Unstuck thanks to cheap cologne!

I was in a tidying-up mood this morning. It’s been a crazy week, with things starting to get out of control, so I felt the need to do some organising and feel a bit more in charge.

First up I made each of the five of us a tidy pot. I used the chunky plastic hot-chocolate powder containers that the French love so much. I do wish the manufacturers would use something a lot more eco-friendly, but it seems they’re compulsory. So I reuse all mine – as containers for food to go into the freezer, as jam and chutney receptacles, and now as tidy pots.

So what’s a tidy pot? Well, during  the week, when I tread on a stray piece of Ruadhri’s Lego, or find coins and nails in the pocket of a pair of Chris’s trousers that I’m about to wash, or simply happen across something of Caiti’s where it shouldn’t be – I will tidy it temporarily into the relevant pot. Then, every few days each person will empty their pot out and tidy the things away properly. I’ve made a pot for me too so I have to tidy up after myself too.

Now, it nearly all went badly wrong. My first design idea for eldest son Benj’s pot was to stick some old CDs on it. So I got out the superglue – and very quickly afterwards I had the tube firmly attached to my thumb. Oops. I’ve never been very good with superglue, which is why I recently bought a tube of the dissolver stuff for it to keep handy.  But could I find it today? Nope. However, luckily I’m married to a scientist, who grabbed the bottle of very cheap eau de cologne we keep in the bathroom (Simply Market’s best!), poured some into a cup and got me to soak my thumb in it. He cut away as much of the glue tube as he could so there was only the part that was superglued to me left. It didn’t take too long for the cologne to solve the problem – or rather dissolve it. The ethanol in it did the trick so I was soon able to wiggle the last bit of tube off. Lesson learned – actually two. Don’t let me anywhere near superglue ever again, and always keep cheap cologne in the house!

The CD design that got me all stuck up, and the bottle of cologne that saved my bacon!

After this disconcerting episode, I opted for knitted covers for the tidy pots – so much safer. Caiti made the the stripy one, and I did the others. They’re all my own designs, apart from the monster foot one. I got that pattern from Yarn Bombing by Mandy More and Leanne Prain.

And I didn’t stop there. I made a start on organising my llama and alpaca records a bit better. I invested in some chemises (literally ‘shirts’), simple cardboard folders that you can slip documents into. I’ve stuck a photo of each animal on the front, and inside will go their registration documents, medical records, receipts, wool analyses – anything that’s relevant. The chemises come in different colours, so I’m using blue for male llamas, green for male alpacas, yellow for Mellie and Kiera, the two alpaca females, and red and orange for the llama girl gang. Up to now I’ve tended to store a lot of the information in my head, and shove all the paperwork into one big file. That definitely needed improving on, and I think I have.

Some of you might recognise Victoria on the cover of the orange file in the photo. I wrote about her birth in my blog here. (And Georgie’s high-speed birth is here.)

Finally, more cranes have been flying over the house today heading north. It’s the first day of spring according to the calendar, and it looks like the cranes agree. Hooray!

 

 

 

Chats in space

I learned something fascinating today. France sent at least one cat into space in the early days of space travel. Her name was Félicette. In 1963 the French government were training a lot of cats for space missions. They were put through centrifuge and compression chamber tests. It can’t have been too bad for them since ten of them were taken off the programme because they were too fat!

Space cats in training at NASA

Félicette was a last-minute replacement for Félix, who was meant to be the first cat to go into space. He was a tabby street cat. He obviously stayed street-cunning, as he managed to escape, which is why his female counterpart was blasted into space on 18 October 1963 in his place.

Félix - the escapee

Félicette was a black and white cat. Her flight lasted about quarter of an hour. Throughout her brief foray into the atmosphere the electrodes implanted in her brain sent back impulses to CERMA (Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique). Apparently she made a valuable contribution to CERMA’s research. She was safely recovered from the capsule after her flight, but there don’t seem to be any records of what happened to her after that. The world press called her an ‘astrocat’. Her official photo was issued afterwards, with her pawprint on it, and the sentence: ‘Merci pour votre participation à mon succès du 18 octobre 1963’ (Thank you for taking part in my success of 18 October 1963).

Brave Félicette on a postage stamp

If CERMA wants to restart this programme, we have a black and white cat they can have. Lucky, whom we inherited when her owner went back to the UK, is pushing her luckiness at the moment! She has become rather naughty. However, she’s a very affectionate cat, who loves to come for walks with us, so maybe we won’t send her into space just yet …

Treacle, one of our other cats, is far too tubby - and too busy sunbathing - to go into space!

Photos of the space cats from http://www.purr-n-fur.org.uk/famous/felix.html

 

Who needs Paris?

So, Paris is still the world’s number one tourist destination, with more than 30 million people visiting it every year. We still haven’t been there yet, apart from Benj who went up with a school trip, and came back severely unimpressed. Too many rats everywhere, he reckoned!

I’m in no rush to go. There’s plenty to see in rural Creuse. No, I’m not joking. There really is. Just yesterday we went for an hour’s walk. It’s one of our regular routes. And here’s what we get to see on route.

Our big lake, Alder Lake, at sunset

First we go down by our big lake and walk through the wood at the far end. We regularly catch sight of herons, or ragondins, or a chevreuil or two (they’re red deer and you rarely see one on its own). The other week I got a glimpse of two wild boar.

The tiny lavoir

Round a neighbouring field, down a green lane, along the road a little way and we pass a hidden lavoir. This is where people washed their clothes in the past. It’s fascinating to find one pretty much in the middle of nowhere!

Down the road and past the tiny quarry that someone works in from time to time. It certainly isn’t a commercial one so I reckon it’s a hobby quarryist!

Someone won't have Internet for much longer!

A little further on and we always look to see if the telephone wire has given way yet. That tree has been leaning on it for well over a year now.

This is a huge building

We reach the mill at the bottom of the hill. This is a tremendous building, four storeys high, as you can see. It was clearly prosperous in the past. The wheel has gone now but we can see where it was. We’ve never seen anyone in the mill, but from time to time workmen appear to do some maintenance, and someone keeps the two apple trees pruned. It’s a mystery!

DIY bridge

I love this little bridge across a tiny stream that runs through the mill’s grounds. It’s a DIY bridge with bedstead ends as railings. Waste not, want not.

It’s a fairly steep climb along another green lane that takes up right up to the edge of our property. We pass a long-neglected lake on the right, with a very steep banking sloping down to it. On snowy days we roll snowballs down to see how big they get before they finally crash into a tree.

Back home and we’ve walked through nature and history in just a few kilometres. Who needs Paris!

 

 

Frirish food for St Patrick’s Day

OK, what’s Frirish food then? A combination of French and Irish of course! For St Patrick’s Day I’ve given an Irish twist to some traditional French ingredients.

I’d intended to have more examples for you here, but life got in the way on Wednesday when I was preparing this blog. We’re still nursing our poorly llama, and I was also out for five hours taking Caiti to see a specialist at Montluçon hospital. Ugh. Anyway, more tests to do and hopefully we’ll soon get my daughter back to normal.

Anyway, here’s a taster of Frirish food. A suitable starter is avocado with fromage frais and grated carrot. This gives you Ireland’s green, white and orange, and uses two everyday French food items. Every trolley at the checkout in a French supermarket will have a bucket-sized tub of fromage frais in it and a large container of carottes rapées. Avocados aren’t native to France, but they’re always in the shops these days.

The colours of Ireland’s flag are symbolic. The green represents Irish Republicanism, dating back to the 1790s. The orange represents the protestant minority who supported King William III of the House of Orange. The white in the middle represents the truce between the two sides, and everlasting peace.

Now, how about soup next. Pumpkins are part of France for us since we grow so many every year, so pumpkin soup with a swirl of bright white cream and a sprinkling of chives is a good Frirish soup course.

On to cakes. Madeleines, small almond-flavoured, shell-shaped cakes, originated in Commercy, Lorraine. They’re named after the servant, Madeleine Paulmier, who invented them in 1755. Madeleines couldn’t be any Frencher – they’re the standard thing French children have for their gouter – and the Irish flag couldn’t be any Irisher. So put them together for a tasty Frirish treat. I used butter icing, 1:2 ration of creamed butter and caster sugar (for a bit of crunch – use icing sugar if you’d rather). The virulent colours came out of bottles.

And you have to inlcude barm brack. That’s an Irish cake, but I add a generous handful of local French walnuts to the mix to give it a touch of France.

There’ll be more soon about this new gastronomic cult when things have quietened down on the home front a little.

Happy St Patrick’s day to you all.

In sickness and in health … llama drama

We’re nursing a poorly llama at the moment. Gabby, the matriarch of our herd, has had her yearly funny turn. She’s given us the most problems of all the animals. We had the vet out yesterday who has diagnosed the problem as being her liver. He’s dosed her up and we gave her some medicine today, and must do the same again tomorrow, and then it’s a waiting game. She’s calm and comfy, and on the whole quite perky, so fingers crossed. She came back from the brink of death two years ago – the vet gave her less than a 10% chance of survival that time, so we know she’s tough. But she’s not out of the woods yet.

Gabby (left) and Georgina

Gabby’s youngest daughter, Georgina, is sulking. (We have two more of Gabby’s daughters in our herd – Katrina and Lulin.) Gabby has been proving difficult to wean, but since mum has been lying down for two days now, she’s had to manage without her milk. She’s grudgingly drinking water from the bucket instead.

Georgie about to take a nice muddy roll

Llamas are tricky animals health-wise for the simple reason that they’re very tough. They’ll put up with a lot of pain before they finally give you some clue something is going on. The stoic behaviour is fairly typical of herd animals apparently. No animal wants to show weakness in front of the others for fear of losing its place in the hierarchy, or of being picked off by a predator. So sadly it can sometimes be too late when you realise something is up.

The most common health threat to llamas, as with all ruminants, is from parasites. I dose my guys several times a year with Panacur and an Ivermec generique, alternating them so that resistance doesn’t build up. These products are effective against most worms. The animals also get a yearly jab of Miloxan, which safeguards them from clostridium and tetanus infections, amongst others. I’m now pretty good at vaccinating them. It was terrifying to start with, but practice makes perfect – or at least, a bit better than before! The llamas don’t mind too much although you do need a willing helper or two to hold on to them firmly. We also have the chickens and turkeys patrolling in the llama field. Poultry and ducks are a good anti-parasite treatment too as they clear them up from the grass.

It’s always upsetting to have a sick animal. But alongside the fun and joys of animal ownership comes the other side – the worry and the heartache when things go wrong. However, on balance I wouldn’t be without my little herd.

Gabby, Vicky and Windy (but not all my llamas have names ending in y)

 

 

 

Sorted cutlery and shamrock cupcakes

I’m serious about getting organised this year. The cutlery drawer was top of my list for decluttering. It was completely out of hand, as this shameful before photo shows.

Before - cringe!

But after half an hour or so of dedicated tidying, I overcame the muddle. I invested in a deeper plastic cutlery tray in eye-assaulting green which is not only functional but cheerful.

Much better!

During the tidy-up, I found nearly 50 reusable wire ties, the sort that come with bread over here. I’d just been tossing them into the drawer. They now live in a small zip-up pencil case that was needing something to do. I also uncovered enough chopsticks to kit out a Chinese restaurant (and we don’t eat Chinese very often these days) and a good collection of fèves. What are fèves? They are little porcelain ornaments that you hide in the Gateau des Rois (marzipan cake) that you eat on Twelfth Night here in France. Here are mine.

Now, for meal planning. Things didn’t quite stay on target last week. But I see that Laura at www.orgjunkie.com recommends starting with just two or three days. So I’ll try that for this week. We’ve already had Monday tea, so here goes for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Now, Thursday is St Patrick’s Day and that’s our day so we’ll be celebrating!

Tuesday: Burgers in half baguettes with fried onions and lots of ketchup. Followed by banana custard.

Wednesday: Baked potatoes with ham and cheese filling, coleslaw and tomato salad. Walnut flapjacks. Here’s my recipe for those: 4 oz butter, 4 oz golden syrup, 7 oz rolled oats and 1 oz chopped walnuts. Melt the butter and golden syrup together. Then mix in the oats and walnuts. Press into a flan case and bake for 25 minutes on at 180 degrees C. I use the walnuts we collected last autumn and which I shelled and froze over winter. They’ve kept beautifully.

Thursday: Party time! Slices of barm brack for breakfast with some of my homemade hedgerow jam. For lunch, St Patrick’s Day soup.

Then for tea, we’ll treat ourselves to Irish Beef Goulash followed by Shamrock cupcakes. That should all be festive enough.

Happy eating this week, and especially on Thursday!

 

 

 

 

Road trip!

So we’re safely back from our road trip to Strasbourg. We – eldest son Benj and I – were away for 36 hours. We spent 15 of those in the car – it’s a long way to Strasbourg from the centre of France! It was tiring but a trip well worth making.

But distance isn’t really a problem. I enjoy driving, and luckily Benj and I share similar tastes in music so we were happy enough to listen to each other’s CDs on the way. We got through a lot. We also got through a lot of motorway service station sandwiches. I hadn’t realised my son had a chicken and mayo sandwich habit. And we saw interesting things en route – three chickens right on the hard shoulder of one autoroute, happily scratching away at the scabby grass as traffic thundered past at 130 kph only metres away! Also car factories, the watersheds between the Mediterranean and the North Sea and the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, ancient fortifications, the Vosges mountains, Germany, an army convoy, policemen on bikes with ferocious truncheons and a Figuereido transport lorry which we thought was one cool name. (Maybe we’d just had too many chicken mayo sandwiches by then.)

The goal of the trip was to visit the university. Benj wants to do a Langues Etrangères Appliquées course (applied languages), specialising in German and English. Strasbourg appealed to him because of its proximity to Germany, and because it has a very good reputation for languages. This was his third university visit. He’s already visited Limoges (with me) and Clermont Ferand (with Chris), both of them much nearer home! Strasbourg University is an old one, dating back to 1538, and it’s also France’s largest. In 1972 it was divided into three institutions, which between them have a student population of 42,000 – the Louis Pasteur University, Marc Bloch University and Robert Schuman University. The language school is part of Marc Bloch, named after the famous French historian.

Strasbourg is a huge city. Wikipedia tells me that it has a population of 273,000 which I frankly find hard to believe. I would have put it much, much higher. It’s the seventh largest commune in France. It’s beautiful too. The centre of it, on Grande Île, is a Unesco world heritage site, and you can see why. The towering, colossal Notre Dame cathedral is there. At 142 m it’s currently the tenth tallest church in the world. It was the tallest from 1647 to 1874, but has been pushed down the rankings since then! It’s in the Gothic style, a deep red colour and truly stunning. There’s a fascinating astronomical clock in it. It features a perpetual clock, a planetary dial and shows the positions of the sun and moon. At 12.30pm every day the twelve apostles have a procession around the top of it. We missed that show but caught one figure walking round at 1pm. Whoever it was went past the eerie, skeletal figure of Death.

We walked through many bustling squares and along narrow lanes. The whole city was clean and gleaming. Like the trams. We loved the trams. We parked at a park and ride in the morning, rather than attempt to drive into the city, and travelled into in style on a tram. We found the university easily, and as we were running early and had an unlimited day pass on the trams, got straight onto another one and went to see the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Justice. These were very impressive, modern buildings, in a tranquil part of the city. After the university visit, we were back on the tram, riding into the centre of Strasbourg to see all the beautiful buildings. We never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a tram, and each one was sleek, shiny and spotless.

We travelled up on the Friday and stayed at a Formule 1 hotel in the southern suburbs of Strasbourg, at Illkirch Graffenstaden. It was a low cost, no frills hotel, convenient to get to, and just perfect for our purposes. We strolled through the town, which was spacious and attractive, in the evening and found an Irish pub! (We moved to France from Ireland.) We drove back on Saturday, getting home about 9.30pm.

All in all, it was an interesting, enjoyable trip. I’d been wanting to visit Strasbourg for ages. I’d still like to go and visit the Christmas market there – it must be quite stunning in such a beautiful city. We’ll have to wait and see if Benj ends up there for his studies …

 

Road trip to Strasbourg – or 1,250 km in 36 hours!

So we’re safely back from our road trip to Strasbourg. We – eldest son Benj and I – were away for 36 hours. We spent 15 of those in the car – it’s a long way to Strasbourg from the centre of France! It was tiring but a trip well worth making.

Benj texting in Strasbourg as opposed to texting at home!

But distance isn’t really a problem. I enjoy driving, and luckily Benj and I share similar tastes in music so we were happy enough to listen to each other’s CDs on the way. We got through a lot. We also got through a lot of motorway service station sandwiches. I hadn’t realised my son had a chicken and mayo sandwich habit. And we saw interesting things en route – three chickens right on the hard shoulder of one autoroute, happily scratching away at the scabby grass as traffic thundered past at 130 kph only metres away! Also car factories, the watersheds between the Mediterranean and the North Sea and the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, ancient fortifications, the Vosges mountains, Germany, an army convoy, policemen on bikes with ferocious truncheons and a Figuereido transport lorry which we thought was one cool name. (Maybe we’d just had too many chicken mayo sandwiches by then.)

The goal of the trip was to visit the university. Benj wants to do a Langues Etrangères Appliquées course (applied languages), specialising in German and English. Strasbourg appealed to him because of its proximity to Germany, and because it has a very good reputation for languages. This was his third university visit. He’s already visited Limoges (with me) and Clermont Ferand (with Chris), both of them much nearer home! Strasbourg University is an old one, dating back to 1538, and it’s also France’s largest. In 1972 it was divided into three institutions, which between them have a student population of 42,000 – the Louis Pasteur University, Marc Bloch University and Robert Schuman University. The language school is part of Marc Bloch, named after the famous French historian.

The library at Strasbourg University - built in 1962 so as old as me!

Strasbourg is a huge city. Wikipedia tells me that it has a population of 273,000 which I frankly find hard to believe. I would have put it much, much higher. It’s the seventh largest commune in France. It’s beautiful too. The centre of it, on Grande Île, is a Unesco world heritage site, and you can see why. The towering, colossal Notre Dame cathedral is there. At 142 m it’s currently the tenth tallest church in the world. It was the tallest from 1647 to 1874, but has been pushed down the rankings since then! It’s in the Gothic style, a deep red colour and truly stunning. There’s a fascinating astronomical clock in it. It features a perpetual clock, a planetary dial and shows the positions of the sun and moon. At 12.30pm every day the twelve apostles have a procession around the top of it. We missed that show but caught one figure walking round at 1pm. Whoever it was went past the eerie, skeletal figure of Death.

Notre Dame cathedral, Strasbourg
The astronomical clock

We walked through many bustling squares and along narrow lanes. The whole city was clean and gleaming. Like the trams. We loved the trams. We parked at a park and ride in the morning, rather than attempt to drive into the city, and travelled into in style on a tram. We found the university easily, and as we were running early and had an unlimited day pass on the trams, got straight onto another one and went to see the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Justice. These were very impressive, modern buildings, in a tranquil part of the city.

The European Parliament
The European Court of Human Rights

After the university visit, we were back on the tram, riding into the centre of Strasbourg to see all the beautiful buildings. We never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a tram, and each one was sleek, shiny and spotless.

A tram on a bridge

We travelled up on the Friday and stayed at a Formule 1 hotel in the southern suburbs of Strasbourg, at Illkirch Graffenstaden. It was a low cost, no frills hotel, convenient to get to, and just perfect for our purposes. We strolled through the town, which was spacious and attractive, in the evening and found an Irish pub! (We moved to France from Ireland.) We drove back on Saturday, getting home about 9.30pm.

All in all, it was an interesting, enjoyable trip. I’d been wanting to visit Strasbourg for ages. I’d still like to go and visit the Christmas market there – it must be quite stunning in such a beautiful city. We’ll have to wait and see if Benj ends up there for his studies …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sayings about France

Since I will only have crawled back from Strasbourg a few hours ago, I’m scheduling another blog before I leave to go up in my absence. Here are a few sayings about France and the French that you might enjoy!

 

An old saying: Raise your right hand if you like the French…. Raise both hands if you are French. Anon

Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs – everything is a pretext for a good dinner. Jean Anouilh

France, mother of arts, of warfare, and of laws. Joachim du Bellay

In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport. Julia Child

If it were not for the government, we would have nothing to laugh at in France.
Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort 1741-94

How can anyone govern a nation that has 240 different kinds of cheese? Charles de Gaulle

I cannot prevent the French from being French. Charles de Gaulle

France is revolutionary or she is nothing at all. Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine

The French never allow a distinguished son of France to lack a statue. Edward V Lucas

Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion. Norman Schwarzkopf

And a few French proverbs:

The worst is not always certain but it’s very likely.

There is no such thing as a pretty good omelette.

Impossible isn’t French.

If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.

Don’t wake up a sleeping cat.

Those who resemble, assemble.

There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience.

People count up the faults of those who keep them waiting.

If you enjoyed those sayings, go to http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/proverbe/pres.htm for another 25,000 proverbs (in French)!

Story time – beginning of my book!

I’m in Strasbourg, so I’ve scheduled this excerpt (the first 2,600 words or so) from my living in France book to appear in my blog. The working title is Heads Above Water. Hope you enjoy!

 

Chapter 1

Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

 

We arrived in Ireland in 1992, when times were good, cars were held together by string and food prices were almost non-existent. Having only ever lived in cramped housing estates in England, with tiny gardens and too many neighbours, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding a bungalow in the countryside to rent. We called it Harry’s House, after our amiable landlord, Harry Kidney. He didn’t put the rent up in over three years, and on the rare occasions we had a building-related problem, he was at the front door to sort it out within minutes. Even though he lived half an hour away. Harry’s House had a large back garden and a fantastic view over nearby fields and distant Cork city. It was in a row of five other bungalows, all housing friendly families.

We were a young(ish) couple with our first child, Benjamin. Chris had been made redundant, a victim of Thatcher’s Britain, literally a few weeks after I’d smugly told my previous employers, an accountancy firm, that I wouldn’t be coming back after maternity leave. So the search to provide for his suddenly frighteningly dependent family brought him to the Emerald Isle, initially on a temporary basis. After a few months that became a permanent basis, and we moved everything across between May and September. The biggest part of the move was interesting, to say the least. We needed to get some kind of document from our solicitor before our possessions could be shipped abroad. Hours before we were meant to leave, we still hadn’t got it. Chris was afflicted with a stomach bug so I was the only functioning one. With infant in arms, I bellowed at the solicitor to get his finger out and give us the damned bit of paper. We didn’t like our solicitor. About six months earlier, our neighbours had suddenly decided that their lives weren’t worth living without a few extra inches of land. So they dreamt up a boundary dispute in which our solicitor was frankly worse than useless, giving contradictory advice and doing nothing helpful at all. And now we depended on him to be allowed to get our goods and chattels out of the country on time. It was worrying. Anyway, the letter appeared with minutes to go so we could drive off into the sunset. Boy, were we glad to go.

We’d worked out that, with careful budgeting, I could be a stay-at-home mum, at least for a few years. Before my misguided foray into the world of finance, where I was a square peg in a round hole, or rather an English graduate in a world of maths, I’d been a desk-editor in the educational department of Hodder and Stoughton in Kent, and then a sales rep for a clutch of academic presses, working from home in Cramlington, Northumberland. I’d done an MPhil in Publishing Studies at Stirling University after my degree at Oxford, and publishing was my first love. So I seized the opportunity parenthood now gave me to get back into it. I slowly established myself as a freelance editor and indexer, something I’m still doing. From editing I meandered into authoring, and produced almost thirty books during my years in Ireland.

Caitlin arrived in 1994 and we were well content with our gentleman’s family, as they call it in Ireland, of a boy and then a girl. We finally sold the house we’d left behind in Hartlepool in 1995 and, within weeks of burying my Mum, we moved out of Harry’s House and into our own one at Killountain, Insnishannon. We loved Binn an Tí, despite never knowing for sure what the house’s name actually meant. Some people said it meant ‘apex of the roof’ and others ‘the woman of the house’. Not a great deal of common ground between these two, but that seems to be a feature of the Irish language. No-one actually knows what it means.

The house was perched at the very top of a hill. There was a stunning view but a permanent gale. Nothing grew in the garden and our bathroom at the back of the house was always sub-zero. When the hurricane hit at Christmas 1997, it’s frankly amazing that we only lost a few tiles and not the whole top storey. As before, and always the case in Ireland, we had wonderful neighbours and we were happy. This was it. We were Settled. We started to map out our future now that we had our perfect family and our house. But it doesn’t do to make plans. Things suddenly change.

My dad finally smoked himself to death in 2000. Now, there were two major repercussions from this. Now that he’d gone, all ties with my childhood home and town were gone too. On top of losing a wonderful human being from my life, that was tough and I was very upset. Chris was amazingly and constantly supportive, so much so that six weeks later, the day before his 42nd birthday, we found out that I was pregnant. The baby was due somewhere around my 39th birthday. That was funeral fallout number one, and talk about gobsmacked. This most definitely hadn’t been on our ‘to do’ list. We were too old for this! After a stunned day, our shock turned to delight at the prospect of welcoming a new life into our family. The prospect of labour pains, broken nights and having to borrow back all the baby equipment we’d given away after Caitlin outgrew it was less appealing, but an integral part of the deal. We also realised that there was no way we’d fit an extra person into our already bulging-at-the-seams house. Binn An Tí had always been on the small side, but we liked it so much. However, now we would have to move on.

The second fallout was that Dad left some money, enough to buy a plot of land at Finnis, near Bandon. We luckily got in just before the Celtic Tiger began roaring and Irish land prices went crazy.  For 50,000 Irish punts, we became the owners of over an acre of land. It had a stream and was generally rather boggy, but the top end of the site was ideal for our new chez nous. And so, thanks to Tony Barry our builder, Srihain an Sionnoch came into being in 2003. The name means ‘Stream of the Fox’ (well, that was the intention anyway). We were offered a variety of versions and spellings for it, naturally, but stuck with that one. It was a fantastic house, way too big, but after Binn An Tí we felt the need to overcompensate. Size matters. Its best feature was the glass frontage to the hall, which filled the house with light. We had more space than we knew what to do with. We lived there three years but never got round to even setting foot in one of the rooms.

I continued to be happy in Ireland. Now that I was a popular children’s author, I added visits to schools and libraries to my job description. Ruadhri came along together with his travel playpen, and took part in every workshop. I loved these sessions which included getting the kids to dress up as a book, and later as all the people involved in producing a book – author, editor, printer, bookseller and so on. I was aiming to make writing seem fun. I’d been to author workshops where a po-faced writer mumbled his or her way through one of their stories and I thought that sucked. So I aimed higher and came up with my act. But then, I always was a show off.

Chris, however, was on a downward spiral. A chemist by training, he started off working in Ireland in 1992 for Angus Chemicals, running a lab. Angus became Hickson Pharmachem very shortly afterwards, just in time for an explosion at the site in 1993. (Nothing to do with Chris, honestly.) Needless to say, that brought it a lot of bad press. Hickson never thrived and the factory was taken over in 1997 by Warner. Finally, in 2001 Pfizer couldn’t resist having a go at ownership of it. Each time new layers of management came in and Chris was moved further and further sideways. Promises of promotion never materialised and people-persons rather than technical-persons seemed to dominate. It became harder to keep going. There was the real threat that he’d lose his sanity or succumb to heart disease and stress. Life wasn’t fun anymore. Then redundancy loomed. This was our chance to change our lives.

We’d toyed with the idea of moving to France a number of times, but never very seriously. It just seemed too big a deal. After our honeymoon in Cornwall, every other holiday had been in France, discovering different regions of it. In the early years of our marriage, we’d roll off a plane with our bikes, tent and minimal supplies and cycle tour a particular region, covering up to two hundred kilometres a day. Post-children that changed, inevitably. We took the car, either fitting the bikes precariously to the roof, or in later years, on to the top of a small trailer. Child life-support filled most of the car. Oh yes, and the children. We tried a couple of campsites but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. One year a hurricane hit the coast of Brittany and literally blew the tent away from over our heads. The next year we holidayed late in the season and the area around the caravan (we’d upgraded) was black with barbecue-tray emptyings-out. The kids were covered from head to toe in ash every night after playing in it. And that was the year Benj took against personal cleanliness. The whole campsite reverberated to his incessant, earsplitting but polite bellows of ‘No thank you!’ when we shoved him under running water every night.

So we moved even more upmarket (but downpriced surprisingly) to hiring a gîte, a holiday cottage. This was more like it – proper beds and space to swing a cat in. However, there was always a strong element of the unknown with a gîte booking. Those days, i.e. pre Internet, you based your entire rental decision on a very brief paragraph with puzzling abbreviations, and a postage-stamp-sized photo. Frankly, you had no idea what you were actually getting. Some we booked were great, some turned out to be disasters, but we just got on with it. (Oh, if only that mentality still existed!) In 2000, that fateful year, we even looked at a couple of properties. One was tempting. For the equivalent of 19,000 Irish punts we could have bought a rambling, rundown farmhouse. True, it had no bathroom facilities other than a toilet literally in the kitchen (and the house was inhabited). There was, bizarrely, a large swimming pool full of goldfish in the huge garden. The pool had been there so long it had sunk roughly 50 cms into the ground. But then Dad had his stroke and the struggle to get home began and we forgot about buying a house in France.

Until 2005. Never mind that we’d hardly started decorating our new house yet. It was time to leave it. It was truly a ‘now or never’ moment. Benj was about to start his Junior Cert course, Ruadhri was set to start in Junior Infants and Caiti would be moving up to senior school. If we were going to move, it had to be before September 2006. It was going to be fairly tough on the kids, and the older they were, the harder most likely. It was time to do some serious househunting in France.

I prepared for it like a military campaign. I spent hours on the Internet. OK, I used to spend hours on the Internet anyway, but now this was time usefully spent for a change looking up properties that matched what we wanted. Which was? We needed somewhere to live, and some means of making a living. I’d be able to carry on part-time editing but that wouldn’t keep us alive. Chris wouldn’t be able to carry on his professional career, so what could we do instead? The obvious option was providing holiday accommodation. Time was you could live off a gite or bed and breakfast in France. But then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there is now a surfeit of holiday properties. The famous Gites de France network alone has around 55,000 self-catering properties on its books. (Clévacances, the next largest, has around 24,000, and there are dozens more smaller outfits.) Quite frankly, if you get ten weeks’ bookings for a gite per year, you’re doing well. There’s that much competition. The way to better that is to specialise. Look for a niche. Well, Chris was an angler so why not provide fishing lakes with our gite? There’s a lot of pressure on the fishing waters in the UK and Ireland so there’s long been a tradition of anglers going abroad on fishing holidays, and particularly on carp fishing holidays in France. That seemed worth checking out. It proved to be our best bet, so we added a lake to our requirements.

Chris got busy doing a correspondence course on fishery management, and I carried on my research and planning. I found out all there is to know about owning lakes in France. I read book after book about how to make a living by running your own business in France. Some were inspiring, some were depressing, but all of them, it turned out later, not actually that helpful.  A couple were positively idiotic. I read books by other pioneering ex-pats. Those were much more useful. I also worked for a TEFL diploma, just in case times grew very desperate.

But mainly I looked for our future home. I cordoned off half the (unpainted) lounge and spread out maps with cunningly colour coded pins stuck in showing what property was where. Red for hot favourites, blue for lakes without houses on site with them, green for promising all round and yellow for when all else failed. But every day there were changes. The place we thought was absolutely perfect and the only one that could possibly work for us got sold on a regular basis. Despair. New dream properties appeared on the scene. Rapture. I was up and down emotionally a hundred times a day and rapidly becoming a nervous wreck. Would I even survive long enough to make our planned move?

We’d narrowed our physical search to Limousin. This is pretty much slap bang in the middle of France. It consists of the départements of Creuse, Correze and Haute-Vienne. It is the lake district of France. And remember, we needed a lake. Limousin has thousands of lakes, and even more crumbling farmhouses and cottages, just waiting for deranged foreigners to come and nurture them back into full health. French people don’t do renovating. They prefer new houses. A further bonus was that it was also pretty much the cheapest area of France for property then.

We settled on a week in late November to go and match reality to my coloured pins. Everyone advises you not to take children, and above all young children, when you go househunting abroad. But we had no alternative. We were already ex-pats in Ireland so had no handy family to leave them with. But anyway, they needed to come. They were part of the adventure – three fifths of the driving force behind it. Our search for our better life was so our youngsters would have it too. They needed to see where they were going to live. Besides, they were very excited about the whole thing.

 

Moving the earth in France

Not so long ago I was sure we’d witnessed an earthquake. We were walking up our drive when there was an incredibly loud crunching sound. Now, I’d heard something very like that before, many years ago, when there’d been a very short earthquake in Washington, Tyne and Wear. I’d been doing an audit on a firm on an industrial estate there when it happened. Everyone had come rushing out of the factory units to see what was going on. Great excitement.

At first we thought our mystery noise must have been a sonic boom as there was no record of an earthquake in our area on that day. An earthquake is ‘tremblement de terre’ or ‘séisme’ in French. Our nearest seismic movement monitoring and measuring station is at Toulx Ste Croix, about 20 km away. This is one of 40 automatic stations that send signals in real time to the central database for Seismic activity at Bruyères le Châtel. Every time we come down from the panoramic tower there, we go and jump up and down just outside the seismic monitoring device which is next to it. But so far, I don’t think our efforts have been recorded! However, supposing a worrying reading was sent from there, one of the team of scientists who man Bruyeres 24 hours a day would be alerted, and if it was a sign that something dreadful was about to happen, they in turn would alert the relevant authorities – police, army, government departments. France also has 4 seismic stations abroad and 12 stations monitoring possible tsunamis.

There are hundreds of minor tremors in France every year, but only a few notable ones i.e. of 4 or more on the Richter scale. The major French earthquake zones are Guadaloupe and Martinique, the Auvergne, Isere, Savoie, Alpes Maritime, Haut Rhin and Loiret.

To find out the latest on earthquakes in France, log onto the website of the Réseau National de Surveillance Séismique at http://www.franceseisme.fr/donnees/intensites/carte.php. This had plenty of fascinating facts and figures. Another good earthquake website, but which unfortunately hasn’t been updated since 1 January this year, is at http://www.sisfrance.net/. And another at http://www.alertes-meteo.com/tremblement_de_terre/terre_sommaire.htm gives historic and general information on earthquakes. An English language site on earth tremors in France is at http://www-tamaris.cea.fr/html/en/notions/activity.php.

So our noise wasn’t an earthquake and it wasn’t a sonic boom. What was it? In Nouzerines, a couple of kms away, a large chunk of an old house had collapsed. A farmer had been storing hay bales in it, and one of these had fallen and broken a crucial beam in the roof. Down came half the old building with an awful lot of noise and dust. Mystery solved!