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16th December

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The weather was so odd this morning, there was a warm breeze blowing and when I drove back from yoga I noticed the temperature outside was 22 degrees. There was a darkening sky and strong wind tossing leaves and branches across the lanes which I had to swerve to avoid. After a while I managed to get behind a truck which flattened all the debris on the road ahead of me. It was very eerie. Back home I checked the weather forecast, it seemed that half of France was on a weather alert, many homes without power and we were just on the fringes of the gales. We ate lunch on the terrace, watching the huge trees in the garden bending in the wind and the leaves swirling across the lawn. There will be lots of tidying up to do, but none of the trees came down, not even a long dead sycamore, we were rather hoping it would, so we don’t have to pay a tree surgeon to chop it down. We moved back to the main house in the afternoon, I took advantage of the warm wind to open all the windows to warm up the house, now there are leaves carpeting the hallways. The cats are getting a bit confused about where to find us.

A trip to the garden centre in the afternoon, all their trees and plants had fallen over, but they didn’t seem too worried, I left a paraffin stove to keep the stall holders warm for their charity do tomorrow, then made another 70 odd mince pies in the evening, they look slightly better than the first batch, but I’m sure if they would sell at a euro each, they want to maximise takings for the charity, but at that price they might not sell at all.

We received the results of our first bit of course module today, I was quite excited about mine until I saw a first class degree with the Open University is over 85%, so that will be forever out of reach, but I’d be very happy with a 2:1. Then again, given the marked piece is only 1% of a degree, maybe I shouldn’t be banking on that yet!

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15th December

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Friday, 16 Dec 2011, 07:00

The French teacher was in a better mood this morning; she did say she’d tried to sack two of her pupils for not doing their homework, so thankfully we must be making more progress than them. It does seem that anyone that chats to their French neighbours and gets at least a little involved with the local community learns to speak French by process of assimilation, but quite slowly.

I have been getting lots of emails from our friends in Nigeria wishing us ‘compliments of the season’ and referring to me as Ma or Mummy, so I spent some time sending money to them all via Western Union, little bits of money go such a long way in any third world country. Even to hopeless Alghabass in Senegal, who has had a succession of ‘mishaps’; funerals, being robbed, losing things, getting run over, falling off a motorbike taxi. I’m never quite sure if he’s telling the truth.

Philip spent the morning in the kitchen making mango chutney and trying to persuade it to solidify a bit; it’s not just me that has culinary problems. Once it was in jars we walked the circuit, it was such a clear day we could see all the mountain peaks, even now they don’t have much snow on them, it’s very hard for all those people in the business. One centimetre in the resort at Piau Engaly. There was nearly a metre this time last year.

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14th December

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I had a wasted trip to the market, the Irish soda bread stall wasn’t there and the agency office was closed so I couldn’t stop for a gossip. I was looking for some fabric to make some pyjama bottoms for our daughter but on the fabric stall it all seemed to be rolls of polyester and plastic tablecloths. I saw our elderly neighbour Jeanneau who told me about Claude’s tree planting project, I noticed he’d planted more fruit trees and dug a row of holes in readiness for a few more. Back home I hunted round for some good pyjama material and found a new duvet cover which looked suitable. There’s no room for a big table in the barn, so I cut them out on the coffee table, then sewed them together encumbered by a cat on my lap, it seems he loves the sound of the sewing machine. I was quite pleased with the results, there’s enough material in a duvet cover for 3 pairs, I’ll wrap them up and put them under the tree.

There were ten of us doing yoga in the evening.  I always try and get there early, when people arrive they are obliged to greet everyone in the room with a kiss on each cheek, so by 7pm there is a circle of pupils standing on the end of their mats waiting to start and  the new arrival has to do a complete circuit of the room.

We are thinking we might need to get a dishwasher for the barn, currently we carry all dirty dishes in a laundry basket to the main house and use the dishwasher there, and then find that we’ve run out of plates etc on this side, annoying if I want a cup of tea in the middle of the night and it’s pouring with rain.

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13th December

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Wednesday, 14 Dec 2011, 06:44
The young Moroccan glazier from Pascal’s workshop took us by surprise this morning, he knocked on the barn doors at 730, we were sitting on the sofas with the cats, he looked equally surprised to see us living in the barn. They delivered a lorry load of conservatory bits; the pile grows, on the terrace there is now a huge pile of cardboard boxes which must contain the joints. I was hoping they would stay here and start assembling it, but they just unloaded the boxes and disappeared. I went into town with a van load of accumulated rubbish to the recycling bins, then did some shopping, our local garden centre had some poinsettias, so I stocked up with a few for the barn.  Once home I embarked on making mince pies. I volunteered a few weeks ago to make 100 for a charity Christmas function at the garden centre as I have developed a method of doing large numbers at high speed. I left a kilo of flour and half a kilo of butter churning slowly in the Kenwood chef bowl for a few minutes, added a bit of water, and hey ho a huge lump of ready to roll pastry. Philip laughed at my method in a superior way, he does everything by hand, but it tastes exactly the same. In fact the ensuing mince pies were not perfect. Asda make mincemeat which liquefies and expands, and seeps out under the lids, and that was after wetting the pastry edges and sticking them down firmly. So they don’t look very pretty, I’ll have to cover them with sieved icing sugar. Still 25 more to do, I might try another brand of mincemeat for those. Philip sat on the terrace making a Christmas wreath. We have holly leaves in the garden but no berries, so he’s used some from the pyracanthus, doubt if they will last long but it looks very pretty at the moment hanging next to the front door.
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11th December

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I spent the whole day on the sofa after something creaked in my back when bending down to put a plate in the dishwasher.  So, as I was unable to move, I wrote a illustrated guide on how to use iplayer outside the UK, legally, with proxy servers etc. French TV is not very exciting, the only good thing is that unlike in Britain they use older female news readers (in France the term ‘une dame d'un certain age’ is used, it sounds so much nicer than middle-aged)

Philip has started putting up Christmas decorations in anticipation of the arrival of the children. The plan is to dig up last year's Christmas tree, put it in a pot over Christmas, then plant it out again. I am not sure if there is a limit to how often one can do that, I suppose the limiting factor is the size of the root ball, we will try & leave it intact.

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10th December

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Sunday, 11 Dec 2011, 06:52
We felt we deserved a day in the mountains after finishing various jobs in the house. After a few wet days there was more snow covering the peaks, but Philip has lots of low altitude walks planned for the winter, the idea not being that there is less ascent, you just start lower. The one he’d sorted out for today was La Pibeste. The ascent starts from a pretty village near Lourdes. All grey stone walls, slate roofs and blue shutters and everyone had left their doors and windows open as it was unseasonably warm. Because of its proximity to Lourdes there’s usually a lot of hikers, years ago there used to be a cable car up there, so the peak is a bit spoilt by a crumbling building which must have housed the machinery, now with a big telephone mast next to it, but the walk up is beautiful, limestone scenery with granite erratics strewn about and passing through oak woodland. We thought it would be busy, but there were only a couple of cars in the car park at the bottom. We did have an incident, I somehow managed to drop my altimeter when removing layers of clothes because it was so warm, luckily I remembered a bit further on and Philip ran back down, just in time to see another couple of hikers and the woman bending down to pick it up. Oddly she hid it behind her back and denied any knowledge of seeing anything, Philip pointed to her hand behind her back, there was an altercation between her and her partner, and finally they handed it over. Very odd, one doesn’t expect thieves in the walking fraternity. After that they tried desperately to overtake us by scrambling up a steep route while we leisurely went along the switch backs, but we met them sitting at the side of the path looking a bit red and exhausted. There were a few others at the summit, including a lean looking runner who expressed amazement at the size of the sandwiches Philip had made, I suppose half a baguette filled with cheese, quince jelly and salad was rather big, I offered him half of mine but he declined. As always we had to do a circular route and had the path down to ourselves, all through woodland and the path so covered in a thick layer of leaves it was difficult to follow. In the valley we came to a village lower down in the valley and then walked a couple of kilometres up along a valley path up to where we’d parked the car. We stopped off to see friends on the way home. A couple who before had lived near us in a similar old maison de maitre to ours but with 17 hectares and huge outbuildings, they’d found it too much to manage when they reached their seventies and had moved near Pau and were having an eco house built for them amongst lots of other modern houses and near facilities. It was hard to understand how they could be happy there, I hope we won’t ever feel obliged to move.
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9th December

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We did some more organising of the barn, to avoid having to pad backwards and forwards to the main house in the middle of the night. In fact we decided it was sensible to have two of everything, like tea, coffee and milk, bread, butter. We have a small fridge this side, so it is still quite eco. Philip finished wiring the new lights in the kitchen in the main house. Having a well lit kitchen is wonderful, by painting the ceiling and adding a few more lights; we can now identify foodstuffs on the shelves without having to wander over to a light to read the label. I was busy on my sewing machine all afternoon rehashing an ikea room divider with some Indian fabric; it looks very good, and can be used in various places to shield lights, useful for an open plan existence. Etienne’s dog ran into the garden and I went out to see him, we chatted by the gate and asked him about the accident on Wednesday evening, it was only one car, they brought out a fleet of fire engines on standby as there was petrol on the road. It was an elderly couple, the driver had been blinded by the evening sun and gone off the road but neither were seriously injured. Further up the road last week there had been another incident, a speeding driver knocked down and killed six goats and injured a border collie belonging to the shepherd who lives in the valley, he was herding them along  the road at night, as he does every evening, we always hear the bells. The poor chap doesn’t have much luck, another farmer shot one of his dogs a few weeks ago for attacking sheep. It seems collies do that if left unattended and very hungry. Etienne also asked me what I was doing for a living now as I was so often at home. I guiltily told a white lie, and said that I was still doing some estate agency work, but the market was very quiet. It is difficult to tell someone who is busy all day every day that you don't work for a living.

We were amazed to see the conservatory man, he arrived at about 7pm with a van load of conservatory pieces. It was so exciting, we helped him unload them onto the concrete foundation, and he’s told us he’ll be back next week to assemble it. I wonder. It would be wonderful if it was in place for Christmas, with ten house guests they’ll be able to spread around and keep warm.

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8th December

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I managed to get the day right this morning and picked up my neighbour at the appropriate time to go to our weekly French lesson It was a rather stressful lesson, the French teacher gets very angry about the political situation and kept breaking into tirades against UK government policies, saying how bankers should be locked up and putting forward her theories on how to save the world. It was remarkably warm in her conservatory; we even had to open the doors. I do so wish our chap would come and do ours. He did say before Christmas, which might mean a building site for Christmas. After lunch I thought I’d join the cats and have a bit of a siesta, but was woken after a few minutes by the builder who had come upstairs to check the chimney. He seemed to think it entirely appropriate to shake my hand and wish me bonjour while I was half under a duvet. I decided to give up on the siesta idea and took the wheelbarrow to collect logs for the fire, it is amazing that it can burn for days on end as long as we throw logs on regularly, we only need to empty the ash once a week. Yesterday’s wind stripped the leaves from the oak trees, huge piles of leaves have accumulated in various corners around the barn and garage, I spent the afternoon scooping them up and filling all the garden bins. Philip was still painting, this time with the window open to avoid poisoning from fumes.
Our ex neighbour was back for a few days to show some clients her house which has been on the market for ages, mainly because she can’t bring herself to sell it, it has such a lovely setting and they did so much work on it. She popped round for a glass of wine in the evening, and will send any more potential buyers to me first so I can show them round and vet any future neighbours. Philip converted the big pile of leeks our French neighbours gave us into leek and potato soup, we have rows of unlabelled Tupperware containers of soup in the freezer now, in the unlit garage, so when I pick out soup for supper we never know which variety it is till it’s in the saucepan. I struggled with the latest tutorial exercise after supper, it was like a child's game of making up a story, but in reverse, instead of thinking of the next sentence, a dozen unrelated sentences were given and had to be joined to make a story.

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7th December

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For some reason I thought it was Thursday and drove off to collect a neighbour on the way. In fact she was still in her dressing gown, and pointed out it was Wednesday, so I just stopped for coffee. I think it’s the lack of sleep; the cats knocked over the large piece of kitchen worktop wood blocking the cat flap last night and came in to find a warm duvet to sleep on. In fact one or two cats would be manageable but there were five of them.  Anyway I didn’t mind reverting to a Wednesday routine, I drove on to the market, and dropped in to see a friend in the local estate agency to catch up on who is buying and selling. Like us she enjoys cats but over the last two years 8 of hers have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Then last week she came across one of the disappeared on the outskirts of the village, blinded in one eye and with raw shot gun wounds. They’d had her x-rayed and treated at the vet, she showed me the x-ray, the cat’s head was full of lead shot.  Her story is quite disturbing and of course has affected how they feel about their village and the local hunt. The gendarmerie tried to persuade them not to file a complaint, but they did anyway and have written to the president of their chasse. I am glad we don’t have a yob element in our local chasse, I met most of them at the chasse dinner last month and they didn’t like the sort of people who would shoot pet cats.

I went to the yoga class in the evening. There had been some awful accident on the valley road and it had been blocked off, there were dozens of blue lights flashing in the darkness, a fleet of fire engines and ambulances and a line of cars backing up to the junction. A couple of ambulances passed me at high speed when I did a detour through the village. I’ll find out tomorrow what happened, people always drive so fast along that road, it is unlit and not quite wide enough for two cars.

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6th December

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Wednesday, 7 Dec 2011, 07:44

We are so pleased with the wood burning stove, this morning the smoke had disappeared and the fire was still burning, I just put on another log and we soon had a roaring fire again. We will have to sort out cat movements; neither of us got much sleep as we’d left the cat flap open thinking it would be nice for the cats to enjoy the warmth, but the cats’ response to open plan living is to move go up and down stairs, jump on and off our bed, and go in and out of the cat flap all night. One of them brought a small mammal inside the barn; we could hear a crunching noise as it ate whatever it was and the accompanied growling as it tried to keep the other cats at bay.  At 2am Philip went down, put the cats out and locked the cat flap, only to discover a few minutes later that there was still a cat inside, I put her out, locked the cat flap again but for the rest of night they scratched the cat flap repeatedly asking to come in. We’ll have to find something large to block it off.

A few months ago I did a three day writing course with a few other women and today we had a pre Christmas get together. Sue Barber who gave the course (and hosted the lunch) lives in a hill top village, in a crumbling farmhouse with lots of outbuildings. It was all very cosy; eating in their kitchen where she’d laid the dining table next to the Aga. We’d all brought a plate of something vegetarian; Philip had made a cherry pie for the occasion. All the talk was of writing and unwritten books, of the group only Sue and her partner, Leif Fielding have published books; of their wild lives in the sixties. That was after years of work, and they don’t expect to get rich on the sales, or even in Sue's case (she self published)to meet her printing costs. The problem is there are just so many books out there to be read and people will pick something they can see on the shelf or listed by Amazon, while I am sure many other wonderful books are neglected.

Philip painted the kitchen ceiling in the main house. After a week of reflection we opted for Farrow and Ball Strong white, we had an old oil based tin of that colour in the shed. The fumes it gave off were awful, Philip had painted with the windows closed and spent the evening feeling ill., but the kitchen looks so much better now it has a white ceiling.

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5th December

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The trouble with entertaining is that one feels awful the next day. So not a productive morning, but after lunch we drove the van to our favourite diy shop and had some discussion with the owner about what to use in our newly converted barn to protect the wall from the heat of the wood burning stove. In the end we just went for heat resistant plasterboard and drove home with it hanging out the back of the van. There’s a lot to spare if we get it wrong the first time. In fact Philip just cut it in half and we propped it against the wall and I lit the fire. That was 4 hours ago. We brought the thermometer in and watched the temperature rise from 11 to 18 degrees as we made up the beds and had supper. The barn is filled with smoke but we are hoping that’s because it’s a new stove and not because of the builder has done something odd with the chimney pipe. It’s quite exciting, we can think of it as going on holiday. The cats are all enjoying the change of scene, they’ve already worked out how to use the new cat flap and go up the spiral stair case to the mezzanine. The stove heats the whole barn. We can even get the internet in here. We just need to collect our toothbrushes and a few basic necessities from the main house. Now we are equipped to cope with the coldest of winters without huge electricity bills.

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4th December

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 07:24

Philip spent most of the day in the kitchen. The menu for supper with our neighbours was French onion soup, Delia’s vegetarian lasagne, panna cotta with raspberry coulis, and cherry pie (with this year’s cherries.) The good thing about all those dishes is that they could be made in advance. I spent the morning as kitchen assistant, apart from a trip to the bakery to get baguettes. Jeanneau, our retired farmer neighbour waved me down as he walked along the road towards his daughter’s house and asked me to get him a flute (the standard French loaf). In the town there was lots of excitement in the main square, the pompiers were setting up their display, fire engines everywhere and all the pompiers in uniform.   It was one of the telethon charity fund raising activities that is happening everywhere in France this weekend.  I bought the bread and stopped off to drop off Jeanneau’s loaf, and was invited to take a bag of leeks from the wheelbarrow load his daughter had in the garage. Her husband Claude had harvested had a huge crop; I must try leeks next year. Philip can make some leek and potato soup.

After lunch we headed off for a walk, Philip wanted to find a footpath next to the aqueduct shown on the map, in the woods of Betbeze. After clambering under or over several electric fences and fighting our way through fallen trees and brambles we came to the aqueduct at the foot of a valley, but then heard the guns of the chasse so beat a hasty retreat, there have been several fatalities already this year.

I lit both wood burning stoves and turned on some of the electric radiators in anticipation of keeping our guests warm. The chimney sweep had reassembled the stove in the dining room incorrectly, so I spent some time with the instruction manual taking baffle plates and fire bricks in replacing them, hopefully correctly, anyway it seemed to light and soon warmed up the dining room. I was able to take off several outer layers and watched the temperature on the thermometer in the hallway go from 12 to 20, it felt wonderful to have a warm house.

We got to know our new neighbours a bit better over the course of the evening, though they are house hunting and will be moving on as soon as they find somewhere. The other couple have been here over a year now, but with grandchildren in the UK, so come and go. We all ate and drank too much as one does. Philip’s food was all delicious. The guests left after midnight.

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3rd December

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We have friends coming over for supper tomorrow so advance preparation was needed, lots of shopping and cleaning. As we drove over to Castelnau we could see fresh snow on the mountains, but not enough to open the ski resorts, it must be hard for the ski related businesses and towns. There’s no snow in the alpine resorts either. The market was quiet, the number of people shopping is always directly related to the temperature and it was cold. The stall holders must find it difficult to keep warm, standing in the same place all morning. I bought my usual loaf of soda bread. In fact this soda bread cropped up in conversation at last week’s book club, the mystery being how to make them taste so delicious. One of the girls had asked the Irish woman who made them for her recipe, but she wouldn’t give away any secrets. Philip has tried various permutations of flour, but it’s not the same as the one from the stall. We bought lots of vegetables, for what will be a vegetarian meal. Oddly, most of the British people moving here seem to be vegetarians, so they find eating out in restaurants very limited. The French haven’t really discovered vegetarianism.

Back at home I tackled the cobwebs, every room has beams crisscrossing the ceiling so it is a spider’s paradise, or was, I have swept them all away, one of the guests we’ve invited I know is extremely house proud, her house is always spotless, she even irons sheets, so thought I’d better make an effort. I vacuumed and cleaned all the rooms upstairs. Even unused rooms accumulate dust and dead flies, at least I won’t have to do that again before Christmas/ News Years Eve house guests arrive. It was all quite exhausting.

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2nd December

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I am forever telling the children to check and double check instructions when submitting a piece of work, luckily I thought I’d better take my own advice and discovered I’d only done half the OU assignment. I was thinking the second half of Tma1 was Tma2 but it wasn’t. But happily I managed to do another 500 words and pressed the submit button. I won’t reread anything; doubtlessly I’d spot some mistakes. So that was my whole day gone. I am glad it was raining. I quite enjoy being inside in cold wet weather. I am a bit worried that if it takes 8 hours to write 500 words, at that rate a novel would take several lifetimes, though maybe was no word count to worry about it would go a bit faster.  My only movement from the sofa was to put another log on the fire or make yet another cup of tea. I had a few short breaks from editing to do some more Christmas shopping for myself on line. Younger son will have a large bag of Christmas presents to bring out when he comes out in two weeks time.

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1st December

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I don’t usually have such an action packed day. It started with a French lesson at 10 am over at a friend’s house in a nearby village, with three other women. Amazingly the woman that was the weakest of our group a few months ago is now so much better than the rest of us. That is what comes of having a French lover, in fact her neighbour, it all sounds very romantic and they are so happy together, finding love in their sixties. So really she doesn’t need to come to the class anymore, but it’s a social event as well as a lesson. Back home and then to our favourite restaurant in Samatan with our Kenyan friends who are leaving for Nairobi this weekend, I sensed the husband is a bit worried about it. He is over eighty and isn’t as enthusiastic about travel as his much younger wife. Nairobi isn’t an easy place to live, with the traffic jams and crime, but they will be warm over the winter. The waiter shakes our hands when we arrive now we are regulars. As always, it was a delicious meal, salmon quiche, chicken and fresh potato crisps, and then chocolate sauce in a pancake. We went back to our friends’ house for tea afterwards and said our goodbyes; they’ll be back in March. Book club was at another friends house this evening in a remote hamlet, we’d read How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran. I think some of the older members were a bit shocked by parts of it, I suppose I was too, but some passages were so funny, she writes the kind of things that we might think but not articulate, a modern take on feminism and a much lighter read than Germaine Greer, teenage girls would love it. Driving home along windy country lanes, I realised I shouldn’t have drunk a second glass of wine, a thick mist had descended, visibility was very limited. Now back at home and the six cats are all complaining, in the interests of economy they are now only allowed tins in the morning and dried food in the evening, so they are all feeling very sorry for themselves.

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29th November

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We took the van in for an overdue service this morning, which meant Philip couldn’t rush off to the mountains, despite it being a beautiful day. All the fields were white with frost and we had to get the scrapers out to get the ice off the cars. I will have to clear some space in the garage tomorrow so we can get the cars under cover, or at least the front halves. I started a new yoga class, it’s about half an hour’s drive away but at the more social time of 10am rather than 7pm, there were only four of us there, it was in a rather cold converted barn, I think the cold morning and harsh frost took everyone by surprise. The barn is part of a beautiful old mill, the owners run a b& b in the summer.  I will go again, it’s a long way, but the route through Haute Garonne goes through some pretty villages, sadly even in the prettiest of villages it is easy to get planning permission for a modern bungalow, completely out of character with the surrounding buildings and older properties fall into ruin.

Philip spent the morning painting the kitchen beams with primer, though cannot do anymore as we have reached a bit of an impasse, we cannot agree on the colour or whether to paint the huge oak beam that runs across the middle of the kitchen supported the smaller cross beams.

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28th November

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Monday, 28 Nov 2011, 18:55

I did some OU work this morning, the problem sitting still is that despite many layers of clothes, it gets cold, even with a log fire burning. I feel happy I have done the Tma, it still needs a bit of refining, the hardest thing was reducing the number of words to 500 to avoid being penalised. The sun came out this afternoon, rather than blow and rake the leaves off the lawn I got out the grass cutting machine, mowing the lawn is my favourite gardening job, driving up and down and working out the best route to cut the lawn, the turning circle means it is more complicated than simply driving up and down in straight lines. I also get to discover lots of interesting and often colourful mushrooms to identify.

I took down the polytunnel. After doing some research I found there really isn’t much use for it over the winter, things need more daylight hours to grow, I have left it too late for this year and there is a risk of it blowing away if we have another tempest. I don’t think any number of large rocks would hold it down. I’ll wait until March and grow all my vegetables from seed as I did this year.

Philip sanded all the smaller beams in the kitchen; I’d thought it would take weeks. Cleaning up afterwards was a major task, not so much the dust created by sanding that settled on the floor and work surfaces, that was easily vacuumed up,  but I realised that I’d never cleaned the tops of the cupboards or the walls, the dust clung to the grease and settled on all the cobwebs in the corners and on the ceiling which I hadn’t realised were there. It took hours, but now I am so pleased with the new look, even before the beams have been painted, just getting the brown gloss off the woodwork and having clean cupboards and walls has made a huge difference.

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27th November

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Edited by Cathy Winsor, Monday, 28 Nov 2011, 18:14

Today was forecast to be sunny all day in the mountains, so we set off at the crack of dawn, in thick mist. As we neared the mountains we left the mist behind us and ahead there were snow covered peaks and the bluest of skies. We stopped off in Luchon, such an elegant town with a good bakery where we bought bread and pastries for our picnic. In the town there are always people wandering around on crutches or propelling wheelchairs, people come to take the waters in the huge thermal spa complex. There are many beautiful ornate villas with slate roofs, but at this time of year they are mostly empty, it’s a quiet time between the summer season and the ski season when the hotels and apartments fill with tourists. The plan was to climb Pic Cecire (2400m), and take in another loop on the way, but Pic Cecire was quite enough, even though it was not much ascent as the car park was at the Super Bagnere ski station. Above 2100m the snow was so thick, the path was obliterated, I don’t enjoy walking across steep slopes covered in snow, especially when the slope just plummets into the distance. I am constantly reminded that wearing crampons makes it impossible to slide down, but I just kept my eyes firmly on the footsteps ahead. It was a relief to get to the summit. We found a flat rock above the snow big enough to sit and have our picnic, with wonderful views in all directions. I had hoped there would be an easier way down, but the alternative route looked even scarier so we came back the same way.  There were only two other people up there, in the summer it is so popular, but the snow must have kept walkers away. As we came down the mountain we stopped to chat to a chap dressed in motley layers and wild unkempt grey hair and beard, He pointed out his home to us, a barn down in the valley, no electricity, his water supply from a stream which must be just above freezing. I think he was a bit lonely.

Blanquette must have been in the mist all day.  I lit a fire as soon as we came in, with six noisy cats trying to trip me up, asking to be fed. Now everyone has had supper and the cats from the first litter are finally making peace with the new kittens, they are curled up together in a heap on a sofa.

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26th November

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There was a thick mist again this morning. I ventured out to Castelnau market, it was quite scary as visibility could only have been about 20 yards, the roundabout at the start of the town was a big surprise as it suddenly loomed towards me. I didn’t do much shopping, just keeping the Irish stall in business with a purchase of soda bread. While I was out Philip made a start on repainting the kitchen ceiling; the beams are currently painted with a dark brown gloss which needs sanding off before anything else can be applied. Sanding beams is the messiest of jobs, especially in the kitchen. I can see the next few weeks there will be a ladder set up permanently with bits of sand paper and brown dust everywhere, on the floor and all the work surfaces, but it has to be done.

The mist cleared by lunch time, but it was just a bit too cold to sit on the terrace. After lunch I set about finishing the job Philip had started, spreading and digging in the pile of cow manure in the vegetable garden. He’d left me to do the most inaccessible patch, a narrow strip behind the purple sprouting broccoli. The broccoli plants will stay there all winter in the hope they’ll produce some purple florets in the spring. I had to get wheelbarrow loads of cow manure around them without knocking any plants over. A very sticky job, then all the tools, wheelbarrow & wellies had to be cleaned. Next task was getting the polytunnel up. We spent hours wondering why very few of the poles fitted together; the ends were nearly all the same size. Happily (after emailing the manufacturer for some instructions) I discovered another bag of small pieces needed to slot the poles together.  The cover is on, we’ll anchor it tomorrow, I just hope the wind doesn’t get up tonight. The plan is to grow some winter salad plants in there.

Butternut squash & red lentil curry for supper, a rather good recipe from the guardian.

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25th November

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Our weekly lunch with friends was postponed to today because of book club yesterday. We chose a restaurant in the Gers by the Chateau in Saint Blancard, as it was within cycling distance, it was clear blue skies and sunshine when we set out, but as we neared the restaurant we were completely enveloped in mist, all very autumnal. The restaurant meal was disappointing, we were the only customers, Friday is not a good day to eat out, always fish, defrosted and bland, I think the restaurant had lain off the chef for the winter. But we were there for the company and also, as we were both Cathy’s, to celebrate Saint Catherine’s Day, which we did, with a bottle of good red wine. The mist lifted as we cycled home, I was amazed to see our elderly neighbour, 82, on his hands and knees clearing out the culvert running in front of his house, it was blocked with fallen leaves. I won’t do any leaf clearing until they have all fallen from the trees. We just need a couple of days of strong winds. I would love to be living in the barn now. The temperature beyond the salon door has dropped to 8 degrees, and it isn’t possible to spend the whole evening trying to keep warm by the wood burning stove, sitting on the sofa with a laptop. I have just tried to ring the builder, he is back with his sick father in Ariege, so there isn't much we can do to hasten his return.

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24th November

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Back from a few days in Bristol, it was another world, full of students and busy, purposeful people. Bristol is my second favourite city after Edinburgh. I didn’t hire a car, so spent 5 days walking between our younger son’s student flat in Clifton and my sister’s flat in Redland where our other two children stayed for the weekend. Rather than go grocery shopping I did an online order and had a delivery of lots of Christmassy things like mincemeat, christmas pudding, crackers and other things that are difficult to source in France. We enjoyed a meal out on Saturday evening, the children made a roast lunch on Sunday after a run on the Downs (I walked). Christmas shopping in John Lewis on Monday, then on Tuesday we went for an early morning swim in the university pool, on the way we passed a row of cars with smashed windows and a young woman weeping next to her vandalised car, a reminder of the downside of city life.

When checking in at Bristol airport to fly back I discovered my sister’s bathroom scales had miscalculated the weight of my bag and I had to transfer all the heavy items to my hand luggage (while being closely watched by a long queue of fellow passengers) to avoid being charged a huge sum for excess baggage, I wasn't even allowed one excess kilo, and despite lots of repacking had to ditch the strong white bread flour which probably wasn't necessary anyway, there must be a local equivalent.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather in the UK, it was even warmer when I arrived back home. I was slightly disappointed that the cats didn’t seem particularly pleased to see me, but very pleased to find that Philip has dug in most of the large pile of sticky cow manure into the vegetable garden and finished painting around the new windows. Today was the monthly lunchtime book club, the chosen book was Monsieur Montespan, Le Montespan was a Gascon whose chateau was not far from here, it wasn't a work of great literature but full of the sort of details of personal hygiene and explicit language that children and my fellow book club members really enjoyed, there was some debate about how much of the plot was true, La Montespan sounded like a most unpleasant character. We had such an enthusiastic discussion that the hostess forgot about the pumpkin soup she was preparing for our lunch, until smoke filtered through to the salon. So we just had salad with bread and cheese. This evening our French neighbours dropped in,  with perfect timing, I had just mopped the kitchen floor and vacuumed everywhere so hopefully they’ll think this is how we normally live, an hour earlier and I would have been embarrassed, Philip hadn’t done any housework in my absence . I opened a bottle of wine and we caught up with the news, it’s Saint Catherine’s Day tomorrow, we toasted our fete day in advance, (our neighbour is also a Cathy.) It’s also an important date in the gardening calendar as the optimum day to plant all bare rooted plants and trees, garden centres do their biggest trade at this time of year. Philip came back from walking in the mountains and after we’d exchanged our news about happenings in the village we talked about dogs and which breed to get, I think we are getting gradually closer to becoming dog owners.

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17th November

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We eat out every Thursday, today a restaurant in Nestier, about 40kms away. The direct road there runs parallel with an aqueduct for most of the way. Not a roman one, but apparently built by Napoleon’s soldiers in the 1800’s when they didn’t have much fighting to do.  Water from the Pyrenees is diverted by a clever system of canals and aqueducts to supplement the flow of rivers and feed reservoirs in the north of the department, then farmers pump water out of the rivers to irrigate their crops. This year the rivers were at their lowest ever. More farmers are growing maize which is very thirsty and farmers pump the rivers dry to water their crops, which upsets the fishermen and wildlife.  Our local river drying up apparently caused rats to move inland in search for food, the cats brought the odd one into the house as gifts.

The road parallel to the aqueduct has a gentle incline, so it’s good for cycling and you can watch the torrent of water from the mountains running alongside, so Philip cycled there and I drove, intending to cycle back (downhill) but after a glass of wine and a big lunch, I lost enthusiasm for exercise so we both came back in the van with bikes in the back.

The chef at the restaurant in Nestier is keen on unusual presentation; the starter on a piece of slate, main course (boeuf en cocotte) was in a mini casserole and the pudding (blackcurrant compote on a mascarpone base) in a kilner jar. All delicious.

I packed this afternoon, easyjet-ing to Bristol tomorrow for a few days with the children; Philip is staying here on cat duty.

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15th November

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The builder came this morning, straight from his dying father in Ariege, and has promised to start work tomorrow, installing the wood burner in the barn. A trip to the recycling bins and I called in on Fatima to return the empty egg boxes and admire her chickens. After lunch we walked the circuit then Philip finally finished sanding the new plaster around the last few windows, so every surface in the house was uniformly coated with a film of white powder. Just the painting to do now, which is a relatively clean process, so I did some vacuuming and mopping. It was well timed as our neighbour dropped by with the commune municipal bulletin and came into the recently vacuumed hallway. The bulletin is interesting reading, it gives a breakdown of everything spent in the commune on trees and planting, parking , upkeep of the mairie etc and a list of forthcoming activities. I said I’d be happy to organise a table of bridge players for the games evening but now see it starts at 9pm, I might find it difficult to stay awake, but have committed now.

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14th November

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There was a slight breeze today and now the garden is covered in fallen leaves, we have two huge oak trees that are shedding their load. Etienne has been planting the seed for the winter wheat. We are surrounded by his land and can watch him drive his tractor up and down with an attachment that deposits the seed at regular intervals in perfectly straight lines. The field he seeded across the lane just a few days ago is already flushed green with new shoots. I don’t think he stopped for lunch. I debated whether to tell him one of his sheep was loose on the road but wasn’t sure if one can stop a tractor mid planting. The sheep managed to find its way back in soon afterwards so that was all right. Fatima, who lives on her own not far from us dropped round with 6 eggs from her chickens and I gave her two butternut squash in exchange, they go well with couscous. Fatima doesn’t like eggs, but keeps chickens as she enjoys their companionship; they follow her round her garden. I think there are six of them; they all have names and look rather exotic, certainly nothing like the Rhode Island Reds that I kept many years ago. When I apologised for not visiting recently because I’d started an OU course on creative writing she was very interested and said I should write her story, there was so much to tell. She is a single mother, for an 18 year old Algerian woman in Paris the seventies it was very difficult , she was thrown out of her home when her parents found out she was pregnant and there was no communication with them for 10 years, until her father died. She is happy with her life now, but struggles on a meagre pension. She bought a wood burning stove recently but can’t afford to install it and relies on electric radiators to heat her house, only using them on the coldest days. I will go round and spend an afternoon with her, I’ve promised to go halves if I write her story and it becomes a best seller.

The conservatory man telephoned this afternoon, wanting to know some details about our design. We were so excited that he was finally ordering the materials; we drove up to his workshop and went through the plans again. His injured employee (off work for several months after cutting his foot on some glass) will be back at work next week, so things are happening at last. The builder called too, but to say there would be some delay on installing our wood burning stove in the barn as he was in Ariege with his terminally ill father. Philip still hasn’t finished plastering around the windows, he decided we were running low on food in the freezer, so is currently making a huge batch of broccoli and stilton soup. In France we use Auvergne blue cheese instead of Stilton, but it tastes just the same.

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13th November

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Another unseasonably warm day. We had visitors this afternoon, a lone Dalmatian who ran in and ate all the cat food, followed 5 minutes later by his apologetic owner. He knows where the dish is in the hallway now, having discovered it a few weeks ago whilst investigating the neighbourhood, and now it seems as soon he sees our open front door, visible from half a mile away, he ignores his owners entreaties and charges down the hill, through our front door. He can eat a large dish of dried cat food in a few seconds. We have been debating for months about whether to get a puppy, given that we are committed to stay here most of the year now we have six cats, but it does seem that no dog can be relied upon not to run off and do its own thing. The French just chain their dogs up or lock them in a kennel, they don't seem to allow them inside the house, though that could be because they are mostly hunting dogs in this area, in the UK hunt dogs are kept in kennels and runs too. Ideally we would like a dog that can climb mountains but won't chase or kill livestock, but those qualities don't seem to be mutually exclusive. A farmer shot dead a neighbour's border collie a few weeks ago after it had killed several of his sheep. In fact everyone around here has horror stories to tell about local dogs attacking humans as well as animals. I will do some more research to find the ultimate breed of dog.
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