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Diary 2013

Ten Years in France

3 January 2013 2:02

We signed the Acte de Vente ten years ago today.

Here's what I wrote on that date: at the time we had our caravan parked in a wet and muddy spot at Andrew Tilley's place at Cancon.


24/01/13 22:30

Like many other things I knew the word “sciatica”, but thought it only affected old people. Then I remembered that I was, after all, supposed to be old.

It started as a Christmas present just before the festivities – a pain which moved up and down one leg, at times bordering on the insupportable, and precipitating a rapid visit to the médecin for painkillers.

Sciatica is an interesting condition. I looked it up; Well, I would, wouldn't I?

The best way to look at it is to regard the sciatic nerve as a cable loom in a motorcar. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, beginning in the lower back and ending at the toes. It is both a control and feedback highway, controlling the actuation of a number of muscular systems and the feedback of pain signals. Sciatica is a “phantom” or “referred” pain caused by “something” interfering with the nerve. I've had pain verging on the insupportable from the hip, calf and ankle, and “pins & needles” in the toes. The pain in the calf muscle is an intense local pain like someone sticking a stiletto in the muscle – but of course the muscle is, in fact, OK, and works normally – but the pain is very real and is at its worst when lying flat in bed on my back.

The cause of the pain can be anything that is interfering with the nerve – think that cable loom going through a hole in the bodywork of a car – if the grommet is misplaced and the cable chafes against the steel, then you get trouble – and may have to smear it with Wensleydale Cheese… (sadly Americans won't understand that joke…).

What causes this in my case isn't known, but I have a couple of vertebrae that are misplaced which has given me back pain for years – the nerve comes out of the spine at this point so it is an obvious culprit. A couple of weeks before my attack I was lifting a full log basket and felt something “give” - so that could have started it.

I've also got some spinal osteo-arthritis which is a build-up of bone in joints and could be an additional degenerative factor. On good thing about the body is that it does have a built-in repair function which appears to be working. Most of the pain has now gone and I can manage longish periods of lying flat; before I had to sit up against pillows in bed. Soon I hope to be able to give up the Tramadol analgesic, which is an opiate and goes swimmingly with red wine. OK, you may have to pry it from my stiffening fingers…

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DIY Bulletin

10 February 2013 16:20

A snapshot of my little jobs during the year!


The shower head had developed an annoying habit of sliding down the bar that holds it – dissection revealed several flimsy pieces of plastic which were foutu, so I went out to buy another. Elle-Dedans fancied upgrading to one of those with a big, overhead “rainer” head, in addition to the hand-held head. I found one in Gamm Vert – near a sign saying 30% reduction for showers, for €68. But it had no soap tray and I do like a tray for my Imperial Leather. I decided I'd buy it if it was discounted and do without the soap tray. It wasn't discounted :-( So I went to Cedeo – nothing suitable – then Leclerc brico/bati. I found just what I wanted, marked down in the Soldes to €27! It wasn't Grohë but it was of reasonable quality, at least as good as the one in Gamm Vert, so I bore it home in triumph and fitted it – inevitably I had to drill new holes in the carrelage, but the old holes filled quite well with tile grout. It's nice to bask in hot, soapy rain after a hard day!

Water Leak into the Sous-Sol:

The recent prolonged wet period has brought the water table up to a high level – higher than a plastic underground pipe protecting the copper oil supply pipes from the petit dépendance. The manhole cover of a rainwater drain that crosses my property was lifting with the volume of water and as a result water was spilling over the area of the oil pipes. As a result rain water was leaking into the underground oil-pipe tube and flooding the floor in the sous-sol from where it emerges. So I made a drain out of 32mm plastic pipe, tapped in to the drain from the boiler protection device, and terminating in a plastic funnel, cut to fit and strategically placed beneath and sealed to the oil-pipe tube. The drain tees into the boiler hot water relief valve drain.

Bosch Tower:

I finally arranged for Xine's “strapping Belgian” to come and help me lift the washing machine on to its plinth. I'd used Joy's “blocking & rocking” method to raise it into a position which was a comfortable straight-back lift, and at 68 Kg was easily lifted by two. There's a picture of it in position, showing the tasseaux that stop it walking off the plinth while spinning, at the end of a heavy test wash, which it passed with flying colours, at http://i1.minus.com/iJdvh6AC9dfKy.jpg . So all that agonising about lifting the thing was a waste of time – all one needs is “un Belge costaud”!

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Ian Visits the Kinésithérapeute!

15 February 2013 22:26

So I had made an appointment with Christine's physio – better the devil we know…

My therapist was a pleasant young lass called Cléa – she was strong but gentle and the back massage was wonderful!

Afterwards she placed a hot poultice on the back, electrodes on the back and the groin and connected them to an electrical stimulation thingy which I was left to turn up as my muscles got used to it.

The back pain is now definitely less severe – and I've got two more appointments to look forward to! So forget those “jungle drum” comments – I'm a convert!


25 February 2013 16:18

Our snow this morning was soft, fluffy and pretty; the temperature was
hovering about 0°C. I took the Quattro shopping and most of the snow
had gone by early afternoon.

Here's a couple of pics:

To England for Dick Williams's Funeral

6 March 2013 14:43

Well, I got back safely before lunch yesterday (Tuesday) after an 04:00 start from Bromley, via EasyJet LGW/TLS. The outward journey was uneventful, but the walk from the EasyJet arrival gate to passport control was Very Long, helped by occasional travelator belts, some of which were working. Then the walk from passport control to the rental car area was also Very Long and by now a pair of very uncomfortable funerary-black shoes were making their uncomfortability (sic) felt.

The Volkswagen “Up” I was promised had metamorphosed into a top-of-the-range Toyota Yaris with sat nav, rear camera, six speeds and a strange thing called a clutch. This seemed to be quite useful, since the first time I tried stopping without pressing it, the engine stalled. The sat nav was far too difficult to learn to use in a few minutes, so I fixed my Tom-Tom, with its pre-plumbed destinations, to the windscreen. It took me up the M23, along the M25 and up the A21 to Bromley. Even on a Sunday night in good weather the M25 was horrible; cautious me in a strange manual-transmission car, driving on the wrong side of the road, tucked myself into the left hand lane which has been promoted from hard shoulder and retained all the ruts and potholes.

The Bromley Court Hotel had been organised for me by son Peter who works for Booking.com – he'd ensured I got a good, quiet room. That evening I went and made myself known to the bereaved family – and was fed a very nice slice of cheese flan.

My commissions for Monday morning were to visit Boots The Chemist and Marks & Sparks. Downtown Bromley has a big shopping mall which is about half an hour's walk from the hotel – more foot abuse from those dreadful shoes which I bought in a hurry in England some time ago, figuring that as they were Clarks they should be OK. While there I spotted a Lakeland and went in to buy a meat thermometer that I haven't been able to find in France. Once outside with my purchase I realised that it has a long, sharply-pointed probe that would not be at all well-received by airport security; so later I gave it to Peter to post to me.

Peter met me at the hotel and we went on to Beckenham Crematorium; it was a well-attended and emotional ceremony, with touching tributes from each of Dick's three grown-up sons. The service was conducted by a lady priest who had a lot of nice things to say about Dick's caring and generous nature. I expected the coffin to slide backwards into a curtain at the rear – instead it descended slowly into the base of the catafalque. Clearly Dick hadn't been quite good enough to be sent upwards and had been dispatched to the fiery furnace below. Tim came in at the end of the ceremony, having been held up by traffic en route.

The wake was at the Two Doves in Bromley – a nice old-fashioned pub – I had my first British beer for almost five years. It should have been good – Youngs – but it was warm and flat and somewhat of a disappointment. Later on Peter and Tim and I adjourned to the hotel for a natter and we had a pleasant dinner before they went their separate ways and I went to bed ready for my 03:30 reveillé.

The car was covered in ice and the M25 was busy even at 04:30 but I made LGW in good time for my flight. I had expected to find a service area on the M23 but I didn't so I'll have a bill from Europcar for a quarter tank of expensive fuel. Toulouse was warm (16°C) with a blustery wind; the aircraft fluttered down to land like a Cessna but the pilot managed to kiss the runway with both wheels before gluing the aircraft to the runway with the airbrakes. It was nice to get on the virtually empty A62 back home, set the cruise control to 130kph and relax. Good old France! And then to get home to Xine and the pussy cats – and take those bl**dy shoes off!

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Hughey & Ralph Go Skiing

12 March 2013 17:13

(There's a rich text version of this with included photos and with public access to anyone on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/WkHj9k). For those who believe the Devil is Mark Zuckerberg, read on!)

It was touch and go, but Cléa, my delightful young, French masseuse, managed to sort out my sciatic nerve so it wouldn't stop me skiing on my birthday this year.

Once again we chose Baquiera-Beret in the Spanish Pyrénées, only this time we stayed in the Hötel Tuc Blanc rather than the Montarto; we'd patronised the lively tapas bar of the latter during our last stay and the whole hötel was more lively than the rather faded and stuffy old Montarto.

It's only 320 km from Tessel Bas and 70% of that is autoroute, followed by a gentle climb to 1000m at Vielha where we turn off to Baquiera at 1500m, all in all a pleasant drive of just about three and a half hours, in lovely spring sunshine. They'd had oodles of fallen snow even at the village level, and we were given a room with a good view of the télécabine to Baquiera 1800.


The view from Baquiera 1800 next day showed the amount of snow in the Val d'Aran and it was some 4m deep at the resort altitude.


After a few limbering-up runs on the baby slopes we tried a long, green run before lunch, then our favourite blue run which has a couple of challenging steep bits and finishes with a wide finishing piste to hone the traverses.


Christine settled in to a nice, controlled rhythm, whereas I found that my left traverses were somewhat ragged as the sciatic, uphill leg wobbled a bit - I found that a bit more "ankles leaning into the mountain", a bit more "leaning down the slope" and a lot less "bum sticking out" improved the raggedness no end - it was just a question of doing it all consistently!


The next day is best not discussed at length; poor Christine woke with a bad tummy - she came up the mountain with me but did more vomiting than skiing. We came back to the hötel early and went to bed - with no dinner.

Sunday was my birthday - I opened my cards and presents which made the room look festive.


Ste. Christine insisted on struggling up the mountain in mufti - no ski boots - so that I'd have some company on my 74th birthday. My first run was a disaster - the piste-bashers had smoothed the snow which had frozen to a hard crust, some of which was covered with thin powder from the snow cannons - very hard to ski on and equally hard to fall on, as I discovered - twice!


Later on the sun made the snow more amenable and I managed a couple of incident-free runs, checking regularly on poor Christine who was sitting in a noisy on-mountain café with her Kindle.


Next day I decided that we really ought to be back in our comfort zone at Tessel Bas, so we left a day early, but enjoyed a pleasant, sunny journey back home, reflecting on the injustice that some food-preparation person's lack of hand washing could have impacted so badly on our holiday, which was otherwise excellent.

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Springtime Snow

13 March 2013 11:11

Some 20 cm of soft, fluffy snow to greet us this morning: our weathercock was looking quite fed-up – http://i.minus.com/iH2YCQ7I55o12.jpg

Our prom and the trees were pretty – http://i.minus.com/iNDuUBgX7tbws.jpg - but the aubretia was hidden by the pervasive white-stuff – http://i.minus.com/ilBmLD67vZ4C5.jpg

The LNB on the parabole is covered by a big gob of snow and there's no satellite signal, so Elle Dedans is having to get her Radio 4 fix from internet radio on her iPad.

Well, it won't be long before we're complaining that it's too hot!

Ian's New Toy

1 April 2013 10:31

I've got a new toy - a dash cam "incident camera" to fit on the car windscreen; it records in HD at 1920 x 1080 pixels, has GPS for speed and position and a G-Force sensor to create protected recording in the event of a collision. It comes with a player to read the 16 GB mini-SD card on Mac or PC which also has a moving map display. Built-in wi-fi allows the picture to be displayed on iPhone or iPad or Android smartphone or tablet. And the manual is in English not Ingrish!

But how do I attach it to the French "Constat Amiable"?

Here's a first video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sGeDfyZywo

It was also my first purchase as an EBay virgin!

Party of One

18 April 2013 22:46

Il était une fois – I was part of a team in Fullerton, Los Angeles preparing a joint Hughes Aircraft/Marconi proposal for a UK Air Defence System. The proposal finished, everyone left for home – save for muggins here who had been volunteered to stay on and act as the courier for the van-load of secret proposal documents from LAX to LHR. So every evening I used to drive out into the fleshpots of LA, walk into the chosen restaurant on my own and wait at the entrance to be seated.

Invariably the Maitre d' or delegate would cry in a loud voice “Party of One?” - at which sound the whole restaurant would stop as people looked at this poor “Billy No Mates” who had just entered, with expressions of pity, before carrying on carousing with their chums…

So when I'm left in charge of feeding myself, I always think of that awful tocsin - “Part of One”!

Now I like cooking – it's creative and satisfying if people enjoy what you've prepared. But for oneself – particularly after a day of DIY chores – it's just a nuisance.

This time I had 12 days to cater for – so I started with some microwaved “ready meals”. The “things with beans” and “things with lentils” were predictably muddy tummy padding – not exciting. One pot of Japanese noodles in a miso sauce was particularly disgusting.

I tried steak and (oven) chips – better; I bought the vacuum-packed Charal steaks in foil wrappers which I've always found to be tender. Getting better!

On the “Charal” theme I found that they did meat balls in a Neapolitan sauce – quite nice with a little tagliatelle – and they also did rognons de boeuf in a Madeira sauce that was good. Probably the nicest thing I had was some frozen Xine lasagne – and then there was a left-over chicken tajine that had lots of extra spicy sauce with chick peas that I liquidised as soup.

So I wondered; my tastes and preferences change rapidly as I reject instant microwave stuff in favour of traditional cuisine. So if I were – god forbid – left on my own-some for some time, what would my menus be like? I've been wife-less before, but always with kids to feed.

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De Ferme en Ferme

29 April 2013 18:18

We paid a short visit to a local Vigneron récoltant near Casseneuil, the Domaine LouGaillot – http://www.lougaillot.com

There's a poorly-translated version at http://www.lougaillot.com/indexuk.html (why don't these people get a native English speaker to spend ten minutes checking the copy (maybe for a bottle or two!).

The vineyard is set in pleasantly undulating countryside near the Lot river. It does its own vinification but uses an itinerant bottling service to produce some 7,000 bottles yearly.

The wines were an interesting and unusual demi-sec blanc from Sauvignon and Semillon grapes which had a refreshing acidity to counteract its sweetness, a Cabernet/Merlot rouge which was a little acid and very tannic, a powerful Merlot which socked you between the eyes and a top-of-the range rouge which was mature and complex but a little pricey at over €10. We bought some of the Merlot and the Blanc.

I shall leave the Merlot for a year or two and it will be pleasant to drink and remember our visit on a cool but sunny Sunday in 2013.

Porky Pies

11 June 2013 18:51

I had a sudden craving for a pork pie, so I built my own to Rick Stein's recipe at http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/raisedporkpie_684 See https://i.minus.com/i1cgugOLym4gf.jpg for a picture… Loads of yummy jelly, miam miam!

The Tarn Gorge

28 June 2013 21:45

(If you have a Facebook account you may prefer to view the Facebook Note with user-friendly in-text pictures at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/ian-gillis/the-tarn-gorgeous/10151530950628920

Alternatively you can stick with this page and separately look at the pics on Picasa at http://bit.ly/1cvQTuj )

Falling “à plat ventre” wasn't the best way to start a holiday – before driving off I'd put some blue meanies around my pepper plants to kill the slugs, then dashed up the terrace steps to put the packet back, tripped and measured my length against the rough concrete floor. Lying there winded, I checked for broken appendages, but, apart from bruised ribs, a skinned knee and elbow, everything seemed to work, so the four-hour journey across country to the Tarn Gorge wasn't too uncomfortable.

Our chambre d'hôte – Villa La Muse http://villa-la-muse.com/ - just outside Le Rozier turned out to be an excellent choice – a recently-refurbished maison de maitre, furnished in a modern style with impeccable taste and run by a charming French couple. It's not actually in Le Rozier, but in the quartier La Muse-St Pal in the commune of Mostuéjouls – but Le Rozier is a lot easier to say! Excellent dinner in Le Rozier at the Alicanta Restaurant http://www.hotel-doussiere.com/.

For our first walk on Sunday we chose a short stretch along the Jonte Gorge (the Jonte and the Tarn have a confluence at Le Rozier), sticking to the river and avoiding steep climbs. The warm sun after a wet spring had brought a riot of wildflowers as a foreground to the backdrop of the limestone cliffs. After an afternoon of “détente” it was the Alicanta again for dinner…

On Monday a tip from mine host led us to a sweet little chapel, a short walk from the road along the Tarn Gorge at the Cirque des Baumes. The chapel was locked but I took a picture of the interior through a hole in the door. We carried on to Sainte-Enimie for lunch – a charming place with a wonderful mediaeval centre hidden away behind the tourist shops. I bought a cossy to take advantage of the pool at our chambre d'hôte. For our return we drove up the side of the gorge to the panorama at St Chely, then across the totally different scenery of the Causse Méjean – flat, deserted but, this year, still green. As we'd had a proper lunch we picnicked with bread, paté and wine at the chambre d'hôte that night.

Tuesday was my very favourite day of the holiday – we did a wonderful walk called the “Baousse del Biel” http://www.lesgorgesdutarn.fr/loisirs/balades/baousse-del-biel.html – the name of the magnificent natural rock arch on the walk. The whole walk was a riot of colour from the wildflowers and the arch was not a disappointment. The first half of the walk is a somewhat scary tip-toe along the edge of the cliffs leading down to the Tarn. Then the balisage changes and there is a steep scramble up a rock slope to a narrow corridor in the crack of a rock belvedere. At the end of this corridor there is a steep downhill slope – we started down it but I'd lost the path and we retraced our steps. It was a worrying moment – we were lost and had foolishly left our water in the car. Fortunately I picked up the balisage again – the path turned hard right at the end of the corridor. After that there was a charming return walk along the high causse past an abandoned farm called Volcégur to our starting point. During the whole walk, through mind-boggling scenery, we didn't see a single soul!

Dinner in La Grange Templière http://www.lagrangetempliere.com/ in Peyreleau, a village adjoining Le Rozier. Nice ambience, indifferent food.

The weather looked a little “iffy” on Wednesday, so it seemed like a good day for a little touristic speleology; we'd already visited the cave of Aven Armand on a previous visit, but we hadn't been to the Grotte de Dargilan – the “Pink Cave” http://grotte-dargilan.com/en/. I can't say I'm bowled over by caves, we've got two quite good ones near to us at home, but Dargilan was quite impressive with some superb “screen walls” of stalactites. The weather had perked up when we emerged from the cave, so I was able to use my new cossy again.

Dinner in the neighbouring Grand Hôtel de la Muse http://www.hotel-delamuse.fr/ - good food but expensive.

Thursday morning it absolutely hissed down with rain – at a loss to know what to do, we decided on a little window shopping in Millau. We drove to the car park and sat waiting for the unrelenting rain to stop. It didn't. There was no way we'd walk around Millau being soaked, so we decided to visit the Millau Bridge visitor centre – again. While there I found a leaflet that told me that Roquefort was only 15km away, so we went there for the cheese visit http://www.visite-roquefort-societe.com/en. It was a bit touristy but we quite enjoyed it and I found out that there are three sorts of Société Roquefort cheese - “1863” which is the bog-standard, sharp-tasting Roquefort usually found in the supermarket, “Templiers” which has a strong parsley flavour and “Baragnaudes” which is more delicate than the other two. These are all matured in different caves. At the tasting I found that I liked the Baragnaudes very much, a little like St Agur, so I bought a quarter cheese round. Dinner at the Alicanta again – still good.

Our finale on Friday was a boat ride on the Tarn, courtesy of “Les Bateliers de La Malène” http://www.gorgesdutarn.com/uk/ - not cheap at €21 pp but enjoyable and a good finale to our week. There is a refreshingly-different perspective from the boats – a sort of punt, propelled, depending on the water depth, by a quiet outboard motor or a similarly-quiet batelier. Dinner in the Grand Hôtel La Muse again.

It's remarkable that we did far more exploring of France before we lived here – maybe there's the feeling that you don't have to pack in all the sights like when you're on holiday. This week showed us a little more of the wonders of this country and we resolved to do more.

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25 July 2013 20:20

A new record for Tessel Bas. It didn't spoil an al fresco lunch however!

Photo at http://i.minus.com/iBEelvwpxh4y5.jpg

The thermometer on the table didn't register more than 34°C – still b hot, though!

Enfin! - Notre Repas des Aînés

30 July 2013 12:22

Our village bunfight for the dribblies has been postponed twice, once while the village foyer rural was being refurbished and once when a heavy snowstorm stopped the zimmer-frame dash to a local restaurant.

At last the village hall refurbishment has been completed (that nice M Flamby-Hollande stumped up €200,000 for it) and the Repas des Aînés was combined with the Repas Annuel and the Repas de Chasse, so a number of ugly old warthogs sat down for cannibalistic lunch with their partners and the younger element of the village. It was a good lunch, well attended by assorted well-heeled Brit freeloaders – and the hall now has clim, so us old people didn't need to sit in Auchan's freezers to keep cool.

A few pics at http://bit.ly/16xYR4b

Vernissage at St Emilion

30 July 2013 11:50

On Friday evening we went to the vernissage of the latest output by our 85-year old American artist friend Pierre Clerk.

I like St Emilion, the weather was fine, hot even, and most of the day trippers had left.

The paintings were exhibited in the Salle des Dominicains, a beautiful building with a wonderful roof.

There is a selection of pics in my village blog at http://bit.ly/15sIvuG

Afterwards we ate in the restaurant “Lard et Bouchon” (I liked the name!) - which was a disappointment, we were stuck in the corner of a mouldy cellar room, the food was ordinary but the prices were high and I was hard put to find a bottle of wine with less than three figures. An ordinary, non-grand cru, non-grand cru classé rouge was like sucking pennies and €28. Rip-off!

As St Emilion is a couple of hours from us we stayed overnight in a chambre d'hôte called “Les Chambres d'Ovaline”, next to the main car park in the Place Bouquère. The room was enormous, the bathroom was as big as the whole of an Ibis room and the proprietress Natasha was charming. Thoroughly recommended – see http://bit.ly/14x69Cn – I'd also recommend Booking.com, not just because our Peter works for them but because their website is one of the most user-friendly I've ever encountered. We paid €90 for the room which is good value for the location, but I'd avoid the continental breakfast at €12 pp.

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Toiture – or Heath Robinson is alive and well and living in Tessel Bas

8 August 2013 21:49

My roof suffered from the autumn leaves, which were glued in place by the frost and snow and moistened by the long, cool Spring. In this nutritious compost a rock-garden succulent has taken hold, converting my toiture into a rocherie.

Something had to be done to avert potential water build-up and leaks. I wasn't keen on careering about the roof, smashing tiles and falling off. So I designed a tool; more correctly, two tools.

The French gardener has a useful tool at his disposal called a “serfouette” - like a draw hoe but with a flat blade and a spiky blade opposite. Appropriately trimmed, just the job for scraping superfluous succulent from my toiture.

But what about a handle? It had to be long… So I girded my loins and ventured into the Tessel Bas bamboo forest. There I found two stout bamboo poles, one 6m long and one 3.5m long. For the heads, I found a cheap and nasty serfouette in Auchan – cost only €5,50, so I bought two.

I cut down the serfouette blades to fit the flat bit between the “humps” of the Roman tiles. Today has been spent raking the roof – hard work with the sun beating down, but happily not so hot as it has been recently. Several barrow-loads of leaf-mulch, moss and succulent were consigned to the compost heap.

Oh, and the barn has the same problem – with traditional tiles placed on a plaque ondulée. For this I have to use the other side of the serfouette, with its sharp pointy bit. But tomorrow is another day…

13 August 2013 22:38

Having finished the house roof, I'm now working on the barn, which has an even more luxuriant garden of unwanted rockery plants. The barn axis runs East-West and I'm doing the North slope, so I'm looking into the sun. Accordingly I can only work in the mornings before it gets too hot. I got stung by wasps living under the house tiles (I thought of Avis!) - I had a sore arm for three days.

I've now done about half of one side of the barn roof. For a picture of the partially-completed roof see http://i.minus.com/ib2owG76TUDz0d.jpg and for a close up of the vegetation, see http://i.minus.com/ib1vy22ydiIJaG.jpg

29 August 2013 12:01

With the help of a little cooler weather, I've finished my barn roof muck-raking project: here's an overall view – http://i.minus.com/i4W46YXIjisIc.jpg and here's the au-vent end featuring my long-handled muck rakes (patent not pending) – http://i.minus.com/icf3lW8VIrrU2.jpg

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Le Puy du Fou

1 September 2013 22:58

Comfortably full of fried egg and boudin noir I'd settled down to reading the morning's emails when the sound of the tronçonneuse came from le terrain de mon voisin en face. Strange at this time of year, I thought.

A quick look showed that le voisin was attacking a very large, mature Aussie paperbark that had been dead for several years – presumably to use as fuel this winter. Now this neighbour is the one with the dog that killed my Henri, the one with the poules that scratch up my parterres and the cocks that crow under my window on my land in the morning. He's known locally as “Le Fou du Village”.

Only a couple of days ago he had a big bonfire left unattended – I went to see if it was a possible danger and decided it was; just as I was leaving to call the pompiers something in the fire exploded with a frightening bang. So I went and tackled him and he went to see to it. With the area tinder-dry he could easily have caused a big conflagration with loss of life and property.

So I was browsing through the LVeF happenings when there was the familiar sound of a large trunk giving way and a crash of a falling tree. Then my computer sound system started making motor-boat noises and the lights flickered on and off; so I shut down the Mac and went and cut the mains at the interrupteur différentiel on the panneau électrique.

A short walk revealed the fact that Le Fou had managed to fell the tree across the road, blocking the road (which is a cul-de-sac) and ripping the EDF mains cables from the posts and from the transformer mounted on the 12KV supply line. He'd cut the tree straight across – with no concession to a notch cut to fell the tree in a desired direction. I thought about volunteering to help with my tronçonneuse – then I thought about how he had treated me and the potential danger of shock from the 415v 3-phase line. So I carried on with some de-mossing of my house roof, which was in a good position to watch the subsequent events.

10:30 on a Sunday morning – all the French housewives were in the kitchen preparing lunch and phutt! So a number of husbands were sent to complain, and a number of wives came to see that the complaints were properly forced home.

Seeing Le Fou vacillating, one husband called EDF. EDF arrived promptly in about an hour, smartly dressed and in bright new vans. They spent the first 15 mins getting Le Fou to sign all the papers admitting responsibility.

I talked to my Dutch neighbour Pym, whose brand new TV had expired in a puff of acrid smoke. It's amazing what 415v can do when the neutral wire that reduces it to 230v is disconnected. More EDF vans arrived – including a cherry picker. Anyone who hadn't got away from our cul-de-sac before the tree fell was imprisoned at home. EDF connected the cables back on to the transformer and re-strung them on the posts from which they had been torn – they were cheerful and efficient and they worked during the sacred lunch hour. I was very impressed.

I put a test lamp on the socket that I use to inject the output from my generator, which is between the EDF disjoncteur and the interrupteur différentiel – so I could see when the mains eventually came back on after about 5 hours. A quick check of sensitive bits of electronics showed no damage. I hope my surge busters on the computers helped, and our old cathode ray TV lump is obviously more robust than those poncy flat panel things – despite Xine's prayers that it will go wrong…

There are a couple of pics in my village blog at at http://stecolombedevilleneuve.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/prives-delectricite/

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Hydroelectric and Flood Relief in the Isère – Engineering Visit

1 October 2013 20:47

(There's a short slideshow to accompany this text at http://tinyurl.com/isere27-9-13)

We stayed at the Bates Motel, no, sorry, the Chateau de Cornage, Vizille. This hôtel was a new project for the owners and had a dilapidated and somewhat grim aspect, looming over the zone commerciale of Vizille. But no granny at the window! The rooms were very much Work in Progress, with luxuries such as chairs, ceiling lights and shower curtains scheduled for the future and inspection holes revealing naughty bits of wiring and plumbing. However the staff were universally friendly and the food was excellent – the place has potential!

Our visit started early with the sun still hidden behind the resort of Les Deux Alpes. However the coach driver had somehow been directed to the wrong château and it was some time later when we heard the plaintive call of coach driver stuck in narrow access road. Once on board we had a master class in trying but failing to turn a large coach around in a narrow lane, but the prolonged reversing manoeuvre earned justifiable applause.

So we began the day somewhat late; there was a brief lecture on the Romanche-Gavet Hydro-Electric Project and learned that it replaces a number of ancient generating plants with a single system fed by a tunnel bored through the mountain. The old and rather tatty infrastructure will be removed, save for one baroque and listed piece of architecture, allowing the beauty of the river valley to be restored.

We then had a long Elf'n'Safety lecture about boots and hard hats and all that – then little yellow remotes were handed out for the Elf'n'Safety Exam, and it was threatened that the results would be displayed for all to see, at which there was a sudden flurry of interest. However everyone passed!

With Ze Lurnch looming there was just a few minutes left for us to don our fashionable Blue EDF vests, hats and boots and quickly tour the site where the big tunnel gulps down water from the river. To build this the river Romanche had been diverted so that the control gear and the big “drain hole” could be built on the old river bed. We couldn't visit the tunnelling as a trace of natural asbestos had been found and was being investigated. More info: http://bit.ly/GzFaSw.

Lunch was at the Hôtel des Mésanges, in a beautiful setting above Grenoble. For the afternoon we moved to another river, this time the “departmental” river, the Isère. This is a large civil engineering project designed to canalise, reinforce and raise the riverbanks to protect Grenoble from the 200-year flood event by allowing controlled flooding of an extensive flood plain. Although massive in scope but apparently simple in concept, our guide illustrated the complexities of, for instance, choosing the right mix of aggregate to resist erosion. More info: http://bit.ly/170UCNY

With the technical part of the visit over it was time for dinner – semi-formal, i.e. jackets, some wore ties – I just about remembered how to tie one! In keeping with such an occasion Mike Wrigley didn't disappoint us and told his joke. Fortunately there was no need to summon medical aid to those exhausted by laughter.

Vizille was home to some of the preliminary plotting of The French Revolution, and the Chateau de Vizille has a museum with an impressive and educational array of paintings and artefacts. We spent Saturday morning there, before lunch in Vizille and the end of the formal visit.

As we faced a 7-hour drive home we stayed one more night; unfortunately we had to pass through an orage that had devastated some of Aquitaine as we drove along the A89, but it was clear after Clermont Ferrand. Back home we found lots of leaves and silt from a very heavy rainstorm – a nearby commune registered a record 80mm in less than an hour.

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Got Another New Toy

5 October 2013 17:24

Sent from my iPhone 5s (hint!)

Suid Afrika

25 November 2013 15:52

When Christine said that she wanted to go to South Africa for our 30th Wedding Anniversary trip I had somewhat mixed feelings – for all sorts of reasons. But I loved many aspects of the big and beautiful country and I really wanted to see how it had changed.

As a long-standing fan of the Airbus A380 I was really looking forward to flying in one. But the reality is a little disappointing, it's an ordinary shape with four ordinary-looking engines – it's just very big – with big engines. No “Spruce Goose” with eight thundering radial Pratt & Whitneys! The take-off is unexciting, no kick-in-the-back acceleration like an A320, just a smooth glide down the runway until it takes off at what seems to be just a little more than walking pace. It was a night flight from Roissy and by the time they'd fed us and I'd watched a film on the primitive seat-back screen there wasn't much time for sleep before Johannesburg.

We cleared customs at Jo'burg, so I got some Rand out of the cash machine before going airside for the BA shuttle to Cape Town. In my sleepy state I got R150, which would have been about £75 when I was last in SA. At the airside café I realised that this wasn't much more than €11 – so we made do with a couple of coffees until our plane left. So it was late afternoon when we made Cape Town and were met by our tour guide. Three connecting flights and 24 hours of travelling is very tiring and I don't think much of the quick Cape Town tour stayed with me – I just wanted to curl up in a proper bed!

I've compiled a 12 minute video record of our trip at http://youtu.be/wOui1xgIGW0 using still photographs and HD video from a new iPhone – which I was learning to use so please make allowances! We had a great many experiences on the trip that you can see summarised on the video, the first two or three days in particular were very intensive and involved some early mornings to fit everything in to the busy schedule. So I won't bore you here with all that stuff, but I'll concentrate on the impressions that I gained, not as a researcher, but as a tourist.

Once again we journeyed with a French-speaking group – the guide was a French-speaking black with the distinctive African name of Johnson – coincidentally Christine's maiden name! Most of the French group were middle-class and relatively friendly, there was even a sweet old couple who seemed very much older than us, but who were in fact only two years older than me – perhaps they had a hard life! However many of this group seemed to have the French reluctance to queue for anything – when waiting for anything, be it tickets or other handouts, there was always a French shoulder vigorously pushed in front of one. There were some over-enthusiastic “photographeurs”, too, for whom possession of a camera was carte blanche to photograph anyone and anything and to barge in front to get the best shot. But I only lost my cool once…

I was last in South Africa during 1969/1970 during the installation of a radar defence system in the Transvaal. Apartheid and white supremacy ruled and the Afrikaaner Broederbond, the Bureau of State Security and the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) were important influences; Afrikaans was a widely-spoken official language. The blacks were an underclass; domestic servants and labourers, the coloureds (mainly Indians) had a higher status and some Asiatics, such as the Chinese, were “almost white”. “Separate Development” was evidenced everywhere by the signs saying e.g. “Slegs Nie-Blankes” (non-whites only). All non-whites had a down-trodden demeanour. There was very little tourism, the world had turned its back on South Africa and my flights in the old VC10 had to be routed via the Cape Verde Islands since any SA-bound aircraft would be shot down over some of the more hostile countries.

In 2013 I found a country with a great deal going on, new buildings in the course of construction and an excellent road system with lots of motorway. Many familiar names had changed – Jan Smuts Airport is now O R Tambo International Airport, the Transvaal/Witwatersrand is Gauteng – but there hasn't been a wholesale eradication and purge of the previous culture – even Gauteng is derived from the Afrikaans goud (gold) plus the Sesotho locative suffix “-ng”. Afrikaans is still an official language along with English and nine other languages. There are people of all shades in all sorts of occupations and most hold their heads up high.

Tourism is an important source of income and we were funnelled to many “made for tourists” areas with “theme parks” for native culture – tourists want to see natives in tribal dress chanting tribal songs amidst lions and other wild animals, not the industrial parks and heavy industry that reaps in the foreign exchange. Soweto was an area that no unarmed white person would dare to enter in the 70s – now it hosts tourists at the chic bars and is the site of some impressive sports stadia.

But it's not all milk and honey. Apartheid still exists – not as I knew it but “economic apartheid” - there is an enormous difference between the income of the middle-class black, coloured or white and the vast population of rural and urban blacks who live in the favela-like shanty towns. Indeed there is a parallel between Brazil and South Africa – both have enormous potential and a vast, unemployed potential workforce living in extreme poverty.

I don't know what the answer to this is, but I'm sure that tourism is one way to inject cash into the society and to give people work – and I'm glad to have helped in this way, and at the same time having one of the best holidays we have ever had. And I'm so, so glad that this lovely country did not descend into a bitter, inter-racial war and face a catastrophic economic decline like some of the African dictatorships.

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Tree Fellers

23 December 2013 22:31

Well only one, as it happened.

We had three specimens of Ailanthus Altissima which had outgrown their welcome and which were over-shading the patio area and dropping leaves everywhere.

As they were in felling-reach of the house and there was only a limited amount of space, I decided to have them dismantled by someone more adept at climbing trees and wielding a chainsaw than I am. Matt Strawbridge of http://www.arbreservices.com/ arrived last Friday and spent a gorgeous sunny day reducing the three trees to stumps and a pile of rough-cut timber and twigs, pirouetting from trunk to trunk in an array of ropes and carabiniers.

Another tree on my park was felled with a rope to his Land-Rover ensuring that it didn't fall house-wards.

The agreed deal was that he felled the trees and that I limbed, bucked and stacked them – in fact he did a lot of the limbing and bucking, but I've still got a lot of splitting to do with my trusty merlin.

The video of the process can be found here.

I've made a stacking area for the logs with some old doors and Christine has been doing sterling service with the stacking. But I've acquired a whole new range of aching muscles over the past couple of days!

Incidentally I would thoroughly recommend Matt – he knows his stuff, works hard and charges a fair price.

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