Thursday, 1 February 2018


My father's parents came to live with us when I was eight.

Nana was small and brittle, always busy. Not comfortable with children, she used to buy our good behaviour with spoonfuls of honey. She wore an apron with a pocket in the front and it was here she carried her false teeth, only to be put in her mouth when visitors came to the door.

In her early twenties Mum had all her teeth taken out and was fitted with dentures.  She told me she had chalky teeth and was tired of going to the dentist on her own since early childhood. She had no mother and none of her many older siblings could be bothered to look after her.  So among the memories of my mother is one of a small pink plastic pot into which her dentures were popped at night.

This was the image I carried with me as I discussed with Dr M my brand new partial dentures which he had just placed in my mouth.  What did I do with them at night? He told me opinion is divided. In England, dentists suggest taking them out.  In France, dentists suggest to women that they always wear their dentures, so that their husbands are blissfully unaware their spouses are toothless.  Apparently there is no evidence either way as to which is better.

My mouth feels like it has an entire cutlery drawer in it.  I am assured things will improve.  In the meantime, I might just get myself an apron with a front pocket.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Tuesday Afternoon - Day Three

Bertie emerges from the lounge and sniffs suspiciously at a small lake that has crept out from under the pink towel in the hall.  He decides not to get his feet wet and skirts it, choosing to tiptoe delicately across the mat at the bottom of the stairs which is meant to trap muddy footprints.

I've been catching up on University Challenge with the sound off and the sub-titles on. The noise of the buzzers makes Vita anxious.  Without the sound it doesn't have quite the same impact, especially in the music round, but I do gather that Merton College looks like a strong contender for eventual winner this year. I've not been paying sufficient attention to the task of mopping up and have allowed the water to accumulate.

Earlier in the afternoon we went into town.  The fog lights on the batmobile are switching themselves on at whim. So we leave the car at the garage run by the Portuguese family with an endless number of identical brothers and cousins and afterwards head off in the merc for the bank.  I've just paid for tiles for a new pool terrace and there's a large dentist's bill coming up and builders to pay. So I want to check that the bank will let me.  French banks see the money as theirs, only to be used with utmost prudence by their customers.  After waiting half an hour, I smile gratefully as the bank clerk with the suspiciously black hair tells me he's raised my "ceiling" to the maximum for a month.

We wander across the town square to the bandstand on the promenade above the Garonne. Groups of townsfolk stand gossiping quietly and gazing across what has become a grey inland sea.  Small green islands emerge from the water - each with its farmhouse and outbuildings.  The locals knew what they were doing when they built on the flood plain.

Martyn said he would come round to look at our small inundation.  He lives in the middle of the grey inland sea.  I don't think we will be seeing him any time soon!

He will also be laying our new pool terrace when the weather improves.  The slabs arrive on a large lorry which cautiously inches its way down our muddy, slippery chemin rural.  The driver insists we cut down a poplar which some years back had self-seeded by our entrance.  He is adamant he cannot get past. Otherwise, he tells us, his lorry will slide into the ditch alongside.  There's not much we can do other than comply - he's holding four pallet loads of our slabs to ransom. Eventually, poplar tree sawn down by hand (the chain saw was sulking) the slabs are gently lifted off by crane and left on the lawn - a promise of sunshine, swimming and sunbathing.

Tod has asked me not to grumble if we have a drought this summer.

Monday, 22 January 2018

I thought I heard the siren across the fields ...

... as I came back down the drive from the house.

We have two washing machines going full pelt on their spin cycles, (one in the house, one in the cottage) trying to get the towels dry enough to mop up yet more of our small "inundation" in the hall and I was coming back with another load as the siren sounded.

That means the Garonne has broken its banks.

I've just looked at the vigicrues flood warning graph and in 24 hours the Garonne has gone from just over four to just over eight metres.  And the graph is still on an upward incline.  Two dotted lines cross the graph, showing the floods of June 1st 2013 (8.08 metres) and of January 25th 2009 (9.04 metres).  At nine metres in 2009 the town was virtually cut off.

There will be people on the flood plain tonight moving their furniture to the first floor. It puts our own small pond in the hall into perspective.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

A touch stir crazy ...

... (yesterday it rained solidly all day and this morning's not been much better) we take advantage of a brief break in the clouds to get some fresh air and set off with the dogs to walk the quays in town. The Garonne is only millimetres away from spilling across the cobbles.  In places, we walk through muddy slime - the river has already encroached and, briefly, receded.  The "vigicrues" (flood warning) graph shows the Garonne to be 4.40 metres at 11.45am, on a rapidly accelerating upward slope - the quays won't be walkable for much longer.

We return to find sodden towels in the cottage hallway. Removing his wellington boots and heading for the kitchen for coffee and toast, Tod grumps as he accidentally walks through an invisible puddle in his socked feet.

Water is steadily dribbling from the main electricity cable where it enters the house, collecting in the meter cupboard and then oozing out across the tiled floor.  Sopping towels wedged round the bottom of the cupboard only hold the water back briefly.  I squeeze them out on the lawn outside and feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.  The water table is now so high that the ground is saturated and the rain has nowhere else to go except along the sheath of the cable and into the cottage.

We've been here before in wet weather, but not often and not for a few years.  It seems worse this winter and with the sharp upward direction of the vigicrues graph, unlikely to get better any time soon.  I suggest to Tod that for the next few days he keeps his wellingtons on whilst circumnavigating the hall and the kitchen.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Christmas and New Year passes ...

... in a haze of Vicks VapoRub, Kleenex tissues and early nights. Even now, two weeks on, we are still coughing and sneezing, along with every second person in Leclerc's supermarket.

We negotiate "Bonnes Années" (Happy New Years) and "Meilleurs Vœux" (Best Wishes) with caution. To kiss on each cheek?  Or not to kiss? I wave a packet of tissues at friends in the photo club and they back away hastily (wisely I suspect) and someone cheerfully informs me that this particular virus is good for at least three weeks.

And through all this, instead of lounging indolently watching bad TV, we grump and grumble our way through the process of getting paperwork together for the prefecture at Agen.  We decided way back in October, in the light of uncertainty around Brexit, that we would each apply for a Carte de Sejour, which gives us the right of occupancy here in France for the next ten years.

As so often in France, each department seems to be a law unto itself and Lot-et-Garonne seems to be particularly exigent with a three-page questionnaire to complete requiring everything except inside leg measurements and a list running to a page and a half of paperwork to be presented at an interview on January 2nd.

So, we drag the wallpaper pasting table out from the garage and set it up in the cottage and start piling up the contents of our two dossiers - two copies of everything because we each have our own interview appointment (very Green Card. Are they checking up on us?). Five years of bank account statements, for him, for me, UK and France, downloaded from the internet.  Five years of electricity bills (to show we live here). Five years of tax demands from the French tax man.  Five years of evidence that we are receiving pensions (and hence will not be a burden on the state).

As a hoarder (I've kept every single bit of paper about my pensions from the moment we began to talk to an IFA) I have no problem producing the evidence - tedious, but no problem. My beloved, as an accountant, on the other hand, keeps a massive Excel spreadsheet on our financial lives and knows to the nearest penny how we are doing. But, of course, does not keep the supporting paperwork.  Why does he need to keep the annual state pension letters when he just enters each new amount in the spreadsheet?  And what little paperwork there is could be in the cottage, or in the house, and if in the house could be in one of half a dozen places. Hence all the grumping and grumbling. (This is why behind every good accountant is an even better accounts clerk who is keeper of the paperwork.)

I post anxious messages on the French forum asking for advice and suggestions and along with the helpful replies come the questions - why are we bothering to do all this?  Why indeed?  It just feels like an insurance. We will already be "in the French system" if/when Brexit happens.

January 2nd comes like the morning of an aural exam.  We carry our large ring binders and supporting folders with three-quarters of a ream of paper up the stairs of the prefecture - to be greeted with smiles and an "of course you can be in the same interview".  We sit together and papers flow steadily across the desk, are noted and recorded in the computer. After half an hour of French bureaucracy at its best we are told that our dossiers are complete and the "cartes" should be with us in five to six weeks.  We depart with more smiles and more "Bonnes Années" all round.

Despite all the Vicks and the Kleenex laden days it feels like a good start to the New Year. Hope yours too has started well.

I can safely send virtual greetings to you without the obligatory kisses and without danger to health and well-being. So "Meilleurs Vœux" and "Bonne Année" to one and all.

Monday, 30 October 2017

I promised myself I'd go back...

...and I was running out of time.  We were still in glorious sunshine, but only for another day or so.  After that, the forecast looked depressing.

So Wednesday evening I leave Tod and the dogs and head south in the dark for Pau and the Pyrenees beyond. Thursday morning reveals a town smothered in pink for breast cancer awareness and clear skies over the mountains on the horizon. Pic du Midi d'Ossau, with its distinctive double peaks is my eventual destination.

Pau - Place Clemenceau decked out for breast cancer awareness month

Pau - View from Boulevard des Pyrénées, with the distinctive outline of Pic du Midi d'Ossau

And those clear sunny skies stay with me as I revel in the glorious scenery and stop to take photos on nearly every bend in the road.

Bas Ossau (the lower Ossau) is green and lush.  The mountains hang back, leaving a spacious valley floor, populated with small towns and villages.

Looking down on Laruns

Higher up the slopes, Eaux-Bonnes a thermal spa made popular by Empress Eugénie now languishes in a scruffy, faded glory - the Hôtel des Princes a shadow of its former self.

Eaux-Bonnes casino

Eaux-Bonnes Hôtel des Princes now derelict and sold at auction in July for a mere 19,000 euros!

I travel on and upwards, following in the tracks of the Tour de France cyclists.  A pause on a sharp bend for a lunchtime ice-cream (the only food) and a Perrier at one of the few restaurants that are still open, I look back down on the ski station of Gourette - now a ghost town with its bars, hotels and apartments shut at the end of the summer season.

Gourette from Les Crêtes Blanches

My destination is Col d'Aubisque, a mountain pass at 1,706 meters (5,607 feet) and most years a passage in the Tour de France. Giant bikes honour the event and make wonderful climbing frames for small children. I stroll up a grass-covered slope and look back down on the modest hotel and cafe - still doing steady business as late holidaymakers and tough whip-thin men who have cycled all the way up relax under umbrellas and drink in the views.

Col d'Aubisque with Le Soum de Grum to the right

Friday dawns brisk - the temperature in single figures - as I set off for Haut Ossau (High Ossau), pausing at another thermal spa, Eaux-Chaudes, on the way. "Bonjours" are exchanged with a middle-aged couple cheerfully heading towards the entrance, towels under their arms.

Eaux-Chaudes thermal baths

The mountains here press in on the valley and the sun is slow to come over the horizon.  When it does, the landscape glows in the late morning light.

Gave de Brousset

Cirque d'Anéou

I'm heading for the Col du Portalet pass (1,794 meters, 5,886 feet) and the Spanish border (just so I can say I've been there). I cross into Spain to find a gaggle of French shoppers busy buying cheap booze from a huddle of small supermarkets.

Pic du Midi d'Ossau from the Spanish side

Now on the Spanish side, I realise I am looking at a mirror image of the peak seen in the distance yesterday morning from Pau - I have arrived!

Time to head home, passing the occasional cow complete with large cowbell on the way.

Through the windscreen

The weather is changing, the cranes are flying south and by the time I'm back on the motorway it's raining. These two last days of our Indian summer have been precious.

On Tuesday we're moving back down to the cottage for winter.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Yes, you are in the right place

Those of you who have been following Writing Home for some time, you may wonder where you have landed.

For some time I've felt that the black small writing on a white background was looking a tad old-fashioned. 

Also, for those among us of a somewhat elderly disposition there is a practical aspect which is that our eyes aren't what they used to be.  I mentally thank bloggers who publish in a larger font and thought it was time I did the same.

So on this wet Saturday I've finally taken the plunge, changed my template and somewhat nervously pressed the "apply to blog" button.  I haven't yet worked back through all my posts to check all is well, but the ones I have looked at seem to be ok.

I do hope that this new layout is easier to read and that the midway between donkey brown and Paris grey colour (Tod's not entirely convinced) is not too dull.

Friday, 20 October 2017

So We Came Home

Hard to believe, but for the ten years we've been here we have never really visited the Pyrenees. And they are only about three hours drive away.

Tod has driven through them coming back from Saragossa.  We once sat on a terrace in Pau and lunched with their magnificent backdrop just over our shoulders. Years ago, I stood on the battlements at Carcassonne and wished I was in the mountains instead.

So, we decided finally it was time, booked a hotel and headed for the Ossau Valley, complete with dogs, and armed with maps, guide books and pages from Google showing the easy walks (we weren't planning on doing anything too strenuous).

The weather had been glorious for the previous two weeks - temperatures in the high twenties. Even when we caught the trailing edge of Hurricane Ophelia as it tracked across the Bay of Biscay going northwards, the blustery wind was warm. In the bright autumnal golden sunlight the thought of walking in the Pyrenees was delightful.

As we drove south the rain clouds began to bank up and we took comfort in the occasional bit of blue sky - perhaps the weather forecast was unduly pessimistic.  By south of Pau the mountains were barely visible, grey sketched outlines appearing and disappearing against the grey sky.  By our third "pit stop" (Bertie gets bored / car sick, starts to whine and needs the diversion of a quick walk) the rain was falling fairly fast.  By the time we got to the hotel it was pouring.

Tod and the dogs stayed in the car as I dashed, dripping and bedraggled, into the elegant hotel foyer. Madame, looking at me with some horror, suggested that we and the dogs should stay in the annexe. She mellowed somewhat when I meekly agreed that yes please, we would like to book the restaurant for dinner - there was no way we were going any further!

The downpour eased to a mere steady drizzle and, knowing the dogs would need their constitutional, we set out macked and booted to explore a green lane immediately behind the hotel (great, where to go for tomorrow's early morning walk sorted).

We'd hoped to have the annexe to ourselves but a family of four arrived, banged and crashed doors, flushed toilets, ran showers and invaded what we'd already come to think of as "our space".  They were English too - maybe for Madame the annexe was the "English ghetto"?  I murmured that I hoped our dogs wouldn't disturb them - while quite convinced they would disturb us.

We hustled Vita and Bertie back into the car, hardened our hearts to his barking ("he'll settle down") and headed for the hotel restaurant. Throughout the meal we watched the rain in the dark falling into puddles on the tarmac, reflected in the lights of the hotel, trying to gauge whether it was easing off or not.

In a nearly empty room, Madame placed the English family at the next table - maybe she thought we needed the company?  We tried not to eavesdrop, but did hear with some relief that they would be leaving in the morning.

Another damp walk in the dark and we decided an early night was called for.  It had been a stressful day and the other family had settled down early - they planned to be up at seven.  In the dark I heard Bertie pacing the floor his nails click, clicking on the lino and then the soft whining started - I hissed at him to be quiet, praying the English family were asleep.  Vita too wouldn't settle, panting in anxiety and pawing the door.  By midnight all four of us were dressed, up, out and walking towards the village in the drizzle, the dogs thrilled with exciting smells and dank burrows to investigate, the sound of cow bells from the steep valley sides in the background, low cloud drifting in and out of view in the beams of our torches.

We crept back to the annexe and opened and closed doors as quietly as we could.  I lay in bed for hours, semi-rigid, longing for sleep, hoping that the dogs would stay calm and quiet.  By seven the family were up and out. The dogs, exhausted, slept peacefully through all of the comings and goings.

Over breakfast, the rain still pouring outside the hotel windows, we decide to come home.

We wonder whether Madame would be displeased, as I'd booked for two nights.  I approach her somewhat apprehensively to give her the news.  However, when I mention that our dogs have been restless in the night and I was concerned about her other guests, she couldn't wait to get rid of us.

Next time, we've agreed, when the weather's fine I'll visit the Pyrenees on my own, with only my camera for company. Tod, Vita and Bertie will stay very contentedly at home.