Fireworks, floods and feathers: life in Entre-deux-Eaux, April – mid-July 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text and
some will lead to larger selections of photographs.
There are also these links to other recent photographs
Flora and fauna around the farmhouse May-June 2021
and
Frosty fritillaries

When we opened our front door at 10.10 pm on July 13 (and for those of you unfamiliar with it, our front door is not a grand plastic-panelled affair, but an old barn door of bare planks with gaps, tarted up with a knocker and lock), we could hear the thumping music from the village. We put on warm clothes and stout shoes and headed down the darkening road, through puddles where the stream and drains had overflowed. The 4 metre-wide lane looping up to the Duhaut and Vozelle farmhouses had been turned into a two-way Entre-deux-Eaux by-pass, with official yellow deviation signs, and to emphasize the yellow warnings of a road block 500 metres ahead, vehicles were parked across the road, barricading the village centre. “Not too good for emergency vehicle access”, John remarked.

It was the eve of Bastille Day, and the car park and road round the village shop-cum-bar had been taken over by crowded benches and trestles for feasting and games. By this time, the bouncy castle had been deflated to a flat skin across the road ready to be folded away, and people were shuffling towards the edge of the field. It seemed miraculous that the heavy rain had paused at just the right time for a village celebration culminating in fireworks. John set up his tripod by the field, and we watched shadows moving behind their torches, doing last minute checks on the fireworks.

an E2E firework

And then there was a five minute riot of colour and falling stars as multiple rockets were launched and burst and then abruptly ceased. The figures behind the torches moved up to inspect the launch site close-up and check that all the fireworks were spent, as we muttered, “we might need those emergency vehicles”. Many of us started to drift towards our homes or parked cars, exchanging greetings and answering queries about still being here despite or because of Brexit and Covid. However the music, so presumably celebrations, continued well after midnight, when we turned off our bedside lights.

This was the first village knees-up for a long time. Last year’s fireworks had been cancelled, the oldies had not met for cake-and-champagne for many months, there had been no New Year champagne and nibbles or communal oldies lunch. So despite the damp, cool evening, everyone was making the most of it. With school term ended, the children could stay up late and the summer holidays had a cracking start. The following evening we watched some of neighbouring St Leonard’s fireworks. But by then the rain had returned, so we were glad to be warm and dry indoors, watching at a distance through windows. And what colourful puffballs lit up the sky and cascaded stars.

Like Boris, Macron had been anxious to relax restrictions in time for the electorate to rush lemming-like towards the south and fondly remembered holiday sunshine. However, on the day that the ever-optimistic Boris was expected to announce, despite others’ caution over increasing cases, that masks would not be compulsory, the more prudent Macron was forced by a similar increase and the low uptake of vaccines (including, worryingly, among health care professionals) to announce that vaccination would be compulsory from September for nursing and non-nursing staff, carers and aids, that certificates proving vaccination would be compulsory in bars, restaurants and on trains from August, and that free PCR tests (which the French were tending to use instead of vaccination) would no longer be free in autumn. The next day there was a mad rush to book vaccination appointments for everyone over 12, though 12-17 year olds have since been exempted from the vaccination pass entrance requirements as it became obvious it would cause problems for parents. Meanwhile we have been waiting for Boris to relax the quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Brits abroad returning to the UK. But the British government has just announced that, although France will remain on the orange list, quarantine and testing will still apply to the fully vaccinated, due to concerns over the low AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy against the beta/South African variant.

The Sainte Marguerite pensioners were feeling more optimistic, and e-mailed start dates for their activities, – not until September because of the sacred two-month holiday period (when they might need to look after grand children). The physical exercise group will all have to arrive fully kitted out (so no changing-room gossip) and with their own mats and to disperse immediately afterwards without lingering indoor chats, and the mental exercise group met to plan their autumn campaign. Helen went along to the planning meeting of the latter, where the first mental exercise was to work out how to get into the meeting room. A passing community policeman solved the problem by blowing on the swipe card, and then it worked! Once inside, half the group of six wore masks and the remaining three did not. Interesting. And why could they sit and chat, but not the gymnasts? An hour and a half was spent catching up on gossip, ten minutes on planning, and a quarter of an hour on word and number exercises similar to Countdown (known here as Des chiffres et des mots). Let’s hope the programme does not get cancelled by the predicted post-holiday Covid increase.

On a rare sunny day, we started to think about a short break in an area of France that we don’t know and bought the Michelin guide to Limousin and Berry with the area round Bourges in mind. However, with wet weather, apart from the lucky break on Bastille Eve, the idea of trailing round in the rain has not been so appealing. Near Bourges are the areas that Alain Fournier and George Sand wrote about, so Helen is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes, and is surprised how similar its pre-1914 village school sounds to the Entre-deux-Eaux school in the 1970s/80s, as recalled by the widow of the former school master. George Sand’s La Mare au Diable should be delivered shortly. Maybe the weather will improve and it will not be just armchair travel.

Looking back, the wet weather started a day or two after we had set up the watering system, got out the garden swing-seat and teak benches from their winter storage, and taken delivery of a large garden parasol. But at least we have not faced the severe flooding experienced earlier by flatter parts of the Grand Est, like Reims, or the present appalling floods across the border in Germany and Belgium. Our barn has only needed sweeping and drying out once. And after we cleared the drainage channel of mud, removed the bucket in the drain (to catch the mud) which was hindering rapid outflow, and put two rows of bricks in front of the gap at the bottom of the barn doors, we have had no further problems (fingers crossed). The difficulty has been finding a dry time for cutting the verdant grass and uprooting the luxuriant weeds.

A kestrel’s eye view of the fruit cage and potager

And talking of the garden, the rebuilt fruit cage is doing well, with its new netting and weed-reducing ground cover. It is remarkably sturdy. Helen got a tour of next-door’s new hen-house when she dropped round to get the details of their netting supplier. Theirs is an extensive, but less rugged, construction with indoor and outdoor areas to keep the hens safe by day as well as night from the marauding foxes, martens and buzzards which exterminated the previous hens. It sounds as if it has been restocked now. Our cage currently has a good crop of blueberries and raspberries. In other shady areas we have had more wild strawberries than ever before. Helen was crouching down picking them one day when a white van drew up, so, still clutching the bowl of tiny berries, she went to collect the Amazon parcel. “Are they for me?” the driver asked cheekily. But when offered some, he was most suspicious of these tiny unknown things, asking where they were from and whether he should wash them. In the vegetable beds, the peas, broad beans and lettuce have all flourished in the rain, the carrots thinnings are tasty, and the squash and courgettes are very leafy.

Deer by the orchard

The fauna has also flourished, with monster snails, fat slugs and slow-worms in the compost heap. Visiting deer (orchard) and a great-spotted woodpecker (balcony bird feeder) are more welcome sights. However, the vole population must be much reduced thanks to the presence of kestrels and their young in our attic window niche high above the vegetable patch. The kestrel saga, which many of you have been following through John’s daily photos and videos, began when Helen remarked idly on the quantity of polystyrene fragments floating down from above the farmhouse front door (this one a proper, panelled but peeling blue-painted wooden door). John went up to the attic and opened the low door through to the storage end, and discovered a round hole in the sheet of polystyrene blocking the small window opening (against messy owls, stone martens and from when the outside walls were sprayed in crépi).

Kestrel eggs

And four brown speckled eggs lay on the deep window recess. He researched and observed and decided it was a kestrel nest (well, hardly a nest as there was no straw or twigs, but just the bare ledge and bits of pecked polystyrene). He installed a camera linked to his computer (details below on the website), which he modified and tweaked, and is obtaining fascinating pictures.

It seemed a long wait before any sign of cracking or hatching and John fretted that they were getting too cold when the mother flew off for quite long periods. However on the twenty-fifth day of recording, July 9, his patience (and anxiety) was rewarded with the appearance of two baby chicks, one of whom was quite perky for a newborn, while the other seemed increasingly limp. Since July 2 we had not seen the male, who had previously visited occasionally and briefly, so hunger drove the female to leave the newborn chicks in the late afternoon in search of voles or lizards. When she returned we could see her prodding and shaking the inert body of her second hatched. Eventually she gave up and very practically began to consume it and feed bits (probably regurgitated) to her vociferous first born. The next day, July 10, the remaining two chicks hatched.

A surprise. The cock appears for the first time since 2 July

On the eve of Bastille, there was an excited yell from the attic as John had seen the male delivering a dead vole on the live video feed on his computer screen. Where had the cock been for the previous eleven days? Did they have a store-cupboard nearby that he had been stocking? There was an acrimonious incident with loud recriminations when he was about to take away his dead vole offering, as the female was still feeding another corpse to her fluffy white offspring.

kestrel chicks 17 July

John has toyed with the idea of inserting a wooden ridge across the front of the sill to prevent the balls of fluff from rolling or hopping off before they can fly, but decided it was cause too much alarm. You can see all the pictures and videos at https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/ During this time our TV screen has been showing an interesting mix of the live kestrel video feed (Chromecast), Wimbledon matches. European cup football and catch-up crime series (Line of Duty and Fargo).

Helen also watched quite a few matches from the French Open Tennis. Most games were played in front of very small audiences, but in the last week, more people were allowed to watch. However there was still an 11pm curfew. So there had to be a 10.30pm break to allow spectators to leave without disturbing players. But they got very involved in the exciting semi-final match between Nadal and Djokovic, and it seemed most unlikely that they would leave willingly. At the last minute, the French PM who was watching on TV phoned through permission for the spectators to stay on without incurring curfew penalties. Riots avoided! But how annoying for those with longer journeys who had left a bit earlier.

In case you are wondering if we still have books piled on the floor, following the problems with the underfloor heating that we mentioned in the last newsletter, the shelves are back in position and the books returned to them. It turned out the expansion chamber the plumber had replaced wasn’t working. It is a cylinder with rubber across the middle. The top fills with water and pushes the rubber down into the other half as it expands. The plumber had assumed the new cylinder was OK and thought there must be a leak in the underfloor pipe rather than a problem with his handiwork. The leak only required about 150ml of water to top up the system each day. John eventually noticed a drop from a valve at the back of the boiler. The drip, from the increased pressure, was slow enough that the water had evaporated so not been noticed. The plumber finally agreed the cylinder rubber must have had a hole, so all the cylinder had filled and there was no pressure relief (the same problem as the old chamber), so he replaced the replacement expansion chamber.

In fact there are more books on the shelves now as John and his sister between them ordered all the books on Helen’s Amazon list for her birthday. But buying anything from the UK since Brexit can be a problem as there are often import duties and additional customs clearance charges. (Amazon UK ensures all those charges are paid on ordering if the goods are those Amazon fulfils, but not necessarily those from the Marketplace.) There can also be problems with parcels disappearing after they reach France. Two of the book parcels went missing as well as some Vanish soap, which is not available in France. Being Amazon, refunds weren’t a problem and replacements arrived safely. Interestingly, John ordered a newly-published UK book from Amazon FR and, although the tracking showed it was sent from the UK, it was cheaper than a copy from Amazon UK delivered to a UK address would have been, despite the usual UK book discounts and the price maintenance on books in France. He also discovered that he could buy more Yorkshire tea from Amazon FR and 100% pomegranate juice from Amazon DE.

The pomegranate juice was an essential ingredient for John to cook Chicken Ottolenghi, a particular favourite, for Helen’s birthday dinner. It is one of the things we usually buy on visits to the UK. Only later did we discover just a couple of bottles in amongst all the 30% bottles in the Turkish shop in Saint Dié opposite the garden centre (where we had been looking for non-leaky Wellington boots for John).

old sapin qui pisse Raon-L’Etape post card

Before John started to prepare the chicken dish, the sun came out and we had a very pleasant walk along a shady forest track on part of the Kemberg massif we had not walked before. We followed an intriguing sign to Le sapin qui pisse. This turned out to be a fountain, which at an earlier date must have emerged for a pine tree that has since disappeared. They seem to have been popular forest features, and research revealed there is a better one near Raon l’Etape, which might make another interesting walk. After that, the chicken with its pomegranate juice flavouring was delicious, as was the coffee birthday cake indulgence.

Imprimerie – cuttlefish with carrot and citrus puree

We had continued with our Saturday evening set-menu dinners deliveries from l’Imprimerie, although most of the courses were less interesting, though larger, than those of his surprise menus at the restaurant. So we were pleased when restaurants were allowed to re-open in June and celebrated with lunch at l’Imprimerie on their first day, and enjoyed the more adventurous surprises, like the mushroom chawanmushi. They were hoping that in the evening they would get everyone served, replete and out before the 11 o’clock curfew, a pressure to which they were unaccustomed. The evening curfew ended on June 20, which was probably a relief for all restaurants. As well as worrying about the evening constraints, the waiter was having difficulty telling us about the wine, as he could not read the label on the back of the bottle; he confided that he now has glasses for reading but they steam up when he’s wearing his detested mask (an only too familiar problem!) so he’s not wearing them (glasses, not masks) at work. We, however, wallowed in the feeling of normal life, despite the masks.

Restaurants were only allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, with compulsory masks when not seated and no more than 6 at a table, so we were surprised that all the tables were in use at l’Imprimerie. However they are very well spaced, and it would previously have been possible to fit more tables in than they have. (They can only seat about 24 at the moment). A party of seven had obediently been accommodated on two well-distanced tables (though this meant there was noisy shouting between tables).

Chez Guth – glace de sapin

However, the 50% capacity rule was observed at Chez Guth, where we went the following week, taking a long detour as the usual road was closed (more yellow diversion signs). On arrival at the hillside chalet restaurant, we received a very warm welcome. They pride themselves on their foraged and seasonal ingredients, so were disconcerted (not to mention initially disbelieving) when John commented that it was still their old October menu on their website. So Madame checked and rang their website contact to complain bitterly as we chatted to chef at the end.

Frankenbourg – potato and broccoli balls

And the following week we ate at Toby’s favourite, the Frankenbourg, and toasted absent family and friends with whom we have enjoyed meals there over many years. The wine waiter/sommelier, who seemed a mere slip of a lad when we first went well over 20 years ago, has, like other male staff, got a little portly during lockdown, but the three wines he selected to accompany the meal were excellent (and he knows all about the wines, so has no problems trying to read labels!). Helen particularly liked the raspberry and pistachio dessert.

We enjoyed the drives almost as much as the meals, after having been restricted for so long in how far we could drive without a permitted reason. Before the deconfinement, the only longer drive had been to Epinal at the end of April to complete our post-Brexit residence permit applications at the Departmental Prefecture, which we decided was permitted as “administrative summons”. As we had produced all the required documentation for our previous permits, this trip merely involved queueing outside the Prefecture until being escorted to the relevant desks by a masked man with a list of appointments. There it was only a matter of handing over 2 recent photos and having fingerprints taken. It was a shame that no bars or coffee shops were open afterwards, but at least the Prefecture loos were available, before we drove back to wait a month or so for our permits to be posted. And we now have our new cards.

Some of you may remember they finally put a fibre internet connection into the village in 2018. But we are still over 700m from that junction box and still connected by copper wire. It allowed our internet connection speed to go from 2Mbps download to 18Mbps but upload still remained less than 1Mbps. In May John did some checking and discovered other internet providers were offering higher speeds so decided to switch. We now have a modern Livebox modem to replace the eight-year old modem and a 38/10Mbps connection, at a lower monthly cost. And, hopefully, in a couple of years we’ll have fibre to the house.

As we thus idle away the hours in Entre-deux-Eaux, the UK family news has been mixed. The Covid that Leila caught back in March has been acknowledged, after much physical fatigue and brain fog, to be long Covid, and in August she will have a telephone assessment by a nurse from the long Covid clinic. Occupational Health have suggested reducing her working hours further, possibly until Christmas, but at present there do not seem to be arrangements in place for the City Council to continue to pay full salaries to long Covid sufferers working fewer hours, which is a worry. But she has been trying to see friends and stay in touch with everyone despite the fatigue.

Toby, Rachel and Farrah recovered better from their bouts of Covid, and Toby is working on a new contract with Pret, which sounds very demanding. They had booked an August holiday in the south of France, so will be disappointed with the announced quarantine for travellers from France and may have to cancel.

However Leila was able to spend a weekend with them last month, collecting Jacob from Stella en route (and returning him on Sunday). She slept at our house. John’s sister, Ann, husband Derek, sons Steven and David along with Steven’s wife and their two young sons were all able to drive up to Letchworth that Saturday, and despite the cool weather enjoyed a great day together, with lots of hide and seek, gossip, games and feasting. We were sad to miss this family gathering, as it is such a long time since we saw everyone. But, as we read news of family and friends who have been so ill during this period, we really can’t grumble.

So we really hope it will not be too long before we are all able to meet up again. A bientôt!

Our unexpected kestrel visitors – first update

This is an update to the earlier post here describing the discovery Our unexpected kestrel visitors

The first two eggs hatched on 9 July. Unfortunately one of the first two chicks died.

The third and fourth eggs hatched on 10 July.

There are now two live video feeds and daily videos and photographs on this unexpected kestrel visitors web site

I have added two cameras, a TP-Link Tapo C100 in a box on the window sill and a motorised pan-and-tilt Tapo C200 above the nest. The original Logitech C270 is also above the nest pointing out of the window.

The kestrel seemed very suspicious of the constant red LEDs on the cameras so they have been turned off. I am not using the IR night mode either. The noise of the motors pan-and-tilt control of the Tapo C200 also seriously disturbed the kestrel.

I am feeding the Tapo camera feeds to Agent DVR software to control the timelapse photographs and videos and OBS Studio to control the live video Tapo feeds to YouTube. The YouTube which are then embedded in the website. The software is all running on my Win10 PC. I originally used a Raspberry Pi 4 for Agent DVR (after a lot of problems installing the software) but there were problems with the required graphics processing capabilities causing dropped frames.

Our unexpected kestrel visitors

The photographs and videos web site
https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/

Helen noticed little bits of polystyrene floating down one day when she was outside watering plants at the front of the house. I just thought a bird had found a bit of insulation.

In the meantime I’d seen a kestrel flying around, having not remembered seeing any here in the past.

Attic window viewed from the end of the potager

Then I remembered the polystyrene sheet I’d put behind the attic window to stop the crepi from being sprayed in when we had the outside walls redone. I went up to the attic, removed the wood which was holding the polystyrene sheet to the wall and saw a hole in the sheet and, through it, four eggs. A day or so later and Helen said she’d seen a bird with a white underside and fawn colouring flying out early one morning when she was gardening in the potager and then I saw the same a bit later when mowing. I’d not previously identified the eggs but on further internet checking I could now confirm that they probably were kestel eggs. I’d originally put a tripod near the compost heap in the hope of photographing the bird later in the day when it was cooler. I’d already told my sister I probably needed a tennis umpire’s chair to get high enough to see in to all of it properly.

Then, with no Euro football yesterday afternoon and too hot to do anything else outside, I wondered about setting up a camera to see if there was more than just the eggs. I didn’t think it was going to be possible to use my Neos webcam. But I wondered whether I could do something with my my old Samsung NC10 netbook? That originally had WinXP and we used it mainly for e-mails and web searching when travelling. But the hard disk died and when I replaced the disk I no longer had a copy of WinXP so installed Linux Mint. Again, that meant the NC10 was OK for use when travelling. But setting up a camera system was going to be a challenge as I’d no knowledge of what was available. I had a spare Logitech C270 webcam which I hoped I could use despite there not being any Linux drivers. So I spent an hour or more experimenting with download Linux camera programs just to see what might be possible. I’d originally thought of just trying to put up single image or possibly a video feed but then they would also need archive copies otherwise any activity might be missed. Then I though it might be better just to capture multiple images and either put them on a web site or combine them into a video. One of the camera programs I looked at had the ability to write files with different names which could be timestamps. I opted for one image per minute. So then it was a matter of automating the process. Not something I’d done before in Linux and it was a bit of a struggle as the process stopped running when the screensaver started. I didn’t manage to find the correct power setting and eventually just turned off the screensaver!

I ran a power cable to the far end of the attic so I could put the NC10 near to the window. I also decided to put the webcam in a box but didn’t have anything to hand except for one litre ice cream tubs. So  I made a hole in one side, just big enough for the camera lens and fixed the C270 in the box, and then made another hole for the lead out. I’d not looked through to see if there was more than eggs on the other side for a couple of days (and hoped they’d not been found by the stone marten which had played havoc with a neighbour’s chickens). The polystyrene was partially fixed by the crepi but I managed to put the box through a slight gap on the far side from the eggs, hoping I’d positioned it reasonably. I’d not checked before doing all the set-up, but the Wi-Fi signal was good enough to be able to connect the NC10 to our network and to be able to copy and process the image files on my computer.

Kestrel hen

Kestrel hen

About 30 mins later a bird appeared. So it confirmed we have kestrel guests, even though there is only one at a time visiting.

The programs all ran until midnight. Then, I’m not sure why, but there was a file-naming problem and the files were no longer in the expected directory. I eventually found them (and later renamed them and put them in the correct directory). I also simplified the filenames to the minimum, so hopefully that problem is solved? Converting the one-per-minute images into an AVI video wasn’t too much of a problem but I had to experiment with various settings to get reasonable file sizes.

I’ve now put some still images and the first video on a web site
https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/

kestrel chicks 17 July

Frosty fritillaries

We still have frosts most mornings and expect that to continue until the days of ice saints have passed in May. I was out this morning before the sun had completely melted the ice.

These fritillaries are from a few bulbs we planted many years ago. Most didn’t survive (possibly burrowing rodents eating the bulbs). But these are well established, making and spreading across the rough patch of field.

Click on the image below or here to go to the full web site

From scarlet hips to white damson blossom: Christmas 2020 to Easter 2021 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no1A.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are some links to photographs in the text;
clicking on the photographs will sometimes lead to
a larger selection of photographs

E2E in January snow

E2E in January snow

Over the last week of frosty nights and sunny days we have been enjoying the sight of white damson blossom and pink ornamental plum blossom. Looking out of the window this morning, it was impossible to distinguish the damson blossom from the white snow resting on the branches of all the trees.

In previous years we would have seen more blossom. But one of the casualties of the heavier snow back in January was our large walk-in fruit cage, which John and Alistair had constructed in 2011.

Snow on the fruit cage

The snow on top of it froze and its weight caused the horizontal wooden laths across the top to break and the netting to sag and split, bringing down the netting, wood, and snow onto the blackcurrant bushes. So when the weather was finer we knew we had to dismantle the whole cage for a complete rebuild. For the past few years the fruit crops have been steadily diminishing as the branches of the row of trees (some probably over 50 years old) outside the south of the cage got denser and blocked out more and more sunlight. Now was the ideal opportunity to either prune or fell those trees; we had hesitated to even prune previously lest cut branches fell on the cage and damaged it.

Cutting down the plum tree

Cutting down the plum tree

But now a neighbour, Jacky Georgeon, who we consulted, said straight away that he’d be happy to do the work, having done all the home-decorating he could, and he arrived with his tools a couple of days later. John was to be seen at a safe distance in the field with a rope round his waist from the biggest tree, guiding its fall as Jacky applied the final cuts to the 50 cm trunk. The tree subsided in slow motion, but still too fast for Helen to capture with her phone camera. Georgeon’s pal, Mickael, the assistant commune employee, brought his tractor-driven log splitter to do the final cutting up into lengths to stack for three or more years before they can be cut to smaller logs for the stove. With Mickael paid, and Jacky warmly thanked with whisky and a share of the wood, John busied himself, stacking the lengths and producing three cubic metres of wood chips for the garden from the many smaller branches. But alas, no line of pink and white blossom there this year.

However, the logs will come in useful once they are seasoned. The day after we told Jacky that we did not need to light our wood-burning stove very often, we realised that the underfloor heating was not working. Having learned how necessary it was to have an introduction to workmen, we quoted our friends Roger and Dorinda when ringing Fafin the Plumber, and such was the magic of their names that he came round a couple of hours later to assess the problem and later installed a new expansion tank. He was a bit concerned that he could hear too much air in the pipes and suggested we should leave a valve open upstairs for five days and top up the system to see if that improved the situation. All the controls are behind a bookcase, so we removed all the books from the shelves to move it. Only then did John notice that he had on the last occasion fitted some wheels to the bottom of the shelves, so we could move the bookcase out without having to remove all the books first! The books remain on the floor as, although the heating is working, there seems to be no sign of a leak and there is probably another, as yet, unidentified problem.

SantaAnd now a quick glimpse back at Christmas, which seems a long time ago. We picked all the scarlet hips in the orchard as we had no holly for decorations, along with aromatic sage, pine branches, cones, dried hydrangea flowers, and branches of spindleberry fruits and decorated windowsills and added a wreath to the front door. John treated himself to a curtain of lights for the big French windows, where they lit up the strings of Christmas cards. Christmas cards and letters were extra special to both write and receive at the end of a very quiet year for everyone, and we enjoyed leaving them up till the end of January, and the curtain of lights until the official start of spring (but then the plastic Santas climbing up house walls and letter boxes around the village hung around for just as long, slowly deflating). Christmas Day itself was quiet, the carols from Kings College were a pleasure, and the village seemed deserted when we went for a short walk, though there were plenty of cars on drives, so perhaps everyone was sleeping off their festive fare. Our own Christmas fare was a bit different this year, featuring guinea fowl, ice cream log and panettone. Our gifts to each other have kept us entertained since then. John ordered a big pile of books for Helen, and he is still experimenting on the occasional clear nights with his new motorised tripod mount used to help photographing the night sky.

Early morning sun

Early morning sun and snow

January seemed a long and dreary month, with dull weather, but as the hips and pine branches wilted and dropped, we brightened up the living room with purchases of pots of amaryllis, orchids and hyacinths. We also missed all the seasonal convivial French reunions and feasts. The Entre-deux-Eaux village council postponed their meal for the over-sixty-fives until 27 March and then had to change it from a lively gathering with music and dancing between courses, to a home delivery sometime after 2pm.

The village New Year meal delivery

Our doorbell rang around 5pm (it must have been hard to estimate how long it would take to pack up and distribute nearly 100 meals). The first items which our neighbour Claudine handed over were four half bottles of very nice wines! It was a shame not to catch up on local gossip, but John appreciated the lack of noise, especially the enthusiastic musical contribution of castanet man. We missed the mayor filling glasses at the end with his potent home-distilled pear or plum liqueur.

Sadly the subject of Covid cannot be avoided in an update. In early January Toby, Rachel and Stella all had Covid and Toby sounded very unwell. Fortunately Rachel’s eldest daughter was at home and able to help with cooking and looking after Jacob and Farrah. One Sunday afternoon in early January, Leila was contacted, like others from the Coroner’s Office, and offered a vaccination appointment if she could get to a health centre north of Nottingham in two hours time. Presumably they had spare Pfizer vaccine to use up due to missed appointments? She had unpleasant side-effects for several days, including breathlessness, but we were glad she had some protection, as not all her work could be done from home. Sadly it was not enough to protect her from a new strain of the virus, as yet unidentified, which she got in March and from which she is still very tired over four weeks later. As a rare case she will contribute to a study, beginning with a blood sample to establish antibodies produced.

But as friends in the UK were having their first vaccine doses, you probably heard about the problems over here. The EU were slow to place orders for member countries, despite rather shrill accusations from Ursula von der Leyen about Britain preventing exports. The French had been hoping to develop their own vaccine, so were a bit dismissive of other efforts. People here are also more hesitant about vaccines in general after previous cautions (from compulsory Hepatitis B for children in the 1990s which was stopped as there was apparent, never proved, correlation with multiple sclerosis and one of the 2009 H1N1 bird flu vaccines which was linked to narcolepsy) and President Macron made negative pronouncements about the efficacy of the Oxford AstraZeneca one, which did not help confidence.

When the programme was extended from care homes to over 75s in February, Helen tackled the clunky booking system. The website always said there were no available appointments, but advised ringing up instead. The phone answer system always said there were no appointments available, but try the website. Then one morning the phone had no such message, but kept playing the same bit of music for 20 mins until someone replied, and efficiently booked Helen’s appointments for both the first and second doses.

In March, the vaccination programme was extended to the 65-74 age group who had co-morbidities. Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines, which were originally reserved for the under 65s, then allowed for all, and then reserved only for the over 55s, were distributed to doctors’ surgeries. Given the problems with the main online vaccination system, and despite not being eligible, John put in a request to our doctor to be added to his list for the time when the eligibility list was widened. Surprisingly, John was offered an end-of-day appointment a week or so later. Unfortunately, like other EU countries, France then suspended the AZ vaccine use over a period that included John’s appointment.

Meanwhile, Helen had her second dose in a hall behind the Town Hall in St Dié. The nurse there was talking about the forthcoming move to a much larger sports hall on the outskirts of St Dié where they would also have more doctors and nurses and be able to double the vaccination rate. At this point as Covid cases were mounting in France, hospitals were having to transfer patients to other parts of the country, vaccine distribution volumes increased with the addition of the Moderna vaccine. One Friday the booking phone line was again answered, and John was offered his first appointment three days later on the Monday in the new location together with a date a month later for the second.

The new vaccination centre

The new vaccination centre (spot John)

That Monday turned out to be the first day in the new hall, so was a bit chaotic with patients not sitting in any order and doctors having difficulty locating their victims for preliminary interviews (though the nurses of course got their clients organised and sitting in treatment order for the actual vaccinations). Complicating matters were the inevitable mayor, entourage, reporters and photographers necessary on such occasions. We appear in some publicity photos, or at least our legs do. John was expecting it to be the Moderna vaccine but it turned out to be Pfizer.

A day after that, Macron announced a third French lockdown. So as Radio 4 broadcasts interviews with people excited over the easing of English restrictions, we embark on increased French restrictions (somewhat farcically, the form went through several revisions in a few days as various anomalies and simplifications were made). However, despite being more than 30 km away, we will still be able to go to Epinal later in April to complete our post-Brexit residence permits applications, giving photographs and fingerprints, if we tick the box on the reasons-for-leaving-home form marked administrative summons which cannot be carried out remotely.

We were very sad to learn during this period of the death of our good neighbour, Danielle Laine in her care home from what sounds like a heart attack. Our neighbour Danielle Barbe, who had visited her very recently, rang us that lunch time, and we realized why the church bells had been tolling. They tolled again a few days later for her funeral in the village church. We stood outside in masks as her coffin was borne in. There were quite a few people outside, mainly younger, and they all followed the coffin inside, although we went and sat on the bench under the tree by the road. A lot of the older people who would have known her well were not there though. On the way home Helen stopped to talk to one who was standing on her doorstep as the final bells tolled, and she sounded really glad to talk to someone. She lives on her own and has used canes to walk ever since we’ve known her, and was a good friend of Danielle’s. She said how few people in the village she knew these days. We shall remember Danielle for her lively conversation and readiness to help us during the last thirty years, although we know she had found life increasingly burdensome without her husband Pierre who died in September 2019. Their daughter Annick has been renovating her parents’ house, though we don’t think that she and her husband have moved in yet. The village bells also tolled for another village character, the ninety-year-old former military man, Gaston. Again it was not a Covid death and his mistress and her husband had been looking after him over recent months (which sounds very French).

However, it turns out that Covid is not the only current health threat. A few days ago we received an e-mail from the mairie which was headed Chenilles urticantes: prévention. It was a warning from the Regional Health Council of the Grand Est (oddly without any identifying images) about these nasty-sounding processionary caterpillars, which nest in pine and oak trees and descend and process in lines of up to a hundred in search of sunnier spots. Their hairs can be picked up and spread by the wind, and can cause intense itching, rashes, and sharp skin flare-ups. They can also irritate eyes.

A few days ago when John came in from the field and orchard where he had been leaning on the ground photographing fritillaries, daffodils and cowslips he complained of very itchy arms, but hadn’t seen any hairy processions. And talking of itching, Helen is hoping that whatever insect bit her last year has met a dreadful fate after she was covered in infected spots which caused her problems throughout the summer, autumn visits to the dermatologist and a dull rash that still itches.

But during the dormant period none of this deterred us from agreeable short walks in January and February and garden jobs in March. The compacted snow was quite treacherous on well trodden paths and the roads, but when the sun was bright, despite the cold wind in the sub zero temperatures, it was enjoyable walking across untrampled fields and along little-used paths. One morning three graceful deer skimmed across the snow as we glanced out of our bedroom window, and when we walked across that field their tracks were clear among the bird tracks.

Sahara sand in the sky

Sahara sand in the sky

Rainbow

the rainbow’s end

Another day the sky was an extraordinary yellow colour, caused by sand from the Sahara, and one afternoon, after rain, we could see from the window a rainbow which ended in the field opposite. But we did not take our spades and dig up the crock of gold.

One morning we drove a bit further afield to the hills on the other side of Saulcy, and started our walk at the Col d’Anozel. It felt good to be walking in the wooded hills beyond the village, but we discovered that a lot of trees had fallen during recent high winds, including the previous night.

Path blocked by trees

Someone had been earlier with a chain saw and the lower path had been cleared, but a higher path still had a lot of trees across it, which made scrambling over under and round them awkward, and we missed a track down to the starting point, so the walk was longer and steeper than intended! On a second walk at the Col d’Anozel we discovered that someone had left their picnic rubbish behind them – oyster shells and squeezed lemon halves. So very French!

Easter amuse bouche

Easter amuse bouche

And talking of French food, a great pleasure has been the discovery that our favourite restaurant, l’Imprimerie, is prepared to deliver their weekend menu as far as Entre-deux-Eaux from the book village some 47 km away. Each weekend chef Morgan and his staff prepare a three-course meal for a mere 20 euros, transport included, to be re-heated on delivery. So we have put in a weekly order, and after months of wearing old clothes have been dressing up for Saturday night dinner (Sunday over Easter). The menus have been very varied, highlights being his courgette and fish starter, Tom kha kai Thai chicken soup, buttery skate, beef cheek tagine, pear and almond tartlette, and his Easter special including the starter of St Jacques and sweet potato with an orange and almond sauce and his “Easter egg” dessert of a white chocolate “shell” with creamy “white” and kumquat “yolk”, not to mention the tasty nibbles before and after.

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

We were ready for our Easter special as we had been rushing to complete current tasks before the forecast change in weather from sun to snow and rain. John had been reconstructing and strengthening the collapsed fruit cage and had just finished attaching metal rails rather than wooden laths across the top of the sturdy upright wooden posts. Helen had finished weeding the larger flower bed, scattering flower seeds, watering and covering with some of the woodchips. The vegetable patch was, by now, rotavated, with beds marked out and paths between beds covered in more of the woodchips. So far onion, leek, parsnip and carrot seeds have been sown in the beds, with lettuce and rocket in the new lightweight cold frame (in fact it was so lightweight that it blew apart and scattered in high winds one night, but John has re-glued and weighted it down). In the potting area at the rear of a barn are loo rolls of broad bean seedlings, and recycled plastic punnets of onion and various flower seeds; not yet visible are the more recently sown beans and peas. But they will all wait till the ice saints of May have passed before being planted out. And when the fruit cage has its netting back on, we have pots of honeyberries (lonicera caerulea), blueberries and a tayberry to plant as replacements for the old blackcurrants and prickly worcesterberries.

Hot cross buns

It is perhaps as well that snow and rain have temporarily stopped outdoor work, as one of John’s Achilles tendons has reacted (perhaps to a lot of standing on step ladders) by giving up supporting him. So it is back to the computers in the attic and John’s family tree, Helen’s dwindling pile of Christmas books, evenings of crime and football on TV and the last of the Easter chocolate. Our other festive treats of John’s home-made hot cross buns have, alas already been consumed.

Till we meet again, we waft our best wishes in print across the Channel!

The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, 21 December 2020

Click here to see larger versions of the photographs in a separate tab

 

I had planned to take a series of photographs of Saturn and Jupiter in the days before and after 21 December as the planets appeared to move closer together and then as they moved apart.

However, despite the sky being reasonably clear for several evenings before 21 December, there was always a layer of low clouds over the Vosges themselves. By dusk the elevation of the planets was only 10 degrees about the horizon and getting lower. The planets often appeared and the disappeared in that cloud but were often still covered in a light haze. On the day of the conjunction, 21 December, and for the following days, there was thick obscuring cloud. The next time I saw them (and last, because of clouds for the following week) was briefly on 26 December.

I took several hundred photos in total. Above is one from each of the nights Thursday-Sunday before the actual conjunction on the Monday and one on the following Friday. The second was taken at 1725, so in the dusk light. The third was taken just before 1800 and shows clouds. The fourth shows the closest I captured the planets with some moons of both Saturn and Jupiter and I’ve added a screenshot from the free Stellarium planetarium software http://stellarium.org/ which helps identify the moons. Saturn and the rings weren’t separately identifiable and just appeared as an oval (the 26 December photo is the best).

I was using my 75-300mm lens at 250-300mm. I tried different exposures as the planets seemed over-exposed, but that made no significant difference so I must be at the limit of resolution of the sensor/lens image for that length telephoto. I had to focus manually as autofocus does not work on many cameras for small objects at a distant near infinity (for autofocus the camera needed to be able to focus either side of the correct focus point). When turned on my camera was set to go to an “infinity” point (the setting is 999.9m) which gives a good depth of field but the primary focus is not at infinity (the latest top-of-the-range Olympus DSLR do have a new special Starry Sky autofocus, which reportedly works). The other problem was either the low haze or fine high cloud making the images fuzzy. I’ve since seen photos on an Olympus web site where someone used a 400mm lens and the rings and planet were separately identified.

Geminid meteor shower – 14 December 2020

A Geminid meteor

The one Geminid meteor

The sky was cloudy when I tried to photograph some of the Geminid meteor shower on 14 Dec. After midnight I set up my  camera with a 7.5mm fisheye lens in one of the nearby fields. I adjusted it to take 120 30s exposures automatically with a one second gap between each exposure to allow the file to be saved.

I’d expected to see perhaps a dozen shooting star images in the resulting photographs over that hour, especially as I’d seen one while I was setting up the tripod. I was wrong. And attached is the only other one in that hour-long set I captured where the clouds cleared enough to see the sky (and I wonder how many I missed in those one second gaps!) It just got gloomier and gloomier. But at least I could just wait indoors in the warm as it was near zero Centigrade outside.

I also made a time-lapse video of the photos. The meteor shows at about 3 seconds.

Autumn colours, hazards and small pleasures around Entre-deux-Eaux September – November 2020

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2020no3.pdf (five A4 pages)

There are some links to photographs in the text;
clicking on the photographs will sometimes lead to
a larger selection of photographs

Today is the twenty-second day of the second confinement in France (which is starting to sound like sounding like a new date system similar to the post-Revolutionary one). As before, it is stricter here than in the UK, with certificates to complete before leaving the house. It felt borderline illicit earlier this week when walking well beyond the daily permitted one kilometre and one hour from our house.

"Ladybird" Attestation - autumn 2020

simplified Attestation

But it was after ticking the box for collecting essential medical supplies rather than the box for exercising and dog-walking, and the nearest pharmacy is in the next village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe. Since the end of August the road to Saulcy has been closed for internet fibre installation to Mandray and resurfacing works (for some reason the fibre branching to E2E which takes the same route as far as the crossroads is scheduled for 2022/3), and so the walk across the fields and through the woods has been a much shorter route for us than the road deviation.

The original French proposal was for lock-down until 2 December; a review last week confirmed that it would not end before that, and there has been talk of extending it further. The restrictions here are significant. General travel is not allowed and leaving the house is only permitted for a short list of specific activities. As well as the printed version, the French TousAntiCovid phone app allows generation of a certificate with a QR code. Either can be shown when requested. We have seen mobile police checkpoints on the main roads stopping cars. 

Lidl notice of items they cannot sell

Only food, tobacco and computer equipment retailers, garages, pharmacies and laundries are allowed to open. DIY and hardware stores can open but only for items not on the restricted list. Electrical/white goods shops are shut, as are hairdressers. Florists and garden centres are shut although they were allowed to stay open until Toussaint, 1 November, for the sale of chrysanthemums (la fleur des morts) to honour the dead. Supermarkets are restricted in what they can sell and have had to fence off or rearrange areas where they usually have flowers, books, white goods, cosmetics etc. Home delivery/click and collect is available for restricted items to support local businesses. Street markets remain open. Hotels can open for “professional” travellers but food is only available in room service.

But a headache for the government here, as in the UK, is what to do about family gatherings at Christmas and New Year, and commerce associations are pushing for re-opening before Black Friday. Amazon France has now said it will postpone Black Friday offers until 4 December after French shops have probably reopened on 1 December (although it will still be possible to use Amazon Germany, Italy, Spain and UK – so two Black Fridays!) President Macron will give a further update next week.

At present the government is limiting cross-border flow. There are two-week self-isolation periods for going into the UK from France and again coming back into France (along with other certificates/Covid-19 testing). So with all the restrictions and uncertainties, we are regretfully preparing to spend our first Christmas in Entre-deux-Eaux for eighteen years.

Of course, in the good old days, we used to rush over here in the Christmas holidays. The first Christmas we spent here in 1990 (after we bought the house at the end of October) was memorable. The electrician had just finished his work, and the plaster was still wet on the walls, but the roofer had given up when the snow started, so had not put flashing round the chimneys. So when we lit the range in the kitchen and turned on the new electric radiators, the heat melted the snow round the chimney and the roof leaked. But we were intrepid in those days. It is hard to remember the days of no mobile phones, and we had not yet got a house phone, so it was a question of marching down to the village phone box and making agitated calls. The fact that we did not yet have a fridge was less of a problem, as we just buried food outside in the snow, although, with hindsight, it is surprising it was not devoured by animals! We all four slept in a dry room downstairs (which later became the dining room), taking care not to fall into the hole in the floorboards we discovered under a sofa which had been left. And we kept warm by and cooked meals including Christmas dinner on the sturdy range in the kitchen.

Thirty years later it should be a more comfortable and warm Christmas here, but it will so sad not to see the family (though perhaps no worse than having to spend our time in isolation in the UK and still being unable to see them). We hope they will be able to get together, with Leila collecting Jacob and taking him down to Toby’s on 18 December.

With Brexit bumbling on, we have had to apply for replacement permanent residence cards with us classified under the withdrawal agreement terms, which allows us more flexibility in travelling in Europe, with no need for additional visas, etc. For us the exchange should be a formality as we have ten-year cards which they will just renew – although we will probably need to go to the Departmental capital in Epinal as the new cards need digital fingerprints in the chip. Like many things, the application has been made and is being processed. Our health cover will continue to be paid by the UK and we will be able to get European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC).

For UK residents it is seems probable that travel in the EU will become more restrictive after 31 December 2020 including 90-in-180 day period limitations, stamped passports, border checks, International Driving Permits, green cards for international car insurance, travel insurance (EHIC for UK citizens has yet to be agreed), stricter pet passport regulations and, from 2022/3 onwards, possibly paying for a European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) pass.

While Covid restrictions were lifted we enjoyed a few low-key activities in September and October. There may have been great excitement in Nottingham at the discovery of the Banksy graffiti of a girl with a hula-hoop (and a long queue to take selfies in front of it), but we caught up on all the sponsored street art in Saint Dié. After the war Saint Dié turned down proposals for a Le Corbusier designed town centre, to be replace the buildings dynamited by the retreating Germans. Consequently the main street is not very memorable and the blocks of flats, schools and community centres that were built around the centre are solid but not particularly attractive. So the colourful paintings that have been commissioned in recent years have definitely brightened up the featureless buildings.

N°3 UN AMOUR IMPOSSIBLE

N°3 Un amour impossible

There are a few that we regularly pass, like the hen and the cat, Un amour impossible, on the walls of the former library (which before that was the bishop’s palace), but many are in the social housing areas we seldom visit. So, armed with a map, descriptions and John’s camera we set out on a couple of sunny days to find all twenty-two.

N°14 l’observateur

N° 11 Le Renard et le corbeau (+ link to all street art)

John had initially been attracted by the boy with a magnifying glass L’observateur perched above some garage roofs close to the market square. Helen’s new favourite was the large fantasy/story-book Le Renard and le corbeau (spot the other animals!) on the end of a block of flats on the heights of Saint-Roch. It took us a long time to find the last, which turned out to be much smaller; Expulsion NDDL hidden in a doorway recess and N° 22(?) on the corner of the main shopping street.

Filled lemon chocolate

As most restaurants had put scrupulous distancing and masking precautions into effect, we continued to enjoy occasional meals at our favourite restaurants. Having tried out a few new ones and been disappointed in the food, or alarmed by lack of precautions at one, and the throngs of unmasked tourists around another in Colmar, we reverted to our favourites and celebrated John’s birthday with lunch at lImprimerie just three days before President Macron announced the second lock-down. We had asked in advance whether it would be possible for chef Morgan to make the delicious chocolate cream-filled lemon we’d once had, – so that day everyone was served a lemon dessert, though not everyone had Joyeux Anniversaire written a little unevenly in chocolate on their plate. The service is fairly informal at l’Imprimerie, with chef enjoying bringing food to his guests now that there is the open cooking fire and preparation area in the middle of the room. However, the Frankenbourg prides itself on correct service and always has some closely supervised trainees. Since we cut down on carbohydrates at home, the occasional bread roll and butter is a real treat when out, but Helen distressed a young male trainee who was meant to be clearing the table of every trace of crumbs after the quail main course as she grabbed the remains of her roll – how could he now be seen to be doing his job correctly?

Entre-deux-Eaux decided not to restart the monthly oldies champagne, cards and chat (presumably because of the large numbers), but the Ste Marguerite pensioners committee decided that they would resume activities at the end of September, with rigorous precautions. So Helen enjoyed three mind-stimulating remue meninges sessions before lockdown. There are usually around twelve people there, but the elegant ninety-year old decided not to risk it, and those shielding sick partners stayed away leaving a core of six, which was very manageable. The room now has a locked gate and door, so other people do not wander in and contaminate it between authorised sessions, our temperature is taken before we enter, and we wear our masks, have our own hand gel, and even wipe down table tops.

The annual International Geography Festival (FIG) was held in Saint Dié at the beginning of October, presumably with stringent precautions. This year the subject was Climate. The weather duly obliged, with a Saturday night of very high winds which, we read in the newspaper, damaged (shock-horror) the catering tent. On Sunday a professor from the Sorbonne was due to pronounce on the weighty topic of whether breakfast was necessary, so perhaps they were forced to conclude it was not, at least that day. The weather had also not propitious for the delayed French Open tennis in Paris, with complaints from the international players about how cold it was. They have long forgotten compulsory games lessons in all weathers at school! One happier person might have been Entre-deux-Eaux’s mayor who at the same time was saying that there wasn’t a problem with Covid in our commune, just with the low water levels in the reservoirs. (Helen had had to go down to the mairie to get a pension form signed and stamped attesting to her continued existence).

You will have read the shocking October news of the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in Paris and the killings in Nice which have shaken everyone out of their Covid preoccupation. But on a lighter note of French national news, have you read about the autoroute arrest on the A20 leading to Paris of a man driving at a speed of 249 km/h. A new record. His excuse was that he wanted to make sure he was home before the curfew!

Back in the small world of Entre-deux-Eaux, our neighbour Danielle Laine, made her long awaited move to a brand-new purpose-built care home in Plainfaing. When Helen visited her with our next door neighbour (also Danielle), she showed us round enthusiastically, then we had drinks and cake with the warden and the six current residents outside on the terrace. The warden had been an au pair in England, so had plenty to say and the others chipped in apart from the one who had not put in his hearing aids and the wife who had suffered a stroke. Mme Laine was clearly enjoying the constant company (and flirting outrageously with the deaf man) after being so lonely following the death of her husband. Two of the ladies hadn’t settled and wanted to go back to their own homes, so she was trying to talk them out of it as their families have made it clear that they don’t want them to return as they keep falling.

black funghi

autumn colours across the valley

But at the end of October it was back to lock-down (although, more humanely here, visiting relatives in care homes is not forbidden). So it has been back to the small pleasures. John continues to photograph the autumn colours, and the flora and fauna in the nearby fields and woods, though yesterday’s fungi were miserably wilted and black. We had an invasion of hundreds of different coloured and spotted ladybirds. Helen’s pleasure is books, including books about books like the new Burning the Books and the fascinating novel Book woman of Troublesome Creek about a nineteen-year old pack horse (or mule in her case) librarian in an impoverished mountain area of Kentucky who is also one of the few blue-skinned people, who faced a lot of prejudice at that time. In the evenings we seem to have watched a lot of football and crime (including one series, Beyond appearances or Au-dela des apparences, set around the Col de la Schlucht near here).

cattle and farmhouse

And of course there are those one kilometre radius walks, mainly to the north of the house, where we have seen a lot of evidence of boars digging up strips of field by night. A few days ago, on Armistice Day, we did our best to walk to the south for a change, crossing fields and streams (one bridge has collapsed), avoiding the hefty tan coloured cattle (definitely not cows) who emit fearsome bellows from time to time and line up by the flimsy looking wire barriers to watch our passage with lugubrious interest. Unfortunately there were more cattle in another field we had hoped to cross, so we took a road detour towards a different track. At this point one of the village hunts shifted their focus and cars to the woods just in front of us. Armistice Day is a public holiday here, and the Vosges department had just obtained a derogation from the Covid restrictions to allow hunting boar and deer in cases of damage to forests and agriculture. We soon heard shots, so, as one can never be too sure of their aim in the afternoon after a boozy lunch, we prudently retreated from our detour, only to hear the shouts and barking dogs of a rival hunt in the other direction (around the World War 1 military cemetery). So we gave up and walked back past the watching cattle to the safer activity of gardening. You might have thought that shooting would be considered inappropriate on Armistice Day. The nocturnal boar diggings continue.

Spindleberry fruits

Alistair has just sent some photos of the Christmas lights he is putting up outside to cheer up their neighbours. That’s something else we will miss this Christmas as all our lights and decorations have drifted to Letchworth over the years (and their sale is currently on the prohibited list here). And the flamboyant crimson spindle fruits are now fading on their branches. However we do have a good collection of candles here, which usually only get lit during power cuts. So it will have to be traditional greenery, berries and candles here! And maybe the amaryllis and hyacinths we planted earlier will bloom for Christmas.