Frightful Fliers – Chickens and Franz Reichelt

Meet Cynthia! She’s a Sussex pullet, a pondeuse, and we bought her at Boussac market this morning. Ruadhri chose her. The lady on the chicken stall tried to steer him towards one with brown feathers, saying it was prettier, but Rors was adamant. He wanted Cynthia. She’ll spend a few days in a pen to get used to her new surroundings, and then we’ll let her range free with Madge and Limpy.

Now, what do Cynthia and a man called Franz Reichelt have in common? An inability to fly. OK, chickens can technically fly, but it’s more like panicky-fluttering-cum-controlled-falling. There’s always a lot of feathers and wing whirring and clucking. The record for a flight by a chicken is 13 seconds. None of my girls have come anywhere near that length of time. Chickens aren’t good at flying. And neither was Franz.

I missed the centenary of his death on 4th February since I’ve only just found out about him. He was an Austrian who came to live in Paris in 1898 where he soon became known as Le Tailleur Volant (the Flying Tailor) because he invented a parachute coat. He was obsessed with flying but didn’t follow some of his contemporaries into experimenting with large wings or flying machines. Instead he sewed up his special outfit, which weighed 70 kg. He generously intended it for other aviators, to hopefully save their lives if their rickety vehicles fell apart in mid air, which they often did.

Franz Reichelt and his parachute coat

The first few tests with dummies wearing the special cloak ended up with them smashing, but our Franz wasn’t put off. He worked on making his costumes lighter, and ended up with one weighing two thirds less at around 25 kg. He tested this himself by jumping 12 metres onto some straw. He broke a leg, but persuaded himself the only reason he had apparently failed was because his parachute outfit hadn’t had time to open properly. So he decided to jump off the Eiffel Tower. Just like that. He didn’t bother testing out with a dummy first and so, sadly, on 4th February 1912 jumped to his death from the first storey of the tower. His parachute cape had wrapped itself firmly around him. He was 34.

This page has some photos of him taken on the day itself.

Many inventors have died as a result of the thing they invented or discovered. Marie Curie died from cancer after studying radiation, Horace Lawson Hunley drowned in his submarine and John Godfrey Parry-Thomas was killed in his record-breakingly fast car Babs. You can’t help thinking that their deaths occurred because they were contributing towards general scientific advance, whereas that of Franz Reichelt … well, wasn’t. He went off at a bit of a tangent from mainstream progress. But you have to admire his confidence, courage and spirit. Rest in peace, Franz.

A Busy Sort Of Day

The last couple of mornings I’ve been getting up early-ish to write an ebook for Chris. Here’s the provisional cover, which needs some smartening up with Gimp. It’ll be available from Chris’s carp fishing holiday directory at in the next few days.

After writing, I went out to do the farm chores and feed the sheep. Yesterday I’d checked No. 27’s teats, since she’s definitely pregnant, and saw that they were getting nice and big. There were a few more promising signs today so our first lamb or lambs (ewes don’t always have twins the first time they give birth) might not be far away. That’s very exciting! Our ram, who’s now known as Rameses, has recently developed a love of having his chin tickled. He’d be happy for you to do it all day. So sheep duties take quite a while at the moment.

Then I decided to shovel poo, you know the way you do! Well, we do anyway. More correctly, it was compost. But it used to be poo. I’m working on the second raised bed at the moment while Chris solders pipes in the gîte. I also emptied out the big kitchen compost bin and found four teaspoons. Chris found four in it the other day. I wondered where all my spoons were going. I’m not quite sure how they all ended up in there, I have to confess.

The sun was shining and it was cosily warm in the polytunnel so I planted some beetroot and radishes in the raised beds, and started some rocket, tomatoes and lettuces in seed trays. Then Rors and I attempted to do a worm survey. We followed the instructions. We marked out our area and watered it with a dilute mustard mixture, but absolutely nothing happened. I’d expected worms to come popping out of the ground at high speed. Nothing. Now either Creuse worms are just plain tough, or the ground is so waterlogged already that the mustardy water didn’t penetrate. Or that the mustard suspension wasn’t strong enough. I upped the ante and tried again later with some pepper sauce mixed in water. Still no worms. I feel very disappointed since I know they’re there, but how are we going to get them to come out and be counted. I may have to resort to explosives.

I did some more shovelling after dinner and then got busy helping Caiti write job application letters and her résumé to send off. She’s probably left it a bit late to get a job with the Tour de France, but we’re trying. We’ve written to some agencies and also to a few of the teams directly. It’s rather nice that we were able to mention to each one that we’d been cheering them on yesterday at Aigurande. Which we had – we cheered for everyone! Caiti has offered to do anything from admin to washing socks. I hope she’ll find something. She’d love it since she’s a really keen cyclist and she’ll been a great little worker.

I’d just proofread Caiti’s letter and inserted a very necessary ‘with’ in the phrase ‘I hoped I might be able to work with your team during this year’s tour’, when Rors came in to tell me he’d seen a horse and cart go by (our neighbours a few kms away) and also that he’d found some frogspawn. I went to see that with him. I’d be worried about the frogs and toads this year. Their first batches of spawn got frozen solid during le grand froid. Luckily they’re having another go so they’ll soon be zillions of tiny frogs and toads appearing everywhere.

A sure sign of spring.


Paris Nice 2012: Daggs See Day Three

We’re just back home from watching the 70th Paris Nice cycle race flash past us at Aigurande, about 30 km away, its closest point to Chez Dagg. We had a disastrous journey there. I’d intended to go along some minor roads to end up north of Aigurande on the D990. As it was, there were practically no signposts anywhere and we got hopelessly lost. Poor Rors threw up spectacularly as a result of travel sickness, luckily outside the car!  We ended up at Aigurande after all, which I’d been trying to avoid at all costs, thinking that it would be closed to traffic and heaving with people.

It wasn’t. The Paris Nice doesn’t excite anything like as much interest or police ferocity as the Tour de France, although to be fair there was a reasonable turnout, considering it was only 4 degrees and hailing! The roads are closed about three hours before the TdF hits town. Here cars and lorries were wandering along right up until a few minutes before the breakaway group appeared. There were even some non-official vehicles containing either worried or surprised motorists driving along between the front runners and the peloton. I couldn’t believe it!

We staked our claim under a convenient tree which kept us dry.

If there was a caravan, we missed it, but we hadn’t intended arriving too early for the race, given the cold. There was a steady procession of gendarmes on motorbikes. This lot weren’t anything as jolly as the TdF usuals and we only got a few grudging waves from them in reply to our enthusiastic greetings. Rors and Caiti snarled at each other for a while, and then a Paris Nice official vehicle came by announcing that the first riders were close. A couple of minutes later they appeared. Here they are in my photo – Roy Curvers (PRO), Michael Morkov (SAX) and Jimmy Engoulvent (SAU).

The peloton – or ‘bunch’ as Sean Kelly always used to call it when he did commentary on bike races! – zoomed along around four minutes later. You can see Bradley Wiggins in yellow in my photo here, surrounded by other members of Team Sky.

I only took the one photo since I wanted to experience the peloton rush past properly. It’s exhilerating – the blur of colour, the purr of a zillion euros worth of bikes speeding past and the claps and cheers of the onlookers. I’m pretty sure I picked out Irish rider Nicolas Roche.

Aigurande was a food point for the riders, and just up the road from us was an official litter dropping zone. There’d been a cloud of silver wrappers floating from the riders as they went through that. We spotted a couple of water bottles but they’d gone by the time we swooped, curses! However, just for fun, and for the sake of the environment, we picked up a few wrappers to see what sort of energy boosting bars top calibre cyclists eat. Overstimm seems to be the favourite brand. Maybe the name is a little worrying though?

We went back to the car and drove up the D990 a short way looking for discarded water bottles that other people had missed but didn’t see any. And then we pottered home for hot chocolate and to thaw out.

A great outing.

Mission Printemps – Spring Mission: Counting Worms

This spring there’s a worm census going on in France. Urbanisation, intensive farming, pesticides and global warming – these are all having an effect on the French earthworm population. And since there hasn’t been a census to map their type and population density since the 1970s, scientists at the University of Rennes have decided that now’s the time to remedy that situation. And so this new survey has been started.

There are over 100 different types of worms in France, and back in the 1970s the weight of worms in France’s soil was greater than the weight of all the humans then on the earth! That’s truly amazing.

Until 28th March, people are being asked to carry out worm counts. They’ll do this by measuring out an area of 50 cm and then watering it with a dilute mustard solution. Poor worms! Amora is the brand of mustard recommended – some astute product positioning there! Anyway, that will make them pop out of the ground so they can be counted, photographed (some of them), carefully rinsed and allow to burrow back down into nearby unmustardy earth. The protocol on carrying out the survey is here. To find out what type of worms you’ve found, you need to check them against this notice.

There are: Épigés – up to 5 cm long; Engogés – 3.5 to 6 cm long and uniformly coloured, and Anéciques – 10 to 100 cm long (not sure I’d like to find a metre long worm …)

You need to sign up to the site and then you can send in your data. Sounds a fascinating and very worthwhile survey.

There are more spring missions coming up. On 7th March a study of nut blossoms begins, on 14th March a survey of wall-dwelling lizards, and on 21st March we must all start listening out for cuckoos. The full list is here.

Rors and I shall be getting busy doing some worm counting later this week. But tomorrow, we’re off to watch the 70th Paris Nice cycle race which is passing fairly close by … Come back tomorrow to find out how we got on.





French Chicks and Hairy Chests

Eldest Son came home from Uni for a few days last week (it’s the winter holidays in our zone of France). I was slightly startled when one of his first questions to me was “What’s the best way to remove chest hair”? The alarm mainly came from the fact he seemed to think I might have had first-hand experience of this predicament! I haven’t so  I referred him to his father for possible advice but also observed that, in my opinion, men are meant to be hairy. Benj sadly informed me that French chicks didn’t think so. This was more information than a mother needs to know!

I rest my case as to whether men should have hairy chests or not!

Chris couldn’t offer much help either but suggested that shaving it off would probably only make it grow back tougher. It would call for a lot of shaving foam too.

Just in case this is a problem that vexes you for sport, aesthetic or French women related reasons, I’ve done some research. So listen up Benj. Shaving is an option, certainly. (I’ve also discovered that back shavers exist for men but sound remarkably like our sheep shears!) Waxing is another but you would have to be completely insane to go that route. I waxed my legs once and I’d rather go through childbirth than through that again. And everyone knows women have a much higher pain tolerance than men. Well, all women do, anyway! Waxing can also lead to skin infections so you should apply an antibacterial lotion for a few days afterwards. The following warning comes from the website For Men Only.  Ignore it at your peril: While waxing can easily be done in the genital area, it is painful, so you might want to try it on other parts of your body first so you know what you’re in for. Noted? Good.

Using a depilatory cream would be the easiest way. However, some people are sensitive to the chemicals in them and get sore skin afterwards, so the advice is to try them out on a small, non-sensitive area of your body first. There are creams specifically aimed at men with a suitably manly perfume.

There’s always laser treatment but that would be hugely expensive, a few thousand euros, and it’s pretty much irreversible. There might a small amount of regrowth. And apparently it’s not suitable for blond or white hair. Singe marks? Electrolysis is a further possibility but since this is done on a hair by hair basis, it could take a year or more of treatments to deal with an excessively hairy chest. And like laser treatment, it’s pricy, but it is definitely permanent.

So there we are. However, I must say in a country renowned for hairy-armpitted women, it seems pretty hypocritical that they take umbrage at male hirsuteness. Leave your hairs alone, lads.



Breakdown – or Beware the Third of March

The third of March isn’t a good day for Daggs. Three years ago on this day Chris was bitten by a fox when he and Benj were trying to release it from a snare. We went to see the doctor who was convinced that Chris would have to go through the six-month programme of extremely unpleasant anti-rabies injections. Luckily he eventually found out from the national rabies centre, or something similar, that the Boussac area wasn’t a hotbed of la rage, so a tetanus jab and some antibiotics would do. However, Chris is decidedly less fond of foxes than he used to be.

Val du Cher services

Today it was my turn for the third of March unfortunate event. Are you sitting comfortably? Cup of tea or coffee, or glass of wine by your side? Then I’ll begin.

Caiti and I were en route for Angers to visit the university there. It was having its JPO (open day). We stopped at services just outside Tours, and slightly more than an hour away from Angers. I’d ended up in the lorry parking section, like quite a few other cars, since the signage for the car parking area was less than helpful. Anyway, we shared a Twix and a cappuccino and then went back to the car. I started the engine and a ‘steering fault’ warning came up. The power-assisted steering had stopped working. Fortunately I’m good with machines. I knew what to do. I turned the engine off, and then turned it on again. Strangely that didn’t solve the problem. I tried a few more times. I got out of the car and looked at it for a while. But still the fault persisted. We phoned Chris for advice. He undertook to look up on the Internet about possible causes of the problem. We worked our way through the manual but nothing fit the symptoms. I reversed and drove forwards again in our lorry space and managed to get the wheels to turn a little but the car obviously wasn’t drivable. Chris came up with nothing so we rang GAN, the insurance company. We have breakdown cover and finally we were calling upon it.

Mélanie was very helpful and patient. She didn’t mind that I had to get out of the car to go and find out what the registration number was when she asked for it. Well, it’s Chris’s car! She gave us a dossier number and then explained that, since we were at motorway services that technically counted as a breakdown on the motorway, so the next thing we had to do was call 17. I relayed that to Caiti.

“But that’s the police!” she cried in alarm.

It was a truck like this that rescued us

I had an idea it was but, reluctant as I was to poke a sleeping policeman, that’s what I had to do. The gendarme I spoke to was confused for a while (my French reverts to babyhood whenever I’m stressed and ‘my power assisting has failed at a motorway service station’ isn’t something they teach you at school, but really, really should be). But eventually we sorted out what was going on and he put me through to depannage (breakdown) central. That lady hadn’t heard of the only set of services of the A85 but I was able to persuade her they existed and after a while she came round to my point of view and arranged for someone to come and see us within half an hour. This was a French half an hour, so closer to a full sixty minutes, but I was grateful for any help at all. There wasn’t much I could do about it anyway!

The breakdown guy rang to ask what the problem with la direction (the steering) was, but other than telling him elle ne marche pas (it’s not working), I couldn’t give him any further clues. A big Renault breakdown truck rolled up sometime later. Parking in the lorry section had been a fortuitous move on my part because this thing needed room to maneouvre. The mechanic started the car and then checked out the engine and various fuses. He drove it backwards and forwards a bit too, but no miracle cure. So he loaded the car up onto the truck, a sight which was enjoyed by all the other motorists around. I’d have enjoyed it too if it hadn’t been my car in the starring role. I wanted to take a photo of the car being winched up, but Caiti hissed and looked daggers at me, and I remembered how self-conscious teenagers could be, so desisted. Shame. Off we went to the Renault garage at Faverolles sur Cher. This was my first ride in a breakdown truck in thirty years of driving.

The Faverolles garage in the background - plus working black Scenic, not ours!

Have you ever noticed those little roads that lead off the autoroutes with barriers across them? They’re breakdown vehicle access points and we went to go up one. Yay! (I know, I lead a sheltered life.) We got to the very closed garage after about twenty minutes and the mechanic opened everything up for us and even turned on the central heating. Within half an hour he was able to tell us that the problem wasn’t something he could fix there and then. The electric motor that controls the power steering had broken. He’d have to order parts in on Monday and the car would be ready Wednesday or Thursday. That was a sinking heart moment, but our breakdown cover includes getting passengers home. Melanie got organising again. Our offered options were initially train, hire car or taxi. But Melanie soon narrowed those down to one, since there were no trains anywhere near either our departure or arrivals point and she couldn’t find any hire car places that were open. So another French half hour later our taxi rolled up, driven by an elderly lady. She was very pleasant and apart from gluing herself to the bumper of the car in front, a very careful driver. Two hours later we were home.

So, Caiti didn’t get to see the fac at Angers. That’s a pity because it looks like a very nice university. Maybe we’ll go and have a look midweek when we go up to collect the car. Our insurance covers the cost of the rescue trip so that’s a help. I can’t fault GAN. Mélanie took great care of us today.

The hunt for a new car will have to begin. The Renault is the flagship of the Dagg fleet of means of transport. OK, it’s seven years old now, has taken some dings in carparks (a hazard in France) and a pounding from golf ball size hailstones, is starting to rattle and one of the door trims has fallen off, but up to now it’s been the reliable, failsafe car. My ten-year-old legally roadworthy Stilo has a temperamental dashboard and other than that car, we’re down to two wheeled transport. The scooter has hit the deck a couple of times, and our assortment of bikes includes two that are more than twenty-five years old, but also a couple of last year’s models. Being rural dwellers in a public transport deprived area we need a dependable car so I think the time has come to tighten our belts and invest in a small left-hand drive vehicle. It’ll be fun looking around.

And now, if you don’t mind, I shall go and collapse. My nerves are in tatters!

PS I’m being a bit dramatic. The third of March isn’t all bad because it’s Lulin the llama’s birthday. She arrived the same day as Chris had his fox incident!

Sunshiney Fun

This spring weather is wonderful and we’ve made the most of it. This is hang-on from our fifteen years in Ireland, one of the more meteorologically challenged countries in the world! The moment there was a glimmer of sunshine, or even a break between rain showers, we’d drop everything and rush outside to enjoy it. It would never last for long.

So, despite feeling rough, I went off with Benj, Chris and Rors for a spot of geocaching this morning. We got our first FTF, which is very cool in geocaching terms. FTF = First To Find. We were the first ones to uncover one of Zephyrsailor’s new caches. Here’s the proof! I hope you’re impressed.

We found another one at the source of a certain river – a tributary of the Loire. We also found these lovely snowdrops.

Not such a nice find was the one we made back home. Treacle the cat had the most enormous tick on her neck that we’ve ever seen. The 10 centime piece is 2cm across to give you an idea of scale. And it was almost completely spherical. We call these guys elephant ticks because they’re so big. Euuwww.

This afternoon Rors and Caiti went down to their new den by the stream that runs from the middle lake. The silver lining to the cloud that was repairing Denis the llama’s fencing was that we cleared the way for Ruadhri to get down to the water. There’s a waterfall over some tree roots. He spends hours making whirlpools while his big sister practices her weaving.

I even felt inspired enough to do some spring cleaning. Just some, but it’s a start.

Eldest Son had gone back to Limoges this afternoon, leaving behind happy memories, his jeans, his jacket and a book – and that’s just for starters probably! Tomorrow I requisition the car to take Caiti to Angers for a JPO at the University there. It’ll be a long day but interesting.

And if you have a moment, you might like to drop by my Books Are Cool blog. There’s a book giveaway there at the moment – The Emerald City by J. A. Beard, and an entertaining guest post by the author.

Blog In France – 400, And Just Warming Up

Party time – 400th blog post today! Sadly I’m full of flu so not inclined for a knees-up, but please have one on my behalf. Thanks to you all for following me. I had my best month ever in February 2012 with just under 4,000 hits and that’s brilliant!

Today’s title is a sort of slogan. I mentioned a few of the presidential candidates’ slogans recently and I’m returning to the theme. I discovered that Sarkozy’s La France Forte isn’t original. How shameful! In 1974 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing ran with Il faut une France forte (France must be strong). He won the election and at 48 years of age became France’s third youngest President. Sarkozy must be hoping that if it worked for VGd’E, it will work for him.

There are more echoes of previous slogans. François Hollande tells us this year that Le changement, c’est maintenant (Change is now). (He has been in touch for another €2 from me, by the way. This amount would allow him to get in contact another 200 people, presumably to touch them for €2 too! Cunning.) His former partner Ségolene Royale had Le changement as her catchphrase in the last elections in 2007. (Sarko went for Ensemble, tout devient possible (Together everything is possible). It was certainly possible for him to more than double his salary and spend upwards of 200 million euros on a Presidential plane, including €65,000 on special bread oven for it, that’s for sure.

La France forte hints at national security, but doesn’t actually say anything. It’s what they call langue du bois here – wooden language. It’s soothing but vacuous – politically correct. People can bring their own meaning to it. A slogan doesn’t make a campaign anyway. It’s TV and increasingly the Internet that play the important part in winning voters these days. Slogans and posters are simply part of the package, but not very effective. You can’t really judge slogans apart from deducing after the event  that the best one is the winner’s one.

It isn’t cheap running a presidential campaign. In 2007 Sarko and Royale spent over €20 million each. (That seems a lot, but pales into insignificance next to the €550 million Obama spent on his in 2008.) The ‘minor’ candidates who won less than 5% of the votes were given €800,000 towards their campaign costs, and the ‘major’ ones had reimbursements of €10 million each. Aren’t taxpayers wonderful things!

To finish a couple of firsts for today, 1st of March. Saw my first bee of the year and my first wasp, put on the first dollop of suncream when I was sitting outside reading the extremely enjoyable Perking The Pansies by Jack Scott on my Kindle, and today was the first day we didn’t have a fire going in the grate from the moment we got up until we went to bed. Only just lit it now. Yes, winter’s over.