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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Sunday, 10 Feb 2013, 08:55
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16th June

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I have become so obsessed with the garden, so much so that when I chatted to an English neighbour this morning and she asked “how are they all” I assumed she was referring to my shrubs and roses and gave a detailed account of the problems with aphids etc whilst she looked rather quizzical. “Actually I was referring to your guests.” In fact we do have 6 house guests, here for a grand wedding in the Gers. They just left in a taxi, all wearing such beautiful brightly coloured dresses, hats and high heeled shoes. They were like a flock of tropical birds fluttering in and out of the house, all so excited as they gathered to leave. There was one man amongst them, wearing a morning suit. Apparently that was the dress code, it’s 28 degrees outside so all the chaps will be feeling very warm.

The garden is now all consuming, I wander out first thing every morning to see what has been growing in the night. There are already beans and courgettes to be collected; I wander up and down the rows filling my Nigerian calabash. I finally understand tomato plants but it is too late to have them growing tall and upright this year, but at least next year I’ll know what to do. They have fruiting stems which emerge between leafy stems and the main stem, they have to be pinched out. I was totally confused by my neighbour’s explanation last year, but now my French has improved it seems so obvious. I still have a huge problem with moles upturning my carefully nurtured annuals. In France you can buy mini smoke bombs that you light and put down the mole hole. Finding the hole in the molehill requires several minutes of poking around. I have now used 30 of these smoke bombs at great cost and have now learned they don't work in big mole galleries, the smoke just comes up elsewhere. I counted 57 mole hills this morning. I have ordered 5 tunnel traps on ebay, a book on moles and some granules you put in the mole tunnels that give off a smell that persuades them to move away. I had already tried the sonar alarms and the French style mole traps with no success. Somehow it seems odd that in this era of amaxing technological developments, no one has successfully worked out how to eradicate moles.

Our neighbour suffered an awful tragedy last week, losing 2 dogs in 7 days, his faithful 16 year old hunting dog had to be put down and the following day his young pointer (that he had worked so hard with in the last two years since his old dog retired) was run over by some farm machinery. I only found out today when I spoke to his daughter in the supermarket. Etienne was apparently inconsolable but his children immediately sourced two adorable puppies and life goes on.

There have been ongoing dramas with our younger son who has just finished his finals. The old lady who lives in the flat below his kept ringing him during the night with bizarre requests, so he wasn’t on his best form for a couple of the final papers. He was also repeatedly contacted by her personal alarm people and asked to check on her. Eventually he thought it best to turn his phone off and unplug the door bell in the interests of getting some sleep. It now seems she has been taken into hospital. Not easy for a woman with no family at the end of her life. He finished his exams on Thursday, and with a fellow student headed off to Harwich to get the ferry to Amsterdam, only for the train and then the tube to break down. They were given a refund at the station, then wandered the streets till it got light as neither sibling could be contacted. They were sustained by the euphoria of finishing their exams and decided they must go somewhere so logged onto one of those cheap deal websites, bought return tickets to Miami for £175 and booked a convertible ford mustang for the week. They flew off this morning. I am so worried about potential dangers, but will just try not to think about it.

We have still been climbing mountains; with my wrist nearly healed I have no excuse. I somehow see it as a weekly penance for enjoying the good life in France. TOH is never completely honest about the ascent involved, but I struggle onwards and upwards. I do love reaching the summits and the views but enjoy drinking a cold beer and the sense of having survived once back at the car even more.

Converting garden produce to something in a jar or bottle is time consuming. I have made three jars of redcurrant jelly; I won’t give any away this year as that represented the produce of one small bush, but it is growing rapidly so next year there should be a few more. I also made six bottles of elderflower cordial, half of which has already been consumed by our guests. The little French lady, Alice, who lives just up the road has several elder flower trees in her garden, amazingly she didn’t know you could use the flowers. We spent half an hour breaking off the flower heads, she would pull down the high stems and I’d select the best ones. Since her husband committed suicide a few years ago by taking wayfarin she lives alone with her dog and chickens, has no means of transport, is always in the same clothes and battered hat but always seems very cheerful. Her neighbour went into an old people’s home a few months ago and every day she feeds the dozens of cats the old lady left behind. They are all pure white, interbred and in various stages of decrepitude, she goes there daily with a bucket of cat biscuits and they all rush to greet her.  A couple of them have tried to integrate with our cat family but are always chased away with accompanying cat yowls. Alice was so pleased with the bottle of elderflower cordial I took along a few days later, though needed some convincing it contained no alcohol.

The sky has clouded over during the course of the afternoon, but I have no doubt preparations have been made for potential thunderstorms over in the Gers. Thankfully the guests are provided with a taxi home so we don’t have to collect them. I am so looking forward to a debriefing so I can use all their clever ideas for our impending wedding.

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26th May

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I broke my wrist last week, which doesn’t mean I can no longer use a keyboard, but it is the cause of a certain malaise, when I do sit down and use it I tend to waste time surfing the internet for things like 'when will my wrist be back to normal' instead of working on my Ema. It’s only a hairline fracture but I think I must have torn ligaments or whatever holds a wrist together as it is still painful. It happened when I was refurbishing the Black Knight, our scrap metal sculpture. I was perched on a ladder lowering the 4m spear into its holder when it tipped sideways and I tried to hold on which was a mistake. So the past week has been devoted to learning how to do things with one arm, everything is possible, it just takes longer. TOH thought a mountain walk would be a good thing to give my wrist a rest and found a route with not too much ascent where there was no scrambling or steep bits to fall down. The wild flowers are all appearing and progress was slow as we stopped to take photos of any we hadn't yet recorded. The warm weather means dozens of new species are pushing their way through the soil now the snow has melted. The swathes of colour from the blue gentians, daffodils etc are stunning. I am trying to assemble a file of wild flowers with their French common names as well as the English and Latin ones. The French and English common names are totally unrelated, for example 'stinking hellebore' becomes 'le pied de griffon', I suppose in a way the different imagery used for the  is related the art section of Y180, but it won’t help me write 1000 words on Rego’s ‘Policeman’s daughter’.

The garden is looking its best, all the roses are flowering, the new trees coming into leaf and most exciting the flowering annuals for the wedding, (with the exception of the delphiniums which the cats seem to enjoy rolling on) are growing well, though having chosen a random planting scheme I am not entirely sure which are weeds and which are flowers. Sadly the excessive rainfall of last week means all the ripening cherries have burst, though they still taste delicious.

Our neighbours are having an Open Garden weekend, along with a craft market. I’ve been helping with the publicity so I hope they get a good turnout. I’ll go up with my unused vegetable seedlings and put them on someone’s stall, better than assigning them to the compost heap. My vegetable plot is now full, or will be when I get the chilli and aubergine plants in. It’s just as well I have a washable Velcro splint on my wrist, after a day’s gardening I need to wash it to remove the bits of compost.

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17th May

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The weather in this part of France is so unpredictable. It was so warm on Monday we could see the snow level receding as we walked up Soum de l'Escalette, it had moved several metres just in the time it took us to reach the summit and descend again. We had the summit to ourselves, with views across Spain and through the binoculars we could see a group of ski tourers coming down Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees, it looked like a lot of fun. The weather changed the following day, back to sweaters and now today thunderstorms are forecast for this afternoon. The newly planted seedlings are constantly thirsty, so it will give me a break from watering.

When we bought our house in France we inherited a large sculpture known as the Black Knight. It was a present to the previous owner from a fellow German who lived up the road. As a retirement hobby Manfred had created dozens of wonderful sculptures from scrap metal. The Black Knight is constructed from pipes and tubes, an inverted toilet brush on his head and his shield a bin lid. Yesterday I decided he needed freshening up, so bought some black spray paint from the local hardware store and so propped him up against the garage with a tarpaulin behind him, I even stencilled a new cross on his shield. It provided much amusement to everyone driving by. An hour’s work and he looks wonderful, I no longer need feel anxious about impending visits from Manfred who in the past has diplomatically feigned not to notice how neglected his prize sculpture appeared. In his heyday he was nominated for Saatchi’s online art gallery, http://www.saatchionline.com/mannicurly so I am sure we should be taking more care.

It is always a dilemma when to cut the grass under the trees. I planted hundreds of English blue bells two years ago and this year, thanks to a wet spring there was quite a showing, but they were hugely outnumbered by weeds, so I decided to be brutal and cut everything down, then strimmed the difficult bits. TOH has pruned the hedges so for a couple of days the garden looks will look as if it is under control, woodland in a sea of green bordered by a manicured dark laurel hedge. 

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13th May

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Thursday, 17 May 2012, 07:47

The last week has been spent gardening from dawn to dusk, with interludes sitting at my sewing machine making bunting for The Wedding. So far I have made 250 pennants which equates to just 60 metres of bunting, so given that son and fiancée anticipate 500m there is still a lot more sewing to do. I do enjoy it, especially when I see the pile of pennants growing steadily higher.

I am having to garden discretely, which is not easy when our neighbour Etienne regularly drives down the lane past our house on his tractor. The reason is that I should not be planting seedlings out before the name days of the saints du Glace have past, St Mamert, St Pancrace, St Servais on 11th, 12th and 13th. Both Etienne and Fatima have warned me of not just the danger of late frosts but also planting around a full moon. There is always some truth behind traditions but instead I have put my faith in the long term weather forecast and now have several hundred seedlings planted out, by tomorrow all danger will be past. The biggest hazard at the moment is the cats, for who the freshly turned loose soil is a magnet for a loo. The deer are a problem too; they have demolished a gooseberry bush and stripped the bark off the remaining stump to the ground so there is no hope of it regenerating. The moles are busy in the orchard, but so far haven’t crossed the drive. It would be unfortunate if wedding guests were tripping over mole hills. Meanwhile TOH has been hard at work tiling the conservatory. We have moved the furniture onto the tiled half and he is now most of the way through the other section. All the furniture will need moving again when it comes to grouting between the tiles. It would have been finished by now had there not been the diversion of an ebay purchase. He put in a rather reckless bid for a large blue painted wooden chest. It was advertised as an old Basque dowry chest. We had to drive for hours beyond Toulouse to collect it. At first sight it looked like yet another ebay mistake but we handed over 100 euros with a smile and heaved it into the back of the van. Once back home TOH devoted three days to stripping it and revealing the wood and ornate carving underneath. It is quite beautiful, but we have yet to think of a place to put it. We seem to have accumulated so many wooden chests over the years.

One thing that has ground to a halt is the studying. I will get my books out now. The art section I think is the most interesting, especially as we are looking at things short listed for the Turner prizes over the years. Perhaps I'll discover why Tracy Emin's bed is seen as an artwork. Tomorrow we are off to the mountains again, we were unlucky last week, what should have been an easy ascent up Pic Peguere had the path blocked by snow at a crucial point where there was a huge drop on one side, so we had to turn back. After the hot weather we have had over the last few days the snowline must be well above 2000m.

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3rd May

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Thursday, 3 May 2012, 07:24

A third day of glorious sunshine in our corner of France. To make the most of the blue skies we headed over to Ariege on Tuesday and climbed Pic de la Calabesse It was a bit scary near the top as there was so much snow, but wonderful to bask in the achievement of getting there as I kept trying to persuade TOH it really wasn’t safe, but then when there was only 100m more ascent I just gritted my teeth and carefully used each of his foot prints in the deep snow. Yesterday it was nonstop gardening. I measured out the line for the runner beans and put in the supports for the wigwams. The bamboo poles weren’t long enough last year so I thought I’d use 7 foot string wigwams. I’ll get the plants in today; they are all outgrowing their pots. I spent the afternoon on the tondeuse, creating neat lines on the lawn and even did the tricky bits between the trees in the orchard. Some water lilies purchased on ebay arrived and I planted those and tried to lower them gently to the bottom of the pond. The water is so murky there is no way of knowing if the pots have stayed upright.

TOH was busy with the tiling. I managed to rig up a shade over the conservatory, using a bedspread with string attached to each corner so it can be pulled across by leaning out the bedroom windows. It seems to be going well. There was a minor setback in finding not only was the floor not level, but neither are the rustic tiles, some a few mms thicker on one side, the furnace shelves must have been sloping. A further discovery was the odd shape of the conservatory, a parallelogram rather than a rectangle, so the rows of tiles at the edges might look a bit odd. We had three visitors yesterday; the sunshine makes everyone feel social and neighbourly. Fatima dropped by with some eggs and I gave her some purple sprouting broccoli plants in exchange, then Claude appeared with some lettuce plants and he went off with the same. I probably won’t need the twenty remaining broccoli plants, but they are very showy with their silver grey leaves, a contrast with the green of the tomato plants. Later the neighbours with the newlywed daughter came round with a beautiful bougainvillea plant as a thank you for the use of our parking area to decorate the wedding Cadillac. We sat outside enjoying the warmth of the evening with a glass of Pellehaut. I expect the rest of France were glued to their TV sets watching the Sarko versus Hollande debate, or maybe just bits of it. It lasted three hours, a bit like the duration of lectures at French universities as our daughter discovered on her Erasmus year. It looks as if Hollande will win. I’m not sure that it will make much difference to la crise. Our local town has one of the highest unemployment rates in the region.

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28th April

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The problem with day after day of wet weather is that it leaves me with no enthusiasm for doing anything useful. I have a long list of tasks, the first and foremost being do the Tma, then answer emails, make the bunting for the wedding, fill my newly acquired propagators with seedlings and of course there are things like housework. But this last week I haven’t really achieved very much other than the odd Sudoku.  Today was different. I gave strict instructions to TOH that I should be reminded at regular intervals that I have an essay to write. I sat down at a table, pushed the cat off my laptop and spent several hours researching and writing the essay on Chartism. Phew it is done and I am very excited about moving on to the art section.

There was a lot of activity outside the house. Our neighbour’s daughter was getting married and her Mum had secretly arranged for a Cadillac to transport her from their house to the Mairie, hence the use of the bit of land by our garage which was out of sight from her home. The driver turned up at 11am, wearing a Stetson with his partner following behind in a lesser vehicle. They spent an hour attaching balloons and ribbons and TOH had long conversations about its 7 l engine, juke box etc. It had been bought in England! Once the car was all polished and decorated they disappeared for lunch and returned at 3 to collect it and move on to the neighbour’s house to collect the bride.  TOH had kept an eye on the car at regular intervals; he was worried about the cats clambering over it and warned them off with the water pistol if they approached. It seems that wasn’t enough to discourage them and the man in the Stetson had to spend some time carefully removing the paw prints. We felt rather guilty. Happily the cessation of the drizzle coincided with the appointed time to collect the bride so hopefully all went to plan.

We have started to prepare for the tiling of the conservatory. I have been increasingly worried when even seasoned DIYers raise their eyebrows when I say TOH is going to do it. Step 1 was to clean the floor of accumulated dust, algae and fallen bits of plaster. Now we realise the concrete foundation isn’t quite horizontal, so needs a screed. TOH has it all in hand. This job could take some time.

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22nd April

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It took the whole day to write an essay plan for the next Tma, the problem with working on a laptop is that with a press of a key I can check the news... and it was exciting day here in France with the first round of the presidential elections. The locals were out in force even at 10am this morning and they all seemed to converge at the bakery in the square afterwards so I had to queue for 10 minutes to buy a pain figue and a pain complet and tried to listen & translate the election chatter and gossip while waiting.

There wasn’t much excitement this week; activity was curtailed by heavy rain. As usual we had lunch with friends on Thursday, I spent half an hour on their phone fielding demands from someone who insisted they had ordered three cases of Chateau Margaux and owed hundreds of euros. It turned out when they got their friendly mayor on to them that it was a scam. The tiles for the conservatory arrived and as the truck couldn’t get through the gate they all had to be carried round to the back of the house, 3 pallets, so that was hard work. In fact my OU study method today was to spend a few minutes planning the essay, and then move a few tiles, followed by a bit of weeding then more work on the essay, which is probably why I have only managed to do the 200 word essay plan.

It was a bit warmer today and we actually had a few extended sunny periods, wonderful after days of rain. The warmer weather still isn’t enough to persuade the blue lace flower and lisianthus seedlings to germinate so I have ordered 2 heated seed propagators to speed things up.

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18th April

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Wednesday, 18 Apr 2012, 11:02

I was looking at the description of my next OU module, Creative Writing. One area of the course is designed to create a daily writing discipline. This worried me slightly as I haven't even had the discipline to keep up a daily blog. Must try harder. I blame it on the weather. We had a wonderful week of warm weather before Easter and then it turned all wintry. I had to get out the thermal underwear again. Happily the conservatory acts as a large radiator, so we haven't had to keep the stoves lit. The biggest disappointment is my seedlings. Most of the vegetable seeds have germinated, but the tomatoes and chillies have done little beyond that. Most of the blue flower seeds I planted for cut flowers for the wedding have done nothing at all. Lisianthus, blue lace flower, larkspur...nothing at all. So I have reordered seed and will try again when the weather improves. No problem with the white marigolds, but anyone can grow those.

My Tma as predicted came back with a couple of areas not achieved. Writing the correct number of words should be easy, but owing to the difficulty of reading my computer screen in the bright light in the conservatory I somehow read 500 as 600. (I have the same problem with sudokus!)

Visitors have come and gone for the Easter holiday. Having the children and friends here meant a week of sporting activities. They used the week to repair the damage done by long hours in the office or in younger sons case studying for his finals, so there was cycling trips, a mountain walk and daily runs near the house, hopefully they all went back feeling refreshed by a week in the French countryside. We even had an Easter egg hunt, it was all quite competitive. I wish they'd taken their chocolate bunnies home with them. I've just eaten the last one.

Yesterday we finally had a day of sunshine so drove up to the Valle Louron, there is a good walk to a refuge at the top of the valley, busy with tourists in the summer, but yesterday we were the only car parked at the start of the walk. Blue skies and snow laden conifers are always spectacular, made more so as we were walking up on pristine powder snow. We made most of the ascent but couldn't reach the refuge, at one point the path was covered by a deep avalanche, initially we tried digging our way across but then decided to be sensible and stopped for our picnic at a small shrine further back down the hillside. We came back down the contouring lacet (shoe lace) route. At intervals the gas company which operates the Louron hydro electric plant had erected information boards. Not just of pictures of flora and fauna which themselves were very interesting, but display cases of animal poo which enable identification of herbivores/ carnivores and another case of pieces of regurgitated bird vomit, which varies between nocturnal birds and vultures and indicates the size of the bird. There were also casts of animal and bird footprints. It was fascinating, such a good way to get people interested in nature.

I must get down to studying the Chartists. We tend to take living in a democracy for granted. Maybe less so here in France where the revolution and motto 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' is instilled into every Frenchman's consciousness.

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4th April

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Whew, I have just had a blitz working on my OU module and submitted the Tma. I found it very difficult, probably because I had not studied the course material thoroughly enough or done all the activities. I don’t even work for a living in the conventional sense or watch any TV so I have no excuse.  But the last few weeks since we returned from Turkey have been a bit frenetic. We have had visitors, a son and friend which required lots of organising, we skied with them on day one, but then handed over the car keys and let them find their own way a couple more days, which they did, with some difficulty, it was a relief when they returned unscathed.  Cycling 40kms to a nearby restaurant is always a good activity for fit and able visitors. The route took them along single track roads through pretty villages and rolling hills. I drove the support vehicle, useful when the chain of one of the bikes broke. Son arrived at the restaurant covered in black bicycle grease after his attempted repair but no one seemed to mind. We had wonderful sunny weather for the whole week, and even managed to swim in the pool, albeit a little cold at 15 degrees. Sadly the weather is changing in time for the arrival of the extended family this evening. Rain and below average temperatures are forecast, but maybe another fall of snow in the mountains will mean it will still be possible for them to go skiing.

My 720 seedlings in the polytunnel require careful monitoring. I was very worried about the tomato seeds, which after 10 days showed no signs of activity but today small pairs of leaves are poking above the soil level in several of the pots. The pool needed various bits of the pump and filter replacing so there were numerous trips to pool maintenance shops, we are determined to do it ourselves rather than pay someone. The paving outside was all grimy after being covered with dead leaves for most of the winter and needed pressure hosing, always a satisfying but rather wet activity. The grass is growing fast and like the surrounding fields is a beautiful rich green. We all compete to have a go on the sit and ride mower, but picking up all the fallen bits of tree beforehand is less popular. The pond is full of unrecognisable bits of vegetation and needs cleaning out but there are so many resident fish and tadpoles I am not sure how to go about it. The house could really do with a spring clean but I’ll wait till the visitors are gone. Young people, especially students don’t notice dirt, so sparkling clean windows and cobweb free beams would be wasted on them. The worse is that since the advent of the conservatory the cats are moulting clumps of fur throughout the house and I’ve had to put covers on all the sofas so I can shake off accumulated hair. But we love the conservatory. All meals are now eaten there, and any spare time spent on the sofa with the cats reading or bird watching. It is wonderfully warm even when cool outside.

Friends have returned from faraway places, so there is catching up to do, we are back to our regular Thursday lunches plus we have made new friends with people who have moved into the village.

I am so relieved I have managed to send off the Tma, two days ago I was thinking I would have to give up, I won’t get a good mark but at least I am back on schedule. I was hugely encouraged by the postings of other laggards on the student forum!

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20th March

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Istanbul is such a wonderful city, even in the rain and snow we managed to have a thoroughly enjoyable week, though we ate far too much, being able to fit into my slightly too small wedding outfit is looking even less likely. Our cats were all here to greet us when we arrived home in the early hours on Saturday and padded joyfully across our bed all night. We didn’t have the heart to shut them outside after a week away. We were thrilled to find the main house was several degrees warmer than when we left, after a week of sunshine all the rooms next to the conservatory have heated up, so we have moved back in. There is a layer of dust on everything from the building works, the spring sunshine shows up all the cobwebs and dirt. I realise the reason there is so much housework is because a two hundred year old house in France has far more surfaces than a modern house. There are hundreds of wooden beams, which hold up the ceilings/ floor above in every room. Every window has a pair of white shutters which are currently looking rather grey. In the summer bats spend the day behind the open shutters, giving visitors a fright if they try and close them. Just living in the country next to farmland means we get birds nesting wherever they see fit, even on the beams inside the bedrooms and then there is the problem of small mammals, though less so now we have the cats. We used to hear beech martens frolicking noisily in the loft every night, they have all moved on now, but only after removing swathes of insulation.

The garden has to take priority over everything this week, including OU modules, the polytunnel is up, and I have filled 300 poly pots with soil and now have planted vegetable seeds in all of them which hopefully will germinate over the next few weeks. I’ve discovered potato grow bags and I’m now using them rather than plant rows of seed potatoes. It’ll be easier to pick off the Colorado beetles. I love the idea of a flap that can be raised to harvest a few potatoes at a time, rather than dig up the whole plant. I’ve ordered more poly pots for the flower seeds, which I’ll pot a bit later hoping to delay the flowers until the wedding day when they can all be cut and arranged in the church/ marquee. I was rather depressed by a visit to the caterer yesterday who told us of a producer not far from us who does cut flowers at trade prices, I’ve bought all the seeds now and set aside sixty square metres, currently covered in black plastic to kill off the vegetation so I can dig it, or even rotivate it if I can persuade Philip to get me a rotivator as an early birthday present.

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13th March

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Tuesday, 13 Mar 2012, 15:35

It’s now our second day in Istanbul, we are taking a break at the guest house and drinking a beer after a morning of exploring and sightseeing. We are staying in a wonderful Turkish run guest house which does the most delicious Turkish breakfast with a huge array of fruit, bread, cheese, yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice etc. Yesterday was wet and cold; it didn’t stop raining all day. There was a big supply of umbrellas for guest house residents which we took advantage of. Our first sight seeing stop was the Top Kapi Palace, the buildings were around a series of court yards. Lots of very impressive exhibits inside and groups of wet shivering hooded tourists wandering between them. There was a brisk trade in umbrellas and plastic raincoats near the gates.

We walked on to the Grand bazaar (in the rain) we were happy to discover it was a covered market, so could fold up the umbrellas. (I managed to forget both my umbrella and gloves in the first shop where we made a purchase; the storekeeper retrieved them from behind the counter when we went back a few hours later). We had a superlative lunch at the Havuzlu restaurant, which features in all the guide books and is as much a favourite with the locals as with tourists. We shared our table with a maths professor from the University, who was still giving lectures at 70. We learned all about his family of whom he was justly proud, his wife a retired dentist, daughter a surgeon, and son an engineer in Sudan who spoke five languages fluently. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into a Turkish family’s life. Daughter and I had intended to do lots of shopping, but in the end we just made a few modest purchases. We did look at wall hangings for the conservatory, but it would require too much bargaining to get down to ebay prices and there was just too much choice.

Istanbul is full of surprises and contrasts. High rise blocks, tall elegant buildings, wide streets in some areas and then other areas of narrow alleyways lined with small shops. The shops are zoned into different areas; today we walked along a street that sold nothing but belt buckles, another that just sold polyester lace curtains, a crockery street and so on. The tram and metro system is so clean and efficient. The pelican crossings have a wonderful countdown system so you know how many seconds you have to wait or to cross. There are public loos all over the place. Everywhere monuments are being carefully renovated and streets lain, constructed of granite bricks. The food is wonderful, though we did make a mistake last night for supper, an expensive second rate pide (Turkish pizza) in a touristy restaurant. For the rest of our holiday we won’t go in a restaurant unless it is busy with Turkish people. Lunch today was fun, a fish sandwich sitting on stools at a stall by the Bosporus, we watched the cooks prepare it on their boat which was rocking to and fro; the wind had whipped up quite a swell.

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10th March

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We had a good walk yesterday, up to a ridge above Saint Lary. The walk took us up a steep path through woodland. We didn’t take raquettes, we hadn’t realised there would be so much snow on the North side, knee deep for part of the walk. We zigzagged down on a foresters track to a village further down the valley then walked back up along the river to Vielle Aure where we’d started.

Preparing for a holiday is very stressful. It was a frantic day spent looking for things…like passports which had mysteriously disappeared from their normal location after a good hour spent searching we remembered we’d put them in the van when we drove to Bordeaux, one of those French idiosyncrasies, one should have ones passport in the car when driving. Then I had to write a series of notes on how to look after the cats, we just hope they are still here when we return, they already spend part of each day with our neighbour, they might give up on us completely.

We wanted to get the sockets and lights in the conservatory done, things kept going wrong, like finding after the sockets were all wired up and working that the shutters could no longer be opened, so they all had to be shifted a few millimetres. I was so glad our builder called by, he called by yesterday evening with his daughter. He reassured us about the crumbling wall, that it would soon dry out etc and perfectly safe to attach sockets to and no we didn’t need to install grills in the floor for ventilation. Of course he might be wrong on all counts, but I was glad he came, we showed him around the barn as he hadn’t seen his work inhabited, with the wood burning stove in action.

I’ve checked the weather forecast for Istanbul, a maximum of 7 degrees while we are there and rain most days. I somehow thought the temperatures would be similar to those here but it’s much colder. We are only taking hand luggage so we’ll have to wear lots of warm clothes. I’ve packed an empty bag in case I have time to go shopping, though I expect Turkish carpets are better value on ebay than in Istanbul. It is primarily a sightseeing holiday, according to our guide books there are hundreds of places worth visiting and plenty of good places to eat.

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8th March

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I felt a bit panicked this week, realising I have   not done enough studying of the y180 module. I did make a concerted effort to catch up, but it’s not easy. I don’t think my tutor was impressed in our first telephone tutorial, made even more stressful as the phone connection kept disappearing. Wedding preparations are looming, even though it’s months away. The bunting project involved a trip to Toulouse. I spent ages lining up different rolls of fabric, choosing tones of blue and yellow, the bride’s requested colour scheme, in the end just chose some half price heavy duty plain cotton which should be good in strong winds. The caterer came back with lots of expensive looking options, will just have to bite the bullet and choose one of them. The wiring in the conservatory is progressing; we need to get it done before we tile the floor. Getting the right bits and pieces always involves along drive, we are forever lamenting the absence of a Tool Station.  We have yet to fill the gaps between conservatory and house wall and are hoping the ventilating fan in the roof will reduce the damp problem on the wall of the house which is crumbling at an alarming rate since we enclosed it with the conservatory, or maybe it was crumbing before and I just hadn’t noticed behind the lavender plants. Like all old houses, there is no foundation, so the damp rises up from the clay beneath. We are off on holiday this weekend, a week in Istanbul with our daughter, so excited about it, though a bit disconcerted to see the weather Istanbul is still wintry and rain is forecast, but that might change. A kind neighbour is coming in to feed the cats in our absence, so I have to do lots of housework to create a good impression, I think their house is always clean and tidy. Unfortunately I was caught on the hop when he came over to meet the cats yesterday, so I tried to have the cat conversation outside.

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3rd March

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Saturday, 3 Mar 2012, 08:08

Huge excitement, the conservatory is finished, at least finished as far as the builders are concerned, there are a few gaps here and there, but then they were attaching it to a wall that leans outwards slightly; we’ll have to work out the best kind of filler to fill the wedge between the supports and the house. Of course we need to do the floor; we have moved the furniture in regardless and can just shift it to one end when we start the tiling. It was 22 degrees in there in the evening, 4 degrees warmer than the outside temperature; the cats loved it and curled up on the sofa as soon as we brought it in. We had the tree surgeons in yesterday too, they put up their cherry picker next to the old oak that has been dropping the odd branch on the garage and vegetable plot and pruned back the dead half of the tree. It looks rather asymmetrical now but we are hoping it will sprout some healthy growth below the cuts. The tree surgeons do gardening jobs too and have given me an estimate for digging a flower bed, a mere 70 Euros, so cheaper than hiring a rotivator, so they’ll come in once the vegetation has rotted under a strip of heavy duty plastic. So by April I should have somewhere to plant the thousands of flower seeds I have ordered from ebay, in readiness for the wedding. We put the polytunnel up and all the shelving. I realised I have run out of poly pots so have ordered a few hundred of those. I just love being able to work in the garden again. I can see it’s going to be difficult to fit the module in; I’ll have to be disciplined about assigning hours to study.

Our chosen book for book club on Thursday evening was Amy Bender’s ‘Peculiar sadness of Lemon Cake.’ It generally got the thumbs down. It started well, but the plot seemed to go a bit awol at the end, there had to be a better alternative to turning the maladjusted protagonist’s brother into a chair. After that we all thought it best to decide on the next book together. Tiny Sunbirds far away...in fact I chose it, it’s set in Nigeria, a world I understand and a book I’m sure everyone will enjoy. Driving to book club was quite scary, 30kms of deserted winding country lanes, mostly through woodland in pitch blackness. Living in a cluster of villages we tend to forget how sparsely populated the Midi Pyrenees is. I’ll arrange to give people a lift next time.

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28th February

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I have made an impact on the huge pile of twigs and branches at the end of the garden after seven hours spent breaking them up and feeding them into the incinerator bit by bit, the pile is about half its former size. It is a very satisfying activity, watching a fire burn. I was hoping to find the grenade log splitter. It flew into the pile when Philip was cutting up the dead sycamore last week, I haven’t unearthed it yet, weighing 10 kilos it’s probably buried deep in the leaves. I only gave up burning twigs when the level of ash rose to the top of the incinerator, red hot and glowing so it wasn’t possible to empty it out.

We are learning about tree management. I thought this would be a low maintenance garden as it mainly trees, but as well as pruning we now have to worry about the spread of mistletoe, six of the trees, all the Tilias have huge bunches of it hanging from the upper branches as does the hedge below and it is very difficult to eradicate. I added some of the bits we had cut out of the hedge to the incinerator, it is an amazing parasite, its roots extend deep into the branch of the tree, depriving it of water and nutrients. We will feed and water the Tilias this summer, to compensate for the misteltoe’s consumption. It’s so exciting now in the garden. With the sudden rise in temperature we have hundreds of crocuses coming into flower and new leaves on the climbing roses by the barn. I have ordered hundreds of seeds to grow cut flowers for older son’s wedding. It’s probably an overly ambitious project, especially as I’ll need to dig a huge flower bed in the clay to plant them out.

The conservatory people arrived early, lots of excitement, we shook hands with them all, I made a joke about selling their abandoned van. They got straight to work and the bits of aluminium lying on the grass soon diminished as did the stack of glass panes left on a trailer by the back of the house. There was a minor tragedy. I heard the shatter of broken glass, but as there was lots of swearing I didn’t venture over immediately. One of the roof sections had slid down as they were trying to put it in place and broke as it hit the ground. I hadn’t realised there was also a broken glass door sitting in the back of the van. Both will take a couple of weeks to order so that will be a further delay, but by the end of the day most of the roof was in place and they all seemed quite cheerful and shook hands again when they left.

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26th February

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An early start this morning, I wanted to get to the post office before a long queue formed. It was interesting to see the few others ahead of me had been doing online shopping too; we all had our boxes with return labels. In my case it was a complete Boden order, none of the items I ordered in their sale looked right, which is probably why they were in the sale.

We spent most of the day in the garden. The new trees are now all planted and staked, though we need to protect them from the deer that have already ripped much of the bark from the young fruit trees we planted two years ago. We’d admired the huge cedar trees we’d seen in various gardens and decided we really should have one in ours. It was a major task; we bought a well established cedrus libani in a huge pot which required the digging of a hole about a metre across. We positioned it where I uprooted a sickly magnolia last year, which the previous occupant had planted in memory of his third wife, I did feel a little guilty, but magnolias don’t grow well in heavy clay and it is unlikely he’ll ever visit his old house, wife number four was so happy to sell it. Now we just have to wait 50 years to see our cedar tree at its best. The afternoon was spent sitting on a garden chair next to the incinerator, reading Brazzaville beach and adding garden debris to the fire, there is a huge pile of twigs from the felled sycamore which aren’t stackable. The incinerator was my idea, our garden bonfires in the past have set light to overhead branches and left huge patches in the lawn which take ages to reseed, I thought it would be more controllable. In fact the heat it was giving off was frightening and I managed to singe my hair as I added twigs, as you can’t toss things into the incinerator from afar, so it probably isn’t such a good idea. I didn’t seem to make much impact on the pile of twigs, so next week I’ll fill the van and take them to the dump in several trips.

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24th February

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We had a second day snow shoeing in the mountains on Wednesday, we have to make the most of this wonderful weather, I think it is only in the winter that the skies are so clear we can see peaks hundreds of miles away. We set off from Payoll, which even by 9am was busy with French families enjoying the snow, but none seemed to be heading up the mountains on snow shoes. . We were up on a ridge at about 1800m and could look across to Arbizon and Pic du Midi and down to the villages in the next valley. In fact we didn’t need the snow shoes until we started the descent on the north side of Plat del Naou, where we were suddenly in deep powder snow. Putting on snowshoes in deep snow isn’t easy, we should have put them on when we were on the ridge, but there is always the temptation to think one can manage without them.

It was our monthly book club yesterday, our numbers diminished with members away for various reasons, it felt quite cosy with just four of us and the host produced a delicious lunch. The book was Self’s Deception, (Bernhard Schlink), who apparently has written some excellent books, (The Reader, Homecoming.) This was an early book based on a Private Eye character and I found the plot rather implausible and long winded, but the others enjoyed it, so there was lots of good discussion. Husbands were banished and they themselves had lunch at a restaurant.

It was the first day of the Y180 module, Understanding the arts. I can’t help feeling it won’t come naturally to me and will be much harder work than the creative writing module. I’ll start reading through the material today. I have just realised my laptop doesn’t have a disk drive to listen to the CD. Philip is off to the mountains yet again, skiing with a neighbour, I am wimping out, it will be busy with so many families from eastern France over here for the half term holiday.

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21st February

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Tuesday, 21 Feb 2012, 16:57

We had to find a home for the 120kg Zanzibari wooden chest we’d bought on ebay. I must admit to not really having given much thought to the dimensions when I saw it advertised. And 110cm by 50cm deep and 55 cm high is huge. There was a really useful empty space on the mezzanine in the barn where it would look perfect. We just had to work out how to get it over the rather fragile banisters (constructed from Ikea curtain poles…to match those on the spiral staircase). In the end we brought in the huge ladder we use to access the gutters, propped it against a beam, attached some karabiners to the top rung and to the straps we’d tied round the upended chest then wound a climbing rope through and then slowly hoisted it up using a pulley system. It was all a bit scary, especially the last bit when we had to swivel it over the post at the top of the stair case.  And now it has pride of place on the mezzanine and Philip has a Zanzibari chest to store his clothes in.

Yesterday we went snow shoeing, an easy route up to le Puech from Portet d’aspet, well at least it was meant to be easy, only 600m of ascent but having heavy snow shoes on made it hard work. The views were wonderful but we had to eat our picnic very quickly to avoid getting frostbite on the peak. I felt very envious of the cross country skiers who could then do the descent in a few minutes at high speed while we had to trudge down. Now we are catching up with domestic tasks, the holes are dug in preparation of the arrival of six young trees and I can finally hang some washing out to dry, so keeping the washing machine busy.

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19th February

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Sunday, 19 Feb 2012, 12:25
I flew back to Toulouse after a busy week in Bristol, stopping for just a night before setting off early for a trip to Bordeaux. It didn’t start as a planned sightseeing trip, Philip bid for and won (no other bidders) a piece of furniture on eBay…a Zanzibari chest, not because we especially needed one, but because when we lived in Oman thirty odd years ago we always intended to get one, (they are used as dowry chests by Omani women, made of teak with lots of decoration using brass studs.) At that time they weren’t easy to find. We had to collect it from near Bordeaux so decided to stay the night there to give us time to see the city. Our old Rough Guide wasn’t very flattering about Bordeaux, but in the last 10 years it has had a makeover, thanks to a Mayor who managed to extract millions from the government for renovation projects and the construction of a network of tram lines. It reminded me of Bath, so many beautiful stone buildings, a preponderance of churches and basilicas and narrow streets. We thoroughly enjoyed the walking tour and the tram ride in and out of the city. We collected the chest in the evening. Collecting any piece of second hand furniture always gives a glimpse into another life. The seller was a man in his seventies, whose wife had recently died, he’d lived in the Middle East, where he’d bought the chest and was downsizing to a smaller property in the city centre. We could have talked for hours about Oman etc but we turned down an invitation to join him for a drink, some of his friends arrived so it didn’t seem unkind. We had supper in Ikea which was next to the budget Etap hotel where we spent the night. The next morning we made an early start to a see Blaye, a citadel town on the coast. It seemed somehow incongruous that people were living in small village houses within the citadel, and sad that so many of the properties were falling into ruin, despite it being a major tourist attraction. Evidently, unlike Bordeaux, their mayor is unable to pull strings to extract funds from the government. We had a second purchase to collect, bought on Leboncoin, which is France’s equivalent of Gumtree. We met the seller at a village church not far from Blaye and followed her along dirt tracks through vineyards, feeling just a little anxious. She had stored furniture from her parents house in a shed attached to a tumbledown house, there were lots of small faces pressed to the window. We loaded the sofa into the back of the van, happy with our bargain, and then continued our tour of the area. It was so interesting driving past the chateaux with names familiar from wine bottles, some of the chateaux were beautiful grand buildings with turrets, some were humbler crumbling properties and so many of the vineyards were for sale. Wine consumption has halved in France and many of the growers are going out of business. The medieval village of St Emilion is a show case for the local wines; most of the shops lining the steep cobbled streets are either Caves or macaron shops. We did a complete tour of the village, admiring the views, roman stonework and old tiled roofs, stopping at a bakery to buy bread for our picnic lunch. We did think about buying a case of wine but decided we should do a wine tasting course first. The drive back home was without incident, we arrived home to a welcoming committee of six hungry cats. Despite the milder weather the conservatory builders haven’t put the glass in the roof frame; it is still sitting in a trailer next to the house along with the battered van containing their tools. Oh well, maybe next week.
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10th February

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So cold, now it is always about eight degrees in the morning inside and minus 6 outside, I leave the lighting of the fire and the making of the first cup of tea to kind husband. I wait for the barn to warm up to 11 degrees before I get out of bed. I’m flying back to a Bristol for a few days, where according to the weather forecast it is a few degrees warmer than the south of France, but the temperature still hovering around freezing. I’m looking forward to a centrally heated flat, a day in Bath, a walk on the downs and lots of other good things.

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8th February

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We are still in the throes of the big freeze. The first few days were hard, it scarcely stopped snowing and it felt very limiting being confined to the barn. There is always the internet, the news, favourite blogs, the odd sudoku and of course unlimited books to read on my kindle, but I do need to spend at least part of the day outside. So when it stopped snowing and the roads sufficiently clear to drive north where the skies were clear we put on our boots and had a three hour walk along snow covered paths with endless views of the pristine white countryside, beautiful. Our walk took us through a hill top village in Haute Garonne where we stopped to help someone push their car away from the kerb, off the hard packed snow and onto a bit of exposed tarmac. The steep lanes out of the village had been taken over by small children and sledges, hurtling down at breakneck speeds. The children must have had the day off school. I have seen only one snow plough, clearing the main road to Toulouse. Many of the small country lanes are still impassable.

The post woman took four days off, and then had four times as many stops when she was allowed back on the road. I met her yesterday when I walked over to see our neighour, Fatima who lives alone. One of Fatima’s chickens has a clutch of five baby chicks, she has moved them into her bedroom for warmth. Amazingly her cats haven’t tried to eat them.The post woman gave me a pile of letters and 2 parcels so she didn’t have to stop again at our house. The bin men haven’t ventured out, there are piles of black bags surrounding all the communal bins on rural lanes. I drove into town with mine, those are still being emptied.

Last night the temperature dropped to minus 12. We have to break the ice on the pond every morning for the fish and the cats still prefer pond water to that from the taps. They live permanently in the barn now, I’ve grown accustomed to having cats jumping on and off the bed through the night, the regular click of the cat flap and the odd scuffle . Last night one of them brought in a bird, it looked as though a pillow had burst this morning, feathers everywhere. Heating up the barn has become more of a challenge. From a starting temperature of eight or nine degrees in the morning, it takes it a couple of hours to get to fifteen degrees, which feels warm enough to get showered and dressed. The forecast is for a high of minus 5 degrees today, but with sunshine. I would love to take a photo of the house in the snow, but the conservatory man has left his huge battered van here, parked in front of the house for safe keeping, I think it contains all his cutting equipment. They won’t return until it warms up.

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2nd February

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Thursday, 2 Feb 2012, 17:40
The big freeze has struck the south of France. France Meteo, who do the weather forecasts, issue warnings in extreme conditions, vigilance jaune, orange and rouge depending on the severity of the conditions and today it is vigilance orange. Of course compared to Scotland it is nothing, but in Haute Pyrenees we don’t have fleets of snow ploughs that can clear the roads, so everywhere people are edging slowly forward peering over their steering wheels and fearing that sensation of the wheels spinning when you accelerate or turn a corner. I drove very carefully to the French lesson, 3 of us made it and it was lots of fun sitting in the teacher’s conservatory with a blizzard raging outside. The skies cleared slightly for a short period this afternoon, Philip & I put on our walking boots and did the circuit. It is so rare to see the fields covered in snow. The barn has really come into its own, the joys of living in one room when it is minus 5 degrees outside, solely heated by logs which we feed into the stove at regular intervals. The cats have scarcely moved all day, they are quite mystified by the snowflakes falling, sitting on the window ledge looking upwards. I ventured out for a brief visit to the mairie, hoping to meet l'abbé to discuss using the church, but the secretary told me he’d gone away for the weekend and that she was very worried I would venture out in the snow for nothing, but didn’t have my number. I was quite happy to sit in the mairie and have a chat about the weather. It is so extreme; the secretary couldn’t remember such sustained low temperatures. Nature is making up for the last couple of months of warmth. The daffodil leaves are all pushing through the snow, I hope they survive. We tried turning on the garden taps, they are well wrapped, but have frozen. We expect to have to replace them again when the thaw comes. Now Philip is braving the cold in the unheated main house to cook a week’s supply of different soup which we can defrost in portions for supper.
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1st February

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Thursday, 2 Feb 2012, 17:38
It was a cold wet winter’s day. Philip had no ambitions to rush off and climb a mountain so we surveyed the garden and thought about trees. In fact we don’t have a garden, we have a small park, with about 30 established trees, some of which are reaching their life expectancy and falling over. It is easy to look at a fallen tree and think, well it would take 50 years to grow a tree that size, so why bother, but I look at the huge oak trees and feel eternally grateful to some French farmer who 300 years ago decided to plant a couple of oak trees and even more grateful to whoever built the house 100 years later for not cutting them down as is the French habit nowadays. We ventured to the English run garden centre and looked at the dozens of bare root trees we could plant, there were so many to choose from. We noted the names and are now researching their growing habits, soil requirements etc. It is very exciting; there are so many hybrids with different leaf colours. I was planning to be conventional, but now we are thinking weeping mulberry, American oak, silver lime, gingko biloba…even though we won’t live to see them in their full glory, but hopefully the children will. We played bridge in the afternoon, owing to the extended summer we had stopped going to the regular Wednesday afternoon tournaments, they were so welcoming after our nine month absence, we will start going every Wednesday again, it is a good opportunity to practice our French, though people don’t show their best attributes at the bridge table, it is all rather competitive. We didn’t do well, but stayed on for a drink after the results had been announced; finding out what everyone had been up to over the last few months.
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30th January

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Monday, 30 Jan 2012, 20:32
I’m recovering from a busy weekend with my son's prospective in laws, fiancée, friends etc. I had never really considered what organising a wedding involved. When we had ours 30 years ago it was all quite simple, booked the church, hired a dress, booked a hotel for lunch and we all went down to the beach for a swim after the reception. Now it has become a whole industry, though perhaps less so in France. We had a whistle stop tour, first meeting the vicar.in the Ikea restaurant, my suggestion, I was a bit worried it might be a bit un-vicarish but he thought it an entirely appropriate venue for the pre wedding talk, then the florist, the patisserie, the taxi company, the B & B’s, the church. The next day the ten of us repeated the walk we did on Wednesday, deemed suitable for all, Philip brought the picnic and those who hadn’t seen the Pyrenees before were suitably impressed. We were followed by two friendly dogs on the way back, then scarily they ran after the cars for a couple of kilometres, I do hope they didn’t get run over. On the Sunday we stopped at our favourite restaurant in Samatan on the way back to the airport. It occurred to me they might do the catering for the wedding, so we had a chat with the chef and he’s going to send us some menus. The conservatory men arrived and have made good progress, fortified by cups of coffee and slices of chocolate cake Ben’s fiancée made yesterday. They did point out that we wouldn’t be open to open the side doors fully if we were installing a cat flap; sadly we haven’t been able to find a slim line one on the internet. I did several loads of washing including 10 sets of bedding, while Philip spent the day skiing as there was a 60cm dump of snow last night. Now we are filling in our census forms. In France they do different areas each year, with every household filling in a census every 5 years. I’m not sure how that works if people move home regularly.
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