Barbecues, riots and the romantic Rhine: Everyday life in and around Entre-deux-Eaux, February to July 2023

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2023no2
.pdf (eight A4 pages)

And few photographs of
Boppard, the Rhine, Schloss Stolzenfels, and other castles and the
Chagall stained-glass windows at St Stephan’s Church, Mainz

On evenings in our tranquil French village, we watch a lot of crime dramas. Our images of the deprived suburbs of Paris come from dramas like Engrenages (or Spiral), with their desolate backgrounds to the crimes tackled by Captain Laure Berthaud, Gilou, Tintin et al. We were on holiday in Koblenz (more about that later) at the end of June when the rioting broke out across towns and cities of France following the killing of seventeen year old Nahel Merzouk by a traffic police officer. So we did not see the TV images of Nanterre, to the west of Paris, but could picture the scenes of anger and violence.

At a distance, we read about the burning of cars and attacks on government buildings spreading to other towns and cities in France, the closest to Entre-deux-Eaux being in Strasbourg and Colmar, though we later learned that there had been a few cars burned in Saint Dié too, as young people (mainly of North African descent) showed their anger against police and government.

Earlier in the month we had met up in the centre of Strasbourg for a peaceful lunch by the canal with friends who live outside the town. After the events in Paris, their friend who lives near the cathedral rang to warn them not to come back into town as she had been so frightened during a night of rioting, close to all the explosions of firecrackers, tear gas grenades and shouting. And a shoe shop owner described how she had managed to close the shop and get the protective grilles down in time, although tear gas came in round the door and filled the shop, but she could not leave because of the rioting, so had to take refuge in the cellar, sealing its door against the tear gas. Other shops had their windows broken and goods pillaged and there were fires set alight.

When we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux from Koblenz, we did not hear much horror in the village over the killing of a teenager by police. He, after all, was from the feared banlieux or suburbs, whose youngsters of North African descent are perceived as a constant threat to civilised society. Previous violence and destruction on the streets of Paris and other towns by the Gilets Jaunes pension protestors, who seem to be mainly white, while deplored, had not created the same level of aversion and fear.

Local sympathy was not with the youths of the banlieux but rather with the mayor of L’Hay les Roses, whose house and family in the southern suburbs of Paris were attacked by protestors with a burning car. People throughout the country were encouraged to show their support for him by assembling peacefully at midday at their town halls. On her way to the nearby pharmacy and post office in Saulcy, Helen saw about twenty people gathered around their mayor in his sash on the steps of the mairie there, while a hundred were reported to have gathered in Saint Dié. Far more money came flooding in to support the mayor of L’Hay les Roses, than did in support of the bereaved family of Nahel Merzouk. So much for Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Helen remains more troubled by the counter-productive destruction of libraries and schools than of parked cars.

The situation continued to simmer. Here there have been minor deterrents to village rioting and rampaging. When John went to get petrol for the car and to fill up a can for the ride-on lawn mower, a prefectural notice on the fuel pump forbade the filling of cans (potentially for Molotov cocktails?) Also we could not buy private fireworks for Bastille Day (though we do in fact possess some elderly bangers). Because of the sécheresse or drought, there was also another prefectural order forbidding firework celebrations where forests were within 200m. Would our village celebrations on the evening of 13 July be modified?

A couple of weeks before Nahel’s killing you would have seen a very different image of French life if you had investigated the sounds of mirth and merriment emanating from a nearby copse encircling a pond. No, it was not the day of a teddy bears’ picnic, but was the day the pensioners of Sainte Marguerite have their annual barbecue. It is a few years since we have been to one of these bucolic feasts, and everyone was looking a bit more battered by life. The former club president, amiably clutching his glass of sangria, has retired (but was toasted for continuing to lend his fishing pond for the feasting), the new president had both his knees bandaged, the sporty cyclist was on crutches after a hip replacement, and the elegant 86 year old at our table was knocking back a small heart-shaped pill, one of her ten daily regime.

The men in aprons masterminding the BBQs were a new generation of cooks, but there were still a couple of the founding members of the group serving the food. The impromptu choir serenading the former president were old faithfuls, but the comedian was a more recent vintage (though we still failed to understand the punchlines). The tent was larger than the old one, which was just as well as there must have been fifteen or so tables of 8-10 merrymakers. Its shade as welcome, but it was not challenged by rain this year. The leisurely lunch lasted about five hours.

People had already bagged their seats and some were queuing for their glass of sangria when we arrived, but members of the games and the brain-teaser groups shuffled along the hard benches to make room for us, then found an extra plastic chair for John to preside at the head of the table. He had to take care not to tip back on the uneven ground and join the fish in the pond.

One of the new chefs, with an unreal looking tan, confided that he had personally made the pâté which would be served first, with salad. We had all brought our own plates, cutlery, glasses, water, wine and coffee, so set them out in readiness. As we had only recently returned from England, we fielded the usual questions about the coronation and Queen Camilla, before agreeing that the pâté was indeed very peppery.

The BBQ pork, when it appeared after the sangria and nibbles and then pâté, was perfectly cooked, and served with potato salad and grated carrot. Large boudins blancs (white sausages) appeared next. After an interval, during which John showed our companions photos of the kestrel chicks on our windowsill following a query, slices of pork belly bacon were brought round, followed by large chunks of Brie and baguette. Things went quiet after that, so people started sharing the coffee they had brought. Then a car made its way cautiously on the narrow track around the pond bearing the desserts – the îles flottantes would never have withstood the heat if they had sat around while we ate our way through the previous spaced-out courses.

Age, however, had caught up with the pensioners at our table, and we were all (except John in his chair) finding the wooden benches extremely hard. So after the new president had circulated with his unlabelled bottle of spirits (probably an overproof pear or plum liqueur, drunk neat by the men and drizzled over a sugar lump by the women), our table started packing away their plates, cutlery and glasses and making their farewells. So we are not sure when the revelry finally ended at other tables.

There have also been the annual events, which we have written about before, like the Entre-deux-Eaux flea market on the football pitch at the beginning of June, and the meal and amateur drama production in Saulxures village in February. “Oui”, the drama at the latter was about the frustrations of a wedding planner and a young engaged couple, and was performed after the cast had brought round large plates of food to the audience (instead of leaving them to queue up as in previous years).

A novelty this year in February was the Chorale and Karaoke in the village hall. Unlike the last concert in the village hall, this one was packed (was it the lure of karaoke?) The Chorale opened with gospel songs in English, which sound rather different with no “h”s pronounced and “th”s transformed to “z”s as in cartoons of the French. One singer in the back row was particularly expressive, swaying and waving his wine glass. But there was also a very good young female soloist. In the interval Helen was introduced to one of the singers who was keen to have some English conversation practice (her reading skills are very good, but speaking is more difficult – we have included practice pronouncing “h”s and “th”s during a few afternoons a month). Helen left before the second half began, so cannot report on village karaoke talent.

Our neighbour, Daniele, had accompanied Helen to the concert, as a diversion before her forthcoming shoulder operation. Unfortunately the unexpectedly large audience may have been the source of the Covid which then kept her isolated in her hospital room, unable to receive visitors or leave. Helen saw her husband on the road one afternoon, and asked how she was. He was very perturbed as he had been looking everywhere for her missing cherished cat; he dared not tell his wife, as their previous cat had been run over last time when she was away convalescing from the operation on her other shoulder. It was a great relief to learn next day that he had eventually heard a famished miaowing in their cellar (where he had already looked). Soon after that, Helen and another friend drove over to Baccarat to see Daniele in her convalescent home, the grandly named Chateau Baccarat, where an entertainer was strolling the corridors playing an accordion. Daniele had acquired the nickname la marcheuse, as, being the most (or possibly only) mobile resident, she would walk several times round the grounds each day. We admired the grounds as we joined her for a circuit.

It was around this time in mid-March that our thoughts turned to the garden and we discovered that the floor of the small potting area inside, at the back of the second barn, was covered in white polystyrene granules. The lerots (dormice) had been spending the winter months tunnelling through the polystyrene insulation above the plasterboard ceiling and it was dropping down between the unplastered board edges. So John took down the plasterboard, and put down little plastic bags of pink rodenticide pellets both in the potting area and nearby boiler room (where the pests had nibbled the glass fibre in the casing). Helen swept the shelves clean (taking the opportunity to throw out quite a lot of accumulated containers), and the industrial vacuum cleaner gathered a huge quantity of polystyrene granules. It was gratifying to see the bags of pink grain torn open, pellets scattered, and later to discover corpses.

On the more pleasant subject of human rather than rodent nibbling, one March day we decided to try a newish restaurant, Le Valtrivin in Hachimette, Alsace. Its website explains that its name is a contraction of Valeria, Tristan and Vin (or wine) and that the chef Valeria is of Russian origin, while Tristan is an experienced sommelier. John was intrigued by their huge wine list – 54 pages of wines. This seemed at odds with the dated, bare dining room in a modest hotel and bar, which the couple were running unaided. It still had the feel of those cheap French hotels where back in the seventies and eighties one would turn up unannounced around 4 o’clock to get a room and meal on a first-come, first-served basis. Valeria’s food, as in the old days, was well presented, though not very exciting. We only wanted a glass of wine each but there was no wine-by-the-glass in the list to choose from. We asked, and Tristan was prepared to open any of his many bottles, though without quoting a price. The local Ammerschwihr bottle of pinot gris he opened for our two glasses was good as was a bottle of red he opened for a single glass (and both were reasonable when the bill came) and the remaining wine in the bottles was offered to another table. Perhaps his bottles were all discounted ends of series (the couple had previously run TrioVino, a wine-tasting for tourists enterprise in Lyon).

It was while we were relaxing over a meal at our favourite restaurant, L’Imprimerie (which alas has increased its prices considerably) that we began to discuss how to celebrate Helen’s 80th birthday. Helen had always said she didn’t think the excitement of 80th birthday parties was a good idea, as various friends of her mother had died shortly after their celebrations. However, it felt a long time since we had seen many of our friends, what with Covid and other health problems, so we decided not to be superstitious and began to make plans for a “do” in mid-May.

As a result of lots of e-mails and our preparatory trip to Letchworth over Easter, on 12 May the Train Gang and partners met up for the first time in several years, and in the evening joined family and helpers for tasty tapas-style dishes and interesting-looking cocktails at a restaurant in Baldock. The next day we were delighted by how many people made it to Letchworth for the party, despite rail strikes and miserable weather. Those who braved the garden was grateful that Alistair ignored our firm instructions not to get logs or risk lighting a fire in one of the gazebos! Indoors, John, Leila and Ann continued to be busy in the kitchen, while the rest of us gossiped over food and drinks and Toby and Derek kept the younger guests amused with games. Bruce wandered round taking photos of everyone, though sadly Helen’s cousin and her husband arrived after the family photo was organised. The next day was lovely and sunny, as the gazebos were taken down and the workers relaxed under the parasol eating and drinking left-overs. The following days were also warm and sunny – and would have been ideal for an outdoor party. An unexpected trip to see the musical Hamilton in London was Toby and Rachel’s birthday gift to Helen, who also took the opportunity to catch up with some London friends who hadn’t made it to the party. We had well and truly celebrated the milestone.

The male brings a vole

There have been births as well as birthdays to celebrate. A lot of you have been following the return of the kestrels at the end of January (several months earlier than previous years) to our attic windowsill for the third year running. If you missed that, you can catch up on the 2023 kestrels website. By the end of April, six kestrel eggs had been laid, and while we were in Letchworth in May, we were able to follow their progress, thanks to the new cameras John had hurriedly installed after the earlier than expected return and he was able to update the website and YouTube feeds. We were glad of that, as all six eggs hatched at the end of May, just a few days before our return to Entre-deux-Eaux. We were then able to watch their growth as the males brought mice and lizards for the female to feed to them until they were ready to fledge. This occurred at the end of June when they were 32-35 days old, which is later than the usually reported 28-30 days, possibly due to the extreme heat. Sadly their departure was again while we were away. So, alas, we were to return to an empty nest – or windowsill. But there have been occasional return visits of the juveniles or the parents to the nest in early July.

After a while back here, we began to feel restless. The river Rhine between Cologne and Mainz is promoted as “the romantic Rhine” with its castles, gorges, vineyards and Lorelei legends. Phrases like “melodramatic panorama of nature” and “backdrop for the portrayal of human passions and destinies “ abound, along with mention of the music of Wagner, the literature of Goethe and Heine and the paintings of Turner. The area is also a World Heritage Site. So during a very hot spell of weather here at the end of June, the idea of spending a few days drifting up and down that stretch of the Rhine on an old paddle steamer or on local ferries, was appealing. We are only an hour’s drive from the Rhine, and it is easy to cross into Germany from here. We decided to head north and base ourselves in Koblenz (four hours drive from E2E) after stopping overnight on the Sunday in Mainz (which we had to remember to call Mayence to our French neighbours) to see the cathedral, Gutenberg museum, Chagall windows, and meet up for dinner with a friend, Heide, who lives in Frankfurt am Main.

Chagall windows, Mainz

Our cheap hotel in Mainz was on the far side of the railway line, and on that very hot day we slogged past the main railway station four times in and out of the city; it seethed with travellers, local buses, police and drinkers. It was the weekend of Mainz’s Johannisnacht festival (which we did not know about until Heide mentioned it when we suggested meeting up), so we had to inch through the big squares near the cathedral which were packed with people celebrating Johannes Gutenberg in the hot sunshine. Few people were honouring his achievements in the rather disappointing Gutenberg museum, where there were special demonstrations on a replica printing press. Perhaps his legacy was being toasted in beer, lurid ice cream, candy floss and curry wurst, among the bands, stilt-walkers and fairground rides, which lapped up to the cathedral. We may have been jaded, as we found the interior of the cathedral lofty, dusty and soulless – like a railway terminal. However, after a further hot walk to a hill (where better to place a church), we were revived by the hushed and prayerful St Stephan’s gothic church with its dramatic blue windows by Chagall. Chagall, who was Jewish, made them at the end of his life as an acknowledgement of the need for reconciliation, and they were completed after his death by others. In the background musicians tuned up, people gathered in the cloisters, and a concert began. Sadly Heide was unable to join us in the evening because of the heat.

Boppard Sesselbahn chair lift

Next day we drove slowly along the river and through hilly vineyards to Koblenz, During our four days we were to see the Romantic Rhine by car, boat, train, cable car, chair lift and on foot. But, for us, its mystique seems to have vanished under the pressures of mass tourism. We saw none of the hazy scenes that Turner painted nor sensed the dramas, chivalry or warfare of the ruined castles. We both felt that our most enjoyable view was during an afternoon ride on what felt like a family-run ski chair lift from the valley to the surrounding hills followed by a short walk through the woods to a café with a loud, bossy waitress; there we relaxed over coffees and enjoyed the view down over a huge bend in the Rhine near the small town of Boppard.

Rhine ferry

That morning had seen us perched on rocks at the feet of the Loreley (or Lorelei) statue, unmoved by her allure or the clouds of gnats, but more fascinated by the series of very long, fast-moving freight trains on tracks on both sides of the river as they plunged into or emerged from the ornate railway tunnels through the gorge. We also watched goods moving along the river more slowly in barges, including a laden scrap metal one. We (and the Loreley) were passed by the regular tourist boats, including the Goethe paddle steamer which we had travelled on the day before. (The young waiter on the Goethe had been unmoved by the series of castles we were passing – an every day background to his work – he just wanted to discuss John’s Olympus camera as he hoped one day he might be able to afford something similar, though it would cost over a month’s wages). We never established the priority rules for barges and boats going up and down the Rhine and the frequent nippy little car ferries crossing from bank to bank (there being no bridges across the Rhine between the outskirts of Mainz and Koblenz). For us, crossing on the busy little ferries was more entertaining than lazing on the pleasure boats (and we had to do several as the valley road on the eastern side had sections closed for repairs).

As well as boat and car trips, we travelled by train along the Rhine back to Koblenz, having taken the paddle steamer journey one way. We also joined young people returning home from school or college on the “picturesque” Hunsruck Railway from Boppard to Emmelhausen in the hills. It is the steepest adhesion railway in western Germany, climbing 336 metres in eight kilometres, through five tunnels and over two viaducts. But because of the forest on both sides, the promoted picturesque views were much more limited (apart from the last minutes of the return descent) than those from our single track railway over the Vosges from Saint Dié to Strasbourg.

Schloss Stolzenfels

As for castles, we looked at various silhouettes from a distance, strolled round the outside of the Sankt Goar ruins (as it was closed on Mondays), and, after slogging up its long and winding drive, joined a guided tour of the interior of the Schloss Stolzenfels summer residence of the Prussian Royal family. We must have helped to polish the Stolzenfels wooden floors as we shuffled round wearing enormous slippers over our outdoor shoes. Next day it would be closed for a film crew. We also spent time looking round the huge Ehrenbreitstein fort, one of several surrounding Koblenz, which had been rebuilt in 1801 after the French revolutionary army destroyed the old castle/fortress (we realised again how little we know of European history and the wars between the various states and provinces, which bear little resemblance to modern-day Europe). The journey to and from it was by cable car, with great views as it crossed over the Rhine and, on the return trip, of the whole of Koblenz (but we still thought the chair lift at Boppard was more intimate and dramatic).

Saint Alexius

We also visited quite a few churches and for the first time saw a large fresco of scenes from the life of Saint Alexius (the one who lived under the staircase in his parents house, unbeknown to them, doing good works, and whose name we first encountered in a little auberge restaurant St Alexis and chapel in Alsace). The fresco was in the Carmelite church in Boppard, which also had some magnificently carved choir stalls. In the nearby church of Saint Severus there were ceiling paintings as well as vibrant modern stained glass windows by a local artist.

Every morning started with a filling German breakfast at our Koblenz hotel (again close to the railway station and overlooking the bus station), though we were amazed by how much some of the portlier German guests could stuff in. Breakfast lasted us all day and by the evening we were usually too footsore to want to go far afield. So, apart from a good meze bar in the centre, the other evenings we ate at nearby at Greek, Italian and Croatian restaurants, at all of which the portions were still pretty large for those of us brought up on strict instructions to eat everything on your plate. The Croatian restaurant was especially good, and the chef even emerged to apologise to John as his sea bass, being rather large, was taking a long time to cook; it was skilfully filleted at the table and John happily ate it all. At the end a small glass of plum and pear liqueur unexpectedly appeared with the bill.

On the drive back to Entre-deux-Eaux on the Friday we stopped in Worms to see the Romanesque red stone cathedral, the museum’s Martin Luther room and the old Jewish cemetery. Once over the NE border of France (where the narrow, wooded German road turns into a wide French motorway), the heavens opened and rain pelted down. Helen inadvertently drove onto the new Strasbourg outer tolled bypass, guided by Waze (as she points out, that choice was not there last time we drove that way), but at least it avoided the busy inner bypass at rush hour.

Next day, back home, we agreed that we felt underwhelmed by the glories of the Romantic Rhine. Is increasing age (Helen is now rather self-conscious about that) responsible for an increasing loss of wonder? In Paris the funeral of Nahel Merzouk was held, and rioting continued at night.

During July we have settled back into the quiet of Entre-deux-Eaux and picked quantities of raspberries, loganberries, tayberries, blueberries and wild strawberries which had ripened in the heat while we were away. The vegetable patch, unlike the fruit cage, is sadly bare this year, with three beetroots, three courgettes, two squash and some straggling broad beans the only survivors of our various absences during dry weather conditions. It has continued to be hot here, with occasional heavy rain and storms, though it has been worse on the plains of Strasbourg, where our friends report up to 37°C in the shade. But still, fortunately, not as bad as the extreme temperatures that are being experienced by residents and holiday makers in southern Europe.

And, given the riots, were there any Bastille Day fireworks?. Various communes especially in Ile-de-France and le Nord cancelled their 14 July fireworks, but Paris went ahead with theirs around the Eiffel Tower. Next day newspapers triumphantly reported that in Paris and its suburbs there were only 62 fires (a drop on last year of 70%) and 53 arrests (an 80% drop) and that throughout France that night only 255 vehicle were set fire to (as opposed to 423 last year). Moreover only 7 police, gendarmes and firemen were injured compared to 21 in 2022.

Entre-deux-Eaux has its feasting, fair and fireworks on the evening of 13 July. At the end of a hot day we felt a bit apathetic about walking down to the village and standing around for ages, so stayed at home with the fan on, watching TV. But when we heard the first bangs, we went out on our balcony and saw a short, defiant display above the trees, which looked as if all the different fireworks had been set off simultaneously in one glorious multicoloured outburst. Next evening on the fête nationale itself, we responded to more bangs around 11pm by dashing again onto the balcony. In the opposite direction from the previous evening we could see Saint Leonard’s rather sedate sequence of fireworks. Entre-deux-Eaux’s, however brief, had definitely been more spectacular. From male voices down our road came a rather tuneless rendering of the Marseillaise.

a juvenile returns

Sunshine, amphitheatres and painted walls: three days in Lyon, January 2023

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2023no1
.pdf (four A4 pages)

There is a gallery of some photographs of Lyon
including a gallery of the frescoes we saw
There are also
clickable links in the text
 

Depressing leaden skies, muddy footpaths and puddles. The last of January’s festivities, galette des rois, champagne, dancing and lunch for the village elderly had taken place. Dull damp days lay ahead. We have never visited Lyon, so, on the spur of the moment, on Sunday, we researched hotels, packed clothes and set out to drive southwards through Monday’s snow showers for a change of scenery. We were also to benefit from a change of weather, for, although it remained cold, the sunshine was invigorating.

Lugdunum amphitheatre

We soon realised that our knees are not what they used to be. We had decided to work our way through Lyon’s history, and, of course, history starts with the Romans. One of the Roman sites in Lyon, Lugdunum, lies on the Fourvière hill above the Rhone and Saône. Fortunately the strike of some transport workers on that first full day, Tuesday, only slightly slowed our journey across town from our hotel by tram, metros and one of the two funiculars. We still take a childish pleasure in funicular rides. As we emerged from the tunnel, the expanse of the Roman theatre (the oldest in France) and adjacent odeon amazed us. Bright winter sunshine lit up the tiers of seats, and as we paused on our steep ascent of the amphitheatre and turned round, the concrete offices and apartments of modern Lyon basked in a soft lemon light below us. The brutalist concrete site museum buried in the hillside was as dramatic as the amphitheatre, and the finds of urns, sarcophagi, bronze inscriptions and mosaics were perfectly at home beneath the museum’s soaring concrete columns and arches.

Steps up to old townFrom the museum we walked up towards the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière, searching, in vain, for coffee. The glittering mosaics of the basilica and a metal tower (an imitation of the Eiffel Tower) were no compensation for the lack of refreshments, apart from a very expensive restaurant. To add insult to injury, the other funicular station was closed, we assumed as part of the strike. So we set out to walk down the hill to the old town and its cafés. Our ageing knees soon gave way on a long steep flight of steps. When we finally got to the bottom of the hill, we sank gratefully onto chairs in a coffee shop in one of the fine renaissance buildings on Rue de Boeuf. Later, on the metro, we heard an announcement that funicular F2 line was closed because of a “technical incident”. The next day we noticed that the central cable had been removed, which would account for the lack of service!

On the second day, Wednesday, we explored the mediaeval and renaissance streets of the silk merchants in the old town at the foot of the Fourvière hill, with their enticing narrow, covered passageways (traboules) and courtyards behind heavy doors. We wandered into the renaissance buildings and hillside gardens of the powerful Gadagni Florentine bankers. A restored clock, l’horloge aux guignols, had been re-installed there and we watched the two puppets striking the hour. We continued along the Rue Juiverie from which the Jews had been expelled in the fourteenth century to be succeeded by wealthy Italian merchants and bankers. And suddenly we were at the incongruous small St Paul railway station. The enticing aromas from the bakery opposite the station lured us in for large pastries (savoury and sweet) and glasses of milky coffee. We walked on, drawn into St Paul’s church by the sweet recorded music. In an alley, we were accosted by a smoking restaurant worker who insisted that we should cross the footbridge over the Saône to the Presqu’ile and see the famous Fresque des Lyonnais.

Bookshop fresco

Our first glimpse was of a charming bookshop painted on a ground floor wall, but rounding the corner of the building, seven stunning storeys of painted wall opened up showing over thirty famous Lyonnais characters, including the Emperor Claude, the cinematographers Auguste and Louis Lumière, author Antoine de Saint Exupery and his Petit Prince, and chef Paul Bocuse. We returned to the old town to see the gothic cathedral of St Jean. Our explorations ended in the huge Place Bellecour, with its big wheel and its stalwart naked stone warrior guarding the plaque to resistance members shot there in 1944 by the Gestapo (whose headquarters were close). From there we caught the metro and then tram back to our hotel.

Cité idéale

Our apartment hotel (Otelia Gestetud) was in a modern block on the T2 tram route; there were few shops or restaurants nearby, but a large number of funeral parlours which were handy for the two large cemeteries and crematorium de la Guillotière on either side of the railway line. This may sound a grim location, but we found the hotel well staffed and equipped, clean and comfortable, and with parking below. At the beginning of the twentieth century the cemeteries lay on the edge of the city, with fields and farmland beyond. A forward-looking mayor and a local architect, Tony Garnier, who had visions of the Cité idéale with its separate industrial, hospital and hygienic housing areas, planned a large housing estate here in what became known in 1917 (after America’s entry in the war) as the États-Unis district. We decided to spend our last morning looking at the flats which (like social housing schemes in the UK) were so innovative for their first residents in the thirties. They have since been renovated, and in the nineties striking paintings were added to their blank end walls.

Cité idéale abbatoir fresco

In addition to the Fresque des Lyonnais which we had seen the previous day, we had also enjoyed the three striking frescoes of the Tower of Babel just beyond out hotel, so on Thursday we walked from Babel down the Boulevard des États-Unis to the Shanghai frescoes and then on to the wall paintings of the Cité idéale. The five-storey apartment blocks looked spacious, with their large balconies and garden walkways. They were originally designed as two-storey buildings but the mayor insisted the design was changed to four storeys and then sometime later another storey was added. The paintings on their end walls showed Tony Garnier’s plans and illustrations of his ideal city, and ideal cities in Egypt, India, Mexico, Quebec, the USA and the Ivory Coast by other artists. At the end of the development was a small park with attractively engraved quotations about resistance and liberty. Then, unexpectedly, we were in a thronging covered market, bright with shiny peppers, tomatoes, and colourful headscarves.

The T6 tram from the market passed the huge iron, glass and concrete abattoir created in 1914 by Tony Garnier. We had seen its airy interior depicted on one of the murals, with Lyon dignitaries and impeccably clean cattle (not a cow pat in sight). After falling into lengthy disuse, it was restored and is now used for concerts and sporting events. We also paused to look at frescoes commemorating the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, before catching a T1 tram across a curving bridge to the Musée des Confluences.

Musée des Confluences

Appropriately for a museum which included natural history exhibits like a mammoth skeleton and dinosaur eggs, the striking modern building looked from a certain angle like a crouching armour-plated prehistoric animal. We wandered through displays of juxtaposed artefacts from different times and places (bewildering for those of us who like our history to be chronological rather than thematic “magic” “eternities” or “societies: the human theatre”).

On the way back to our hotel, we looked at more of the frescoes on the other side of the Boulevard des Etats Unis and stopped at the tiny Musée urbain Tony Garnier which was now open, but our legs were by now too weary to linger too long over the fascinating twentieth century artefacts and film footage. We were glad to put our feet up in our hotel room before setting out for our last evening meal in Lyon.

Lyon is noted for its famous chefs and restaurants, but our trip was too last-minute to allow for booking any of them. Nevertheless, we enjoyed some varied meals. Many restaurants in France are closed on Monday so the choice was even more limited on our first evening. We walked into the Part-Dieu quarter north of our hotel, to the Asmara Eritrean restaurant, where we ate with our fingers, rolling assorted specialities in torn-off bits of injera (sour dough pancake).

Daniel & Denise bouchon

As all the trams were due to stop running at 20:30 on the second evening due to strikes, John bravely drove us to the old town through Lyon’s rush-hour busy streets. At one of the touristy bouchons (traditional Lyonnaise cuisine restaurants), Daniel et Denise, Helen was delighted to find old-fashioned red-and-cream checked tablecloths, and we ate traditional dishes like the pâté en croûte starter (which looks so like pork pie) and our main course of roast pork pluma and black sausage with roast potatoes and macaroni cheese, followed by apple Tarte Tatin or chocolate dessert. The following evening, groups of diners shivered outside the slightly more up-market Table 101 until Madame deigned to let us in. But the food was beautifully cooked and presented, so all was forgiven as we ate our way through a superior pâté en croûte or some dainty snail and sweetbread ravioli, followed by sturgeon or veal and then fancy desserts.

Poivron Bleu salade de pouple

The meals seemed to get better each evening, culminating at the Poivron Bleu. Helen thought this was going to be a posh place, but it turned out to be more of a convivial narrow passageway running back into the narrow kitchen, with two enthusiastic waiters and a chalkboard menu. Imagine the best prawn cocktail, substitute octopus, chick peas and lemon and curry gel for the prawns, and that was our salade de poulpe starter. The pork main course was delicious, and the desserts too. One of the waiters made a point of giving a long description of the making of the lemon cake dessert to everyone apart from us (why not us?) Was he also its proud creator? Chef rather than waiter?

It seemed a shame to leave on that sunny Friday morning. But we were given a reminder of places we had seen, as our satnav guided us along streets through the city centre which we had seen in the dark from trams and buses, then plunged us into a long tunnel (1.15 miles) all the way under the Roman remains on the Fourvière hill. The petrol station we were heading to closed as we got there (presumably for a petrol delivery), so we saw more of the far side of the hill before filling up elsewhere and joining the A6. As we drove northwards, the skies got greyer, and, would you believe it, the moment we passed sign announcing that we were back in our region, the Grand Est, the drizzle started.

However, the good news is that, during our absence, a young-looking (over a year old) male kestrel has returned to inspect their old quarters on the attic window sill. We have not previously seen one as early as January. So John is having to rush to reinstall their balcony extension and put the second camera in a better position. He thought he had a month or more ahead for renovation works!

Autumn leaves: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, October and November 2022

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2022no3.pdf (five A4 pages)

There are
clickable links to eight different photograph galleries in the text

The white frozen grass under the hooves of the tan cattle, the hints of snow, and a sighting of St Nicolas confirm that Autumn has now given way to Advent.

It has been an unseasonably warm and sunny Autumn here as elsewhere, so the autumn colours have been lemon, gold and tawny against the dark conifers. We returned from the UK at the beginning of October via an exhibition at the Louvre/Lens on Champollion, the Frenchman who deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. We found the exhibition disappointing as it was more about his life than the deciphering.

some boar digging

All was well back in Entre-deux Eaux, apart from parts of the field which John mows, which had been dug up by boars, leaving large lumps of turf. As we write, a local gardener is wheeling quantities of earth from his truck to fill and level the afflicted areas. A more charming November visitor was a very young deer, although it showed possible shotgun pellet marks. But we are not so enamoured of the latest portly nocturnal visitor to our balcony, who has kept John busy clearing up its scat and disinfecting. We suspect it is another pine marten.

On a more cheerful note, the continuing sunny October weather here was ideal for harvesting the green beans, autumn raspberries, blackberries, walnuts, a couple of pumpkins and some gigantic courgettes and squash. Later we picked apples and the first quinces we’d had for many years (we thought the quince tree had been badly damaged from fireblight about ten years ago but it has slowly recovered). The barn shelves have now been replenished with 28 jars of marrow, ginger and lemon jam, and nine of quince jam. The fruit drawers in the freezer are packed tight with blackberry and apple purée, more apples are boxed up in the barn and others stored as dehydrated slices, and we have had tasty nut roasts from some of the walnuts. We are still picking autumn raspberries at the beginning of December! Given our harvest, we should have been equipped to accurately guess the weight of the pumpkin displayed at l’Imprimerie restaurant (and so win a free meal for two) but we had not thought to weigh ours. Pumpkins abound here in all shapes and degrees of knobliness, and do not all disappear for grinning Halloween lanterns. There must be about nine rotting away on ex-farmer Vozelle’s muck-heap.

After our time away, we soon felt the need to be revived by some good French cooking, so drove over to the book village for lunch at l’Imprimerie, where we enjoyed one of chef Morgan’s best surprise menus. As the small restaurant was full and service was slow, lacking one of the usual waiters, we were given a complimentary glass of wine at the start, which of course made any delays quite bearable, especially as we weren’t in a hurry anyway. When we returned there at the start of December, there was an additional member of staff, faster service and no free wine! The new waiter was enthusiastic, interested in the food, and related very well to all the customers (whereas the old one has his grumpy days when explaining about the surprise menu to new guests and presenting the unusual dishes sounds a chore); apparently the new man used to be a nurse, and was finding a busy restaurant quite a rest cure compared to nursing. Each of the December dishes was inventive and tasty, and as so often, the organic wines proposed were unusual.

unfiltered Côtes de Toul

We watched as other diners tried the proffered red wine, hesitated, and bravely decided to go ahead with it; but the couple at the opposite table tasted it, wrinkled their noses and declined the cloudy, fruity red liquid, and were brought a more conventional one. John was intrigued by his first sip, accepted happily and we really liked it with the fire-roasted duck. A propos the duck, the often grumpy waiter was on sparkling form and even made a joke when he brought the quince dessert, about how we first had the coin-coin (quack-quack) and now we had the coing (quince) to which we dutifully pulled a face. Perhaps having a subordinate nurse-waiter to share his burden has cheered him up!

Earlier in the year, before we left for the UK, we had watched a new fibre cable being brought along the road on the telegraph poles and then underground by the regionally-owned company responsible for the new public fibre optic infrastructure, and had wondered when a commercial firm would approach us to connect us to their internet and phone service. Nothing seemed to have happened in our absence, but on our second day back, an SFR rep rang the doorbell to offer their service at a bargain introductory rate, so after discussion, we signed a contract and agreed a date for the technician to connect us.

Before the technician arrived, we moved a lot of boxes in the attic, as well as Helen’s computer and desk to gain access to the entry point of the old cable under the eves. But with these old houses, nothing is straight forward. The technician was delayed at his first job beyond our 8-12 time slot, then worked through the sacred French lunch hours to sort out the cabling, pulling it through the underground channel from the box at the end of the road. He then announced that the existing hole under the eaves, through which the copper telephone cable came in, was not large enough for the new cable to be pulled through (the old cable had been cemented in when we had the rendering replaced), but, as he was not permitted to drill through walls, he would have to come back after we had employed a mason to enlarge the hole. In exasperation, John got a chisel, climbed up the technician’s ladder and did the necessary. Surprisingly, all this was conducted in good humour and in colloquial English, the technician having spent over 12 years in England with his family (and attended the Lycée Français there and then worked as a pub manager).

Remomeix fibre connection

After connecting our two strands of the twelve-strand cable to the main box in a regard, he had to drive over to another village (Remomeix, where the little airstrip and flying club is) to do the final connection (John went with him to watch), before returning to install the router box. It was several days before we realised that our land line phone was not working, which required a trip into the SFR shop in Saint-Dié as it had not been activated following the change of supplier. We were fortunate, however, as we later heard that the strands of a neighbour’s new SFR fibre connection had been accidentally cut by a rival firm while connecting another neighbour to their service.

No doubt John fell foul of French Union demarcations by enlarging the hole in the wall. But Helen also unwittingly fell foul of medical demarcation lines. Concerned about an increasingly large growth on her chin while we were in the UK, she phoned the dermatologist in Saint-Dié (who had treated her melanoma) for an appointment after our return. But it turned out that she should have first gone to our GP for a letter of referral, as dermatologists, unlike ophthalmologists, gynaecologists and paediatricians, have not negotiated a direct access arrangement, so the letter had to be written retrospectively by our GP after the appointment. To add insult to the dermatologist’s dignity, Helen forgot that unlike most health professionals nowadays, her dermatologist does not accept payment by bank card; she had forgotten to take our rarely-used cheque book and did not have sufficient cash, so had to return after pooling cash resources with John. (We have to pay doctors directly here, and then wait for partial reimbursement from the state and from our complementary medical insurance).

However, after those blunders on Helen’s part, the French health care system proved attentive and excellent. The dermatologist’s test revealed an epidermoid (or squamous cell) carcinoma, which was removed in day surgery at Nancy, and the local nurses have been coming to the house every 2 days to change the dressings and to finally remove the stitches. Helen had been expecting more pain when prescribed 14 boxes of paracetamol, but has needed none of them.

Meanwhile John had been trying out some different hearing aids, but was not happy with the sound quality, and the effect (or lack of) on his tinnitus, but the Optical Center felt he has come to the end of the period he can spend trying out aids they can provide.

When we hear about the problems in the NHS, we feel very lucky with our treatment here. But similar problems are building up here. The doctors held a two-day strike at the start of December, as their self-employed but regulated pay is below that of salaried hospital staff. There is also a shortage of GPs, especially in rural areas, where there are dessertes ruraux. The sign at the side of the dual carriageway round one of the small towns to the north of us has returned, announcing to any passing potential candidates that Raon l’Etape is looking for GPs. Our much lamented GP was not replaced after his retirement. Surprisingly there also is a dearth of chiropodists, who are better paid than GPs, and are turning away new clients. When one of the Brain Exercise group noticed that a new chiropodist had set up in Sainte Marguerite, Helen booked in rapidly, before her list had built up. Pharmacies are now where the money is perceived to be made. Today’s visiting nurse sounded bitter that the government has handed pharmacies the right to do the vaccinations against flu and Covid-19. But, although we had our flu vaccinations in mid-October, it proved difficult to get our fifth Covid-19 vaccination done until December, as pharmacies were initially vague as to whether a GP prescription was needed to prove a special case. The French government has not publicised the current rules very clearly and the uptake of follow-up vaccinations has been low.

The Brain Exercise group in Sainte Marguerite is an excellent source of information, and issues of national as well as personal importance are thoroughly discussed before exercises start. The October meeting thought it entirely appropriate that Helen and John were in London at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and the qualities of the remaining members of the Royal Family were thoroughly assessed. Group members are also always concerned over members’ health and housing. The same cannot always be said for the much larger group of Entre-Deux-Eaux (and now surrounding villages) Oldies who can be more insular. At their October meeting, none of people with whom Helen usually plays games were present, and no one offered to include her in their group, so she sat in silence throughout.

The Brain Exercise group were equally animated at their session on 2 December. It was Helen’s turn to provide the exercises and the food, but first there was animated discussion of the French transport strikes, doctor’s strikes and bioanalysis laboratory strikes, details of an absent member’s move following her divorce, and jokes were recounted. Then it was Helen’s turn. She started with some easy picture exercises from a French site (though some people had difficulty telling the right shoes and gloves from the left, and piecing together the parts of a hat picture. But they found the next exercise, a logic grid a bit like a battleship grid, too hard and gave up, but relished some mathematical calculations from The Times. Some more picture exercises (darts board scores and French saints and foods) from the French site followed. Then the kettle was boiled for coffee and tisanes, apricot juice poured, sponge cake sliced and served with some of the newly-made marrow, ginger and lemon jam and we rounded off with some Christmassy chocolate spice biscuits. The Christmas touch seemed just right as a superbly-robed St Nicolas walked past the window – perhaps on his way to visit a school. John’s jam was much admired. “Has he got a brother?” an elegant widow demanded. “But his brother might not cook as well,” another cautioned.

As you can see, this autumn seems to have been spent mainly on harvesting, eating, medical appointments and games. But we have also enjoyed colourful local walks and scenery, in particular the Bank Holiday morning when we drove over towards Gérardmer and parked by Lac de Longemer. We used to take the canoe and swim there when the children were younger, but had never walked all the way round.

Longemer duck

We thoroughly enjoyed the colours, reflections, and aquatic wildlife as we strolled round, but half way round began to feel it was time for a coffee. As we watched a boat tying up, we realised it was mooring below a large terrace with tables and people, and we speeded up. We sat there in the warm sunshine over our large coffees, and after a while ordered a pizza to share, and then had another coffee to sustain us on the second part of our circuit.

A day later we drove over one of the passes to one of the walled Alsace wine villages, Riquewihr. The village itself was heaving with tourists, so we cut short our proposed stroll round the quaint old streets. The restaurant AOR where we were belatedly celebrating John’s birthday was outside the walls, at the foot of the vineyards, so we didn’t have to face the crowds. We had not been before, and when we made our way up the steps it was disconcerting to find the door firmly closed against us. However, we rang the old fashioned bell pull, as instructed, and were warmly received in the quirkily decorated interior. The tables looked as if their legs were old industrial machine parts and the tops were heavy wood (and ours had a hole in the centre where we could easily have lost some dishes or glasses) and were apparently designed by chef. Chains of spoons against scarlet hung in a circle. Unsettling modern art and black and red panels adorned the walls. The table mats were old 78rpm records. The food, however was inventive and tasty, with influences from his work around the world.

AOR Moni-K-Bill cigar

Our dessert of a smoking chocolate cigar, his signature dish, was created during his stay in Los Angeles around the time of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. It is somewhere we would happily return to. We had thought of a walk afterwards at the Col de Bonhomme, but it was getting cooler by the time we reached there.

Once the weather turns damp, misty and cold in November, we rarely see our neighbours out walking or gardening, but on 25 November our normally quiet narrow road was busy. First to ring our doorbell was the nurse to change the Helen’s dressing (we saw the neat scar and stitches for the first time). Next at the door was the oil delivery man who needed to run a long hose pipe from his tanker to our tank in the barn. He kindly reversed for our neighbour, Claudine, who was waiting to get past his tanker, but she drove too close to the edge of the road and a front wheel went into the ditch and got stuck. Perhaps she was distracted by her three noisy grandchildren. The tanker driver and John looked for planks and rope in our outbuildings, but our rope wasn’t strong enough, so Claudine’s partner went home for a tow bar which was connected to the tanker and it reversed, pulling her out. Meanwhile her grandchildren had been racing around and climbing on the car roof and other neighbours had gathered to watch and to have a good gossip. It was only at this point that one of the farm tractors (which normally thunder past and would have been useful for extricating the car from the ditch) turned up. One of the neighbours, Jean-Marie, who had shuffled up in his crocs, then offered to repair the tyre on our sit-on mower, which he noticed in the open outbuildings, John rode it down the road and J-M returned it, repaired, before lunch. Then in the afternoon his wife, Danielle, and Helen went down for tea and more animated gossip with one of the E2E Oldies Scrabble group who lives in the oldest house in the village. Another scrabble player was already there, and the foursome settled down to coffee and blueberry clafoutis and non-stop gossip and did not even notice the heavy rain outside. It was dark when everyone left, so we had to be very careful to avoid the big puddles up our road. Thank goodness one of the big tractors didn’t come racing past, otherwise we would have got soaked.

It is brighter up our normally dark road now that December has arrived as houses are putting up their Christmas lights. Has Annick (the Laines’ daughter) got even more lights than last year? When we drove over the hills to Alsace last week, the huge teddy bears were starting to take up residence on windowsills in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, but have not caught on here. Entre-deux-Eaux commune has not yet arranged its cheeky hardboard reindeer round the village. Last year there was one at the foot of the cross on the corner of our road.

We have been hearing about postal problems in the UK, so have dug out a black and white Christmas card John made 30 years ago in 1992. We will send it with this newsletter, so that you can print it out. It shows the above-mentioned cross with a bike rather than a reindeer. In those days, our neighbour Gerard was still working, and would cycle down to the corner each morning, prop his bike against the cross (in case Jesus fancied cycling round the village?) and get a lift to the next village. It may be an old design, and only on paper rather than card, but it comes with this year’s warmest wishes for a happy Christmas and for good health and interesting activities in 2023.

Our twenty-first summer of retirement in Entre-deux-Eaux, May to July 2022

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2022no2d.pdf (five A4 pages)

There are  clickable links to additional photographs in the text

At the beginning of May, after a month in Letchworth seeing family and friends, we drove down to Folkestone and the Eurotunnel. Imagine our surprise, after we had boarded the train for France, when we heard a tap on the driver’s window and saw Roger and Dorinda smiling at us. By one of those unlikely co-incidences our Francophile friends (who used to have a holiday home in the next village) had boarded the same shuttle as we had, at the start of one of their French holidays. We arranged to meet up at a service station where we caught up with news and plans in greater comfort over coffee and rolls. They were off to stay in various gîtes, including one outside Mâcon.

peony

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux, John sent off his passport to the chaos of the UK Passport Office, hoping it would eventually emerge renewed in no more than the estimated ten weeks. It felt as if we then spent most of May on medical checks of teeth, eyes and ears. In between, we sorted out a usable part of the potager (the manure still needs to rot down further on most beds), cut the 15″ high grass, sowed onions, broad beans, French beans, courgettes and squash and also cheerful cornflowers, marigolds, candytuft and Sweet Williams seeds in the garden tubs our Letchworth neighbour had given us. The garden was colourful with clematis and peonies.

Our strawberries (including wild ones) were prolific this year. As they do not freeze well (to our taste, at least), John invested in a fruit-and-vegetable dehydrator which gave us dried strawberries with a good flavour. It was also handy when, just before we left for Burgundy, we were offered two kilos of freshly picked cherries from the orchard of the old ferme La Soyotte (one of the organisers of the farm museum lives in the village with our ex-mayor). Amid all this, the twentieth anniversary of our settling in France passed unremarked!

With travel outside France impossible until John received his new passport, we decided to take a short June break in France before the frenzied surge of holidaymakers and the crowded motorways throughout July and August. Who better to consult about comfortable gîtes than frequent-users, Roger and Dorinda. We are fond of Burgundy and they could recommend one of their recent gîtes, La Trélie, to the east of Macon. We booked it for the six days in June that it was still free.

We then unearthed our Michelin Green Guides to Burgundy (from various eras) and popped into one of our supermarkets, Cora, (now open on Sunday mornings, a change since our earlier days here) to get the Green Guide to the Lyons area, which covered the countryside round La Trélie. On the way back, despite the rolling grey rain clouds, we stopped briefly at the village sports field where the annual flea market was gamely taking place, despite the dire forecast. There were a lot of gaps where stallholders had not bothered to turn up, and a hasty walk round did not locate any bargains. Clutching our as yet unopened umbrellas, we met the mayor. “I’ve sent my wife to save places in the food tent. We’ll need to be under shelter shortly.” We reach home before the rain.

It was cool and wet when we organised the trip, but the heatwave began five days later on 11th June, the day we set out. Air-conditioning in cars is such a boon as the temperatures reached 34°C+ outside.

colza (rapeseed)

The non-motorway route that we chose took us through the rolling pastures of the Vosges, where elderly gents on tractors were just starting hay making in their small fields, round Vesoul, where we stopped for petrol, coffee, and almond croissants (a weakness of ours, even at lunchtime), over the river Doubs with its dramatic gorge, then wandered cross-country on narrow roads (guided by Waze and white on our ancient Michelin map) towards Mâcon, then turned up an 800 metre rough farm track to a large restored farmhouse in the middle of blonde fields of grain and colza.

We had been sent two lots of contact details for La Trélie, but the old man who answered the phone before we set out either misunderstood or forgot our arrival time. Fortunately one of the owners was in the area seeing to her three hundred and fifty chickens. We later learned that her wealthy family owns all the land and fields around and the house is let to companies during winter as well as tourists in summer. Within five minutes of another phone call, a car disgorged an elegant woman (no sign of chicken feathers or muck) who gave us the key and showed us round the spacious interior: a large open sitting, dining and kitchen area, three bedrooms, shower room and loo. French windows opened onto a roofed terrace and a barbecue building. We would certainly not feel cramped there.

As the weather was so hot, we enjoyed protracted breakfasts in the shade of the terrace, lingering over lunch in different restaurants, and reading or playing games on the cooled terrace in the evenings, and we did not do as much sight-seeing as we usually would.

a misericord at the Royal Monastery of Brou

Royal Monastery of Brou puppet prop

Our gîte was mid-way between Mâcon (and the vineyard villages of Burgundy) and Bourg-en-Bresse (and farming villages of Ain). On trips to Bourg-en-Bresse, we visited the nearby Royal Monastery of Brou, looked at the elaborate tombs, comic misericords, and art collection in the former monks’ cells, and puzzled over a dramatic “happening” in the courtyard which involved a prowling knight in armour and beautifully crafted puppet props.

In the narrow streets of the old town we enjoyed a risky-sounding but refreshing cocktail of beer, Chardonnay, rhubarb and geranium at the oddly named Scratch restaurant, followed by their menu of the day with its crowning glory of a hazelnut dessert.

Meillonnas church fresco

How better to finish off an interesting day than with the frescoes in the fourteenth century church in the village of Meillonnas.

Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne

Another day we enjoyed strolling round the market town of Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, with its brick and timber houses, spacious outdoor covered market (empty and echoing that day), and sole surviving gatehouse (where a man on the first floor balcony was assiduously pruning his honeysuckle). We sat down for a coffee outside the basic Café Restaurant de la Poste, then, after watching large plates of food being served to two old men at the table next to ours, ate our way through the menu of the day, finishing with a very good tarte Tatin.

Having dawdled through the rolling fields of ripening cereals of the west of Ain with its Romanesque churches and long, brick and timber farmhouses, some with “saracen” chimneys, our thoughts turned to the vineyards of Burgundy and Beaujolais. As so often on this holiday, we were guided by our stomachs. Roger and Dorinda had recommended the l’O des Vignes in Fuissé, and we thought that, after lunch there, we would climb the nearby Roche de Solutré.

The village of Fuissé lies peacefully among its vineyards, its old washhouse is hung with geraniums rather than scrubbed linen, most of the courtyard buildings are wine producers, as is the Romanesque former church, and a garish circus poster adds colour to the square. The only people in streets in the midday heat were heading to l’O des Vignes, until a truck swerved to a halt and five overalled men leapt out into a shabby building – possibly a rival bar.

After the bright sunlight outside, the bar of L’O des Vignes seemed dim, but the friendly bistrot waiter in his traditional apron led us to a table on their terrace which was shaded by tall trees and busy with locals who seemed to know each other as well as tourists. Behind us lay their more up-market restaurant with its aloof waiters in suits and what looked like untied cravats. The bistrot food was excellent, and we enjoyed the bustle and the informality. (Another day we did try their Michelin-starred restaurant, but preferred the lively bistrot).

Roche de Solutré

Of course, by the time we finished our post-lunch coffee, Helen felt distinctly disinclined to scramble up any rocky promontories in the heat (shame on her when former President Mitterrand climbed it every year between 1946-1995 at Pentecost). Instead she proposed looking at the finds in the Museum of Prehistory at the foot of the Roche de Solutré. The striking escarpment loomed above the vines, disappearing tantalisingly as we drove from Fuissé along the winding narrow roads, then reappearing dramatically. After looking at the finds of animal bones, including a geological layer of compacted horse bones, even John had lost the urge to get to the top of the hill.

Driving carefully down the vineyard roads we passed a car upended in the ditch, with a couple of our age, refusing offers of help and awaiting a tow or lift out. Had they been wine-tasting a little too enthusiastically? The car looked as if it needed something with more power than the small tractors lying idle among the vines.

We did not go wine tasting, though we did look in the old church building in Fuissé to see how it had been converted to wine production, with large barrels in an air conditioned chamber where the altar would once have been. Outside a hosepipe was delivering wine to a large container lorry to be bottled and sold by their client. Seeing the hosepipe was a reminder of holidays in the seventies and eighties when we would take empty bottles into the dingy village wine co-operative to be filled by hosepipe with cheap wine. Ah, those were the days! This time the Beaujolais wine we sipped of an evening on the terrace came from the supermarket.

Hotel Dieu in Belleville-en-Beaujolais

A contrast with the hot Beaujolais wine villages was the cool interior of the 1733 Hotel Dieu in Belleville-en-Beaujolais where the needy used to be cared for and its elegant apothecary. The original furniture of three small wards has hardly changed and it was still in use until 1991 as a hospice.

Eglise de Notre Dame in Belleville-en-Beaujolais

Equally cool was the town’s 12th century Eglise de Notre Dame and its interesting capitals.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux this year’s baby kestrels were growing fast. We mentioned in the last newsletter the “home improvements” which John made in spring to the attic windowsill on which the kestrels had nested last year. They obviously approved of the protective partition and the balcony extension with its raised edge, as the female took up residence while we were in the UK in April, and laid her first egg on 3rd May just before our return. We were able to follow progress remotely thanks to the videos from the cameras/network storage John had installed.

day 0

The first egg hatched just before we left for our short Mâcon break. This year all four chicks survived and vociferously demanded food. We watched as they grew and began to lurch and waddle. As the time approached for them to fly, John spent quite a lot of time sitting with his camera in the vegetable patch, next to the compost heap, observing the adults bringing food and the juveniles flapping their wings.

day 30 – the first juvenile kestrel to leave

The first one flew early in the morning of 8th July just before we woke. Unlike last year’s trio, it returned occasionally to the ledge to feed and sleep – and perhaps encourage its siblings to test their wings. And over the next few days they have all flown (but occasionally return)! If you haven’t already seen to day-by-day photos and videos, they are on our The return of the kestrels – 2022 website.

Other birds, those greedy ones that somehow find a way into our large fruit cage, are less fascinating as they blunder around unable to find their way out again. However, last week it was Helen who felt trapped in the fruit cage when a button on a pocket on the back of her trousers got caught in the netting. At that moment the mobile phone, which was also in a pocket, rang. Our next-door neighbour, Danielle was offering to bring us some eggs. Since they rebuilt their hen-house, the deep foundations, wire and netting (we used the same for the fruit cage) have protected their hens from theft and murder. Eggs are now plentiful. Helen disentangled herself, phoned John who was doing the weekly shop (“don’t get any eggs!”) and proffered in return some of the blueberries she had been picking. A discussion of crime writers, the library in Saint Leonard, and meeting up to play Scrabble followed. That night’s dinner included poached eggs.

Danielle has been a good addition to the Scrabble players at the Entre-deux-Eaux Oldies’ monthly cards/chat/cake and champagne reunions. At the June session, another of that group, Marie Therese, who lives in the oldest house in the village, brought a cherry clafoutis to celebrate her birthday. And, yes, the cherries from her freezer had come, like ours, from the ferme La Soyotte’s harvest. A few days earlier, we had heard the church bells tolling at length. Sad to say, another of the villagers who had been welcomed us when we bought our house in 1990, had died. He was one of the four farmers who raised cattle and grew crops in the fields around the village. Apart from their house, which is the grandest in the village, he and his wife owned a couple of gîtes. They welcomed us into their kitchen, where we compared notes on letting out properties to holiday makers. He retired some years ago, and had recently been looking very bewildered when he came with his wife to the Oldies sessions. Over our game we recalled this gentle farmer with sadness.

July, and the break-up for summer of local groups, also brought an “end of term” lunch in Taintrux village for Helen’s brain exercise group. The Echauguette restaurant, opposite the mairie, like many now, belongs to the commune, and new managers have recently been installed. The food was typical, with starters of crudités or Vosgesian salad (with breadcrumbs, bacon strips, Munster cheese and poached egg), hearty main courses, plates of cheese and desserts covered in cream, followed by coffees. The star of the show was the Calvados sorbet between courses (wow, was that apple brandy potent!) As ever, it was a noisy, lively affair, also fuelled by the kir aperitifs and carafes of rose wine. It was a surprise to discover that one of the group had been in Fuissé for a family celebration around the time we were there – how surprised we would have been to meet. After the meal we drove to Ghislaine and her husband’s house on the edge of the commune and stood around their vegetable patch admiring it (presumably it would have been too intimate to have been invited indoors).

Our favourite restaurant, l’Imprimerie in the book village is also one that is owned by its commune, we learned recently. But they aim for less hearty fare, offering a menu of the day and two surprise menus of seasonal ingredients, accompanied by unusual and mainly organic wines. With eight small courses, we rarely have room for a cheese course. “Do you not like cheese?” the waiter asked during our July meal there. We confessed that we had in fact indulged in a cheese platter the previous month, when he was not there. He looked unconvinced until John showed him a photo. “Ah,” he sighed, “that would have been the day of my father’s funeral.” He surprised us at the end by producing the dockets listing the dishes we, and other regular customers, had sampled over recent years. What an archive. No wonder we never have exactly the same dishes twice and rarely the same wines.

Much of the décor of l’Imprimerie relates to printing and books. Les Innocents is a restaurant in Strasbourg that we have only been to once before, but a July medical check-up gave us a good excuse to return. For some reason, the décor there aims to recapture the ambience of the thirties and prohibition, with sepia photos of 1920s Australian gangsters and the wine bottles imprisoned behind metal bars. Even the photos of the chefs recall Chicago gangsters with their hats pulled low over their eyes (these were the same chefs who opened Coté Lac in Schiltigheim, some of you may remember from the past?) We again enjoyed our lunch there, served by an efficient, friendly waitress, who was, thankfully, not disguised as a gangster. Afterwards we strolled down to the protestant Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune church to see its striking frescoes which are being restored in a ten-year project.

We try to avoid indulging in too many delicious patisseries here, but were tempted to stop one morning after another appointment for coffees and a lime tart or chocolate confection. What an idyllic image, as beloved of birthday cards, of a patisserie, tables, parasols and the odd bicycle, only slightly marred by the strong smell of fish from the establishment next door.

Thus began our twenty first summer of retirement in E2E, with its long, hot days (did we also mention the hailstorms with hail the size of golf balls and the multiple warning e-mails from insurers to park cars inside and, later, how, if necessary, to make a claim?), leisurely travel, kestrel watching, restaurant lunches and the occasional cake.

E2E fireworks

How did the cattle, which had been grazing peacefully in the fields all day, and the kestrels now perching somewhere in the trees, cope when this rural tranquillity was disrupted on the evening of 13th July? As it got dark and we walked down to the parking area round the village shop and café, we could hear the loud music and had to stand aside for cars from outside the village nosing up our small road in search of parking spaces. It was time to celebrate the storming of the Bastille once more. All the village children and young people must have been there, some dancing, others sliding between the teeth of an inflatable monster, while their elders sat at tables with drinks. Torches flashed in the field as men checked their fireworks. Then, around 10.45pm, bang! A stunningly loud volley as flashes of light shot into the sky and cascaded down. The lights went out, the music and dancing stopped, and everyone dashed to the edge of the field. What a racket! And then it was all over for a year. Liberte, egalite, fraternite and all that.

Should we wish to escape briefly from la Republique, John’s passport has now arrived, so, despite the increasing Covid cases everywhere, a summer UK visit is now feasible.

Additional photographs
A short stay between and Bourg-en-Bresse and Mâcon
Royal Monastery of Brou
The return of the kestrels – 2022

 

Sullen skies over Entre-deux-Eaux, December 2021 to mid-March 2022

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2022no1.pdf (five A4 pages)

Some photographs have links to more images and
there are also links to photographs in the text

Saharan sandy sky

Saharan sandy sky

On Tuesday 15th March the sky turned a lowering shade of dirty yellow, and the car windscreen wipers had to work hard to clear the windscreen of large sandy splodges. Car wash facilities later did a good trade. Saharan sand was blowing north on the Sirocco as it did in February 2021. The skies have not, of course, been leaden throughout winter here but there have been a lot of dull grey days. So occasional days of sun and recent spring flowers have felt glorious.

Hard on the heels of our December newsletter, the new Omicron strain of Covid caused the re-introduction of travel restrictions and uncertainty over ease of re-entry to France. We were touched by the sympathetic and supportive response of family and friends to our reluctant decision to remain in Entre-deux-Eaux over Christmas despite having booked our Eurotunnel ticket. The post office in Saulcy-sur-Meurthe was the main beneficiary as we bought up all the stamps for European destinations they had in stock for our Christmas cards. For once we were glad that UK shops stock up with Christmas food unseasonably early, as we had bought some mince pies in October (some for Helen’s Brain Teaser group), so consoled ourselves with coffee and the last mince pies the group had not eaten.

Peruvian angels and branches

Peruvian angels and branches

Our thoughts then turned to long distance Amazon Christmas present orders, Christmas decorations for here rather than there, and finally French Christmas fare. We didn’t find any holly in the orchard or forest, so picked the deep pink spindle, white honesty, aromatic sage, rosemary and lavender from the garden, added pine cones and branches from the forest, and later found clusters of low-hanging mistletoe outside the book village, to arrange round the candles, plaster Peruvian angels and kings, and in a wreath on the door.

A few days before Christmas we raided our classy local freezer shop, Thiriet, for some treats over Christmas and New Year. From the entrée section we selected some prawn pastillas, guinea fowl and foie gras pastillas, and scallop and salmon parcels. Crispy prawns and prawn nems came from the exotic Chinese-cum-Thai cabinet, and from the dessert section we chose a box of creamy Paris-Brest and some Arabica coffee, chocolate and whisky confections. We already had a guinea fowl stuffed with foie gras in the freezer, carrots, parsnips, curly kale, and Jerusalem artichokes (delicious mashed with garlic) from the garden, and some favourite wines in the “cellar” – better known as the barn. At the Belgian supermarket we had found Brussels sprouts, actually labelled from Brussels. And to round off, we had some boxes of chocolate and John’s Christmas cake that we would no longer taking to England. So we were all set for several days, if not weeks of feasting, especially with the addition of our pickles to the left-overs (we were glad to find an old jar of pickled walnuts on a shelf in the barn, a delicacy that we have never seen in shops here).

Dickens' London jigsaw puzzle

Dickens’ London jigsaw puzzle

Before we opened it on Christmas Day, we thought that the light (so not books) box that had arrived from Ann and Derek might contain crackers, but were delighted to find hours of entertainment in the form of a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle of Dickens’ London. So, despite the dull, damp and rather nasty weather, we had bright lights indoors, a fridgeful of food, and books, crosswords, football on TV and the puzzle to allay the sadness of not being with the family.

A village decoration

A village decoration

At the start of January we saw two of our neighbours who were out walking after an exhausting festive period with all their family visiting – between them they had ten grandchildren and their parents to entertain. They confirmed that the mayor’s annual New Year greetings (a speech followed by champagne and nibbles) had been cancelled due to the alarming rise in Covid cases. The January and February club reunions, including the popular January lunch, of village oldies had also been cancelled, as had all group gatherings for galette des rois and champagne.

Village lunch for the oldies

Village lunch for the oldies

And the lunch offered by the mayor and council for the village oldies was, like last year’s, delivered to our door. The festive lights and merry decorations around the village seemed to get taken down earlier than usual, well before Candlemas.

As the French hospitals filled up with Covid cases (85% of whom were unvaccinated) there were protests in the larger towns over Macron’s remarks about making life difficult for people who were refusing vaccinations. At the same time we were hearing about Downing Street parties (or work meetings), Djokovic’s attempts to circumvent Australian policies to play in the Australian Open, and Boris’ plans to relax restrictions over mask wearing, working from home, self-isolation and border tests.

Leila and her friends had decided before Christmas that their plan to take a winter break in Berlin might be better changed to the Lake District. But soon after their arrival at the rented house, she wrote that on the day before they had a booking for Sunday lunch at l’Enclume (promoted from two to three Michelin stars a few weeks later) she was feeling very coldy and had tested positive for Covid. As she had only just started to feel better after long Covid, we were concerned, but it does not seem to have lingered for too long. John got pinged by his Covid app here to say that he had been in contact with someone with Covid, but decided it was probably someone at the far end of a supermarket as nothing developed. But it did mean we delayed plans for a restaurant meal. France did not start to relax restrictions until 14th March. The next day we heard that both the mayor and his deputy have Covid.

As we continued to hear of difficulties in the UK over getting face-to-face GP appointments, we were glad to report that here consultations remained possible. But we were affronted to discover, when we rang for routine check-ups, that our much appreciated GP had retired a week or two earlier without our knowing. Apparently he’d started telling patients in October of his departure but we’d not seen him since August.

With twenty minute appointments (which usually ended up being much longer) we had always chatted about language and travels when we’d dealt with health issues, and his health advice, including negotiating the French system, was thoughtful too. Although we knew that he and his partner who had set up the practice together, were looking around for eventual replacements, and were reducing their hours, we didn’t expect it to happen just yet. He looked far to young and fit to go now. But it seems that the forthcoming birth of twin grandchildren in the south of France had influenced his timing. So we saw a new, young, fast-talking colleague, who assessed our records and made all the necessary on screen changes for him to become our médecin traitant. We just hope he slows down a bit in his speech. We did, however, still have the luxury of twenty minute consultations – and he was not running horribly late (we always used to take a good book for the long waits before our appointments).

The next day John was able to get an emergency dental appointment for a painful tooth and was chastened by the stern rebuke he got for his long absence. Thinking she had better make an appointment with her dentist in the same group practice, Helen discovered that he, like our doctor, had decided it was time to retire, and was fully booked until his last day. She was given a date four months ahead with his successor. For some reason one expects these pillars of the community to be around for ever. Even the priest, Pere Eric, who served Entre-deux-Eaux (on rotation among many other local villages) and took Madame Laine’s funeral, has gone back to Burkina Faso.

Talking of Madame Laine, I wonder what happened to all of her husband Pierre’s hunting trophies after their daughter modernised and moved into her parent’s house? The heads hung all round the dining room walls, the largest being a stag. Who now goes after the local boars, as Pierre and his pals regularly did? Many of the older village hunters have gone. But somebody must. When we discussed, with our neighbours, the main dish delivered by the commune as part of the Christmas lunch to our doorstep (along with 2 half bottles of wine each, nibbles, starter, cheese and dessert) we decided the unlabelled meat was probably boar.

Woodpecker work

We have not seen any of the local deer this winter. Before Christmas John was forced to line a gap under the eaves with bricks as a green woodpecker was busy drilling through the wooden boarding into the attic. Was it the same woodpecker who had bored so many holes into the telegraph pole opposite that ENEDIS had to replace it and another recently?

Our last resident in the attic, apart from mice, had been the stone marten several years ago. We recalled it when Jessica talked on the phone about the hole in the wooden shingle roof of her house in Broadstairs and John suggested it could be caused by a marten rather than squirrel. There were some local Kent newspaper reports from earlier in the summer of a marten being spotted. The local pest control were puzzled by the unusual scat that they found. It turned out that a couple of pine martens had indeed escaped from the Wildwood Trust outside Canterbury. The Wildwood Trust seemingly have plans to reintroduce them into Kent. Have the residents been told of the damage martens can do, including killing chickens and gnawing car electrical wiring (which is a significant problem in Germany?) Despite the damage they cause they are a protected species both here and there. Nevertheless, here the local farmers are known to shoot them.

But let it not be thought that we are heartless about wildlife. One morning in February we saw a slinky white ermine sniffing round near one of our old woodpiles, although we have not seen one since or in the previous twenty years (and unfortunately did not have enough time to photograph it).

A couple of weeks ago we went to Colmar to purchase a small window which John fixed on the wall in the attic in front of the opening where the kestrels nested last year. In the hope that they might return this year, he put in a wood base with a special sill with a ledge to prevent eggs and chicks from rolling (or being pushed) off. To complete the welcome he added some woodchips and sawdust. So we hope they will be tempted. Some have already returned to established sites in Alsace and further north in the Vosges.

As we crossed the col de Bonhomme to pick up the window, John noticed that a lorry with a Lithuanian registration plate also had a notice saying “I am not going to England” (presumably to discourage stowaways?) On a less sad note than the lorry, as Helen’s brain-exercise group were deploring the Ukrainian situation, Martine added that her 39-year old son, who works in Germany, had for the first time brought a girlfriend home with him on a visit. He had not mentioned that she is a Ukrainian who has also been working in Germany. There was a panic as Martine wondered a) what food to cook for her and b) what language they could use to communicate with a girl who spoke German and Ukrainian (which they do not) but not French. They had to resort to rusty English. And the tagine was appreciated.

Very creamy Vacherin

On the way to purchase the window, we stopped in Lapoutroie, a village on the other side of the Col for lunch at a hotel where we had not eaten for many years, – since 2005, in fact. Outside were large centenary exhibition photographs of scenes from the First World War, when Lapoutroie was German. Inside they still adhered to a sort of class system which separates those eating the cheaper menu of the day from those eating fancier fare. We had forgotten quite how much cream could be piled on Alsace desserts, but prudently asked for black coffees afterwards.

Other small items of news from here, are that we now have a new, larger garage door after the old one was rammed (possibly by an anonymous trailer) before Christmas. We have not yet replaced the smashed flower tubs, but the vegetable patches are covered in a layer of the cow dung we acquired as compensation from the farmer.

We should finally get a full fibre internet connection before summer (rather than by copper cable from the fibre junction box in the village), courtesy of a Grand Est-owned company which is cabling the villages, as they have been hanging fibre cable from the poles. Orange (France Telecom) has stopped supplying PSTN telephone lines. They will decommission all their copper cabling and their posts between 2026 and 2030. The new companies installing fibre cable have to install new posts where necessary. Ducting doesn’t seem to be affected. We spent a happy hour or two last week just standing on the doorstep watching two young men running a long length of fibre cable from the last electricity/telegraph pole (the new one opposite our front door) through a tube under the road to a manhole outside our garage, where it took a right angle and was edged into another underground pipe and drawn 100m through to the three houses at the end of our road.

Spring flowers

The last bit of good news is that the sun has come out this week, and in addition the snowdrops and hellebores we are enjoying the daffodils and oxslips in the orchard.

Moon 10 March 2022

First Quarter moon 10 March – click to open the series

 

With the clearer skies at night this month and the moon rising in the early evening, John has also been taking a series of photos of the waxing crescent to full moon phases. Long may the good weather last!

 

Break-out from Entre-deux-Eaux, September-November 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no4.pdf (six A4 pages)

Some photographs have links to more images and
there are also links to photographs in the text

This morning the snow was still lying on the fields outside, the postman delivered our first Christmas card, and aromas issued from the kitchen as John baked the alcohol-soaked fruit Christmas cake. So it seemed a good time to look back over the last three months, before Christmas activities take over.

As Covid travel restrictions start to be re-imposed, we are so thankful that we had the luxury of spending two months catching up with family and friends in the UK after eighteen months absence. At one stage of the confinement we had joked that we would have forgotten how to talk to other people, and it was a great pleasure to indulge once more.

We set out for Calais at 7.20 (early nowadays for us) on 8th September, clutching our negative pre-departure Covid test results, double vaccination certificates (passes sanitaires), and photocopies of the forms we’d been required to fill in. It was a hot day, and good to stop for coffees and refreshments. We were really struck by the contrast between the French service stations (with scrupulous hygiene, the need to show passes sanitaires before purchasing coffee and obligatory mask wearing) and the casual, mask-less and grubbier Dover one. Although the French roads had been busy with work traffic and lorries for the early part of the journey, the motorway between Reims and Calais was quieter than usual, with few UK cars. The coned-off approach to the tunnel check-in felt like a maze, but there were short queues when we made it, and we were able to board an earlier Eurotunnel train. We rarely take the tunnel but this time, as prices did not differ greatly from ferry fares, it seemed preferable to remain in our car rather than mingle in lounges and it took less time. So we reached our front door in Letchworth around 17.20. After clearing the dead leaves piled up against the front door, it was good to find the house surprisingly clean inside, apart from dead spiders and flies, and the fridge and freezer recovered and usable, thanks to Toby’s clearing up after it defrosted when the power cut off. It was good to see Toby and Farrah who came round to greet us a bit later. Toby had started a new job, Farrah had progressed from Year 7 to year 9 at school since we last saw them, and Toby was able to tell us about his visit to the secondary school in Melton Mowbray that Jacob will be going to next year, so big changes.

During our stay we heard more about Toby’s contract with a consultancy and current work for Pret a Manger. But he was very busy and also solicitous for our health, so protected us from the autumn coughs and colds that Jacob and Farrah inevitably brought home from school. Leila also planned to come and stay for several days while she was still on sick-leave with long Covid, but gave us a few days first to start sorting out the house and garden.

garden on arrival

garden jungle (link)

The garden, unattended for eighteen months, was the most urgent to tackle, while the weather was good, as the grass and weeds were rampant, the hedges and ivy unruly, and there were dead trees and shrubs to cut down and dispose of. The gardening firms John initially contacted on-line or by phone were fully booked until the end of October, even for an estimate. Helen accosted Bob the Gardener who was trimming a hedge further down the road, and he seemed keen, noted down all the details, said he and an older colleague could do it in a one or one-and-a-half days, and he would get back to us with confirmation of price and a date. He didn’t. Did he feel overwhelmed by the jungle? So when Dan, a contact through an internet trader website, visited to assess and offered us two men for half a day the following week, with more hours later, we accepted.

tamed garden

tamed garden (link)

And wow, didn’t Dan and James work hard! They had finished their morning job earlier than expected, so worked on our garden from 10.30 – 19.00, with frequent trips to the tip with branches from the hedges, shrub trimmings and dead trees. By the end of the day, we could see the end of the garden, the pavements outside were clear of our overhanging greenery and the house was considerable lighter after the removal of dead trees. The only minor disaster was the cutting through of an outside socket power cable, but Dan arranged for a mate to repair it a few days later. He departed, promising to invoice us from Majorca, where he was flying next day (and where we hope our prompt payment contributed to his holiday pleasures).

Leila was able to witness, from our sofa, this taming of the jungle. She was still getting very tired, and although we were able to do quite a few things during her visit, she still need to sit down and rest quite a bit. The first day, she was also nursing a wasp sting and we contented ourselves with quietly opening birthday and Christmas presents from last year! However, Helen appreciated her advice on a shopping trip to M&S, and we all went to the Collectors’ Market in Hitchin. Helen and Leila also picked up Jacob on the Friday, when he was still very chatty about his Year 6 activities, especially sports, at school that day. We also had fun trying out a French Asterix Monopoly game and finally playing the adult rules of the Train Game. (When Jacob was quite young he had loved seeing the trains criss-crossing the map of Europe on the board, and was desperate to join in, so we had invented some simpler rules).

The first two weeks of our stay had passed rapidly, and as well as the garden, John had tackled some house problems, replacing a leaking rotted rubber downstairs loo pan seal, planing down the bathroom door and replacing the handle, installing a Raspberry Pi power cut detector, and we also considered re-decorating the upstairs bedroom, but it got no further than discussion. Helen had been over-enthusiastic about cleaning and had broken the plastic mop bucket (but it had been outside in the sun all the time), so replaced it with a more durable metal one. On the health front, we had duly posted our required Covid PCR test in a mail box outside the Jordans Cereal building in Biggleswade within 48 hours of our arrival, and Helen had arranged eye, foot and hair appointments (though perhaps a hair appointment at “Dead Swanky” does not count as a health appointment). It was a first professional cut since the start of Covid and acting-hairdresser John clearly felt demoted. We later also booked an annual car-service and brake disc pad replacements for Snowy (despite the Toyota dealer’s receptionist insisting over the phone that our model had drum rear brakes).

With all that done, we were able to continue to tackle the garden renovation at leisure, weeding, doing further pruning and replacing dead plants. A local garden centre had reduced pots of clematis, honeysuckle, Russian vine and spirea, we’d brought over some wisteria grown from seeds, and Ann and Derek later gave us some pheasant berry plants and hellebore. We regretfully gave up on the invasive Russian vine, but hope the rest of the plants now feel at home and survive. We were also able to arrange for a Letchworth gardening firm to come in once a month for future regular maintenance. We could now turn our thoughts to catching up with friends.

This was not as straightforward as it sounds. Helen had been sorry to miss the wedding anniversary of Barbara and Paul so close to our arrival. Alistair e-mailed that Susan had been rushed to hospital a few days before their planned visit. The fuel-buying panic meant that Graham and Julia were unable to find any petrol or diesel in the Maidenhead area. But we were delighted to welcome Dilys, who’d discovered she could make it up from Eastbourne with only one change of trains and without having to cross between London terminals.

poppy field

Radwell Meadows poppy field

When Jessica stayed for a few days we enjoyed a couple of local walks, one of which included an unexpected colourful field of poppies while the other offered rolling views, wild hops and lavender fields.

Saka gold deer

Saka gold deer plaque, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (link)

We also drove with her to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see the Gold of the Steppes exhibition.

As fuel problems eased, it was good to see Graham and Julia. Helen was also able to drive down to her cousin Kate’s funeral in north London. As their health problems had eased, we were glad that Barbara and Bruce came up from Winchester and Val could join us, and later Susan and Alistair were able to stop on their way to London at the start of November. Although we had all been living quiet lives, some coping with illness, and had few exciting events to recount, it was such a pleasure to meet up, share meals and chat with old friends.

We always enjoy spending time with John’s sister Ann and her husband Derek, so felt spoilt to see them not just once, but three times. We drove down to Tenterden to stay with them at the beginning of October and to finally take them out out to lunch, as promised, to celebrate their birthdays two months earlier. They chose The Pig at Bridge Place Hotel outside Canterbury, which, it turned out, had at one stage been the Bridge Country Club and had hosted legends like Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Barron Knights, Manfred Mann, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. Copies of old posters in the loos were the only reminders of the glory days, the food was average and the room crowded and noisy.

Dymchurch sea wall

on Dymchurch sea wall

The following day we had a bracing walk in the sunshine and wind along the promenade at Dymchurch, avoiding the waves at high tide which crashed against and sprayed over promenade, then visited Sue, one of Helen’s first flat-mates in London in the sixties. Lunch was a pasta, a reminder of her many years spent in Reggio Calabria, and childhood memories of plum (from her garden) crumble.

John celebrated his birthday at the end of October with lunch (rather disappointing, works canteen-like) at Fergus Henderson’s starred St John restaurant in London with Helen and Jessica. Then Leila came to stay again, along with Ann and Derek. We were pleased to see that Leila seemed better than during her earlier stay. Friday mornings with us are incomplete for Leila without a trip to Hitchin and its Collectors’ Market, which Ann and Derek enjoyed too; but Leila rested next day while the rest of us walked across the fields to Ickleford village, where we paused for drinks in the timbered Old George before the return walk. On Sunday it felt as if we were making up for all the birthday and Christmas family celebrations we’d missed as Toby, Rachel, Farrah and Holly joined us and the nine of us we sat down to the splendid Sunday lunch that John and Ann had prepared, which was followed by either watching football or playing games. It was a shame that Jacob was not there to complete the party, but he had been at Toby’s the previous week during his half term and we had enjoyed spending time with him then.

evening view of the Thames

evening view of the Thames

Making up for the very quiet birthday celebrations of 2020, we booked dinner a couple of days later at the recently opened Ekstedt at the Yard restaurant. We took the train down as far as Blackfriars Station, which was much transformed since our London days from a soot-encrusted hulk to glass palace, with the train stopping part way across the Thames, giving splendid evening views of the illuminated buildings up and down the curving river. The walk along the Embankment brought back memories of our riverside explorations together after work back in the dim and distant past. We met up with Jessica in the lobby of the Great Scotland Yard Hotel and were ushered to a table in the dimly lit restaurant close to the noisy kitchen and open fire to await a series of Scandinavian style taster dishes. Courses like the seared smoked venison heart, allspice, lingon berries, parsley, mushrooms and shallots which were heated in butter at the table and served with flatbread, were tasty, but we found the serving of only two small cep souffles along with three pine needle ice cream/wild blueberries at the end to share between three of us very niggardly (especially sharing food in these Covid times; later correspondence has resulted in a return invitation).

Three days later, we were all packed up and setting out to stay overnight with Ann and Derek, before an early morning start for the Eurotunnel and drive back to Entre-deux-Eaux. It had been so good to see family and so many of our friends again.

Back here, it felt like a mirror image of things that had needed to be sorted out in the UK – garden, health and house. After harvesting squash, marrows, parsley and a few surviving autumn raspberries from the potager which had been neglected for two months, it was time to put pots and tubs of delicate plants like geraniums, fuchsia and hydrangeas to overwinter in the third barn, to wrap protection around the peonies, clematis and roses outside, and to bring in trickle watering pipes and garden furniture before the frosts and snow. There were leeks, carrots, beetroot and parsnip to dig up when required and some curly kale.

We also needed to catch up with health appointments, starting with our Covid booster and flu jabs. We had collected our flu vaccines from the pharmacy, who said the Covid centre could do both at the same time, and the receptionists and doctor at the centre said the same. However, the nurses at the centre didn’t want to give the two at once, but wouldn’t say why, just “I don’t agree with it”, while insisting that they were only there to do Covid (one suspected the problem was lack of payment for extra work rather than health concerns), and that they didn’t have enough staff to give both to everyone (as we watched the three nurses standing chatting with no patients during our 15 minute “recovery” period).

That evening the French Prime Minister announced that over 65s would have their passe sanitaire cancelled on 15th December if they were eligible for a booster dose six months after their second injection but had not had it. This would mean they would not be able to go to restaurants, bars, cultural events etc. without an additional test. Booking slots for booster injections, many of which had been free when we booked, immediately filled up and are currently still hard to obtain, especially since the age group has been extended.

overturned flower pots

overturned flower pots (link)

Thank goodness we had got some of the flower tubs into the barn. On 11th November, as church bells tolled for Armistice Day, we opened the front door to find that six of the remaining plant tubs had been overturned during the night, with soil, plants and plastic fragments scattered across the tarmac strip between the house and road. What was upsetting was that no one had stopped to apologise or left a note during that day or the next so we reported it to the mairie, who said there had been no similar vandalism reports and suggested we contacted the gendarmerie in Fraize. After filling in the appropriate form online, we were summoned to Fraize where a trainee gendarme laboriously filled in another form with the same information. Not a good advert for the local policing, especially as they then said that they couldn’t do anything if we didn’t know the perpetrator(s)!

Six days after the event, Helen was clearing up all the earth, retrieving and replanting the tubs’ contents in remaining pots, and gathering up the shattered fragments of plastic, when the farmer, who had been roaring past all morning in his tractor with spraying tank attached, stopped and said rather sheepishly that it was he who had caused the damage, and offered to pay. (Had our mayor warned him that we had filed papers with the gendarmes?) As the pots were quite old, and village trade tends to be in goods rather than cash, Helen asked if he could let us have some manure for the vegetable plot instead. (Coincidentally, our neighbour in Letchworth had kindly given us some flower tubs that he no longer needed, though unfortunately they are still in Letchworth.)

Mediterranean shellfish, chickpeas, tomato, purslane and shellfish foam

Mediterranean shellfish, chickpeas, tomato, purslane and shellfish foam

We then concentrated on other medical appointments (audiology and cardiology), house needs like replenishing the heating oil, and pleasures like pensioners’ games and a restorative lunch at the l’Imprimerie. It was on the morning of the oil delivery, twelve days after the flower tub incident that John opened the door so that the approaching oil delivery lorry could uncoil its hosepipe and fill up our tank inside the barn. In front of the door was more earth and plants and an overturned tub. But worse was to be seen. The door of the adjacent garage had been bashed in and was hanging off its frame. So, after the oil delivery, it was phone calls to our insurers and the gendarmerie. A few hours later two gendarmes came out to inspect the damage and quiz a passing neighbour whether they’d seen anything or had another explanation. Then we had to go into the gendarmerie in the afternoon to lodge a formal complaint. Fortunately it was not the trainee who was doing the form-filling, but, after a long wait, one of the men who’d been out to look at the damage. A colleague of his rang the farmer who said he was not responsible this time. So we are left with a nasty feeling of persecution, a promise from the gendarmes to keep their eyes open, and the need to organise estimates for replacing the door.

The fortnightly Scrabble group that Helen has been going to for many years, has finally folded, but has now been replaced by a choice of games, like Rummikub, Triominos, cards and also “normal” Scrabble, which has proved more popular. On alternate weeks the Brain Teasers group continues.

So there were exercises to prepare and refreshments to provide when it was Helen’s turn to run the session a couple of weeks ago. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but hopefully the mince spices and chocolate spice biscuits at the end helped. It was dark coming back from this week’s games session, so Helen saw all the Christmas lights, starting with the all-blue Christmas tree lights in Sainte Marguerite, and finishing with a surprise on our road. The Laines’ daughter has inherited their old house and it looks as if she is out to win this year’s village competition for the best display. It is not restrained or colour-themed.

And, to finish on this festive note, this Sunday lunch time Saint Nicolas will visit the children of Entre-deux-Eaux at the village hall, while Saulcy and Sainte Marguerite hold their Christmas markets with their mix of tasteful and lumpy crafts, mulled wine and home-made cakes.

After a month back in Entre-deux-Eaux, we are now watching the evolving requirements and restrictions for coming over to the UK for Christmas (and returning in the New Year!) and will put details of our plans in the covering e-mail. Meanwhile, enjoy your Christmas preparations!

a November sunset before the snow

 

A very quiet summer in Entre-deux-Eaux, August 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no3.pdf (four A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text;
some will lead to larger selections of photographs
including this link to
Our unexpected kestrel visitors

Like many of our retired friends, we decided to lie low in August while many families and younger people celebrated the long-awaited easing of restrictions by throwing away their masks and crowding to beauty spots, music festivals, protests and beaches. We were encouraged when the UK dropped the compulsory quarantine regulation for visitors from France in early August, but decided to wait and see if things had changed by September when pensioners like us traditionally tend to travel. Towards the end of August, with UK friends being offered postponed cruises (usually to somewhere other than the original destination), we decided that even if we would not cruise, we would at least cross the channel and spend plenty of time seeing family and friends at long last and also sort out the neglected Letchworth house.

You will have gathered that in the meantime we have had a lot of enjoyment from watching the kestrels from eggs through hatching into fluffy chicks, fighting over food, gaining feathers, flexing their wings, and finally flying. It was hard not to endow them with human emotions and characteristics.

ten days before leaving

John fretted when he felt the parents were neglecting to return sufficiently often with food and Helen worried that her pre-breakfast gardening in the potager below their nest was disrupting their routines. It was possible to imagine the parents worrying that the grey and black (gardening clothes colours) creature might spot them returning to the nest, unaware that the grey and black thing already knew where their nest was.

juvenile kestrels two days before leaving

One of the chicks seemed to grab most of the food when a parent delivered it and also to bully the other two – a bossy big brother? On August 12 the last one flew off. We had expected them to return to their ledge after their first flights, but they seemed to find more spacious perches in the trees.

Juvenile kestrels

One day, when we drove to Saint Dié after the surrounding fields had been cut and baled, we were surprised to see kestrels, buzzards and other raptors sitting on about one in ten of the bales between Entre-deux-Eaux and the crossroads. But a few days later there were none to be seen. They had probably caught every mouse and vole (and quite a few larger grasshoppers) that had rashly put in an appearance! We still see the kestrels flying from some of the local trees.

It was just as well that we had a distraction from kestrel-abandonment-syndrome the day after they had all flown off. We had booked lunch again at the Imprimerie. None of the other restaurants that we like seem to have changed their menu since we last went. As we drove into the book village, various stalls were setting up along the sides of the street. It was a weekend book fair which was due to start at 14.00, so we thought we’d look round after lunch, despite the hot temperatures. The laid-back waiter always has some minor grumble when we chat (on our previous visit he’d had three – firstly he had just had his first compulsory-for-restaurant-staff vaccination, secondly he was extra busy as the waitress was off following a car accident, and thirdly they would have to check each client’s pass sanitaire from the start of August to see that they had been doubly vaccinated, and he did not appreciate having to act as police when busy with their own jobs). However, by our August visit, the waitress was back, and she checked our pass sanitaire without any hassle and the waiter was enjoying talking to a lot of first-time customers and explaining how the eight-course surprise menu of small dishes works alongside a menu-of-the-day.

second vegetable course: smoked slice of beef tomato with goats’ cheese ice cream

We were ushered to our usual table, and a succession of delicious dishes began to appear. Chef Morgan Fady always produces new dishes including, this time, a delicious amuse bouche of beetroot macaroons filled with foie gras and blackcurrant conserve. There was a refreshing salad of green and yellow dwarf beans with apricots, and some absolutely delicious beef with a parsley béarnaise sauce. The fish, like the beef was cooked over the wood fire, which added a special flavour. We added a new word, baudroie, to our vocabulary, which a rather overweight young man sitting with his parents at the table opposite ours instantly translated as monkfish; his fluency was a surprise in the small village – as we chatted he used other non-standard-textbook words like “bragging” – but he turned out to be a visiting Parisian. We were even brought unsolicited coffee at the end, just as we like it – the waiter must have been mortified that last time that they had no milk in the fridge.

As we expected, it was hot looking round the bookstalls after lunch, but more bookshops than usual were open, and being in the old stone-walled houses and barns, their interiors were lovely and cool. But, despite looking at a book of La Fontaine fables illustrated by Chagall and one on Gothic architecture in the Vosges, no books came home with us.

Helen had been reading a couple of books which brought back pleasant memories. One, Le Grand Meaulnes came from a small flea market. We’d come across the grave of its author Alain-Fournier quite by chance on the day we’d driven with friends to a hillside spot, in fact an American First World War memorial, which was a good place to experience the total eclipse of the sun; it felt weird, as the cows all lay down, the birds became silent and the skies darkened; afterwards, en route to Verdun we saw a sign pointing into the woods which mentioned Alain-Fournier, whose death or disappearance as a soldier in the First World War had remained a mystery until 1991 when an archaeological excavation uncovered a communal grave in which Alain-Fournier and eighteen of his men had been buried in September 1914. The quiet glade was a more poignant testimony to the Great War than the huge scale of Verdun. The other August read was a different angle on the Second World War, through the Ajax football team in Amsterdam under German occupation, the fate of its many Jewish supporters and the complicity of the Dutch. But that book also brought back happier memories of one of our last pre-Covid trips, which was to Amsterdam in May 2019, for the Rembrandt and Hockney/Van Gogh exhibitions (and a dramatic Ajax v Spurs match on TV).

We also returned to Senones last week, to lunch at the Bon Gîte. The restaurant and small hotel had changed hands around July 2019, with the great grand-daughter of the original founder taking over with her partner as chef. The food was traditional and rather uninteresting to our taste. Senones was once the capital of the old principality of Salm, and had an abbey with a famous library and the castle/palace of the Counts of Salm, both of which were sold to textile industries after the Revolution. Being close to the German border in Alsace, Senones was severely affected in both world wars by bombardments and mass deportations. When we first went there, a certain charm lingered round the old centre; but this time, as we strolled round after lunch, we were saddened by how depressed and derelict it was looking. On our way, we had admired the restoration of the abbey and grounds in the nearby small town of Moyenmoutier, which since the demolition of its ugly factory buildings was now revealed in its full extent and magnificence. So it was sad to still see in Senones the collapsed roof, scaffolding, boarded-up window openings and barred gateway of the west block of the old chateau, and the drab factory garment shop in part of the abbey. With most of the shops closed (possibly because of holidays), the old town looked as if it was decaying away.

The kestrel parents may have feared being harmed by the resident humans, but it was in fact one of the humans who got injured. A few days after they flew off, John went into the attic to adjust the camera that had been knocked as they flapped their wings. You may remember that he had had to block the window opening with something more substantial that the polystyrene that the birds had been pecking away. The something substantial was the heavy back of an old bookcase, and he dropped it on his foot. A lot of blood, dirt and antiseptic later, his foot swelled and darkened, and shoes were impossible with the large cut and bruising. To add insult to injury, he must later have twisted round as he applied Arnica gel to the bruising, and his back went.

On the medical front, we realised that summer was a good time to have a doctor’s appointment. Since the disastrous heatwave and deaths of 2003, adequate medical services have to be provided throughout summer. But in summer 2021 a lot of customers had rushed off elsewhere, and our doctor’s waiting room was empty when John had an appointment in late July, so he did not have the usual long wait. And when Helen had a routine appointment in the middle of August it was with a young locum who called her in on the dot of the appointed time and ushered her out after the allotted twenty minutes consultation. It was interesting that, when she nosily asked if he preferred working in small villages or larger towns, he immediately replied that he liked small villages as people only came when they really needed a doctor, rather than for trivial complaints. And they listened carefully and followed advice. He was off to Corcieux next. What does that say about townies?

Medical services seem to be responding more slowly in the UK. Leila’s doctor has signed her off work again as her long Covid has meant that she was too exhausted and brain-fogged when returning to work full-time. After waiting a month for a phone assessment with the long Covid clinic, she was referred to SALT (Speech and language therapy for brain fog & loosing words), pulmonary rehab, rehab/falls (presumably for exercises) and something that sounded like fatigue mosaic. She has also seen a cardiologist for an ECG, with an echocardiogram to follow. Meanwhile she has sensibly been swimming and walking. But not an easy time.

Toby and family meanwhile were able to postpone their holiday in the south of France after the UK imposed amber plus quarantine restrictions, and booked a week in some very pleasant looking Airbnb accommodation on the outskirts of Pitlochry. Jacob gave us a video phone tour of the house, and Toby sent photos of canoeing and hill hiking. Unfortunately Toby had an unpleasant return to Letchworth, as he had to go up to our house where the power had been off for over a week and the fridge-freezer contents smelt awful – the main offender being some defrosted chicken. He turned on the trip switch and most things came on again. But he still had to return a few days later to dispose of the now-refrozen food on the evening before bin collection.

And now, with the amber-plus status of France reduced to amber, we can look forward to seeing all of the family again after such a long time, not to mention sorting out the house and garden. We have booked our crossing and Covid tests for next week.

Enjoyable as it will be to see all our friends, it will probably be worth giving us a week or so to impose some order on the long-neglected house!

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!

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!

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.