Weeks 45 – 49 Easter, retail therapy, and esteemed visitors – Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

Greetings on this sunny Easter Sunday. For weeks the shops have been full of chocolate eggs, hens, rabbits, hares and fish. And Jean-Robert’s patisserie shop window also includes his pride and joy, a huge and hideous chocolate racing car (which will no doubt be melted down, unsold, after Easter and turned into individual sweets). Traditions vary in Alsace and Lorraine (and we’re right on the border) as to who delivers the eggs. In Alsace it is the Easter hare who hides the eggs (traditionally hard boiled and hand painted) in gardens. But in Lorraine it is the Church bells which leave their towers and go to Rome to visit the Pope (which is why you don’t hear bells ringing in the days leading to Easter Sunday). They then return on Easter Sunday to their own village carrying the Easter eggs.

As I walked back from the village shop with the newspaper this morning, our neighbour, Danielle Laine, in a smart lime green tweed suit, came bounding out of her house. “I thought, as I saw you going to the village, that you were on your way to mass,” she said. “It’s not just Easter, it’s the golden wedding anniversary of Jacqueline and Roger. Come quickly and join in”. We only have three services a year in the old church in Entre-deux-Eaux (the remainder being shared between the post-war churches in Saulcy and St Leonard). I’d quite forgotten that it was “our” turn, let alone that it was a golden wedding anniversary. The village electrician and his wife, M. and Mme Fresse, who used to own our house, had five daughters (who are also cousins of Danielle Laine), the second being Jacqueline. We’d met her twelve years ago at the formal signing of the house contract between ourselves and all five inheritors, and later on in the afternoon when she and her husband and various other relatives arrived to bear off battered furniture and planks of wood that they’d suddenly remembered were family heirlooms. Jacqueline and Roger had been married fifty years ago at Entre-deux-Eaux church, and today’s mass was celebrating that. So although I wouldn’t have recognised them again after twelve years, I did feel that the old family house should be represented. So I hastily changed out of jeans and into a suit and high heeled shoes (dusty in the cupboard, unworn since our arrival) and drove back to the village. Half the village was at the Church (which must have heartened the priest who is used to an audience of ten), and Jacqueline and Roger had special seats of honour at the front. The Resurrection and fidelity in marriage were linked in a masterly way in the short address, holy water was sprinkled on all the congregation, and mass celebrated by the faithful few. As we came out onto the steps and looked out across the village, the bells pealed out long and loud (Having, obviously, delivered their eggs earlier.)

“Fifty years is a long time”, I mused. “Well, I shan’t make it” said our neighbour Gerard sadly (his wife having run off with a dentist). “There are three marriages which have lasted fifty years in this village”, announced Mme Laine, as she passed John and I in the evening, “my parents, my uncle and aunt (Jacqueline’s parents, who lived in your house) and finally Jacqueline and Roger themselves”. (There must be others, surely, outside of her family?).

The other half of our marriage had meantime spent Easter morning in his dusty old overalls sorting out last bits of wiring in the kitchen via the attic. Our many visits to Cuisine Schmidt (last newsletter) resulted in our finally placing an order for base units (mainly huge gliding drawers), cooker, hob, oven, and work-surface. This must be our greatest expenditure since the boiler and underfloor heating. Poor Muriel, the kitchen designer, was too exhausted to look relieved when we finally signed the contract (all forty sheets of it – every page of two copies!). Various visitors had successfully taken our minds off this investment for a couple of weeks, but with their departure, John’s mind reverted to wiring and plumbing diagrams. Our electrician came over last Sunday to discuss changes necessitated by the new kitchen layout (his partner – small world – is a niece of Danielle Laine, so stopped off there with their toddler for a chat, whilst John and Fabrice talked wiring). We’d originally had to guess where we wanted the sockets for the dishwasher and oven when the wiring was put in a couple of years ago but they’ve ended up on completely different walls. And then there was the need for wiring for the extractor, under-shelf lighting, and different ceiling lighting. However, Fabrice, who always seems to be suffering from a heavy cold, is behind with the re-wiring for a shop due to open on 25th April having been off work for three weeks, so couldn’t do anything for us until the beginning of May, when we want to be in England. However, the chat clarified things for John, who has now completed the re-wiring himself. Nicola’s plumber has installed the copper pipes for the bottled propane gas for the hob (to keep in line with regulations), and John has plumbed in the water and waste pipes for the sink and dish washer. So all the plasterboard is back in place, ready for the joins to be plastered. A luxury would be to paint the walls and ceiling before the units arrive – if there’s time!

Some of our recent visitors were gravely concerned by the number of visits we make to IKEA in Strasbourg. They assure us that there is treatment available for addictions like this. However, we’ve been very pleased with the IKEA book shelving, wardrobes, and glass light shades that we’ve bought on various visits, not to mention the two red sofas which were delivered before breakfast on the morning critics were due to fly home). So it was with high expectations that we set out last Wednesday to select some ceiling spotlights for the new kitchen (which would enable John to position his wiring.) In the end we chose three fluorescent lights, which should give even better lighting from the sloping ceilings. So after Kitchen Installation Day on May 14th we should be able to eat food straight from the new kitchen (rather than food cooked in the old farmhouse kitchen and carried across two barns and upstairs to the new dining room). For that matter it may soon be warm enough to eat dinner outside on the new balcony (perhaps balcony is rather a posh word for the slab of un-tiled concrete without any railings – but it does have a lovely view of the sunsets! And it’s been warm enough for lunch out there the last week. And it will be prettier with a few geraniums and bay trees).

Not all our “retail therapy” involve the international chains like IKEA and Cuisine Schmidt. There is also shopping village-style. The village shop, which nearly died a few years ago when the old proprietors retired, now flourishes – more on the bar takings than shop sales, I suspect. A few elderly ladies still pedal up laboriously on their push-bikes, take their time over their weekly purchases and gossip, and have their euros counted out and explained by the vivacious shop-keeper. And the shop keeper must have heard somewhere that the English like to talk about the weather, as she now usually tells me what weather is predicted (either in the newspaper I’m about to buy or on last night’s TV). But for every person in the shop, there are four or five men in the bar (and yes, it does seem to be all men). The shop no longer runs a bread delivery to remote parts, but there is a weekly fish van, whose nearest regular stopping place is outside Danielle Laine’s. Flashy mattress and linen salesmen call from time to time, sounding like con-men. And Beatrice sells more patisseries from her old yellow van parked at weekly markets than she does from the St Die shop. When as I child, we lived three miles from the nearest shops, I remember the weekly excitement of the small battered van that called. I never knew how it’s owner’s name was spelt, but it sounded like Mister Geekie. He sold earthy potatoes, liquorice boot laces, mounds of spring greens, seed packets and sherbet dips. Those were also the days of onion sellers and knife grinders on bicycles and gypsies with little log baskets filled with primroses – not to mention the rag and bone man.

So has been a pleasure to discover the local modern French equivalents. The Red Cross collects old garments, children sell wild daffodils from the hillsides around Gérardmer and, on May 1st only, posies of lily of the valley, and most exciting of all there are several hardware vans that tour the villages. These hardware vans turned out to be enormous articulated lorries carrying huge stocks. The postman distributes their catalogue stamped with their nearest venue and date and time. Whilst our English visitors were with us, we had an unusual occurrence. Both enormous lorries were due in Saulcy on the same date and time! The men all bundled into one of the cars, and I leaped in at the last moment as I saw then setting off (this was man stuff, but I was allowed along as the more fluent French speaker). One lorry was spread-eagled in front of the Mairie, but the other was harder to find. Its scarlet bulk was wedged between old cars in a garage off the busy main road. It was a masterpiece of parking, and we wouldn’t have easily spotted it had it not been for its flamboyant scarlet livery patterned with yellow and blue spanners. Getting across the main road on a busy Sunday evening was another matter. Our purchases were most satisfactory. We bought an awning for the terrace and two garden arches and Alistair bought a case of spanners. Then in a rash moment John asked if I wanted to look at their weather vane. As we were by now major purchasers, the driver obligingly unpacked his boxed-up copper weather vane. This was perhaps not quite as fine as the hand-made-by-small-artisan one which I’d coveted months ago, but it was a tenth of the price and most handsome and gleaming. Next morning Alistair and John were to be seen on the workshop roof fixing the cock on the ridge and positioning the arrow and directional arms (disconcertingly spelling NOSE, rather than the NWSE pictured on the box). It’s very soothing to stand by the window watching it twist and turn, but I hope that it is never subjected to a wrenching gale like the Great Tempest of Boxing Day 1999.

Its been lovely having recent visitors from England and from Germany. The cheap Ryanair flights make popping over for a long weekend from Stansted, almost quicker than driving through the Black Forest and over the German / French border at the Rhine. And perhaps we should point out that the highlights of their visits were more varied than just a trip to two hardware lorries! With our Nottingham visitors, my main memories are of a Saturday investigating (in the rain) the sculptures on the storm-devastated Col de Mandray, walking (through the snow) and picnicking above the frozen Lac Blanc, wandering through the sculptures, paintings and altar pieces of the Musee Unterlinden in Colmar and ending up sipping coffee outside (in the late afternoon sunshine) in a Colmar square. A day of all-weathers! Then there was the Sunday morning stroll for the newspaper (and beyond), followed by lunch at the packed Auberge in Le Valtin, then the Art Exhibition at St Die Museum which included two of Nicola’s paintings. With all the hot weather, there wasn’t enough water in the rivers to make canoeing interesting (or dangerous), but the shady forest walks were agreeable, if strenuous. Who will forget the views from the orientation table at the Sapin Sec (or Alistair hanging dangerously from the tree at the summit – surely not the original dry pine?). Or scrunching through the crisp autumn-brown beech leaves to the foot of the Nideck cascade (in the forests where a mediaeval Saint Florentin lived alone with the wild animals, and where robber baron castles were built on rocky pinnacles).

And of course there were the long leisurely evening meals over which John had been slaving (voluntarily) whilst we were often out gallivanting. And then there were the expeditions with Margrit – several of them re-visiting places she’d previously enjoyed, like the book village at Fontenoy la Joute and the Celtic hill site at La Bure (another lovely forest walk). The visit to the local farm museum was a success as was the Monday lecture on Byzantium (as Margrit is an ex Latin teacher with a good historical background and could date all the Emperors mentioned).

Since our visitors left, one final piece of retail therapy has entailed a surprising amount of work. John can never resist a free, no-obligation competition and he’s often been lucky in draws. So it was hardly surprising when he won second prize in a beauty contest ( or was it a garden centre) draw for which he, Nicola, and I all submitted identical entries; however, justice was done as it was he who’d looked up the answers to the three questions about the early history of the Truffauts who founded the garden centre and completed the entry forms. I think second prize was best, the first prize being a year of beauty treatments, the second a year of garden plants (four quarterly vouchers totalling 300 euro), and the third a year of jams. The garden plants have to be chosen each season and the voucher spent in one visit. For Spring John chose a quince tree, a thornless blackcurrant, and some herbs, and I helpfully added an old fashioned scented rambling rose and some packets of sweet pea, French marigold, sweet William, rocket and dwarf bean seeds, and some potting compost. This prize has resulted in the total re-organisation of the herb garden. All the black plastic has vanished, metre square plots surrounded by paths created and the herbs divided and replanted in orderly squares. I’m always taken by the French potagers with their colourful flowers surrounding the vegetable plots and strips. So I was rather surprised when Farmer Duhaut (who’d come to make peace and agree which bits of our meadows he could cut and graze this year) asked whether the English always made so many paths round their plants. Mme Laine was more understanding when I pointed out the advantages of the cook being able to gather fresh herbs in his carpet slippers in all weathers! The arches from the hardware van are in place down the central path, and the rambling rose planted out (in one of the herb squares, with some strawberries).

Planting out the blackberry was not a simple matter of digging a hole, as the space intended for it still contained roots and the stump of a Fresse family Christmas tree that had grown huge in the middle of the vegetable plot and we’d felled five or six years ago. And we still have to agree a spot for the quince tree! However, in the meantime, I’ve also been able to take advantage of the light and sunny potting area which John has created for me behind the boiler in the middle barn. Sowing seeds in trays in there has felt like playing gardens! I’m not sure what we’ll want to buy in summer, though! And then there’s still the Autumn and Winter parts of the prize to come.

With all the work on the kitchen and garden involved as a consequence of our purchases / prize, it will be quite relaxing to leave it all behind for a week or so in England at the beginning of May. Exactly a year after we made the great move, it will be lovely to spend time with our mothers, Toby, and friends and contemplate with them our first year in the Vosges. We’ve also promised ourselves a few second-hand bookshop visits, culminating in a weekend in Hay-on Wye … we’ll soon be needing a trip over to IKEA for some more shelving!

Just imagine, by the time of the next newsletter, we’ll be into our second year here. A la prochaine!

Weeks 42 – 44 Accordions, Hypochondriacs, and Kitchens: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

A week or so ago, we were standing outside our elegant village hall. We were, accidentally, half an hour early for the great village event, the Accordéons de Nîmes, having thought the event started at 14.00. Now I’ve discovered that it’s usually a good idea to arrive early in time for social events anyway, as it gives you time to circulate the other participants, shaking hands with or kissing everyone you know. This happens before keep-fit and before the summer walks (and in fact it’s very disruptive if anyone arrives late for keep-fit, but can’t bear to forgo the ritual politeness). However, we realised how few of the village “ancients” we even recognised. Standing outside in brilliant sunshine, we greeted the former shop-keepers and were relieved when Danielle Laine and her sister, Giselle Duhaut, turned up. The change in the weather brought forth comments on spring having arrived – and they seem to have been true.

The hall, a lovely light, airy modern building with a high roof (supported by the laminated wood beams so often used here rather than metal joists) and pine clad ceiling, had been laid out with long tables. Some tables had names written on their paper tablecloths. Later it turned out that these were the tables which had been set aside for a large contingent from the neighbouring village of Mandray, most of whom arrived late, thus delaying the start. “Don’t know any of them”, sniffed Mme Laine, despite being married to someone who was born and brought up in Mandray. There seems to be a degree of rivalry between the two villages. However, Entre-deux-Eaux has a better village hall and so President of the Mandray group had proposed it to the Accordéons de Nîmes as a venue, and our Mayor had kindly offered to waive charges for such a cultural event for his community.

Marcel, our former shop-keeper, had been known far and wide for his accordion playing on Saturday nights in his village bar (the centre of village social life before the building of the village hall) and at weddings, and clearly the ancients of the village were expecting a jolly event, with plenty of dancing and drinking (with the bar staffed by the several ancient barmaids/organisers – after all, they had to cover cleaning and other costs).

After the Mandray contingent had been specially welcomed by the Voluminous Lady draped in black silk, velvet and chiffon and our Mayor had been thanked for generously donating the hall, the accordions (who included violin and percussion) broke into a foot-tapping medley to break the ice. The most sociable of the farmers’ wives and a lady-friend took to the dance floor, old village women circulated the tables taking orders for bottles of wine, squash, and coffees, and a party of children dressed and face-painted as clowns, tiger cowboys and a diminutive scarlet and black ladybird also arrived. The costumes were because it was also Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival. The event seemed poised to be a great colourful social success.

But then the mood changed. Voluminous Lady clapped her hands and hissed, insisting on silence, as she introduced her young soloists, all of whom were medal winners and accordion or violin prodigies, and announced they would all be giving individual contributions. Baptiste, aged fifteen and three quarters, was particularly special, she announced, as his voice was still that of a soprano and he would give us a particularly beautiful rendering of Ave Maria, accompanied by his big sister. So Baptiste put down his violin and, with a soulful expression, took the microphone. The ancients of Entre-deux-Eaux continued, unmoved, to order their drinks and converse, despite appeals and ssshing noises from Vol. Lady. After all, Baptiste wasn’t an accordion, his half-strangled voice hit a few odd notes and anyway you couldn’t dance to Ave Maria. Partway through, Baptiste’s Big Sister, in a fit of artistic fury first thumped the piano keys, then stopped playing. Bar orders and chatting continued. Vol. Lady requested silence and no movement. The bar ladies continued to ferry drinks and collect money. The group President from Mandray stood up and imperiously told the country bumpkins of Entre-deux-Eaux that this was a concert and that they should be quiet, sit down, and appreciate the beautiful music in silence. This did not go down well. The reproved villagers glowered. The elderly barmaids were crimson and mortified. Baptiste resumed his soulful expression and his singing. The Mandray contingent applauded loudly, to make up for the peasants of Entre-deux-Eaux. After a while the clowns, cowboys, and ladybird started sliding on the floor, the visual highlight being when the scarlet ladybird swapped headgear with one of the clowns. Despite the earlier set-back, Baptiste was later prevailed upon to undertake the role of Carmen, though it was very hard, as he again looked soulful, to imagine him in a flounced skirt and with a rose between his teeth rather than as the bespectacled fat boy we can all remember from schooldays. The villagers were beginning to wonder about the promised dancing, as the interval approached. However, they’d paid their ten euros, so were going to make the most of it (and show Mandray that they could be cultured too). Fresh bottles of wine and crémant were ordered. We had no such qualms, and slipped out into the sunshine at half-time, muttering that we had a lot of outdoor things to get on with in the sunshine.

There are times when the highlights of our week seem to be the visits to local bricolages or DIY emporia. This week we seem to have been haunting the local pharmacy. “They’ll think we’re hypochondriacs”, I murmured as Snowy pulled up Pharmacie Barthelemy Bombarde (splendid name). But perhaps we’re just becoming integrated into the French way of life, which seems to involve large quantities of prescriptions. You can’t buy aspirin and the like in supermarkets – French pharmacists have a monopoly – so, if you have the time, it is easier to get a prescription from the doctor. There are no shops like Boots, only para-pharmacies which seem to sell slimming compounds and beauty products.

Nicola has experimented with various GPs including the rugby playing one who took out Toby’s stitches (following a painful encounter with a soap holder when he slipped in a shower) and the orchid fancying one in her village who always insisted on hugs from Nicola as part of his payment. However this doctor struck her as more serious, as his huge study is lined with medical books. You don’t need an appointment; as most GPs work on their own there is no receptionist unless it is the doctor’s wife. You can just turn up, ring the bell, usher yourself into the waiting room and wait for it to be your turn. (Who said the British were the masters of the queue system!). Actually, there are so few people in the waiting room that it isn’t a great problem deciding whose turn it is! We suspected sometimes the doctor might do as much waiting as the patients. But perhaps the two sunny days we chose were untypical, although one was only an hour into Monday morning surgery.

Doctor Tarralle’s study was huge and imposing with dark heavy furniture, his desk was like an old fashioned solicitor’s desk but littered with computer equipment, and his couch reposed in splendour in the middle of the floor, with illuminated panels for viewing X rays behind, and cupboards containing packages of common drugs (and there were indeed medical volumes on the glass fronted bookshelves). He spoke very quietly and very fast, and wrote prescriptions in a small, apparently neat hand (however he must have been to the usual doctors’ school of illegible handwriting, as later his prescription had to be passed around four assistants at the medical specimen analysis centre and then a phone call made to him for interpretation). It still feels very odd to hand over money at the end of a consultation, but he had his machine handy to scan our Carte Vitale, which will enable us to get an automatic refund! And consultations are unhurried with hardly any other patients waiting.

Following our visit to the centre specialising in X-rays, echograms, etc. (now there you do have to make an appointment and there are several receptionists and a maze of examination rooms), the conclusion is that there is no longer any trace of a kidney stone identified when John went for a check-up last March; he just has a bad back. Is that really good news for someone who enjoys DIY? However, after taking the x-rays back to Tarralle, he collected three more prescriptions (including the aforementioned one for urine tests) before passing Go, and will probably get a massage prescription next time round. We’ll need a new filing cabinet for our medical records; the x-ray plates are ours to keep – in France you can go to any GP so need to hold onto the evidence. And also a computerised medical accounts system will be needed to track our payments and repayments from CPAM (Social Security) and complementary medical insurers for the doctor’s, x-ray centre, medical analysis centre, and pharmacy bills. And the pharmacists now greet us as regulars!

In between haunting medical establishments and pharmacies, we’ve continued to make plans for the new kitchen. When Danielle Laine came with the lady selling accordion tickets, she prefaced the sales talk with, “I’ve come to look round”. I think she far prefers the heavy oak “rustic” look in furnishings to the light and airy birch/beech look that we have. But what left her speechless was the lack of a kitchen. It fully confirmed her long held opinion that the English do not know how to cook. Otherwise, how could John possibly cook down in the farmhouse kitchen and bring the food up on a tray? It must be inedible. In the days when she looked after the holiday lettings of the farmhouse, we used to bring her typically British presents – marmalade, pickled walnuts, Scottish shortbread, gingerbread. She never made any comments, but once when I asked if there was anything she’d like me to bring, she looked at Pierre and said as politely as possible, “well anything, except food – we didn’t like any of the English food, it’s too sweet for us” – which is surprising, given the sickly- sweet cream of the standard French Christmas log.

However, I think it was a casual visit John made to the new showrooms of Cuisine Schmidt (handily situated between our supermarket Cora and our builders’ merchants Gedimat), rather than Mme Laine’s distress at our lack of kitchen, that prompted our latest thoughts on a new kitchen. John was impressed by the extra-wide work surfaces and some of the fittings inside the Cuisine Schmidt units, especially the enormous smoothly gliding drawers variously adapted for foodstuffs, bottles, pans, and cutlery (no more rummaging at the back of low cupboards). We’ve already written about the difficulty in obtaining unit prices for shelving and other furniture, and Cuisine Schmidt’s catalogue and sales persons were no different. So before he dragged me in to look at the range of units, we decided that if the routine answers of “we’d need to come and measure up before we can give you a price” were given, despite John always having a plan with accurate dimensions in his pocket, that we would resign ourselves to the French way of doing things.
We were indeed pounced on by the young kitchen designer and salesperson, Murielle, as soon as we were inside the showroom doors, and again after we’d looked round, so we acquiesced to a visit to measure us up and propose a fully costed design. Thus it was that Murielle, accompanied by a bumptious young man who lectured John at length on how to Measure Up Properly (and survived to tell the tale), arrived a couple of days later to look at our blank space (well, perhaps not blank, as the floor was covered with John’s tools, though he had hastily done a lot of tidying up so that they could actually reach the walls to measure up). Murielle filled in her questionnaire about our requirements and a few days later we received a phone call to say that her proposals were ready.
When you see things in a 3D computer representation, you begin to see the things that won’t work well with the way you’re used to moving around a kitchen (in our case the master chef in front of a broad surface, with the washer-up/assistant peeler safely out of the way in a corner). As we suspected, the total came to a lot more than we wanted to pay. So negotiations started. The patron brought us coffee; a 7% discount was offered, John asked about the “magic prices” advertised for the next three weeks (one could hardly fail to notice in the entrance the dummy dressed as a fairy with a huge magic wand), but it is hard to see what the magic prices are when no starting price is given! So le Patron was consulted and offered 10% on the electrics and 20% on the fittings. We took the plan away to reflect upon and went back with more suggestions, which Murielle patiently incorporated. However the price hadn’t come down, as, despite removing the expensive upper shelving, we’d added other options. Poor Murielle began to look desperate as we said we’d continue to think about it. “But why can’t you decide now?” she pleaded, envisaging le Patron’s wrath as she yet again failed to sell us a kitchen. At one point the brash young man muscled in to give us his opinion on what we should buy – a rather counter-productive tactic. Exasperated, he looked John in the eye and demanded what his profession used to be, as if that would explain all. A vague response about IT did not satisfy him, a programmer or system analyst would not behave thus. However “chef de bureau” worked wonders and he nodded as if to say, “I thought as much”. It’s a bit hard to know how far to push the discount system – it’s not as obvious as haggling for carpets or trinkets in craft markets in India or Africa, where you get to know the rules as you go along. (And cabinet handles seem to be ridiculously priced compared with the same items at local bricolages.) Negotiations resume next week.
However, in all our preoccupations with tailor-made kitchen solutions, we haven’t entirely forsaken IKEA, and made a trip over the hills to order a couple of sofas, and to buy another light and a duvet cover. The sofas will be delivered mid-April. Unfortunately we’ll need a return trip as the duvet cover has been unusually very badly cut and sewn in some sweatshop in India.

Our UK plug mountain continues to grow. The number of electrical appliances John has had to fit with new plugs is surprising, indeed horrifying. John now reckons there are more than thirty standard UK plugs in the mountain; and that does not include non-reusable moulded plugs which have gone in the bin. Nor have the computers been converted – they still have UK plugs but are plugged into multi-way adapters with a French plug at the end. Then there are items like the mobile phone transformers which plug straight into a mains socket so will need plug adapters until they die. Recent unpacking and re-organisation of yet-to-be unpacked removal boxes has highlighted more appliances which will need re-plugging, including some for the new kitchen.

It seems very frivolous writing all this house furnishing stuff on the eve of a possible war, with the television on in the background, giving all the latest details of war preparations and diplomatic manoeuvring. However Nicola and I have not been entirely passive. We were contacted by Françoise, the organiser of the St Die anti-war march we went on, proposing that we took part in an interview with one of the local newspapers for International Women’s Day. We assumed that the focus would be on women’s attitudes to war against Iraq, so duly brushed up on our vocabulary for that. I felt that the insults of the British gutter press had bewildered the French (“why do they call Chirac a worm?”) and Nicola wanted to explain how she felt that the American public (including women!) were being brainwashed with fear tactics. We were thus surprised to be asked bland questions like “what differences do you notice between French women and the women in your country?”, “who is the woman you most admire?”. Françoise tried her best to focus the discussion back to the proposed war. However the next day’s half page report, which included interviews with a Venezuelan and a Russian woman who also live around St Die, was an odd and bland mixture of views, hardly mentioning the war, and unlikely to sway Bush or Blair should they chance upon “Liberté de l’Est” in their perusals of the world press. (And it was not a flattering photo! Hopefully no one will have recognised me).

Given all the difficulties and days of delay that Leila faced in trying to fly from Stansted to Strasbourg, it was ironic that her flight with Zöe from Heathrow to Bangkok went so smoothly. They’d prudently booked a hotel for the first couple of nights, but soon met up with seasoned back-packers and at the end of the first day bumped into some former university friends of Zöe, found a cheaper hotel, and planned the next leg of their journey, southwards by bus and boat to the island of Ko Pha Ngan. It sounds as if they’re thoroughly enjoying the beaches there!

It’s now getting dark. Our new sitting room has windows which face south and west and we have a spectacular view of the mountains blue against the red sunset. Au revoir!

Weeks 40 – 41 Arab telephones and rumblings: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

During the snowy weather of the last seven weeks we haven’t seen much of our neighbours. The main traffic up and down our lane has been Farmer Duhaut’s tractor taking fresh bales of hay to his cattle (and, of course, the trusty postman mentioned in the last bulletin).
But by yesterday most of the snow in our fields had melted and temperatures were mild in the gentle sunshine. In the morning Monsieur de Freitas’ son Philippe turned up to replace the chimney cap which had blown off the night before the snow started on 3rd January. (M de Freitas must have had a guilty conscience about not having fitted it properly three years ago as he looked surprised when we offered to pay!) After Philippe had finished, I decided it was the afternoon for a sunny stroll over to Saulcy. Setting out across the fields I was assailed by the sound of chainsaws and tractors in the woods, the bright flames of bonfires and the pungent smell of fields freshly sprayed with stable muck. I met taciturn loggers and also two girls skiving off school who seemed to be doing nothing more sinister than sitting in the middle of a field enjoying the sun beating down on their faces. People were out in the Saulcy graveyard, checking the plastic flowers, hens were pecking sociably around gateposts, and farm guard dogs barked enthusiastically at the sight of new people. Returning along our quiet lane I passed an elderly couple walking their black dog, and a girl wheeling a young baby (reminder, must drop in on neighbour Mme Laine – or Danielle, following our resolve to use first names! – to catch up on local gossip and find out who all these people are!) It was as if the church bells (which ring out at mid-day to indicate time to finish work and go for lunch) had rung out the message “everybody out in the sunshine!”

I have continued to learn some curious new “French” words at Scrabble – if in doubt I now try out English words and indeed “rash” (but not “mash”) was deemed acceptable. It’s always pleasing to get feedback from these newsletters (someone out there has actually read to the end!). So many thanks to Bruce his definitions of tex, sphaigne and wurm.

However, it was not during Scrabble (or even after sharing with so many villagers the impulse to walk in the sunshine) that I learned the French for “bush telegraph”. As millions of people were converging on capital cities to protest against Bush and Blair’s current plans for war in Iraq, our friend Nicola heard from her friend, the wife of the patisserie maker, that an art teacher friend of hers was organising an anti-war march in St Dié, starting from the main bridge over the River Meurthe at 3pm. It didn’t quite have the media coverage of the London march, as it was only decided on the Thursday. However 180 people, including Nicola, her neighbour (the wife of a retired gendarme) and I, duly assembled at the bridge, and processed up one side of the normally busy main street, preceded by a police car. It was a very sedate march, with few banners, and absolutely no shouting of slogans. We halted at the traffic lights by the cathedral, then turned round and processed back down the other side of the dual carriage way, thus seeing the tail of the procession on the other side of the road, with its hint of frivolity – a juggler (who couldn’t keep his balls in the air), and a young man with a guitar (who didn’t seem to be playing it). Outside the local newspaper office we paused for photos, then turned left at the lights and finished at the Hotel de Ville, opposite the potent symbol of the Tower of Liberty.

Being a Saturday, it was very quiet in front of the (closed) Town hall, but everyone was reluctant to disperse and stood around chatting. The woman next to me said that the marchers were all communists, socialists and other left wingers – no hint of the broad coalition including MPs, bishops, Muslims, and ordinary families to be seen on our TV screens on the streets of London. The newspaper next day confirmed this as a protest by the Left, hastily organised by “le téléphone arabe”. This new phrase seemed an ironic one given the fact that the sizeable local north African communities (there are five million French Muslims across France whom Chirac is no doubt keen to placate) had NOT been included in the communication chain.

The Christian churches, however, relied on a notice in the same newspaper, rather than the téléphone arabe, to publicise their ecumenical evening of prayer. “Ecumenical” turned out to be Catholics, Protestants, and Gypsies . It provided another interesting insight into the French approach to such matters. One hour fifty minutes was devoted to discussion of resolutions produced by ecumenical American groups, a petition to Chirac, and statements from a Monsignor who had actually spoken with the Pope and the last ten minutes to a Bible reading, a chorus and finally – the prayer of St Francis (which, sadly, for me though not the rest of the assembly, has been ruined by a not very peaceable Lady Thatcher). Improvised prayer doesn’t seem to be a tradition. As we prepared to disperse there was a frantic suggestion from a participant that we should at least all pray in our own homes.

There was however no warning in newspapers or by bush telegraph of the week’s other momentous event. And it doesn’t seem to have subsequently been reported by the UK media. I suppose any heading would have run “small earthquake in part of Europe – no one hurt”.

On Saturday evening I was at the computer downstairs in the farmhouse, just writing to my mother (who has famously mastered the fax machine in order to receive instant news) that nothing much had happened during the week, when, mid-sentence, there was a tremendous noise like a huge lorry rushing through a confined space, vibrating everything around (Helen’s description) or a low flying aircraft skimming the chimney tops (John’s description). Interestingly these descriptions occurred time after time in subsequent newspaper reports. Then the realisation that the vibration was real, things were shaking. It was stronger than anything I’d ever experienced, but at least in the 6 seconds it lasted, I realised it must a strongish earthquake. One of Nicola’s elderly neighbours was convinced his boiler had exploded. Someone else told their children it was the end of the world. In Nicola’s village everyone rushed out onto the street. In the big towns blocks of flats were evacuated. Immediately afterwards getting a telephone dialling tone was difficult as the system was overloaded with anxious callers checking on others. In places all the lights went out (though not with us). It certainly felt close. Geological web-site co-ordinates later gave an epicentre to the west of St Die (and about 25 km from us), for an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.4 on the Richter scale, at a depth of 10km. 5.4 is “rather strong” according to our Dictionary of Geology, and we really were pretty near the epicentre, though it was felt in the whole of the east of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and also the west of Germany and Switzerland. About a quarter of the report in le Figaro was devoted to reactions of those in Paris! However no-one was hurt, and the main damage in the small villages like Ste Hélène and St Gorgon nearly on top of the epicentre were cracked walls and bell towers, a shattered Joan of Arc, and the Angel Gabriel’s hands which dropped off. None of our village worthies like M. Laine (I mean Pierre) had ever experienced an earthquake, although the newspaper reported that the large town of Remiremont some 55 km away has recorded 40 earthquakes since the seventeenth century, the last being in 1984. The village bar and newspaper sales were both doing well on Sunday morning (and given it happened at 9.41p.m. Saturday evening, we were surprised there were several pages of reports in the regional Sunday paper)!

That Sunday we lunched with Nicola, as we often do, at an auberge in one of the mountain villages (Le Valtin). The food is wholesome and very well-priced with set menus of 10 and 13 euros. The auberge is always packed on Sunday, the only day they have their wood-fired grill in the corner operational; and we know of one couple who travel from Nancy, about 120 km each way, every Sunday for their lunch. Although our snow has melted, travelling only about 10 km and ascending a hundred or so metres took us to valleys where the fields are still completely covered with thick snow and where there are notices on roadside buildings warning of possible snowfalls from their roofs. Of course, even further into the Vosges, the ski resorts are enjoying the best snow for years and are packed as February is the French school holiday season (they zone France so different regions have different holiday weeks to spread the load on the resorts).

The village “téléphone arabe” in the form of Danielle (Mme Laine) arrived yesterday with a neighbour in tow, to invite us to an afternoon of accordion music and dancing being organised by the newly formed “ancients” of the village. I think we were so overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming ancients of the village that we duly paid our 10 euros each, despite neither of us being particularly fond of accordion music or dancing. It may be a small event as we were only ticket numbers 22 and 23. I wonder whether the “Accordéons de Nîmes” are making a special trip from Nîmes or are on tour? And what will the former shopkeeper make of them – I remember him reminiscing about playing his accordion in his father’s shop/café for Saturday night dancing when he was a child.

And now, for those of you who enquired how we were getting on with the French health system (well, perhaps it was only Dr John, with a patient to whom it was of interest!) here’s the latest update:

After all our efforts to gain the right card and attestation, John’s French state health insurance was cancelled in early January. His E106, on which his membership application was based, had expired (he’d stopped working a couple of years ago and the E106 is only valid for a fixed period – not that the DHSS in Newcastle actually got the date precisely right when they issued the form). And then it got caught in a beaurocratic loop. The French national health service noticed it had reached its expiry date and sent him a letter to say so. But before proceeding to transfer him, as my dependent, to my insurance, which is valid for longer, they needed to complete their set of documents with appropriate EU document from Newcastle stating his insurance had been cancelled, since you can’t have rights under two different E106 at the same time! But, being logical, Newcastle said that as it had expired they couldn’t issue a cancellation document for something that was no longer valid (and the French should know it)! But in France paperwork must be complete. After several phone calls, Newcastle eventually agreed to provide a letter rather than the standard EU cancellation document (they’ve obviously come across this before).

However, nothing arrived from Newcastle. A few weeks later another telephone call elicited the fact that there had been overseas postal problems at Newcastle (despite knowing this they hadn’t automatically re-sent letters) and the promise of another copy. Meanwhile the French service had agreed John’s health insurance would be backdated once everything was sorted out, so he could be ill and make any necessary claim which would be sorted out once (if) the paperwork was straight. A few days later, a letter from Newcastle arrived, followed a couple of days later by the original letter. Whether the French service got the letter they had also requested from Newcastle is open to doubt as, when told of the Newcastle postal problems, they indicated they weren’t expecting anything for several weeks anyway so wouldn’t bother to request another copy for a while. Anyway, we sent one copy of our letter to Epinal and about a week later received updated health insurance documents – but they weren’t, despite the promise, backdated. So now all is straight again.

In the meantime, since my documents seemed to be in order and I was running out of routine medications which my UK doctor had most kindly (and prudently, as it turned out), prescribed for 6 months ahead, I decided to tackle the system. You can choose different doctors for different things. So first of all I wandered into the reception of a gynaecological specialist recommended by Nicola (bush telegraph again). You need to produce proof of state insurance cover when visiting a doctor or pharmacy – you have a card (Carte Vitale) with a computer chip like a credit card. They use this to bill the French national insurance; and there is a machine in our local hyper-market which allows you to read the data on the card and check the progress of any claims. However, the national insurance only pays a percentage (usually around 70% for standard treatments) of the standard national tariff, which is usually less than the actual cost. The rest has to be covered by private insurance or paid by the person receiving treatment. So my first consultation with a specialist cost 23 euro/£15.50 (a normal consultation with a doctor is about 20 euro), I paid the fee on the spot and then the state reimbursed 70% of their 22.87 euro national tariff. For the routine smear which was due, I was billed by post, have paid by post, and await the repayment and results with interest. For the prescription, the state reimbursement is 65% of the actual cost. If you have private insurance then the national insurance computer system has automatic links to the private insurance companies (although we don’t appear to have subscribed for the link between pharmacies and the private insurance company, according to the pharmacist). Depending on the level on private insurance taken out (you can decide how much “extra” cover you want, e.g. enough to bring the cover up to 100%, 150%, 200% of the national tariff – treatment costs are higher in big cities than in more rural areas) all, or only part of the remaining costs will be paid by the additional insurance. Of course, despite the refund payments being made by bank transfers, paper documents are posted around as confirmation. I hope that answers any queries you might have about how easy it is to transfer into the French system. Do I really want to do battle to obtain the next round of blood pressure tablets! But at least now (we hope!) John is in a position to do something about his murmuring kidney stone!

And now it’s off to the library to change and renew my books and catch up with the rest of the newspapers. At least I understand that system!

Au revoir!

Weeks 37 – 39 Snow, postmen, and cows – not to mention Leila’s epic journey: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

Today’s sunshine has accelerated the two-day thaw of the mounds of snow at the sides of the road, and green patches are re-appearing in the white meadows. Thinking it might be a last opportunity to take snowy photographs (with next year’s Christmas card in mind) I suggested a drive up to the hamlet of Fouchifol, a couple of miles away. The lane goes slowly uphill then emerges on a ridge with spectacular views of the distant hills and mountains on each side. There are also photogenic drinking troughs, stone crosses, memorials to the dead of fighting in the early days of World War I, ruined barns and bales of snow-covered hay. There was also far more snow still on the roads than down here in the valley despite obvious snow-plough clearance. And no possibility of pulling to the side and stopping safely on the single track roads with snow piled high on both banks. The farms seemed very isolated up on the hills with owners having to clear the snow from their, often long, drives, and I was glad we are part of a village.

With this trip still vividly in mind (alas, no photos), my eye was caught by an article in today’s paper about “le facteur des neiges”. On one of the walks in summer, I’d chatted to a fellow walker about her work as a postwoman in the mountainous countryside, with its tiny lanes and its isolated farmhouses, and appalling winter weather. So I was interested to read about postman Georges, who operates in another mountainous part of the Vosges (around Markstein, whose summit is about 1200 metres high). His daily route is between 80 and 140 km and he has a spade and his skis in the van. To deliver to his last customer in this weather, he has to park his van, put on his skis and set out in the blizzard, taking three quarters of an hour to ski there and back to his van. He did admit to not bothering to deliver if it was only advertising material! If he’s on holiday, his replacement uses raquettes (like tennis rackets strapped onto the feet) to trudge through the snow (so it probably takes him longer). At one house he puts the post in the boot of a parked car, as he’s done for years. Like my fellow walker, he can’t imagine working in a town.

This insistence on “service as usual” to the most remote farmhouses, via snow-covered lanes, rather put to shame the complete failure of local authorities to keep the M11 functioning following the snow forecast for the UK! You will appreciate how closely we were following the situation when I tell you that Leila had booked a flight to Strasbourg to see us, and was on a coach to Stansted, via Cambridge, when the snow started.

Thanks to the “joys” of mobile phones, we got a blow by blow account of the coach’s slow progress. The traffic didn’t come to a compete standstill, but they were still on the wrong side of Cambridge when her flight would have been called. On our advice, she rang Ryanair to try to transfer onto the next morning’s flight. At this stage, the Ryanair office clearly had no idea of the deadlock around Stansted and said that as it was her fault that she hadn’t reached the airport, they couldn’t transfer her (this being a budget airline), but she must book another flight via the internet. Not easy to do from a coach in the middle of nowhere (or even possible once at Stansted!). I stayed up waiting to hear what would happen when they reached Stansted, whilst John went to bed to sleep in preparation for a possible early morning drive for us to meet the morning flight (we were anticipating a difficult journey with evening temperatures already at –17C and therefore frozen snow on the roads).

After a two hour wait in Cambridge when they weren’t allowed to go to find food in case the next coach arrived and left (although it later transpired the waiting driver himself went to find food at a nearby takeaway!), a second coach took them very slowly on lesser roads than the M11 to Stansted, crossing over the M11 and its stationary traffic, and they finally got to the airport around 1a.m., twelve hours after leaving Nottingham and seven hours longer than scheduled. At the time this seemed horrendous, until we heard how of motorists were stranded in their cars on the M11 for over 24 hours.

At the airport it transpired that her flight had been cancelled anyway. So she found a space on the floor and lay down among the hundreds of other travellers. There were many Swedes amongst those stranded, and they were utterly bemused as to how a few inches of snow could bring everything to a halt when they lived without any problems with metres of winter snow. There was a mad rush to the Ryanair desk when it re-opened in the morning, and a fight was breaking out as Leila next phoned us. However the morning flight was, in its turn, cancelled. Leila was finally booked onto the evening flight without having to pay again … but then all flights were again cancelled and she settled down to a second night at Stansted. This time she and a girl she’d met went and had a hearty meal and several drinks, after which she slept better than the night before. In fact when we rang her to see if they were boarding she was still asleep!

However, her quick rush through the departure gates was un-necessary, as there was then a three hour delay in boarding. And once they did board there were delays in gaining clearance, during which their plane wheels, and those of several other planes, froze in the un-cleared snow and they had to wait for a JCB to dig them free, all of which meant another two hours delay (and no, Ryanair didn’t offer free food or drinks during any of this time).

Meanwhile we had set out for Strasbourg, as Leila headed for the departure gates, planning to meet her at the scheduled arrival time. Our little white car, which had been nick-named “Snowy” after its colour and the appalling conditions in which it had first driven back to the UK, had been parked outside the house for a couple of days and nights waiting to set out (and ready packed with emergency food and hot water, candles and matches, shovel, old towels to put under slipping wheels, tow rope, and blankets). Fortunately, given the temperature, the battery just managed to turn over the engine and Snowy started first time; although only one door on the more sheltered house side would open. The temperature gauge remained frozen at –18C even through the long tunnel under the mountains, despite the underground warmth unfreezing the electric windows and melting all the ice on the external bodywork (on the return journey the temperature gauge crept up to 14C in the tunnel, from the surrounding earth, despite temperatures at either end being well below zero). In Alsace the temperature slowly rose to –10C. The snow plough had been up our “dead-end” road several times each day (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Farmer Duhaut’s huge cowshed is at the end of our lane, and the large milk tanker needs to come up regularly to collect milk, and Farmer Duhaut is a deputy Mayor!). The main roads were well cleared and we took the tunnel which we use only rarely (a former railway tunnel under the mountains) rather than risking one of the mountain passes. We had left extra time for the journey but the roads were so clear we had enough time for an early morning coffee at a well-patronised café/patisserie in Sélestat. At the airport no one seemed to know what was happening to the plane at Stansted. So we had a wait, made even more frustrating as we expected the plane at any moment since we’d had a phone call from Leila as she boarded.

It was lovely to finally welcome Leila after her arduous journey (perhaps it’s been a good preparation for the frustrations which could lie ahead in her round-the-world travel which starts in March). Not surprisingly, she didn’t want to go sightseeing in Strasbourg. What she really fancied was a hot drink and something to eat, followed by a hot shower and a change of clothes!

Leila was fascinated to see all the changes to the new part of the house, which was just a shell when she’d last seen it, and she pronounced it more elegant than she’d imagined, and far more like home than the old farmhouse. She also liked the half of the bathroom which is finished, particularly admiring John’s tiling and appreciating the newly fitted bathroom door! Even her bed, among all the remaining packing cases in the spare bedroom, seemed luxurious after Stansted airport floor.

Not that France was immune to disruption. Various Paris airports (and Brussels airport) were shut at times because of snow. And heavy lorries were banned from roads in northern France for several days to avoid problems of blocked roads through jack-knifed lorries (seemingly the main problem on the M11). And now we have “barriere de degel” signs on some minor roads as local authorities try to avoid damage to the road structure from heavy vehicles as the roads thaw after a week or two of below zero temperatures.

As the snow continued to fall, our own postman, safe in his yellow van, with not a ski in sight, kept us up to date with road conditions, – “a bit slippery, but fine on the main roads”. (On the Sunday morning an unknown car was to be seen with its bumper in a neighbour’s fence and its wheels in the ditch, but appeared unharmed – probably over-exuberant driving late on Saturday night). Our postman is very friendly, with always a cheerful word, but I think he must be a bit shy too. Our neighbour, Mme Laine, was surprised to hear that he hadn’t asked us before Christmas if we’d like a calendar.

Now, we’d come across the firemen’s calendar during one of out first Christmases here. It was one of the few instances when I was glad to have been well prepared by Peter Mayle’s account in “A year in Provence” of the firemen “giving” calendars at Christmas in return for a donation to firemen’s funds. So we’d known what to do when our first hefty fireman turned up on our doorstep! After that we looked forward to our annual group photograph of the fire fighters together with photos of exciting fires of the past year. We were amazed in the year of the great storm, after the intrepid volunteer firemen had struggled through the snow to put a temporary covering over our gaping roof, and we’d given a generous donation in token of our appreciation, that, even in those crisis conditions, a firemen’s calendar was pulled out from beneath the black plastic, ladders and tools and presented with a flourish!

As Mme Laine described her collection of calendars, which she’d amassed over the years, it became apparent that they are a useful way to ensure the goodwill of a large number of public servants, including not only firemen but also dustmen and postmen. “I’ll have a word with the postman”, she said, “I can’t think why he hasn’t offered you one”. I duly authorised her to give a donation at the going rate, which after some work with his calculator, as they still think in francs, M. Laine pronounced to be ten euros. Next day we were setting out for Christmas in England when we saw Mme Laine deep in conversation with our postman. Apparently he hadn’t dared to ask us because all the Germans say no –  presumably they’re as unfamiliar as we are with this form of Christmas box – and it must be a bit humiliating to be refused your Christmas tip! However, it wasn’t until well into January that our neighbour on the other side brought round the firemen’s calendar, whose printing had been embarrassingly delayed this year. So now we have the goodwill of our postman and firemen, though not of our dustmen!

And finally – cows. There’s not much wildlife or even their tracks to be seen in the snow at present, though on today’s drive we did spot a huge sheep huddled against a shed wall and a rather stuffed looking buzzard on a post. And there are a lot of jays, blackbirds, blue tits, thrushes, sparrows, and bull- and chaffinches responding to John’s provision of birdseed (though we weren’t as pleased when the mice found the bird seed supply in the barns and also nibbled their way into packets of noodles, croutons, semolina, etc. in what we thought was an inaccessible storage box – still more unpacked items from Nottingham). And the cows can only be heard as you walk past the cowsheds. I quite miss the sight of the cows, so I read with interest the blurb for an exhibition currently in St Dié. It was headed “Vaches interdites”. Why were they forbidden? Was it something to do with mad cow disease? I read on with increasing confusion as the text meandered between words, which seemed to be strung together in a meaningless way. A rough translation (it didn’t seem worth spending a long time with the dictionary) would appear to be; “The pictorial set of themes of the artist articulate themselves on the reality of a regional, authentic and generous nature. A nature inhabited by beings with slow and majestic postures, immutable vestiges: cows. It shows us the cow as seductress…., makes us rediscover the sensuality of a soft muzzle on the greenest, most tender grass. Evocative curves on an elegant and comforting gait, a generous, offered and magic udder, which leads us to the origin of life”. Yes, but why are they forbidden? I don’t think I’ll take up translation. And I think I’ll go and look at the cows in Farmer Duhaut’s cowshed. I don’t think I’ll understand the exhibition! (And as an aside, from a newspaper editorial on Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN, it seems the French have elephants not bulls in their china shops).

Well, I think Leila found the rural tranquillity as tedious as she’d expected, with only the postman and birds to watch! The snow continued to fall most of her stay and the temperature remained too low to want to venture out for too long. It gave Leila plenty of time to read all her travel books and to plan not only the requirements for the trip but also possible places to visit as well. We enjoyed a lot of games of (Nottingham) Monopoly and Ming, with the occasional exodus to clear footpaths through the snow and to have Sunday lunch at a popular (and packed!) local auberge. Her trip back to England, despite the early morning start was pleasantly uneventful. And life seems even quieter without her. But I still don’t think we’ll bother with the Vaches Interdites.

Weeks 36 – 37 Sunsets and Showers: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

A couple of weeks of work on the house (see below for details, if you’re avidly following the DIY part of the story) culminated yesterday in a trip over the mountains to Strasbourg. This was not to see the glories of the cathedral or museums or (unfortunately) even to dine at one of the three-star restaurants. First stop was an as-yet-unvisited DIY superstore, where we were most impressed by the range of door handles, staircases, sliding doors and came away clutching leaflets, a new thermostatic shower control for the old farmhouse, and a satellite dish connecting lead. Next stop, yes you’ve guessed, was IKEA where we returned some spare wooden shelving, enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the restaurant, eyed up the beds (again), duvet covers, and curtain fabrics, and afterwards bought a third dining room light and a couple of glass shelves. By then the prolonged French lunch hour still enjoyed by most shops other than IKEA and food supermarkets (12 – 2 pm) was over and we headed for our main target, another doors, windows, and bathrooms store, where we bought three sets of door handles and a shutter fitting

We’d set out in rather dismal weather, but the sun was bright (almost blindingly so on the motorway) as we left the last store. Encouraged by the beautiful late afternoon light, we turned off the main road at a sign we’d frequently passed to the Cascade de Nideck. The sun was now behind the mountains, as we drove through a couple of small villages, with part cobbled streets, half timbered houses and huge churches. We drove below the ruins of two mediaeval castles, though couldn’t see them through the trees above us. The road climbed and wound, and I began to think we must have missed the spectacular falls, when by a Forestry house we saw a footpath sign. We were now high enough to still have some sunlight, so parked the car and set out down the path. After about quarter of an hour we could hear the falls and ten minutes later we were on the edge of an escarpment staring across at the falls, with the ruins of a third castle (Nideck) towering on the peak above the falls. With the tall pines, knotted roots, and jagged rocks it all felt quite gothic in the dwindling light. Alsace can look very much like a fairy tale, with gabled houses, storks and mountains. On evenings like that you could imagine the era of wolves and even bears in the great mountain forests.

The most spectacular recent sunsets have been on the evenings preceding hard frosts. Our new sitting room French windows face west (none of the windows in the old house did), and we’ve downed tools and enjoyed some amazing sunsets – the kind with ranks of gold and scarlet clouds fanning out across the sky. The pleasure can be prolonged by strolling to the end of our road and up the lane past farmer Duhaut’s enormous new cow shed to a slightly higher vantage point (as we discovered when a friend, Ann, was with us in November).

We mentioned last time the impending visit of the wood-burning stove salesman. Well, he didn’t have to do any selling. We’d had fresh snow the morning of his visit, we were snug and warm indoors and the prospect of a wood fire burning in a Danish stove was alluring. So he measured up (expressing surprise that our chimney already complied with regulations), calculated a price including delivery, necessary tubing, and installation. After a query he gave us a (small) discount, and we now await delivery.

By contrast, the farmhouse has continued to be somewhat chilly, with its heating cut out on “red” days (totalling nine in two weeks) – but then we are now only there for the shower, the kitchen, and the computer. With Leila flying out Ryanair on January 30th, John decided to make a start on tiling the new bathroom before her arrival, so that we can enjoy a shower in the warmth of the new apartment (he’d disconnected the shower before Christmas as a somewhat early preparation for tiling). So he’s been busy tiling and grouting the length of the wall with the shower on it and half the window wall, in large dark blue and off-white tiles (with a fiddly but highly decorative hand-made tile incorporated), as well as plastering and painting the ceiling. He has plans to box in and tile around the bath on that side, and then also the pipes behind the sink and loo on the other side, creating shelving above that. Finally at the far end he’s going to construct a large cupboard. But those tasks don’t need to be finished for the shower and bath to be useable. So there is a lot that Leila won’t see on this visit. However, more importantly, now we have the door handles (I’d always taken door handles for granted, but it’s taken us so long to choose these, that I shall look at and feel everyone else’s handles with a new fascination), he will at least be able to fit the bathroom door before her arrival.

The other thing I need to do before her arrival is to clear out a few more boxes from the spare bedroom, so that she has a bit more view from her bed than a wall of brown cardboard boxes!

We are particularly looking forward to her visit next week as she has now booked her air tickets for her round-the-world travel, starting in March. One friend expressed horror that we were “allowing” her to travel at such a dangerous time. But when is it ever safe? (I always remember the story of a friend, Val, working in Egypt, who visited the Valley of the Kings after a terrorist attack on tourists, when all Americans cancelled their visits and she had the Valley of the Kings to herself).

The ground outside has been frozen, but, after the thaw which melted the snow I’ve dug over a small patch to plant some garlic. Apparently they like a cold start. I only hope this isn’t too cold for them! Today has been lovely and sunny, despite the frost which remained until lunchtime (and right through the afternoon in the shade of the woods opposite). So I’ve even had washing out whilst finishing the planting.

Last Monday afternoon the lecture was on Giacometti – it had a very pretentious title, but was basically the life and works of the artist. This Monday the subject was simply Bucharest. However it was another epic and passionate lecture, lasting two and a quarter hours, one of the main themes being how misunderstood the Romanian capital was, and how tremendously French it still is, with its French architecture (except for the nasty modern “Anglo Saxon” stuff. This latter term of abuse seems to cover USA and its concrete hotel blocks). Thank goodness I had a few Polos left in my bag to aid concentration for 2.5 hours. During this month the lectures have been held in a different hall, which has a slope upwards towards the screen, rather than the usual steps down to the screen. It felt a bit odd!

The Sunday Times, which we eventually succeeded in ordering from the supermarket Leclerc on the far side of St Dié, has been faithfully arriving since Christmas (and a flurry of e-mails to the Sunday Times Circulation Manager), so it has been a pleasure to read that on Monday evenings.

On Thursday it was keep fit in the morning and Scrabble in the afternoon. Did I explain that a single game is played on a large board at the front, but everyone has their own letters and board. You are all told the same 7 letters for each move, and have to make the highest scoring word to fit the group board. You score points for your own words, but the highest scoring one is put up on the group board. (Is it also played like this in UK groups?) The score for all the best words was 691, but I was quite pleased to make 240ish with my less sophisticated words! After all, I could hardly compete with “miam” which seems to be the French equivalent of “yum” as in “yum yum” (which even in English this spell check doesn’t recognise!). I’ve started to try out a few English words like fax, but they’re never acceptable, whereas “broker”, “dingo”, “slow”, and “in” meaning fashionable are all OK. This week’s useful (as far as scrabble is concerned!) words to learn are “myes” (a kind of mollusc) and “lupique” (to do with the illness lupus). But can anyone with an even larger French dictionary than ours tell me the meaning of “tex”, “wurm”, and “sphaigne”? I feel I can’t query every single word!

Weeks 32-35 There and back again!

Couples whirl round the centre of the floor – all those elderly men I usually see in T-shirts or anoraks now resplendent in bright coloured tailored jackets, pressed trousers, and polished shoes, gliding and steering women I’ve only seen moving in walking boots or keep-fit plimsolls, now elegant in slim glittering skirts and high heels, elaborate make-up and freshly waved hair. It is January 6th and the retired residents of Sainte Marguerite (and surrounding villages) are celebrating Twelfth Night. The invitation mentioned the galette des rois, an almond puff pastry tart (containing charms like our Christmas pudding ones) in honour of the three kings. It didn’t mention the champagne, the live music and the dancing! Outside is a thin layer of snow, the temperature having dropped overnight to minus 12 degrees. A very jolly conclusion, back in the Vosges after Christmas and New Year in the UK, to the festive season.

This Christmas everything had seemed to be in reverse. Instead of packing up to leave for France, we had packed the car for the trip back to England. However, it was most relaxing not to be doing it at the same time as working! The highlights of our trip were Christmas dinner cooked by John in my mother’s little kitchen, a birthday trip with Leila to the second part of Lord of the Rings, Boxing Day with John’s mother at her nursing home and then with his sister and family, a couple of nights in Putney with visits to the new British Library and the start of the sales, and the second hand bookshops of Broadstairs and Canterbury. Toby phoned on Christmas Day from a hot, relaxing beach in Mexico. He didn’t seem to be missing the British rain, the damp or the post-Christmas sales at all! But for us it was lovely to see the rest of the family and those friends who weren’t off skiing or globe trotting. John didn’t feel like socialising very much with friends over Christmas as he had an ear infection which caused deafness on one side. He went to our old doctor on Christmas Eve morning (a choice of appointment times and an empty surgery waiting room – very different from the rest of the year!) and was prescribed a course of antibiotics; but the infection only finally cleared up earlier this week.

As we drove back towards Entre-deux-Eaux on 2nd January, we could feel the wind getting up. St Dié was a blaze of pretty white lights up the main streets (there seemed to be more for New Year than for Christmas and far superior to the lights in Nottingham) and despite my pre-Christmas disparaging remarks about French illuminations, felt welcoming, as did Entre-deux-Eaux. As we unloaded the car in the dark, the wind was getting stronger and we could hear an odd noise up the chimney. However, we slept soundly after the long drive. In the morning, John noticed plastic sheeting, which we use to rot down weeds, had blown off the garden and also one of the patio tables was reclining in the field minus one leg. On investigating he also found that the top section of a cement chimney cowl had blown off, shattering several roof tiles as it fell, and that several other roof tiles had either blown off or slipped down. Fortunately there was sufficient lull in the wind and rain for him to get out the ladders and re-position some tiles and insert new ones (we have a stack ready for such emergencies – those removed when the Velux windows were installed!). Our friend Nicola and her dogs in a neighbouring village hadn’t slept all night for fear that her roof would blow off again (as ours had) in the great tempest of Christmas 1999. Even the newspapers reported it as a mini-tempest with trees snapped and uprooted in the region. It was fortunate that we hadn’t lingered longer in the UK as we’d initially thought we might.

The following day we drove over the Vosges to Colmar and Mulhouse in search of a replacement analogue satellite TV box for French programmes, our old one having given up the ghost whilst we were away. I think we must have located and viewed every single DIY and electrical retailer but found none that had the same specifications as the old box. In the end we settled for a cheap box from a store in St Dié! As we returned over the heights, the snow was beginning to settle. Now this won’t be news to you all back in the UK, following all the disruption there due to snow, but we did feel relieved that we (notice the use of “we” – well, I did put on a builders’ helmet and hold the ladder whilst John did all the dangerous work) had sorted out the roof before the snow started to settle that night and before the winds had got up again (for, if they’d blown into the holes, they could have lifted even more tiles).

In the old part of the farmhouse, we are on a cheap tariff for electricity (those of you who have experienced it will be groaning already!). For most of the year unit electricity costs are about 40% cheaper than the standard rate. However on the 20 coldest (or what are expected to be the coldest) days of the year the unit cost increases to about five times the standard rate. These “red days” and can occur any day between the beginning of November and end of March, except at weekends and public holidays – and you only know the next day will be a red day after 8.00pm in the evening. The high charge is obviously to dissuade those otherwise benefiting from the cheap tariff from using electricity and so leave more electricity to meet demands of others (reducing the need to power up reserve power stations). To cut down our electricity usage (and bills!) on these days we have a switch which automatically cuts power to the electric heating circuits. As the temperatures dropped after that first snowfall to below minus 10 and the weekend ended, a series of five consecutive red days started!

With the imminent arrival of the first red day we soon decided that the time had come to move our beds and armchairs up into the new apartment, where we could luxuriate in the warmth of the oil-fired under-floor central heating. Initially it took a day or so for the concrete floor mass to heat through thoroughly (the circulating heating water runs at a lower temperature than standard wall radiators – about 45 degrees) and to warm up the rooms, and then patient adjustment of the controls to a satisfactory temperature (since there is quite a time lag for changes to take effect). But now it is wonderful. We still have to come to the cold farmhouse to cook and to shower as the new kitchen and bathroom are not ready. And the computer is still in the cold dining room, so this newsletter has been delayed until the old farmhouse electric heating came back on this weekend!

So with all these heating changes taking place last Monday, I particularly enjoyed sitting in the warmth of St Marguerite’s community room, swigging champagne and eating my galette des rois. John decided there was no pleasure to be had in making French small-talk to pensioners, but that shopping (including DIY shops) would be more interesting, so he agreed to pick me up after an hour. It turned out that festivities would continue for several hours, with more food and coffee. However, I had plenty of time to chat with acquaintances from keep-fit, and to be introduced to a member of the Scrabble club.

As a result of the latter, I intrepidly set out to play Scrabble, French community style, on Thursday afternoon. The group’s know-all was seated next to me to help me with the intricacies, but he soon got absorbed in finding his own highest scoring words for the group’s grid! However, I pestered him about the solutions. French Scrabble has a different letter distribution and letters score differently, as z is relatively common, whereas there aren’t many w words. The brilliantly scoring w word was “wu” a little known (apart from scrabble addicts) Chinese dialect. Well, I definitely learnt lots of new words (including the imperfect subjunctive of the verb obtenir, a word for a Quebecois cheese which is useful if you have a k, “paf” useful when hitting someone in a cartoon strip and if you have an f, and English-looking words like “liner” and “out” which aren’t in my French-English dictionary, but are in the French Scrabble dictionary!). I was just pleased to make any word on each turn! There was also a pleasant surprise at the end, as the scrabble letters and boards were packed away and more champagne and galettes des rois laid out! So I had a festive introduction to the group. From now on, Thursday afternoons will offer a choice of walking with the St Dié group, Scrabble with the Ste Marguerite group, or DIY with John!

Social engagements aside, the rest of the week since our return has been spent on tidying the barns so that the first can house the car now the weather has turned snowy and the second can house the bay trees and rosemary (as well as cardboard boxes full of kitchen equipment, piles of wood, ladders, tools freezer, geraniums, fuchsias, garden tools, cardboard, plastic, etc.). The third barn really needs a rear door before it will be useful for keeping things frost-free!

We spent a delightfully warm Friday morning in the showrooms of a specialist Scandinavian wood-burning stove dealer after a snowy drive over the cols. We were so impressed by the stoves that we fell in with the French way of doing things and are having someone come over next week to eye up the space and the chimney in order to give us a quotation for installation. The idea is to be able to sit by a flickering real log fire – but of course, as we know to our cost, it is also very useful to have an stand-by means of heating when electricity or oil fails!

So warm thoughts to everyone. We hope you’re all surviving the cold in relative comfort. Thank-you for all the Christmas letters, e-mails and cards. It was great to catch up on news. Very best wishes for 2003.

Weeks 30-31 Only a week until Christmas!

Weeks 30-31 Only a week until Christmas!

Christmas preparations continue apace here, with even more plastic inflatable Santas climbing the walls and multi-colour flashing lights everywhere. Even our staid neighbour Mme Laine has many gaudy foil decorations on her balcony rails and the village shop has a large illuminated reindeer decoration on one outside wall. When we first came, twelve years ago, I used to think how tasteful French decorations were, with just white lights in the trees and nothing gaudy – how things have changed! I decorated one of the apple trees in our orchard with white fairy lights. But when the temperature started to drop below freezing, John’s decorations of bacon fat, nuts, and seeds proved far more attractive, and the tree is brightened during the day by colourful jays, finches, tits, and robins.

I mentioned a charming village Christmas market in barns in our last newsletter. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that Alsace is really better at Christmas markets in the quality of items for sale, with very tasteful stalls in the German tradition. Most of the Lorraine markets have had rather a lot of crochet and lumpy plaster decorations (village fête style).

This year, for the first time, we visited the famous market in the shadow of Strasbourg cathedral (Alsace), which now also extends to several other squares. We had fun looking at the gem-like glass candle bowls decorated with near-translucent pictures in Fimo, Russian painted wooden eggs, ceramic Alsace village miniature houses which were also scented oil burners, along with many tempting Christmas decorations. (Sad to say, the police were also in evidence because of pick-pockets and terrorism alerts).

The following Sunday, John’s cold was still bad, so I left him in the warm and went over with Nicola to Eguisheim and Lapoutroie (both in Alsace) for their Christmas markets. We stopped at a bakery on the way and bought angel butter biscuits, then had warming glasses of mulled wine in Eguisheim. The Lapoutroie St Nicholas Market was organised by one of the schools, and lots of the children were there and there were also charity stalls supporting children’s education in developing countries. The atmosphere reminded me of the old Christmas card sales in Beeston – though Lapoutroie was outdoors. Nicola bought a wooden bird box from one class and a delicious apricot cake from another, whilst I bought a pretty wreath for our front door from a third class. (It was so cold and windy that night that I’ve hung the wreath indoors in the hall, where we see much more of it!).

Last Saturday we went to the St Dié Christmas market, which was in a modern hall so has little of the charm of the Alsace ones, though there was one excellent dried fruit stall, and our friendly Entre-deux-Eaux bee keeps had a stall selling honey, beeswax candles and various honey-based preserves. But I think the sour note of my comments about Lorraine markets may be due to Sunday’s experience. The stall holders at rain-swept Raon l’Etape had all vanished by the time we arrived at 2.30, although the newspaper said they’d be there till 7pm. Many other disconsolate people were wandering aimlessly round the deserted small town. However, the neighbouring village was an honourable exception; Ste Marguerite held their market in their large sports hall (where I do keep-fit on Thursday mornings). There we spotted some exquisite pottery by a local amateur potter, and bought a greenish vase with an imprinted fern pattern .

However, what Lorraine does do well is St Nicholas processions. St Nicholas is extra special here as he is the patron saint of Lorraine. On Saturday December 7th, he processed through many of the big towns. He had already visited children in various schools and village community centres the previous day and had earlier visited Entre-deux-Eaux, where the children were encouraged to sing and recite for him and for the old people (we didn’t go as we didn’t think we qualified, despite having received an invitation!). The procession in St Dié was very festive, with floats, bands, dancers (both demure traditional Lorraine style and exuberant scarlet and black can-can girls). Bringing up the rear, St Nicholas looked splendid on his huge white cloudy float surrounded by diminutive angels (children). The nasty Pere Fouettard had been consigned to a cart and horse behind so that he couldn’t upset the children. At the end of the route, St Nicholas vanished through the cathedral doors to the accompaniment of fireworks.

We haven’t spent all the last two weeks at Christmas markets though. We’ve spent several days at IKEA in Strasbourg! The first visit was the afternoon after we’d visited Strasbourg market. We selected all the beech shelving units we wanted, Nicola tried all the tilting office chairs for one that suited hours at the drawing board (and selected one with a striking zebra pattern) and then we all contemplated the birch wardrobe units, and we decided on ones with folding doors to deal with our space problem. Then we discovered that delivery dates were towards the end of January, so we enquired about hiring a van. However, by then it was too late to late to load up, drive back over the Vosges and return the van by store closing time, so we arranged hire for the following morning. Hence our second trip, the next day. We arrived a few minutes before opening time, but it was nearly an hour and a half before we were loaded and ready to go, largely due to the fact that workers had rung in sick and one poor lad was dealing with handing over large items to customers as well as the van hire. IKEA is very near the motorway, and joining the motorway to the left whilst giving priority to a lane simultaneously filtering in to the right in an unfamiliar van with no rear window was not something I envied John! After the motorway, the single lane main road was busy with huge logging lorries going in both directions, some taking tree trunks from Lorraine to Alsace and others from Alsace to Lorraine – we felt the need for some rationalisation. We unloaded all our cardboard packages (we currently have a flattened cardboard box mountain) into our first floor living room using our (former) hay ramp, which is a real blessing for bulky items which won’t go round the stair bend. We had a snatched lunch (how unthinkable in the land of gourmets) and drove the van back to Strasbourg. At IKEA I twice had my handbag searched, which had never happened before. It wasn’t until we switched on the news as we left IKEA that we heard that there had been a huge security alert after bombs in the Netherlands branches of IKEA, and that branches were closed in the Netherlands and on high alert in France! (Perhaps that’s why the large box handlers had reported sick!)

John spent the next few days assembling the shelving and wardrobes, whilst I unpacked the books and china which have remained in boxes since our move. You can imagine the bliss for an ex-librarian of getting all our books systematically arranged as they’d got really higgledy piggledy over the last years as we squeezed new books into the old shelves in Nottingham. And it was good to arrange the familiar ornaments and china in the glass-fronted units. And after the weekend we set out over the mountains yet again to exchange some items, to collect the drawer units for the wardrobes which we’d ordered the previous week, and to buy an additional two shelf units. You’ll be relieved to hear that after all that to-ing and fro-ing, the large sitting room still looks light and airy despite being book-lined, John has his records shelved, although the CD storage has still to be finalised, and we’ve even got to the stage of hunting out pictures.

With the underfloor heating now turned up fully, we’ve celebrated the latest stage progress towards completion with a couple of meals up there. But perhaps I should add that John cooked the meals in the old farmhouse kitchen and carried them up, as the proposed new kitchen comprises a fridge, a heap of tools, ladders and packs of plaster, a capped water pipe, a drain hole pipe, and bare plasterboard walls. A little project for next year!

The workmen have now finished the new road – well as much as they are going to before Christmas (the French don’t have long Christmas breaks and obviously other roads need attention). They’ve sprayed a thin layer of bitumen on the earth surface and laid a thin  layer of pebbles. However, a couple of days of cars, tractors, and lorries have resulted in a pitted surface requiring someone to slap dollops of tarmac in the holes. Whether it be flat enough when they return in the New Year to lay the final surface is open to question!

And now our thoughts are turning to spending Christmas with the family back in the UK. We’re aiming to reach Nottingham by the evening of 22 December. On our summer trip we so much enjoyed our stop-over in Broadstairs (where I passed my teenage years) that we arranged to borrow my school-friend Jessica’s family house there once more. John has volunteered to do some work around the house, so we’re setting out on 19th and spending 3 nights there (it will also give time for a bit of non-IKEA pre-Christmas shopping), then stopping off to see John’s mother and sister on the way up to Nottingham on the 22nd. Sadly we’ll miss Toby as he’s spending Christmas and New Year in Mexico visiting an old University friend who is now teaching there. We’re spending 22nd to 26th with my mother, then travelling south with Leila on 26th, stopping in Essex to see John’s mother and sister again, and staying until 29th at a friend’s house in Putney. On 29th we’ll return to Nottingham. We haven’t fixed our return date to Entre-deux-Eaux yet, but it will be soon after New Year.

Thank you to everyone who’s shared and commented on the newsletter during 2002 and written and encouraged us in our new venture. A very happy and peaceful Christmas to you all. And we hope all your plans for 2003 are fruitful.

Weeks 28–29 Musings on hats and other winter gear

It hasn’t been really cold yet, so no one is sporting ski hats. But what does the well dressed Frenchman and Frenchwoman wear in the Vosges for everyday activities? Well perhaps the Vosges isn’t typically elegant. But below are a few winter fashion hints.

For tarmac laying The other day I was driving over the hill to St Dié. There are a lot of road works at the moment. There’s the super departmental highway being commercially widened and re-laid into the village, and there are also seasonal ditching and repair works being undertaken by each commune and also bits of private earth shifting along the back road out of the village. So I was not entirely surprised to find the back road blocked by the smart yellow machine of the commune. What did surprise me was the tarmac laying attire of our Commune employee. It gave him the aristocratic look of a minor royal on a grouse moor. Whereas the commercial road-layers all have filthy old overalls and grubby old shoes, Alain Duhaut, who is tall and slim (and rather vain), was wearing immaculately pressed field-green overalls, a crisp new-looking tweed cap at a dashing angle, and immaculate green boots. Mind you, this is the man who, after the gales had ripped off our roof in winter 1999, when all the other volunteer firemen turned up in their red baseball caps, produced an immaculate shiny silver helmet with smoked “glass” visor. (Maybe it obscured his view slightly, as he was the only one who stepped through the soggy plasterboard which had been our ceiling).

For scaling house walls I haven’t seen any builders recently, but as December 1st approached, various inflatable Santas in red bobble hats have begun to scale local house walls. The first one appeared outside the bar in Saulcy. He is now surrounded by a grotto of white branches into which he has almost vanished. It must be confusing for small children as Santa is simultaneously ascending the wall of the house opposite the bar. He hasn’t reached the dizzy heights of the gutter there, where he remained stranded till February last year before being rescued and deflated. It’s all a bit confusing as it’s really St Nicholas dressed in bishop’s mitre and robes who brings the presents and judges whether children are worthy to receive them. He is due it visit the elderly and children on December 1st in Entre-deux-Eaux (I don’t think we quite qualify although we did get an invite in the letterbox), but won’t reach St. Dié until December 7th (we’ll probably watch the huge procession with its marching bands, drum majorettes, mulled wine, and fireworks, the lot). Jean Robert is preparing to bake batches of St Nicholas brioches for the hundreds of excited children who will come into the shop (ever the optimist!) – but he also sells a type of solid bread pudding.

For tractor driving Rotund Farmer Duhaut gave up his pink shorts and brown T shirt some time ago, and is more sombrely dressed these days in a navy woolly hat and dark pullover and trousers (more of a jolly fisherman than a dedicated farmer look), whilst lean Farmer Vozelle accompanies his cows to muddy pastures wearing a turquoise overall for added warmth. Like us, he seems to be getting later as winter approaches. Cows were last seen setting out at 2pm for pasture (after we’d had our lunch!). It is dark by 5pm. Poor things probably didn’t get brought back and milked much before midnight at that rate – his cows being driven back to their barn at night, on unlighted roads, can be a hazard.

For foreigners to merge into the background I spotted the perfect gear for John. Our former agricultural co-operative has opened a new superstore, and now offers a wider range of accessories in addition to seeds, fruit trees, apple presses, jam jars, and ploughs. I spotted some fetching wellington boots covered with an ivy and oak leave pattern, with matching anorak and trousers for ultimate camouflage. And for headgear, when not using the anorak hood, you can select from a range of genuine Australian leather bushman/ cowboy hats. (I did also wonder whether our local birdlife would like to take refuge in one of their fashionable last branch saloon birdhouses.)

For village elders at Christmas markets We have just got back from an evening Christmas market in the barns of a village some way from here. It was just so picturesque in the dark. The old farmhouses were ranged in a rough circle, with the Church and Mairie on one side. Being a small village, there was no street lighting but house lights blazed and the arches above the massive barn doors (high enough for loaded haywains to enter in the old days) were lit up with fairy lights. Inside some of the barns were decorated with pine branches, straw decorations, holly wreaths and candles. There were barns with wine, some with food, others dedicated to watercolours, pottery, honey, chocolate-making, breads, and lots with home made items in cross stitch, lace, patchwork. We drank coffee in the local bar and ate Croque Monsieurs in one of the barns alongside Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, and Burgundy wines. The most unusual barn interior had a loaded trestle of dried sausages on one side and perfume bottles, with a lady spraying their sickly scents, on the other! It was in this barn that we spotted an old man in the most extraordinary bright orange floppy woolly hat of the proportions of a rasta hat. He was involved in an earnest discussion of the relative merits of Spanish cold meats.

For Keep Fit The only required wear for this is plimsolls with white soles. Most people dress relatively unadventurously. So I was rather taken with the outfit of a lady in her seventies. She has short white hair and Edna Everidge glasses. She is heavily built, with cyclist’s muscular bandy legs and she wears those tight black nylon cycling shorts that were fashionable twelve or so years ago. At home time she puts on a white, cowboy, fringed, leather jacket and also some very high heels. I always wonder what she does next in this eye-catching attire.

And finally, for walks This has long been a popular pastime in the Vosges, and everyone has their own idea of appropriate gear. I rather admired the green three quarter length corduroy trousers surmounted by green waterproof jacket in front of me. The leather hunters’ hats seem popular among the older men. But I was rather surprised to see the walks organiser, a very tall, angular man, produce and wave an umbrella, whose presence he claimed was keeping the rain away. As conversation progressed he produced his other deterrent, a black beret, and put that on. You could not have conceived of a more perfect caricature of a Frenchman! – Oh, did I forget to mention that he was also wearing a striped T-shirt?

And now for the real news …

The construction of the superhighway from the crossroads to the village boundary continues with much earth moving, spreading of mounds of gravel and reconstructing or creating new ditches. They’ve also taken the opportunity to bury the telephone cable to the village – although they seem just to have put the cable into the subsoil, often under the path of the road, rather than putting it in a ducting, in case of future problems. Hopefully there is enough spare capacity in the cable for any further telephone requirements (although, according to France Telecom, we aren’t on the list to get ADSL in the near future – too far from the exchange?). It can’t be long before the tarmac goes down; they’ll want to do that before the frosts really set in. At present, it looks as though there would be enough space for three lanes but it will probably turn into two normal width lanes with wide verges. All this for a village of four hundred inhabitants – most of whom live in the other two communes a couple of kilometres over the hills. They will not benefit from the new road as, within the village the road reverts to narrow lanes; and anyway, they probably don’t use this stretch much as “their” side of the village leads both to St Dié and to a main road which goes over the mountains to Alsace.

Furnishing the “west wing” is starting, even if, at present, we are mainly just looking to see what is available. We have decided on the book shelving and its layout. That should give the 50 or so metres of shelving we think we need – we’ve never had all our books in one room before so it hasn’t been too easy to estimate. John had originally hoped to build the shelving from all the old oak planking we have stashed away in the barns and above the atelier, but there is still much else to do (and the atelier doesn’t have power or heat and John would need to buy some big wood-working machinery), so we’ve opted to buy shelving from IKEA! We’ve now installed light fittings in the main living room, so no more dangling bare bulbs. You’ll understand we’re carefully avoiding the French look of heavy, dark, ornate oak furniture. We’re also planning our bedroom furniture, though are somewhat constrained by both its size and the position of the door. We haven’t yet firmly decided on anything which makes optimum use of the available space so will spend another week browsing catalogues and furniture stores (“I can see that you like to be left alone to make your own decisions” observed one rather exasperated wardrobe sales lady – but we’re the ones who have to sleep with the wardrobe looming over us and mirrors frightening us with our reflections as we wake up!)

In between looking at furniture, there have also been the UCP lecture on Monday, and keep fit and a walk on Thursday. The lecture was on Islam, was given by an army doctor, and had accompanying slides and music. He said it would last an hour and a quarter, at which there was a slight rustle, as lectures are usually about an hour, but everyone settled down. Well, I don’t know whether it was the large auditorium, or the splendid sound system which caused him to declaim slowly and pause for effect, but the result was a lecture that lasted an hour and three quarters, and when the new president leapt up to thank him he started off again with a quarter hour discourse which could not be interrupted, though people began to walk out. Needless to say the President did not ask if there we any questions. It was, however very interesting and his slides were good too, and I think people were interested, though concentration became a problem!

The walk was also pleasant. It was mainly on roads this week, as it was anticipated that the forest footpaths could be very muddy. But we had some lovely views and passed an interesting village cross from c. 1624, with its figures intact. It was quite a sociable excursion, with 51 walkers (and no stragglers, this is the core group!).

We had a visit from Humbert, the draughtsman drew up the plans for our alterations (he freelances for our builder, De Freitas), as we’d called him to say we had some coins for him. He has collected coins since he was a boy and is trying to complete a collection of Elizabeth II coins from the UK (not one of every coin of every year, just every different style, not worried about quality, and ignoring sovereigns, etc.). For the past few years John has been sorting through bags of coins from banks and buying coins from a dealer in Nottingham for him; it has become increasingly difficult to find coins at a reasonable price, as many of the missing coins were only issued in special annual sets rather than for general circulation. This time John had the most recent £5 coins, and a couple of others. Humbert’s British collection must now be nearly complete as he has now asked for John to try to get some Guernsey coins – and set a limit of no more than 3 Euro each. This visit also gave us the opportunity to ask him about a recent form we’d received which has to be completed once building work has been completed so local taxes can be re-assessed. After a quick look at the work he said we could delay submission of the form as we didn’t have a working kitchen tap! And his wife, who had come with him, works in that tax department, so was able to get our records updated the next day.

Nicola reports the cheap Ryanair flights may be having an impact on some other routes. There is now a regular £100 Air France fare from Gatwick to Strasbourg – down from around £180 pounds last year – which her mother is using for a Christmas visit. Unfortunately no impact on the costs of the flight from Birmingham to Basel. And, unsurprisingly, bmiBaby France don’t have any news of (or are unwilling to release any information on) the possible East Midlands-Basel route.

Now that November has finished, many of the seasonal strikes seem to be over. The farmers finished their blockades last Sunday, a few hours before the transport drivers started theirs, causing flurries at the petrol pumps before the anticipated blocking of petrol depots as well as the usual border crossings etc. However, this year all was all resolved quite quickly by the simple ploy of the government announcing strikers could strike but not hinder others; and it would impound any vehicles blocking roads. The air controllers can now no longer come out in sympathy, so their next strike will be over Europeanisation of the air control (and their continuing use of French for domestic air traffic rather than the standard use of English as the common language of air control). Vive la France!

Weeks 25–27 Ryanair, canoeing, and November rain: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

It seems a while since I sat at the keyboard. But we’ve been playing our bit in the launch of the new Ryanair service (mentioned in the last newsletter) between Stansted and Strasbourg. One friend, Alistair nobly came out on the very first flight to cheer us in the November gloom (and he could have been cruising down the sunny Nile with his wife and sister!), then John and I returned to the UK to see respective mothers, family and friends, then another friend, Ann, returned with us to participate and encourage us in the continuing renovations. I realised as we drove back from our UK visit over the Vosges from Strasbourg Airport to Entre-deux-Eaux in the clear light of the full moon, stars, and milky way, how much this feels like home after six months.

It was wonderful to see Alistair emerge from the airport baggage hall wearing his familiar distinctive leather hat and carrying, as his sole luggage, a large blue canoeing barrel – and no, there wasn’t any Ryanair champagne to celebrate the launch, just orange juice, brioche, and television crews at Strasbourg airport. Thereafter, all car journeys involved a slowing down to assess the height and flow of all local rivers. As seems to have been the case everywhere, there has been a lot of rain in the Vosges recently and the water has been pouring off the mountains, swelling the rivers.

One day, after yet more overnight rain, John and Alistair loaded John’s Dagger Legend Canadian canoe onto Snowy (our little white Yaris) and I drove them into St Dié to a launching site below one of the weirs. The river had changed totally after all the rain, and I was quite alarmed as they swept rapidly out of view in the direction of Baccarat. In summer the wide river Meurthe meanders lazily towards the glassmaking town of Baccarat. In the old days whole rafts of timber logs would be floated downstream to the saw mills and beyond. But on this occasion it looked quite dangerous and otherwise deserted. Initially there was some trepidation as Alistair and John hadn’t paddled together for nearly a year or in anything like these conditions for a couple of years, on a flooded River Tees.

The Meurthe seemed, for those knowing some of the UK rivers they’ve paddled in the past, to be like a raging Washburn! The canoe was carried around the first weir out of St Dié as they were still assessing water conditions; the torrent, six foot drop, and the possibility of an early spill gave way to caution, and they carried the canoe round the weir. They successfully negotiated the next, lower, weirs. But then the river widened out for a short stretch on a bend; there sandbanks and part of a fallen tree blocked the obvious, deeper water canoeing line. An attempt to avoid it by taking an alternative narrower flow, resulted in a near spill as they clipped a partially submerged branch. But fine balancing, after thoughts of a swim, kept the boat upright with both occupants on board, although stuck on a rock. Getting started again, and avoiding the next, almost immediate hazard, was achieved with relief. More weirs and standing waves were successfully negotiated.

Then they came upon the section where, a couple of years ago after the December 1999 tempest, the river had been completely blocked by fallen trees. Most had now been removed and piles of short sections of cut tree trunks lined the banks. But the river got more “everglade” like with flows in several directions and no obvious canoeing line as the water swept around and over some still fallen trees. And a right-angle bend didn’t help in assessing the situation. Avoiding what looked to be an impossible fast flowing section without any possibility of inspection, one of the minor flows was taken. But they ended up in shallows and more trees. Some canoe hauling was required to get past this section; getting back onto the river again was exhilarating as the river was still constrained by narrow banks with tree roots giving added swirls. A clear but rapid section then brought them to another narrow, fast flowing section with a partially submerged tree across the width which they hit, spilling John out over the trunk and Alistair out on the canoe side. As John was swept away he managed to rescue the paddles and then took a “breather” and assessed his situation, up to his shoulders in water, while just about managing to stay in one place against an overhanging branch. The current was far too strong to edge along the branch to the bank and as soon as he moved one foot from the bottom, he was swept off downstream in the current. Fortunately the river widened and John managed eventually to swim out of the flow to the opposite bank to Alistair and about 100 metres downstream. By this time Alistair, who had been very near the bank, and had managed to salvage the canoe, found a driftwood plank, and proceeded to paddle across the flow and collected John from the bank. Time for refreshments. Fortunately the Trax pile canoe clothing drains rapidly and, with exercise, remains warm. And then off into more fast-flowing river currents.

At Etival, where they could have got out and phoned me to pick them up, in the now steadily pouring rain, they decided not to go down the “canoe shoot” past the paper mill weir as there was a huge “stopper” and standing wave at the bottom. And the river past the weir looked reasonably benign so they set out again. But just round the first bend it was back to a fast flow, standing waves, and more adrenaline flow. However, all went well and the only concern was some three foot waves over a broken weir just before Raon l’Etape. By the time I picked them up at Raon l’Etape, three hours after they started, it was still pouring with rain but they were paddling quite normally again! Back at St Dié, the river had probably risen another foot and was flowing even faster – which would have been enough for them to have not even considered setting out in the first place.

The stretches of rivers nearer to the mountains are either nearly dry in summer or become raging torrents in winter. This was the first time John had really had a chance to inspect them at this time of year and to see them start their winter fill. There is obviously a fairly fine balance point between them being too shallow and too fast and full. And it seems to take the water about twelve hours from rain at the top to make it’s way down to our level. Near to the top (including the Meurthe from St Dié to Raon l’Etape) they are marked on canoeing (actually kayaking) maps as red (or occasionally purple). More into the plane they are green; more placid, and paddleable most of the year.
Ann is also a keen kayaker and occasional canoeist, and, quite reasonably, she prefers to stay in the boat and avoid the added spice of unplanned capsizes. So as the rivers continued to swell and thresh even more in the continuing rain, she and John opted for the relative tranquillity of exploring the large lake at Pierre Percée north-east of Raon l’Etape. This is a relatively recent artificial lake formed from damming a valley, to provide a constant source of cooling water for electricity power stations in Alsace, and has lots more interesting little inlets than the old glacial lakes round Gérardmer. (Ann had seen mention of a perimeter walk being over 30 km). Again the weather was pretty foul. Ann and John paddled off into the rain and mist looking like something out of “The Last of the Mohicans”. But the rain lifted as they turned northwards around the first bend and they seemed to be alone on the lake (only later did they come across a couple of fishermen on a bank and another in a boat). The scenery, with the steep high, wood-covered, banks, partly covered in mist and low cloud, was very attractive. Along the shore line, mostly sandy, it was more open with some shrubs and occasional grass, but under the dark pines there was nothing. To keep the shoreline open, trees had been felled and their remaining stumps formed interesting patterns and shapes. Despite part of the lake being a bird sanctuary, they only saw a few cormorants and herons. A break for coffee and biscuits was made at the northern extremity at what they named “Bent Birch Bay” – so others should know when they’ve reached the same point! There was almost no wind for most of the trip and the lake was just about flat although there was a slight sign of surface disturbance out of the shelter of the westerly bank sides. However, as they paddled to the western extremity (where there was a deserted sailing club) they noticed the canoe suddenly pulled by an ill-defined current and slightly choppy water surface so had to think more about paddling and less about looking at the scenery.
Meanwhile I’d climbed up to the remains of the old chateau of Salm, hoping to get a good view of them on the lake below. However a layer of mist and low cloud below the rocky outcrop blotted out any view of the lake. The chateau of must once have dominated the valley, but after a chequered history, being passed around as an inheritance or dowry, it was finally dismantled under the orders of Richelieu. All that remains is a ruined tower silhouetted on the overhanging ridge (which looked very mysterious through the mist and pine trees) and the well shaft which was bored 100 feet down into the solid rock (hence, probably, the name Pierre Percée). In the damp and mist I was quite glad of the company of a brown dog which met me in the village and escorted me up and back. Despite various viewpoints around the lake, I saw nothing of the red canoe and Ann and John for nearly three hours, so was quite relieved to see them paddling back up the inlet they launched from having paddled, according to John’s GPS, just over 10 km (the GPS was taken in case the mists thickened and obscured the shores and their starting point). They were wet, but only from rain rather than total immersion, and pleasantly tired from the last stretch, paddling back to the eastern shore across the open lake and current. They hadn’t managed to circumnavigate the entire lake – just three of the major inlets!

Another watery trip was a walk from the Cascade des Molières, above St Dié, (mentioned in an earlier letter after John and I had walked up to this Victorian feature). Ann and I discovered that the water was tumbling down the hillside rapidly and picturesquely, but the Victorian “improvement” had been switched off, probably to avoid the pipe freezing in winter, so the cascade over the huge boulder just wasn’t there! We walked on up the hillside, all the time hearing the tumbling natural waterfalls, but didn’t have time to reach the viewpoint on the ridge at the Sapin Sec before we’d arranged to meet John (who’d kindly been shopping as we explored).

I shall remember the spectacular red sunsets of other walks (which seemed to miraculously have escaped the forecast rain). Alistair and I scrambled down a footpath from the prehistoric hilltop of Le Chastel (I’m not wholly convinced
that the “dolmen” at the top was an ancient one) as the mountains turned blue and the sun set (and the car seemed quite a way off!). Ann discovered that Farmer Duhaut’s cowshed led to a perfect view of sunsets, and we took to strolling up there in the evenings, as the ground mists advanced and the sun declined. I shall also remember a walk with Ann up the lane at the side of Mme Laine’s and along the forest ridge to Saulcy village cemetery (full of brilliant yellow, pink and crimson potted chrysanthemums placed on the graves at All Saints), through the War Grave cemetery (with its Armistice day wreath) and back over the fields past a solitary man digging potatoes (wasn’t he risking his crop as we’d had heavy frosts weeks ago?). After that (dry) walk, Ann and I went down to the village Mairie to upbraid the mayor about the ditch immediately outside our house which is overflowing (as it hasn’t been cleared for several years), covering the road (where it will be a hazard when it freezes into an ice sheet), and squelching down to our barns (far too muddy to get the car in and out) where guttering John put in a few years ago is managing to divert the rapid flow from seeping straight into the house walls, foundations and cellar.

Despite frequent rain, we’ve between us done a lot of clearing outside the house. One day John decided to create more space in the atelier, the former workshop of the old owner, M. Fresse, who was an electrician. (The atelier is a single story detached building beyond the barns). I was busy planting out a hazel tree (I hope it’s name “Nottingham” is a favourable augury!) when I heard a steady chugging sound in the atelier. I looked up and saw John driving the old fifties Deutz tractor out of the atelier onto the road. I hope he didn’t need a licence – the name Fresse is in large letters on a plate on the back! This clear out produced stuff for the bonfire and rubbish for the tip (not the tractor, of course). Alistair (who would appear to be a secret pyromaniac) had been promised a bonfire. So soon after his arrival, which coincided with a couple of relatively dry days, he and John set to on the piles of rotting wood from an old porch and end barn wall and soon we had a blazing bonfire of a height and intense heat worthy of a Viking pyre. Alistair, in his enthusiasm to stoke the blaze, managed to singe his hair and eyebrows, twice. Some of the wood, oak, was not rotten, and was saved for future use. As the fire blazed all day, they turned their attention to “pruning” the thicket of damson saplings – but fortunately spared a few. The rain started in the evening, but the bonfire glowed on throughout the night and was still smoking in the pouring rain in the morning (and still steaming the next day, after the wet canoeing trip)! Later, whilst I was clearing our stacks of cardboard from one of the old cow troughs in the barn, I decided to lay cardboard and plastic in one of the newly cleared areas to prevent an invasion of nettles and thistles. One day we’ll have a new flower or herb garden there, where once there were rotting piles of wood.

We didn’t force our visitors to work throughout their holidays (though I haven’t mentioned that Alistair got involved in the next batch of apple pressing – this time for cider – and that Ann had a grand clean up of the “West Wing”, in readiness for our eventual winter migration when the weather turns cold and we can look forward to the under floor heating in insulated splendour!). Diversions with Alistair included viewing the magnificent astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral, a quest for oversize ski boots (finally satisfied in Gérardmer), a craft fair in St Dié, a food fair in a nearby village hall, and Sunday lunch at a busy auberge up at Le Valtin (Alistair was eyeing the huge chimney and barbecue with great interest – more interesting fire possibilities – and wouldn’t it be good if we put one in our new room?). Oh yes, and we finished up at a mediaeval village in Alsace, Riquewihr, with its glittering Christmas decorations shop (far more exciting than Santa’s grotto).

And with Ann we explored the Friday market at Fraize, where we bought a large cauliflower and some very interesting purple potatoes (this was not the skins – it was the insides that were purple!) which turned out to be delicious with, as the man said, a slight chestnutty flavour and texture, but somewhat expensive for everyday consumption at four euro for 500g (we’ll have to try planting some next year!). Ann had also read that Luneville had a chateau like a miniature Versailles. So we spent a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon exploring Luneville’s old streets, squares, overblown baroque cathedral (huge cherubs on the façade, wonderful shafts of sunlight on chrome yellow pillars inside), the formal gardens of the chateau, and the small museum in one wing of the chateau. And our farewell meal with Ann at the appropriately named “les Voyageurs” Restaurant was most enjoyable.

We’ve enjoyed having our latest voyageurs sharing our Vosgian adventure, and it goes without saying that it was most satisfying to be able to “pop” back to England so easily and see both mothers, Toby, Leila, John’s sister and friends, and even to indulge in a bit of shopping (things like packs of Christmas cards, Camden tablets, and fabric first aid plasters which are hard to find here!).

The Ryanair flights have been OK; the downside is the relative inaccessibility of Stansted from Nottingham by public transport if you don’t have access to  a car (we still await the East Midlands-Basel bmiBaby service). Alistair and I flew to Stansted in an older 737-300, with the first and last six rows not in use (“too bendy” suggested Alistair). But all the other flights have been in new 737-800 planes, on time, and each nearly full, with around 175 passengers. And does that mean the 1.99 euro flights will soon be history? (although Nicola has booked her mother on an Air France flight from Gatwick to Strasbourg over the Christmas/New Year period for the lowest ever fare of just over £100). And Snowy now knows how to get to and from Strasbourg airport in a fairly consistent 75 minutes be it dry, misty, or raining, and day or night.

Au revoir!

Weeks 23 and 24 Sausages, Culture, and Birthday Celebrations: Everyday life in Entre deux Eaux

At the fork in the road, trestle tables were set out in the sunshine under the yellowing leaves of an old tree. Over the arch of the barn door a hand-made sign proclaimed “buvette” (refreshment stall). The strong smell of barbecued sausage was alluring. “My treat” said Nicola, and we joined the queue. The first group were served their spicy sausages in chewy-looking baguettes without any problems. Then it was the turn of the woman in front of us to order for four people. First her baguette chunks were too short, then the sausages too small, then the larger sausages too charred. The man at the barbecue looked grim as he started a fresh batch. I don’t know if she ever got the perfect sausages – if she did, I expect the mustard and mayonnaise were the wrong kind. We are obviously totally undiscriminating as we enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, watching the world go by and eating our sausages and chips (or baguette, in John’s case). I realise I’ve mentioned the sun twice, mainly because these occasional days of sunshine are such a pleasure, surrounded as they’ve been by days of damp mist, driving rain, or even, as today, hail storms.

And where was this village idyll? I’m sorry to say, for those of you who are already well bored with flea-markets, that it was a tiny village called Vimenil whose streets were lined with villagers and their stalls. We’d already had conversations with two macho men about a battery-powered motor bike (for the possible use of Nicola’s grandson), and with other stall holders about marble-topped bedside tables and a wall pendulum clock. As we walked on, there were puppies advertised for sale on a notice on a car window, a wonderful old house covered with crimson Virginia creeper (out came John’s camera), a leather belt embossed with Flintstones characters (it rather taxed our collective French to explain to the three elderly ladies on the stall who the Flintstones are and why Nicola’s grandson would love the belt – we failed to mention Nicola knowing her daughter would not approve). But, apart from the belt, purchased for a pittance, it was the wall clock that really tugged at Nicola’s heart strings, though the vendor wouldn’t come down in price. So we pooled our euros, notes and coins to show we were at our limit without any cash machine within 20 km, Nicola bought the clock, and we drove off with the chimes murmuring gently (depending on the road surface) in the back of the car, despite the careful wrapping. (When Nicola finally unbent the rods and adjusted the spring tensions later that night she had it chiming on the hour, and every quarter and playing Ave Maria – and all through the night!).

“We’ll follow up our sausages and chips with coffee and cake at the next flea market,” we promised ourselves, as we headed towards Luneville. Luneville has a huge neglected chateau which the town likes to think of (and promote) as a smaller Versailles, and we’d assumed that their flea market would be in the huge square outside the chateau, which would have been very picturesque, surrounded by all the shops selling colourful modern Luneville pottery. Instead, after a visit to the tourist office (open on Sunday in October!) we found it was at a crossroads of high apartment buildings wedged between one forbidding wall of a military barracks and the railway station. And there were no village cakes and coffee here. The only food was an enormous stall of unsold fungi of all shapes and sizes, run by a man with walnut coloured skin and pointy ears who looked like a pixie; there was also candy-floss and more barbecued food from a stall in the mini (commercial) fair on the green at the cross-roads. The whole place felt rather daunting although the flea market had a certain buzz as it was very urban. A Revolutionary story with the guillotine would have filmed well here.

Week 24’s trip over to Marlenheim in Alsace was very different. For a start it was their wine harvest festival. Outside the Hotel de Ville sweet white and red grapes were being given away, for all to join in the celebration, by men dressed in regional costume, standing high above the thronging crowds on a wooden wagon; they were pressing more of the grapes in a huge wooden press; and both the grape juice from the spout below the press and new, still fermenting wine from an adjacent barrel could be tasted by those who had paid their two euro for their tasting glass. And there were plenty of sausage and doner kebab stalls, and endless stalls with coffee, cakes and fruit tarts. We watched Alsatian dances and looked at antiques and munched our spicy sausages and kebabs. And I bought a one euro paté dish. It felt a very pleasant way to round off the flea market season.

And now for Culture. The three groups whose existence the Museum finally divulged to us back in May when we were first investigating the cultural scene were: The Friends of the Library and Museum, the University of Permanent Culture (UCP) and the “Philomatique”. The latter publishes all the local history magazines and booklets and is currently doing sessions in the villages to involve villagers in their history (and to get them contributing their memories). A bit like our reminiscence sessions at St Ann’s Library! So on Saturday I braved the heavy rain and ventured into the Mairie of an unknown village. The first of three talks was on the register of local parcels of land drawn up some time after the Revolution. It was lovely to see the fascination of the forty participants as the names of the plots were explained (apparently the French officials were unfamiliar with local dialect so transcribed the names very roughly). I longed to ask about our plot name, les Irotes, which no one in Entre-deux-Eaux can explain (not that anyone is definitely sure of the origin of the village name), but the speaker was besieged in the interval – and I was from a totally different village. In fact I slipped out at the drinks interval (at about 10pm) as my concentration was beginning to lapse after two further sessions on roads and on the First World War.

A few days later, I noticed on our shop door that a nearer community, St Leonard, was doing something similar this weekend. Sunday 27th was appallingly wet and windy and outdoor activities were out of the question, but looking at photos and local family trees sounded quite appealing, so we both went along. St Leonard was one of the many small towns along the main road which was deliberately and totally destroyed by the retreating Germans in 1944 only a few days before they were liberated (and only a few days before that, all remaining men and boys had been rounded up and transported) and so doesn’t have the charm of the older villages like ours. Of the seven hundred houses in the commune, less than fifty remained intact. So it was fascinating to see the photos of the old church, the two hostelries, the old textile works by the stream (now occupied by a scrap car dealer), the old school – a whole vanished world. There were detailed family trees of famous Vosgians (to whom, presumably villagers would have distant links) in the community room, where, at 2.30pm there was still a lively meal going on between the display boards, with sounds of raised voices and great mirth (perhaps they were discussing genealogy!). The photos were in the Mairie, where people were identifying people in old village school photographs and we got involved in the building of the railway, the times of the “diligence” routes, the building of the barracks, the temporary wooden housing put up when some of the menfolk finally returned from the deportation, labour camps, etc. in Germany (if they hadn’t been shot or died there). There were accounts of the timber which shrank (all the local timber had been requisitioned and sent to Germany during the war), leaving great gaps between the boards of the walls, of butter that froze in winter and melted in summer, then the slow rebuilding of the village. And then there were floods in 1955 which washed away the bridge over the Meurthe that joined the two parts of the village. On the aerial photo of 1959, the village was taking shape, but the Church was still a wooden hut, though the new Mairie was there. Over at one of the former hotel-restaurants, the “Salmon”, there were old postcards, books, coins and recent videos for sale, and we could have stopped to listen to a talk about “when our grandparents married.”

Then, on the level of national rather than local culture, the Monday lectures of the UCP (see above) have started. On both Mondays it has been pouring with rain. So a warm lecture hall was more appealing than a wet field or a chilly barn. A friend has suggested that the UCP might be very similar to the University of the Third Age in the UK, but I don’t know the latter. Perhaps someone could enlighten me – though not many of you mere youngsters qualify for the third age! Their first session in the plush auditorium of the Museum started with pomp and ceremony with the presence of the Mayor of St Dié, who no doubt sees himself as a patron of the arts (he was instrumental in starting the Geography Festivals 13 years ago and running them since – he even contributed his own watercolour exhibition during the recent festival). However, after that, the news was bad – the speaker was still sitting on a train which had been delayed between Nancy and Luneville – so the mayor suggested that we looked round the latest exhibition of paintings (not his) which he’d opened on the floor above us at the Museum only two days earlier. I never did find out what the train delay was about – although for an hour or so it felt as if we were back in the UK with all its rail travel uncertainties. However I later read that on the following day five bomb threats had been issued in and around Nancy, claiming to be linked to Al-Quaida and the rail system had come to a halt for two hours. The culprit was later discovered (via his mobile phone) to be an employee who’d worked for SNCF, the rail network, for 25 years. Psychologists are still trying to discover his motivation. Ah yes, the lecture and slide show on Velasquez was excellent when the Professor of Art finally arrived by taxi.

The next week’s UCP lecture was on the divorce law. The lawyer was very entertaining. He really played to the gallery of mainly women getting gasps of horror at the very recent barbarity of French laws. An interesting insight into the cultural trips organised by UCP was provided before the lecture itself. A group had travelled to Prague (well before the recent floods) and had not found it an enlightening experience. There had been no food on the aeroplane; the cultural guide, Joseph, had spoken very poor French; there had been no illuminations on the “Prague illuminated” tour as it had to be undertaken before the evening meal and it was still daylight; and the waiters in the restaurants were rude and didn’t speak French (it all reminded me a bit of English tourists complaining about Paris, apart from the illuminations). However, as a letter of response from the tour company was read aloud the murmurs from the audience indicated that this was still a very sore subject and the ten euro refund per participant was not thought to cover the discomforts and affronts they’d suffered on their travels.

Continuing the transport theme, the quarterly regional newsletter arrived recently and one item of interest included details of the new TGV Est, which has recently started construction. Unlike previous TGVs this one is not wholly funded directly by the state and RFF (the French equivalent of Railtrack/Network Rail), but with the aid of regional (and Luxembourg) money as well. As well as raising environmental, geological, and archaeological issues which need to be solved, the new style contracts seem to have caused delays, so the project is a year behind schedule and over budget. However in (late?) 2006 there should be direct trains running from St Dié to Paris with a journey time of 2 hr 20 min as well as connecting services with French TGVs to western (Nancy-Bordeaux in less than five hours), south-eastern, and northern France (including the Channel Tunnel and onwards to London, as well as to Brussels and Amsterdam), and the German high-speed train system to Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich (and on to Italy?).

And there are still bargains on the Ryanair Strasbourg–Stansted route with single fares from 1.79 euro (plus about 10 euro for airport charges/taxes – adding up to 31 euro for a return fare with credit card booking fee). I’ve booked a cheap fare from 4–12 November, mainly to see my mother who’s had a couple of falls, but I’m looking forward to catching up with Leila and Toby and with friends in Nottingham. And John has booked a shorter trip travelling out on 10 November to see his mother and sister (then we’ll return together). At these prices one can afford to just “pop over”.

And finally back to food again – is one ever far away from the topic in France? Over recent years we’ve established a tradition of celebrating John’s birthday at different three-star restaurants within easy striking distance. Last year he was most affronted to have to have a kidney stone removed in Nottingham, rather than dining out in Alsace. This year he chose to go back to a restaurant we’d enjoyed with my mother, the Belle Vue in Saulxures (which really has got a superb view through its large picture windows) since the restaurant in Ammerschwir, identified for the previous year, has been slipping down the rankings. We did a slight detour on our way to Saulxures. A friend had asked if John had read crime writer Nicholas Freeling’s cookery books. As he hadn’t heard about them, I got them for his birthday along with the book by Monsieur Emil Jung from the Crocodile Restaurant (who presided over the gastronomy tent at the Geography Festival, as described in the last newsletter). Fired up by his present (I like to think), John discovered (via the internet) that Freeling had also written about his village of Grandfontaine in the Vosges. We ordered that as my mother’s present to John, then set off for lunch via Grandfontaine (with Nicola, as that’s also become part of the tradition). After passing through the sprawling, faded agricultural Lorraine villages we cross the border into Alsace where the mountain villages feel colder, more self-contained, and a bit hostile (till you get down to the warmer, brightly coloured tourist villages of the grape belt). Grandfontaine looked cold and boring. What a disappointment. It will be interesting to read about it now we’ve seen it.

I’ll hand over to John for a description of the food – “it was lunchtime and Helen and Nicola opted for the dishes from the “standard” menu. In summary, and rather baldly, between them they had egg on chestnuts, terrine in filo pastry, salmon, beef, cheese, and a desert of breton pancakes; since I was there to celebrate, I opted for the “menu au marché”, starting with snails on a light soufflé, fried fish on a bed of greens surrounded by shellfish (including mussels – I don’t know whether Helen noticed – but they didn’t have the effect she always attributes to them and dreads!!), sliced pig’s trotter on a bed of foie gras (perhaps unfortunately all these had a slight over-dominance of the in-season fungi), followed by a delicate prune tart. With an aromatic Tokay pinot gris from Hunnwihr and a rouge de Marlenheim (a dark rosé which we’d not previously had but had noted for sale the previous week at the Marlenheim festival)”.

Our own food production has slowed down somewhat. We did do our own grape harvest last week, but the grapes were small and limited in quantity. On the microwave sits a plastic bottle containing his year’ output – one litre of grape juice – fermenting.

However, we are planning ahead. We’ve finally planted out John LAST year’s birthday present of a mulberry tree (should be spectacular in 40 years time!), two apple trees and a peach tree. We’d not wanted to plant them out in summer in case the ground got too dry. But now, planting them out at the correct time, and on one of the days with a good weather forecast, rain still had the effrontery to halt digging and by evening my holes were full of water. When we finally resumed planting two days later, it was nice and dry but there was a strong wind, which was drying the washing well. We looked up at a slight sound and saw our yellow gazebo, which has sheltered us on the terrace from sun, wind and rain, lifting into the air, complete with upper poles, and coming to rest near our holes; the only “cheap nylon” guy rope John hadn’t already replaced had snapped as it had suffered too much UV and become brittle. So there was a pause to dismantle the remains properly (more bent poles to add to collections from previous disasters). Then just as the last tree was planted, a Dutch car stopped; a family from Rotterdam had got lost on their way to their gîte. The village shop must have sent them on to us as the nearest foreigners. Street names haven’t been used or displayed in this or the surrounding villages until quite recently – and there are no street maps either on entering villages or outside their Mairies. So the rue Lattre de Tassigny meant nothing our neighbours (nor to us!). When I phoned the number on the Dutch instructions, the gite owners turned out to be the Saulcy end of the road that everyone knows as the route de Saulcy, as, if you’re going from here to Saulcy, that is the road you take.

We hope that you are all OK on that side of the Channel despite the gales that have been rocking the UK, and that, like us, you have nothing more serious than the odd bent gazebo pole to cope with.

A bientot.