Calendriers de l’Avent – Advent Calendars

We hung our Advent Calendar up this morning, all ready for the 1st of December tomorrow. We have a beautiful one which was made by Caiti’s wonderful godmother Janet Lane. As you can see, it’s a Christmas tree with rick-rack tinsel and 24 little pads of velcro sewn on.

In the pockets at the bottom are 24 wooden shapes, ranging from cats to candles to candy canes, and you stick the appropriate day’s one on. Ruadhri spends time rearranging them so that he gets to put all his favourite ones up on his allotted days.

Reusable Advent Calendars like this one are the best sort for all sorts of reasons, not least because you can make them for yourself. The French adore their ‘bricolage’, crafting. There are hundreds of different craft magazines for sale everywhere, dedicated to such things as the more unusual wooden spoon crafts and flowerpot crafts, as well as more familiar stencilling, window painting, knitting, crochet and so on. And there are magazines devoted to making Advent Calendars. They’re huge over here. I’ve picked out a few examples from the Net to show you what ideas people come up with.

Felt cones in Irish colours! (aupotagedesdames)
Little knitted gloves - this one is super! (echevette)
Matchboxes are used here (from leblogdepatsi).

I invented my own a couple of years ago. I crocheted a red triangle with a white bottom from cut up teeshirts to represent Santa’s hat. I then sewed on 24 bullet cases into which Chris had drilled tiny holes. Let me explain. I don’t associate Santa with weapons. It’s simply that with four gun club members in the house, the youngest two of which come home from every visit to the range with their pockets stuffed full of shiny brass bullet cases of various sizes, then there is a vast supply of them laying around the house at any time needing to have something done with them. Plus I was making the calendar for our sure-shot, bull’s-eye-everytime Caiti so it was appropriate. Then I printed out a joke or a seasonal slogan in very small type on a very small piece of paper for each day, rolled it up and slipped it into the bullet casing. Voilà ! I think Caits has taken the calendar to lycée with her as I can’t find it to take a picture of. If it shows up, I will!

We’ve put Santa up on the gate too. I bought this guy and his clone our first winter here. They were all the rage that year and I felt it important to fit in. When in Rome, after all.

Santa is nearly as big as Rors!

Santa has survived five winters out in the cold so far and looks none the worse for wear. Good old China, manufacturing so much stuff out of totally indestructible materials! The odd thing about him is the pair of green mittens that it has. Green? Everyone knows they should be red. And also I’m not sure specs are the best idea for a bloke who’s going up and down a billion chimneys in one night. They’d be bound to fall off somewhere and would certainly get filthy. But evidently the People’s Republic think they’re appropriate.

Poor Santa, out in the cold again

And, rather creepily, Santa’s head can turn 180 degrees so he turns into a bit of a horror Santa any time Benj has been anywhere near him!

Enough to give you nightmares!

Long Lorries and Missing Mince Pies

Driving into Boussac yesterday to post the first of the Christmas parcels (be impressed – be very impressed: this is me being organised!), I was delayed by a rotor blade. It was being delivered to eolienne (wind turbine) 6 or 7. The incredibly long lorry was manoeuvring to back down a side road. I don’t know how the driver managed it as the vehicle was immense. I’m not very good at estimating, but my research hasn’t helped much. Apparently wind turbine rotors can vary from 15 to 60 metres in length. I would put ours at around 25 metres maybe. It looked as long as a swimming pool to me.

More of these will be arriving thick and fast since there are signs up in Boussac restricting parking every day this week because of convois exceptionelles going through i.e. eolienne bits.

Here’s a rather good diagram that I’ve taken from here (the Alliant Energy website( to show the various parts of a wind turbine.

And seeing the rotor blade arrive reminded me that I hadn’t put up the latest set of photos I’d taken at our friendly local  eolienne, good old numéro 3. We noticed that a few more interesting bits and pieces had arrived, so Chris, Rors and I cycled out there to have a closer look. I’ve mentioned the mysterious pile of straw bales at each eolienne site before. Now I realised what their purpose is. They’re handy for leaning the bikes up against.

Here’s the nose cone which the rotors will be slotting into to. Now, our Rors is about 125 cm tall so that gives you an idea of scale.

There are a lot of meaty screws to hold things in.

The base has been landscaped even more.

What this is is anyone’s guess!

Now, I said in my last post that I’d try to include something Christmassy in my blog every day. Eoliennes don’t really cut it, so on to the great mince pie mystery. That’s definitely seasonal. I rattled off some mince pies yesterday. I made my usual ad hoc version of suetless mincemeat using ordinary raisins and golden ones, red wine, brown sugar, lots of nutmeg and ginger and a grated apple. I had some sablé pastry in the fridge so I used that rather than make my own this time. Anyway, I made 11 rather tasty pies. This morning there were only 4 left. I had one for supper, so between them Rors and Chris had 6. The strange thing is that they both swear blind they only had two at most.

Hmmm …

 

Noël Nouvelet – A Carol for Advent

It’s the first Sunday in Advent (premier dimanche de l’avent) today which, as we all know, marks the start of the build-up to Christmas. And I have finally got round to wrapping up a few pressies and parcelling them up to be sent off to family and friends in England and Ireland. And we’ve got turkey for tea. We couldn’t stand big black turkey’s constant gobbling any longer- and I mean constant – so he made the transition from running around outside with feathers to sitting very still in the oven without them! He smells delicious. Oh yes, and I made the Christmas cake too this morning. I feel a touch of domestic goddesism coming on here.

So, since it’s Advent, it seemed fitting to blog about something Christmassy, and I’ve chosen one of the carols that we’ll be singing at our carol concert in Boussac on 9th December (19.30 at St Anne’s Church if you can make it, and I’m doing a reading in French!). It’s Noël Nouvelet, which I adore. It’s an old carol, dating back to the fifteenth century and you can hear that in the tune, as well as the lyrics. Here are some versions to listen to:

A nice one on Youtube here.

A low tech but very pleasant midi version here.

If you want to play it for yourself, you’ll find the score here for free.

The version we’ll be singing is a setting by Jehan Alain. This incredibly talented organist, from a family of musicians, was killed in action in 1940 at the age of 29. He wrote a vast amount of music during his short life, his most famous being Les Litanies and Trois Danses. He was working on some orchestral music at the time of his death. The manuscripts, which he’d taken to the battlefront with him, were never found. You have to wonder what else he’d have gone on to compose if only he’d lived.

Find out more about him at this French website:

I’ll do my best to keep a Christmassy theme going in my blog over the next few weeks. Tis the season to be jolly, after all.

Pharmacie Faux-Pas or Cock-Up at the Chemists

I was going to blog about the forthcoming AIPB Anglo-French carol concert. This will be only its third year but it’s already become a tradition in Boussac. French people have taken to the ‘meenzpiess’, which are served up afterwards with mulled wine, with a vengeance. It was the first répétition for the concert last night. Now, répétition is one of those wily faux amis (false friends) in French. It doesn’t mean ‘repetition’, like you’d think, but in fact ‘rehearsal’. We have a couple of run-throughs of the carols so that the French side can get to grips with ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘While Shepherds Washed Their Socks’, sorry, ‘Watched Their Flocks’, and we Brits can become familiar with the hauntingly beautiful ‘Noël Nouvelet’ and rumbustious ‘Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant’. The energetic and indefatiguable music prof from the Collège, Sylvain Bouard, plays the keyboard to accompany us, and last night there was a French guitarist too. Now, we, the singers, assumed the guitarist had come along with Sylvain, while Sylvain assumed he’d come along with us! Anyway, whoever he was who had wandered off the street to join in, he played magnificently and we hope he’ll turn up again.

So, that’s what I was going to blog about, but along came the pharmacie faux-pas instead yesterday. Rors was sick yesterday so didn’t go to school, which meant Chris and I didn’t get our usual bike rides. Chris wasn’t too bothered about his since he’d fallen off the day before, the first time in about thirty years, and he was feeling bashed and bruised. But I like my exercise so I set off for a shortish spin about 4pm in the lovely warm sunshine. I got back to reports of strange phone calls. Chris had answered the first one, and there’d been a lot of intriguing background noise going on – beeps and burbles, but no apparent human being there. So he’d ignored the next few. However, after my return the phone started up again so I answered it.

« Bonjour, la famille Dagg, » I said.

« C’est la pharmacie » came a timid voice.

There was the usual long pause. French phone conversations are always slightly weird. I answer the phone and say who I am, and the caller then announces who they are. Clearly I am meant at this point to say something along the lines of “Wow!” or “That’s nice” or “How honoured I am to hear from you” because there’s always this silence. I’m waiting for the caller to fill me in on the reasons for calling me, and they’re waiting for flattery or at least some sort of inane remark which I refuse to give. So silence can reign for quite a while!

Anyway, the pharmacie cracked first. It turned out the assistant had given me the wrong tablets for Chris that morning. I’d called in to pick up his anti-histamines and another drug he has to take. She grovelled for a while but I didn’t want that. I kept interrupting to ask ‘Well, what have you given him then?’ This was need-to-know info since Chris had taken one of the small white tablets already.

Finally she admitted it was Wytens instead of Wystamm that she’d handed over. “So what does Wytens do?” I persisted. “I’ll have to check,” she said. Not encouraging. It went quiet while she consulted the computer. I imparted the content of the message to Chris and asked him anxiously if he felt OK. He was busy cooking tea and didn’t look any the worse for wear. At least not yet.

Tension,” came the eventual reply. Well, I was feeling pretty tense by now! Maybe I should take one of these tablets too!

Tension is ‘hypertension’ so it wasn’t too drastic a drug that Chris had taken. However, his other medication has a blood pressure lowering affect too so we’re probably rather lucky that he hadn’t fainted. The assistant kept grovelling. We finally arranged for me to call by next week to pick up the right tablets and hand the remaining wrong ones back in. But I didn’t have to wait that long. Another assistant who works at the chemist’s helps run the Boussac Judo Club where you’ll find me with my laptop and MP3 every Friday evening and Saturday afternoon making use of the time to do some writing while Caits and Rors throw other kids around and pin them to the floor. She brought along the Wystamm in a paper bag with the message “I sorry” in someone’s apologetic best English on the back!

No harm done this time, but I shall be more careful in future. I’d noticed the unfamiliar name on the box of tablets, but thought nothing of it since it’s the policy here for pharmacies to give you a cheap generic version of the drug that the doctor has actually prescribed. So you regularly get a different version of the more common medications like antihistamines. However, it was a worrying incident. I’d always taken it for granted that the pharmaciennes knew what they were doing. Maybe not, after all!

Photo from publicdomainpictures.net by Petr Kratochvil

St Catherine and Kitchens

The 25th of November is Saint Catherine’s Day. This is an important day, not just because my daughter is an Irish Catherine (Caitlin is the Gaelic version of the name), or solely because Saint Catherine is the patron saint of spinners, amongst other things (and I’m a wannabe spinner of fine alpaca yarn). It’s important because according to various dictons, St Catherine’s day marks the start of winter. Even though this November has been much warmer than average (it’s the warmest since French records began), it’s suddenly got colder this last couple of days and a vast amount of cranes have flown over the house this week. That can only mean one thing. L’hiver.

St Catherine’s day was also important in the past. It was the day when unmarried women aged 25 and older (oh, the shame!!) put on extravagant hats which they’d decorated themselves with predominantly yellow and green materials. They’d go off to the nearest statue of St Catherine and decorate that with green and yellow flowers and cuttings, ribbons and hats. And to cap the day off (forgive the pun) there’d be a ball for these poor spinsters. Their chaperones weren’t allowed to come, presumably in the hope that they’d have a better chance of getting off with someone!

There’s another dicton that goes: A la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine. That doesn’t seem to sit too well with the general acceptance that this day marked the start of winter. What it probably meant was that, if the weather was still fairly kind, it was a good time to take cuttings of trees and shrubs. It didn’t suggest you should start planting them as tender young plants just before the onset of snow!

Well, you’ll be delighted to hear that my kitchen is 100% hygienic! I know I am. Following on from the two days of courses, trainer Françoise visited me today to check out ma cuisine. We completed a Plan de nettoyage et désinfection together and Françoise gave me some tips on the best way to keep records of purchases and meals served etc. She enjoyed meeting the animals and filled her phone with photos of our male turkey and the llamas and alpacas!

And I also got an unexpected prize for taking up fellow blogger Vanessa’s challenge to write a short piece incorporating as many examples of colloquial French that she had just given in her blog as possible. So a rather nice day. If chilly!

 

 

 

EWWR – European Week for Waste Reduction

It’s ironic. It’s European Week for Waste Reduction (Semaine Européene de la Réduction des Déchets) and here am I, sat at my computer, with a pile of le pub (publicity emanating mainly from supermarkets that’s delivered every Tuesday) on my lap. I’d intended to do a blog about these pointless publications full of Christmas tat, but I’ve just this minute found out about EWWR. That seems rather more important. However, it has to be said that this pub is a major source of waste, and so is a lot of the stuff advertised in it. Take these Santa outfits for example:

You see the caption ‘Noël rubis’ – a ruby Christmas. So close to Noël rubbish! Hardly the best use of the earth’s resources, however jolly.

Rors has taken a shine to a radio control helicopter which he saw in Gifi’s last lot of pub. He retrieved it from the basket next to the fire where all combustibles go to help the flames roaring. It’s cold enough to have the fire on all day now, big sigh. Winter’s here. Anyway, Chris and I went into Gifi after a gruelling session in Bricodepot last week and checked the helicopter out. It’s awful – incredibly small and fragile looking and won’t last five minutes. Many of the toys fell into the same ‘fall apart in no time’ category. It seems such a shame to be manufacturing all this stuff which will end up in the bin within 24 hours I bet. What happened to quality? The problem is there only seems to be low quality Chinese crap on sale, with no superior alternatives, at least here in France. I’ve blogged before about not being able to find decent footwear or coats or household items. It’s frustrating.

Now. Some facts and figures which are behind EEWR. Every year EACH person in France chucks away 390 kg of rubbish into the bin. That’s 100 me’s! On top of that, we sling out 20 kgs of food waste. Well, we, i.e. the Daggs don’t, since all our food waste is recycled as food for one or other of our animals, and failing that, it goes into the compost bin (stuff like coffee grounds and teabags and our worms process them for us). Every one of us is responsible for 34 kgs of hygienic waste such as paper tissues, nappies, disposable wipes, razors, etc. This represents a growing proportion of the overall rubbish total year on year.

One good thing is that recyclables account for only 32% of landfill as opposed to 39% previously. That’s still a lot of material being discarded that could be reused, but it’s moving in the right direction. Here at Les Fragnes we recycle everything possible. We were given a second yellow-lidded recycling bin by the commune since our first one was always full to the top at every collection. I’m flattered by that. My recycling is appreciated!

The website is pretty good in that it’s interesting and has a fun game, but that’s all you can say for the initiative really. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal happening at street level. It all seems to be publications and good intentions. What a missed opportunity.

So, let’s all try and be a bit more environmentally aware this Christmas and go for long-lasting gifts rather than disposable goodies that are part of the reason why we need weeks like European Week for Waste Reduction.

 

Squeaky Clean – Bien Propre

Yesterday was the second part of my food hygiene course. Mercifully it was only a half day this time. A full day of French is rather heavy going.

It was all very hands-on in that we got lots of detailed hand-outs this time. We were also pointed in the direction of the 300-page-long Guide des Bonnes Pratiques issued by the Chambres de Métiers. This really is the food preparers’ bible, but few of the people on the course knew about it, including the full-time restaurateurs. Our trainer tut-tutted and said that it was up to us to find out all the relevant information we needed to know. I find this disingenuous, I have to say. If you don’t know something is out there, and don’t know what it’s called, and don’t know where to find it, then it kind of makes it hard to start looking! Surely, when you turn up to register your business and you say that it involves making occasional meals for guests in your gîte, for example, then it doesn’t seem too much to ask, in my opinion, to be given a list of training courses you need to sign up for, publications you should get hold of and a copy of any relevant legislation that you need to know about. Isn’t that what the professionals in the various civil service departments are there for – to inform you, to guide you, to, heaven forbid, help you? Sadly certain bureaucrats don’t seem to think that it’s part of their job description. When I registered, I was vaguely told to go to the DSV who would ensure that my kitchen was ‘à normes’ (meeting regulations). I thought she had said ‘énorme’, meaning that the DSV would be checking if my kitchen was enormous! My French wasn’t so good then. So I went along to the DSV, confessed that I had a very small kitchen, filled in forms and went to a workshop they did about traceability, and learned that if I planned to use my freezer to store food for clients, then I’d have to submit all its details to the DSV on the appropriate fiche. I was told that with our level of making meals, a few dozen a year, then that was all we needed to do. That, and hold onto receipts and food labels from items we used for six months. (Someone on the course thought they had to keep theirs for five years! There’s a lot of confusion and lack of hard facts out there.)

Anyway, the upshot of the hygiene course is that you need to perform HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and have a plethora of plans in place to show how you are attempting to ensure that you are operating in hygienic conditions and following best practices. Whatever they are. If that sounds vague, then, well, it is. I possibly missed a few things during the course but there does seem to be quite a lot of room for manoeuvre within the stipulations of the law.

Anyway, perhaps the last few loose ends will be tied up when the trainer visits on Thursday to help me draw up a ‘plan de nettoyage’. It will be nerve-wracking, but informative, and at least it shows that we’re doing everything we can to be squeaky clean.

Counting in French – the Vexing Vicesimal

A lot of people find French numbers confusing. And, let’s face it, they are. Instead of ‘seventy-eight’ you have to say ‘sixty-eighteen’ and since there isn’t a nice, handy equivalent of ‘ninety-nine’, well, you have to go with ‘four-twenties-nineteen’. I’ve acclimatised. In the early days, if I was taking down a phone number or house number or other figure, and I heard ‘soixante’, I’d jump the gun and write down a six, ready to add the next digit, but only to find it was qualified with ‘quinze’, making it seventy-five. By the time I’d scribbled out the 6 and written down the correct number, I’d missed either the next half dozen digits of a phone number or street name. So we’d start all over again. Now I do as the French do. When I hear ‘soixante…’ or ‘quatre-vingts…’ I allow my pen to hover above the page until the final part of the number comes which means no more crossings out and revisions. Much more French and much more efficient.

But what’s the method in the madness of French numbers which at first glance appear completely irrational and overly complicated. It’s historic. It’s grown from the ancient Gaulish system of counting which was in base twenty. It’s the Vicesimal system. The Chinese may have stuck to base ten and only counted using their fingers, but the smart Gauls used their toes too. Maybe it just reflects the fact that they invented shoes after other races did or preferred to wear sandals and so left their toes available for easy counting purposes. It predates the decimal system.

This also explains why schools tend to mark everything out of twenty. This used to bug me at first. Why not ten or one hundred? Wouldn’t these be easier to convert to percentages?  Why always twenty? Now I know.

I was an au pair for a Belgian family many years ago now. They, like all their compatriots, used ‘septante’ and ‘neufante’ for ‘seventy’ and ‘ninety’ respectively. They clung doggedly to ‘quatre-vingts though, however, only going as far as ‘quartre-vingts-neuf’ though. In some ways, perhaps they’re even more confused than the French!

The current French numbering system is a mixture of Vicesimal and Decimal. It’s not totally logical, but don’t tell a French person that. However, perhaps understanding what lies beneath the more perplexing elements of it will make it a little easier to tolerate!

 

Kitchen Capers

My kitchen is currently chaotic. You’ll remember from this post that I’m currently undergoing training in food hygiene. The trainer will be visiting me next Thursday to draw up a plan on how we can manage kitchen cleanliness when making meals for our visitors. So Chris and I have been doing some long planned kitchen redesigning an reorganising – and scrubbing everything a zillion times as well! We’re in the middle of it all at the moment. Drawer contents are on the counter, there are piles of recipe books on the table, bags of bits of pieces on the floor. Like I said, it’s chaotic.

And is Wendy (the cat) helping?

We’re adding two new cupboards where a table used to be. These will provide much needed extra storage and make the place look a lot smarter. We went to Bricodepot to pick them up. The design of the rest of the cupboards we have, Berry, has been discontinued so we went for the next closest, which was Brive. But when we got back we found that what we’d actually got did not resemble the model of Brive that was on show. I think someone just put a new sign up by the old Berry display. I dislike fussy, fiddly accessories and these Brive cupboards have exterior hinges in pseudo olde worde fancy metalwork. Yuk. Still, we have them and since it nearly killed Chris to put them together we’ll stick with them. Their one redeeming feature is that the facade is a lovely chunk of beech or similar wood. That’s rather classy.

These were by far the most difficult piece of furniture to put together that we’ve ever brought. Chris thought he had these units down to a fine art since we’ve fitted two houses with them already. But the cunning Chinese designers have come up with a few extra frustrating and occasionally impossible to perform touches now. And their instructions have taken on a comic book aspect. We especially liked the CLIC in a star!

We’ve left a gap between the two cupboards as a mini-breakfast bar for Rors. Chris tends to eat at his computer in the mornings, I eat on the hoof so it’s only our Rors who sits down in the kitchen. He now has a nice little spot to munch. The downside to the new cupboards is that they cover up the ledge Chris built out of offcuts of rock, with some gemstones scattered amongst them. This had been to disguise a concrete slab that was there when we moved in.

But we’re getting there steadily. I’ve decluttered extensively and sorted and sifted and done all those ideal domestic goddessy things. Go me! I’ll have a kitchen to be proud of once we’re completely done. So although it’s 99% irrelevant and 100% headache-inducing, this hygiene course had introduced me to some lovely people and given Chris and I the push we needed to tackle the unappealing home improvements that kept getting knocked off the top of the ‘to do’ list by other things – like escaping llamas, plastering, putting up polytunnels, sleeping …

No longer.

 

Best of Blog in France … Download It For Free!

Best of Blog in France is here! In fact, here at Smashwords to be precise. It’s my selection of the best posts and photos from the first two years of Blog in France. Yes, I’ve been blogging since July 2009, although only very intermittently to start with. Signing up for the WordPress Post a Day challenge in February this year made me into a dedicated daily (or nearly) blogger.

I’ve arranged the entries January to December, mixing the two years together, after playing around using various themes first. I like the calendar year organisation since it really gives a feel of what it’s like to live in rural France, going from the depths of bleak midwinter, to a usually late but gorgeous spring when everything springs to life again, through the heavy heat of summer, then into refreshing, colourful autumn before disappearing under snow come December.  Even in the twenty-first century, rural life is closely attuned to the seasons, and so are its residents.

So grab yourself a copy in your preferred ereader format. I think you’ll enjoy it. And so spread the word please!

This is my first non-fiction book, and also my first non-children’s book. It’s also something of a trial run for Heads Above Water. I wanted to experiment with how photos would come out and to see what sort of reaction there would be to a ‘living in France’ memoir.

It will be going up on Kindle shortly too. Smashwords distributes to Kindle but only extremely slowly so it’s more efficient to do it myself. Now, the book will have to start out at 99 cents at Amazon. However, once enough people bring to Amazon’s attention the fact that the same book is free elsewhere, they’ll make it free too, if only for a while. I’m hoping that will give ‘sales’ a big boost.

So, it’s an exciting time. I feel I’m finally becoming a serious indie author now. Still haven’t made any money from it yet though … !