A la Recherche du Temps Perdu: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 6 Week 46 – Year 7 Week 5

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Easter hares, sun-drenched flea-markets and canopied terraces of diners outside the Saint Alexis are my memories of Easter 2007. We were looking forward to an equally festive Easter 2008. My old school-friend Jessica flew over before Easter, and we planned to pick up her husband, Mark, on Good Friday from his mathematical conference in the Black Forest. We envisaged driving through the vineyards on either side of the Rhine, perhaps stopping for a riverside lunch, crossing the Rhine on a small ferry boat and exploring a bit of the Black Forest. We’d had some light snow, so had taken some pretty walks in the hills on the Wednesday and Thursday. But throughout Thursday the predictions of high winds and more snow became increasingly worrying. During that night, as the winds strengthened, we could hear the trees tossing violently. We awoke to find more snow falling and very poor visibility. Over the hot cross buns which John had made the day before (not a local tradition) we decided that the roads would be hazardous, the countryside views shrouded in cloud, and any exploration damp and windswept. So Mark was consigned to the “safe, comfortable and reasonable” Deutsch Bahn/SNCF via Strasbourg to Saint-Dié.

On Easter Sunday, we’d planned to lunch at the restaurant Belle Vue in Saulxures. By then the wind had dropped and the snowscapes were inviting. We hadn’t been there for a while, so hoped it would come up to standard, as our visitors had recently been wined and dined at top London restaurants. We had a patchwork of memories of the Belle Vue with different friends and family, including a leisurely sunny summer meal out on the decking with a huge French family table next to us, presided over by grandfather, with children chasing round afterwards. This time, with the snow all round, and Easter Sunday being a popular day for family meals out, all available downstairs rooms were packed with tables, and lots of well trained extra young waiters and waitresses had been drafted in. They still managed to keep the air of an elegant but friendly family hotel (perhaps it was aided by the new décor, with paintings based on old hotel and staff photographs, bills and publicity). The special Easter Day menu was a five course one, with a choice of two dishes for each course. Just to make your mouth water, after a mackerel pate pre-starter, we all had the foie gras with apple and endive starter, then I had some delicious black tiger prawn kebabs with pastrami and ginger vinaigrette and the others had scallops. The main course was veal with broad beans or stuffed lamb and white beans and then came some tasty goats’ cheese. The desert was a chocolate and almond slice with caramel ice-cream or a pineapple strudel with yoghurt sorbet. The coffee came on their trade-mark wooden tray with two different coffees (arabica and arabica-robusta) each. As you can imagine, it was a delightfully leisurely affair.

On the way back we stopped in the old but run-down village of Senones for a short post-prandial stroll and then drove back through beautiful rolling snowscapes in the late afternoon sunshine. In fact the snow at that height was so beautiful, that on Easter Monday Mark and Jessica set off on a 10km walk up to the blanketing snow around the forest chapel of Sainte Claire and the old fortress at Spitzemberg.

It was a good thing that we had not accompanied them, because that was the morning that my mother’s Care Home in Nottingham phoned to say, with great sadness, that my mother had very peacefully died that morning, having chatted to her favourite staff and said that she was feeling better. She had a long and full life (she was 96), and her funeral evoked many happy memories and stories.

As I always think of her recent years being Nottingham based, I was surprised at how many people who phoned, wrote or came to the funeral, remembered her mainly from the twelve summers she spent with us in Entre-deux-Eaux. And, since we’ve been back here, there have been so many unexpected reminders of the little things she enjoyed in and around Entre-deux-Eaux.

Shortly after we got back, we went to one of our favourite flea markets at the Foire au Lard (smoked bacon) at Saint-Rémy. It was the first really hot day of the year, and we hadn’t thought to bring sun hats. We didn’t have any interesting “finds”, but as we were strolling back, the brass band struck up a rousing tune, and I had a vivid flash-back to my mother sitting happily in the beer tent of another vide-grenier, listening to their brass band. She surprised me by saying she’d always loved brass bands, and recalled “The Sing” – a big choral event in the field next to her childhood home in Yorkshire.

Chatting with friends, they also recalled how in our early days here, we used to try and persuade Toby and Leila (and any visiting children) to go down to the village shop to get the bread each morning, to practise their French. Like most teenagers they were amazingly resistant to the idea of a) practising a foreign language and b) getting up early. And anyway it was always my mother who was up and showered before anyone else and had set off for the day’s supply of baguettes, and a chat with the shopkeeper. And of course my mother had a great air of confidence and no hesitation at all as to the quality of her French. She would have been mortified by our neighbour Danielle Laine’s opinion that she couldn’t speak French. This opinion arose from a linguistic misunderstanding (which I must have recounted many times since, so apologies for the repetition), when instead of asking if M. Laine and his hunting posse had killed a boar (tué un sanglier), they thought that she had implied that he had been out hunting down the Englishman (tué un anglais).

Danielle had other equally down to earth judgements, and was never intimidated by my mother’s occasionally headmistressly air (which probably didn’t translate itself into French). Every holiday my mother would set up her easel and painting stool in some corner of the village and sketch the old houses, farms, village crosses, water troughs, church and school. And most years she would make a Christmas card from one of her drawings or paintings. One Christmas I was greeted by a very indignant neighbour. “That’s not Entre-deux-Eaux”, she accused. I’ve walked Pierre all round, and at no point do the houses look like that. It’s just not true!” And indeed, my mother had made various artistic adjustments to the perspective and layout.

On another occasion, after she’d painted the Vozelle’s farm, and Mme Vozelle had peered with interest over her shoulder, she thoughtfully arranged for the picture to be framed for them. With the true country instinct that you don’t accept something for nothing, Mme Vozelle asked if we’d like some eggs in return. As it happened, we were more in need of some manure for the garden, and they had an enormous muck heap. I’m not quite sure what my mother thought of our receiving a generous pile of muck in return for her artistry.

Leila came over a few weeks ago, along with friends Ann and David (the Harts) who’ve also been coming here ever since we bought the farmhouse, so of course that was a time of looking back and getting out the photograph albums, to settle such questions as, “Which year was the total eclipse and our trip to the Le Corbusier church?” “Was that the same year as that we had so many people at dinner that we had to set up the trestle tables in the barn?” So out came the photo albums.

There indeed were the photos of the Le Corbusier church at Ronchamps, whose calm atmosphere and Bible open at the Ecclesiastes passage about there being a time for everything, inspired her to talk for the only time about what kind of funeral she would like when her time came.

There, too, were numerous photos of large meals on the terrace, or in the shade of the old (converted) wash-house or the big barn or, more recently on the new balcony. We’ve got so used to the grey tiles John laid on the balcony and the grey railings which M. Hollard erected round it (not to mention the heavy sun blind which John, Derek, Roger and Ann installed) that I’d forgotten the summer of 2003, when my mother was here in glorious weather. By then the new upstairs kitchen was in full use, but the balcony was bare and precipitous. We had to hastily amass all our pots of plants and arrange them round the edge of the balcony, to stop my mother from accidentally approaching the edge as we dined al fresco and plunging off into the rubble below.

However there was one nasty fall which we were also reminded of while Leila, Ann and David were here. As rain was forecast, we arranged to visit one of the old silver mines outside Sainte Marie-aux-Mines (the town where the Patchwork festival is held). Many years ago we’d visited one of the mines near the town centre. The photo album shows us all (except my mother) togged up in hard hats and waterproofs. Another memorable shot shows my mother taking a photo nearby. It must have been only seconds before she stepped backwards, tripped over a protruding stone behind her, and hit her head, which of course bled spectacularly. Fortunately she didn’t roll into the fast-flowing stream just behind and I think our friend Margrit, who was with us on that visit, thought we were all very callous, as we cleaned up the blood, set her on her feet again and continued our visit.

On that occasion we had all been shocked by the cramped condition in which the miners worked in the sixteenth century and the slow progress they made with hand-tools. So this time we chose to visit the Gabe Gottes mine which had also been started in the sixteenth century, but enlarged by explosives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when not just silver, but also arsenic was sought. We drove behind our guide’s car much further up the wooded hillside to this mine (the whole mountainside must riddled with pits and holes and tunnels from successful and unsuccessful searches). It would have been a really long walk to and from the workings each day. Indeed our guide insisted that more accidents occurred on the way to and from the mines than within them. In a wooden hut, we togged up, and were really glad of the wellingtons, as the tunnels were running with water, and even in these widened tunnels the hard hats and waterproofs were welcome. After threading our way through tunnels, we could see some strange illuminated shapes ahead. A bizarre installation had recently been created by two artists in the deep arsenic pit, entitled “moon garden.” – a creative use of plastic bottles, tubes, bones, metal springs etc.

We had also witnessed a creative use of plastic bottles the previous day, Sunday, vide-grenier day. We’d been to three flea markets. At the first small one Dave had bought a magnificent old mechanical calculator from a defunct Saint Dié firm, Leila had bought a Paddington Bear book in French and I’d backed rapidly away from a stall with a snake. At the second fair at Senones we’d looked at old cars, line-dancing and the presentation of wine awards (as well as the remains of the old palaces and monastery), had sampled some pies and wines and Ann had bought some delicious elderflower wine, and I had bought a rhubarb plant. We took the small road over the hills from Senones (which had been so beautiful in the snow two months earlier), to the hamlet of Denipaire, which always includes children’s projects in their flea market. As we settled down to lunchtime chips and sausages, we noticed the rocket stall. Now David is a rocket enthusiast who has built many innovative rockets over the years to launch at an annual Scottish gathering of enthusiasts. So we all went over to inspect and photograph the boys who were launching their plastic-bottle rockets. It all looked much more fun that the hook-a-duck type attractions more usually provided for children at fairs. And we gather that David is now preparing a short article on the Denipaire rockets.

As we looked back through the photo albums, we realised how many activities my mother had participated in, with her camera at the ready to record events like the drainage excavations, the new bath being carried up the ramp, Toby and John installing the new garage door, the Laines sawing up logs for us, the cows ambling between cowshed and pasture, bulbs being planted, trees being felled, games of boules and Toby, Leila and friends on bicycles. There were also lazy-looking lake-side scenes, featuring Alistair’s or John’s canoe, people with books and my mother at her easel. So it seemed very appropriate when Ann and David spent their last day canoeing on lac Gérardmer.

Another tradition was revived the following week when Toby and his girl friend Stella were with us, and got the bikes down from their hooks in the barn, and, punctures repaired, cycled round the villages between rain showers. Toby also remembered the wood fired oven-baked bread we used to get (before dentists’ bills halted our consumption of baguettes), so we made a special stop at that bakery, but alas it was not as good as he remembered. On their first day, Stella’s birthday, we went to the elegant Ducs de Lorraine restaurant in Epinal, but after a rather wet week we thought another meal out would be fun, and we got the last table at the busy Frankenbourg, which is fast becoming a tradition with them, and was pronounced their favourite still.

Last Thursday, after all our visitors had left, it was the day of the Sainte Marguerite pensioners’ barbecue, which we’d almost forgotten about. The president of the association owns a wooded family plot beside a small fishing lake, which is ideal for barbecues. Every year the group seem to acquire a new length of tenting, so this year there was enough to shelter tables for 80 guests, and the cold food preparation area, while the aperitif table and smoking barbecue remained outside. There was much discussion of the weather, as rain was forecast for the afternoon. These meals are a great occasion for memories and reminiscence as former neighbours get together, and between the courses we heard about garden crops, wood prices v. oil prices, camping holidays of yesteryear and more recent trips to Tunisia (where the French singing shocked the guide). Pudding must have been served around 3.30 or 4 (one looses track on such occasions) when it was getting cooler, and the first of the rain started. Soon after coffee, the accordion player arrived and the singing started (led by the singer who’d disgraced himself in Tunisia). “I think it’s time to go”, whispered John as a few other people left. We were safely in the car on the way home when the next rain shower hit – but maybe by then everyone back at the lakeside was sufficiently insulated by anoraks, wine and the tent (and perhaps the president’s bottle of potent home-distilled pear liqueur had done the rounds by then), so no longer cared about the weather.

Finally, one of those moving vignettes of county life here. Yesterday we walked with many of the same pensioners (clearly fully recovered from their bucolic fête champêtre) above Corcieux. That area is nostalgic for us, as it is where we were camping that hot summer when we saw our Entre-deux-Eaux house in the estate agent’s window. After about an hour of leisurely walking we approached an isolated abandoned farmhouse, surrounded by a meadow of mauve bistort and white (lesser butterfly?) orchids. And then a white-haired, smiling, gentle old man appeared, clutching a lamp. Despite the shuttered windows the house was not deserted. Now in his eighties, he’d lived there all his life, solitary since the death of his parents, and, more recently, the sale of his cows to neighbours. He seemed delighted to have company passing along the footpath, and chatted about various farms, before waving us on our way. Later we caught up with him taking a box of cat food in his old red car to a neighbouring farm, as his own cat had just died and he wouldn’t be getting another.

Oh, just one more rural thought, for those of you who’ve been following the stone marten story with bated breath. The smell in our bedroom was so appalling when we returned after my mother’s funeral, that we just knew that the beast had been very active whilst we were away. In fact we thought a whole family must have been enjoying our hospitality, as the attic was badly soiled as well. So John set to, cut another hole in the bedroom ceiling, scraped out the mess, disinfected, and, when the weather permitted, got out the ladders and blocked up all the accessible gaps under the eaves with bricks, chicken wire and cement, and … ordered a trap. We left the mess in the attic, to preserve the marten’s favourite scent, and when the trap arrived, John baited it with an egg and put it in the attic. The first night the egg vanished, but there was no occupant in the trap. After the second night, however, the trap contained a small hissing and shrieking furry animal. It would have looked quite sweet, were it not for the sharp teeth with which it snapped viciously at anything that approached. We didn’t think that any farmers or hen-keepers would be happy if we released it some distance away from us. And indeed Farmer Duhaut had no questions in mind about its fate when he turned up with his rifle. Despite my vegetarian upbringing, I could feel no regrets, as I set to with scraper, scrubbing brush and disinfectant to clean up its attic legacy. But that may not be the end of the story as our invader (variously christened “Fluffy”, “Cuddles” or “Cyril”) no doubt has siblings and parents out there somewhere.

Democracy, Doctors, and Dancing: Winter in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 6 Weeks 32 – 45

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Winter here is a time for village hibernation, hospital operations, logging and muck-spreading. There has been very little snow this year, the sunny days have enticed us out on walks, but the dull grey days in between have just encouraged the withdrawn life of reading, computers, meals, TV and wood fires. So not much news!

However, today, 9th March, is an important day for the future of Entre-deux-Eaux. It is election day for the commune’s council and mayor. The last municipal election was six years ago, a couple of months before we moved here. So we decided to take our new democratic responsibilities seriously, for we can vote in municipal and European elections, though not cantonal and certainly not national ones (we’re not responsible for Sarko).

The election boards in most communes are plastered with the photos of rival party leaders, each of whom has a proposed list of candidates. However there is no such political rivalry in Entre-deux-Eaux. We just got a single hand-delivered letter in our post box inviting us to a meeting with the present mayor and council, all of whom (apart from one) are standing for re-election on a united front, whatever their personal politics. We received no rival communications, and later heard that no opposition had dared to present itself for election.

So on Wednesday night, when most good farmers are going to bed, we ventured out into the frosty night to hear the achievements, manifesto and debate. The turn-out was limited, and the mayor lamented the fact that new-comers hadn’t come to find out more about their decision-makers. He regarded his two Brits with some uncertainty initially (there are communes, after all, where the English have taken over the council and even the mayoral position and John did shout at him once when he was digging up trees on the edge of our land without explanation!). But in the end, when we had held our tongues and made no criticisms, he permitted himself to introduce us to the rest of the audience and even to promise that our road was on the programme for repairs this year.

The mayor, flanked by his faithful councillors (had Farmer Duhaut, one of his two deputies, had a neat haircut and shave for the occasion?) first outlined the virtues of the outgoing council. Firstly independence: Entre-deux-Eaux has remained fiercely independent, refusing to join with surrounding communes to form a canton or community of communes, in which Entre-deux-Eaux’s interests would be submerged and we’d be paying out for other communes’ ambitious follies. [Others might deduce that Entre-deux-Eaux has its head firmly buried in the sand and will never make progress!]. Secondly stability: Entre-deux-Eaux had been successfully steered for the last twenty five years, after the overthrow of the previous disastrous mayor, by many of the present council. [Could be seen as a lack of new ideas]. Thirdly prudence: local taxes had remained the lowest of all the surrounding communes [Some might say there is a corresponding lack of new facilities and some huge increases when imposed changes have to be implemented]. And finally it is a welcoming community. Most of his audience looked surprised when he mentioned the welcome extended to newcomers and the invitation to join in all the activities. “What activities?” asked a lady in the front row. “The club of the third age is very lively and there is always cake”, replied the mayor. As most of the incomers are young couples and families, this was not over-convincing.

After outlining the future programme of road repairs and obligatory sewerage the mayor asked, rather nervously if there were any questions. I’m not sure what you’d expect to be the big issues for Entre-deux-Eaux. But they turned out to be: Sewerage, Teenagers and Crosses.

Being a rural community, everyone is perfectly accustomed to having a fosse septique for their sewage, even if they don’t comply with recent regulations about having them emptied every four years by a qualified firm. So the idea of Europe imposing an expensive system of piping and centralised treatment is not popular. Entre-deux-Eaux’s 450 residents are insufficient to merit their own sewage treatment plant. And since the commune occupies two sides of a hill, its sewage would have to flow in two directions or involve expensive pumping. The nearest treatment facility on our side of the hill is in Saulcy-sur- Meurthe, which already has more than it can cope with (and Mandray also wants to use the facility). An earnest lecture then followed from the councillor who works at the Saulcy facility. Sadly there are incomers there who don’t like the fields round them being sprayed with treated sewage, and other disposal options are very expensive. It was suggested from the floor that if the mayor wants a well-attended meeting, the topic of sewerage would attract a large audience.

A man at the back started to raise an issue dear to his heart, whereupon a furious onslaught from the councillors’ table at the front was unleashed. It turned out that the man had been foolish enough to try and speak at a Council Meeting, and everyone knows that you can’t do that, – you are only allowed to observe the wisdom of the elders. So they had all decided that they would not listen to him at all as he was an extremely rude and abusive man. However, in perfectly reasonable tones, the man proceeded to say that if he didn’t speak up for the young people of the village, who would? All they wanted was some kind of facility (even a bus shelter to congregate in appeared to be an issue – it would attract the vandalising riff-raff of other communes).

When he had been shouted down on that issue, he, again in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice, mentioned the disappearing calvaires of Entre-deux-Eaux. Over the ages carved stone crosses have been erected at several road junctions in the village and the French language entry for Entre-deux-Eaux on Wikipedia mentions its Promenade des Calvaires (along with the 18th century church, the ruins of the mines and the characteristic architectural style with double doors for the hay-wains). We too had been saddened by the vanishing heritage. The cross at the bottom of our road was the first disappearance we registered. It was in fact a wooden one with a rather fine bronze sculpted figure of Jesus. John used his photo of a bicycle leaning against it for a long-ago Christmas card. But the commune employee dug it up when a large cistern (containing a pump providing water from Saint Leonard to the village) was installed, and for several years, on the pretext that the wood was rotting, he has been reluctant to replace the cross. Another calvaire has either disappeared beneath or been demolished by a large pile of gravel at a crossroads opposite the famous cherry tree. This was probably the cross to which the mayor referred when he answered that its re-installation was being delayed until it was decided whether to construct a roundabout on the site. Then recently we noticed the stone cross beyond Vozelle’s farm lying in sections on the ground, looking as if a large lorry or muck-spreader had toppled it. What pertinent questions the dissident was asking, we thought.

Another bit of local history then surfaced. The above-mentioned cherry tree. During the last war two unfortunate young resistance workers from Plainfaing had been hanged from the tree after they were captured by the Germans following an allied parachute drop of guns and equipment. Sadly the tree had been chopped down after Christmas. The mayor replied that he had notified Plainfaing’s mayor that it was rotten and unsafe, and it was they, as those responsible for the memorial and the tree, who had cut it down. (One of our two cherry trees blew down this winter, after becoming dead and rotten, so we understood the problem). However, he said, there were no plans to replace the tree. Our parsimonious council seems to have no feeling for history or landscape. Who would think that our mayor used to be a teacher!

Unlike Entre-deux-Eaux, Saint Dié has four rival lists of election candidates: The present ruling Socialists, the Right, the Left, and the Communists. So their mayor has to be out publicising himself at every opportunity. He draws attention, in the monthly newsletter to Saint Dié residents, to his vast program for reform, civic improvements and culture, and is photographed with his team in front of each road widening, new roundabout, local meeting and cultural event. So it was not surprising to see him at February’s AGM of the Saint Dié Walking Group. That might seem a non-political venue, but he shrewdly promised the group new headquarters, and it was a well attended meeting, thanks to the practise of offering champagne and holding a three-course lunch after the AGM. After the shambles of the Walking Group AGM a couple of years ago, it was a relief to see that the new committee seemed to have got affairs back onto an even keel. The meeting ran to time, the elections were undisputed, and concerns were noted and action promised. We also stood in a minute’s silence for a delightful nonagenarian Auguste who had died during the course of the year (apparently his coffin had been borne into the packed church with his walking poles and cap on top.) Proceedings were only disrupted when the ex-President arrived half way through and insisted on walking round shaking hands with people and talking very loudly to them!

The museum curator was more firm about electioneering when the Mayor of Saint Dié turned up to the opening of the water-colour exhibition at the museum. He said that the mayor was there as a fellow-artist and exhibitor, and so could not address the throng. However, the mayor networked efficiently after the speeches, and I was nearly presented to him, on the assumption that I was Nicola (who’d been invited to exhibit two paintings).

However, we didn’t see Saint Dié’s mayor at the annual Amnesty Book Fair yesterday. No doubt he had more pressing pre-occupations. Although he could well have set up a photo-opportunity earlier in the day. In the foreign language section we found plenty of English books to rummage through, to supplement our reading matter. John idly fingered an account of our queen’s coronation and a lavishly illustrated 1940s children’s book on Red Indians, and I bought some Arnold Bennett.

Mention of Nicola leads me on to doctors. For it was on her recommendation that we’d first gone to Dr T in Saint Dié (when I needed a repeat prescription). Nicola felt his heavy bookshelves, bound medical volumes, and enormous leather-topped desk were reassuring. And I found that he was perfectly OK at doling out repeat prescriptions, though his appointment system seemed a little old fashioned. You just turn up at the surgery waiting room, count the number of people already there, and calculate whether the doctor can fit you in before lunch, at a work-rate of 15 mins per patient. (Patient etiquette also requires that you simultaneously greet the entire waiting room, and later bid them farewell when your turn arrives). Each appointment costs 22 euro, payable across the leather-topped desk directly to the doctor. Home visits cost more, so locums have found that Dr T seemed quite happy to fit home visits in between patients’ hair appointments, instead of making them come into the surgery. I began to be aware that Dr T felt that it was uneconomic therefore for him to deal with two matters in one consultation. He even said that writing a repeat prescription and also filling in three boxes in an necessary official form were too much for one 15 minute appointment. I’d also found him completely unhelpful recently over the skin cancer, merely saying that having referred me to a dermatologist, it was no longer his concern.

John had never felt that Dr T was concerned with the whole patient, and had long since stopped going to him, although under the new health regulations, you are meant to declare your doctor. So when he wanted a flu injection this winter he decided to try the practice of the two doctors in the next village, Saulcy-sur-Meurthe. We were impressed, when we went through the door, to discover that the doctors shared a secretary and had an appointment system. Also small children were not expected to wait in silence on adult wooden chairs, but were provided with toys. So John booked in, and I accompanied him.

We were further impressed when the new doctor explained that they were a community based practice, limiting numbers so as to serve their community better, but as Entre-deux-Eaux has no doctor, he was prepared to accept John. Whereupon he took a full medical history, and decided to tackle John’s blood pressure, cholesterol and painful knees as a first priority in improving his general fitness and health. So John walked out with prescriptions for blood tests, X-rays and MRI scans – as well as having had his flu injection. We did observe that the appointments system was in fact no more efficient than Dr T’s, as the new doctor spends so much time on each patient that you always wait at least half an hour, even if the waiting room is empty! That first appointment lasted over an hour and the next wasn’t much shorter.
Following the knee scans, Dr P wrote John a prescription for the consultant of his choice. It is a bit difficult to choose when you don’t know the consultants. Though as Madame Laine was in pain from knee surgery at Saint Dié, and Madame Georgeon (further along our road) was about to have a knee operation in Epinal, there were some satisfaction ratings available. When pressed, Dr P recommended another Epinal surgeon.

We had an early morning appointment in Epinal. The surgeon decided not to operate as he thought that what John needed was more exercise to build up the muscles above his knees. So he recommended swimming, cycling and walking with air-cushioned shoes, and he wrote a prescription for twenty sessions of physiotherapy. So then John had to choose a physiotherapist. None of this waiting around for an appointment to be sent to you. You just make your own appointment with the person of your choice. A new practice has just opened between Saulcy and Sainte Marguerite, so John presented himself there, but so far he doesn’t seem too impressed with actions. And treatment has been halted during a debilitating cold. Meanwhile I have transferred my affections to Dr P as well – though have not managed to get my notes transferred from Dr T (fortunately, in France the patient gets copies of all tests and consultants’ reports and retains x-rays etc., so it is only the doctor’s own notes which need to be transferred – and from what we have seen Dr T’s notes seem rather skimpy).

I can’t remember if John used his dodgy knees as an excuse for not attending the Sainte Marguerite pensioners galette des rois in January. He certainly found it extremely boring in previous years. But then he’s not a great one for dancing! The festivities started with everyone sitting at tables sipping champagne in a decorous manner. But soon the dancing started, with much whirling and twirling and complicated steps (no one just shuffles uncomfortably). Then there was a slight pause for the eating of the almond-flavoured epiphany tart. Each galette contained a charm, and one lucky finder had to put on a gold cardboard crown and be “Queen” and dance with another who was “King”, which occasioned much hilarity. After more dancing, a chunk of brioche was served, and later still some coffee. By this time things were getting really animated, with whole tables performing a stand-up, sit-down, clap-hands routine, and the ever-popular line-dancing. With the pace getting too hot, the oldest Scrabble player and I beat a retreat at that point.

The next dance in Entre-deux-Eaux seems to be that of the Shooting Club. Ah yes, now there’s another welcoming new activity for newcomers to our village – shooting. I can’t imagine the dance being as much fun as the November Firemen’s Ball, though.

We can’t finish this, leaving you in suspense about the election results. So here they are: unsurprisingly, after 279 of the 392 potential voters exercised their rights, all the councillors in Entre-deux-Eaux have been re-elected without need for a further round of voting next Sunday (though Farmer Duhaut appears to have made a few enemies as he had fewer votes than the others). In Saint Dié, the Communists received insufficient votes (8.08%) to proceed to the next round, the Mayor’s party list are currently in the lead with 42.87% of the votes, while the right has 32.5%, but the second round could overturn that lead. Will the Mayor of Saint Dié survive? Watch this space.

A la prochaine!

Below, for those interested in the fine detail of the electoral system, John has produced a short guide, as French local elections are very different from those we have come to accept as the norm. Basically there are separate rules for communes with more than 3,500 electors and those with less than 3,500 (and for Lyon, Marseilles and Paris there are different rules again).

For those villages and small towns of under 3,500, every group/party has the right to produce a list of candidates, and voters can select candidates from one or more of those lists, crossing out those the voter doesn’t want – more a case of voting against than voting for. The votes for each candidate are counted separately. Candidates getting an absolute majority and the support of over a quarter of the registered electors are elected. If there are still places to fill a further election is held a week later and the top-scoring candidates are elected.

For communes with 3,500 or more inhabitants a two-ballot list system is used to elect councillors. Voters are given ballot papers with complete lists of candidates representing the different parties and have to vote for a single list; they cannot delete or add names or change the order of candidates on a list. If a list obtains the absolute majority in the first round, it is awarded a number of seats equal to half the seats to be filled. The other seats are distributed between all the lists by a system of the highest averages system of proportional representation. Otherwise a second round of elections is held the following Sunday. Only lists which have obtained 10% of the votes cast may go forward to the second round. The list which obtains the most votes is awarded a number of seats equal to half the seats to be filled. The other seats are distributed among all the lists by the highest averages system (Distribution “by the highest averages” means calculating for each list what would be the average of votes obtained per seat allocated if each one were hypothetically granted an extra seat. The list which obtains the highest average gets a seat. The operation is repeated as many times as there are still seats to be filled. Once the number of seats allocated to each list is known, the next step is to determine which candidates will get them. The general procedure is to follow the order in which they appear on the list).

The mayor is elected by the new council. To be elected mayor, a candidate must have obtained the absolute majority of votes cast in the first or second round. If after two rounds no candidate has obtained this, a third round of elections takes place and the candidate with the most votes is elected.

We were sent a voting card a few days before the election date. On presenting it at the polling station (the scrutineers were all retiring councillors on the list!) we were given a small blue envelope and told to pick up a copy of the list. In the booth there was no pen or pencil! The list is put in envelope and that goes into the ballot box unless you decide to abstain when an empty envelope goes into the box.

Autumn to Advent: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 6 Weeks 22 – 31

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This is a very special day in Entre-deux-Eaux’s year. If you had listened carefully a few minutes ago, amid the gusts of wind you may have heard the tinkle of sleigh bells. And you would have known that Saint Nicholas and his wicked assistant Père Fouettard have just entered our village hall where all the village children have assembled. At this very moment the good saint will be asking each child if they have been good all year. Then, amid chaos (for E2E’s Saint Nicholas lacks authority), he will listen to their fragments of songs and recitations, and distribute sweets.

He has reached Entre-deux-Eaux a week earlier than elsewhere. Perhaps this is because most of the same children will be rushing off to Saint Dié next weekend, at the proper time, to watch a very different and more dignified Saint Nicholas drive in splendour through the streets of Saint Dié, preceded by numerous floats, marching bands and twirling girls. Sweets will be thrown from the floats. Some years there are fireworks outside the cathedral, this year we are promised balloons. Then Saint Nicholas will disappear impressively through the cathedral doors until next year.

Unseasonally, the fields aren’t white with snow to greet Saint Nicholas today. But we have had snow. The first snow, way back in late October, took us by surprise. We were on our way to Basel airport to meet John’s sister Ann, her husband Derek and their elder son Steven (visiting for John’s birthday). The prettiest route starts off by going through the next village of Mandray, climbs 260 metres to the Col de Mandray, then bumps along a forest road to the spectacular viewpoint at the Col de Bagenelles. This latter section of road appears to snake round the contours in so gentle a fashion that you have no sensation of climbing a further 310 metres. Snow and streamAnd as we imperceptibly climbed we found that snow had fallen. The autumn leaves were still so pretty, glowing golden through the white powdering. Of course, snow at 1,000 metres should not be surprising towards the end of October, but many of us have fond memories of standing around outside the Blanche Neige restaurant in the sunshine (and in short sleeves) at John’s previous year’s big birthday. (And it has to be said that snow on the heights was not as unexpected as the cause of a diversion on our previous trip to the airport to pick up Ellen, namely frozen pigs on the road. That time we’d taken the main road which the lorries use. And one of these huge lorries had gone over the edge with its load of pork).

We often meander back from the airport through the wine villages (and their cafés). We misguidedly decided to bring Ann, Derek and Steven back along the route de Crêtes. For that first snow had reminded us that the mountain route would soon be closed to all except skiers and walkers. And it would be nice to sit and admire the wonderful views from a mountain-top café. It was a bit of a shock to find that the whole ridge was sheathed in dense white mist. Views were reduced to the few feet in front of the car. The ski tow cables were lying across the road, being overhauled. The cafés were all shut due to bad weather. Everything was clammy and miserable.

But then the next day we were in a different climate again. You may recall mention of Saint Alexis in a previous newsletter. The saint who ran away on his wedding day and lived the rest of his life anonymously under the staircase at his parents’ house? We’d always intended to return to eat at the Saint Alexis restaurant in the middle of the forest. Over a leisurely breakfast we decided to spend our visitors’ first day wine-tasting in Alsace, stopping en route at the Saint Alexis for lunch. “Traditional Alsacien food can be quite hearty!” we’d warned. But that didn’t sound a bad idea in preparation for wine tasting.

Given its remote forest setting, we were surprised how packed it was. But this was no posh restaurant. Many of the diners were wearing walking boots. There were dogs, rucksacks and walking poles under many tables. The waiters were swooping and dashing at high speed, but making time to stop and chat with the learning-disabled group next to us. We once went to a posh restaurant where there was a very expensive truffle on display at the reception desk, and you practically had to genuflect to it. The Saint Alexis was less aspirational: on their dark, polished bar there stood a large pointed cabbage. St Alexis cabbageThe crockery had pretty scenes of every-day life in Alsace, but sadly the rapid turnover of courses and plate juggling into the dishwasher had chipped it badly. First came the huge tureen of soup. It was delicious. The kind that gets added to day by day till it has an indescribably rich flavour. We couldn’t resist seconds, although we’d seen the heaped plates to follow. Some of us then had an intermediate course, to prepare us for the main course – either omelette, ham and crudités or sausage-meat pie and crudités. After that came the heavy stuff – choucroute for some, chicken casserole or smoked pork for others (not to mention the potatoes or pasta in case we were still hungry). We rounded off with a selection of fruit tarts.

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of choucroute (which gets a periodic rather scathing mention in our newsletters), John read a recent newspaper item about the Great Hamster of Alsace. No, I don’t think it’s an early April fool. The beast is otherwise known as Cricetus cricetus and there are only 600 left in eastern France. Not surprisingly the cabbage farmers have long considered it a pest, as its favourite food is cabbage. Since many of the former cabbage fields are now being used to grow more lucrative maize, the Great Hamster of Alsace is dying out and the European Commission is threatening to fine France seventeen million euro for failing to protect an endangered species.

Anyway, back at the Saint Alexis, we’d had an excellent sweet local wine to accompany our (un-nibbled) choucroute, smoked pork etc. And despite coffee at the end, we felt that further wine-tasting (as originally planned) was not such a good idea after all. What we needed was a good walk. John (whose knees were painful) drove the car down to the Riquewihr, whilst the rest of us had a great walk downhill through the autumn leaves of the forest until we reached the vineyards around Riquewihr. Riquewihr was looking very pretty as we met up with John, and we strolled round the old streets, finishing in the small corner shop which expands inside to a subterranean palace of Christmas decorations: frosted baubles, stars, cribs, advent calendars, musical boxes, nutcracker figures, bears and candies.

By the end of October all the flea markets were well and truly finished. We hadn’t had many exciting finds this year. (In fact I think our visitors did better! Ellen was delighted to find a string of bright yellow wind-up metallic ducks and a green hand embroidered night-dress case at Saint Dié’s big flea market, whilst Leila found a beautiful vase for her new house and a green-stemmed Alsace wine glass to complete a set she already had). However, other markets take their place in winter – usually food-related ones. And so Ann, Derek and Steven got dragged off to the annual smoked pork fair at Plainfaing. We had fun there as there were also clothes, rabbits, second hand stalls, a marching band, twirling girls and copious advice from other customers about which cheeses and ham to purchase. exhibition birdIn preparation for consuming our purchases we took a pleasant hill-top stroll on our way back and picked juniper berries (despite prickled fingers). The previous day we’d been to a big rabbit show and competition. Normally they exhibit farmyard birds as well, but recent scares over avian flu had curbed initial enthusiasm for that, so there were only a few last minute birds entered.

John’s birthday meal was at the Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal. We were delighted that the fastidious Madame was on leave that day, so the atmosphere was relaxed and we had a wonderful meal. By dessert, Derek could only manage a modest sounding fruit salad. To his amazement he got a ring of seven glass bowls each containing a different fruit in an appropriate liqueur. Resting after birthday mealAfter that another walk was needed. John and I slipped into an exhibition of old Lorraine farmhouses. In the courtyard were some artistic metal cows. A few of them were lying waving their legs in the air. We felt we could easily join them!

But the autumn hasn’t been all about food. There have been a few cultural touches. On European Heritage Day, Ellen and I went to an interesting talk on the history of the Jews of Saint Dié. It was followed by a look at the museum’s Yvan Goll collection (poet, born Saint Dié 1891, wrote in both French and German). Then we visited the synagogue which is normally shut-up as there are now insufficient Jewish men for any sacred rituals to be performed there. Outside the synagogue is the memorial to the Jews of Saint Dié who were all rounded up and deported to the camps. Sadly anti-semitism can be seen in all epochs: we next looked at two of the cathedral’s mediaeval windows (removed and preserved during times of war and the dynamiting of the cathedral) which show Jews vilified as sorcerers and murderers of babies. Our tour finished (appropriately) in the Jewish section of the cemetery.

The following week the Romanians were in town. The theme of the International Geography Festival was dwindling energy resources, which set a gloomy tone. However, the invited guest country, Romania was a popular choice. Their café scored a hit serving Vosgian-type specialities of spicy sausages, cabbage, wine and coffee, and their four roving brass bands had little girls and their mamas dancing on street corners whilst little boys looked enviously at the instruments and their papas circled taking photos and recording on their mobile phones. The local history society’s lectures followed the themes. So I heard talks ranging from the impact of hydraulic power on the Meurthe Valley to vampires (a tribute to Romania). An eminent Benedictine monk at the nearby Abbey of Senones, Don Calmet, had in the Age of Enlightenment, written about vampires in his treatise on angels and demons, but had concluded there was no evidence for their existence (and they weren’t in the Bible). Meanwhile (back to food), John was learning how do interesting things with pineapples and snails (separate dishes, I’m glad to say).

We also spent a fascinating morning while Ann, Derek and Steven were with us when we were offered our own special tour of Fort Kléber. I had come across mentions of a Fort Bismark, outside Strasbourg, as a dismal transit camp for allied prisoners of war. Fort KleberFort Bismark had been built by the Germans between 1872 and 1875 (after they’d annexed Alsace) as part of a circle of forts round Strasbourg (to deter the French from taking it back again). Much of the manual work was done by Italians, infiltrated by French spies. The spies reported it was so strong that the French army never did attack it. However, after Alsace was returned to France at the end of the first world war, the French army acquired the fort, used it as a garrison and store and re-christened it Fort Kléber after one of its own heroes. Of course it changed hands again during the Second World War, when it was used for the aforementioned POWs (who found it very cold and insanitary). We were fortunate to see parts most visitors don’t see: the brick-lined counter-saps dug under the surrounding fields to listen out for possible saps (tunnels) being dug by the French in order to set explosives beneath the fort’s walls. The gunpowder room and its ventilation was fascinating too (when the fort was built they were still using cannons). And then there was the section where the POWs were probably held and the dry moat where they would have exercised.

It is now a week since I started writing this. So Saint Nicholas has visited most other villages and towns, the Christmas markets are in full swing, and Leila is visiting. After we’d collected her from Baden-Baden airport (off a flight that cost her one pence plus a few taxes) we spent time in Strasbourg. IKEA was good for breakfast and some Christmas shopping Strasbourg Christmas market(try and visualise an IKEA car-park on a Saturday morning that is only half-full and queues of two or three at the tills!) Then we wandered round the quainter street markets in the old part of town (much more crowded with tourists as it was the first weekend of the Christmas market!). The largest market is under the soaring sculpture of the great west door of the cathedral, one is by the canal and others are in various squares.

And the next day we drove over the Col de la Schlucht to a small village near Munster. Breitenbach-Haut-Rhin must be unique in holding its Christmas Market in the cellars of an old brewery (the rest of the brewery was destroyed during the First World War). As you enter, there is a crèche vivante between the wrought ironsmiths and honey makers (though at lunch time, only the sheep, a cow and a rather sad donkey were still in the stable). You follow the subterranean tunnels which are lined with colourful stalls of pottery, cheese, wooden boxes, sausages, embroidered hangings, candles, patisseries, jewellery, bird-feeders and Christmas decorations. Up some steps is a display of carved nativity scenes from around the world (with a lovely Peruvian one set on a boat). And then the tunnels lead into a large refectory, with a blazing fire in the centre and meals being served. After lunch Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus were going to return to the crèche to take part in carols. As we drove back, a rainbow arched from the white mountains and fell into the valley on the village roofs just in front of us. It felt as if we would drive right through its shiny colours.

With that seasonal scene, we wish you all a very happy Christmas and all the very best in 2008. Perhaps we’ll see you in Entre-deux-Eaux next year?

Hunting, Hats, Hawaiians, and Hornets: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 6 Weeks 7 – 21

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We woke this Sunday morning (not very early, it has to be admitted, but that was the fault of the previous night’s Haut Meix celebration, of which more later) to primitive sounds from the hills. Unleashed from a summer of indolence and domesticity, the men of the Vosges were shouting and yelling excitedly. The hunting season had opened. It’s hard to imagine they caught anything on the first day. All that noise would have warned off any boar or roebuck, despite the fact that during summer the latter had happily come down from the forests into our open fields. During our six week absence (in England and on Andros) over July and August, one of our young pear trees had been destroyed by deer scraping its bark, eating many branches, and leaving just a single leaf. Then, shortly after our return, John opened the shutters one morning and saw a magnificent antlered beast in the orchard.

But then this summer hasn’t been normal. The wet weather meant that lower-lying village fields which could not be cut in May and June’s rain had become water-logged during July and August’s rain, so still couldn’t be cut. So by the end of August when we returned, the fields were tall with mouldering grass. Farmer Duhaut’s cows couldn’t graze in the uncut fields, so were confined to the upper fields to the north of our house. It’s been entertaining to watch them walking daily up and down our road as they did when we first came. There’s a slope down from the upper fields to the road. Any cows hesitating at the top when returning to the milking-shed in the evening, get roughly pushed off the edge by their unsympathetic companions jostling behind. Yesterday there was great consternation and bellowing when two cows escaped in search of more succulent grass and had to be driven back and fences repaired. Fortunately there were a couple of good sunny weeks in early September for hay making, grape harvesting – and also for the patchwork festival.

The world of fashion seems very remote from these bucolic scenes. But three quarters of an hour’s drive away in the Val d’Argent the patchwork enthusiasts of Europe were gathering for their annual colourful event. Fired by descriptions of earlier exhibitions, our friend Ellen flew over from London in early September for the festival. We started our two day orgy of colour in the small village of Ste-Croix-aux-Mines, where the cat-walk had been set up. It was fun watching the elegant models flouncing and gliding in their rich flaring fabrics – felt, velvet, satin and chiffon. The red and black Russian doll sequence was stunning. But it was even more fun observing the audience. Across the catwalk in the front row opposite us perched some surprisingly chic women appraising and surveying. Were they fashion editors? They looked very Parisian. The more ordinary faces of the more ordinary patchworkers (beige cardigan brigade) were lit up with wonder – almost ecstasy. Were they imagining themselves, transformed by these fabulous creations, going Cinderella-like, along with their Parisian sisters, to the Ball?

When the music and applause faded, the audience drifted round the designer garments. The stall holders were in their element as the Parisians descended and tried on extraordinary hats at rakish angles. Their creators pinched and cajoled their felt and net concoctions into ever more fetching shapes, reflecting back-of-head images in an array of hand-held mirrors. Ochres, rusts and blacks succeeded each other, perched seductively on the impeccably dyed hairstyles. Finally cheques for huge amounts were signed with a flourish.

Meanwhile, in the nearby Villa Burrus, where one of the main tobacco manufacturers had once lived, the ground floor salons were devoted to delicate Japanese silk and ribbon embroideries of ephemeral cherry blossoms, seascapes and starry skies. In the grounds of the villa, a patchwork flower garden is being developed, and more excitingly, beyond the gloriette (a cross between a band-stand and summer-house) an ornamental vegetable patch with swirls of colour, texture and scent from its tall red flowered beans, squat purple cabbages, golden nasturtiums, sage, thyme, carrot fronds. Perhaps we should redesign our potager.

There were plenty of conventional patchwork quilts and hangings to see in the big churches and the theatre, including Amish and Mennonite quilts. But it was interesting to turn from the traditional tulip patchwork pattern to the appliqué lotus. For in one of the Egyptian lotus designchurches were the Egyptian tent-makers, who traditionally embellish the huge tents used for weddings and other family and festive gatherings (though I think that what we saw were being made for the Cairo tourist shops). Cross-legged on the carpet in front of the altar sat Mohammed (according to his name badge) whose high-speed hand stitching and shaping of boldly coloured fabric into ornate appliquéd scrolls and whorls was producing gasps of admiration.

Between churches we refreshed ourselves at pavement cafés amongst the throngs of patchworkers. The next day we also enjoyed, this time with John, a more leisurely meal at the Blanche Neige. We were relieved that they’d recovered from their flood. As we remarked to Ellen, you don’t think of buildings on top of mountains getting flooded, but the evening before our previous visit a reservoir wall above the restaurant had broken and the staff had spent the night baling out and were looking exhausted as they served impeccable food. This time, after our meal, we were able to drive down the mountain roads unhindered by cascading water, to the vineyards below, where families were harvesting the early grapes. In the quaint walled wine villages like Riquewihr, less quaint green and yellow plastic tubs of grapes were being decanted and hosed out and children were selling bags of grapes for a euro. In dark cellars round courtyards this year’s winemaking was now under way.

Continuing on the restaurant theme, when Leila returned with us at the end of August for a week’s sun and rest (before the excitement of moving into her new house in Sherwood), she chose the Frankenbourg for her farewell meal. As well as the superb cooking there, we always enjoy the warm welcome that Madame extends to all her guests. By contrast, when we returned to the Michelin-starred Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal the remembered glories of their cheese board and dessert trolley were overshadowed by an officious Madame who kept correcting the position of our cutlery and plates; she also allowed valued clients to smoke over our allegedly non-smoking table and pulled a disbelieving face when Dorinda asked for decaffeinated cappuccino, there being no method known to her of producing such a bizarre drink (although her junior staff had managed it without any problem on our earlier visit).

On one of our Strasbourg visits (yes thank-you, all is well with my arm and I’m signed off now) we went back to a Chinese restaurant we’d enjoyed. It seemed a good recommendation when we noticed forty Chinese tourists coming out of the upstairs room. Porcus Dei Strasbourg (photo from www.spindler.tm.fr)In search of new restaurants on another hospital trip, we tried Porcus Dei, the tiny pork-in-all-its-forms restaurant above an elegant charcuterie. As well as good pork, they had some stylish marquetry pictures on the walls by Spindler (apparently there is even a Spindler room at Betty’s in Harrogate). And one day Roger introduced us to one of his favourites, Les Trois Poissons on the canal quay in Colmar. Old photographs outside the loo show quaint old fishermen’s cottages and flat bottomed boats. On our way back from there we stopped at the ugly enormous black glass show-room of a wine producer. We’d previously ignored Wolfberger’s showy wine emporium, but had to admit, as we stocked up with Alsace wines for John’s sister, that it was more interesting than it looked, with friendly staff offering advice and letting us taste as many wines as we wanted in a modern atmosphere.

Returning one day after a totally unmemorable lunch at the clumsily named Hotel Restaurant du Commerce et de L’ Europe in Grandvillers (on the way to Epinal), we decided to follow signs to the American memorial on the outskirts of Bruyères. Passing some giant colourful ant sculptures on the hillside we began to wonder how much we’d drunk over lunch until we realised they were part of an educational ant walk, and nothing to do with the Americans. A few miles further, in a peaceful forest glade, stood a monument to the 100/442 regiment, who had played such a big part in liberating Bruyères and in rescuing the “Lost Battalion”. Significantly the 442nd was composed entirely of volunteers from Hawaii and from the American internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent who, the monument records, “reaffirmed an historic truth here that loyalty to one’s country is not modified by racial origin. Hawaiian knot of friendshipThese Americans, whose ancestors were Japanese, on October 30th 1944 during the battle of Bruyères broke the backbone of the German defences and rescued the 141st Infantry Battalion which had been surrounded by the enemy for four days”. Their losses were huge. According to the town’s website, in liberating Bruyères the regiment lost 1200 out of 2500 fighting men. And in rescuing the 270 Texans of the Lost Battalion, 800 “Yankee Samurai” were sacrificed. One of the few survivors had sculpted a dramatic “Knot of Friendship” which the had veterans presented to the town fifty years after the battle.

Back to restaurants. The most recent we’ve been to, for an unexpected celebratory meal, was the Auberge du Haut Meix. We thought that we had said goodbye to Roger and Dorinda the previous night when John had cooked a farewell meal. They were returning to England after a holiday spent on fruitless house-hunting. (Their picturesque holiday home in Mandray had lost its quiet charm as excavators and cement mixers have been grinding away for the last year laboriously converting the adjacent farm-house into three apartments, with an incomplete earth terrace looming over their quiet garden). With no apparent end in sight, Roger and Dorinda were getting desperate, and over John’s salad, sweet-and-sour and stir-fry, and chocolate mousse and apple tart we had commiserated with their lack of success. Then, the next morning, after Magic the cat had been to the vet for his returning-to-England vaccinations, they went to look at a final house in nearby Anould. It was a bit smaller (with only two bedrooms) but it had a superb view, lovely garden and substantial outbuildings. On the spot, they put in an offer for it! So an extension of their stay and a celebration were called for. Most restaurants were already fully booked, for it was a Saturday night. But the Auberge du Haut Meix hasn’t been open very long, is off the beaten track, is only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and had a free table. It was very welcoming after driving through the darkness to arrive at this tiny pinpoint of light on the forested hillside above Taintrux, then walk though its stone-walled courtyard into a brightly lit dining room and be ushered to a huge wooden table. And, although the food wasn’t memorable, it was great to be celebrating a successful conclusion to the Great House Hunting Holiday.

Our own house seems to have remained free of dead birds and pine martens while we were away, thanks to the fine chicken wire John installed in the gaps between roof and wall. But we soon discovered that other local wildlife had decided to take up residence. On uncovering the compost heap, John saw what he thought were small white mushrooms growing on the top. On closer inspection they turned out to be grass snake eggs. Given my snake phobia, he kindly disposed of yet another protected species. Then, as I was getting a room ready for Ellen over in the farmhouse I noticed a few dozy hornet-like insects on the kitchen floor. “They might be bees”, I remarked hopefully to Ellen, so throughout her stay she continued to gently put them out of the kitchen window. Later John tracked the source down to a nest at the very top of the stove chimney. And they were definitely hornets. Rather than calling in the local firemen he decided to tackle them himself. Lighting a fire to make all of them even dozier didn’t work as the nest had almost blocked the flue and the kitchen just filled with smoke. So, wearing a bizarre assortment of semi-protective clothing (like his wood-working visor) John opened the outside trap, sprayed a lot of insect killer up the flue, rodded rapidly and vigorously (no brush) and managed to make a vent hole without too much descending on him, apart from nest fragments, larvae and just a few hornets. Fortunately most of the live ones flew out of the chimney top. After more spraying, John replaced the trap cover and lit a fire in the range which smoked copiously and then roared. The hornets kept trying to return to the nest under the chimney cowl but finally either sacrificed themselves or gave up with the heat. And the next day he was able to complete the sweeping (with brush). Let’s hope they don’t come back. It might be wise to light occasional fire just in case.

As the rain has now set in again, we’ll soon need those fires. It feels as if Entre-deux-Eaux’s brief summer is over. The fields are cut and baled at last, the tables in our barn are covered with a Walnut harvestbumper crop of walnuts and hazelnuts, the jars of blackcurrant, worcesterberry, and gooseberry jam are stacked up, and the Sunday vide-greniers will soon come to an end. But we still have the Geography Festival (sorry, I should have prefaced that with “International”) in St Dié to look forward to, we can re-join the Ste Marguerite pensioners at Gym and Scrabble (Helen) and on fortnightly forest walks (both of us have already had our boots on) and the winter lecture season will soon start. Will this turn out to be a mild winter like last year or one of the minus eighteen degrees winters? A bientôt!