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Saturday, 3 February 2018

Guest blog from Valerie Poore, author of the Watery Ways series

Here's a treat. I am a great fan of Val Poore's writing and have just finished her book: How to Breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics. It's absolutely wonderful, so you might imagine how pleased I was when she kindly agreed to share one of her stories here on my blog. 
I'll be back next month with another installment from France. In the meantime, grab a cuppa and settle down with Val, you're going to love this one.

Now this is luxury! I've been let loose on Beth's lovely blog here and she says I can write whatever I like! Isn't she kind? Seriously though, I had no clue what to write at first. I didn't want to do the usual 'I've been writing since childhood' post (you'd all have been yawning at the first paragraph). So, as I've been reading Beth's posts for quite a time now and I absolutely LOVE her stories of French life, I thought I should maybe follow her lead and tell you all a story about my life in the Netherlands. That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

Before I start, though, I have to say that living here isn't anything like as exotic as the beautiful south west of France. But Holland is an interesting country, and as I've spent the last seventeen years living on a barge in the centre of Rotterdam, it has its own excitement. I should say, though, that given the vagaries of the Dutch climate, these are often provided by the weather.

The story I want to tell you is about the time a tree fell on my barge in a rather dramatic storm. I've mentioned it briefly once in one of my books, but I don't think I ever went into detail about just how much of an impact it made on me – well, the impact was on the boat, actually, but it made a pretty deep impression on me too.

It all happened several years ago when I still had my lovely Sindy dog, a Labrador/Dobermann cross who was very nervous at the best of times, but even more during storms. Sindy had been abused as a puppy and it took me years to build up her trust. On this occasion, it was shattered again with one whopping bang.

But let me set the scene for you. My barge, Vereeniging (Dutch for Society), is a very cosy and homely place. It doesn't have many windows, however, because I have to keep its exterior as close to its original conformation as possible. The harbour where I'm moored is designated to historic and traditional Dutch barges. We are actually museum exhibits – yes, we are! As a matter of fact, the stories I could tell you about how that feels would keep me here for hours, but for now, suffice to say we are quite strictly regulated on what we're allowed to do with our barges. So, going back to the windows, I only have one in the roof and one long narrow one at the back, the point being that no one can see them from more than a few metres away. It also means I can't see what's going on outside unless I open up the hatch and peer out – a bit like a mole coming up for air.

On the day in question, I was staying well inside. It was a Sunday and there was a tremendous gale blowing. Rotterdam is a windy place at the best of times, but this was something else. The tempests were in more than a fury, you might say. The Vereeniging was rocking to and fro, bashing against the neighbouring barges, and things were pretty uncomfortable. Even I was nervous. I couldn't see much, but I could hear and feel every ghastly gust. We hadn't had a storm this bad since I moved on board. To make matters worse, Sindy was absolutely terrified.

I was trying to keep her calm on the sofa, but she was shaking so much her teeth were rattling, poor baby. I couldn't even read my book because for one thing, she kept climbing into my lap so I couldn't see over the top of her head, and for another her trembling made me wobble too so all the words on the page were just a blur. It was a bit like being sat on by a running engine. There we were, then, a shivering, shuddering pair and all I could do was pray the storm would blow over.

I should also mention that there were large plane trees all along the quay at the time and every now and then I'd hear a crack as branches broke off. With every huge blast of wind, both Sindy and I looked anxiously at the hatch. Drrrrrrrrrrrr went my pooch's teeth as her whole body shook. Then I heard another loud crack. And then another. I was becoming very uneasy about this.
'Sindy,' I said. 'I think it's time we abandoned ship. I don't like this at all.'

Now in those days, my partner, Koos, was living on his own boat, which was further along the row of moored barges. I decided we should go and take refuge with him; at least we wouldn't be alone and I could rely on Koos to be a soothing influence on Sindy (and me too, if I'm honest).

Hastily pulling on my raincoat and Wellies, I snapped Sindy's lead onto her collar and started up the stairs. As I pushed open the hatch, the wind ripped it out of my hand and it crashed onto the roof. Then I looked up at the trees on the quayside. Branches on the one in front of the Vereeniging were breaking off and swinging wildly. It was becoming distinctly apocalyptic; in other words, very scary.
'Yikes,' I thought. 'Let's get out of here!'

Heaving Sindy out was another story, though. She might have been terrified inside, but she was none too keen to go out either. Her body went slack like a sack of flour and her paws grew roots into the treads of the stairs. I had wrestle her up her step by step until we got to the top when I unceremoniously shoved her over the front bulkhead of the boat where she stood shivering, her tail between her legs.

Her eyes reproached me.

'I'll report you for doggy abuse,' they said.

Meanwhile the rain was lashing down in stair rods and the wind was howling through the gaps in the buildings behind us. Did I say it was apocalyptic?
'Sindy,' I yelled, after closing the hatch. 'Let's go!' And I made a dash towards the bows of the barge. I led the way; Sindy followed – or rather, I dragged her, sliding her resisting legs across the deck. She either wasn't proving very cooperative or she'd forgotten how to walk. Luckily, the tide was in and the water level was high, which made it easier to get her quickly down to the quay.

I manhandled Sindy onto the plank, shunted her down the slope with indecent haste and hurried along the quayside. Then just as we reached Koos' barge, there was an almighty crunch. I looked back and watched in horror as the tree keeled over. It crashed down, totally buckling my gangplank before it thudded onto the Vereeniging's foredeck. Thank goodness for water displacement; my poor barge would have been flattened otherwise. Thank goodness we weren't in there too; it would have taken quite a rescue operation to get us out.

As it was, it was a miracle there was virtually no structural damage to the Vereeniging. That said, the tangled mess of branches and debris meant we couldn't go home straight away. The council came along the next day to clear it but it was two days before I could get back on board again.

'I thought you said you didn't have premonitions,' Koos commented when he saw what had happened.

'I don't,' I grimaced, 'but I do have a very good sense of self-preservation, so maybe in this case it's the same thing!'

A couple of years later, we had another violent storm and yet another tree landed on my barge. I couldn't believe it could happen to me twice. Talk about Murphy's law! Fortunately, no one was on board then, either, but it caused a lot more damage and I had to have the girders that held the roof hatches in place repaired. Since then, all the trees have been cut down and replaced by saplings, so thankfully we are safe again.

The only risk we have now is from the swarms of foreign tourists who think our boats really are museum exhibits and believe they're entitled to come on board and poke around. Only last week I looked out one morning to find a group of Japanese men and women posing for a photo opportunity on my foredeck. Such is the flavour of life in a historic harbour in the Netherlands! As I said, it isn't as exotic or as beautiful as France, but it's never boring.

Lastly, thank you so very much to Beth for having me here! I'll go back to my own blog now and leave you all in peace!


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Reflections on Another Blissful Year in la France

Here we are again, the end of another year and, wow, it’s flown by. Each year seems to pass more quickly than the other. And I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just life in la France.

Talk about fulfilling. Each month was dominated by wonderful dog walks with our Australian Shepherds, Aby and Max, with sightings of amazing wildlife and beautiful plants. 

Quintessentially southern French stuff too, you know: markets, pâtisseries, dining al fresco and almost unintelligible conversations with our neighbours. But there was much more. Here are just a few examples.

January started in typically ironic style with a carol singing event. (Apparently it’s difficult to secure a suitable date in our local church before Christmas.) Originally intended as a gentle singsong to the local villagers, much to the disgust of my husband, Jack, it quickly turned into an extravaganza.

A merry band of 15-ish carollers, sang in various keys to a surprisingly large congregation. Enthused by early success, our choir mistress instructed us to travel to the next church, and join their band of singers. This was most unexpected. We, plus several congregants, piled into cars and drove in convoy to village two.

Six churches later, we were beginning to croak, but still going strong-ish. Onlookers crowded into the aisles, filling the church with raucous singing and dubious melodies. It was an entirely fitting end to Christmastime.

February as usual, was filled with chilly rambles and examinations of dormant crops.  

But however cold it was, our weekly trips to the local market were never neglected. (I do love our cheese-selling gentlemen!)

It was also the month where we hosted the 80th birthday party of our friend, the trilby-wearing Italian, Anton. Despite struggling with his eyesight and having barely enough puff to breathe, he insisted on blowing out his candles and managed them all in one go. We’re already gearing up for his 90th, and he’s determined to be around to celebrate it.

Later on in the month, Anton and his wife, Camille, invited us to a spectacle in a nearby town. Never having been before, we had no idea what to expect. Wow – just, wow! It was immediately clear that Italy had come to France – to party. Cabaret singers, dancing girls, a feast and a band the Godfather would have been proud of. They entertained us all day and late into the evening. As you might guess, we’ve already booked our places for next year.

March was a month where the banks of our bit of the Garonne River were transformed into a hive of activity. Foresters were hard at it, harvesting graceful lines of poplar trees. They had been so beautiful the summer before, so it was sad to see them reduced to piles of logs, but they do grow quickly and at least they were being put to good use.

The air was heady with exquisite scents of blossoms, which enhanced our rambles still further. 

Less enhancing though was Aby’s accidental uncovering of a rat’s nest. Did you know rats grew on trees? No, I didn’t either.

 April saw the building of our cherished swing chair. Sounds a bit silly to include it here, but it has given us so much pleasure I wanted to share it with you. Having faffed around for ages trying to work out where to put it, we finally decided, and have spent many a happy evening soaking up the sounds of nature and watching the sun go down.

We also began our observation hide renovation project. With 26 miradors, it was always going to be a long job. We’re not finished yet, but progress is coming along nicely.

May is the beginning of the fêtes season in our part of France. It’s a time when household shutters are flung open after a long winter and folks come out to play. Our closest early fête fills the small town of Lavit. Flower stands, food stands, dog displays, entertainers, ancient machinery demonstrated by even older demonstrators, it’s all there. We would later go to several more, but this is always one of our favourites.

I’ll admit to being possibly a tad over-intrepid with some of my dog walks and this month witnessed another slight misadventure. I had spotted an interesting crop of plants way down below in one of the streams that run through our domaine, and decided to investigate. Once in, it took Max a long time to show me a way out. Scrambling sheer-sided banks hadn’t been the plan. Mind you it was worth it, it was incredibly beautiful in that secret watery garden.

June brought a cookery lesson from our super friend Andrée. The dish was Flamiche au Maroilles, a cheesy affair cooked on brioche-type pastry. She kindly welcomed my sister and I, plus furry rabble, to her wonderful home for the demo. As you can see we were all gripped – it’s amazing what the alluring whiff of cheese can do to a dog’s obedience levels! Needless to say the end result was heavenly.

 Les fêtes de la Saint-Jean (The feast of St. John the Baptist) was next on our list of entertainments. Traditionally featuring witches on bonfires to banish them from the area, it is held close to the summer solstice to help bless the harvest. As usual, we provided the bonfire wood and table decorations. The hunters prepared the meal, and Andrée’s husband, Joël, masterminded the entertainment. Nearly 200 pagan revellers turned out to enjoy it, and once again it was a great success.

Jack ruined his own reputation as someone who professes not to have any interest in animals during this period. He found a young deer stuck in the fencing and spent hours freeing it. Happily, he succeeded and the youngster tottered off to safety in the forest.

July dawned with howled, unprintable oaths from my husband. It was our partridge release day. Not blessed with much patience, he thrashed around the bird pen with a net trying to capture our latest crop of youngsters. If they could have stuck their tongues out at him they would. Instead they did what they do best, and galloped around like a gang of Usain Bolts, causing mayhem. We got there in the end and proudly watched our latest brood of younglings enjoy their new surroundings in the forest.

This was a month filled with beautiful plants. 

It was also filled with adorable young animals. Gorgeous deer with melting eyes, rambunctious baby boar protected by car-sized parents. Even a pal’s puppies appeared on the scene at this time. Yes, you guessed it, I was banned from having one!

It was also the period where I witnessed an incredibly spectacular avian display. Sadly an animal had been killed by a combine harvester, but its demise was not wasted. Flocks of raptors flew in to feast. Black kites, buzzards, sparrow hawks and goshawks, I watched, spellbound by their majesty.

August began with the launch of my latest book, Completely Cats – Stories with Cattitude. It is an anthology of stories about cats, which my friend, Zoe Marr, and I co-produced. Our intention through this project is to give financial support to the charity, International Cat Care, and help cats in need. It’s been great fun to work on, the story contributors have been marvellous and we’re very proud of the end result. (Brutus, though his nose was a put slightly out of joint at the time, seemed to approve too.)

This month saw another quirky first for us. We were invited to a Brazilian wedding in our local village and what a brilliant affair it was. The weather was beautiful, but it could not match the beauty of the bride and her groom. It was another event we shall never forget.

The summer here is abundant with plant and animal activity - I adore it. One of my favourite crops at this time has to be sunflowers. Most anywhere we go we are treated to their stunning splashes of sunshine lighting up the countryside.

Typical summer sounds here in south-west France are the dull clunks of pétanque balls as they are lobbed across a gravel court. (Similar to boules, the goal is to toss or roll steel balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet.) For some reason that escapes me, we were invited to the local firefighters’ barbecue. It’s just as well we were surrounded by pros, because the spit roasting the boar turned into an inferno, as did the moules. They were supposed to steam gently between soggy sheets of newspaper, but with a team of deadly keen firemen on hand that was never going to happen.

Post feast entertainment was, of course, a rousing game of pétanque. I’d like to say I was good at it but that would definitely be a lie. Nevertheless, it was another memorable day.

September blossomed with a glorious flower market in our nearest baby town. It was heaven.

It was also a hive of activity in the orchards.

Our mirador restoration project was going great guns, which enabled us to view animals safely from different parts of the forest. Observation sessions like these were absolute bliss.

In our garden it was definitely the year of the rose. We have several varieties and pretty much each one did us proud.

The month ended with a gang of us visiting our local auberge in support of their moules-frites night. Ooh, I do love mussels and chips. We dined outside and watched the stars come out, ending our evening with a stroll through this gorgeous ancient village.

October was a bit soggy to begin with (always a plus point for Max), but that didn’t dampen our spirits for the annual outing to help with the vendange (grape harvest) on our friend’s domaine. This is where everyone pitches in to pick the grapes at a time deemed precisely right by the owner, Yves. Everyone has a job (Jack usually ends up as vintage tractor repair man), and every vine is stripped clean. The end is celebrated with a banquet provided by the wonderful lady of the house, Nicole. We feel incredibly touched to be included in this family affair.

On a routine shopping trip I witnessed a particularly poignant exhibition in Moissac town. It was their dedication to the prevention of breast cancer. The main feature was 100 pink umbrellas suspended above a cobbled street. It was an extraordinary sight.

It was also the month where I had to nip over to Britain with my sister. Choosing to take the ferry from St Malo, we enjoyed a simple, easy drive up through France, and a couple of hours in the city. What a great history it has. Sometime later, with purses much lighter, we boarded our ship for an uneventful crossing.

November featured an unlikely visitor to our domaine. Nathan, our forester, said he had seen a mutant wild boar roaming around the fenced section. Intrigued by his vivid descriptions, Jack finally spotted it. But this was no wild boar, it was a young Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. Word soon reached the hunting fraternity. Deputations arrived at the house to tell us it must be destroyed before it cross-bred with the local boar population and developed a hybrid species. Jack emphasised that it was tiny and, without a stepladder, it would have a job cross-breeding with anything. They wouldn’t be placated but, once again Jack came to the fore and managed to catch the little fellow in a humane box trap. I tell the story in a different blog, but suffice to say he was safely returned to his rightful owner.

Glorious autumn walks filled with exciting discoveries became features of this month. Rusty obsolete traps we can do without, but who knew that Hobbits lived in France? I certainly didn’t.

December flew in with a packed-party agenda. Determined to soak up every bit of Christmas tradition possible, we began by visiting the Christmas night market at Auvillar. Mulled wine, carols, stalls packed with festive gifts, it was another real treat.

Part-way through the month and held in the car park of our local village, we attended the neighbours’ Christmas get-together. Crowding around a bonfire, which I’m certain has melted part of the road, we chatted and gossiped and munched on traditional fare. It’s an event we always look forward to.

We live in a fruit-farming closely-knit community where the giving of gifts is commonplace, and if there is ever a problem, people immediately turn out to help one another. Every year we hold a soirée. It is our opportunity to thank all our friends and neighbours for their kindness and gifts given throughout the year. This time, more than 60 came to join us for Christmas drinks, nibbles, and the horrifically-challenging quiz Jack sets each time. It’s another happy feature of our year.

And while you may think all we do here is party, sadly, that’s not altogether true. But these have been some of the highlights which have made this year so much fun.

With all the festivities nearly out of the way I’ll soon be getting back at work, writing Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV, and Jack will attack his extremely long list of farm machinery repairs and maintenance. But there is, of course, just one more event to celebrate. This year, as the snow begins to lightly fall, December 31st will be just us, surrounded by our shaggy mob of dogs and cat, snuggled in front of a roaring fire. Perfect.

 Whatever you’re up to, or plan to do, I sincerely hope you have a wonderfully Happy New Year.