Vigipirate Écarlate – What Is It?

Following the recent fatal shootings of three parachutists, and three children and an adult outside a Jewish school, the Midi-Pyrénées area of France is on Vigipirate Écarlate – scarlet terrorist alert. Vigipirate stands for ‘Vigilance et Protection des Installations contre les Risques d’Attentats à l’Explosif’. Niveau Écarlate, scarlet level, is the highest level of such vigilance and it’s the first time it’s ever been enacted in France.

What it means in practice is that the police, both national and the gendarmes, and the military are being deployed to keep public areas safe. The intention is to prévenir le risque d’attentats majeurs (isolés ou simultanés) pouvant utiliser des modes opératoires différents au prix de mesures très contraignantes ­- to prevent the risk of major terrorist atrocities, either isolated or concurrent, by using different methods of operation to achieve restrictive measures, or words to that effect.

The vigipirate plan was introduced in 1978 by Giscard d’Estaing following terrorist attacks in Europe. (The Red Brigade was active in Italy and there had been an incident at Orly airport which ended in the deaths of three terrorists and one policemen, and three passengers were injured – amongst other horrific events.) It was first called into play in 1991, during the Gulf War, and has been updated quite regularly, the last time being in 2005. There are five levels, 0 to 4 or white to scarlet, via yellow, orange and red. White is the absence of any sort of threat, while scarlet reflects a definite threat which must be prevented.


A lot of people are talking about Vigipirate, and whether it will do any good or not. There’s a certain amount of disgust that one guy with a gun and a motorbike is holding the State – the fifth biggest military power country in the world – to ransom like this. There are also some murmurings that if this wasn’t election year, then perhaps less would be being done about these attacks. I’m not so sure about that. Sarkozy has been motivated to act because children were killed. He stated yesterday: ‘You cannot murder children like this on the territory of the Republic without being held to account.’ Damn right.

Some people are commenting that soldiers shouldn’t be used as extra police officers – that’s not what they’re meant to be. Others are saying that the increased use of CCTV would play a crucial role, and cite England as an example of where this is working well. It’s acknowledged that security cameras can’t stop a terrorist or criminal attack, but they sure as heck can help catch the culprits later, as in the Jamie Bulger and the July 2005 London underground bombings.

It’s a sad and bad time for France at the moment. But despite differences of opinion over what the government is doing, it’s true to say that everyone is praying that this murderer is caught as soon as possible. He’s a psychopath who will carry on killing until he’s stopped.


School Shooting Shocks France

So, despite being asked not to by the FCPE, we sent Ruadhri to school this morning. And he’ll be coming back home tonight, thank heavens, unlike the three children shot outside the Jewish school in Toulouse today. The father of two of the children was also killed. France is still reeling after the shooting of three soldiers last week in Montauban and Toulouse, in two separate incidents. They were killed by the same person, a man on a black scooter, and it appears he’s struck again today. The young soldiers’ deaths were tragic enough, but the shooting of three children goes even further.

What exactly has it achieved? What cause has it furthered? All it has done as far as I can see is pointlessly cut four lives short, tragically short in the case of the children who were 4, 6 and 10, and shocked and disgusted the entire country. Probably most of the world. Only the very sickest members of society could fail to be upset by the murder of a child.

There will be a day of mourning, the President has announced, and tomorrow, Tuesday, all schools will observe a minute’s silence. This is a chilling echo of what has just happened in Belgium following the dreadful coach accident which killed 22 youngsters and 6 adults only last week.

I can only hope with all my might that the police catch this murderer before he strikes again, and also that somehow the families of the victims can find the strength to cope with their unimaginably horrific ordeal. I’m sure that everyone’s hearts goes out to them.


School Tomorrow?

Tomorrow, Monday 19th March, I’m not supposed to send my kids to school. The FCPE (Fédération des Conseils de Parents d’Elèves) nationwide is asking parents to keep their children home in protest against proposed teacher cuts.

What to do? Ruadhri is all for staying home, but with him it’s any excuse not to go to school! He enjoys it OK, but wouldn’t bother going out of choice. It’s true to say that he doesn’t seem to have the most inspiring teacher this year, and he’ll be much happier at Collège in September when he’ll be doing more than copying French off the board or labouring through excruciating ‘magic maths’ sheets.

Caiti doesn’t want to miss school, not so close to her Bac. She’s finally honed down her Uni choices to Bordeaux, Angers, Paris and Limoges, in that order. We only got to see one of those at a JPO, but Limoges she knows from visiting Benj there. Since Limoges is our région’s university, Caiti is guaranteed a place there so long as she gets her Bac, which won’t be an issue. They have to take her whether they want to or not. However, I’m sure she’ll be offered a place by her first choice. She’s not taking any chances though, and is working extremely hard – or at least harder than she was!

And I don’t want either of them to miss their schooling. They’ve missed a few days because of bad weather and teacher strikes, on top of a few days’ illness each, and that’s enough. Besides, I don’t approve of going on strike, although I respect that people have the legal right to do so. What the FCPE is proposing is essentially a strike – a teacher’s strike in reverse. The end result is the same in that the children aren’t receiving a day’s education that they should be getting. I’m against teacher cuts as much as the next person, but I don’t think this is the right way to go about them. Putting forward reasoned arguments, backed up by facts and figures, would be a more constructive and co-operative way of facing the issue. The FCPE is also calling for manifs – manifestations – on Saturday outside the académie (education office) in each département, most of which will be preceded by an opération escargot (go slow i.e. traffic is held up by marchers or a co-ordinated group of motor vehicles driving very slowly). How effective these will be I’m not sure since I’m fairly certain bureaucrats don’t work on Saturdays, so there’ll be no one in the various education offices to witness the protests, and most likely the only people out on the roads will be the ones going to do the protesting!

So, it will be école as usual on Monday for the Dagg kids. They’ve had a good weekend to recharge their batteries. We had our frog spotting walk on Saturday evening, on top of a day of bonfires, and today Rors came on our favourite mill walk with me while Caiti went shooting with her Dad. Ruadhri also helped declog the lake grills from the millions of catkins that are currently falling off the trees into the water and washing up there, together with frogs and toads!

Frog Hops, Blog Hops and Hopping Mad

Hopping frogs first. It’s the frog bonking season, and toads too, and every evening there is lots of amorous activity going on along the banks of all three of our lakes. We went on a frog spotting evening walk yesterday. It was great fun. We heard and saw plenty. Sadly photos haven’t worked very well so far, but here’s a nice one of Rors with a frog this morning …

and a rare one of Caiti up a tree!

Now. Blog hops. What’s a blog hop? Right, blog hops allow you to visit other blogs, follow blogs you like, and gain followers. A blog hop is based on a widget, called a linky, that allows bloggers to add their blog to a list. I took part in one yesterday on my Books Are Cool site, slightly half-heartedly I have to admit, since a migraine this week on top of a very active outdoor job schedule put me behind with my preparations for it. I only managed to rattle off a post at the very last minute that wasn’t as good as it might have been. But the St Patrick’s Day Blog Hop, organised by the energetic Carrie Ann Ryan, brought a month’s worth of visitors to my blog in a day. I trust at least some of them will be back. Had I done my homework better and had more to offer in my post, I know I could have hooked a good few. Live and learn.

Anyway, I’ve decided to organise a blog hop myself. It will be the St George’s Day Blog Hop, for British expats’ websites, but Americans, Canadians and citizens of every country are welcome to join in too! I’ll be providing the linky part and will post it soon for you to add your site to, if you want to. On the day of the hop it will be up on my site and anyone who participates in the hop can put it up on their site too. It just means that people who visit one blog see that the hop is on and can easily visit the other sites to see what they’re about. As I’ve already said, hops really seem to work at getting new followers. I’ll design a graphic that we can all put on our participating pages. Should be fun!

All I ask is that you come up with an expat-life-related post for that day, and offer something for free. This can be as basic as a recipe or a list of tips, or a free ebook, or a free offer or free gift, however small. You don’t have to give something free to every visitor, although that helps, but can collect comments to your post and do a single giveaway to the winner when names are drawn out of a hat.

So if you’re interested, let me know …

And finally – hopping mad. GAN assurances are the reason for that. Back in September we paid for the insurance for Benjy’s room at Uni at the Boussac office, in cash. Learn from our mistake. Never EVER pay for your insurance in cash. GAN headquarters is still saying we haven’t paid and today I got a  letter from a debt collection company threatening to shoot us if we don’t cough up. This is despite the fact that I have been into the Boussac office three or four times now over this matter – every time I get a letter saying we haven’t paid – to ask them to sort the matter out. The woman there admits we paid. Benj, Chris and I all saw her take the money, put it in a box and give me change out of said box. However, she obviously didn’t write it down and certainly hasn’t passed on the payment to HQ because we’re still getting harrassed. To say I’m hopping mad is actually the understatement of the year. I shall be in the Boussac office at 9.30 or whenever it is that it condescends to open and will be kicking serious ass. I am so mad about this.

So a closing soothing sunset photo to restore my blood pressure to acceptable levels! Can you see the fish that surfaced just at the right time? Perfect.

A Quick Job

Roly asleep on Rusty Deux

This morning Chris wanted to rotovate what we optimistically call our vegetable patch. To be fair, we get good pumpkins and pototoes from it, but not much else. Anyway, we therefore needed to take the hay spikes off the back of Rusty Deux, the tractor, and put the fraise rotovator on instead. A quick job.

First up, we got the spikes off with the usual amount of grunting, grumbling and quiet swearing that invariably accompanies moving any kind of heavy farm equipment around. That attachment was left resting on a set of blocks. Chris backed Rusty up to the fraise rotovator. That was heaved and shoved into position, but once we’d fitted one side onto the tractor’s universal coupling things at the back, we realised the rotovator was too narrow for Rusty. We’d only ever used it before with the other, smaller tractor, Sea Blue.

OK, off with the rotovator and back on with the hay spikes. Now, my Fiat currently has Sea Blue’s battery, and it needs to keep it, so we had to take the battery out of Rusty. This is a supersize battery that weighs a ton. Chris got it out and I pushed it up to the Berlin Wall, the dividing fence between the sheep field and the llama field, in the wheelbarrow.  Chris heaved the battery onto the wall, and then beyond up to where Sea Blue is living in the hay hangar.

So the battery problem was resolved. Now we needed to top up Sea Blue’s diesel.  More lugging. Sea Blue wouldn’t start so off to find the magic motor starter spray. After more fiddling by Chris, the tractor rumbled into life. Now we had to dismantle the anti-llama barricade that goes across the front of hay hangar to keep the greedy camelids out. Bertie, Windy, Brendan and Oscar were in like a shot.

Out came the tractor, out came the llamas, in went the llamas, out came the llamas and this time they stayed out. We put the barriers up again and started to drive Sea Blue down through the field to go out of the far gate. I went to open it and keep llamas at bay. But next thing Chris was waving frantically, so back up the field I came. We had a flat tyre situation. Rolled eyes all round. Chris drove Sea Blue down to the Berlin Wall. Then he drove the Renault right up to it on the other side through the front part of the sheep field while I womanned the gates and stopped the sheep escaping. We pumped up the tyre, drove back the sheep, drove back the Renault, and then it was back to driving down to the far gate again and up the other side. Luckily all llamas and alpacas behaved.

Sea Blue was now in place in front of the rotovator. More grumbling, grunting and gentle swearing and finally, about an hour and a half later, we were finally ready to start rotovating. Only … the hydraulic mechanism to raise and lower the rotovator wasn’t working.

Luckily it was dinnertime so we went in out of the very hot sunshine. That gave Chris time to suss out what was wrong, so, eventually, about half past one, rotovating got underway, roughly three hours after he first climbed into Rusty Deux to get the whole thing going.

Like I said, it was a quick job …

On Yer Bike!

At last the cycling season has started for us. We were a bit late this year. We’d meant to start a fortnight ago once the ice sheet had receded, but Benj coming home at the last minute for a short visit plunged us into chaos – very nice chaos though. And then last week we got swamped with broken down cars, trying to sort out the plumbing in the gîte and various other minor crises so the bikes didn’t get an airing. But at long last we’re back in the saddle.

I couldn’t find my cycling shorts anywhere. I have a vague memory that they fell apart towards the end of November. They are at least 20 years old and have had a lot of wear. So that explains my strange attire today. This cycling bib (I think that’s what the outfit is called) was the only suitable item I could find. It’s hotpants for cyclists basically! They’re not woman friendly since there’s the problem of knowing what to do with the straps at the front. Do you tuck them between boobs or loop them around the outside? Hmm. Quite a dilemma!

We didn’t go far, just round one of our shorter circuits since we had a few hours’ worth of tree lugging ahead of us, but it was brilliant. It was warm and sunny, the birds were singing, the roads were deserted, and it was the perfect first ride of the year.

It’s been a pretty perfect day all round really. We did our farm jobs first thing, nipped into Boussac to run some essential errands which involved getting red diesel for the tractor and ordering plaster board, which always means business. Then Rors and I got cracking in the polytunnel, planting mainly flower seeds today, while Chris carried on with repairs in the anglers’ shower room. After dinner we had our bike ride and then carried on with clearing away all the trees and branches we lopped off around the big lake last month. We used Rusty Deux the tractor today, loading the wood onto the hay spikes at the back. That’s a much quicker way of doing things. We finished up with a very satisfying bonfire.

Gigi our pseudo-Siamese cat with disastrously bad eyesight nearly had a completely perfect day. I don’t know when she’d managed to sneak past our usually vigilant defences and stash herself away at the back of the food cupboard where I keep our bread supply, but there she was. I spotted her just as we were about to lock up the house before going down to do our wood work. She’d have been one fat kitty by the time we got back if we hadn’t seen her!

And I must give Cynthia, our new Sussex hen, a mention. She’s out of the Eglu now (we keep all new poultry in there for a few days while they settle in) and pottering around. But not very far. She’s fixated on Rusty Deux and never ventures far from it! We call her the tractor chicken.

And to prove it was a good day I also got not one, but two free books through the post to review today. It’s a long time since I’ve had a dead tree book in my hands. I’m almost exclusively an ebook reader generally.  (The only downer of the day was not having any Internet for most of the day 🙁 which is why this post is a day late going up.)

And talking of books, I’ve finally fixed a launch date for my travel memoir Heads Above Water. It will be 17th April, the same day as Caiti’s 18th birthday, an auspicious day if ever there was one. So if any of my blogging buddies out there could be persuaded to host a guest blog from me in the second half of April to help with publicity, I’d be eternally grateful …

A Tale Of Two Cheeses – Louché and Etorki

I haven’t  been Tuesday cheesing for a while, so a bit of a catch up this week.

First up some local cheese. This is the product of the Orval fromagerie in Berry. Louche means ladle and a louché cheese is one that has been hand ladled into its mould. This is sometimes also described as moulé à la louche. These are usually plastic these days with drainage holes. Once the whey has dripped off the cheese is trundled off to be packaged.  This cheese is made from pasteurised cows’ milk. In theory it’s spreadable, and it is slightly crumbly, but you don’t get a smooth layer with it.

I have to say that I can’t admit to being very fond of louché. Most likely it’s an acquired taste. It’s certainly a bit odd. None of us like it that much on its own so I’ll use it up in cooking. Rors had developed an addiction to leeks in cheese sauce, so no prizes for what cheese I’ll incorporate into that dish!

Sheep are very much in the forefront of our minds as we continue to be kept waiting by our ewes for a lamb delivery. Rameses has got a bit bolshy with me and Caits lately, so his future may now involve the freezer. I’m using a vinegar/water spray to stop him from butting me when I go into the field, as per the advice on a website. It didn’t take him long to cotton on to that one.

So I bought some sheep milk cheese this morning. It’s from the Basque region and is called Etorki. I thought this might be something exciting, but it turns out it simply means ‘origin’ in Basque. That is a slightly lame name for a cheese. It’s a very pleasant, mild and light cheese, but with a slight tendency to stick to your teeth, I find. However, that could just be my teeth so don’t let that put you off trying it. This might be the first sheep derived cheese I’ve eaten, and I’m very impressed. But not to the point of planning to continue milking numbers 27 and 28 (the ewes formerly known as Lavenham and Debenham) after they eventually have their lambs.

So, this Tuesday, one highly recommended cheese, and one less so.


Renault Recovery Roadtrip Via Valençay

We made it! We’re back home with our long lost, financially crippling but now steerable Renault. My little Fiat made the round trip to the garage at Faverolles sur Cher, no problem. She was a bit slow uphill, and a bit slow downhill, not to mention on the flat as well, but she kept going and I reckon could have kept going all week.

The trip there took us through Valençay, which I’ve heard about but never been to before. It has a fabulous castle, which I shall be going back to visit over the spring holidays. It’s a beautiful Renaissance building. It’s famous for the Doric and Corinthian features in its architecture. It was built by the Estampes family, who started work in the mid 16th century, around 1540, but didn’t actually it finish for nearly 200 years. (It was bad enough spending two years renovating our two buildings, let alone two centuries!) In 1719 a Scottish banker, John Law, bought the place, then in 1803 Napoleon’s finance minister Charles Talleyrand took possession. The idea was for him to hold sumptuous banquets for dignitaries there.  Ferdinand VII of Spain was imprisoned there for six years. Poor old chap, that must have been tough.

In 1979 the castle was sold to an association that has been responsible for its upkeep since then.

The castle has a good reputation as a family friendly venue with an Easter Egg hunt in its forty acres of grounds each year, as well as other fun events, and it has a play area and petting zoo, reputed to contain llamas. Both kids and adults can dress up in period costumes and have their photos taken. Twice a year in summer there are candlelight visits to the castle at night. I would have thought that was rather risky, what with all the old furnishings, but so far things have gone well.

The château is open all year round. Here’s a good site about it to check out. The west wing houses a car museum that’s well worth a visit, apparently. Maybe they’ll take my Fiat one day.

Chris’s satnav brought us a different way home. We drove past Zooparc du Beauval, where France’s only two pandas now reside. We could see the Chinese section of the zoo with its pagodas and curvy lion statues, but I didn’t get a glimpse of any black and white fur though!  The satnav also brought us home behind a straw lorry for a fair chunk of the route. Now, straw is not meant to go at 90 km per hour. It’s fine at 20 km or so when towed by a tractor but when it’s hurtling along on a main road, it disintegrates. We were driving through thick cloud of bits of the stuff. There will be a good bit less of it when it arrives from when it left.

Early days at Les Fragnes

It was fun to travel in our mini convoy of two cars. It brought back memories of when we drove down here on that fateful day, 13th August 2006, to start our new lives in France. Chris was ahead in the Renault with Caiti, who was navigating, and Ruadhri,  and he was pulling the trailer. I brought up the rear in the Fiat with Benj and Nessie (our dog). Nessie is stouter and more grizzled than she was, all three kids have grown a lot and become totally Frenchified, and Chris and I have a few more wrinkles than we did then and a whole new outlook on life. But we’re all still enjoying our adventure.

La Présidentielle – A Family Affair

La Présidentielle is quite a family affair. Not only do we have Marine Le Pen, daughter of a former presidential candidate, running this year, plus François ‘give me a fiver’ Hollande, whose former partner Ségolene Royal ran in 2007, but it now turns out that the two favourites, the afore mentioned Hollande and Nicolas Sarozy, are distantly related.

According to Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, author of Le Tout-politique, the pair of them share a common ancestor, a Savoyard peasant from the 17th century. This person is Claude Labully-Burty from Saint-Maurice-de-Rotherens, a little village 20 kms from Chambéry.

Don't think I could eat one of these now ...

Claude’s family included two sons – another Claude, who was Hollande’s ancestor, and Pierre, who was Sarkozy’s. These two settled in the neighbouring commune of Saint-Genix-sur-Guiers during Louis XIII’s reign. Labully is a famous name in the area since it’s associated with a rather grisly cake. A pastry-making ancestor of our two presidential hopefuls, invented a fake breast gateau. Seriously. It’s an appropriately shaped brioche decorated with praline which was originally created to celebrate the fête of poor Saint Agatha (5th February) who was martyred unpleasantly (weren’t they all) by having, amongst other things, her breasts severed. I hope you weren’t eating while you were reading this.

Let’s have a quick, closer at our two cousins. Nicolas Sarkozy was born on 28 January 1955 in Paris. His father was a Hungarian immigrant, and his mother was of French and Greek descent. (And Sarko wants to cut down on immigrants!) He’s on his third marriage and has three sons and one daughter. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, he’s an extremely wealthy man. He’s also an author and his better known works are these three books – Libre, Témoignage and Ensemble.

François Hollande was born on 12 August 1954 at Rouen and is as French as he can be. He lived for a long time with Ségolene Royal and they have four children. His new partner is Valérie Trierweiler. Like Sarkozy, he’s also not short of a bob or two. He’s written books as well, including Le Rêve Français and the forthcoming Un Destin pour la France which has an unnervingly smiley-faced Mr H on the cover!

I can only think this common ancestor, Claude Labully-Burty, maybe wasn’t so good at the marriage thing but excellent with money, had a strong political (i.e. ruthless) streak and a love of expressing his opinions (orally most likely, since the chances are he probably couldn’t read or write) which he has passed on down the generations. It’s not quite the family feud of the Milliband brothers recently in the UK, but I think this ancestral connection adds a little bit of extra excitement to the contest.


Plumb Dumb

To celebrate (Chris and I), and at the same time commemorate (Caiti and Rors), the last official day of the winter holidays (weekends don’t count), we headed off in the sunshine this morning for another spot of geocaching. It gets us out, we all enjoy it and it’s nice family time. We found 3 out of 4 caches again – a 75% success rate seems to be our specialty these days! It gave my car a little run today, which it needs since on Monday it will be doing a 500 km round trip when we go to collect the Renault from the garage at Faverolles sur Cher, where it’s been since the breakdown last Saturday.

This afternoon we had the plumber out. The chaudière (boiler) for the gîte succumbed to le grand froid, despite Chris’s best efforts to keep it going. The cold was just too much. Le plombier has done what he can for the moment, but Chris still has a few more fuites (leaks) in pipes to fix. He’s been soldering for most of the week. Every time he thinks he’s done the last one, he discovers another one. None of us is over-optimistic that the boiler can be saved. It’s likely the main unit of it has burst in the cold, so we’ll be looking at a new one. Which is bad news this week after discovering that the Renault’s repairs have come to a staggering €2,500. That was a very, very nasty shock. It’s only some kind of electric motor that’s gone wrong in the power steering unit, but the only way to repair it is by replacing the whole steering column. It’s a sealed unit and alone comes to a few cents short of €2,000. That seems absolutely wicked to me. We’ve contacted Renault Ireland (we bought the car before we came here) to complain vociferously about this policy of supplying car parts in big expensive chunks instead of cheaply and separately. It makes us feel a bit better, even if its likely impact is minimal.

Anyway, back to pipes. Once Chris has finished soldering, we’ll be trying the boiler out to see if it still leaks. And if it does, then we need to call the plumber’s colleauge out. He’s the fuite d’eau guy. Our chap today was the broken boiler guy. He was a little out of his comfort zone. Apparently I should have said that there was a leak in it rather than simply declaring it broken on the phone, and then the most appropriate technician would have been sent out. Well, they didn’t ask for specifics, and beyond the fact that elle ne marche pas, I couldn’t really elucidate them further!

The plumber was far from impressed with the original plumbing for the boiler. At the time were a little surprised at the web of pipes leading everywhere, but you rely on a qualified expert to know what he or she is doing. It looks like some of them don’t.

Plum dumb is also the description for the proud headline from the government announcing its wonderful road safety figures for February. At 201 casualties, they’re down a quarter on last February. This ‘historic’ reduction is being attributed to the zillions of new speed cameras that have been going up. Which is crazy. February was the month of le grand froid. Hardly anyone could go anywhere due to the icy roads and the snowdrifts! Several official commentators share this view, and another campaign body sensibly adds that the rocketing cost of fuel is meaning people are driving less. But the government prefers its version!

And talking of politicians, Francois Hollande still wants €2 from me. Not this week, mon brave.