To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link E2E2022no2d.pdf (five A4 pages)
There are clickable links to additional photographs in the text
At the beginning of May, after a month in Letchworth seeing family and friends, we drove down to Folkestone and the Eurotunnel. Imagine our surprise, after we had boarded the train for France, when we heard a tap on the driver’s window and saw Roger and Dorinda smiling at us. By one of those unlikely co-incidences our Francophile friends (who used to have a holiday home in the next village) had boarded the same shuttle as we had, at the start of one of their French holidays. We arranged to meet up at a service station where we caught up with news and plans in greater comfort over coffee and rolls. They were off to stay in various gîtes, including one outside Mâcon.
Back in Entre-deux-Eaux, John sent off his passport to the chaos of the UK Passport Office, hoping it would eventually emerge renewed in no more than the estimated ten weeks. It felt as if we then spent most of May on medical checks of teeth, eyes and ears. In between, we sorted out a usable part of the potager (the manure still needs to rot down further on most beds), cut the 15″ high grass, sowed onions, broad beans, French beans, courgettes and squash and also cheerful cornflowers, marigolds, candytuft and Sweet Williams seeds in the garden tubs our Letchworth neighbour had given us. The garden was colourful with clematis and peonies.
Our strawberries (including wild ones) were prolific this year. As they do not freeze well (to our taste, at least), John invested in a fruit-and-vegetable dehydrator which gave us dried strawberries with a good flavour. It was also handy when, just before we left for Burgundy, we were offered two kilos of freshly picked cherries from the orchard of the old ferme La Soyotte (one of the organisers of the farm museum lives in the village with our ex-mayor). Amid all this, the twentieth anniversary of our settling in France passed unremarked!
With travel outside France impossible until John received his new passport, we decided to take a short June break in France before the frenzied surge of holidaymakers and the crowded motorways throughout July and August. Who better to consult about comfortable gîtes than frequent-users, Roger and Dorinda. We are fond of Burgundy and they could recommend one of their recent gîtes, La Trélie, to the east of Macon. We booked it for the six days in June that it was still free.
We then unearthed our Michelin Green Guides to Burgundy (from various eras) and popped into one of our supermarkets, Cora, (now open on Sunday mornings, a change since our earlier days here) to get the Green Guide to the Lyons area, which covered the countryside round La Trélie. On the way back, despite the rolling grey rain clouds, we stopped briefly at the village sports field where the annual flea market was gamely taking place, despite the dire forecast. There were a lot of gaps where stallholders had not bothered to turn up, and a hasty walk round did not locate any bargains. Clutching our as yet unopened umbrellas, we met the mayor. “I’ve sent my wife to save places in the food tent. We’ll need to be under shelter shortly.” We reach home before the rain.
It was cool and wet when we organised the trip, but the heatwave began five days later on 11th June, the day we set out. Air-conditioning in cars is such a boon as the temperatures reached 34°C+ outside.
The non-motorway route that we chose took us through the rolling pastures of the Vosges, where elderly gents on tractors were just starting hay making in their small fields, round Vesoul, where we stopped for petrol, coffee, and almond croissants (a weakness of ours, even at lunchtime), over the river Doubs with its dramatic gorge, then wandered cross-country on narrow roads (guided by Waze and white on our ancient Michelin map) towards Mâcon, then turned up an 800 metre rough farm track to a large restored farmhouse in the middle of blonde fields of grain and colza.
We had been sent two lots of contact details for La Trélie, but the old man who answered the phone before we set out either misunderstood or forgot our arrival time. Fortunately one of the owners was in the area seeing to her three hundred and fifty chickens. We later learned that her wealthy family owns all the land and fields around and the house is let to companies during winter as well as tourists in summer. Within five minutes of another phone call, a car disgorged an elegant woman (no sign of chicken feathers or muck) who gave us the key and showed us round the spacious interior: a large open sitting, dining and kitchen area, three bedrooms, shower room and loo. French windows opened onto a roofed terrace and a barbecue building. We would certainly not feel cramped there.
As the weather was so hot, we enjoyed protracted breakfasts in the shade of the terrace, lingering over lunch in different restaurants, and reading or playing games on the cooled terrace in the evenings, and we did not do as much sight-seeing as we usually would.
Our gîte was mid-way between Mâcon (and the vineyard villages of Burgundy) and Bourg-en-Bresse (and farming villages of Ain). On trips to Bourg-en-Bresse, we visited the nearby Royal Monastery of Brou, looked at the elaborate tombs, comic misericords, and art collection in the former monks’ cells, and puzzled over a dramatic “happening” in the courtyard which involved a prowling knight in armour and beautifully crafted puppet props.
In the narrow streets of the old town we enjoyed a risky-sounding but refreshing cocktail of beer, Chardonnay, rhubarb and geranium at the oddly named Scratch restaurant, followed by their menu of the day with its crowning glory of a hazelnut dessert.
How better to finish off an interesting day than with the frescoes in the fourteenth century church in the village of Meillonnas.
Another day we enjoyed strolling round the market town of Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, with its brick and timber houses, spacious outdoor covered market (empty and echoing that day), and sole surviving gatehouse (where a man on the first floor balcony was assiduously pruning his honeysuckle). We sat down for a coffee outside the basic Café Restaurant de la Poste, then, after watching large plates of food being served to two old men at the table next to ours, ate our way through the menu of the day, finishing with a very good tarte Tatin.
Having dawdled through the rolling fields of ripening cereals of the west of Ain with its Romanesque churches and long, brick and timber farmhouses, some with “saracen” chimneys, our thoughts turned to the vineyards of Burgundy and Beaujolais. As so often on this holiday, we were guided by our stomachs. Roger and Dorinda had recommended the l’O des Vignes in Fuissé, and we thought that, after lunch there, we would climb the nearby Roche de Solutré.
The village of Fuissé lies peacefully among its vineyards, its old washhouse is hung with geraniums rather than scrubbed linen, most of the courtyard buildings are wine producers, as is the Romanesque former church, and a garish circus poster adds colour to the square. The only people in streets in the midday heat were heading to l’O des Vignes, until a truck swerved to a halt and five overalled men leapt out into a shabby building – possibly a rival bar.
After the bright sunlight outside, the bar of L’O des Vignes seemed dim, but the friendly bistrot waiter in his traditional apron led us to a table on their terrace which was shaded by tall trees and busy with locals who seemed to know each other as well as tourists. Behind us lay their more up-market restaurant with its aloof waiters in suits and what looked like untied cravats. The bistrot food was excellent, and we enjoyed the bustle and the informality. (Another day we did try their Michelin-starred restaurant, but preferred the lively bistrot).
Of course, by the time we finished our post-lunch coffee, Helen felt distinctly disinclined to scramble up any rocky promontories in the heat (shame on her when former President Mitterrand climbed it every year between 1946-1995 at Pentecost). Instead she proposed looking at the finds in the Museum of Prehistory at the foot of the Roche de Solutré. The striking escarpment loomed above the vines, disappearing tantalisingly as we drove from Fuissé along the winding narrow roads, then reappearing dramatically. After looking at the finds of animal bones, including a geological layer of compacted horse bones, even John had lost the urge to get to the top of the hill.
Driving carefully down the vineyard roads we passed a car upended in the ditch, with a couple of our age, refusing offers of help and awaiting a tow or lift out. Had they been wine-tasting a little too enthusiastically? The car looked as if it needed something with more power than the small tractors lying idle among the vines.
We did not go wine tasting, though we did look in the old church building in Fuissé to see how it had been converted to wine production, with large barrels in an air conditioned chamber where the altar would once have been. Outside a hosepipe was delivering wine to a large container lorry to be bottled and sold by their client. Seeing the hosepipe was a reminder of holidays in the seventies and eighties when we would take empty bottles into the dingy village wine co-operative to be filled by hosepipe with cheap wine. Ah, those were the days! This time the Beaujolais wine we sipped of an evening on the terrace came from the supermarket.
A contrast with the hot Beaujolais wine villages was the cool interior of the 1733 Hotel Dieu in Belleville-en-Beaujolais where the needy used to be cared for and its elegant apothecary. The original furniture of three small wards has hardly changed and it was still in use until 1991 as a hospice.
Equally cool was the town’s 12th century Eglise de Notre Dame and its interesting capitals.
Back in Entre-deux-Eaux this year’s baby kestrels were growing fast. We mentioned in the last newsletter the “home improvements” which John made in spring to the attic windowsill on which the kestrels had nested last year. They obviously approved of the protective partition and the balcony extension with its raised edge, as the female took up residence while we were in the UK in April, and laid her first egg on 3rd May just before our return. We were able to follow progress remotely thanks to the videos from the cameras/network storage John had installed.
The first egg hatched just before we left for our short Mâcon break. This year all four chicks survived and vociferously demanded food. We watched as they grew and began to lurch and waddle. As the time approached for them to fly, John spent quite a lot of time sitting with his camera in the vegetable patch, next to the compost heap, observing the adults bringing food and the juveniles flapping their wings.
The first one flew early in the morning of 8th July just before we woke. Unlike last year’s trio, it returned occasionally to the ledge to feed and sleep – and perhaps encourage its siblings to test their wings. And over the next few days they have all flown (but occasionally return)! If you haven’t already seen to day-by-day photos and videos, they are on our The return of the kestrels – 2022 website.
Other birds, those greedy ones that somehow find a way into our large fruit cage, are less fascinating as they blunder around unable to find their way out again. However, last week it was Helen who felt trapped in the fruit cage when a button on a pocket on the back of her trousers got caught in the netting. At that moment the mobile phone, which was also in a pocket, rang. Our next-door neighbour, Danielle was offering to bring us some eggs. Since they rebuilt their hen-house, the deep foundations, wire and netting (we used the same for the fruit cage) have protected their hens from theft and murder. Eggs are now plentiful. Helen disentangled herself, phoned John who was doing the weekly shop (“don’t get any eggs!”) and proffered in return some of the blueberries she had been picking. A discussion of crime writers, the library in Saint Leonard, and meeting up to play Scrabble followed. That night’s dinner included poached eggs.
Danielle has been a good addition to the Scrabble players at the Entre-deux-Eaux Oldies’ monthly cards/chat/cake and champagne reunions. At the June session, another of that group, Marie Therese, who lives in the oldest house in the village, brought a cherry clafoutis to celebrate her birthday. And, yes, the cherries from her freezer had come, like ours, from the ferme La Soyotte’s harvest. A few days earlier, we had heard the church bells tolling at length. Sad to say, another of the villagers who had been welcomed us when we bought our house in 1990, had died. He was one of the four farmers who raised cattle and grew crops in the fields around the village. Apart from their house, which is the grandest in the village, he and his wife owned a couple of gîtes. They welcomed us into their kitchen, where we compared notes on letting out properties to holiday makers. He retired some years ago, and had recently been looking very bewildered when he came with his wife to the Oldies sessions. Over our game we recalled this gentle farmer with sadness.
July, and the break-up for summer of local groups, also brought an “end of term” lunch in Taintrux village for Helen’s brain exercise group. The Echauguette restaurant, opposite the mairie, like many now, belongs to the commune, and new managers have recently been installed. The food was typical, with starters of crudités or Vosgesian salad (with breadcrumbs, bacon strips, Munster cheese and poached egg), hearty main courses, plates of cheese and desserts covered in cream, followed by coffees. The star of the show was the Calvados sorbet between courses (wow, was that apple brandy potent!) As ever, it was a noisy, lively affair, also fuelled by the kir aperitifs and carafes of rose wine. It was a surprise to discover that one of the group had been in Fuissé for a family celebration around the time we were there – how surprised we would have been to meet. After the meal we drove to Ghislaine and her husband’s house on the edge of the commune and stood around their vegetable patch admiring it (presumably it would have been too intimate to have been invited indoors).
Our favourite restaurant, l’Imprimerie in the book village is also one that is owned by its commune, we learned recently. But they aim for less hearty fare, offering a menu of the day and two surprise menus of seasonal ingredients, accompanied by unusual and mainly organic wines. With eight small courses, we rarely have room for a cheese course. “Do you not like cheese?” the waiter asked during our July meal there. We confessed that we had in fact indulged in a cheese platter the previous month, when he was not there. He looked unconvinced until John showed him a photo. “Ah,” he sighed, “that would have been the day of my father’s funeral.” He surprised us at the end by producing the dockets listing the dishes we, and other regular customers, had sampled over recent years. What an archive. No wonder we never have exactly the same dishes twice and rarely the same wines.
Much of the décor of l’Imprimerie relates to printing and books. Les Innocents is a restaurant in Strasbourg that we have only been to once before, but a July medical check-up gave us a good excuse to return. For some reason, the décor there aims to recapture the ambience of the thirties and prohibition, with sepia photos of 1920s Australian gangsters and the wine bottles imprisoned behind metal bars. Even the photos of the chefs recall Chicago gangsters with their hats pulled low over their eyes (these were the same chefs who opened Coté Lac in Schiltigheim, some of you may remember from the past?) We again enjoyed our lunch there, served by an efficient, friendly waitress, who was, thankfully, not disguised as a gangster. Afterwards we strolled down to the protestant Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune church to see its striking frescoes which are being restored in a ten-year project.
We try to avoid indulging in too many delicious patisseries here, but were tempted to stop one morning after another appointment for coffees and a lime tart or chocolate confection. What an idyllic image, as beloved of birthday cards, of a patisserie, tables, parasols and the odd bicycle, only slightly marred by the strong smell of fish from the establishment next door.
Thus began our twenty first summer of retirement in E2E, with its long, hot days (did we also mention the hailstorms with hail the size of golf balls and the multiple warning e-mails from insurers to park cars inside and, later, how, if necessary, to make a claim?), leisurely travel, kestrel watching, restaurant lunches and the occasional cake.
How did the cattle, which had been grazing peacefully in the fields all day, and the kestrels now perching somewhere in the trees, cope when this rural tranquillity was disrupted on the evening of 13th July? As it got dark and we walked down to the parking area round the village shop and café, we could hear the loud music and had to stand aside for cars from outside the village nosing up our small road in search of parking spaces. It was time to celebrate the storming of the Bastille once more. All the village children and young people must have been there, some dancing, others sliding between the teeth of an inflatable monster, while their elders sat at tables with drinks. Torches flashed in the field as men checked their fireworks. Then, around 10.45pm, bang! A stunningly loud volley as flashes of light shot into the sky and cascaded down. The lights went out, the music and dancing stopped, and everyone dashed to the edge of the field. What a racket! And then it was all over for a year. Liberte, egalite, fraternite and all that.
Should we wish to escape briefly from la Republique, John’s passport has now arrived, so, despite the increasing Covid cases everywhere, a summer UK visit is now feasible.
The kestrels returned on 13 April and have visited the nest every day since. It could be several weeks before any eggs are laid. The eggs are usually laid at 3-4 day intervals. It is only after 3-5 eggs are laid the birds will start sitting.
I made some changes to the window sill nest to enclose it but now regret not having had time to review the layout and new camera positions properly before we went to Letchworth at the end of March. I was doubtful the kestrels would return and did not put a camera outside the nest as I had originally intended (it is still in the box). The cameras are connected to network server in E2E and I can access them remotely.
I now have one camera live streaming feed on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmcJ1sezE3so41txXy4w86w/live The feed occasionally fails and I have to restart it.
Both the female (falcon) and the male (tercel) (easy to identify differences) are visiting the nest more frequently now, especially in the early morning. The camera times are French time (GMT+2)
There is a 2022 kestrels web site with regular updates of daily photographs and videos
The 2021 kestrel web site https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/index.html pages and
To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link E2E2022no1.pdf (five A4 pages)
Some photographs have links to more images and
there are also links to photographs in the text
On Tuesday 15th March the sky turned a lowering shade of dirty yellow, and the car windscreen wipers had to work hard to clear the windscreen of large sandy splodges. Car wash facilities later did a good trade. Saharan sand was blowing north on the Sirocco as it did in February 2021. The skies have not, of course, been leaden throughout winter here but there have been a lot of dull grey days. So occasional days of sun and recent spring flowers have felt glorious.
Hard on the heels of our December newsletter, the new Omicron strain of Covid caused the re-introduction of travel restrictions and uncertainty over ease of re-entry to France. We were touched by the sympathetic and supportive response of family and friends to our reluctant decision to remain in Entre-deux-Eaux over Christmas despite having booked our Eurotunnel ticket. The post office in Saulcy-sur-Meurthe was the main beneficiary as we bought up all the stamps for European destinations they had in stock for our Christmas cards. For once we were glad that UK shops stock up with Christmas food unseasonably early, as we had bought some mince pies in October (some for Helen’s Brain Teaser group), so consoled ourselves with coffee and the last mince pies the group had not eaten.
Our thoughts then turned to long distance Amazon Christmas present orders, Christmas decorations for here rather than there, and finally French Christmas fare. We didn’t find any holly in the orchard or forest, so picked the deep pink spindle, white honesty, aromatic sage, rosemary and lavender from the garden, added pine cones and branches from the forest, and later found clusters of low-hanging mistletoe outside the book village, to arrange round the candles, plaster Peruvian angels and kings, and in a wreath on the door.
A few days before Christmas we raided our classy local freezer shop, Thiriet, for some treats over Christmas and New Year. From the entrée section we selected some prawn pastillas, guinea fowl and foie gras pastillas, and scallop and salmon parcels. Crispy prawns and prawn nems came from the exotic Chinese-cum-Thai cabinet, and from the dessert section we chose a box of creamy Paris-Brest and some Arabica coffee, chocolate and whisky confections. We already had a guinea fowl stuffed with foie gras in the freezer, carrots, parsnips, curly kale, and Jerusalem artichokes (delicious mashed with garlic) from the garden, and some favourite wines in the “cellar” – better known as the barn. At the Belgian supermarket we had found Brussels sprouts, actually labelled from Brussels. And to round off, we had some boxes of chocolate and John’s Christmas cake that we would no longer taking to England. So we were all set for several days, if not weeks of feasting, especially with the addition of our pickles to the left-overs (we were glad to find an old jar of pickled walnuts on a shelf in the barn, a delicacy that we have never seen in shops here).
Before we opened it on Christmas Day, we thought that the light (so not books) box that had arrived from Ann and Derek might contain crackers, but were delighted to find hours of entertainment in the form of a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle of Dickens’ London. So, despite the dull, damp and rather nasty weather, we had bright lights indoors, a fridgeful of food, and books, crosswords, football on TV and the puzzle to allay the sadness of not being with the family.
At the start of January we saw two of our neighbours who were out walking after an exhausting festive period with all their family visiting – between them they had ten grandchildren and their parents to entertain. They confirmed that the mayor’s annual New Year greetings (a speech followed by champagne and nibbles) had been cancelled due to the alarming rise in Covid cases. The January and February club reunions, including the popular January lunch, of village oldies had also been cancelled, as had all group gatherings for galette des rois and champagne.
And the lunch offered by the mayor and council for the village oldies was, like last year’s, delivered to our door. The festive lights and merry decorations around the village seemed to get taken down earlier than usual, well before Candlemas.
As the French hospitals filled up with Covid cases (85% of whom were unvaccinated) there were protests in the larger towns over Macron’s remarks about making life difficult for people who were refusing vaccinations. At the same time we were hearing about Downing Street parties (or work meetings), Djokovic’s attempts to circumvent Australian policies to play in the Australian Open, and Boris’ plans to relax restrictions over mask wearing, working from home, self-isolation and border tests.
Leila and her friends had decided before Christmas that their plan to take a winter break in Berlin might be better changed to the Lake District. But soon after their arrival at the rented house, she wrote that on the day before they had a booking for Sunday lunch at l’Enclume (promoted from two to three Michelin stars a few weeks later) she was feeling very coldy and had tested positive for Covid. As she had only just started to feel better after long Covid, we were concerned, but it does not seem to have lingered for too long. John got pinged by his Covid app here to say that he had been in contact with someone with Covid, but decided it was probably someone at the far end of a supermarket as nothing developed. But it did mean we delayed plans for a restaurant meal. France did not start to relax restrictions until 14th March. The next day we heard that both the mayor and his deputy have Covid.
As we continued to hear of difficulties in the UK over getting face-to-face GP appointments, we were glad to report that here consultations remained possible. But we were affronted to discover, when we rang for routine check-ups, that our much appreciated GP had retired a week or two earlier without our knowing. Apparently he’d started telling patients in October of his departure but we’d not seen him since August.
With twenty minute appointments (which usually ended up being much longer) we had always chatted about language and travels when we’d dealt with health issues, and his health advice, including negotiating the French system, was thoughtful too. Although we knew that he and his partner who had set up the practice together, were looking around for eventual replacements, and were reducing their hours, we didn’t expect it to happen just yet. He looked far to young and fit to go now. But it seems that the forthcoming birth of twin grandchildren in the south of France had influenced his timing. So we saw a new, young, fast-talking colleague, who assessed our records and made all the necessary on screen changes for him to become our médecin traitant. We just hope he slows down a bit in his speech. We did, however, still have the luxury of twenty minute consultations – and he was not running horribly late (we always used to take a good book for the long waits before our appointments).
The next day John was able to get an emergency dental appointment for a painful tooth and was chastened by the stern rebuke he got for his long absence. Thinking she had better make an appointment with her dentist in the same group practice, Helen discovered that he, like our doctor, had decided it was time to retire, and was fully booked until his last day. She was given a date four months ahead with his successor. For some reason one expects these pillars of the community to be around for ever. Even the priest, Pere Eric, who served Entre-deux-Eaux (on rotation among many other local villages) and took Madame Laine’s funeral, has gone back to Burkina Faso.
Talking of Madame Laine, I wonder what happened to all of her husband Pierre’s hunting trophies after their daughter modernised and moved into her parent’s house? The heads hung all round the dining room walls, the largest being a stag. Who now goes after the local boars, as Pierre and his pals regularly did? Many of the older village hunters have gone. But somebody must. When we discussed, with our neighbours, the main dish delivered by the commune as part of the Christmas lunch to our doorstep (along with 2 half bottles of wine each, nibbles, starter, cheese and dessert) we decided the unlabelled meat was probably boar.
We have not seen any of the local deer this winter. Before Christmas John was forced to line a gap under the eaves with bricks as a green woodpecker was busy drilling through the wooden boarding into the attic. Was it the same woodpecker who had bored so many holes into the telegraph pole opposite that ENEDIS had to replace it and another recently?
Our last resident in the attic, apart from mice, had been the stone marten several years ago. We recalled it when Jessica talked on the phone about the hole in the wooden shingle roof of her house in Broadstairs and John suggested it could be caused by a marten rather than squirrel. There were some local Kent newspaper reports from earlier in the summer of a marten being spotted. The local pest control were puzzled by the unusual scat that they found. It turned out that a couple of pine martens had indeed escaped from the Wildwood Trust outside Canterbury. The Wildwood Trust seemingly have plans to reintroduce them into Kent. Have the residents been told of the damage martens can do, including killing chickens and gnawing car electrical wiring (which is a significant problem in Germany?) Despite the damage they cause they are a protected species both here and there. Nevertheless, here the local farmers are known to shoot them.
But let it not be thought that we are heartless about wildlife. One morning in February we saw a slinky white ermine sniffing round near one of our old woodpiles, although we have not seen one since or in the previous twenty years (and unfortunately did not have enough time to photograph it).
A couple of weeks ago we went to Colmar to purchase a small window which John fixed on the wall in the attic in front of the opening where the kestrels nested last year. In the hope that they might return this year, he put in a wood base with a special sill with a ledge to prevent eggs and chicks from rolling (or being pushed) off. To complete the welcome he added some woodchips and sawdust. So we hope they will be tempted. Some have already returned to established sites in Alsace and further north in the Vosges.
As we crossed the col de Bonhomme to pick up the window, John noticed that a lorry with a Lithuanian registration plate also had a notice saying “I am not going to England” (presumably to discourage stowaways?) On a less sad note than the lorry, as Helen’s brain-exercise group were deploring the Ukrainian situation, Martine added that her 39-year old son, who works in Germany, had for the first time brought a girlfriend home with him on a visit. He had not mentioned that she is a Ukrainian who has also been working in Germany. There was a panic as Martine wondered a) what food to cook for her and b) what language they could use to communicate with a girl who spoke German and Ukrainian (which they do not) but not French. They had to resort to rusty English. And the tagine was appreciated.
On the way to purchase the window, we stopped in Lapoutroie, a village on the other side of the Col for lunch at a hotel where we had not eaten for many years, – since 2005, in fact. Outside were large centenary exhibition photographs of scenes from the First World War, when Lapoutroie was German. Inside they still adhered to a sort of class system which separates those eating the cheaper menu of the day from those eating fancier fare. We had forgotten quite how much cream could be piled on Alsace desserts, but prudently asked for black coffees afterwards.
Other small items of news from here, are that we now have a new, larger garage door after the old one was rammed (possibly by an anonymous trailer) before Christmas. We have not yet replaced the smashed flower tubs, but the vegetable patches are covered in a layer of the cow dung we acquired as compensation from the farmer.
We should finally get a full fibre internet connection before summer (rather than by copper cable from the fibre junction box in the village), courtesy of a Grand Est-owned company which is cabling the villages, as they have been hanging fibre cable from the poles. Orange (France Telecom) has stopped supplying PSTN telephone lines. They will decommission all their copper cabling and their posts between 2026 and 2030. The new companies installing fibre cable have to install new posts where necessary. Ducting doesn’t seem to be affected. We spent a happy hour or two last week just standing on the doorstep watching two young men running a long length of fibre cable from the last electricity/telegraph pole (the new one opposite our front door) through a tube under the road to a manhole outside our garage, where it took a right angle and was edged into another underground pipe and drawn 100m through to the three houses at the end of our road.
The last bit of good news is that the sun has come out this week, and in addition the snowdrops and hellebores we are enjoying the daffodils and oxslips in the orchard.
With the clearer skies at night this month and the moon rising in the early evening, John has also been taking a series of photos of the waxing crescent to full moon phases. Long may the good weather last!
To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link E2E2021no4.pdf (six A4 pages)
Some photographs have links to more images and
there are also links to photographs in the text
This morning the snow was still lying on the fields outside, the postman delivered our first Christmas card, and aromas issued from the kitchen as John baked the alcohol-soaked fruit Christmas cake. So it seemed a good time to look back over the last three months, before Christmas activities take over.
As Covid travel restrictions start to be re-imposed, we are so thankful that we had the luxury of spending two months catching up with family and friends in the UK after eighteen months absence. At one stage of the confinement we had joked that we would have forgotten how to talk to other people, and it was a great pleasure to indulge once more.
We set out for Calais at 7.20 (early nowadays for us) on 8th September, clutching our negative pre-departure Covid test results, double vaccination certificates (passes sanitaires), and photocopies of the forms we’d been required to fill in. It was a hot day, and good to stop for coffees and refreshments. We were really struck by the contrast between the French service stations (with scrupulous hygiene, the need to show passes sanitaires before purchasing coffee and obligatory mask wearing) and the casual, mask-less and grubbier Dover one. Although the French roads had been busy with work traffic and lorries for the early part of the journey, the motorway between Reims and Calais was quieter than usual, with few UK cars. The coned-off approach to the tunnel check-in felt like a maze, but there were short queues when we made it, and we were able to board an earlier Eurotunnel train. We rarely take the tunnel but this time, as prices did not differ greatly from ferry fares, it seemed preferable to remain in our car rather than mingle in lounges and it took less time. So we reached our front door in Letchworth around 17.20. After clearing the dead leaves piled up against the front door, it was good to find the house surprisingly clean inside, apart from dead spiders and flies, and the fridge and freezer recovered and usable, thanks to Toby’s clearing up after it defrosted when the power cut off. It was good to see Toby and Farrah who came round to greet us a bit later. Toby had started a new job, Farrah had progressed from Year 7 to year 9 at school since we last saw them, and Toby was able to tell us about his visit to the secondary school in Melton Mowbray that Jacob will be going to next year, so big changes.
During our stay we heard more about Toby’s contract with a consultancy and current work for Pret a Manger. But he was very busy and also solicitous for our health, so protected us from the autumn coughs and colds that Jacob and Farrah inevitably brought home from school. Leila also planned to come and stay for several days while she was still on sick-leave with long Covid, but gave us a few days first to start sorting out the house and garden.
The garden, unattended for eighteen months, was the most urgent to tackle, while the weather was good, as the grass and weeds were rampant, the hedges and ivy unruly, and there were dead trees and shrubs to cut down and dispose of. The gardening firms John initially contacted on-line or by phone were fully booked until the end of October, even for an estimate. Helen accosted Bob the Gardener who was trimming a hedge further down the road, and he seemed keen, noted down all the details, said he and an older colleague could do it in a one or one-and-a-half days, and he would get back to us with confirmation of price and a date. He didn’t. Did he feel overwhelmed by the jungle? So when Dan, a contact through an internet trader website, visited to assess and offered us two men for half a day the following week, with more hours later, we accepted.
And wow, didn’t Dan and James work hard! They had finished their morning job earlier than expected, so worked on our garden from 10.30 – 19.00, with frequent trips to the tip with branches from the hedges, shrub trimmings and dead trees. By the end of the day, we could see the end of the garden, the pavements outside were clear of our overhanging greenery and the house was considerable lighter after the removal of dead trees. The only minor disaster was the cutting through of an outside socket power cable, but Dan arranged for a mate to repair it a few days later. He departed, promising to invoice us from Majorca, where he was flying next day (and where we hope our prompt payment contributed to his holiday pleasures).
Leila was able to witness, from our sofa, this taming of the jungle. She was still getting very tired, and although we were able to do quite a few things during her visit, she still need to sit down and rest quite a bit. The first day, she was also nursing a wasp sting and we contented ourselves with quietly opening birthday and Christmas presents from last year! However, Helen appreciated her advice on a shopping trip to M&S, and we all went to the Collectors’ Market in Hitchin. Helen and Leila also picked up Jacob on the Friday, when he was still very chatty about his Year 6 activities, especially sports, at school that day. We also had fun trying out a French Asterix Monopoly game and finally playing the adult rules of the Train Game. (When Jacob was quite young he had loved seeing the trains criss-crossing the map of Europe on the board, and was desperate to join in, so we had invented some simpler rules).
The first two weeks of our stay had passed rapidly, and as well as the garden, John had tackled some house problems, replacing a leaking rotted rubber downstairs loo pan seal, planing down the bathroom door and replacing the handle, installing a Raspberry Pi power cut detector, and we also considered re-decorating the upstairs bedroom, but it got no further than discussion. Helen had been over-enthusiastic about cleaning and had broken the plastic mop bucket (but it had been outside in the sun all the time), so replaced it with a more durable metal one. On the health front, we had duly posted our required Covid PCR test in a mail box outside the Jordans Cereal building in Biggleswade within 48 hours of our arrival, and Helen had arranged eye, foot and hair appointments (though perhaps a hair appointment at “Dead Swanky” does not count as a health appointment). It was a first professional cut since the start of Covid and acting-hairdresser John clearly felt demoted. We later also booked an annual car-service and brake disc pad replacements for Snowy (despite the Toyota dealer’s receptionist insisting over the phone that our model had drum rear brakes).
With all that done, we were able to continue to tackle the garden renovation at leisure, weeding, doing further pruning and replacing dead plants. A local garden centre had reduced pots of clematis, honeysuckle, Russian vine and spirea, we’d brought over some wisteria grown from seeds, and Ann and Derek later gave us some pheasant berry plants and hellebore. We regretfully gave up on the invasive Russian vine, but hope the rest of the plants now feel at home and survive. We were also able to arrange for a Letchworth gardening firm to come in once a month for future regular maintenance. We could now turn our thoughts to catching up with friends.
This was not as straightforward as it sounds. Helen had been sorry to miss the wedding anniversary of Barbara and Paul so close to our arrival. Alistair e-mailed that Susan had been rushed to hospital a few days before their planned visit. The fuel-buying panic meant that Graham and Julia were unable to find any petrol or diesel in the Maidenhead area. But we were delighted to welcome Dilys, who’d discovered she could make it up from Eastbourne with only one change of trains and without having to cross between London terminals.
When Jessica stayed for a few days we enjoyed a couple of local walks, one of which included an unexpected colourful field of poppies while the other offered rolling views, wild hops and lavender fields.
We also drove with her to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to see the Gold of the Steppes exhibition.
As fuel problems eased, it was good to see Graham and Julia. Helen was also able to drive down to her cousin Kate’s funeral in north London. As their health problems had eased, we were glad that Barbara and Bruce came up from Winchester and Val could join us, and later Susan and Alistair were able to stop on their way to London at the start of November. Although we had all been living quiet lives, some coping with illness, and had few exciting events to recount, it was such a pleasure to meet up, share meals and chat with old friends.
We always enjoy spending time with John’s sister Ann and her husband Derek, so felt spoilt to see them not just once, but three times. We drove down to Tenterden to stay with them at the beginning of October and to finally take them out out to lunch, as promised, to celebrate their birthdays two months earlier. They chose The Pig at Bridge Place Hotel outside Canterbury, which, it turned out, had at one stage been the Bridge Country Club and had hosted legends like Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Barron Knights, Manfred Mann, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. Copies of old posters in the loos were the only reminders of the glory days, the food was average and the room crowded and noisy.
The following day we had a bracing walk in the sunshine and wind along the promenade at Dymchurch, avoiding the waves at high tide which crashed against and sprayed over promenade, then visited Sue, one of Helen’s first flat-mates in London in the sixties. Lunch was a pasta, a reminder of her many years spent in Reggio Calabria, and childhood memories of plum (from her garden) crumble.
John celebrated his birthday at the end of October with lunch (rather disappointing, works canteen-like) at Fergus Henderson’s starred St John restaurant in London with Helen and Jessica. Then Leila came to stay again, along with Ann and Derek. We were pleased to see that Leila seemed better than during her earlier stay. Friday mornings with us are incomplete for Leila without a trip to Hitchin and its Collectors’ Market, which Ann and Derek enjoyed too; but Leila rested next day while the rest of us walked across the fields to Ickleford village, where we paused for drinks in the timbered Old George before the return walk. On Sunday it felt as if we were making up for all the birthday and Christmas family celebrations we’d missed as Toby, Rachel, Farrah and Holly joined us and the nine of us we sat down to the splendid Sunday lunch that John and Ann had prepared, which was followed by either watching football or playing games. It was a shame that Jacob was not there to complete the party, but he had been at Toby’s the previous week during his half term and we had enjoyed spending time with him then.
Making up for the very quiet birthday celebrations of 2020, we booked dinner a couple of days later at the recently opened Ekstedt at the Yard restaurant. We took the train down as far as Blackfriars Station, which was much transformed since our London days from a soot-encrusted hulk to glass palace, with the train stopping part way across the Thames, giving splendid evening views of the illuminated buildings up and down the curving river. The walk along the Embankment brought back memories of our riverside explorations together after work back in the dim and distant past. We met up with Jessica in the lobby of the Great Scotland Yard Hotel and were ushered to a table in the dimly lit restaurant close to the noisy kitchen and open fire to await a series of Scandinavian style taster dishes. Courses like the seared smoked venison heart, allspice, lingon berries, parsley, mushrooms and shallots which were heated in butter at the table and served with flatbread, were tasty, but we found the serving of only two small cep souffles along with three pine needle ice cream/wild blueberries at the end to share between three of us very niggardly (especially sharing food in these Covid times; later correspondence has resulted in a return invitation).
Three days later, we were all packed up and setting out to stay overnight with Ann and Derek, before an early morning start for the Eurotunnel and drive back to Entre-deux-Eaux. It had been so good to see family and so many of our friends again.
Back here, it felt like a mirror image of things that had needed to be sorted out in the UK – garden, health and house. After harvesting squash, marrows, parsley and a few surviving autumn raspberries from the potager which had been neglected for two months, it was time to put pots and tubs of delicate plants like geraniums, fuchsia and hydrangeas to overwinter in the third barn, to wrap protection around the peonies, clematis and roses outside, and to bring in trickle watering pipes and garden furniture before the frosts and snow. There were leeks, carrots, beetroot and parsnip to dig up when required and some curly kale.
We also needed to catch up with health appointments, starting with our Covid booster and flu jabs. We had collected our flu vaccines from the pharmacy, who said the Covid centre could do both at the same time, and the receptionists and doctor at the centre said the same. However, the nurses at the centre didn’t want to give the two at once, but wouldn’t say why, just “I don’t agree with it”, while insisting that they were only there to do Covid (one suspected the problem was lack of payment for extra work rather than health concerns), and that they didn’t have enough staff to give both to everyone (as we watched the three nurses standing chatting with no patients during our 15 minute “recovery” period).
That evening the French Prime Minister announced that over 65s would have their passe sanitaire cancelled on 15th December if they were eligible for a booster dose six months after their second injection but had not had it. This would mean they would not be able to go to restaurants, bars, cultural events etc. without an additional test. Booking slots for booster injections, many of which had been free when we booked, immediately filled up and are currently still hard to obtain, especially since the age group has been extended.
Thank goodness we had got some of the flower tubs into the barn. On 11th November, as church bells tolled for Armistice Day, we opened the front door to find that six of the remaining plant tubs had been overturned during the night, with soil, plants and plastic fragments scattered across the tarmac strip between the house and road. What was upsetting was that no one had stopped to apologise or left a note during that day or the next so we reported it to the mairie, who said there had been no similar vandalism reports and suggested we contacted the gendarmerie in Fraize. After filling in the appropriate form online, we were summoned to Fraize where a trainee gendarme laboriously filled in another form with the same information. Not a good advert for the local policing, especially as they then said that they couldn’t do anything if we didn’t know the perpetrator(s)!
Six days after the event, Helen was clearing up all the earth, retrieving and replanting the tubs’ contents in remaining pots, and gathering up the shattered fragments of plastic, when the farmer, who had been roaring past all morning in his tractor with spraying tank attached, stopped and said rather sheepishly that it was he who had caused the damage, and offered to pay. (Had our mayor warned him that we had filed papers with the gendarmes?) As the pots were quite old, and village trade tends to be in goods rather than cash, Helen asked if he could let us have some manure for the vegetable plot instead. (Coincidentally, our neighbour in Letchworth had kindly given us some flower tubs that he no longer needed, though unfortunately they are still in Letchworth.)
We then concentrated on other medical appointments (audiology and cardiology), house needs like replenishing the heating oil, and pleasures like pensioners’ games and a restorative lunch at the l’Imprimerie. It was on the morning of the oil delivery, twelve days after the flower tub incident that John opened the door so that the approaching oil delivery lorry could uncoil its hosepipe and fill up our tank inside the barn. In front of the door was more earth and plants and an overturned tub. But worse was to be seen. The door of the adjacent garage had been bashed in and was hanging off its frame. So, after the oil delivery, it was phone calls to our insurers and the gendarmerie. A few hours later two gendarmes came out to inspect the damage and quiz a passing neighbour whether they’d seen anything or had another explanation. Then we had to go into the gendarmerie in the afternoon to lodge a formal complaint. Fortunately it was not the trainee who was doing the form-filling, but, after a long wait, one of the men who’d been out to look at the damage. A colleague of his rang the farmer who said he was not responsible this time. So we are left with a nasty feeling of persecution, a promise from the gendarmes to keep their eyes open, and the need to organise estimates for replacing the door.
The fortnightly Scrabble group that Helen has been going to for many years, has finally folded, but has now been replaced by a choice of games, like Rummikub, Triominos, cards and also “normal” Scrabble, which has proved more popular. On alternate weeks the Brain Teasers group continues.
So there were exercises to prepare and refreshments to provide when it was Helen’s turn to run the session a couple of weeks ago. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but hopefully the mince spices and chocolate spice biscuits at the end helped. It was dark coming back from this week’s games session, so Helen saw all the Christmas lights, starting with the all-blue Christmas tree lights in Sainte Marguerite, and finishing with a surprise on our road. The Laines’ daughter has inherited their old house and it looks as if she is out to win this year’s village competition for the best display. It is not restrained or colour-themed.
And, to finish on this festive note, this Sunday lunch time Saint Nicolas will visit the children of Entre-deux-Eaux at the village hall, while Saulcy and Sainte Marguerite hold their Christmas markets with their mix of tasteful and lumpy crafts, mulled wine and home-made cakes.
After a month back in Entre-deux-Eaux, we are now watching the evolving requirements and restrictions for coming over to the UK for Christmas (and returning in the New Year!) and will put details of our plans in the covering e-mail. Meanwhile, enjoy your Christmas preparations!
To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link E2E2021no3.pdf (four A4 pages)
There are links to photographs in the text;
some will lead to larger selections of photographs
including this link to
Our unexpected kestrel visitors
Like many of our retired friends, we decided to lie low in August while many families and younger people celebrated the long-awaited easing of restrictions by throwing away their masks and crowding to beauty spots, music festivals, protests and beaches. We were encouraged when the UK dropped the compulsory quarantine regulation for visitors from France in early August, but decided to wait and see if things had changed by September when pensioners like us traditionally tend to travel. Towards the end of August, with UK friends being offered postponed cruises (usually to somewhere other than the original destination), we decided that even if we would not cruise, we would at least cross the channel and spend plenty of time seeing family and friends at long last and also sort out the neglected Letchworth house.
You will have gathered that in the meantime we have had a lot of enjoyment from watching the kestrels from eggs through hatching into fluffy chicks, fighting over food, gaining feathers, flexing their wings, and finally flying. It was hard not to endow them with human emotions and characteristics.
John fretted when he felt the parents were neglecting to return sufficiently often with food and Helen worried that her pre-breakfast gardening in the potager below their nest was disrupting their routines. It was possible to imagine the parents worrying that the grey and black (gardening clothes colours) creature might spot them returning to the nest, unaware that the grey and black thing already knew where their nest was.
One of the chicks seemed to grab most of the food when a parent delivered it and also to bully the other two – a bossy big brother? On August 12 the last one flew off. We had expected them to return to their ledge after their first flights, but they seemed to find more spacious perches in the trees.
One day, when we drove to Saint Dié after the surrounding fields had been cut and baled, we were surprised to see kestrels, buzzards and other raptors sitting on about one in ten of the bales between Entre-deux-Eaux and the crossroads. But a few days later there were none to be seen. They had probably caught every mouse and vole (and quite a few larger grasshoppers) that had rashly put in an appearance! We still see the kestrels flying from some of the local trees.
It was just as well that we had a distraction from kestrel-abandonment-syndrome the day after they had all flown off. We had booked lunch again at the Imprimerie. None of the other restaurants that we like seem to have changed their menu since we last went. As we drove into the book village, various stalls were setting up along the sides of the street. It was a weekend book fair which was due to start at 14.00, so we thought we’d look round after lunch, despite the hot temperatures. The laid-back waiter always has some minor grumble when we chat (on our previous visit he’d had three – firstly he had just had his first compulsory-for-restaurant-staff vaccination, secondly he was extra busy as the waitress was off following a car accident, and thirdly they would have to check each client’s pass sanitaire from the start of August to see that they had been doubly vaccinated, and he did not appreciate having to act as police when busy with their own jobs). However, by our August visit, the waitress was back, and she checked our pass sanitaire without any hassle and the waiter was enjoying talking to a lot of first-time customers and explaining how the eight-course surprise menu of small dishes works alongside a menu-of-the-day.
We were ushered to our usual table, and a succession of delicious dishes began to appear. Chef Morgan Fady always produces new dishes including, this time, a delicious amuse bouche of beetroot macaroons filled with foie gras and blackcurrant conserve. There was a refreshing salad of green and yellow dwarf beans with apricots, and some absolutely delicious beef with a parsley béarnaise sauce. The fish, like the beef was cooked over the wood fire, which added a special flavour. We added a new word, baudroie, to our vocabulary, which a rather overweight young man sitting with his parents at the table opposite ours instantly translated as monkfish; his fluency was a surprise in the small village – as we chatted he used other non-standard-textbook words like “bragging” – but he turned out to be a visiting Parisian. We were even brought unsolicited coffee at the end, just as we like it – the waiter must have been mortified that last time that they had no milk in the fridge.
As we expected, it was hot looking round the bookstalls after lunch, but more bookshops than usual were open, and being in the old stone-walled houses and barns, their interiors were lovely and cool. But, despite looking at a book of La Fontaine fables illustrated by Chagall and one on Gothic architecture in the Vosges, no books came home with us.
Helen had been reading a couple of books which brought back pleasant memories. One, Le Grand Meaulnes came from a small flea market. We’d come across the grave of its author Alain-Fournier quite by chance on the day we’d driven with friends to a hillside spot, in fact an American First World War memorial, which was a good place to experience the total eclipse of the sun; it felt weird, as the cows all lay down, the birds became silent and the skies darkened; afterwards, en route to Verdun we saw a sign pointing into the woods which mentioned Alain-Fournier, whose death or disappearance as a soldier in the First World War had remained a mystery until 1991 when an archaeological excavation uncovered a communal grave in which Alain-Fournier and eighteen of his men had been buried in September 1914. The quiet glade was a more poignant testimony to the Great War than the huge scale of Verdun. The other August read was a different angle on the Second World War, through the Ajax football team in Amsterdam under German occupation, the fate of its many Jewish supporters and the complicity of the Dutch. But that book also brought back happier memories of one of our last pre-Covid trips, which was to Amsterdam in May 2019, for the Rembrandt and Hockney/Van Gogh exhibitions (and a dramatic Ajax v Spurs match on TV).
We also returned to Senones last week, to lunch at the Bon Gîte. The restaurant and small hotel had changed hands around July 2019, with the great grand-daughter of the original founder taking over with her partner as chef. The food was traditional and rather uninteresting to our taste. Senones was once the capital of the old principality of Salm, and had an abbey with a famous library and the castle/palace of the Counts of Salm, both of which were sold to textile industries after the Revolution. Being close to the German border in Alsace, Senones was severely affected in both world wars by bombardments and mass deportations. When we first went there, a certain charm lingered round the old centre; but this time, as we strolled round after lunch, we were saddened by how depressed and derelict it was looking. On our way, we had admired the restoration of the abbey and grounds in the nearby small town of Moyenmoutier, which since the demolition of its ugly factory buildings was now revealed in its full extent and magnificence. So it was sad to still see in Senones the collapsed roof, scaffolding, boarded-up window openings and barred gateway of the west block of the old chateau, and the drab factory garment shop in part of the abbey. With most of the shops closed (possibly because of holidays), the old town looked as if it was decaying away.
The kestrel parents may have feared being harmed by the resident humans, but it was in fact one of the humans who got injured. A few days after they flew off, John went into the attic to adjust the camera that had been knocked as they flapped their wings. You may remember that he had had to block the window opening with something more substantial that the polystyrene that the birds had been pecking away. The something substantial was the heavy back of an old bookcase, and he dropped it on his foot. A lot of blood, dirt and antiseptic later, his foot swelled and darkened, and shoes were impossible with the large cut and bruising. To add insult to injury, he must later have twisted round as he applied Arnica gel to the bruising, and his back went.
On the medical front, we realised that summer was a good time to have a doctor’s appointment. Since the disastrous heatwave and deaths of 2003, adequate medical services have to be provided throughout summer. But in summer 2021 a lot of customers had rushed off elsewhere, and our doctor’s waiting room was empty when John had an appointment in late July, so he did not have the usual long wait. And when Helen had a routine appointment in the middle of August it was with a young locum who called her in on the dot of the appointed time and ushered her out after the allotted twenty minutes consultation. It was interesting that, when she nosily asked if he preferred working in small villages or larger towns, he immediately replied that he liked small villages as people only came when they really needed a doctor, rather than for trivial complaints. And they listened carefully and followed advice. He was off to Corcieux next. What does that say about townies?
Medical services seem to be responding more slowly in the UK. Leila’s doctor has signed her off work again as her long Covid has meant that she was too exhausted and brain-fogged when returning to work full-time. After waiting a month for a phone assessment with the long Covid clinic, she was referred to SALT (Speech and language therapy for brain fog & loosing words), pulmonary rehab, rehab/falls (presumably for exercises) and something that sounded like fatigue mosaic. She has also seen a cardiologist for an ECG, with an echocardiogram to follow. Meanwhile she has sensibly been swimming and walking. But not an easy time.
Toby and family meanwhile were able to postpone their holiday in the south of France after the UK imposed amber plus quarantine restrictions, and booked a week in some very pleasant looking Airbnb accommodation on the outskirts of Pitlochry. Jacob gave us a video phone tour of the house, and Toby sent photos of canoeing and hill hiking. Unfortunately Toby had an unpleasant return to Letchworth, as he had to go up to our house where the power had been off for over a week and the fridge-freezer contents smelt awful – the main offender being some defrosted chicken. He turned on the trip switch and most things came on again. But he still had to return a few days later to dispose of the now-refrozen food on the evening before bin collection.
And now, with the amber-plus status of France reduced to amber, we can look forward to seeing all of the family again after such a long time, not to mention sorting out the house and garden. We have booked our crossing and Covid tests for next week.
Enjoyable as it will be to see all our friends, it will probably be worth giving us a week or so to impose some order on the long-neglected house!
To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link E2E2021no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)
There are links to photographs in the text and
some will lead to larger selections of photographs.
There are also these links to other recent photographs
Flora and fauna around the farmhouse May-June 2021
When we opened our front door at 10.10 pm on July 13 (and for those of you unfamiliar with it, our front door is not a grand plastic-panelled affair, but an old barn door of bare planks with gaps, tarted up with a knocker and lock), we could hear the thumping music from the village. We put on warm clothes and stout shoes and headed down the darkening road, through puddles where the stream and drains had overflowed. The 4 metre-wide lane looping up to the Duhaut and Vozelle farmhouses had been turned into a two-way Entre-deux-Eaux by-pass, with official yellow deviation signs, and to emphasize the yellow warnings of a road block 500 metres ahead, vehicles were parked across the road, barricading the village centre. “Not too good for emergency vehicle access”, John remarked.
It was the eve of Bastille Day, and the car park and road round the village shop-cum-bar had been taken over by crowded benches and trestles for feasting and games. By this time, the bouncy castle had been deflated to a flat skin across the road ready to be folded away, and people were shuffling towards the edge of the field. It seemed miraculous that the heavy rain had paused at just the right time for a village celebration culminating in fireworks. John set up his tripod by the field, and we watched shadows moving behind their torches, doing last minute checks on the fireworks.
And then there was a five minute riot of colour and falling stars as multiple rockets were launched and burst and then abruptly ceased. The figures behind the torches moved up to inspect the launch site close-up and check that all the fireworks were spent, as we muttered, “we might need those emergency vehicles”. Many of us started to drift towards our homes or parked cars, exchanging greetings and answering queries about still being here despite or because of Brexit and Covid. However the music, so presumably celebrations, continued well after midnight, when we turned off our bedside lights.
This was the first village knees-up for a long time. Last year’s fireworks had been cancelled, the oldies had not met for cake-and-champagne for many months, there had been no New Year champagne and nibbles or communal oldies lunch. So despite the damp, cool evening, everyone was making the most of it. With school term ended, the children could stay up late and the summer holidays had a cracking start. The following evening we watched some of neighbouring St Leonard’s fireworks. But by then the rain had returned, so we were glad to be warm and dry indoors, watching at a distance through windows. And what colourful puffballs lit up the sky and cascaded stars.
Like Boris, Macron had been anxious to relax restrictions in time for the electorate to rush lemming-like towards the south and fondly remembered holiday sunshine. However, on the day that the ever-optimistic Boris was expected to announce, despite others’ caution over increasing cases, that masks would not be compulsory, the more prudent Macron was forced by a similar increase and the low uptake of vaccines (including, worryingly, among health care professionals) to announce that vaccination would be compulsory from September for nursing and non-nursing staff, carers and aids, that certificates proving vaccination would be compulsory in bars, restaurants and on trains from August, and that free PCR tests (which the French were tending to use instead of vaccination) would no longer be free in autumn. The next day there was a mad rush to book vaccination appointments for everyone over 12, though 12-17 year olds have since been exempted from the vaccination pass entrance requirements as it became obvious it would cause problems for parents. Meanwhile we have been waiting for Boris to relax the quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Brits abroad returning to the UK. But the British government has just announced that, although France will remain on the orange list, quarantine and testing will still apply to the fully vaccinated, due to concerns over the low AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy against the beta/South African variant.
The Sainte Marguerite pensioners were feeling more optimistic, and e-mailed start dates for their activities, – not until September because of the sacred two-month holiday period (when they might need to look after grand children). The physical exercise group will all have to arrive fully kitted out (so no changing-room gossip) and with their own mats and to disperse immediately afterwards without lingering indoor chats, and the mental exercise group met to plan their autumn campaign. Helen went along to the planning meeting of the latter, where the first mental exercise was to work out how to get into the meeting room. A passing community policeman solved the problem by blowing on the swipe card, and then it worked! Once inside, half the group of six wore masks and the remaining three did not. Interesting. And why could they sit and chat, but not the gymnasts? An hour and a half was spent catching up on gossip, ten minutes on planning, and a quarter of an hour on word and number exercises similar to Countdown (known here as Des chiffres et des mots). Let’s hope the programme does not get cancelled by the predicted post-holiday Covid increase.
On a rare sunny day, we started to think about a short break in an area of France that we don’t know and bought the Michelin guide to Limousin and Berry with the area round Bourges in mind. However, with wet weather, apart from the lucky break on Bastille Eve, the idea of trailing round in the rain has not been so appealing. Near Bourges are the areas that Alain Fournier and George Sand wrote about, so Helen is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes, and is surprised how similar its pre-1914 village school sounds to the Entre-deux-Eaux school in the 1970s/80s, as recalled by the widow of the former school master. George Sand’s La Mare au Diable should be delivered shortly. Maybe the weather will improve and it will not be just armchair travel.
Looking back, the wet weather started a day or two after we had set up the watering system, got out the garden swing-seat and teak benches from their winter storage, and taken delivery of a large garden parasol. But at least we have not faced the severe flooding experienced earlier by flatter parts of the Grand Est, like Reims, or the present appalling floods across the border in Germany and Belgium. Our barn has only needed sweeping and drying out once. And after we cleared the drainage channel of mud, removed the bucket in the drain (to catch the mud) which was hindering rapid outflow, and put two rows of bricks in front of the gap at the bottom of the barn doors, we have had no further problems (fingers crossed). The difficulty has been finding a dry time for cutting the verdant grass and uprooting the luxuriant weeds.
And talking of the garden, the rebuilt fruit cage is doing well, with its new netting and weed-reducing ground cover. It is remarkably sturdy. Helen got a tour of next-door’s new hen-house when she dropped round to get the details of their netting supplier. Theirs is an extensive, but less rugged, construction with indoor and outdoor areas to keep the hens safe by day as well as night from the marauding foxes, martens and buzzards which exterminated the previous hens. It sounds as if it has been restocked now. Our cage currently has a good crop of blueberries and raspberries. In other shady areas we have had more wild strawberries than ever before. Helen was crouching down picking them one day when a white van drew up, so, still clutching the bowl of tiny berries, she went to collect the Amazon parcel. “Are they for me?” the driver asked cheekily. But when offered some, he was most suspicious of these tiny unknown things, asking where they were from and whether he should wash them. In the vegetable beds, the peas, broad beans and lettuce have all flourished in the rain, the carrots thinnings are tasty, and the squash and courgettes are very leafy.
The fauna has also flourished, with monster snails, fat slugs and slow-worms in the compost heap. Visiting deer (orchard) and a great-spotted woodpecker (balcony bird feeder) are more welcome sights. However, the vole population must be much reduced thanks to the presence of kestrels and their young in our attic window niche high above the vegetable patch. The kestrel saga, which many of you have been following through John’s daily photos and videos, began when Helen remarked idly on the quantity of polystyrene fragments floating down from above the farmhouse front door (this one a proper, panelled but peeling blue-painted wooden door). John went up to the attic and opened the low door through to the storage end, and discovered a round hole in the sheet of polystyrene blocking the small window opening (against messy owls, stone martens and from when the outside walls were sprayed in crépi).
And four brown speckled eggs lay on the deep window recess. He researched and observed and decided it was a kestrel nest (well, hardly a nest as there was no straw or twigs, but just the bare ledge and bits of pecked polystyrene). He installed a camera linked to his computer (details below on the website), which he modified and tweaked, and is obtaining fascinating pictures.
It seemed a long wait before any sign of cracking or hatching and John fretted that they were getting too cold when the mother flew off for quite long periods. However on the twenty-fifth day of recording, July 9, his patience (and anxiety) was rewarded with the appearance of two baby chicks, one of whom was quite perky for a newborn, while the other seemed increasingly limp. Since July 2 we had not seen the male, who had previously visited occasionally and briefly, so hunger drove the female to leave the newborn chicks in the late afternoon in search of voles or lizards. When she returned we could see her prodding and shaking the inert body of her second hatched. Eventually she gave up and very practically began to consume it and feed bits (probably regurgitated) to her vociferous first born. The next day, July 10, the remaining two chicks hatched.
On the eve of Bastille, there was an excited yell from the attic as John had seen the male delivering a dead vole on the live video feed on his computer screen. Where had the cock been for the previous eleven days? Did they have a store-cupboard nearby that he had been stocking? There was an acrimonious incident with loud recriminations when he was about to take away his dead vole offering, as the female was still feeding another corpse to her fluffy white offspring.
John has toyed with the idea of inserting a wooden ridge across the front of the sill to prevent the balls of fluff from rolling or hopping off before they can fly, but decided it was cause too much alarm. You can see all the pictures and videos at https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/ During this time our TV screen has been showing an interesting mix of the live kestrel video feed (Chromecast), Wimbledon matches. European cup football and catch-up crime series (Line of Duty and Fargo).
Helen also watched quite a few matches from the French Open Tennis. Most games were played in front of very small audiences, but in the last week, more people were allowed to watch. However there was still an 11pm curfew. So there had to be a 10.30pm break to allow spectators to leave without disturbing players. But they got very involved in the exciting semi-final match between Nadal and Djokovic, and it seemed most unlikely that they would leave willingly. At the last minute, the French PM who was watching on TV phoned through permission for the spectators to stay on without incurring curfew penalties. Riots avoided! But how annoying for those with longer journeys who had left a bit earlier.
In case you are wondering if we still have books piled on the floor, following the problems with the underfloor heating that we mentioned in the last newsletter, the shelves are back in position and the books returned to them. It turned out the expansion chamber the plumber had replaced wasn’t working. It is a cylinder with rubber across the middle. The top fills with water and pushes the rubber down into the other half as it expands. The plumber had assumed the new cylinder was OK and thought there must be a leak in the underfloor pipe rather than a problem with his handiwork. The leak only required about 150ml of water to top up the system each day. John eventually noticed a drop from a valve at the back of the boiler. The drip, from the increased pressure, was slow enough that the water had evaporated so not been noticed. The plumber finally agreed the cylinder rubber must have had a hole, so all the cylinder had filled and there was no pressure relief (the same problem as the old chamber), so he replaced the replacement expansion chamber.
In fact there are more books on the shelves now as John and his sister between them ordered all the books on Helen’s Amazon list for her birthday. But buying anything from the UK since Brexit can be a problem as there are often import duties and additional customs clearance charges. (Amazon UK ensures all those charges are paid on ordering if the goods are those Amazon fulfils, but not necessarily those from the Marketplace.) There can also be problems with parcels disappearing after they reach France. Two of the book parcels went missing as well as some Vanish soap, which is not available in France. Being Amazon, refunds weren’t a problem and replacements arrived safely. Interestingly, John ordered a newly-published UK book from Amazon FR and, although the tracking showed it was sent from the UK, it was cheaper than a copy from Amazon UK delivered to a UK address would have been, despite the usual UK book discounts and the price maintenance on books in France. He also discovered that he could buy more Yorkshire tea from Amazon FR and 100% pomegranate juice from Amazon DE.
The pomegranate juice was an essential ingredient for John to cook Chicken Ottolenghi, a particular favourite, for Helen’s birthday dinner. It is one of the things we usually buy on visits to the UK. Only later did we discover just a couple of bottles in amongst all the 30% bottles in the Turkish shop in Saint Dié opposite the garden centre (where we had been looking for non-leaky Wellington boots for John).
Before John started to prepare the chicken dish, the sun came out and we had a very pleasant walk along a shady forest track on part of the Kemberg massif we had not walked before. We followed an intriguing sign to Le sapin qui pisse. This turned out to be a fountain, which at an earlier date must have emerged for a pine tree that has since disappeared. They seem to have been popular forest features, and research revealed there is a better one near Raon l’Etape, which might make another interesting walk. After that, the chicken with its pomegranate juice flavouring was delicious, as was the coffee birthday cake indulgence.
We had continued with our Saturday evening set-menu dinners deliveries from l’Imprimerie, although most of the courses were less interesting, though larger, than those of his surprise menus at the restaurant. So we were pleased when restaurants were allowed to re-open in June and celebrated with lunch at l’Imprimerie on their first day, and enjoyed the more adventurous surprises, like the mushroom chawanmushi. They were hoping that in the evening they would get everyone served, replete and out before the 11 o’clock curfew, a pressure to which they were unaccustomed. The evening curfew ended on June 20, which was probably a relief for all restaurants. As well as worrying about the evening constraints, the waiter was having difficulty telling us about the wine, as he could not read the label on the back of the bottle; he confided that he now has glasses for reading but they steam up when he’s wearing his detested mask (an only too familiar problem!) so he’s not wearing them (glasses, not masks) at work. We, however, wallowed in the feeling of normal life, despite the masks.
Restaurants were only allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, with compulsory masks when not seated and no more than 6 at a table, so we were surprised that all the tables were in use at l’Imprimerie. However they are very well spaced, and it would previously have been possible to fit more tables in than they have. (They can only seat about 24 at the moment). A party of seven had obediently been accommodated on two well-distanced tables (though this meant there was noisy shouting between tables).
However, the 50% capacity rule was observed at Chez Guth, where we went the following week, taking a long detour as the usual road was closed (more yellow diversion signs). On arrival at the hillside chalet restaurant, we received a very warm welcome. They pride themselves on their foraged and seasonal ingredients, so were disconcerted (not to mention initially disbelieving) when John commented that it was still their old October menu on their website. So Madame checked and rang their website contact to complain bitterly as we chatted to chef at the end.
And the following week we ate at Toby’s favourite, the Frankenbourg, and toasted absent family and friends with whom we have enjoyed meals there over many years. The wine waiter/sommelier, who seemed a mere slip of a lad when we first went well over 20 years ago, has, like other male staff, got a little portly during lockdown, but the three wines he selected to accompany the meal were excellent (and he knows all about the wines, so has no problems trying to read labels!). Helen particularly liked the raspberry and pistachio dessert.
We enjoyed the drives almost as much as the meals, after having been restricted for so long in how far we could drive without a permitted reason. Before the deconfinement, the only longer drive had been to Epinal at the end of April to complete our post-Brexit residence permit applications at the Departmental Prefecture, which we decided was permitted as “administrative summons”. As we had produced all the required documentation for our previous permits, this trip merely involved queueing outside the Prefecture until being escorted to the relevant desks by a masked man with a list of appointments. There it was only a matter of handing over 2 recent photos and having fingerprints taken. It was a shame that no bars or coffee shops were open afterwards, but at least the Prefecture loos were available, before we drove back to wait a month or so for our permits to be posted. And we now have our new cards.
Some of you may remember they finally put a fibre internet connection into the village in 2018. But we are still over 700m from that junction box and still connected by copper wire. It allowed our internet connection speed to go from 2Mbps download to 18Mbps but upload still remained less than 1Mbps. In May John did some checking and discovered other internet providers were offering higher speeds so decided to switch. We now have a modern Livebox modem to replace the eight-year old modem and a 38/10Mbps connection, at a lower monthly cost. And, hopefully, in a couple of years we’ll have fibre to the house.
As we thus idle away the hours in Entre-deux-Eaux, the UK family news has been mixed. The Covid that Leila caught back in March has been acknowledged, after much physical fatigue and brain fog, to be long Covid, and in August she will have a telephone assessment by a nurse from the long Covid clinic. Occupational Health have suggested reducing her working hours further, possibly until Christmas, but at present there do not seem to be arrangements in place for the City Council to continue to pay full salaries to long Covid sufferers working fewer hours, which is a worry. But she has been trying to see friends and stay in touch with everyone despite the fatigue.
Toby, Rachel and Farrah recovered better from their bouts of Covid, and Toby is working on a new contract with Pret, which sounds very demanding. They had booked an August holiday in the south of France, so will be disappointed with the announced quarantine for travellers from France and may have to cancel.
However Leila was able to spend a weekend with them last month, collecting Jacob from Stella en route (and returning him on Sunday). She slept at our house. John’s sister, Ann, husband Derek, sons Steven and David along with Steven’s wife and their two young sons were all able to drive up to Letchworth that Saturday, and despite the cool weather enjoyed a great day together, with lots of hide and seek, gossip, games and feasting. We were sad to miss this family gathering, as it is such a long time since we saw everyone. But, as we read news of family and friends who have been so ill during this period, we really can’t grumble.
So we really hope it will not be too long before we are all able to meet up again. A bientôt!
This is an update to the earlier post here describing the discovery Our unexpected kestrel visitors
The first two eggs hatched on 9 July. Unfortunately one of the first two chicks died.
The third and fourth eggs hatched on 10 July.
There are now two live video feeds and daily videos and photographs on this unexpected kestrel visitors web site
I have added two cameras, a TP-Link Tapo C100 in a box on the window sill and a motorised pan-and-tilt Tapo C200 above the nest. The original Logitech C270 is also above the nest pointing out of the window.
The kestrel seemed very suspicious of the constant red LEDs on the cameras so they have been turned off. I am not using the IR night mode either. The noise of the motors pan-and-tilt control of the Tapo C200 also seriously disturbed the kestrel.
I am feeding the Tapo camera feeds to Agent DVR software to control the timelapse photographs and videos and OBS Studio to control the live video Tapo feeds to YouTube. The YouTube which are then embedded in the website. The software is all running on my Win10 PC. I originally used a Raspberry Pi 4 for Agent DVR (after a lot of problems installing the software) but there were problems with the required graphics processing capabilities causing dropped frames.
The photographs and videos web site
Helen noticed little bits of polystyrene floating down one day when she was outside watering plants at the front of the house. I just thought a bird had found a bit of insulation.
In the meantime I’d seen a kestrel flying around, having not remembered seeing any here in the past.
Then I remembered the polystyrene sheet I’d put behind the attic window to stop the crepi from being sprayed in when we had the outside walls redone. I went up to the attic, removed the wood which was holding the polystyrene sheet to the wall and saw a hole in the sheet and, through it, four eggs. A day or so later and Helen said she’d seen a bird with a white underside and fawn colouring flying out early one morning when she was gardening in the potager and then I saw the same a bit later when mowing. I’d not previously identified the eggs but on further internet checking I could now confirm that they probably were kestel eggs. I’d originally put a tripod near the compost heap in the hope of photographing the bird later in the day when it was cooler. I’d already told my sister I probably needed a tennis umpire’s chair to get high enough to see in to all of it properly.
Then, with no Euro football yesterday afternoon and too hot to do anything else outside, I wondered about setting up a camera to see if there was more than just the eggs. I didn’t think it was going to be possible to use my Neos webcam. But I wondered whether I could do something with my my old Samsung NC10 netbook? That originally had WinXP and we used it mainly for e-mails and web searching when travelling. But the hard disk died and when I replaced the disk I no longer had a copy of WinXP so installed Linux Mint. Again, that meant the NC10 was OK for use when travelling. But setting up a camera system was going to be a challenge as I’d no knowledge of what was available. I had a spare Logitech C270 webcam which I hoped I could use despite there not being any Linux drivers. So I spent an hour or more experimenting with download Linux camera programs just to see what might be possible. I’d originally thought of just trying to put up single image or possibly a video feed but then they would also need archive copies otherwise any activity might be missed. Then I though it might be better just to capture multiple images and either put them on a web site or combine them into a video. One of the camera programs I looked at had the ability to write files with different names which could be timestamps. I opted for one image per minute. So then it was a matter of automating the process. Not something I’d done before in Linux and it was a bit of a struggle as the process stopped running when the screensaver started. I didn’t manage to find the correct power setting and eventually just turned off the screensaver!
I ran a power cable to the far end of the attic so I could put the NC10 near to the window. I also decided to put the webcam in a box but didn’t have anything to hand except for one litre ice cream tubs. So I made a hole in one side, just big enough for the camera lens and fixed the C270 in the box, and then made another hole for the lead out. I’d not looked through to see if there was more than eggs on the other side for a couple of days (and hoped they’d not been found by the stone marten which had played havoc with a neighbour’s chickens). The polystyrene was partially fixed by the crepi but I managed to put the box through a slight gap on the far side from the eggs, hoping I’d positioned it reasonably. I’d not checked before doing all the set-up, but the Wi-Fi signal was good enough to be able to connect the NC10 to our network and to be able to copy and process the image files on my computer.
About 30 mins later a bird appeared. So it confirmed we have kestrel guests, even though there is only one at a time visiting.
The programs all ran until midnight. Then, I’m not sure why, but there was a file-naming problem and the files were no longer in the expected directory. I eventually found them (and later renamed them and put them in the correct directory). I also simplified the filenames to the minimum, so hopefully that problem is solved? Converting the one-per-minute images into an AVI video wasn’t too much of a problem but I had to experiment with various settings to get reasonable file sizes.
I’ve now put some still images and the first video on a web site