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Monday, August 20, 2012

Feeding green caterpillars to the hens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend audomarois

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 21, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

And then there were ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Lost in translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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