L’actualité des relations franco-britanniques: August – October 2014 in Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link E2E2014no3.pdf (four A4 pages)
There are links in the text to the church restoration and to more patchwork photographs

If you were in charge, how would you choose to present the culture and geography of the British Isles to the French? What authors would you select? What music? What landscapes? What symbols?

This weekend the British Isles were the Guest of Honour at the FIG, the International Festival of Geography in St Dié des Vosges. So we eagerly awaited the programme of events (which is usually only available a couple of weeks beforehand). How disappointing to finally see the lecture titles of the mainly French contributors. The invited British Isles contributors were two jeunes auteurs irlandais Paul Lynch and Robert McLiam Wilson, Steven Clarke of merde fame, TV presenter and blogger Alex Taylor, the Highland Dragoons Pipe Band and just possibly (who knows?) Mister Franck & la Croche Pointée who were described as rock-blues anglo-saxon. British gastronomy was to be recreated entirely by French chefs (mainly local) in delicacies such as tuna smoked in Earl Grey tea, bergamot and red onion pickle. The only reference to Wales in the entire programme seemed to be a cookery demonstration involving Welsh lamb.

When, at the end of the Geography Festival in 2013, they announced the British Isles would be the Guest of Honour for the following year, did they realise that all the separate countries have different tourist boards from which they might get help and contributions (in most popular French newspapers and commentaries les anglais is still used as the collective term). At all the previous Geography Festivals we’ve attended there has been a country presence including a food tent providing lunchtime snacks from the country. This year that tent was occupied by Moroccan caterers. Just think, they could have recreated one of those glamorous old-fashioned tea rooms like Betty’s or Fortnum’s with waitresses in black dresses and starched white pinnies serving tea, scones, jam and tiers of cakes – a great missed opportunity.

However, other French-produced stereotypes abounded, with Union Jacks, a red telephone box, two men in busbies and red jackets, images of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and even an open-topped red bus (all the way from Belgium). There may even have been Big Ben in one venue. It felt horribly like Heathrow Airport Gift Shop.

The prestige lecture is usually held in the largest space, the cathedral. On Friday in the presence of the ex-mayor (who founded the FIG) and the young new mayor (who is busy exposing the financial mis-dealings of his predecessor), the president of the Conseil franco-britannique told his huge audience in echoing tones a few clichés about L’actualité des relations franco-britanniques:

1) Britain is less marked by the Marxist tradition than the liberal
2) Britain is less keen on fiscal integration
3) Britain looks more to the United States than Europe
4) no-one knows how the British will vote in the 2017 referendum

but the positives are:

1) shared defence projects
2) 20 years of the Tunnel
3) the Queen (not expanded upon!)
4) the Tour de France
… at which point I crept out of the cathedral and into the adjacent library in search of more stimulating insights.

Some of the library staff had entered into the spirit and chosen their outfits with care. One with striking black hair and scarlet lipstick was wearing a scarlet tartan long jacket with black straps with metal buckles (just like we all wear over there) and another had a more typical, perhaps, black T-shirt with a harp. The two jeunes auteurs irlandais (one from Belfast and one from Donegal) had to entertain a library of mainly students and could not escape questions about another stereotype – Irish poverty. While one (Lynch) looked romantic and soulful and replied only in English (with his translator frequently getting confused and translating his words into English), the other (McLiam Wilson) joked in French as he tried to explain a little of the historical situation.

On Saturday we could have gone into St Dié a bit earlier to the culinary demonstration ambitiously entitled Tartare aux deux saumons d’Ecosse, découpe Saumon fumé Ecossais. Haggis flambé au whisky, sauce menthe. Christmas pudding flambé. Cocktail a base de produits britanniques. I wonder how many of the audience lined up to taste the haggis with whisky and mint sauce. Instead, circumventing the food tent and the sheep grazing outside (were they Welsh ones left over from an earlier cookery demonstration?), I climbed up to the top of the Tour de Liberté where Steven Clarke gave an erudite and entertaining talk in fluent French on 1000 ans de mésentente cordiale, l’histoire anglo-francaise revu par un rosbif. He admitted that the title didn’t quite capture the original of 1000 years of annoying the French, and dealt with the burden we too feel of responsibility for the death of Joan of Arc and the imprisonment of Napoleon (but no mention of Fashoda). The audience loved the quietly affectionate tone and while I disliked one of his merde books, I shall buy this one. The Highland Dragoons could just be heard piping somewhere below.

Then it was back to the library for Anne Martinetti, the French author of a strip cartoon on the life of Agatha Christie. As the minutes ticked by, it could have been an Agatha Christie title – the mystery of the vanishing lecturer. Her suitcase, the anxious librarian assured us, was behind the counter, but she was not signing books in the Book Salon and they had no idea where she was. However, no corpse was discovered and a quarter of an hour late, a charming lady dashed in, apologised for having been detained by a radio interview involving the mayor (so it would have been rude to leave), said she had a train to catch in 55 minutes time, and rattled off at high speed but in a clear voice her interest in food in Agatha Christie’s novels (the subject of an earlier book) and also A C’s biographical details. Then she signed copies and dashed off to catch her train while we re-assembled in a different part of the library for a scholarly and delightful talk on the two languages, Le francais et l’anglais, une incroyable histoire d’amour, which the audience loved.

On Sunday we had had enough of the mésentente cordiale and incroyable histoire d’amour and headed off to a flea market in a village on the far side of St Dié, which was packed with locals oblivious to the charms of Geography. John added to his Photax bakelite camera collection for a mere 2 euros and I purchased a porcelain dish for a similar amount. But the lunchtime sausages and chips looked unhealthily undercooked, so we avoided our usual Sunday treat. In the afternoon it poured with rain. No doubt the FIG concluded among jokes about the weather of the British Isles.

All this has been a pleasant diversion from the to-ing and fro-ing between E2E and Strasbourg occasioned by my cataract operation. Our ophthalmologist is in Strasbourg and so is the clinic at which she operates, a large private, non-profit, faith-based, state-approved Jewish one (so no pork, rabbit, camel or shellfish on the post-op menu). That clinic, and two others in Strasbourg run by protestants and catholics, are jointly developing a new 100M€ clinic, due to open in 2017.

While walking the streets in search of his lunch in an area we hadn’t yet explored, while I was in the operating theatre (and ending up at the SE Asian fast food Streeat), John came across the Gothic church, église protestante Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune (not to be confused with the older Saint Peter churches in Strasbourg), with wonderful-looking frescoes. A ten-year restoration of the frescoes and the church started earlier this year. And, a week later, after an eye check-up we had lunch with Marie-Laure at a small restaurant John had discovered in Koenigshoffen on the outskirts of Strasbourg and Marie-Laure told us about the Roman remains of a workmen’s village that had been uncovered nearby. So a couple of interesting things to follow up on return visits. However, all this has meant that we shan’t be returning to Letchworth in October as we’d previously intended, and will probably delay our return till Christmas and stay for longer then.

So it was good that we managed to see so many people while we were over in August, including a large family gathering of Blackmores and Tulls on a lovely sunny day. Large quantities of food were involved and also games (mainly card ones for the adults and hide-and-seek and trains for the younger ones) and sitting around in the sunshine. The spare beds were well used by Jacob and Leila that week and by Ann and David the following weekend when they attended a wedding in a nearby village. We discovered some interesting walks, one with Jacob and another when we lost the footpath across the fields with Ann and David. But on the latter walk we also came across some Belgian war graves from the First World War in the village churchyard at Norton. There were also interesting local exhibitions, including Garden Cities (at the Letchworth Heritage Museum with Ann and David), Embroidery in War (at the Letchworth Arts Centre with Ellen and David) and Letchworth at War (in the Arcade). The last was an excellent informative exhibition at which John and I asked about the Belgian War Graves. Sadly we have received no answers yet as to why their official Belgian graves are in Norton, although there was an interesting section on the large number of Belgian refugees who lived and worked in the then very new town of Letchworth. We also walked round and through the stylish spacious Spirella factory which closed in the eighties after corsets went out of fashion (apparently it had a large ballroom for the workers). We were also pleased to welcome, at different times, Jennifer, Val, and Wendy and John, and enjoyed a trip down to London to see Jessica and Mark. While in London we all went to the Matisse exhibition, which was great, and we bought a couple of prints which are now in the Letchworth sitting-room clashing horribly with the floral wallpaper (one day it will go). On our way home we stopped at Ightham Mote where we had lunch with Dorinda and Roger (fraught from their kitchen and utility room make-overs), then looked round the old house (which John and I remembered from our childhoods, before it was handed to the National Trust). And our last port of call was at Susan’s in Dymchuch (we must go to that pub again). We loved catching up with you all!

There’s not much visual interest in the Geography and Anglo-French relations above, so we’ll take our leave with a few pictures from this year’s Patchwork Festival in and around Ste-Marie-aux-Mines in September.

“In the library at night” patchwork detail

“In the library at night” patchwork detail

Suede patchwork

Suede patchwork

Japanese patchwork

Japanese patchwork detail

Among my favourite quilts this year were some suede ones by a French artist which were hung in one of the churches, one or two Japanese ones displayed in the mansion of a former tobacco merchant and a British competition winner on the theme “Imagine …” with her quilt “In the library at night” (and I assure you that it wasn’t just the magic word “library”).

A bientot.

Entre-trois-pays: Letchworth, Entre-deux-Eaux and The Hague, May – July 2014

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link E2E2014no2.pdf (five A4 pages)

At the beginning of May, as we prepared to leave Entre-deux-Eaux for Letchworth, we busied ourselves with sowing seeds and setting up the trickle-feed watering system. (Sadly the weather didn’t co-operate and we returned a month later to find the water tank empty and a total of two bean plants, two beetroot, shrivelled peas, a row of broad beans, a tub of marigolds and lots of weeds not to mention some very long grass in the meadow).

Having changed the car tyres from winter snow to summer, sorted out our French income and wealth tax submission and enjoyed an early birthday meal at the Frankenbourg, it was time to load up Bluto with items for the Letchworth house. This time they included my mother’s 1930s dark-stained oak bureau (which John had stripped and refinished to pale oak). And, given how much we had to take and how little space there was in Bluto (even though we had removed all except one of the rear passenger seats), into the bureau went sheets, towels, pillowcases and even a hover mower and its grass collector; round it went all the other essentials like pictures and posters, toys (including a large toy tractor and trailer), sewing machine and tools. On the roof rack a double-extending ladder and step ladder were strapped.

It was just as well that the ladders were firmly fixed as we set out on a very windy day and the ladders whistled and hummed as we drove across France. Feeling the need for a break, we had a brief pause for lunch at Reims IKEA (as a prelude to IKEAs across the channel). After a rougher than usual crossing the ferry was eased into Dover harbour by a tug, presumably to avoid damage to the berth. The sun shone on an idyllic Kentish countryside (so sad about the baby rabbit that darted out of the hedgerow), and the fish and chips at Broadstairs were good.

Next day we drove on to Billericay to see Ann and Derek, delayed only by John’s sudden urge to finish reading the Biggles story I was about to lend Ann, which was an exciting wartime yarn set in the area above Monte Carlo that we’d all enjoyed exploring a few weeks earlier. And then a reception committee of Toby and Jacob came up to welcome us back to our Letchworth house (once we’d unloaded).

IKEA on a wet Sunday in Milton Keynes was a bad idea, but with single-mindedness we managed to stock up on pillows, a second duvet, a selection of duvet covers and sheets as well as the by now very familiar Billy shelving units (oak – the selection of wood finishes in the UK is more limited than in France). Richer Sounds by the station was much quieter (as well as smaller) and we added a Panasonic TV, Humax Freesat box and Sony Blu-ray/DVD player to the day’s haul. Jacob enjoyed helping John to build the shelves on our return, not to mention making railway tracks, stations and bridges with all the cardboard packaging.

Cambridge, as my birthday treat, was much more agreeable, even if it too was wet and we did spend a lot of time in John Lewis looking at vacuum cleaners, dining tables and curtain fabric. John also bought me a birthday smart phone. On our return Jacob was bursting to sample the birthday cake before bedtime and present a large bouquet; and Stella had cooked a tasty bourguignon.

Civil engineer or train driver?

Civil engineer or train driver?

Over the next few days, Jacob began to expect a new box to unpack every day as Amazon books, a cool box and the vacuum cleaner were delivered. We also got a land line phone and broadband. Then we were ready for our first overnight visitor. The sun shone as Jessica drove up en route to our train-gang reunion in Norwich; she took one look at our garden, and got down on her hands and knees to weed steadily (the perfect guest!) as John erected a washing line “whirlygig” and Jacob fished in the pond and rode his tractor.

Norwich was hot and sunny, and, despite all the train delays experienced by the others, was a lovely place to stay. We caught up on each others’ lives, looked round old flint churches and the cathedral (everyone being resigned by now to my second-hand book forays, I was really pleased with the old children’s books I found) and we spent an enjoyable day at the Jacobean Blicking Hall. The unexpected highlight for us all was a sensational and imaginative Northern Ballet production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which kept as laughing and marvelling for the rest of our stay. Jessica and I also enjoyed Wymondham village and Grimes Graves during our drives to and from Norwich while the others struggled with delayed trains.

It has been so nice to find that Letchworth has been “on the way” for so many friends. Our next visitors were Ann and David, returning from Brighton. It was just a shame that the two sofas and the dining room table they’d hoped to help us unpack arrived after they had left (providing more good boxes for Jacob).

Dining room

Letchworth dining room

From the moment the legs were on the table, John made me and all subsequent visitors over the Bank Holiday weekend play the “can you spot the mark?” game. As no one else could see anything too bad, he eventually decided to accept the discount John Lewis had offered and to keep the table. I promptly covered it with curtain and lining fabric to make new dining room curtains.

The fine weather was an incentive to acquire garden furniture. It got a bit cool as we forced our next visitors, Roger and Dorinda, to have coffee outside, but it was perfect for sitting outside when Sue and Alistair stopped on their way between Cambridge and London. And we really know how to entertain our visitors, – the highlight of their visit was a trip to a large, cheap hardware emporium that John had just discovered. When Barbara and Bruce drove up from Winchester, we did not subject them to hardware, but they did have to listen to the sad tale of our cracked windscreen replacement: the previous day, in pouring rain, Autoglass had fitted the new front windscreen, and only when trying to fit the windscreen scuttle had they realised that windscreens for right-hand drive and left-hand drive Avensis Versos are mirror images!

Following Alistair’s pond inspection, our next shopping trip involved a drive down ever narrowing lanes, past village pubs and thatched cottages (one forgets that jigsaw puzzle England still exists) to a pond plant specialist. We wandered between greenhouses and outdoor tanks as the nice lady fished us out a selection of oxygenating plants and water snails. Jacob was summoned to help John plant the pond, as we wanted him to understand why he couldn’t “fish” in it any more.

And now that Jacob was familiar with house and garden, we had planned a last week of overnight stays for him (while Toby took Stella away for her birthday and then while Stella was away in London painting murals for children’s bedrooms). We started with a pre-birthday dinner for Stella and Toby; Jacob arrived in his red and white pyjamas, a large red cap, wellies and jewellery, which he considered an appropriate dinner party outfit. And so began a week of smaller concerns, like Little Kickers, pirate ships, biking round and round fountains, slides, making cakes with grandpa, animal stickers with Leila and that evergreen story, “Peepo”, punctuated with Hitchin Collectors’ Market with Leila and Stevenage hospital with Toby.

At the end of that week Leila returned with us to Entre-deux-Eaux and we spent a hot, pleasant and restful week at flea markets, playing games of Ticket to Ride (building train routes across Europe) and Yahtzee, watching World Cup games and lunching out at Parc Carola. We had last been to that restaurant at the end of the rather wet week of my 70th birthday celebrations; this time we sat outside, under the shade of the trees and parasols, with a view across to the roof-top Ribeauville swimming pool. On Leila’s last day, Entre-deux-Eaux and Anould laid on flea markets for her and we found more colourful Moroccan plates to hang in her small but lush back garden with all its yellow and blue pots and blue fence.

Despite Autoglass promises to get a correct windscreen fitted before we drove back it was left to Carglass, the Autoglass company in France, to finally fit the correct windscreen (now at a cost to our insurance of €750 rather than the original £350 quote – but they did give us a “free” set of windscreen wipers).

Work in progress

Work in progress

After that it was back to our everyday Entre-deux-Eaux preoccupations with weeding, mowing, sowing, football, slug pellets, and internet speed (our connection has been very variable this year, dropping from a usual 2Mb to slower than dial-up), interspersed with John making coffee tables and a TV unit for Letchworth, and my continuing the patchwork quilt. You won’t be surprised to read that there were a few restaurant trips as well. We went on one of our shopping expeditions over the Rhine and had lunch in a pretty wine village in the hills, Oberbergen. The restaurant was above a very modern wine producer, and we entered through the displays of wine bottles and up a staircase between the stainless steel fermenting vats and sat on a terrace overlooking the hills with incongruous but picturesque hens foraging and defecating below the tables. The end-of-term trip for the Entre-deux-Eaux oldies was to a restaurant with aspirations, the Julien, on the main road to Strasbourg. My first memory of that restaurant, when we took my mother for her 90th birthday, is of seeing a small white dog ensconced at the head of a table on a pile of cushions on a Louis XV chair. This time there were no dogs, just noisy pensioners. Afterwards we were graciously allowed to walk round the grounds, though not to use the hotel’s sauna, gym or swimming pools. The meal at another restaurant was much heartier (and tastier), a typically cruder Vosgian meal at the Auberge Habeaurupt in the valley that runs from Plainfaing to Gérardmer. It started with a huge salad, continued with a large plate of veal, included the (fast-vanishing from menus) traditional cheese course (local Munster and Brie) and concluded with a large pudding with lashings of cream and then coffee. Afterwards we stopped in Fraize to see a small historical exhibition on local industries (in fact just two, the Gantois woven mesh/perforated plate factory in Saint Dié and a glass-making village near Epinal). And for a bit more culture there was a book talk at the library and a talk on Saint Dié in August 1914 at the museum.

And then we began to feel restless and decided, very much on the spur of the moment, to take a short break. Some time ago we had watched with interest the BBC4 Andrew Graham-Dixon programme on the re-opening of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, and John had also noted the Mauritshuis in the Hague had only just re-opened. It must be about fifty years since I went to the art museums of Amsterdam and Rotterdam with Jessica, and the last of John’s conference trips to the Netherlands must have been at least twenty years ago.

Our room at The Residenz

Our room at The Residenz

We booked a room in a lovely boutique hotel in The Hague; it was an 1890s town house which a couple had lovingly modernised and decorated in restful shades of black, grey and cream. We had a very spacious stylish room with a balcony overlooking the quiet street and an en suite bathroom that was almost as large. Our host sorted out a parking permit and a tram/train/bus card (like a London Oyster card), and was happy to advise on restaurants and museums. The first evening we were pleased to find that Alan and Marianne (together with daughter Tessa) were back in nearby Delft, where Alan has been working. So we caught a tram to Delft, wandered round the lovely old town with its canals and market square, met up with them and Marianne’s parents and a colleague of Alan’s on the steps of the town hall and trooped off to track down that local delicacy, the first mussels of the season.

Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels

Clara Peeters: Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels – painted c1607–1621 (and frame shadow)

The next day, Tuesday, after a good breakfast, we caught a tram into town and walked through the Parliament buildings to the Mauritshuis Museum, a small palace with a delicate façade like a dolls’ house. It was a lovely setting for the smaller Dutch interiors and portraits (not to mention the famous Goldfinch and Girl with a Pearl Earring), and we enjoyed seeing some Rembrandts we hadn’t seen before (like the Two Moors) as well as some women artists like Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster and Rachel Ruysch (although rather disappointed in all the rooms by the deep shadows of the picture frames cast on some paintings by the otherwise praised natural colour LED lighting). After a stroll in the area round the museum and a coffee in the library (old habits), we decided to go to the very different Escher museum in the afternoon, which is housed in another former palace, although this one is now somewhat seedier. The earlier complex lithographs and woodcuts on the first two floors prior to his “impossible constructions” were equally fascinating, though younger visitors seemed more entranced by the puzzles, games and optical illusions on the third floor.

Returning along a narrow street of shops and restaurants between the tram stop and our hotel, we spotted some early Penguin novels in a box outside a second hand bookshop. Lured inside, we edged our way round what would be Jessica and Ellen’s worst nightmarePiles of books – precarious stacks of books on all subjects and in all languages; the shelves had some order to them, but were double- and triple-stacked too. Our tourist souvenirs that day consisted of two Penguins and two library shoulder bags (a bargain at 15 cents each). That evening we ate a rijsttafel at a small but packed Indonesian restaurant a few streets from out hotel.

On the Wednesday we caught the train to Amsterdam (admiring the Art Nouveau station buildings at Haarlem as we passed through). Fortunately, despite all the gloomy predictions and the need to pre-book, we didn’t have to queue to get into the refurbished Rijksmuseum, and though the usual suspects like the Night Watch and the Vermeers attracted throngs, other rooms were quieter.

Gemeentemuseum inner court

Gemeentemuseum inner court

But for the sheer pleasure of examining exhibits in a spacious, airy, art deco (1935) building with no-one else in sight, the Gemeentemuseum back in The Hague the following morning won hands down.

Modern interpretation of Delft pottery

Modern interpretation of Delft pottery

We wandered through lavishly decorated Indonesian rooms, into Delft pottery, through Little Red Riding Hood, up to a fascinating exhibition of Mondrian and de Stijl (with furniture, paintings, videos and maquettes), into the café, on to their summer exhibition (inspired by the Royal Academy’s summer show) and finally the visually stunning Wonderkamers in the basement (though we didn’t borrow a tablet for the interactive displays). After such an intense experience we decided to take the tram to the sea at Scheveningen. But, instead of the fresh sea breezes over the dunes or fish stalls round the harbour, we found crowded beaches and cafés, and, after a very hot stroll along a promenade that could equally well been at Blackpool or Margate, were glad to rest our feet and recover with Italian ice cream.

Antipasto at Bacco Perbacco

Antipasto at Bacco Perbacco

In the evening we ate at an Italian restaurant that our fellow-guests had recommended. The antipasto platter alone would have made a meal, and when I ordered a limoncello at the end, a delicious slice of gateau was thrown in as well.

It was a mistake to take to the roads back to Entre-deux-Eaux on a July Friday as the traffic frequently came to a standstill with the combination of lorries, south-bound holiday traffic, road works and accidents at temperatures of 35 degrees. What a contrast with our drive north which had been through heavy rain, though when the rain eased, we had turned off the motorway and followed the River Moselle as far as Trier. Barbara and Bruce had been enthusiastic about their stay among the Roman remains there. We looked round the Porta Negra, the hideously baroque cathedral, the stark re-constructed Constantine’s basilica (now an austere protestant church) and then the rain descended in sheets and everyone ran for shelter. We eventually abandoned the rain-soaked amphitheatre and Roman baths and retreated to our pleasant hotel on the cliff above Trier.

Roman wine ship

Roman wine ship, Trier

We had an early dinner in the hotel and prepared to watch the Germany v. Argentina final. We had feared that a night in Germany after the match could be very noisy and we were pleasantly surprised that we were not disturbed that night. Outside a wine cellar we had been rather taken with a stone Roman wine ship as it captured the enjoyment of exploration we were feeling at the start of our short break.

Entre-deux-Eaux seemed very tranquil on our return. The weeds have of course grown in our short absence, the maize planted in the north field seems also to have shot up, and the blueberries in our fruit cage are abundant (so we can ignore the oddly Anglo-French sign in Saulcy to self-cueillette blueberries). A couple of days after our return we drove over the hills to Wolfisheim near Strasbourg and had a pleasant, leisurely lunch with Marie-Laure and Christian, who had previously shown some of us round Fort Kleber.

And now our thoughts are turning to Letchworth again. John has just booked our ferry and we are contemplating assorted piles of coffee tables, TV unit, cylinder mower, hedge trimmer, books, loudspeakers, fluorescent lights, TV (we brought the new one back to France), boxes of fabrics, tools, as well as wine, etc. and thinking about what will fit in the car this time – as we want to put in several rear seats. Do come and see us there if you are around during August, – especially as we now have a dining table and some sofas!

Patchwork: Everyday Life Entre Deux Pays, December 2013 – April 2014

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link E2E2014no1.pdf (six A4 pages)

An enjoyable part of making a patchwork out of old clothes and fabrics is recalling their colourful heyday. It was a dull February day when I decided to rummage in trunks of old clothes in the Entre-deux-Eaux attics.

Over Christmas we had not only had all the pleasures of time with family and friends but had also embarked on a new phase of life by putting in an offer to buy a pied-à-terre back in the UK. We have had our house in France for nearly twenty four years. For the first twelve years it was our holiday house while we were living in Nottingham and working and the children were growing up. For the last twelve years (how quickly time passes!) it has been our full time home and we have loved developing the house and garden and welcoming family and friends. But it is a long way from you all, especially the newest member of the family, three-year old Jacob.

Over autumn we’d scanned Rightmove for the properties for sale in Letchworth Garden City where Toby, Stella, and Jacob are now well settled. The idea was to continue to live in Entre-deux-Eaux, but to spend more time in the UK, without continually imposing on long-suffering friends and family. We were initially attracted by an old lodge on the outskirts of Letchworth. Sensibly on one floor with an attractive looking garden and plenty of character, what could be more “us”? But when we looked round it just before Christmas it turned out to be miles from the shops, the country lane was very busy and noisy, the garden a pocket handkerchief and the interior dark and poky. So, continuing to bear in mind future mobility, we next looked at two conventional bungalows. The first John disliked, and the second, although Jacob liked the toys under a bed (and his judgement was also swayed by the Hogwarts metal train the owner gave him), I hated. The Garden City Heritage Foundation has imposed strict restrictions on altering the outside appearance Pied-a-terreof houses from the road, which has resulted in bungalows extended at the rear, leaving a room at the centre with no windows, just an overhead skylight, which feels very imprisoning. Quite by chance we saw in the window of a small estate agents a 1912 bungalow which had been permitted (in a laxer planning era) to extend upwards, and we liked the light airy feeling when we looked round it. Our offer was accepted.

Back home in the New Year there was that horrible uncertain period of waiting while the owners began the hunt for a house they wanted to move to. Paper searches were progressing and lists received of furniture and fittings being left, but it still felt as if nothing much was happening. We started thinking about furniture and curtains that we don’t use here or which would look better there. The recently re-vamped armchairs which John made for our first house were obvious candidates and we later added a small table of my mother’s. John decided to strip my mother’s oak bureau that has never found a space here but has been languishing in the workshop, and I altered our very first curtains Heal's 1970 Automation fabric(1970 Heals “Automation” design by Barbara Brown which is now, it seems, museum material, desirable and expensive retro-chic). Those first curtains had started off in the sitting room at Blenheim Drive, transferred to the sitting room at Brendon Road, been demoted to our bedroom at Second Avenue, then consigned to a box in the attic in Entre-deux-Eaux as we have shutters at all the windows. John was most apprehensive when I wielded the scissors to cut out the sun-faded sections at the edges. But it was this very act of vandalism which prompted the idea of the Letchworth Quilt and unleashed so many memories of our life together so far.

The curtain colours are purple, crimson, pink, grey, and cream. The downstairs Letchworth bedroom, which is the only room where they left no curtains or blinds, has two purple walls. Now, much of the décor is not to our taste, with its flowery walls and naff beading panels. But it has all been very carefully, lovingly and recently papered and painted and it may be some time before we impose our own taste throughout. So, on that grey February day, I rummaged in the trunks for fabric to match the fragments of purple, crimson, pink, grey and cream curtains that had been salvaged.

Imagine yourself back in the early seventies with long-haired bearded men in bright shirts, flared corduroy trousers and kipper ties, and wild-haired women in Laura Ashley smocks. Had I the heart to cut up that purple corduroy smock with the dark flower print? The bleach stain which defaced the front convinced me. What about the crimson check shirt of John’s (what ties did he wear with that)? And that plain mauve shirt would look good. Here is that long grey smock with white flowers (it must have been Laura Ashley too) that I loved drifting around in, and some cheap silver-thread Indian dresses from out travels. Oh yes, those all-in-one dungarees had been fashionable back then and the dark blue cord will tone in. And weddings here’s the long puffy sleeved pink flowered dress I’d made when I was a bridesmaid and later cut down to a mini dress. Sadly for a quilt of memories, Toby and Leila wore out most of their clothes, but there are still some unused bits of Clothkits (did you too sew those pre-printed fabric kits? Some of us were addicted to them). And this one pair of Leila’s cord dungarees with smiley crimson cats on still has usable sections. How about a bit of colour contrast and a turquoise shirt of John’s – oh and that grey one with crimson stripes has just the right shades. And there’s some ribbed cream fabric left from making some blinds for the windows here (IKEA for a change) and some grey cord trousers that look hardly worn. And from the eighties a couple of richly printed crimson, dark blue and green swirling Monsoon dresses. I loved those, they always felt special. A table was cleared in the attic, fabrics washed and draped around, and cutting began.

Was anything else happening here? Winter is always a quiet time in the Vosges, with animals and people tucked up indoors behind their shutters, so there is never much news to relate. There had been the usual Mayor’s lunch for the over 65s on our return from the UK, complete with accordion and castanets; writer Hugo Boris talking about his latest book on Trois grands fauves, the powerful trio of Danton, Victor Hugo, and Winston Churchill; Roger and Dorinda’s farewell visit as the completed the sale of their Anould house (though, as it is being turned into a gîte they may well go back and stay there occasionally!), a tasty fish lunch at the Trois Poissons on the quay at Little Venice in Colmar (elegantly restored after a fire had gutted the upper storeys); and pleasant walks on sunny days. But it has to be said that the major local excitement as spring approached was the issue of new dustbins and the choice of a new mayor.

The old pace and style of life here has been shaken up by the local government re-organisation into unwieldy clumps of communes. The idea is to reduce the tiers of administration as Entre-deux-Eaux becomes linked with 18 other communes, including Provenchères-sur-Fave, the largest. The issue of dustbins is part of the new efficient inter-communal rubbish disposal; they are not just bog-standard council dustbins, but lockable ones, which will be weighed each Thursday before being emptied. You may remember that we had an aggressive local meeting before Christmas to “discuss” their introduction and the need to recycle more efficiently. While we were away over Christmas the new yellow plastic bags for paper, tins and plastic had been issued, and we were invited to proceed to the Salle on 26th February to collect our new numbered and labelled dustbin. The distribution was presided over by the outgoing mayor, a council employee and two others (rather over-kill as there was no-one else there when we went in the late afternoon, and a huge number of yet-to-be collected bins). Buried in some of the newer documentation was mention of a ban on bonfires of “green” waste with the threat of a 400€ fine. So no more garden rubbish/wood fires; it is all meant to go to the tip. But for Entre-deux-Eaux inhabitants that is a 20km round trip, assuming you have a car/trailer. Garden fire smoke is still seen occasionally and I’m sure a lot more waste will be burnt on wood heating stoves to reduce the dustbin weight (and future charges) so, given the number of houses that are already burnt down each year, the number or insurance claims will surely rise.

Sadly we were to miss the local elections, in which we are entitled to vote, as the completion date on our Letchworth house was a couple of days before the first round of French voting. We had been led to think that a retired inspector of schools was likely to be the next mayor, and in due course we received from him a printed list of candidates headed Liste d’interet communal, which stated that none of the outgoing councillors or deputies wished to stand, announced their objectives for continuité and nouvelle dynamique, and included in its candidates our neighbour Claudine (now happily married to another of our neighbours, Gérard). The outgoing mayor was also happy to act in an advisory capacity to ensure stability. We were therefore rather surprised to receive a second piece of paper (this time green) the week before the elections headed Ensemble pour Entre-deux-Eaux for a rival team headed by retired farmer and former deputy mayor Dominique Duhaut (some of you may remember his cows ambling past our house to his milking parlour in the early days, with Farmer Duhaut plus stick on his motorbike behind them). It would be interesting to know what had gone on behind the scenes to produce this late flurry. As you vote for named candidates rather than parties, the result was the election of a mixed bag of the “communal interest” and “togetherness” groups, including Claudine but excluding the retired school inspector and the former mayor. That first council meeting must have been interesting. Alas for his dignity, I’m afraid that we shall be referring to Dominique as the Mary rather than mayor. On our return from our house purchasing, I had some tedious signing and stamping of anti-money-laundering ID documents with authorisation written in English, so on Friday took them down to the mairie for signature. The new incumbent was looking harassed with all the unfamiliar French paperwork to come to grips with (odd as he’d been deputy mayor for many years), so a request to also write in English was not popular and in his haste he miscopied my carefully written-out wording and transferred the Mary in my name to his occupation as well. Good old Mary Duhaut.

In Saint Dié too there will be big changes with a youthful UDF mayor replacing the socialist media-hogger and dominating our unfortunate neighbouring communes of Mandray, Saulcy-sur-Meurthe, Saint Leonard, Anould and others in their new inter-communal grouping.

But while all this was going on in and around Entre-deux-Eaux, we had removed all but the front two seats from Bluto and filled it with two armchairs, a canvas chair, a small table, boxes of crockery and cutlery, garden tools, DIY tools, sewing machine, linen, towels, curtains, pots, pans and a few clothes and set out to complete our house purchase. March 21st was a difficult day for our vendors, with their initial removal van being too small and needing replacing, two slow apprentice removers, and Kevin somehow breaking a back tooth and waiting painfully during the morning for an emergency dental appointment in Letchworth. We lurked in Wilkos and David’s bookshop and coffee bar for as long as we could, having been told at 11am the house was officially ours but we shouldn’t expect the keys until 1pm, but retreated, defeated, to Toby and Stella’s. But by late afternoon we had the keys and were able to unload Bluto.

I don’t think we are noted for our impulsive purchasing, but during the next week we scoured the emporia of Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage, Milton Keynes and even Coventry with the result that in addition to the three chairs and small table, our new house now has two double beds and mattresses, one sofa bed, pillows, duvets, eight dining chairs, a washing machine, a fridge/freezer, and a dish-washer; and two sofas are on order. Toby and Stella have lent us a small dining table until we get a bigger one and several of Stella’s striking abstract oil paintings which make the house look much more lived-in. It has to be said that Jacob was not initially impressed by our furnishings – where were the essential television, blanket, toys, carrots, biscuits and bananas? John’s sister Ann and Derek came up that first weekend, bearing gifts of simnel cake and ginger biscuits. Jacob fishingHaving carefully examined the ginger chunks in the biscuits, Jacob pronounced them most satisfactory, then discovered the simple outdoor pleasure of throwing daisies in the pond and fishing them out again (hours of closely supervised fun). The following weekend Leila came to join us at Toby and Stella’s and while our hosts did some driving practice for Stella and John laboured, Leila and I spent a glorious sunny Saturday morning playing in the park with Jacob. On Sunday amid huge bunches of Mother’s Day flowers and fragrant Sanctuary potions for our new bathroom, Stella cooked a huge roast and we opened a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace and celebrated Mothers and New Houses in style. That evening we slept in one of our new beds and the next morning had breakfast on our borrowed table, and felt chez nous. It was only a brief ten-day visit, but we felt we had achieved a lot.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux it was the usual round of washing (the new Letchworth washing machine had required John to do some re-plumbing, as had the dish-washer) and a medical appointment, and we spent an interesting evening in the Salle hearing (mainly from the ex-school inspector) about events in 1914 in Entre-deux-Eaux. France is, like the UK but probably not Germany, reflecting extensively this year on the First World War. The inspector had prepared a slide show, which also had captions which were useful if one couldn’t hear everything he said. The mayor of Entre-deux-Eaux in 1914 had been deported by the Germans, suspected of spying and signalling to French troops, and his grandson was present and spoke movingly about the victims of war. At the start of the war, in August 1914, Entre-deux-Eaux was invaded by the Germans. However they did not succeed in penetrating further to attack Paris, but were beaten back to the top of the Vosges where they largely remained for the rest of the war as they became more pre-occupied with the north of France. However in that short time many of the buildings in the village were burnt or destroyed, and French and German soldiers were buried in makeshift graves in the fields around us. A former journalist read extracts from war journals of the fighting on the hills around. The young men of Entre-deux-Eaux were fighting elsewhere, and one of the contributors had prepared a map showing where the villagers listed on the war memorial had died. The mother of our new Mary said afterwards that her son found it all so boring that he fell asleep (but was he making a point about his rival?); however he roused himself to mumble a speech of thanks at the end.

After that excitement, we packed for a week in the south of France with Ann and Derek. As we had when we stayed previously in Antibes with Toby and Stella a couple of years before, we flew from Basel to Nice, but this time turned left rather than right along the coast and took the train to Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Ann and Derek had rented a stylish and well-equipped flat very close to the sea. After our busy ten days in Letchworth, it was pleasant to relax for a week (especially as John was nursing a nasty hacking cough following the cold he’d had before we went to Letchworth) and walk along the coastal paths, explore some mediaeval hill villages on the escarpment behind the coast and see some of Cocteau’s art. Around Antibes we had immersed ourselves in Picasso, his ceramics and his unappealing chapel decoration. Cocteau’s chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer was much more attractive and thoughtful (incidents from St Peter’s life). And the Cocteau Museum in Menton had a fascinating special exhibition on Picasso, Cocteau and Matisse which we all enjoyed. We agreed that even if the Riviera was not our area of choice, it had provided us with a good break.

And now, back in Entre-deux-Eaux, we are trying to get the garden and vegetable plot sorted out before we return shortly to the UK for about four weeks in May and June. And hot off the press, this morning our new Mary’s first two communiques were delivered: the first concerns dustbins (what else?) and the second the drawing-up of the Entre-deux-Eaux Carte Communale which among other things will extend the areas of permitted construction. This could be interesting as we are currently in an area where new building is not allowed and also where, as John cynically observed, the new Mary owns or rents quite a bit of terrain which could be profitable if constructable. So another interesting and no doubt noisy public meeting before we leave for the UK.

Although Entre-deux-Eaux remains our main home, we are looking forward to spending more time back in the UK than we have done in recent years, and we do hope that you will come and see us in our more accessible home. We’ll continue to update you on our visits. So provided you can make allowances for differently-tasteful wallpaper, do ring up and make the detour to see us in Letchworth as well as continuing to make the longer journey to Entre-deux-Eaux, where you are equally welcome.