belgium, whereto we would later travel. We were thoroughly amused at the waiter's inability to understand Max's request, in English, for the bill and found it even funnier when he did comprehend my repeated request, in French.

The North East of England is a wonderful area. The people are friendly, the landscape appealing, and it is the home of two f the 2Cs. As with most of the UK and northern Europe though this summer, the weather is shite. It was better than last August though - every cloud etc! Apart from spending quality time with our lovely friends there were a number of highlights: sitting in the centre of the Millennium bridge between Gatehead and Newcastle eating our picnic and becoming involved in a theatre production; seeing Durham and its magnificent cathedral on the day of the Miners' Gala; being treated to a massage; having a go on the fitness Wii; checking out where Topher does his voluntary work at the Washington Wetlands Centre. And we did sit outside in the beautifully landscaped garden which is more than we managed last year!

The 9th of July saw the rather rapid birth of a new niece: Imogen. Whilst this wasn't perfect timing it meant that we were in Grantham just four days later and able to spend time with the family and its new addition. Thursday being Mother's café day, we indulged in a little nostalgia with brother Ian by driving to Belper where we lived almost 40 years ago. The house at 26 Knowl Avenue , brand new when we moved into it in 1970, was our home for all of 20 months. It evoked little in the way of memories to be honest. More interesting was a very bumpy ride along Long Row where the mill workers cottages abut the school all three of us attended for a while. Herbert Strutt Grammar is now home to a primary school, the grammar system long since having given way to comprehensive education. I still have the polar bear I fashioned out of wood in my first and only year there. On the way back to Grantham we stopped in Burton Joyce to find two houses where our grandparents had lived back in the 1960s. The first was easy enough as it has a small tower on the corner and a dried up stream running through the garden. The second eluded us but we discovered later that it was probably opposite to where we had parked the car.

And so to Leeds. It was pouring down and we huddled with the smokers in front of the NO SMOKING signs at the entrance to the railway station waiting to be collected. Leeds was not our final destination though for the very next day we drove with birthday girl Margaret, 70 years young, to The Old Hall at Madeley where the celebrations were to take place. What a superb spot! Our new friends Gary and Simon have excelled themselves in producing the highest possible standards of a top notch guest house within an historical building. Champagne was imbibed, a magnificent repast consumed and many a fine song karaoked. It was all over far too soon and before we knew it we were headed back towards Leeds via Holmfirth and an arranged drop in visit to see family but an unexpected lunch.

Once again in Leeds our Monday was filled with the wonders of Harewood House and its plethora of attractions.

We'd upgraded to First Class for journey back to Lille on Eurostar to celebrate Margaret's inaugural Chunnel experience as part of her birthday tour, and, of course, to ensure that there would be more fizz. The journey takes no time at all and, almost as soon as you have finished the last mouthful of onboard meal the announcement for Lille is made.

Our time in Lille with our septuagenarian guest was fairly quiet though on Sunday we ventured further afield and set the controls for De Panne, a seaside resort in Belgium. The logic being that most of the french resorts on the Cote D'Opale are around two hours drive away from Lille whereas just over the border in Belgium is only about an hour away. So, two and a half hours after setting off we arrived at our destination and finally found somewhere to park with an allocation of two hours in which to have a desperately needed lunch and a stroll along the promenade. Lunch was glorious, De Panne less so. It wasn't exactly ugly, just lacking in character. And moules are exhorbitantly priced! We drove home via Bruges on wide, almost empty motorways.

And finally on Monday we drove backto Bruges to meet Mark and Sarah who we

re sojourning there. Bruges remains on the right side of Disneyesque with many very well preserved and rebuilt buildings. The canals make it of course. Parking this time was a breeze as there is a multi-storey next to the railway station that costs at most 2,50€ for 24 hours plus a free bus, should you elect to miss the stroll, into the centre. And it's only around 50 minutes in the car from us. The drizzle cleared allowing us a couple of outdoor beers and then moules frites al fresco. Still pricey but less so at 17€. Very tasty in their Provençale sauce, though I am almost certain I can make them better and for far less at home.

What about the cameras? We spotted a bargain Vivitar in Asda Grantham for only £35; the perfect replacement for Maman's ailing model we thought. The quality was inconsistent and mostly poor so it went back albeit to an Asda Leeds. After research we decided on a number of models recommended by Which? all of which were out of stock at Argos. Sainsbury Leeds came up trumps with a fine looking mega pixelled Fuji, which again let us down. Back it went to Sainsbury Tottenham Court Road, London though not without reluctance on their part - email has been sent. Armed with the eventual refund, Max popped next door to PC World and acquired the current camera, a Kodak. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Not right after all

Saturday afternoon we just happened to find ourselves driving through the small town which has been the the focus of much media attention these past few weeks: Hénin Beaumont. The far right party Front National came top in the first round of the partial municipal bye-election a couple of weeks ago and the very real possibility of their taking the town loomed large on the horizon for this old mining town. Their success had far more to do with the indictment of the major for embezzlement and the ongoing inability of the parties on the left of centre to sort themselves out than any real taste for nationalistic fervour.

I have to say I didn't recognise the town from the rather negative, and inaccurate, picture painted in the Guardian on Saturday. The town centre at least is pleasant with lots of commercial activity and, whilst we were there, some kind of demonstration along with flares (the ones you light!) and a red faced rather drunk skinhead type shouting "Vive Le Penn". I hope lots and lots of uncertain voters caught sight of him too.

We were on our way to Alinéa, which is probably best described as a French version of Ikea, to check out the sales. We also popped into the local Ikea where J-M picked up some fried onion pieces. Deliciously dangerous! Anyway, the shopping area in Noyelles-Godault which sits cheek to cheek with Hénin Beaumont was rammed with people. The area appears to have swapped coal for consumerism.

Yesterday mid evening came the very good news ie the far right had been beaten by a, some would say unholy, alliance of all who are anti right wing. So the recently softened-down Marine Le Penn, daughter of the bumbling Jean-Marie, doesn't get to add deputy mayor to her recent return as an MEP.

Friday, July 03, 2009

This little piggy...

... went to Lille and did some lèche-vitrine yesterday. Having been stuck in the house all week and with only a baker's dozen of bundles of hedge bits confected in the garden to my credit - ready for the Bopes to put out for the encombrants - it was time I smelled some heady retail Sales fumes as long as I didn't properly inhale!

Also I've been somewhat under par this week and have imagined all kinds of possible conditions not least, given the current climate, that of swine flu. In reality, even if I did have it, I doubt whether it would qualify as more than the littlest oink though it did wake me up last night with a severe coughing fit.

Anyway, I digress. Lille. It's Fête du Cinéma all week. Buy one full price ticket and gain a pass to as many others at just 3€ each. So off I trotted. A snuffle around FNAC where there are some veritable bargains to be had in the 5 for 20€ troughs, and truffles aplenty to be had in Galeries Lafayettes where we qualify for an additional 15% since we are cardholders. I did give in to temptation and bought three items but let's just say they were not for me but for another growing litter...

Back to the cinema. I enjoyed The Boat That Rocked on my own. For some strange reason it has been retitled Good Morning England for the French market. I wonder why? A joyful little film which entertained well enough. More a boypic than a chick flick though perhaps. The music from the era is superb: simple, unaffected, good tunes with words and melodies, untainted/enhanced by computer or digital technology. But then again what's the betting the originals HAVE been enhanced for the purposes of the film? No matter. I am tempted to acquire the soundtrack. Woop de wooh it's a double disc!!!

Meeting up with Max, we checked out the new Woody Allen, Whatever Works. I am pleased to be able to report that he is on a winning streak having delighted with Vicky Christina Barcelona last year (which could so easily have been Almodóvar) he is back on more familiar territory ie Manhattan where we are regaled vignettes of the angst and delights of various intertwining relationships.

We Flunched, then these little piggies went home.

Monday, June 22, 2009

An Unexpected Bouquet

Birthdays come and birthdays go. Some are memorable -for the right and the wrong reasons. Some you'd like to forget. Some mark milestones, of which some you'd prefer not to have reached and others it's all-out celebration ie on officially becoming an adult, and, later, of still being around to raise a glass to otherwise absent friends.

This weekend was not a chronological milestone, but a memorable and hugely enjoyable anniversary nevertheless. Enhanced by the presence of our very good friends and regular visitors, Tiff and Stuart from sunny Leyton, and punctuated by "nice stuff" including lots of eclectic music and shared images including the two Jude Wrights!

The highlights were, undoubtedly: being treated to lunch at Zango in Old Lille, an eclectic mix of tapas/mezze and good company plus pleasant service after 1400! - we'll be going again I just know it; then, yesterday, brunch at 34JJR prepared jointly and with great joie de vivre the evening before with the very able assistance of Miss Howick. On the brunchmenu: Tortilla, Buttery Kedgeree, Fruit Salad (with cherries from the garden) and Walnut Cake served with a coffe and star anise syrup, plus the usual continental breakfast/brunch continental suspects.

Add into the weekend mix an interesting Transphotographiques exhibition at the Palais Rameau, part of the Lille 3000XXL season - I'd never before stepped across the threshold of this interesting space -and at the newly refurbed Gare St Sauveur where we shared our delight in Hotel Europa and were then mesmerised by an HD Video presentation of The Feast of Trimalchio , also viewable, although unofficially, on YouTube by searching on AES +F The Feast of Trimalchio.

I can now fully enjoy the delights of vinyl since I now have the requisite gadget which allows me to use our donated record deck via our mini hifi! Thanks originally to Jarred, and now to Max and the Bopes, we can bop to the warm plastic sound of the 70s and 80s.

And this morning I was lured from the second floor by the newly installed doorbell. audible above the white noise of my laptop's fan, to find a delivery from the gorgeous Aquarelle flower company. The caardboard box opened to reveal a bouquet of innumerable delightful white roses thanks to D D and D. A heavenly start to the week.

Merci à tous.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Family values

So it was that on the Wednesday morning the train set off on time bound for somewhere in the north and second stop Grantham. Although my family have always been a little nomadic and there have been times when we were dispersed across the country, for some time now the core of the family has been living in and around Grantham. I claim no other ties as I was in my late 20s when my mother and sister moved there. One brother had already lived there when still in the RAF and having lived further returned some years ago. Sister in the meantime has grown up and has her own, soon to be further expanded, family who also live in Grantham. So I suppose I know it a little.

It's not a bad place and it has much going for it. As with so many medium sized UK towns it suffers from too much traffic, and, apparently, not enough for young people to do. That apart it has all the shops you'd ever need, with larger ones to be had in Nottingham only 25 miles off, or in Lincoln, 35 miles away. The one thing that always strikes me is how much new building has taken place over the 20 years or so I have been visiting the town. It seems to have virtually doubled in size though appearances do deceive. Having checked various internet sites I see there is some truth in my observation since I recall the figure being in the late 28000 and now the estimated figure is 38000 with some 60000 possibly by 2026. In that case something better had happen as there won't be enough of anything to go round! In the meantime it seems a good place to bring up a family and the swarms of pushchairs to be dodged on its pavements bear testament to that or maybe to there not being enough to do. Take your pick!

Mother being otherwise occupied serving tea coffee and bacon butties on Thursdays, I got to spend some time with my very expectant sister (number three). A treat indeed. Later on supper with brother, new sister in law was another asian inspired lentil delight. How fortunate am I?

Then on Saturday I managed to grab a dose of sunstroke in Lincoln - huh? - and can only surmise that even though I was sitting in the shade on a boat at the wharf, that the light was bouncing off the water and frying my brain... It was a lovely spot to enjoy lunch at, at the time. That evening we babysat the littlest nephew and niece whilst their parents were dining out. We were treated to a takeway chinese meal from Mr Man and Mr Pangs (you kinda expect a Mrs there don't you?) and the run of the Wright's wine cellar ie the cardboard box on the floor in the sitting room! As it was we only managed to drain the one bottle.

I had almost forgotten the availability of shopping on a Sunday in the UK so was a tad taken aback to find the shops open and buzzy - indeed, what recession??? TK Maxx was happening for me, not always the case, and I could have gone wild in the aisles had there been any money in the accounts. Nevertheless, a chap needs something new to go on holiday with - November back to Gran Canaria btw - so a bling T- Shirt and a green and slightly pink T-Shirt later I wrenched myself away from shopping heaven and off we went for lunch at the positively scrummy Syston Park Farm café. The outside looked tempting but, no parasols, so we sat by an open door.

National Express East Coast came up trumps with my train ticket: £8.30 each way booked online. Just as with their predecessors, they only appear to get it right half the time as, yet again, there was a delay on the return service. It seems that lightning had struck signals in the Darling ton area and that resulted in a 40 minute delay. The seat reservation printer was also out of commission - I hate to think that it too had been struck by a lightning bolt, or is this just a precursor to our having to pay for the privilege of a seat? - so I was thankful that the train, when it arrived, was not overly busy. I was still in London in plenty of time to catch the last Lille bound Eurostar and to nab an armful of free papers and mags in the Executive Lounge as well as a plate of sandwiches.

During my time away the Bopes were installed chez nous ensuring Max had company (parents plus two dogs) and someone to make his meals. They were also their usual industrious selves and worked like billy-o removing the unnecessary hood thing in the kitchen and, best of all, cutting down the horrid hedge in the garden and putting up a replacement fence.

We now have a garden which is about a metre wider and looks much less long and narrow. Most of the hedge has been bundled up and taken away by the encombrants which come by once a month and all that I need to do is to paint the fence.
We're thinking blue, just like in our Wimbledon garden, as the green leaves look so stunning against it as a background.

Families? Don't you just love 'em. I do both mine.

A Feast in Woodside Park

Rani and I go back a long long way. In fact we met during the very first few weeks at university so this year marks our 30th anniversary of friendship. I've visited Rani in various places including Woodside Park but have only stayed when she lived in Los Barrios, not far over the border from Gibraltar where she worked there in the 90s. It wasn't quite the sit in the garden with a glass of something gorgeous and chilled weather we'd hoped for but the idea of buying Mateus Rosé was a lovely one, if only to remind us why we haven't drunk any in the intervening twenty something years since graduating! The bottle is still an interesting shape.

Woodside Park is sort of part of North Finchley, to the west of the High Road that runs between Finchley and Whetstone. It's not exactly well known and there are few woods to be found though it can fairly be described as a pleasant leafy suburb. It does have a plethora of charity shops and it was there in a couple of hours that I tracked down a pile of paperbacks and my need to raid Asda's 2 for £7 section was no more. The best of the bunch had to be the North London Hospice shop where even the newest least battered book was £1.50, and the most expensive the Cancer Research shop which was asking £2.40. It may be for a good cause, but... They redeemed themselves with some attractive greetings cards at a mere 99p.

Apart from spending some quality time with an old friend, the highlight of the visit had to be the meal we enjoyed together prepared mostly by friend Tippy but with input from Rani - let me know if that's accurate girls! I'd needed a plan B since Rani never knows when she will next be jetting off to deepest darkest Africa or flying to far flung asian shores. Luckily we didn't need to use plan B - which was to go and stay with Rachel in Walthamstow - but instead put plan C into action ie Rachel came and joined us for the feast. I've not yet had the courage to sample asian cooking in France having once tried chinese food in Paris - it was très très bland - so I am always up for something spicy and hot when I visit the UK. And nothing beats having something cooked at home by someone who knows what they are doing and can titillate your tastebuds with a family recipe or an old favourite. You don't even have to select from a menu! Everything was vegetarian and delicious. If only I could remember the names of everything we ate! Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that, and third helpings were soon dispatched. Oof! I was full till suppertime the next day!

The next morning the tube strike was well under way , we'd made plans for me to be dropped off at a national rail station so that I could get to Kings Cross and thence to Grantham but the gods were smiling on me and the only tube line with a normal service was the one I needed: the Northern Line. OK so Kings Cross tube station was closed but alighting at Euston station was not a problem and only a short stroll - even with suitcase - along the Euston Road.

It's difficult to imagine the realisation of the plans to redevelop Kings Cross station. Currently such a shabby terminal with a pokey concourse and little in the way of amenties, it has lost out tremendously to the all singing and dancing and internationally connected St Pancras International next door. The plans look v interesting and I like the idea of opening up the front space ie the current concourse plus the existing pavement area, to be a public square. The new concourse will be to the west side ie opposite the side of St Pancras. I did think that at one staget there were plans to join the two stations with a glass covered canopy and open space. It was probably too expensive.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Weekend in (a) New England

Sometimes a short break away can be as good if not better than a more extended leave. Now in London for few days catching up with friends, this lucky individual has been made to feel so warmed and welcomed he almost wonders why he left these blighty shores!

Thursday evening saw my arrival in East Dulwich and quality time with Clare. Supper (and lunch at home the next day) was delicious as was the company at Green and Blue in Lordship Lane and C's flat was awash with sunshine showing it off beautifully. Loving the new curtains cherie!

Friday afternoon the extended trek to Brighton was made additionally worthwhile by a brief but much overdue reunion with the ever gorgeous Matt. Here's someone who knows how to live! I knew him as a museum administrator then a project manager in the same industry, when our contact faltered, for reasons unknown to either of us, I heard he had become a property developer. Now he is a ceramicist. Check out Matt Smith Ceramics.

On to Roland and Amy who had generously offered to put me up - again! Theirs is a generously proportioned, wonderfully eclectic comfortable ramble of a home. Bit like my good self these days!!! The Tin Drum bar in Seven Dials took our custom before we dived into Amy's special vegetable ragout and we left not a trace to say we mightn't have enjoyed every scrap. Saturday didn't look obviously promising weatherwise but by the time Gladys - those voilet eyes! - had arrived, the sun was trying very hard to break through. And when, with Janet D in tow, we all piled down the hill it really did treat us to some rays.

Nigel and Brian, newly removed to Brighton, though to a home they already possessed, were hanging over the kitchen balcony, both resplendent in shorts and B sporting a deep tan, which wasn't after all from South Africa but from Silverdale which abuts the Lake District up there on the North West coast. Suddenly Kathryn was there and as we were saying our enthusiastic hellos Clare W turned up too and we were ready for a glass of wine, a tour of the house and lunch on the (downstairs) terrace, where the sun warmed us all afternoon.

I am fortunate to have experienced some gorgeous moments and try to capture them so that they won't be forgotten. This was one of those lazy, wine flowing afternoons of early summer, spent with fabulous friends, people who care about each other and look forward to meeting up as we have done for some 17 years. People who became acquainted through work and who've soon become firm friends.

Saturday was far from over. Roland, Amy and I went to pick up a DVD - The Changeling, Angelina Jolie's showpiece, not in itself a bad film but it would have benefited from some heavy pruning and a proper conclusion - and a tasty takeaway curry.

Sunday night's torrential rain gave way to a bright blue day. Amy's piano playing filled the flat - how I adore that sound -and the sun streamed through the sash windows. It was just perfect for checking out what has been happening in Brighton since my last visit two years ago. I was impressed by the changes and am happy to report that the resort is even more improved. Everything is looking clean and new and the Brighton buzz was still in the air. Lunch in the beer garden at the Battle of Trafalgar in Guilford Road and back to R'n'A's for the French Tennis Open men's final in which Roger Federer easily took the prize for best outfit, best legs and ultimately achieved his goal of becoming Champion too!

Is it just me or is there always a problem on the London- Brighton line. Mustn't complain though as I'd conjured up a couple of 3 pound singles... Next stop leafy Woodside Park in N12.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Follow me!

Well how cool is this?

Not only can I send directly to this blog by email...I'm obviously getting a tad ancient as this seems pretty awesome to me.. but now regular readers can "Follow Me". Whatever that means. Try it and see. I don't think it hurts and it certainly doesn't cost anything.

Just call me a child ofthe sixties, dazzled in the headlamps of rapidly developing technology


Monday, May 25, 2009

A lake a day feeling I like

It's done. The long awaited event has happened. Two years after the possibility emerged the occurence has occured. All that talking and all that planning and it was really very simple and not at all exhausting. Wish we'd done it sooner and more often.

The bike ride that is! Every time we've been to Lac du Héron we've commented on what a brilliant place it would be for us to take the bikes, confirmed by the many unpowered two-wheelers doing the circuit. But the route looked tortuous, with many an opportunity for getting ourselves lost in the wilds of Villeneuve D'Ascq or, if we got that far, La Cousinerie.

Getting there by car is a trick we've only just mastered and, I've had one failed bike attempt when I didn't quite "get" the pumping up the tyres thing - no-one said you had to open the valves! - and Clare and I walked there in about 90 minutes and then persuaded Max to come and collect us in the car.

So, it is with a slightly ashamed face that I can report it took us about 15 minutes of cycling to get there. It was glorious in the sunshine and the route we took was leafy and traffic quiet, about 95% if it on dedicated cycle lanes. Then suddenly we were cycling alongside a sparkling expanse of water. Avoiding weekend joggers and uncertain where to walk pedestrians, I swooped onto the headland to enjoy the bench overlooking the lake but realised that Max, who was supposedly following, was nowhere to be seen. I got the feeling that this was like our invariable supermarket experiences together...

Rejoined we discovered that, in fact, the circuit for cyclists is interrupted by an enclosed reservation. Being good chaps we dismounted and pushed our bikes forward but after the fifth or sixth person swished past us we decided to get back on and to take it carefully and slowly. Indeed we were overtaken by any number of joggers. Couldn't quite make out what a careful cyclist could do in the way of damage, that a careless runner or even an inconsiderate walker couldn't.

Our return route took us along different cycle paths but we were soon home and barely perspiring, which may be less than ideal but suited me fine for a first time. Max is plotting a more energetic parcours next time but he may again lose me to the joy of the rustling leaves and the crunch of the gravel.

It was definitely lake day yesterday as, after Lac du Héron, we went on to have lunch with the Bopes and then accompanied them to an expanse of water in Wingles. It didn't appear to have a name but there was lots going on, it being one of those beautiful days when people emerge into the first real warm sun of the year and the sight of the otherwise-entrousered male leg is always something of a surprise. By the clubhouse I couldn't quite make out if it was a heat or indeed the final of the national French model boat racing competition. I hope it was the former as some 10 seconds before then end of the race all boats had foundered and the only angry waspish buzz was the intermittent sound of adolescents' wretched motorbikes. We strolled alongside the water and noted a young boy who was learning how to ride his bike without stabilisers, his father running alongside him. How he avoided being jettisoned headfirst into the water we'll never know. The labrador who couldn't wait to jump in one more time to fetch the enticing stick but who found it rather laborious to get out of the water. Yes we were relieved that we were watching from a safe distance when the enthusiastic mut finally made it back onto dry land!

We are fortunate indeed to have expanses of water so readily available for us to enjoy almost on our doorsteps. Water is so calming, so relaxing to walk or cycle next to. I believe we will be returning often for another fix of these fab facilities.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Mosaïc Gardens and the Looted Ladder

The arrival of friends gives us the impetus to do two things, at least, the first of which is to clean and tidy the house, and the second is to seek out places to visit and ways of keeping people amused. Thus it was with our friends and fellow francophiles, the Romans, who visited last weekend. They live in Kent just half an hour or so's drive from the Eurotunnel thus have a relatively straightforward journey to get to us that demands less than two hours driving plus the transit sous la Manche. This is unless you attempt to programme our address into most, if not all, Sat Nav systems, which deny our road's very existence and entice the unaware driver towards another JJ Rouseau in Vieux Lille. Our guests happily all enjoy the same initial, D, so we can refer to them as the three Ds, the smallest and youngest being D for Darcey, who is five and a half.

The weather was not quite as reliable as we had been led to believe it might be, but we risked an afternoon at the Mosaïc Gardens just 20 minutes drive away. As is often the case with "attractions" such as this, the written word can only give a one dimensional idea of the reality, but it sounded attractive and lent itself to a saunter in pleasant surroundings so we all leapt into the Romans' chariot - a Mitshubishi Pajero with impressively retracting wing mirrors - and set off down the A1.

The weather though only intermittently sunny, meant that fewer people had been lured from the shelter of their homes or the immediacy of their gardens and there was just a handful of cars in the car park. We waited five minutes for the arrival of the Bopes who were joining us , then made our way along the Deûle river towards the entrance of the park where their award for a welcoming reception was shown to be much deserved. Papa was provided with a free electric wheelchair - his back doesn't allow him to walk too far - and we were allocated audio guides in our respective languages.

And so we set off, not knowing really what to expect but it soon became clear that Mosaïc is a total delight, a jewel of a project that has been in development for five years, since Lille was European Capital of Culture in 2004. It's a series of conceptual gardens set in 33 hectares of parkland around a lake next to a river. Each garden is a work of art born of a collective approach and telling a story. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is something for everyone from the sheer pleasure of a walk through this open space where the air is sweet and clean to the representations of the gardens themselves to the froggy chorus. As well as a more traditionally laid out picnic area, scattered around are tables and chairs both factory made and constructed from materials found within the park. It would not be difficult to while away an entire day with a picnic in this magical place. We will be adding Mosaïc to our list of things to do for our visitors. (Pics to be posted soon)

Our stepladder has been missing for 7 months. The plasterboard man took it away, ostensibly for cleaning as it was covered in hardened plaster, and despite many phone calls and messages it had never been returned. Yes we've listened to the promises to bring it back and been disappointed when it never reappeared. It's just a ladder though, isn't it? Yes and no: it's OUR ladder. Why should he get to keep something just because he has taken a fancy to it?

So Max went to the main Lille police who rang the man - Fred - and asked when he would be returning our ladder. He said he would be a fortnight as he was using it on a job in Valenciennes! That must surely be the best example ever of barefaced cheek! The police told him that this was not good enough and they would take things further but it's at this stage that everything becomes a little hazy.

The local Hellemmes police have been in touch to ask how much the ladder was worth and now the thief has offered us 30€ saying he no longer has the ladder in his possession indeed the employee who took it away to be cleaned is no longer working for him. He's probably worn it out since it was a domestic ladder and he's been using it on every job over the last seven months! Had he hired the ladder from us over that period he would have owed us a lot more than a paltry 30€.

All we want is our ladder back or, if that is not possible, an adequate amount to allow us to replace it. Watch this space, floor level only - we have no ladder.
Update: Discovered from photos after much searching that our ladder was a Black and Decker ie not just any common or garden ladder! It was multifunctional too. Not that we used it much for anything other than getting off the ground to paint etc. The local police have called Fred in on Thursday and have promised us that they will make him pay for a new ladder. So we have bought one in Leroy Merlin that isn't quite the same but will do and at 30€ off was a bargain, for him. Watch this space.
Latest update: He didn't turn up! Now WE have to send him the bill for the new ladder and wait to see if he will reimburse us... I wouldn't bother watching this space!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Handwashing purple napkins

The house was full of fun and laughter against a constant background of CBeebies on a, seemingly, looped schedule. Strange how it can be quite so mesmerising. The dishwasher was either half way through or needing emptying; it seemed to be permanently full. There was always another meal to think about or to prepare. So today, whilst I was handwashing that rather nice Indian cotton purple napkin I had allocated my sister, Michelle, I reflected on the Wright's visit which, thanks to the channel ports blockade, had extended from six days to a week.

I 'd stocked up with essentials such as fish fingers, chicken nuggets (now in the bin - the "chicken" bearing no ressemblance whatsoever to the picture on the pack - you rejected well, kids!), pizza ingredients, Petit Filous, fresh full fat milk and Cheerios, apples, pears, oranges and bananas galore- food, food, food, turning on the overflow fridge in the cellar to accommodate everything.

Children turn a house into a home, effortlessly, and it is rewarding to see two small people feeling safe and secure (despite the much worried about steep stairs) and making at least an effort to eat the food set in front of them whilst taking over the territory with their fun and giggles, and occasional tears.

What did we do? Well, we didn't do anything major. There was a possibility of their going to Disneyland Paris but, sensibly, this didn't happen. There was an opportunity of going to a more local amusement park but we went to the zoo in Lille instead and let the children choose from the rides at the cute children's permanent fairground, Les Poussins. I hasten to add that the fair is cute and that this is not a qualification to get in! Of course, nephew Jude and niece, Savannah, would have strolled it had it been.
The weather was more than kind for the duration of the visit, allowing us to hold an Easter egg hunt in the back garden where the magnolia and cherry trees blossomed exhuberantly, right on cue. It also allowed for finger painting with - supposedly - water washable paints. One wash and a soak later and a scrub, and there are still traces on at least one T-shirt. Make note to self to contact those nice people at Lidl. We made pizza and the children composed their own toppings. The adults got what they were given!

For the adults, OK for Mummy, we went to Lille and checked out Zara Home and Maisons du Monde before taking the children to the playground at Parc Lebas - a big free hit. Thanks to the French fishermen's blockade we got to enjoy another day together and went for a walk around Lac du Heron and watched the simple delights of a pirateship-shaped play area being thoroughly enjoyed by those who are still enraptured by the uncomplicated.

The return ferry was rejected in favour of Eurotunnel and the excitement of a train, indeed a train in a tunnel UNDER THE SEA!!! The house is back to normal almost, though there is no doubt less joy and less unmitigated happiness, and no stray bananas on the sofa. I haven't looked underneath yet.

Thanks for the kisses and hugs; that much enjoyed supper you made, Jarred; for eating the awful pavlova which promised so much, presented well but ultimately failed; for enjoying "Peter Pie" still; for time spent watching Kung Fu Panda, Cars (again! - it's a classic and apparently your second copy); Liverpool v Chelsea (my, what a lot of goals -and Mummy and Daddy supporting opposite teams!); the Cheerios that were patiently poured into bowls each breakfast and just as patiently poured (dry!) back into the box.

Thanks for visiting and, come back soon!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Giboulées de mars - time to go back to work.

It's interesting and amusing to compare sayings in different languages and traditional approaches to such natural events as the weather. In English we have March winds and April showers, in French they have giboulées de mars which can also, apparently occur in April. How very French!

Giboulées are heavy downpours, often associated with hail, whereas "April showers" conjures up something more refreshing and lighter perhaps. Anyway, both English and French have a phrase which warns against being overly previous with the discarding of ones winter garb ie "ne'er cast a clout till May be out" and "en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil. En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait". Seems as if the weather is supposed to be a month ahead in France then...well for a lot of France anyway but certainly not as far north as Lille! I've only just ventured my over-wintered fuchsias and geraniums from the outhouse and keep a keen weather-eye on the overnight temperatures.

Longer days, warmer temperatures and thoughts turn to picking up some more paid work. Here's a link to my mini work site where all my details can be found including a link to my CV. Any thoughts???? Click here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Saturday Nite Loft

In August last year Max and I were asked to "loft sit" for a colleague. See The Other Side of the Tracks. We almost didn't but something told us to give it a go and we had a ball pretending that we lived like trendy well off people in the centre of Lille with a view of the town hall from our gorgeous terrace. Last Saturday evening, Valentine's Day, we were invited to the official housewarming and again, when the day dawned, we were in two minds as to whether we really wanted to go. Neither of us is a party animal and making conversation is difficult enough in English when you are struggling to make yourself heard, so doing the same in French with a partner who is not the most outgoing person, was going to be a challenge indeed.

We left the decision open and dealt with other pressing matters such as a discussion about having Valentine's presents sent half way round the world at additional FedEx cost and other associated topics. We had decided on a homemade housewarming present; what else do you give people whose income and lifestyle doesn't require our interpretation of the taste they should or do have? They had adored the loaf of bread Max left awaiting their return before so we repeated the gesture albeit adorned with ever essential tea-towel (Habitat) wrapped in transparent cellophane and tied with a bow. Good tea-towels, it seems, are not easy to find. Let me expand on that. Expensive tea-towels are to be found in obvious places such as the homewares floor at Printemps, where a piece of cloth bore the unlikely tag 9€! We came to the conclusion that the well to do probably do their tea-towel shopping on dedicated weekends away in Paris. We settled for a pack of three from Habitat for 12€.

Armed with baked loaf, and tea-towels at the ready, we felt almost obliged to show our faces so agreed that we didn't have to stay all evening but would make an effort. Well surprise, surprise! We actually quite enjoyed ourselves and I am only disappointed that I have no photos of the evening to share. Of course we were familiar with the layout of the accommodation, probably more so than most of the 100 or so guests. The English speaking teachers we had been promised had not materialised and so we were introduced to various others but soon found ourselves standing to one side wallflower like, clutching flutes of champagne. The party goers were probably in their forties on average though the hostess's mother, who was in charge of the excellent catering, was a magnificent and youthful 75!

It wasn't long before word of my exoticism had spread and we were comparing notes on a piece of modern art with a charming smiling man and his pleasant wife. Can't you see the elephant, he grinned? Then a man, Edric, whose parentage was half Belgian and half French who had spent much time in England and now teaches engineering at Lille university, struck up a conversation with us. When someone is as competent at another language one can only be awestruck and jealous in equal combination. My mother is a little like that, having lived in the UK for all of her adult life very few people know of her origins nor suspect that english is not her native tongue. That is apart from one or two expressions and pronunciations such as, inexplicably, the word ladder, that continue to evade her.

The music was suddenly turned up and almost instantaneously the piste de danse was filled with couples dancing joyously. But they weren't just doing the usual party jig a jig, the wedding reception shuffle nor Dad dancing: they were Ceroc-ing - of that I am totally convinced. I've never seen such rhythm and ability at any UK social gathering and was transfixed at the sight. My research tells me that the word Ceroc comes from the French "c'est rock". How very appropriate. Of course the inevitable downside was that us merer mortals were clinging to the walls at the very thought of being dragged onto the dancefloor! The fear soon dissipated as more improvised and standard wiggling took over. Good heavens! I even managed to persuade Max to dance! He of course "doesn't dance", "doesn't sing" and "doesn't cry"- all of which I adore to do. I assured him that he would look sillier just standing looking at the dancers rather than joining them. Photo courtesy of Ceroc London's gallery.

Was it really midnight already? A few people had departed but the party was still swinging though we had had the best of it and, as the fashionably late appeared with, no doubt, expensive gifts having had other engagements earlier in the evening, we gathered up our coats, thanked our hostess for a fab time, and let ourselves out into the chilly nocturnal Lille.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

94: An ecumenical weekend

With the rain lashing down outside and high winds blowing across the north of France, it is good to remember our recent long weekend in Paris, when, for the most part, the sun shone brightly, the sky was blue and the air was crisp. We did awake to maybe 1cm of snow on the Monday morning, but that was soon washed away by the rain which fell all afternoon.

We ventured into the French capital on the day of the "general" strike. Foolhardy maybe, and Max's auto negative was in full twitch describing scenarios, which, though possible, were unlikely. In the event our train was indeed cancelled but the tickets were valid for any train that day and we found seats easily enough on the scheduled service just 30 minutes later than planned. Ironic then that this very train broke down just 500m outside Lille Flandres! After a short delay it moved again albeit slowly before coming to rest a hop and a skip away from the end of our road. I busied myself with the free newspapers and hoped the problem would go away and within 20 minutes, even on strike day, the engineers had sorted out the problem and off we went. On arrival in Paris our lengthiest delay was in the queue for Métro tickets, otherwise both our trains arrived just as we did on the platform. It is still well worth buying a carnet for getting around in Paris. Individually tickets cost around 1,60€ but in tens they are about 1,10€ each. There is also a daily ticket called a Mobilis which costs 5,80€ for zones 1-2 ie good enough for seeing the whole of Paris intramuros.

Our first chore as ever was a trip to Carrefour Auteuil where we stocked up on provisions though bizarrely there were no standard baguettes available. Call the pain police! It's an interesting branch of this international chain, just a short walk along Boulevard Exelmans and a cut through towards Le Parc Des Princes and there it lies disguised beneath a covering of green and pressed hard against the périphérique.

Thursday night - yay!!!! Well more like - nay!!! We are not big on going out but instead enjoyed a whimsical movie on DVD starring the currently ubiquitous Kate Winslett and a very enjoyable performance from Cameron Diaz. "The Holiday" worth taking a gentle and entertaining peek.

We were up and out relatively early on Friday. The capital was glorious just as it always is. Our route took us through Auteuil, past Radio France, along the Seine and across Place de La Concorde then through La Madeleine. We found a great little sandwich place for lunch, Planetalis in rue Godot de Mauroy. I discovered afterwards that it is part of a small chain but it gave the impression of being a one-off and the veggie sandwich with aubergine I had was delicious.

Being the end of the sales we just had to check out Galeries Lafayette and Printemps if only to see what was on offer for Max's work gear. Bit disappointing really and nothing like the bargains available in the UK. We did come away with a good work shirt though. We still hadn't taken any public transport and had walked for kms but we were a little early for our appointment with Tatie who was treating us to dinner so, we kept on walking!

Goodness 30th January already and we hadn't presented our voeux properly so it was just as well that we had time to find some flowers and a bottle of champagne. All was well! Dinner at the Royal Péreire was a simple affair with my salmon filet with rice being exactly that, fish with rice, not a drop of sauce and nary a garnish to be seen let alone a side order of lemon! Still it was beautifully cooked. We took the bus to the Gare du Nord to meet Rachel who was arriving on Eurostar for her very first visit to the City of Light. What a privilege to be able to show a rookie around Paree with every confidence that she would absolutely adore it!

Saturday morning we checked out the market in Auteuil - a tradition for Rachel to take photos of food markets when abroad - then an antiques/bric a brac fair before retracing our steps along the Seine showing Rachel the sights or rather taking her to them, or past them. A closer look at the Tour Eiffel, magically isible from the flat, then to Place Vendôme but our new favourite sandwich place was closed so, having admired the fabulous stained glass dome at Galeries Lafayette we ate lunch in their café with a view over Opéra Garnier. It was excellent value given the quality of the food and the location. Well worth considering making the effort to go up one more floor for great free views over the rooftops.

We decided against doing the tour of the Opera House as it was 8€ and we were all on an economy drive, but, thanks to Rachel's research, we did enjoy a couple of the original shopping arcades at Galerie Vivienne and then Passage du Grand Cerf. Then we walked around the Centre Pompidou-Beaubourg before arriving at Notre Dame where we mingled with the crowds, avoided a slide show but lit candle. It's an iconic location and although a little touristy, is still worth a visit. Less well known was our next port of call: the simple but deeply moving memorial that is hidden away at the end of the Ile de la Cité - a memorial to the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps, the Mémorial de la Déportation.

We deserved our ice cream and hot chocolate served at Berthillon on Ile St Louis. We all swooned over the Carmel au beurre salé and my Agenaise was delightful too, a combination of prunes and Armagnac. I have to confess though that the Tarte au Citron à la Coriandre was either too subtle for my tastebuds or perhaps the coriander was just not sufficiently in evidence!

We had time for a visit to view the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe admiring the intricacies of the glass facade and a quick razz around the bookshop where we found some great cards, before finally conceding defeat and blistered feet and Métroing back to the flat for dinner and a DVD viewing of "La Mome Piaf" - where else could it be more appropriately viewed? We had walked for kms.

Sunday, wasting no time in getting out and about again, we gave in to our aching limbs and bought a Mobilis ticket. We were soon admiring the stunning Place des Vosges, which, at some 400 years old, is the oldest square in Paris! Rachel was keen to see some of the Jewish quarter in the Marais and the shops in rue des Rosiers didn't disappoint. Next time we will stop for falafel or coffee and cakes. Then we queued in the bitterly cold wind to get through the heavy security at the memorial to the Holocaust, Le Mémorial de la Shoah in rue Geoffroy L'Asnier. Once through we found ourselves dwarfed by the Wall of Names: the names of 76,000 jews deported from France as part of the Nazi plan to annihilate Jews in Europe are engraved on several immense stone blocks. Only about 2,500 survived the camps. A small sign advised visitors to allow at least an hour for their visit. I imagined that the collection might still be quite small since the memorial was only opened four years ago. We emerged an hour or so later knowing that it would have easy to have spent the entire day, but that an hour was about as long as anyone could bear.

It was the 1st February and the first Sunday of the month, so many monuments and museums were FREE! We took advantage of the date and introduced Rachel to La Sainte-Chapelle , built for Louis IX in the 13th century, with its superb stained glass windows. Then, via the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf to the Louvre, (also free) entering via the pyramid and making straight for La Giocanda, Monna Lisa or the Mona Lisa. Take your pick. I doubt that Leonardo Da Vinci imagined for a moment five hundred years ago that there would be so many people straining with their digital cameras to capture the image of this small painting! We gave the Louvre café a miss and found a more reasonably priced establishment with more choice at - Aux Pains Perdu - on the rue Royale.

We had fancied the Musee D'Orsay a museum which saw a previous life as a railway station well before Tate Modern was conceived and another freebie to boot! Sadly for us, the biting wind hadn't put off the hardy crowds who waited patiently in line to get in to the Manet/Picasso exhibition. Changing our plans quickly, we hopped onto the RER part way to Place Charles de Gaulle/Etoile but soon realised we were going the wrong way! Soon rectified we emerged at Champ de Mars/Eiffel Tower which intersects with Métro station Bir-Hakeim. That prompts me to look up Bir-Hakeim, which turns out to be a battle in Libya during WW2. We must have been more exhausted than we realised because we promptly found ourselves going in the wrong direction once again, this time on the Métro! Emerging eventually from the labyrinth which is the exit from the Métro station at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe (another freebie), we just had to climb the 284 steps to the top... did we? Well, yes we did because although Max has been to the top before it was when he was a child so he didn't really remember but neither Rachel nor I had seen the view from the top. I say climbed pointedly because halfway up I felt barely able to stand! Yes, it was tough getting to the summit, and blimmin' cold, painfully cold in fact, but worth it. The view down the Avenue des Champs Elysées and the eleven - count 'em - other grand boulevards that radiate from its base was worth every painful step!

Thought just a walk away we were determined to make full use of our all day Mobilis cards and so took the bus to Tatie's where we would introduce Rachel and enjoy un apéro together. Were we finished for the day? No siree bob! We still had the Pigalle and Montmartre to taken in. Thank goodness for the funicular railway and Mobilis again! Montmartre was quiet and cold, far from the bustling tourist magnet it becomes when the weather is warmer and the restaurants spill noisily out into the Place du Tertre and the quick sketch or silhouettes artists plying their trade are a reminder of earlier residents and their cold garret studios. We couldn't not "do" the Sacre Coeur, so despised for so long after it was built to dominate the Parisian skyline, nor the terrace from which the city of lights is best viewed after dark as it spreads out beneath you and twinkles enticingly.

We took in the Champs Elysees on the way back to the flat and wondered how anyone could ever compare that thoroughfare with Oxford Street?!

Rachel left early on Monday morning insisting that she would be able to find Gare du Nord herself. We equally insisted that Max would go with her to be sure! We pressed an omelette sandwich on her - thankfully as the Eurostar was 3 hours late: snow in Northern France and SE England. It was La Chandleur or Candlemas, when the French traditionally eat pancakes, but our shop bought crêpes were dry and unappetising. We were rather fortunate as our next door neighbour back in Lille rang us to say she had made some and we were to promise to call by when we arrived home.

In the meantime Max and I only added a visit to FNAC to our list of achievements for the weekend and then enjoyed the bottle of champagne that Rachel had kindly arranged for Tatie and Henri. A fitting end to our exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable economical/ecumenical weekend.

Monday, January 19, 2009

93: Fourteen for supper and a winter wasp

I've been feeling a tad janvierish. Well, it's that time of year isn't it. Then yesterday evening not only did I receive a jolly email from the nice people at Camelot telling me that I had some "exciting news" about my lottery ticket: I won £10, making a grand total of £20 since November 2005, but we had a wasp in the house. Yes, a stripey flying thing with bad PR. Isn't that a bit odd? Suffice to say the lonely insect is no more since being euthanased with an oven glove. Don't ask.

Saturday evening marked our turn to receive Max's team from work for the fourth dinner party. We've missed just one, ironically the one which would have been easiest for us to get to. Such is life. We somehow managed to accumulate the most people since the new régisseur started and Laurie acquired a boyfriend. We added in the Bopes to lighten the sociability load and, voilà, quatorze à table!

It went rather well I think, though it is always difficult to tell when you are the one doing the work! The pressure was on since the French equivalent of "Come Dine With Me", Un Dîner Presque Parfait became popular and now I could smell competition in the air!

Everyone arrived within a manageable space of time and we did the usual guestimate of whom to kiss and how many times. Then we cracked open the champers provided courtesy of some do where Max works and I got the blinis topped and served. After my first flute of fizz I toddled off to prepare the endive salad (with walnuts from our neighbours garden, and Roquefort) and got going with the chicken breasts with Parma ham, Parmesan and thyme. Max had pre-prepared the leek and lemon risotto so that it was not quite fully cooked and set on one side. Then I re-warmed the tartes tatin aux endives et Maroilles in the microwave and dressed with a little pile of lamb's lettuce drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Seating everyone took a few minutes - a little like a difficult jigsaw puzzle - as although we had managed to get two tables into the space it was just a bit cosy!

The main course was a bit of a production line too! I sliced the chicken, arranged on the plate and Max placed some risotto and I sprinkled the parsley. Renée tossed the salad!

The English cheeses went down very well in fact Max and I passed first time so that everyone else could serve themselves first and then it went for a second lap before it arrived by us again! It was a hasty collection of a good Cheddar, an apple-smoked Cheddar, an OK Wensleydale, some Welsh goat and something made of ewe's milk. Don't berate me! I only had the deli selection from Morrisons in Wimbledon. We offered oatcakes, Jacob's Cream Crackers and Hovis crackers together with Max's bread to go with said collation.

Oh, they enjoyed the Christmas crackers but didn't really get them. Half of the rather useful gifts were left behind and they didn't notice the paper crowns. They were lovely quality but hugely wasteful and I certainly wouldn't have spent £22 on a box full price. Sainsbury's note that faux leather is still only plastic not some lower grade of leather! There was one rather odd looking thing - pictured - that none of use could work out. Having discounted the racier possibilities we settled for a childs bracelet but since I have worked it out. Go on, have a guess! Answer at the end.

I should also mention that the team kindly contributed the wine - other than the large red I sank in advance of their arrival and that was from an opened bottle in the kitchen, hic! Serge chose three bottles of La Cigale vin de pays rosée par Gavoty, three bottles of Domaine des Huards, Cheverny 2006 and two bottles of Chateau Roquevieille 2002 Côtes de Castillon to drink with the cheese.

Then we decided to do dessert, coffee etc in the sitting room so that I could wack the crèmes brûlées à la chicorée under the grill without an audience. Renée had brought some home made macarons with her- the teensy French kind - so we offered those instead of the planned mince pies since I thought that our guests had had enough to eat and wouldn't really appreciate this most English of delicacies, and it meant I could give the Bopes a box to take home. They love 'em!

The WTC crowd certainly enjoyed themselves as, once back in the sitting room, they moved the sofas so they could all be together. Max's father was amazed: he'd never seen such behaviour. I was pleased that they felt so chez eux. I could almost see 8s, 9s and 10s in the taxis home... For those who are not au fait with the programme, click here for a link to the episodes we watched yesterday.

Renée and Jean-Michel left the next morning armed with the aforementioned pies, plus extra tartes tatin and créme brûlées plus some poitrine fumée that I bought by mistake. Max and I vegged out all afternoon only getting up to refuel on leftovers but otherwise slumped in front of Location, Location, Location followed by Come Dine With Me.

Quite satisfying in many ways, quite exhausting too. We had planned a buffet but sitting together around one albeit L-shaped table made it more convivial, more fun, more conversational, indeed more French!

(answer - a napkin ring!)