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

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

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

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

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

ten days before leaving

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

juvenile kestrels two days before leaving

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

Juvenile kestrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks, floods and feathers: life in Entre-deux-Eaux, April – mid-July 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text and
some will lead to larger selections of photographs.
There are also these links to other recent photographs
Flora and fauna around the farmhouse May-June 2021
and
Frosty fritillaries

When we opened our front door at 10.10 pm on July 13 (and for those of you unfamiliar with it, our front door is not a grand plastic-panelled affair, but an old barn door of bare planks with gaps, tarted up with a knocker and lock), we could hear the thumping music from the village. We put on warm clothes and stout shoes and headed down the darkening road, through puddles where the stream and drains had overflowed. The 4 metre-wide lane looping up to the Duhaut and Vozelle farmhouses had been turned into a two-way Entre-deux-Eaux by-pass, with official yellow deviation signs, and to emphasize the yellow warnings of a road block 500 metres ahead, vehicles were parked across the road, barricading the village centre. “Not too good for emergency vehicle access”, John remarked.

It was the eve of Bastille Day, and the car park and road round the village shop-cum-bar had been taken over by crowded benches and trestles for feasting and games. By this time, the bouncy castle had been deflated to a flat skin across the road ready to be folded away, and people were shuffling towards the edge of the field. It seemed miraculous that the heavy rain had paused at just the right time for a village celebration culminating in fireworks. John set up his tripod by the field, and we watched shadows moving behind their torches, doing last minute checks on the fireworks.

an E2E firework

And then there was a five minute riot of colour and falling stars as multiple rockets were launched and burst and then abruptly ceased. The figures behind the torches moved up to inspect the launch site close-up and check that all the fireworks were spent, as we muttered, “we might need those emergency vehicles”. Many of us started to drift towards our homes or parked cars, exchanging greetings and answering queries about still being here despite or because of Brexit and Covid. However the music, so presumably celebrations, continued well after midnight, when we turned off our bedside lights.

This was the first village knees-up for a long time. Last year’s fireworks had been cancelled, the oldies had not met for cake-and-champagne for many months, there had been no New Year champagne and nibbles or communal oldies lunch. So despite the damp, cool evening, everyone was making the most of it. With school term ended, the children could stay up late and the summer holidays had a cracking start. The following evening we watched some of neighbouring St Leonard’s fireworks. But by then the rain had returned, so we were glad to be warm and dry indoors, watching at a distance through windows. And what colourful puffballs lit up the sky and cascaded stars.

Like Boris, Macron had been anxious to relax restrictions in time for the electorate to rush lemming-like towards the south and fondly remembered holiday sunshine. However, on the day that the ever-optimistic Boris was expected to announce, despite others’ caution over increasing cases, that masks would not be compulsory, the more prudent Macron was forced by a similar increase and the low uptake of vaccines (including, worryingly, among health care professionals) to announce that vaccination would be compulsory from September for nursing and non-nursing staff, carers and aids, that certificates proving vaccination would be compulsory in bars, restaurants and on trains from August, and that free PCR tests (which the French were tending to use instead of vaccination) would no longer be free in autumn. The next day there was a mad rush to book vaccination appointments for everyone over 12, though 12-17 year olds have since been exempted from the vaccination pass entrance requirements as it became obvious it would cause problems for parents. Meanwhile we have been waiting for Boris to relax the quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Brits abroad returning to the UK. But the British government has just announced that, although France will remain on the orange list, quarantine and testing will still apply to the fully vaccinated, due to concerns over the low AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy against the beta/South African variant.

The Sainte Marguerite pensioners were feeling more optimistic, and e-mailed start dates for their activities, – not until September because of the sacred two-month holiday period (when they might need to look after grand children). The physical exercise group will all have to arrive fully kitted out (so no changing-room gossip) and with their own mats and to disperse immediately afterwards without lingering indoor chats, and the mental exercise group met to plan their autumn campaign. Helen went along to the planning meeting of the latter, where the first mental exercise was to work out how to get into the meeting room. A passing community policeman solved the problem by blowing on the swipe card, and then it worked! Once inside, half the group of six wore masks and the remaining three did not. Interesting. And why could they sit and chat, but not the gymnasts? An hour and a half was spent catching up on gossip, ten minutes on planning, and a quarter of an hour on word and number exercises similar to Countdown (known here as Des chiffres et des mots). Let’s hope the programme does not get cancelled by the predicted post-holiday Covid increase.

On a rare sunny day, we started to think about a short break in an area of France that we don’t know and bought the Michelin guide to Limousin and Berry with the area round Bourges in mind. However, with wet weather, apart from the lucky break on Bastille Eve, the idea of trailing round in the rain has not been so appealing. Near Bourges are the areas that Alain Fournier and George Sand wrote about, so Helen is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes, and is surprised how similar its pre-1914 village school sounds to the Entre-deux-Eaux school in the 1970s/80s, as recalled by the widow of the former school master. George Sand’s La Mare au Diable should be delivered shortly. Maybe the weather will improve and it will not be just armchair travel.

Looking back, the wet weather started a day or two after we had set up the watering system, got out the garden swing-seat and teak benches from their winter storage, and taken delivery of a large garden parasol. But at least we have not faced the severe flooding experienced earlier by flatter parts of the Grand Est, like Reims, or the present appalling floods across the border in Germany and Belgium. Our barn has only needed sweeping and drying out once. And after we cleared the drainage channel of mud, removed the bucket in the drain (to catch the mud) which was hindering rapid outflow, and put two rows of bricks in front of the gap at the bottom of the barn doors, we have had no further problems (fingers crossed). The difficulty has been finding a dry time for cutting the verdant grass and uprooting the luxuriant weeds.

A kestrel’s eye view of the fruit cage and potager

And talking of the garden, the rebuilt fruit cage is doing well, with its new netting and weed-reducing ground cover. It is remarkably sturdy. Helen got a tour of next-door’s new hen-house when she dropped round to get the details of their netting supplier. Theirs is an extensive, but less rugged, construction with indoor and outdoor areas to keep the hens safe by day as well as night from the marauding foxes, martens and buzzards which exterminated the previous hens. It sounds as if it has been restocked now. Our cage currently has a good crop of blueberries and raspberries. In other shady areas we have had more wild strawberries than ever before. Helen was crouching down picking them one day when a white van drew up, so, still clutching the bowl of tiny berries, she went to collect the Amazon parcel. “Are they for me?” the driver asked cheekily. But when offered some, he was most suspicious of these tiny unknown things, asking where they were from and whether he should wash them. In the vegetable beds, the peas, broad beans and lettuce have all flourished in the rain, the carrots thinnings are tasty, and the squash and courgettes are very leafy.

Deer by the orchard

The fauna has also flourished, with monster snails, fat slugs and slow-worms in the compost heap. Visiting deer (orchard) and a great-spotted woodpecker (balcony bird feeder) are more welcome sights. However, the vole population must be much reduced thanks to the presence of kestrels and their young in our attic window niche high above the vegetable patch. The kestrel saga, which many of you have been following through John’s daily photos and videos, began when Helen remarked idly on the quantity of polystyrene fragments floating down from above the farmhouse front door (this one a proper, panelled but peeling blue-painted wooden door). John went up to the attic and opened the low door through to the storage end, and discovered a round hole in the sheet of polystyrene blocking the small window opening (against messy owls, stone martens and from when the outside walls were sprayed in crépi).

Kestrel eggs

And four brown speckled eggs lay on the deep window recess. He researched and observed and decided it was a kestrel nest (well, hardly a nest as there was no straw or twigs, but just the bare ledge and bits of pecked polystyrene). He installed a camera linked to his computer (details below on the website), which he modified and tweaked, and is obtaining fascinating pictures.

It seemed a long wait before any sign of cracking or hatching and John fretted that they were getting too cold when the mother flew off for quite long periods. However on the twenty-fifth day of recording, July 9, his patience (and anxiety) was rewarded with the appearance of two baby chicks, one of whom was quite perky for a newborn, while the other seemed increasingly limp. Since July 2 we had not seen the male, who had previously visited occasionally and briefly, so hunger drove the female to leave the newborn chicks in the late afternoon in search of voles or lizards. When she returned we could see her prodding and shaking the inert body of her second hatched. Eventually she gave up and very practically began to consume it and feed bits (probably regurgitated) to her vociferous first born. The next day, July 10, the remaining two chicks hatched.

A surprise. The cock appears for the first time since 2 July

On the eve of Bastille, there was an excited yell from the attic as John had seen the male delivering a dead vole on the live video feed on his computer screen. Where had the cock been for the previous eleven days? Did they have a store-cupboard nearby that he had been stocking? There was an acrimonious incident with loud recriminations when he was about to take away his dead vole offering, as the female was still feeding another corpse to her fluffy white offspring.

kestrel chicks 17 July

John has toyed with the idea of inserting a wooden ridge across the front of the sill to prevent the balls of fluff from rolling or hopping off before they can fly, but decided it was cause too much alarm. You can see all the pictures and videos at https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/ During this time our TV screen has been showing an interesting mix of the live kestrel video feed (Chromecast), Wimbledon matches. European cup football and catch-up crime series (Line of Duty and Fargo).

Helen also watched quite a few matches from the French Open Tennis. Most games were played in front of very small audiences, but in the last week, more people were allowed to watch. However there was still an 11pm curfew. So there had to be a 10.30pm break to allow spectators to leave without disturbing players. But they got very involved in the exciting semi-final match between Nadal and Djokovic, and it seemed most unlikely that they would leave willingly. At the last minute, the French PM who was watching on TV phoned through permission for the spectators to stay on without incurring curfew penalties. Riots avoided! But how annoying for those with longer journeys who had left a bit earlier.

In case you are wondering if we still have books piled on the floor, following the problems with the underfloor heating that we mentioned in the last newsletter, the shelves are back in position and the books returned to them. It turned out the expansion chamber the plumber had replaced wasn’t working. It is a cylinder with rubber across the middle. The top fills with water and pushes the rubber down into the other half as it expands. The plumber had assumed the new cylinder was OK and thought there must be a leak in the underfloor pipe rather than a problem with his handiwork. The leak only required about 150ml of water to top up the system each day. John eventually noticed a drop from a valve at the back of the boiler. The drip, from the increased pressure, was slow enough that the water had evaporated so not been noticed. The plumber finally agreed the cylinder rubber must have had a hole, so all the cylinder had filled and there was no pressure relief (the same problem as the old chamber), so he replaced the replacement expansion chamber.

In fact there are more books on the shelves now as John and his sister between them ordered all the books on Helen’s Amazon list for her birthday. But buying anything from the UK since Brexit can be a problem as there are often import duties and additional customs clearance charges. (Amazon UK ensures all those charges are paid on ordering if the goods are those Amazon fulfils, but not necessarily those from the Marketplace.) There can also be problems with parcels disappearing after they reach France. Two of the book parcels went missing as well as some Vanish soap, which is not available in France. Being Amazon, refunds weren’t a problem and replacements arrived safely. Interestingly, John ordered a newly-published UK book from Amazon FR and, although the tracking showed it was sent from the UK, it was cheaper than a copy from Amazon UK delivered to a UK address would have been, despite the usual UK book discounts and the price maintenance on books in France. He also discovered that he could buy more Yorkshire tea from Amazon FR and 100% pomegranate juice from Amazon DE.

The pomegranate juice was an essential ingredient for John to cook Chicken Ottolenghi, a particular favourite, for Helen’s birthday dinner. It is one of the things we usually buy on visits to the UK. Only later did we discover just a couple of bottles in amongst all the 30% bottles in the Turkish shop in Saint Dié opposite the garden centre (where we had been looking for non-leaky Wellington boots for John).

old sapin qui pisse Raon-L’Etape post card

Before John started to prepare the chicken dish, the sun came out and we had a very pleasant walk along a shady forest track on part of the Kemberg massif we had not walked before. We followed an intriguing sign to Le sapin qui pisse. This turned out to be a fountain, which at an earlier date must have emerged for a pine tree that has since disappeared. They seem to have been popular forest features, and research revealed there is a better one near Raon l’Etape, which might make another interesting walk. After that, the chicken with its pomegranate juice flavouring was delicious, as was the coffee birthday cake indulgence.

Imprimerie – cuttlefish with carrot and citrus puree

We had continued with our Saturday evening set-menu dinners deliveries from l’Imprimerie, although most of the courses were less interesting, though larger, than those of his surprise menus at the restaurant. So we were pleased when restaurants were allowed to re-open in June and celebrated with lunch at l’Imprimerie on their first day, and enjoyed the more adventurous surprises, like the mushroom chawanmushi. They were hoping that in the evening they would get everyone served, replete and out before the 11 o’clock curfew, a pressure to which they were unaccustomed. The evening curfew ended on June 20, which was probably a relief for all restaurants. As well as worrying about the evening constraints, the waiter was having difficulty telling us about the wine, as he could not read the label on the back of the bottle; he confided that he now has glasses for reading but they steam up when he’s wearing his detested mask (an only too familiar problem!) so he’s not wearing them (glasses, not masks) at work. We, however, wallowed in the feeling of normal life, despite the masks.

Restaurants were only allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, with compulsory masks when not seated and no more than 6 at a table, so we were surprised that all the tables were in use at l’Imprimerie. However they are very well spaced, and it would previously have been possible to fit more tables in than they have. (They can only seat about 24 at the moment). A party of seven had obediently been accommodated on two well-distanced tables (though this meant there was noisy shouting between tables).

Chez Guth – glace de sapin

However, the 50% capacity rule was observed at Chez Guth, where we went the following week, taking a long detour as the usual road was closed (more yellow diversion signs). On arrival at the hillside chalet restaurant, we received a very warm welcome. They pride themselves on their foraged and seasonal ingredients, so were disconcerted (not to mention initially disbelieving) when John commented that it was still their old October menu on their website. So Madame checked and rang their website contact to complain bitterly as we chatted to chef at the end.

Frankenbourg – potato and broccoli balls

And the following week we ate at Toby’s favourite, the Frankenbourg, and toasted absent family and friends with whom we have enjoyed meals there over many years. The wine waiter/sommelier, who seemed a mere slip of a lad when we first went well over 20 years ago, has, like other male staff, got a little portly during lockdown, but the three wines he selected to accompany the meal were excellent (and he knows all about the wines, so has no problems trying to read labels!). Helen particularly liked the raspberry and pistachio dessert.

We enjoyed the drives almost as much as the meals, after having been restricted for so long in how far we could drive without a permitted reason. Before the deconfinement, the only longer drive had been to Epinal at the end of April to complete our post-Brexit residence permit applications at the Departmental Prefecture, which we decided was permitted as “administrative summons”. As we had produced all the required documentation for our previous permits, this trip merely involved queueing outside the Prefecture until being escorted to the relevant desks by a masked man with a list of appointments. There it was only a matter of handing over 2 recent photos and having fingerprints taken. It was a shame that no bars or coffee shops were open afterwards, but at least the Prefecture loos were available, before we drove back to wait a month or so for our permits to be posted. And we now have our new cards.

Some of you may remember they finally put a fibre internet connection into the village in 2018. But we are still over 700m from that junction box and still connected by copper wire. It allowed our internet connection speed to go from 2Mbps download to 18Mbps but upload still remained less than 1Mbps. In May John did some checking and discovered other internet providers were offering higher speeds so decided to switch. We now have a modern Livebox modem to replace the eight-year old modem and a 38/10Mbps connection, at a lower monthly cost. And, hopefully, in a couple of years we’ll have fibre to the house.

As we thus idle away the hours in Entre-deux-Eaux, the UK family news has been mixed. The Covid that Leila caught back in March has been acknowledged, after much physical fatigue and brain fog, to be long Covid, and in August she will have a telephone assessment by a nurse from the long Covid clinic. Occupational Health have suggested reducing her working hours further, possibly until Christmas, but at present there do not seem to be arrangements in place for the City Council to continue to pay full salaries to long Covid sufferers working fewer hours, which is a worry. But she has been trying to see friends and stay in touch with everyone despite the fatigue.

Toby, Rachel and Farrah recovered better from their bouts of Covid, and Toby is working on a new contract with Pret, which sounds very demanding. They had booked an August holiday in the south of France, so will be disappointed with the announced quarantine for travellers from France and may have to cancel.

However Leila was able to spend a weekend with them last month, collecting Jacob from Stella en route (and returning him on Sunday). She slept at our house. John’s sister, Ann, husband Derek, sons Steven and David along with Steven’s wife and their two young sons were all able to drive up to Letchworth that Saturday, and despite the cool weather enjoyed a great day together, with lots of hide and seek, gossip, games and feasting. We were sad to miss this family gathering, as it is such a long time since we saw everyone. But, as we read news of family and friends who have been so ill during this period, we really can’t grumble.

So we really hope it will not be too long before we are all able to meet up again. A bientôt!

From scarlet hips to white damson blossom: Christmas 2020 to Easter 2021 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no1A.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are some links to photographs in the text;
clicking on the photographs will sometimes lead to
a larger selection of photographs

E2E in January snow

E2E in January snow

Over the last week of frosty nights and sunny days we have been enjoying the sight of white damson blossom and pink ornamental plum blossom. Looking out of the window this morning, it was impossible to distinguish the damson blossom from the white snow resting on the branches of all the trees.

In previous years we would have seen more blossom. But one of the casualties of the heavier snow back in January was our large walk-in fruit cage, which John and Alistair had constructed in 2011.

Snow on the fruit cage

The snow on top of it froze and its weight caused the horizontal wooden laths across the top to break and the netting to sag and split, bringing down the netting, wood, and snow onto the blackcurrant bushes. So when the weather was finer we knew we had to dismantle the whole cage for a complete rebuild. For the past few years the fruit crops have been steadily diminishing as the branches of the row of trees (some probably over 50 years old) outside the south of the cage got denser and blocked out more and more sunlight. Now was the ideal opportunity to either prune or fell those trees; we had hesitated to even prune previously lest cut branches fell on the cage and damaged it.

Cutting down the plum tree

Cutting down the plum tree

But now a neighbour, Jacky Georgeon, who we consulted, said straight away that he’d be happy to do the work, having done all the home-decorating he could, and he arrived with his tools a couple of days later. John was to be seen at a safe distance in the field with a rope round his waist from the biggest tree, guiding its fall as Jacky applied the final cuts to the 50 cm trunk. The tree subsided in slow motion, but still too fast for Helen to capture with her phone camera. Georgeon’s pal, Mickael, the assistant commune employee, brought his tractor-driven log splitter to do the final cutting up into lengths to stack for three or more years before they can be cut to smaller logs for the stove. With Mickael paid, and Jacky warmly thanked with whisky and a share of the wood, John busied himself, stacking the lengths and producing three cubic metres of wood chips for the garden from the many smaller branches. But alas, no line of pink and white blossom there this year.

However, the logs will come in useful once they are seasoned. The day after we told Jacky that we did not need to light our wood-burning stove very often, we realised that the underfloor heating was not working. Having learned how necessary it was to have an introduction to workmen, we quoted our friends Roger and Dorinda when ringing Fafin the Plumber, and such was the magic of their names that he came round a couple of hours later to assess the problem and later installed a new expansion tank. He was a bit concerned that he could hear too much air in the pipes and suggested we should leave a valve open upstairs for five days and top up the system to see if that improved the situation. All the controls are behind a bookcase, so we removed all the books from the shelves to move it. Only then did John notice that he had on the last occasion fitted some wheels to the bottom of the shelves, so we could move the bookcase out without having to remove all the books first! The books remain on the floor as, although the heating is working, there seems to be no sign of a leak and there is probably another, as yet, unidentified problem.

SantaAnd now a quick glimpse back at Christmas, which seems a long time ago. We picked all the scarlet hips in the orchard as we had no holly for decorations, along with aromatic sage, pine branches, cones, dried hydrangea flowers, and branches of spindleberry fruits and decorated windowsills and added a wreath to the front door. John treated himself to a curtain of lights for the big French windows, where they lit up the strings of Christmas cards. Christmas cards and letters were extra special to both write and receive at the end of a very quiet year for everyone, and we enjoyed leaving them up till the end of January, and the curtain of lights until the official start of spring (but then the plastic Santas climbing up house walls and letter boxes around the village hung around for just as long, slowly deflating). Christmas Day itself was quiet, the carols from Kings College were a pleasure, and the village seemed deserted when we went for a short walk, though there were plenty of cars on drives, so perhaps everyone was sleeping off their festive fare. Our own Christmas fare was a bit different this year, featuring guinea fowl, ice cream log and panettone. Our gifts to each other have kept us entertained since then. John ordered a big pile of books for Helen, and he is still experimenting on the occasional clear nights with his new motorised tripod mount used to help photographing the night sky.

Early morning sun

Early morning sun and snow

January seemed a long and dreary month, with dull weather, but as the hips and pine branches wilted and dropped, we brightened up the living room with purchases of pots of amaryllis, orchids and hyacinths. We also missed all the seasonal convivial French reunions and feasts. The Entre-deux-Eaux village council postponed their meal for the over-sixty-fives until 27 March and then had to change it from a lively gathering with music and dancing between courses, to a home delivery sometime after 2pm.

The village New Year meal delivery

Our doorbell rang around 5pm (it must have been hard to estimate how long it would take to pack up and distribute nearly 100 meals). The first items which our neighbour Claudine handed over were four half bottles of very nice wines! It was a shame not to catch up on local gossip, but John appreciated the lack of noise, especially the enthusiastic musical contribution of castanet man. We missed the mayor filling glasses at the end with his potent home-distilled pear or plum liqueur.

Sadly the subject of Covid cannot be avoided in an update. In early January Toby, Rachel and Stella all had Covid and Toby sounded very unwell. Fortunately Rachel’s eldest daughter was at home and able to help with cooking and looking after Jacob and Farrah. One Sunday afternoon in early January, Leila was contacted, like others from the Coroner’s Office, and offered a vaccination appointment if she could get to a health centre north of Nottingham in two hours time. Presumably they had spare Pfizer vaccine to use up due to missed appointments? She had unpleasant side-effects for several days, including breathlessness, but we were glad she had some protection, as not all her work could be done from home. Sadly it was not enough to protect her from a new strain of the virus, as yet unidentified, which she got in March and from which she is still very tired over four weeks later. As a rare case she will contribute to a study, beginning with a blood sample to establish antibodies produced.

But as friends in the UK were having their first vaccine doses, you probably heard about the problems over here. The EU were slow to place orders for member countries, despite rather shrill accusations from Ursula von der Leyen about Britain preventing exports. The French had been hoping to develop their own vaccine, so were a bit dismissive of other efforts. People here are also more hesitant about vaccines in general after previous cautions (from compulsory Hepatitis B for children in the 1990s which was stopped as there was apparent, never proved, correlation with multiple sclerosis and one of the 2009 H1N1 bird flu vaccines which was linked to narcolepsy) and President Macron made negative pronouncements about the efficacy of the Oxford AstraZeneca one, which did not help confidence.

When the programme was extended from care homes to over 75s in February, Helen tackled the clunky booking system. The website always said there were no available appointments, but advised ringing up instead. The phone answer system always said there were no appointments available, but try the website. Then one morning the phone had no such message, but kept playing the same bit of music for 20 mins until someone replied, and efficiently booked Helen’s appointments for both the first and second doses.

In March, the vaccination programme was extended to the 65-74 age group who had co-morbidities. Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines, which were originally reserved for the under 65s, then allowed for all, and then reserved only for the over 55s, were distributed to doctors’ surgeries. Given the problems with the main online vaccination system, and despite not being eligible, John put in a request to our doctor to be added to his list for the time when the eligibility list was widened. Surprisingly, John was offered an end-of-day appointment a week or so later. Unfortunately, like other EU countries, France then suspended the AZ vaccine use over a period that included John’s appointment.

Meanwhile, Helen had her second dose in a hall behind the Town Hall in St Dié. The nurse there was talking about the forthcoming move to a much larger sports hall on the outskirts of St Dié where they would also have more doctors and nurses and be able to double the vaccination rate. At this point as Covid cases were mounting in France, hospitals were having to transfer patients to other parts of the country, vaccine distribution volumes increased with the addition of the Moderna vaccine. One Friday the booking phone line was again answered, and John was offered his first appointment three days later on the Monday in the new location together with a date a month later for the second.

The new vaccination centre

The new vaccination centre (spot John)

That Monday turned out to be the first day in the new hall, so was a bit chaotic with patients not sitting in any order and doctors having difficulty locating their victims for preliminary interviews (though the nurses of course got their clients organised and sitting in treatment order for the actual vaccinations). Complicating matters were the inevitable mayor, entourage, reporters and photographers necessary on such occasions. We appear in some publicity photos, or at least our legs do. John was expecting it to be the Moderna vaccine but it turned out to be Pfizer.

A day after that, Macron announced a third French lockdown. So as Radio 4 broadcasts interviews with people excited over the easing of English restrictions, we embark on increased French restrictions (somewhat farcically, the form went through several revisions in a few days as various anomalies and simplifications were made). However, despite being more than 30 km away, we will still be able to go to Epinal later in April to complete our post-Brexit residence permits applications, giving photographs and fingerprints, if we tick the box on the reasons-for-leaving-home form marked administrative summons which cannot be carried out remotely.

We were very sad to learn during this period of the death of our good neighbour, Danielle Laine in her care home from what sounds like a heart attack. Our neighbour Danielle Barbe, who had visited her very recently, rang us that lunch time, and we realized why the church bells had been tolling. They tolled again a few days later for her funeral in the village church. We stood outside in masks as her coffin was borne in. There were quite a few people outside, mainly younger, and they all followed the coffin inside, although we went and sat on the bench under the tree by the road. A lot of the older people who would have known her well were not there though. On the way home Helen stopped to talk to one who was standing on her doorstep as the final bells tolled, and she sounded really glad to talk to someone. She lives on her own and has used canes to walk ever since we’ve known her, and was a good friend of Danielle’s. She said how few people in the village she knew these days. We shall remember Danielle for her lively conversation and readiness to help us during the last thirty years, although we know she had found life increasingly burdensome without her husband Pierre who died in September 2019. Their daughter Annick has been renovating her parents’ house, though we don’t think that she and her husband have moved in yet. The village bells also tolled for another village character, the ninety-year-old former military man, Gaston. Again it was not a Covid death and his mistress and her husband had been looking after him over recent months (which sounds very French).

However, it turns out that Covid is not the only current health threat. A few days ago we received an e-mail from the mairie which was headed Chenilles urticantes: prévention. It was a warning from the Regional Health Council of the Grand Est (oddly without any identifying images) about these nasty-sounding processionary caterpillars, which nest in pine and oak trees and descend and process in lines of up to a hundred in search of sunnier spots. Their hairs can be picked up and spread by the wind, and can cause intense itching, rashes, and sharp skin flare-ups. They can also irritate eyes.

A few days ago when John came in from the field and orchard where he had been leaning on the ground photographing fritillaries, daffodils and cowslips he complained of very itchy arms, but hadn’t seen any hairy processions. And talking of itching, Helen is hoping that whatever insect bit her last year has met a dreadful fate after she was covered in infected spots which caused her problems throughout the summer, autumn visits to the dermatologist and a dull rash that still itches.

But during the dormant period none of this deterred us from agreeable short walks in January and February and garden jobs in March. The compacted snow was quite treacherous on well trodden paths and the roads, but when the sun was bright, despite the cold wind in the sub zero temperatures, it was enjoyable walking across untrampled fields and along little-used paths. One morning three graceful deer skimmed across the snow as we glanced out of our bedroom window, and when we walked across that field their tracks were clear among the bird tracks.

Sahara sand in the sky

Sahara sand in the sky

Rainbow

the rainbow’s end

Another day the sky was an extraordinary yellow colour, caused by sand from the Sahara, and one afternoon, after rain, we could see from the window a rainbow which ended in the field opposite. But we did not take our spades and dig up the crock of gold.

One morning we drove a bit further afield to the hills on the other side of Saulcy, and started our walk at the Col d’Anozel. It felt good to be walking in the wooded hills beyond the village, but we discovered that a lot of trees had fallen during recent high winds, including the previous night.

Path blocked by trees

Someone had been earlier with a chain saw and the lower path had been cleared, but a higher path still had a lot of trees across it, which made scrambling over under and round them awkward, and we missed a track down to the starting point, so the walk was longer and steeper than intended! On a second walk at the Col d’Anozel we discovered that someone had left their picnic rubbish behind them – oyster shells and squeezed lemon halves. So very French!

Easter amuse bouche

Easter amuse bouche

And talking of French food, a great pleasure has been the discovery that our favourite restaurant, l’Imprimerie, is prepared to deliver their weekend menu as far as Entre-deux-Eaux from the book village some 47 km away. Each weekend chef Morgan and his staff prepare a three-course meal for a mere 20 euros, transport included, to be re-heated on delivery. So we have put in a weekly order, and after months of wearing old clothes have been dressing up for Saturday night dinner (Sunday over Easter). The menus have been very varied, highlights being his courgette and fish starter, Tom kha kai Thai chicken soup, buttery skate, beef cheek tagine, pear and almond tartlette, and his Easter special including the starter of St Jacques and sweet potato with an orange and almond sauce and his “Easter egg” dessert of a white chocolate “shell” with creamy “white” and kumquat “yolk”, not to mention the tasty nibbles before and after.

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

We were ready for our Easter special as we had been rushing to complete current tasks before the forecast change in weather from sun to snow and rain. John had been reconstructing and strengthening the collapsed fruit cage and had just finished attaching metal rails rather than wooden laths across the top of the sturdy upright wooden posts. Helen had finished weeding the larger flower bed, scattering flower seeds, watering and covering with some of the woodchips. The vegetable patch was, by now, rotavated, with beds marked out and paths between beds covered in more of the woodchips. So far onion, leek, parsnip and carrot seeds have been sown in the beds, with lettuce and rocket in the new lightweight cold frame (in fact it was so lightweight that it blew apart and scattered in high winds one night, but John has re-glued and weighted it down). In the potting area at the rear of a barn are loo rolls of broad bean seedlings, and recycled plastic punnets of onion and various flower seeds; not yet visible are the more recently sown beans and peas. But they will all wait till the ice saints of May have passed before being planted out. And when the fruit cage has its netting back on, we have pots of honeyberries (lonicera caerulea), blueberries and a tayberry to plant as replacements for the old blackcurrants and prickly worcesterberries.

Hot cross buns

It is perhaps as well that snow and rain have temporarily stopped outdoor work, as one of John’s Achilles tendons has reacted (perhaps to a lot of standing on step ladders) by giving up supporting him. So it is back to the computers in the attic and John’s family tree, Helen’s dwindling pile of Christmas books, evenings of crime and football on TV and the last of the Easter chocolate. Our other festive treats of John’s home-made hot cross buns have, alas already been consumed.

Till we meet again, we waft our best wishes in print across the Channel!

Lying low in Entre-deux-Eaux, February – August 2020

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2020no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)

Clicking on the photographs in the text will usually lead to
a larger selection of photographs or a panorama;
there are links to more at the end

We have been reminded that there has been no newsletter since the end of January, but, as you can imagine, that is only because there has been no news apart from the universal Covid-19 and little of everyday interest to share. But for anyone with time on their hands, here are a few scenes from over the Channel.

The February fill-dyke, behaved to form with heavy rain, high winds and power cuts. Shortly before we left for February half-term in the UK, the rain water was dangerously close to overflowing the ditch on the opposite side of the road which had led, a couple of years ago, to our barn flooding with muddy water while we were away. Fortunately this time the mayor took our phone call seriously and after a wild, windy, wet night the two commune employees arrived with a huge digger and a truck for carting away the mud and dead leaves. Perhaps the forthcoming local elections had something to do with the speed of response! However since then Mayor Duhaut has obviously been alerted to the fact that as the Brits are no longer European citizens, we have lost our vote in local and regional elections. (In fact, having left the UK over fifteen years ago, we have no vote anywhere for anything now, which feels irresponsible). Storms were then forecast over northern France for the Channel crossing we had booked, so we loaded the car set out, stayed the night an hour from Calais, and caught an earlier boat. We were glad we’d made the early crossing when the staff started putting out piles of sick bags ready for the anticipated rough crossings later in the day!

Letchworth archives

Letchworth archives

We enjoyed our couple of weeks in Letchworth and catching up with the family. At the time it felt as if we did not do a lot, given the poor weather, but with hindsight after the cessation of activity, it was pretty busy! We went on a tour of the Letchworth Archives, which have interesting objects, furniture, documents and plans from the early twentieth century and the founding of the Garden City.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt – Old Man shading his Eyes with his Hand c 1639

And another day there was an interesting exhibition of, mostly new to us, Rembrandt prints in the neighbouring small market town (lent by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), which brought back happy memories of our holiday in Amsterdam in 2019. We also stocked up on books from the excellent Oxfam in Saffron Walden (appreciated in the quiet months ahead) and bought a Lutyens style garden bench in the market (which sadly we haven’t been back to enjoy). We were delighted to have Jessica and Mark staying for a few days, and grateful to spend precious time with Mark before his death in March, and it was good to stay with Ann and Derek on our way back to Dover.

We had very few border checks, although the outside of the car was checked for something, perhaps drugs, at Dover. Back in E2E a few roof tiles had blown off and we woke to snow next morning. Despite a lack of a personal introduction from another villager, we eventually managed to contact a roofer and assistant from Saulcy, with ladders longer than ours, to replace the tiles.

At the end of February John had an appointment in the ORL department of St Dié Hospital. Usually one can just rearrange the letters to the more familiar English ones, but ORL (Oto-Rhino-Laryngologie) does not reform handily to ENT. Many of the hospital consultants in this part of France now seem to be from Romania and other east European countries, and this was no exception. John explained to her that he had initially fared well with the hearing aids he had tried out in the UK before Christmas until one side seemed to keep cutting out. Her examination revealed that he had a perforated drum, which needed to heal before any further action was taken, but meanwhile he had a thorough hearing test.

John was meant to return after a couple of months, but of course that was delayed by Covid. How the hospital had changed by mid July when he finally returned. The registration hall which is normally thronging with patients checking in was almost deserted, apart from staff manning tables by the door to enforce hand gel, the corridors were quiet, and the waiting room had only one other person waiting. A few weeks earlier Madame Laine had reported long, spaced queues outside the main door. The verdict? The ear is healing well. Hearing test slightly better. Come back in six months when the scarring is complete.

February ended stormily on 29th, with rain lashing against the window and the power cutting out at 15h, mid-ironing. At 17h when, according to their web site, EDF had expected have to fixed it, it was still off in a large area around us, and 18.30 restoration was predicted for most places but by 21h for our end of E2E. We boiled up water on the gas for tea, and brought up wood for the stove together with the old church candles we used back in 1999 when the roof blew off and we had several days without electricity and heating. John prepared a stir fry to cook quickly, we pulled down the blinds (as the shutters are electrically operated), opened a good bottle of wine and played patience by candlelight. After just over six hours power returned (and we eventually received 12€ compensation on our next electricity bill).

March was launched with Roger and Dorinda’s surprise arrival to stay in one of the gîtes two doors from their old house on the hill above Anould. So we enjoyed tea and patisseries with them and planned a restaurant trip together. When we heard nothing from them later in the week, after more wind and power cuts, we joked that they must have gone home. And indeed they had got fed up with all the rain and were concerned about the virus in crowded places and had set out for home.

So we decided to brave the outside world and lunch in the book village at L’Imprimerie, just the two of us. We ate at the counter, so watched the second chef fastidiously decorating the amuse bouches while keeping an eye on the cabbage rolls and chicken being cooked over the open fire.

Amuse bouche: charcoal-coated spheres of liquid eel sauce
click to see more

We really enjoyed the unusual food combinations (who would believe that charcoal-coated spheres of liquid eel juice could be so delicious, or the cabbage rolls that included chestnut with sliced truffle and apple puree, not to mention the first dessert of liquorice, beetroot and cream, and the second of saffron mousse).

“Orange was the color of her dress”
click to see more

And the regional wines were quirky, including an interesting cloudy golden Arbois wine made with an ancient white Savignin grape, named Orange was the colour of her dress, after a Charles Mingus song. As a bonus, the sun shone, which always lifts the spirits. The following week, as the threat of Covid increased, we had what we suspected might be our last meal out on Thursday 12 March at another favourite restaurant, Chez Guth, in the Alsace hills.

That very evening, President Macron broadcast to the nation, announcing the closure of schools, crèches and nurseries after the weekend, though the first round of elections could continue on Sunday; people over seventy should stay at home as much as possible, and others should work from home where possible; any closure of international borders would be decided at European level. Two days later restaurants, cinemas, cafes, nightclubs were ordered to close and by day 4 of our self-isolation Macron announced that self-certification travel certificates had to be downloaded and filled in. They allowed only a few specific reasons for a local-only journey and time of leaving home had to be stated, or fines would be issued. Schengen borders would close. Plenty of decisive clarity here as opposed to the UK.

Potager6 July 2020

click to see Potager panorama
6 July 2020

As if to compensate for home confinement, a lovely period of sunshine followed Macron’s announcement, so it was a pleasure to risk an early start to the year’s gardening. John constructed a cold frame from old bricks and windows in which we sowed lettuce, rocket and radishes. We ate the last of the curly kale, rotavated the potager and raked and marked out beds, and remembered to pick the young ramson or wild garlic leaves from a neglected corner when we wanted a garlic flavouring. Rhubarb was planted, herb beds trimmed and weeded, and fruit bushes pruned and fed with fertiliser. The vegetable plot borders our quiet dead-end road. On sunny days it felt as if half the village had decided to stroll or bike along the quiet road (probably without a downloaded certificate) to the cowsheds at the end and to stop for an animated chat as they passed each other at a safe distance. It was a good thing we had stocked up on cheap seeds during our February break in Letchworth, and could sow cheerful marigolds, candytuft and cornflowers in the tubs at the front of the house, cress indoors on windowsills, and broad beans and onions in the small, sunny potting area at the back of one of the barns. But the cold nights and the sight of fluffy snow flakes drifting past the windows like the white damson blossom behind delayed any outside vegetable sowing.

By 1 April Covid deaths in France had risen to 4,000. Paris was, of course, the worst affected, but our region of Grand Est was the next worst, largely due to infections at a very large evangelical conference in Mulhouse in Alsace (close to the airport and the German and Swiss borders) held before the dangers were realised. The Mulhouse hospital was soon full and patients were moved up to Colmar hospital and later to other hospitals across France, and the army constructed the first field hospital.

There had been TV scenes of police patrols issuing fines to walkers in mountain areas and of night time curfews in different areas. Not surprisingly we did not see any police cars out this way! We were impressed that the Mayor’s deputy rang to check that we were all right, could get out to shop and had the necessary documents to do so. The advantage of a small community! The dustbin men were uncomplaining about the twelve bags of recycling after we started weeding our filing cabinets. Expecting a possible lockdown we’d laid by enough food for a month without the need to visit a shop. Although we had been well stocked with food throughout March we really wanted some fresh fruit and vegetables. John experimented with Cora’s click-and-collect site which served us well throughout the confinement not only with food but with items like an ironing board cover, salad spinner and more broad bean seeds. Initially there seemed to be no collection times shown; in fact they’d all been taken very quickly. And it was only by constant monitoring John discovered when the rolling schedule for the three days was released.

Fritillaries 4 April 2020

Various Fritillaries
April 2020
click to see more

We are fortunate in being surrounded by fields to walk in as well as the garden and orchard. By April the daffodils and cowslips were coming to an end and there were fritillaries in one field. On Easter Sunday when Helen looked out of the window the mother of the two children in the chalet beyond us was scuttling round their garden presumably hiding their Easter eggs.

When the confinement was extended into May, the Mayor came round delivering more yellow recycling bags. We were horrified to hear that Claudine from the big house at the far end of our road had been very ill with the Coronavirus (especially as she had, shortly before lockdown, given Helen the traditional French greeting of a kiss on each cheek). The Mayor obviously anticipated us being out and about a bit more after May 11th, as towards the end of April we found four face-masks in our letterbox from the Mairie and a note thanking the volunteers who had made them. Two had pink rosebuds on the fabric and two were a sober blue and the packing said 2H, 2F, so rather sexist!

Marsh orchids and insects 5 May 2020

Marsh orchids and insects
May 2020
click to see more

In May the lilies of the valley and honeysuckle were heady with scent, the blowsy crimson peonies, clematis and marguerites added colour to the garden, while the orchids were pretty in the fields and marsh marigolds gleamed in the marshier areas. Then after the glorious weather, when we gardened most days, occasionally sitting down to actually enjoy the garden, we had strong winds and torrential rain which flattened the grass crop in the field on the other side of the road. The temperature obediently dropped on 11, 12 and 13 May, traditionally the days and nights of the French ice saints. So it was too cold to have our coffee and cake on the balcony or outside on Helen’s birthday, but the coffee cake was delicious, and fortunately John did not decorate it with the silly brown bears from a past Christmas cake that he was so pleased to have found in a drawer. As we could not go out to dinner, the chef, by special request, cooked a new (to us) Ottolenghi chicken recipe. There had indeed been the forecast easing of restrictions on 11th May in much of France, but as we were in a red area (still pressure on hospitals) as were Paris, Ile de France and … wait for it … the department of Mayotte (north of Madagascar; any newspaper Coronavirus figures for France includes cases for the S American, Caribbean, and Indian Ocean overseas departments as well as for the hexagon or France in Europe).

However we could now drive up to 100 km as the crow flies within the Département without filling in a form, the wearing of masks was obligatory on public transport and in shops that specified it. Bookshops, libraries, small museums and hairdressers could also re-open, though not restaurants. Our MoT equivalent testing centre promptly re-opened and reminded us that our re-test was overdue. After the test, we celebrated the new freedom with a drive through the very empty streets of St Dié, admiring the large wall paintings. In the last week of May schools also reopened and the gardens round us sounded strangely quiet.

Orchard - 10 July 2020

click to see Orchard panorama
10 July 2020

The weather seemed to suit the strawberries, both cultivated and wild which were plentiful this year, though sadly May’s ice saints, including St Pancras, must have attacked the plum blossom, but the other fruit blossoms escaped as we have plentiful apples and pears weighing down the orchard trees at present. The cherries seem to have been plentiful too in more sheltered areas than our ice-pocket valley, as in June the ex-mayor’s companion brought round large trays of cherries from La Soyotte, the traditional farm in Sainte Marguerite which has been preserved as a museum of everyday life. John made four jars of cherry compôte from the ones we bought, and Madame Laine made cherry clafoutis from the ones she bought (which Helen sampled it on one of her visits and was surprised by the potent rum flavour, as Danielle always used to say she did not drink, though seemed to knock back her share at village feasts).

surprised deer

Surprised deer

The wildlife has flourished with Helen watching a baby deer careering across our field as she took the washing in, then hearing a loud thump as it bounded across the road and was hit by a car that wouldn’t have seen it emerge from behind the trees. But it seemed unaffected as it bounded up the bank on the other side of the road. Maybe it was the same one John startled two or three months later as he was taking photos very near it (he was equally surprised as it leapt out).

Giant Green grasshopper

Giant Green and
other grasshoppers
click to see more

John’s photos of flowers and insects this year have been a pleasure to see. We were amused to see a grasshopper on our front door bell in June, looking as if it wanted to ring it. Less amusing were the huge snails heading purposefully across the tarmac to the new seedlings in the potager.

Finally on June 1st our Grand Est region was declared a green area. This allowed restaurants to re-open, with suitable precautions, like customers wearing masks when walking round the restaurant and staff wearing gloves and charlottes. The charlottes rather puzzled us as we could not imagine the need to wear their desserts or the potatoes, but reference to the dictionary revealed that charlottes are also bonnets, sun hats or plastic or hygiene caps.

Siaskas (fromage de Munster frais), bitter cherries marinaded in cherry kirsch, kirsch cream, meringues
click to see more

When we celebrated at L’Imprimerie one chef was bare-headed and the other had his usual cap, but everyone including the reluctant waiter were in their masks. The owner likes practising his English; we always find his English a bit difficult to follow, but it seems rude to ask for repeats, and a mask didn’t help! But he is always so friendly and likes to know what we think of dishes, especially new ones like the dessert of bitter cherries. The countryside round the book village looked so lush since we were last there three months earlier.

Concombre au vinaigre, féta, croûtons, consomme de sapin, glace pistache
click to see more

And our second lunch out a week after, back at Chez Guth in mid-June was superb. His starter of cucumber and feta was so tasty and pretty and the trout with shrimp sauce main was different from anything we’ve had there before. The cherry dessert was also delicious. We were glad to hear they they had done well during lockdown, serving up to 100 reasonably priced take-away meals (plus instructions) per day at weekends and were continuing while custom built up. The closure period seemed to have given chefs time for all kinds of creative ideas; we had the most interestingly different meal there that we have had since our first visit.

With large gatherings not permitted, the pensioners activities did not start up again after lockdown was eased, apart from the walking group. The, newly-instituted-last-year Bastille Day village fireworks were cancelled.

But Helen had a slightly longer chat than usual with a couple of younger neighbours who walk past the vegetable patch with their small dog each afternoon at the same time. After all these months of daily greetings, the wife finally ventured, “Excuse me, if it’s not indiscreet, might I ask a personal question?” Permission graciously granted, she continued, “I can’t help noticing that you have an accent. Where are you from?” If only she’d asked her next-door neighbour, Madame Laine. who loves a good gossip, she would have learnt of 30 years of our life histories in no time! But Danielle had her own big news: at the beginning of July she looked round and signed up for a room in a brand new care home in Plainfaing from September. By the end of July, her cases were packed and ready for her new life. We hope she likes it once there, as she is clearly expecting to find lively company and conversation with other residents as well as constant care.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)
19 July 2020

In mid-July John was to be found wandering round in the middle of the night with his camera, trying to find the best spot from which to get a good view of the Neowise comet. One unsuccessful early morning at 4am he drove up the hill towards Fouchifol, where he found another man packing up his equipment, who hesitantly asked if he was the Englishman. John vaguely recognised though could but place him. The man said he should have come a bit earlier before it became too light, and showed him his pictures. As we chatted next morning, we worked out that he was a well-known local photographer of wildlife. Although we occasionally see them at village functions, our main conversations in the past have been outside a museum in Colmar and with his wife at a genealogy exhibition in St Dié – and now on the deserted dark road to Fouchifol.

International Space Station

Tracking ISS overhead
and the ISS itself
click to see more

Later in July and August as well as the fauna and flora, with clear night skies he got interested in trying to photograph the International Space Station (ISS), Jupiter and its moons, Perseids meteor showers and the Milky Way (although long exposure shots were marred by satellites and the inevitable planes).

We decided that we should try out a few unfamiliar restaurants in July. These included La Grange, which the older chef at the Ducs de Lorraine elegant restaurant in Epinal had set up with his new partner in a small village, after retiring from the Ducs and divorcing his annoying, bossy, wife. Apparently they are aiming at a warm and welcoming atmosphere and good reasonable food. That seems to involve not wearing masks or other protection and not bothering too much about hand sanitiser or social distancing. His food was nothing like as good as it used to be. The walls were adorned with pink and lime green plastic fly swats which a man at an adjacent table was using with relish (and success) on the flies on his table. A cat was sitting on another table. We were not convinced by “warm” and “welcoming”.

The big excitement when we tried out Quai 21 in Colmar was that John forgot his mask, so we had to stop on the way to buy one from a pharmacy. But of course you can’t go into a pharmacy if you are not wearing a mask, and he refused to wear Helen’s rosebud one. The white ones Helen bought were lighter and less stifling to wear, so it was not a disaster. With school holidays having started everywhere and travel permitted, the cars on the main road over the pass to Colmar were mainly German and Belgian, and Colmar was packed with tourists, so not as pleasant to walk by the picturesque canals as out of season. Lunch in the quayside restaurant was carefully cooked and presented, but no exciting flavours and combinations to tempt us back.

August has been quieter. Helen had got a lot of bites (despite being smothered in repellent) in July while gardening and fruit picking and they had become infected, so she was itchy, scabby and oozing. After consultations with the GP (and linguistic discussion of the words for scab) and a dermatologist (also Romanian), she emerged for the pharmacy with a large bag of antibiotic pills, sprays, gel and cream, and after two weeks is beginning to look slightly less blotchy. Meanwhile John pulled his back, and had to cancel his physiotherapy for Achilles tendinitis. So we have been a couple of old crocks and the neglected garden has become overgrown,

Hummingbird hawk moth

Hummingbird hawk moth+videos
click to see more

Butterflies and moths

Butterflies and moths
click to see more

Nevertheless, we are working our way through beans, courgettes and raspberries and John has taken some beautiful pictures of butterflies and moths (including the fascinating humming bird hawk moths).

But there was also some human interest to be spotted in the fields around us. Last Saturday afternoon a tractor and trailer turned off the main road across the valley into the village and came to a halt in the field, which had been cut and baled by the young farmer from Taintrux.

Wedding photographs

Wedding photograph

As figures in white and black descended and posed, we realised, with the help of binoculars, that the small wedding party having photos taken in front of the tractor and trailer were the young farmer, his bride, bridesmaid and several page boys. They must have been en route from the ceremony to the reception, as various cars passed, hooting. Were they about to celebrate in the E2E village hall now that gatherings of up to thirty people are permitted (though numbers in the Mairie are restricted and social distancing, masks and hand gel compulsory there and in church). At least the wedding party did not head up our road to the large cattle shed for more photos and festivities.

So every day life continues in Entre-deux-Eaux and, as travel restrictions threaten, we are likely to remain quietly here for much of the remainder of the year. Meanwhile we send you all our greetings and hope for a time when we can meet again.

Some other panoramas around the farmhouse taken in early July
(I should have cut the grass first!)

panorama overview locations

panorama locations

West end field 
Garden swing and west garden 
Farmhouse from septic tank filter cover 
E2E potager (veg patch)
Over the potager fence and two people walking along the road
The bottom field which has gone wild
Orchard 
Arboretum 

 

 

Teddies, reindeer and Dougal: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, November – December 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no5.pdf (four A4 pages)
there are various links in the text

A festive first for Entre-deux-Eaux: the commune will be awarding a prize this Christmas for the best decorated property. As we drove through the village today (7th December) there were few signs of anyone having accepted the challenge, apart from the Salle Polyvalente and the village shop. It is possible that people are waiting until after the traditional visit of St Nicholas this evening in Saint Dié or tomorrow afternoon in E2E before turning to the more recent and tackier idea of Father Christmas, reindeer, tinsel and lights.

We were setting out for Barr Christmas market, one of Helen’s favourites, over the hills in Alsace. The week has been sunny, cold and frosty until today when it changed to damp and low cloud. So, as we crossed the Col d’Urbeis, which we had once explored looking for traces of the old German First World War supply railways, there was no snow remaining. The forests below were still an attractive mix of dark conifers with the bare reddish branches of the deciduous trees and the ground cover of copper leaves. Further on we braked on a sharp, blind, bend to avoid the parked cars of people buying their Christmas trees from a popular plantation. And as we descended further to the Rhine plain the slopes were covered with the black pruned stumps of the vineyards. In Barr, the Saturday morning street market with its vegetable, cheese and charcuterie stalls was doing a brisker trade than the indoor Christmas markets.

mangy fox

mangy fox

And when we fancied a coffee and pushed our way through the red velvet curtains warding off draughts from the door of a crowded bar, the two older ladies serving wine, beer and coffee sounded harassed. The ambiance was traditional Alsatian with red-and-white tablecloths and dark beams. Close to our big table which we shared with some card players, stood a mangy stuffed fox holding a tray; but it had been pushed against the wall. and was not serving food to the noisy room beyond. Alas, the food and mulled wine stalls outside the Christmas market were not doing a similarly brisk trade; inside were craft stalls – ceramics, glass, fabric, wood tree decorations – and one had a not-very-festive placard announcing Liberté, Fraternité et choucroute (the local pickled cabbage served with with smoked pork).

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

As we drove back, the roadside outside Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines was adorned with teddy bears constructed from huge rolls of hay bales and all its shop windows were decorated with furry teddies of all sizes. Perhaps E2E should announce a bear theme for its decorations?

We had hoped to have lunch at the Frankenbourg restaurant after the market, but like several other restaurants this week, it was fully booked. Is this because of the festive pre-Christmas menus or because a lot of public service employees like civil servants, teachers and train drivers have had time for leisurely restaurant meals while on strike against Macron’s proposed pension reforms (I mean, who would actually choose to retire later than they used to because of well-meaning rationalisation attempts?)

During the gloom of November, we have been treating ourselves to lunch out once a week, thanks to a significant refund of our Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG) and Remboursement de la Dette Sociale (CRDS) payments. In 2015 the European Court had decided that those pensioners whose health service charges were paid for by another country did not have to pay the CSG and CRDS. France changed the law in 2016 to try to re-impose the charges by moving them to a different fund where the benefits were non-contributory. But a French court overturned that in 2018, so John put in a pre-emptive retrospective claim for the three years. The government appealed again but that was finally overturned in July 2019. But the system grinds slowly so it was November by the time we received the refunds, with their not inconsiderable interest.

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

The weekly treats started a few days after our return from Letchworth on October 31st (no longer Brexit-at-all-costs day), with a dash to our favourite Restaurant l’Imprimerie in the book village before they closed for their major remodelling and installation of an open wood-fired grill. Chef’s inventiveness that day included the unforgettable combinations of tuna, beetroot and hibiscus in the shape of a crimson rose and of creamy scallops, sliced pig trotter and Jerusalem artichoke. The week after, we went back to In Extremis at the foot of the cathedral in Epinal.

The following week, after most of that week’s snow had melted, we drove over the hills to Kaysersberg, where the Restaurant l’Alchemille had really gone to town on their Christmas decorations, with a herd of life-sized reindeer, a boar, a grizzly bear, some unconvincing foxes and assorted owls and squirrels crowded round the Christmas trees in the small herb garden in front of the entrance. Entre-deux-Eaux take note!

Dougal

a.k.a. Dougal

One of the desserts we immediately christened “Dougal” as the chocolate strands on the creamy roll looked remarkably like the Magic Roundabout character (although perhaps we should have called it “Pollux”, which was Dougal’s name in the original French Le Manège enchanté). And last week we finally returned to the Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal, for the first time since 2013, now that the rude, brusque Madame, who had separated from the older of the two chefs, and that chef had left. But alas, with aforesaid chef having set up elsewhere, the food was no longer as tasty or well-presented, the amazing dessert trolley much reduced, and the staff equally abrupt (it is hardly the customer’s fault if the waiter brings tea instead of coffee and if he fails to press the right buttons on their credit card machine). We look forward to the re-opening of the friendly l‘Imprimerie!

Cultural events have not loomed as large as gastronomic ones. In fact our last dose of culture was probably during our return journey from the UK. As we now often do, when driving back in winter, we stopped overnight in northern France before it got dark. We went into Cambrai for the first time and walked round the streets near the main square and its dominating Hotel de Ville, including the Tourist Office where we picked up some excellent leaflets. It was so cold, we didn’t linger too long, but drove a few miles further south to the accommodation John had booked. Our usual overnight stops are at a convenient Première Classe or Ibis hotel in an out-of-town commercial area, but John had found a farmhouse chambre d’hôte which had a spacious studio room with cooking facilities. It turned out to be a remote, imposing farmhouse with substantial outbuildings round a courtyard. It looked old, and our hostess told us it had once been a coaching stop as well as farm, but suffered significantly during the First World War and was rebuilt after. She showed us photos of her grandfather there as a child, and her grandmother working as a young woman in the fields, and she also pressed a bulging folder into our hands to read. It turned out that her English guests were usually there to see the war graves of their ancestors in one of the many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. She and her husband have helped them and also collected their stories in the folder. So that provided interesting reading that evening in our studio in the outbuildings, along with the Tourist Office leaflets. The thought of a cold, 10km drive in a damp and pitch dark night back to Cambrai for a meal didn’t appeal once we were in our well-heated room so John reheated the vegetables-in-cheese sauce he’d made the night before as a possible standby.

After perusing the leaflets, we decided not to go back into Cambrai the next morning either. Fortified by Madame’s filling breakfast (which was much better than that provided by our usual cheap hotels), we drove cross-country to the departmental Matisse museum, which is based on a collection that Matisse had donated to his home town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. We suspected that we might not see all his paintings as a special exhibition was opening in a couple of days and the paintings were indeed still being moved or on the wall but shrouded; however it was still worthwhile.

Wilfred Owen’s grave

It is now housed in the former bishop’s palace, along with relevant donations by his publisher (Teriade) and the paintings of another local artist, Auguste Herbin (who we’d never heard of). After a coffee over the road (inevitably the Restaurant du musée Matisse), we drove on to the small village of Ors nearby, where Wilfred Owen is buried in a small military section of the communal cemetery. The revamped forester’s house from which he wrote his last letter home was not open till later in the afternoon, so we went directly to his grave. Apparently the French had not known until quite recently that he was famous as a poet back in the UK.

Helen resumed her various club activities, though they hardly count as cultural. The E2E oldies had their November games, cake and champagne session. Now that the original older members have become housebound or died there is less uninterrupted gossip, and the club is also popular with younger retired people from surrounding villages who enjoy playing cards and have started a craft table as well. It was then Helen’s turn to lead and provide refreshments for the brain exercise group, which she rather dreaded. But the unfamiliar Battleship grids and some Eysenk (remember him?) IQ questions (diagrammatic ones – missing numbers, next-in-sequence etc.) kept everyone fully occupied and John had kindly baked some parkin to revive everyone at the end. The following session, that week’s leader started with a dictation, using a poem with each line containing a second person singular imperative – not something John and I practice all these years since our school French lessons, but it was interesting that most of the group also struggled with the correct written French endings! Scrabble was positively relaxing by comparison.

It is just as well that we had not planned to drive to Letchworth this weekend, with long delays at Calais on this side due to customs staff being on strike as part of the pension protests and with the M25 on that side blocked by the crane accident. John is keeping the car topped up with petrol as there are shortages due to blockades by protesters of some western fuel depots and those might spread across the country. But we hope to travel over next weekend (14/15 December) without encountering too many obstacles and delays for Christmas and New Year. Who will be in charge of the UK by then?

Mourning and memories: Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth, August-September 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no4.pdf (three A4 pages)
and click here for Bethune photographs

Two days ago was a day of National Mourning in France, following the death of former president Chirac. But life outside Paris seemed unaffected. Unlike some previous days of mourning, everyone was at work. We had been warned that a routine hospital check-up in Strasbourg might well be cancelled, as on previous such occasions, but it was not. And by the time of the minute of silence at 3 o’clock, we were probably in busy IKEA, where nothing came to a respectful halt at any stage.

Far more significant in Entre-deux-Eaux was the funeral the previous Monday of our neighbour, Pierre Laine. The village church, which only has about three services a year now, was full with family and neighbours, and there were two military (veterans) flag bearers. His death was not a shock, as he had been ill for a couple of years following heart attacks, and he had dozed most of the morning Helen spent with Danielle a few days before his death. He was a man of few words, and his increasing deafness had cut him off further in recent years, so it was good to hear in the tributes a little of his earlier life, having to leave home with his family during the war and seek refuge on the Col du Plafond, and later doing his military service which included Algeria. And of course there was mention of his enjoyment of hunting. Our memories of him go back almost thirty years, as Danielle and Pierre welcomed us when we bought her aunt and uncle’s house, and they were always available to recommend reliable workmen and traders. And during the early years when we let out the house for holidays when we were not there, they would sort out any problems for our guests, and advise them on activities and practical details like fishing permits, sometimes without any language in common. One of our favourite stories about Pierre (which we’ve probably recounted before) was my mother enquiring whether he had killed any wild boar (sangliers), which M. Laine denied with surprising vehemence, having thought she asked about killing Englishmen (anglais)!

Helen was once given a very personal introduction to some of the former villagers when she walked with three of the Oldies Club up to the church cemetery and was taken round some of the graves. On Heritage Day this September she joined a far more academic visit to the imposing family chapels erected by wealthy nineteenth century industrialists in the second Saint Dié cemetery. This graveyard lies in the outskirts of Saint Dié, on a rise overlooking their factories, and with the industries long closed seems very peaceful. Later that afternoon there was an interesting talk at the library about its innovative post-war librarian, museum curator and historian Albert Ronsin, who took it from a gentlemen’s reading room to a modern public access building for everyone. It was a timely lecture as in a few days the library closes its doors and prepares for a move in 2021 to a spacious intercommunal mediatheque (a converted former police and high court building).

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Over in Strasbourg this Monday, after the hospital appointment on the day of national mourning, we treated ourselves to lunch in another converted building, the former eighteenth century Les Haras riding academy and stud farm. We had looked at it both when it was all shuttered and when the conversion was nearing completion, but since then the courtyard has acquired a magnificent statue of a horse. It was a grand feeling to sweep up the circular central staircase and sit beneath the magnificently beamed roof. The starter of leeks and smoked trout was delicate and tasty, and the sweet chestnut dessert was interesting (and reminded us of gathering sweet chestnuts on the way to other restaurant meals), but the main course was less adventurous basically pork and beans. Still, a great improvement on a restaurant which has re-opened in Saint Dié as Logan Laug and which we tried out with Roger and Dorinda during their September return trip. But what do we know about food? – We are only English, as the French would retort dismissively.

But lets not focus too long on food. There is also heating. The French climate change plan includes the proposal to phase out of oil heating boilers in ten years. There is no natural gas here in the village, even though the pipeline is only a kilometre away. Our oil boiler is twenty years old so this autumn John investigated replacing it with a heat pump. Unfortunately, even with government grants, based on current fuel and electricity costs, the payback period for the 16,000€ cost would have been over twenty years. And that is just for an air-water heat pump which would not provide enough warmth during our coldest (night-time down to -18°C) weeks. So we would have to keep the oil boiler or install an additional automatic heating system. A ground source heat pump or a wood pellet stove which could meet our requirements would have been even more expensive. In Paris-centric France, this is very much a rural problem, to add to lack of public transport, scarcity of public services, and slow broadband.

Stone Wall textile - Misun CHANG

Stone Wall textile – Misun CHANG

Meanwhile there have been all the familiar September activities, like the Patchwork festival in the small towns around Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, the big street market or braderie in Saint Dié, and the various clubs and lectures have resumed. Outside the leaves are beginning to change to autumn shades, and we have emptied and folded up the small swimming pool, coiled up and stored the potager trickle-watering tubes, and brought the benches, outdoor seats and some delicate plants into a barn. After all, we could be into heavy frosts by the time we return to Entre-deux-Eaux at the end of October.

When we drove over to England in August, it felt as if the port of Calais had given up on security checks in exasperation. There were no armed soldiers/police doing vehicle checks and passport control was cursory. As ever, we enjoyed spending a bit more time with Jacob and catching up with friends. And this trip we had a bit more time for history and nostalgia. The newly re-opened museum in Hitchin set us looking for the sites of neolithic henges in fields close to our Letchworth house and we enjoyed the sense of history and continuity in trips to Ely, Cambridge, Hertford and Old Stevenage. We found a pleasant walk over the fields from Letchworth to Ickleford along the Icknield Way, taking in a lavender farm and one of the three pubs, the Old George. And for a more recent bit of history, we had an unusual evening with Julia and Graham who were enjoying dancing in the ballroom of the former Spirella Corset Factory in Letchworth.

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

On the way home, we visited Fishbourne and its early Roman mosaics, Chichester cathedral with its tapestries and Chagal window, and briefly stopped in picturesque Arundel to check a stone lion in front of the castle. Why the latter, you might ask? There is a black and white photo of a proud nine-year old sitting on a stone lion, which Helen has always thought was taken at Arundel; we decided against the £19.50 entrance fee just to see the lion (which a guard confirmed was indeed there, along with a horse) and instead bought two pairs of much needed replacement Moroccan slippers for John from a craft fair.

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Back on the French side of the Channel after equally brief checks and a calm crossing in which and we could see the white cliffs of France beckoning from the start of the crossing, we stopped for the night near Bethune in a cheap Ibis on one of those out of town commercial centres. Adjacent was a cinema and some chain restaurants, so we had a late dinner in one of the “Crocodile” chain restaurants (named after a style of  European train with a long “nose” at each end) where we have discovered that the set price cold buffet provides a varied meal (including free wine, beer, etc.) without need of a main course or desserts and, for a bit of atmosphere, there is a train compartment for some of the diners and an overhead model train.

1920s buildings, Bethune

1920s buildings, Bethune

In the morning we went into Bethune, finding a quiet parking spot under the church on the hill, right by the huge war memorial commemorating the town’s soldiers and civilians; the peace was shattered by the sounds of the cars in the main square revving up as they set out at spaced intervals on a stage of an annual car race. The outdoor cafe tables were full of fans and families watching and drinking in the sunshine, so, having wandered round as John took photos of many of the elaborately reconstructed buildings of the mid 1920s, we joined the coffee drinkers at one of those bars whose interior looked as if it hadn’t changed since the 1950s.

We just hope that journeys between the two countries are as straightforward after 31st October.

Storks, lump fish and elephants: Entre-deux-Eaux and Copenhagen, January-March 2019

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2019no1.pdf (six A4 pages)

These are links to our photographs of places visited in Copenhagen and Roskilde and Copenhagen restaurants;
there are others in the text


On Saturday morning, eyes still sleep-blurred, we rolled up the shutters at the front of the house. The north field had large white blobs moving around it. Glasses clarified that there were twenty-one white storks with black tails scavenging across the bare earth and stubble, all moving in the same direction, then turning and moving the other way. We watched in fascination. Then we went and had our croissants and coffee (our weekend treat). When we looked again, the storks had moved closer to the house, still in a loose formation. After a while they gathered as if in consultation, whilst exercising their wings. Then one took off, with the others following after thirty seconds. They circled, at one point right above our balcony, then headed off eastwards in the direction of Alsace. We presumed they were on their spring migration from their winter quarters in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps they brought an optimistic travel message with them. For we have been fretting less about continuing Brexit intransigence, the currently limited ferry services, and the likely delays at the border, than about whether John’s back will recover from its latest set-back in time for the Easter holiday journey to Letchworth. The house in Letchworth must have been looking neglected and unloved, as someone broke the downstairs back bedroom window one night last month. Our back neighbours phoned our side neighbour who phoned Toby, who phoned us and then the police, while John phoned the insurers. Toby said everything seemed OK except for the window. The Hive movement detector in the hall hadn’t sent any messages until Toby went in to the house so, if anyone had climbed through the opened window they had not got far. Nothing seemed to be missing. Perhaps the alarm movement detector in the bedroom had set the alarm off? By evening, thanks to Toby, forensics had pronounced there were no prints inside and the window had been boarded up by the insurance service. And on Brexit Day Mark 1, 29th March, it was re-glazed. So we’ll spend our first week making the house and garden feel loved again, put in some extra video and other security, then enjoy time with Jacob and Leila, followed on Easter Monday by Ann and Derek. And we hope to catch up in between with friends.

When we travelled back here from Letchworth on January 6th, nearly all the cars on the Pride of Burgundy were labelled F, D, B, NL or L. Were the mainland Europeans having a last fling in London while they still knew what regulations and documents applied? As we left the motorways and drove eastwards from Vitry-le-Francois, we noticed bonfire ash, damaged radars and burnt speed restriction signs where the gilets jaunes protestors had previously been encamped, but by our favourite service station stop at Pagny-sur-Meuse, the protestors had erected a super new wooden club house opposite their former site. Back here the protestors have lost the support of the pensioners Helen meets regularly; since Macron suspended his hated overhaul of the pensions and tax system, and launched the Great National Debate, the pensioners no longer feel unheard, and deplore the continuing violence of the hard-line gilets jaunes in Paris and towns like Epinal and Bar-le-Duc. In comparison, the cross-channel chaos of Brexit no longer seems of great significance to the villagers.

Our Mayor’s written annual report was full of gloom at the prospect of small communes like ours being swallowed up and ignored by the large administrative agglomerations of communes. Would this be the last year the Mayor could direct finance towards his evening of New Year Voeux, speeches, champagne and nibbles or the eagerly anticipated lunch for all the over 65s in his commune? As usual his speech at the former was inaudible. But the meal at the latter was as good as ever, with music and dancing; it was just unfortunate that castanet man seated himself at our table, just a few places away, and could not resist loudly accompanying the accordionist. His wife was not with him to restrain his ardour. He said she had fallen and broken her leg. But the most striking New Year festivity his year was Sainte Marguerite’s galette and champagne where, on the dance floor, there were not only the familiar participants in walks, gym, scrabble and games sessions but amazingly costumed, be-jewelled and masked dancers, from the group who parade annually in Venetian Carnival costumes round Remiremont. Very colourful. We were also glad to celebrate Roger and Dorinda’s return to the Vosges (for a week); although John’s fish pie might not sound festive it was delicious, and cake shop specialist Dorinda brought along a lemon sponge to round off our re-union dinner and catch-up.

But, alas, after the festivities and a few snowy walks it was the time for all those exchanged New-Year kisses to extract their revenge with sneezes, sore, throats, colds and inertia (or la gripe – all the French had flu rather than bad colds). John was laid so low that Helen offered to do the shopping one Thursday, but an hour after clearing the snow from the garage and driving off, she found herself sitting in the car park in the next village of Saulcy, shopping list beside her, and no idea of what had happened in the last hour. Rather frightening. Had she been careering madly around in the car knocking down pedestrians? It seemed safest to return home. However, our GP was reassuring, even showing her the textbook description of ictus amnesique. Apparently she could have gone and done all the shopping perfectly efficiently while laying down no memories. And a head scan confirmed there was no damage from a mini stroke. What some people will do to avoid going shopping! After that we spent the time quietly indoors, reading, watching football and organizing and labelling photos of past travels.

Labelling and writing up our Turkey travels in 2009, reminded us of a good collection of Islamic art in Copenhagen, so with our energy finally restored, we planned a short mid-March trip to Copenhagen. We had not got as far as Zealand and Copenhagen on our journey to Jutland and Funen in the summer of 2017, and although four cold March days were not a good time to enjoy the coastline of Zealand, the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde would be open, and all the museums in Copenhagen, and John had been looking forward to a more exciting taste of New Nordic cuisine than we’d previously found.

So on Monday 18th, we drove over the snowy Bonhomme pass, and took a flight from Basel to Copenhagen. Mastering the airport ticket machines, we caught the modern metro to Kongens Nytorv, and walked up to our Hotel Christian IV, which was a bit shabbier than envisaged, but very pleasant, with the bonus of free coffee, tea, pastries and biscuits in the lounge/ breakfast area at all hours. We’d booked a restaurant on the other side of the town centre, Cofoco, thinking we’d appreciate a good walk after the journey.

Faraos Cigarer

Faraos Cigarer

And we did indeed enjoy our cold, windy evening stroll along the side of the King’s Garden, past interesting boutiques and shops like the Faraos Cigarer with all its Tintin books and models, restaurants with deserted outdoor tables, the Radhus, Tivoli Gardens and an impressive railway station. Somewhere along our zig-zag route we passed a cake shop display including one with charmingly modelled pigs snuffling across the icing. We wondered what occasion it was suitable for. But however often we later criss-crossed those streets in daylight, camera at the ready, we never found that elusive cake shop again. We particularly enjoyed Cofoco’s salmon/gravlax and the mussel soup and the friendly atmosphere.

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

As Tuesday was the only sunny day forecast, we changed our plans, and decided to catch a train out to Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum. Helen, who is easily pleased by such things, was delighted that the train was a double decker; from its top deck it was interesting to see the housing developments including single-storey closely packed small houses, possibly social housing; while John was much taken with the train’s plastic bags to take away with you and dispose of your rubbish. The museum’s five ships, a mix of fishing, trading and longships, had been sunk across one of the channels and piled with stone to prevent an invasion from the sea and the surviving fragments had been painstakingly pieced together on metal frameworks. There was a useful short film and displays about the finds, restoration, and the replicas which had been built over the years. And there was a dramatic room where children could experience the life on board part of a Viking ship in rough seas. The workshop sessions and boat trips on a replica were summer events, but the café was open for refreshments before we walked back towards town to see the cathedral where many of the Danish monarchs have their tombs. We particularly enjoyed the frescoes, the choir stall carvings and the clock whose action on the hour starts with the dragon’s shrieks.

Roskilde Cathedral

Roskilde Cathedral

The royal tombs were impressive, but the design for the present Queen Margrethe’s tomb was intriguing – a transparent rounded capsule in cast glass holding two supine figures mounted on pillars topped with silver elephant heads. Why the elephants’ heads? Apparently the Danish Order of the Elephant is Denmark’s highest honour, with the monarch as head of the order, and members are from the Royal Family with some foreign heads of state; current Knights of the Elephant include Prince Charles and Emmanuel Macron. After that bit of trivia, we started noticing elephants everywhere, including the Islamic collection and manhole covers.

Main Railway Station

Main Railway Station

Back in Copenhagen, we got off the train at the central station (built in 1911) to look at its architecture, especially the chunky columns, heads and folk-art figures, then journeyed on to the Forum metro for our early evening meal at Radio; the restaurant is, not surprisingly, located in the old Radiohus building, and served the best five course meal of our holiday, washed down with Fanefjord Pilsner. This was where we encountered the unappetising-sounding lump fish roe. “It is in season now and every Dane is eating until we are sick of it” the waiter explained as he brought an amuse-bouche of lump fish roe in an onion case, cream, buckwheat and apple. It was tasty, as was the starter of steamed mussels, mussel foam, dill, salsify and parsley. The next delicate course was leeks, Vesterhavs cheese, ransoms and sunflower seeds, followed by a fish course of monkfish wrapped in a thin film of fat from the back of a pig (lardo), mushrooms, cream and a cress garnish. Onto the main of pork cheeks, curly kale, apple, mustard seed, mustard cream and pistachio nuts in halved baby onions. Dessert was unexpected and delicious. Take a deep breath at this point, for their desserts are usually vegetable based, the previous day’s having been beetroot based; today’s was composed from Jerusalem artichoke, French toast, pear, and vanilla ice with a chocolate dust, topped with a sprig of thyme. This was more how we had imagined Nordic cuisine!

amber animal

amber animal

On Wednesday we spent most of the day in the Nationalmuseet. We had expected to go fairly quickly through the stone age and bronze age exhibits, having seen other collections, but lingered, amazed by the quality of the finds, – huge polished flints, an aurochs skeleton, beautifully carved amber objects, a decorated funnel beaker bowl from 3200 B.C., bog bodies including Egtved girl in her short cord skirt, a sun chariot, bronze lurs or trumpets, remarkably preserved wagon fragments from Dejbjerg and then a beautiful silver bowl which puzzled us. It was identical to the Gundestrup Cauldron which we’d seen at Aarhus’ Moesgaard Museum two years ago. An attendant was knowledgeable and assured us that theirs was the original but it was sometimes loaned to other museums. He also treated us to a long discourse on Danes in Roman armies (the section where we found him) and misguided stereotypes of Viking warriors. We did visit the other sections of the museum, covering all the later historical periods, Ethnography, and toys (lots of dolls’ houses), but this, for us, had been the most interesting.

silk Kashmiri shawl c1850

silk Kashmir shawl c1850

Similarly we spent most of the next day in the Davids Samling, just round the corner from our hotel, enjoying the Islamic art. We retreated to the hotel for some coffee and a pastry, before returning to the splendours of calligraphy, ceramics, fabrics (including crimson elephants on a fabulous Kashmir shawl) and tiles, and looking at the special exhibition of Indian photographs from the nineteenth century, and the furnished town house rooms on the first floor.

Stork fountain

Stork fountain

After that we were ready for a walk outside, taking in the Round Tower, St Nicholas Church, stork fountain, and some expensive shops and cafes (but no cakes with pigs on). That evening we went to Llama, for strong flavours, with its South American food with a Nordic twist. Having waxed lyrical over the food at Radio, perhaps it is sufficient to merely mention Llama’s halibut ceviche, the lime cake and the striking randomly arranged colourful floor tiles.

All too soon it was Friday, and our last day. We had not seen the famous Bridge, the famous Little Mermaid, or the famous art collections. But we felt like wandering round different areas, heading in the general direction of the famous Black Diamond. So we strolled east towards the Yderhavnen waterfront, diverting to see the golden domes of the otherwise seedy-looking and closed Alexander Newsky Kirke and Frederick V’s hideous Marble Church, overlooked by his equestrian statue. Suddenly the street opened up into an open circular area ringed by stately but plain stone buildings guarded by soldiers in busbies. Helen approached one to ask who or what he was guarding. He raised a forbidding hand and shifted his weapon, but, when she she persisted, he conceded through gritted teeth that he was guarding the Crown Prince. Oh dear. Perhaps we should have brought the guide book with us. For this was the Amalienborg Slot, the home of Queen Margrethe. We disappeared rapidly towards the waterfront, with the modern opera house across the water, the renovated warehouses on either side and the bright yellow ferry bus service. Lining Nyhavn, we admired the painted houses and old boats. Further on a raft containing five men in high-vis jackets and a mound of barnacle-encrusted bicycles passed slowly by, preceded by the bubbles of a diver. One somehow doesn’t imagine Danes throwing their bicycles into the waterways.

Black Diamond - National Library

Black Diamond – National Library

Ahead of us lay the unprepossessing Black Diamond of the National and University Library, a modern extension of the old Royal Library. John paused to photograph the altogether more quirky Borsen or stock exchange with its Dutch Renaissance gables and spire of entwined tails of four dragons – a fairy-tale building for the men-of-money – and also the alternative small mermaid statue. Then we entered the library and took the escalator up to the fourth floor to look down at the glassed off collections and study tables. The older part of the library is noisy with chattering students and their laptops, and the old card catalogue still had its hand written cards for works by Boethius and later typed cards. We read later that one of the largest book thefts in history happened here between 1968 and 1978, with some 1,600 historical books worth more than fifty million dollars stolen, undetected until 1975, many sold at auction. But when one surfaced at Christie’s in 2003, it was discovered that the thief was a director of the library’s oriental department who had died in January 2003 and whose family had become careless about selling the books. 1,500 books were recovered. Never trust a librarian! After a couple of very expensive lattes in the ground floor cafe, we walked round to the Parliament building, which was closed to the public, hearing sounds of protests over the New Zealand mosque shootings; one of the attendants told us with regret that he thought Denmark is becoming much less tolerant with growing anti-Muslim feelings.

Court Theatre Museum

Court Theatre Museum

In another courtyard we went into the former Royal Stables, where the Court Theatre was established (for court audiences only) in 1767. Despite having closed in 1881 (as many theatres did after a major fire in a Vienna theatre), it still had a great atmosphere with its red and gold decor, and we could wander freely through the royal box, across the stage, main dressing room and auditorium and try out the wind and thunder machines. After that Helen went to the nearby Danish Jewish Museum (designed by Daniel Libeskind within the old Royal Boat House) and John visited the old castle walls under the Christiansborg Palace.

starter: lump fish roe, smoked cheese, lemon & cress

Afterwards, we walked round the Parliament and Palace buildings, but did not recognize any of the Borgen TV series settings. We crossed back from the island, paused in the elegant Georg Jensen shop (alas they no longer seem to sell the Prism cutlery set from which John had bought a single place setting back in the sixties – what an unusual student purchase!), and explored the Sankt Petri area. It was good to recharge our batteries back at the hotel over tea and coffee (and Helen caught up on all Will, Kate, Harry and Meghan’s recent engagements in the lounge’s Hello magazines), before we went for our last meal at Koefoed. Guess what the starter there was? Yes, lump fish roe.

Manhole cover

Manhole cover

And what was John’s last Copenhagen photo on the way to the metro and airport next morning? A manhole cover with elephants.

Red berries, white hedgehog and yellow vests: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux and beyond, October-December 2018

 

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no5.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are links to our photographs of places and restaurants in the text

December opened in a festive mood for us on December 1st when we decided to drive over the hills to one of our favourite Christmas Markets at Barr in Alsace. This involved studying real-time maps to see where the gilets jaunes protesters in their high visibility yellow safety jackets were blockading roads and roundabouts in protest against increased fuel taxes (and later against other policies as well). But with coaches taking some of the protesters to Paris that day, the usual local trouble spots were quiet, and we had a lovely drive through tastefully decorated villages, past hillside plantations where people were stopping to purchase and load their Christmas tree, to slopes of vineyards, their leaves golden in rare rays of sunshine. And somewhere there must have been rain, as there was a rainbow arch.

In Barr we parked near the Saturday food market which was guarded by two police who seemed to have a cushy job that morning as they joked with stall holders and shoppers. We were mystified by a box of bulbs labelled lampagoni which turned out to be misspelt lampascioni, gastronomic Italian onions from Puglia, which the stallholder had ordered specially for a customer who never collected them.

Tree decoration, Barr

Tree decoration, Barr

More festively, the Christmas market had some tempting craft stalls with wood-turned gifts, candles, chocolates, tree decorations, wreaths of holly and pine cones, embroidered fabrics and food and mulled wine stalls. Outside the previously distant rain arrived and pounded on the roof.

Christmas window, Barr

Christmas window, Barr

When it eased, we strolled down one of the cobbled streets; it had a stream flowing down the side, beautifully decorated trees, and plaques about the tannery-related trades which had once occupied the picturesque timbered houses; in one window with pretty lace curtains someone had hung cream fabric heart decorations with red and green embroidery and cross stitch. Just after John had taken a photo of them a hand emerged from behind the lace and added a less picturesque price list.

Having got into the mood, but not having any red holly berries, on December 2nd we picked colourful crimson spindle flowers from our small orchard to decorate a windowsill. With the rain temporarily at bay, Helen also cleared dead leaves from the drainage channels at the front and John inserted some white hedgehogs to catch the leaves; no, this was not cruelty to hibernating animals, but a roll of spiky, wiry brush gutter leaf guard to trap the leaves, allowing the water to flow into the drain. Of the two jobs, the colourful spindle is the prettier result, along with some yellow jasmine and white everlasting pea flowers.

We have been intrigued by the French veneration of the truffle ever since we processed with other guests at an Alsace restaurant past a large truffle under a glass dome which was lifted for each person to reverentially inhale the truffle aroma. So when the Imprimerie restaurant in the nearby book village of Fontenoy-la-Joute (where we have often enjoyed the chef’s ‘surprise’ menus) announced that they would be doing a five-course truffle menu (with its courses described, for once) over the second weekend in December, we decided to book. Again it was a Saturday of protests in Paris, but the remaining gilets jaunes had blocked one of the usual Saint Dié roundabouts and lit a fire from which black smoke rose; they had also put a tyre chicane on the northbound carriageway of the N59 (a change from the manure dumped on other local roads) and had stopped lorries in the fast lane, but our car with its yellow jacket of support on the dashboard was filtered into the nearside lane and allowed to pass slowly through. As we turned off the N59 at Baccarat, the roundabout there, where there had been delays indicated, was free of protesters, so we got to our lunch in good time.

L'Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l'Imprimerie

L’Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l’Imprimerie

L’Oignon,  l’Imprimerie

We were rather disappointed by the aroma-less black truffle here, which appeared as thin slices on top of each course including dessert, and continue to consider it overrated (or poorly stored). It was the two oddest-sounding courses which were unexpectedly tasty. The first course was a raw onion on a plate, with its top sliced through. Lifting this lid, we discovered a creamy onion mix surrounding a sous-vide egg yolk with sliced truffle on top. Helen has always steered clear of mussels, having seen John ill after bad ones, but ate with gusto the second course of shredded celeriac spaghetti in a creamy truffle and mussel sauce. The fish course was rather bland, and the lamb, parsnip and potato course lacked the wow factor, but the pear and meringue dessert was pleasant. The accompanying wines were interesting, the Spanish red rejoicing in the name ‘Old Hands’. At the adjacent long table three quite young boys ate their way happily through the elaborate menu, without any of the “Yuk, what’s this? I don’t like it!” type comments of comparable young British children. We left clutching a little parcel tied with string which contained pain d’epices which brought back happy childhood memories of gingerbread when we ate it later (and not a truffle slice in sight). There were flashing blue lights at the Saint Dié junction, two police motor cyclists and no gilets jaunes or old tyres, though we could see a tyre burning and yellow jackets still at the roundabout beyond.

The following day, Helen took back routes to the small town of Bruyères, passing only three gilets jaunes standing disconsolately outside a shack at a Bruyères roundabout. Many years ago Madame Colnat, our village shopkeeper’s wife, had told us that her father, a former Cossack soldier, had helped escaping Indian POWs during the last war. Helen had used this when writing Footprints, so was keen to see the exhibition in Bruyères on Russian soldiers and forced labourers in the Vosges in the First World War. And sure enough, amid all the interesting details about how the Russian soldiers/ labourers came to be in the area after the overthrow of the Tsar and disbanding of the Imperial Russian Army, there was a whole panel devoted to Alexandre Tarentzeff. It told about his wartime heroism, his Russian St George Cross (for undaunted courage by lower ranks), his work for a farmer in a hamlet near Bruyères after he was demobilised, and his subsequent marriage to the boss’s daughter. He built his own house, and became a woodcutter and sabot maker (with two machines he could produce 120 pairs a day). And during the Second World War he helped Hawaiian soldiers wounded in the grim battles to liberate the area, and took food to escaped Indian POWs hiding in the woods (for which he was denounced and caught).

On the following evening, December 10th, President Macron finally addressed his nation with apparent sincerity, and made some financial concessions, with no indication of how they would be paid for. Gilets jaunes listening on mobile phones at their roundabouts across the nation were unconvinced when interviewed for TV. “He should have spoken four weeks ago.” Interestingly, this was also the day when Theresa May was forced to announce a delay to the Commons vote on her unpopular Brexit deal and prepared to wheedle EU leaders to change their minds on 11th. And over here on 11th came the sad news of the shooting at large Strasbourg Christmas Markets, which we used to enjoy in more peaceful times before the armed police patrols and checks became necessary.

Let’s double back a couple of months to more innocent days (were they really?) with Morris dancers thronging the streets of Tenterden at the start of our October trip to the UK. From Ann and Derek’s in Tenterden we drove on to Putney, then Helen and Jessica joined the rest of the Traingang in Chester for a few days, while John headed to Letchworth to do useful things.

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

The Traingang had a good time catching up on events over the past year, ranting about Brexit, and discovering Chester, Liverpool’s regenerated dockland area and temporary Terracotta Army exhibition, and a National Trust property, Erddig Hall. In fact it was such an interesting area that the Traingang has decided to return in October 2019. Of course it was helped by good weather.

It was a shame that, as Helen joined John at a biker café outside Shrewsbury, the good weather ended and the rain began. It was pelting down by the time we reached the Talyllyn railway in the Snowdonia National Park. It is the world’s first preserved railway, and John had visited it whilst at a Brecon Beacons scout camp back in the early sixties. This time we got soaked hurrying from the car park to the station. Deciding we would see nothing from the train windows in the driving rain, we contented ourselves with waving off the steam train, looking round the excellent railway museum, having a hot drink and driving on to our lovely hotel room at Ynyshir where we wallowed in a hot bath. Dinner that night in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant (chef Gareth Ward) was intended to be the highlight of our trip and a pre-birthday treat for John. We enjoyed neither the nineteen-course dinner nor the pretentious breakfast. But, if you like beef dripping and soy and Hoisin sauces in most courses and your few vegetables pickled, it’s just right.

It was still raining when we set out for Hay-on-Wye next morning for Helen’s treat of second-hand bookshops. We should not have followed our satnav. It took us uphill along increasingly narrow lanes, then over moorland with gates across the narrow road and only sheep for company, until we finally clipped a front tyre on a protruding stone and tore a hole in the side of it. At any other time the location would have been pretty, high up, miles from anywhere, with reservoirs and streams to picnic by. But not with strong winds and torrential rain, no mobile phone signal and no spare tyre (Snowy only has a canister to inflate the tyre with foam). We studied a real (ie paper) map and decided to risk lurching slowly downhill to a village and main road about 5 km ahead, hoping the deflated tyre would stay on the rim and the rim would survive. There was still no mobile signal down in the village, but there was a BP service station on the main road. And the staff there were so, so kind. The boss brought us a phone, and would accept no payment after we rang our insurers in France, and he insisted on giving us a hot coffee as we waited for France to arrange a local breakdown truck. Gratefully, we purchased a Welsh cherry cake (more about that later) and some sandwiches and settled in for a long wait. The breakdown truck was gleaming new, but the driver taciturn. The out-of- town (Aberystwyth) tyre place could not get any tyres of the right size until Monday; Snowy’s tyres are not that common a size. The front tyres had done about 30,000 miles and John had intended to replace them when we got back; the French MoT also requires same tyres with similar wear on the same axle. Eventually they agreed to fit a tyre with slightly different (about 0.7 cm wider and 1% less circumference) dimensions and swapped the back tyres to the front. We finally got to Hay after 6.15, so no bookshops for Helen. We drove on to our pub hotel. We decided to stay another night, and spent a wet day scurrying between the bookshops which have not closed down or become internet-only traders and Helen was content with her haul. We had commented in the morning that some of the fields close to the river Wye looked like paddy fields, and alas, during the day the waters continued to rise. By late afternoon the road to the small toll bridge was flooded, so we retreated to the main bridge. Further on we found that the road to that night’s hotel was impassable too. At that point we decided to just pay the hotel bill over the phone and to drive on in the dark to drier terrain in Letchworth.

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Back in Letchworth we saw quite a bit of Jacob over his half term at Toby’s as Toby had just started a new job at Reed Group in Covent Garden and was back to commuting daily to London. We enjoyed treasure hunts (Jacob can read the clues himself now, so dashed around enthusiastically), making a plywood dinosaur skeleton (with no instructions in the kit), playing a lot of games of Rummikub, scooping up dead leaves and netting the garden pond. But would you believe it? John had booked a service for Snowy, and when he came to drive it to the Toyota garage one of the new tyres had a nail through it. So two more matching new tyres (this time of the correct size as the garage refused to fit the incorrect size).

At the end of half-term Helen drove Jacob back to Rearsby as Stella and Ellen were away on their honeymoon. Leila took a couple of days off from the Coroner’s office and she and Helen enjoyed seeing Jacob’s school and then exploring Leicestershire villages until pick-up time.

Helen was also able to see some old Nottingham friends before she returned to Letchworth for John’s birthday, which we celebrated over lunch at Core in Notting Hill along with Jessica and Mark. We were lucky to get in there, as shortly after we booked, it was awarded two Michelin stars having not had any before –but the chef Clare Smyth had had previously had three at the Gordon Ramsey restaurant she ran.

amuse bouches, jellied eels and foie gras

amuse bouches: jellied eels; foie gras

'Core_apple'

‘Core_apple’

Unlike our Ynyshir disaster, this ten-course meal was very good, from the spectacularly presented four amuse-bouches (jellied eels, crispy smoked duck wing, foie gras parfait and cheese and onion goujons) through the perfection of ‘Core apple’ (with its glazed outside and melt-in-the-mouth creamy filling) to a surprise candle in a lemon parfait for John. Highly recommended if you can get in!

Isle of Oxney map

Isle of Oxney map

You might think we’d done enough eating by then, but on our way back to France we met Sue, Ann and Derek at the Ferry Inn on the Isle of Oxney, which does a good choice of pub grub with friendly staff and dog and a roaring fire. We’ve come to think of the large table next to the fire as our table as we’ve had it three times. And someone always asks if they can keep one of the paper table mats with its attractive map of the area before the 14th century when the island was part of the coastline.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine de Roubaix

After a rougher than usual crossing next morning, we took a more northerly route back and stopped in Roubaix, a former industrial town near Ypres and close to the Belgian border, as John had read about the reopening of the Piscine Museum of Art and Industry after renovation. As the name implies, the museum is housed in the former swimming pool and adjoining industrial buildings. It is an amazing setting, with the reflected colours from the huge art deco window rippling across the water of the pool which is casually flanked by seated and standing statues from various epochs, some bewigged, some legless and armless.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine, Roubaix

Behind the statues, and the blue, gold and cream mosaic-covered surround, some of the changing cubicles have been left intact while others contain displays of ceramics, costumes, jewellery and paintings. In the recesses there are fin-de-siècle glazed tile panels and stained glass windows. The websites rather undersell the exciting and imaginative juxtaposition of objects from their extensive collection. And at the end of October, their special exhibitions were around works by Di Rosa (very colourful!), Picasso and Giacometti. It was well worth our half hour of queuing in the heavy rain.

Next morning we woke in our 3rd floor fin-de-siècle guest house in the wealthy industrialists’ quarter, to find the rain gone and the sun streaming through the window.

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Children's dining room, Villa Cavrois

Children’s dining room, Villa Cavrois

Our hostess (a ceramicist who had also been a nurse) suggested that we shouldn’t leave Roubaix without also seeing the Villa Cavrois designed in 1929 by Robert Mallet-Stevens. It was a stunning modern yellow brick building. There has been another amazing programme to rescue it from dereliction (initially caused by German and then French army occupants and after 1988 by a property developer who wanted to pull it down and build more houses so left it to rot and be looted and squatted in for years). A good film in the basement garage showed the research that went into re-creating the gardens and mirror pool and restoring the spirit of De Stijl within the gutted shell, including repurchasing some of the furniture (seen in photos from the thirties) which had been sold at auction. Perhaps the most amazing room was the enormous bathroom off the master bedroom, with all its complicated shower nozzles and curved screen door, bidet, scales, sinks.

After our adventures in Wales and northern France, life back in Entre-deux-Eaux settled back into uneventful normality, punctuated by Armistice Day celebrations and Brexit and gilets jaunes frustrations. But what about that cherry cake, purchased from the helpful BP station in Wales? Helen’s brain-keep-fit group is a more sociable gathering than it might sound. It’s now all female, and starts with at least half an hour of noisy gossip, followed by a round of humorous stories (nearly all full of sexual innuendo), and then an hour and a half of exhausting, silent concentration of word, logic and number puzzles. At the end of that, everyone stretches and breaks into more gossip, and that week’s hostess hands out the cake and hot or cold drinks. Helen had previously found that her contribution of mince pies and Bakewell tarts were not over-enthusiastically received. However this time the cherry cake had a good reception, and a walnut and cream cake a slightly less warm one. Phew! And then they asked about the famous English Christmas cake (pronounced “kek” here). Amazed after rum, spices and brandy were mentioned they began checking recipes on the internet and discussing loudly. They were impressed that a perishable thing like a cake could be cooked so well in advance of festivities, Which reminds me, we must remember to pack the Christmas cake that John started to make a few days later, when we load the car up and set out for Christmas and New Year the UK in a few days time.

With that thought in mind, we send you all our very best wishes for Christmas and the year ahead. As ever, if you find yourselves near Letchworth, it would be good to see you again.

You still need an introduction: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, June-July 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no3.pdf (three A4 pages)

Back in 2000 T. E. Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier shot to brief fame. It described how, when the author and his family were living in Paris, he went into a piano repair shop on his street to enquire if they ever came across reasonably priced second-hand pianos. The politely negative but evasive response was the same each time he returned. Eventually the younger partner in the shop hinted that maybe, if he were recommended by an existing customer… And only after an introduction was he ushered into a rear workshop/showroom which was full of pianos for sale.

When we first bought the farmhouse in 1990 and knew no-one locally, our neighbours were most helpful. M. and Mme Laine recommended a builder, de Freitas who, when the link was mentioned, came immediately and worked willingly on various projects over the years. We also found that the electrical appliances shop they mentioned was most helpful with purchases and repairs over the years. Another neighbour, Mme Munch, worked at an insurance agent and we have insured our house, cars and health ever since and had immediate help when our roof blew off in the hurricane. In fact we went in to see them recently about travel insurance, and they were kind enough to explain that theirs would be more expensive than the online policies we previously had, but did we realise that our car insurance (!) would cover us in most cases, even if we were not travelling by car at the time, while our house insurance would cover many possessions. What sympathetic and personal services from those early introductions.

But surely that is not how things are still done in 2018? Oh yes it is. An introduction still works wonders. Recently the iron pipe connecting our boiler to the chimney finally rusted through after some 25 years. For several weeks we tried to find someone to do the repair. The premises of M. Duvoid, the plumbing and heating engineer who had installed the boiler and the under-floor heating, were closed down and his house had another name on the letterbox. We stopped by the van of a plumber and asked him whether he could help. He took all our details and promised to come in the next day or so, but we never heard from him again. And a plumber with the delightful name of M. Fafin who Roger and Dorinda had often used did not reply to phone messages. So Helen consulted the group with whom she plays Scrabble or Rummikub at the village Oldies club as to who they used for similar small jobs. One immediately suggested her brother-in-law, who was currently playing boules over the road. There are quite a number of retired Italians who have joined the club recently, two of whom were builders. Nicola, brother of the more successful Giovanni, was introduced at the end of his game and immediately offered to come round after the Oldies’ birthday cakes and champagne. “He’s the one who used to do all the hard work. He can do anything”, his wife Maria loyally confided as John showed him the problem pipe. Next day we heard thumping on the door. Outside stood Nicola, looking relieved. He had telephone several times but we had not heard, so he had come anyway and had rung the front door bell but it did not seem to be working, but he could hear the radio inside so was sure we were here. And he had brought a new shiny replacement stainless pipe and his tools and set to work efficiently and rapidly. A man who knew what he was doing, John pronounced after paying him a very reasonable amount. He made it all seem simple. But were it not for fellow scrabble players would we still be waiting for someone?

Earlier in the year we were troubled by rain water flooding in. Now we are experiencing the same spell of hot weather as the UK. There have been canicule, or heatwave, alerts and these are taken very seriously since the dreadful summer of 2003 when between 15,000 and 19,000 people (mainly elderly) died in France of heat related problems. Add to the heat the occasional thunder rumbling around in the nearby hills, especially during France’s triumphant world cup matches. Those July 14th fireworks, or what remained of them, came in handy the following day when France won the final, but they had to fight the thunder. So it has been a pleasure to spend the past two months staying cool with fans blowing indoors, watching the feast of football and tennis from Roland Garros in Paris and then from Wimbledon, punctuated by the occasional sortie to favourite restaurants and local flea markets.

Most of the flea markets seemed to have been cancelled on World Cup Final day, as people prepared to watch their country. But at Anould’s market in June we found a lovely dish made by a potter who used to work in Le Bonhomme, and we later had a successful hunt in Taintrux and in Saulcy, – once we had found their new sites. The Taintrux flea market was held on the hill top in a brand new sports area behind the church (lets hope the players don’t loose too many balls up on the hilltop), while the Saulcy one had moved from their sports ground to a recently flattened and landscaped area by the river where a linen factory once stood. As we walked back from the Saulcy market, we paused to walk round a large, newly-built house by the river, commenting that it was odd that it had minimal garden. Yesterday John had a routine doctor’s appointment. When he arrived at the surgery there was a note on the door saying the cabinet médical had moved to a new address with a rough indication of its whereabouts (towards Ste Marguerite, over the bridge and on the left). You would have thought the receptionist would have mentioned it when the appointment was made the previous day! There were several puzzled looking people trying to find its new location. It turned out to be that new house by the river; the doctors had only moved in at the weekend and were waiting for the house number and name-plates to arrive. Perhaps it was fortunate that John went then as our routine appointments are usually every six months and the address change will probably disappear once the old premises become residences.

As for the restaurants. Who could forget the odd sounding but delicious amuse-bouche of radish soup with coffee vinegar (“to sharpen the taste buds”) topped with vegetable crisps at Chez Guth or the equally delicate pea soup topped with caviar and lime cream at l’Imprimerie in the book village? On the way back from Guth’s we stopped at the jam producers in Climont, a big tourist attraction, to see their small exhibition about jam production during the first world war. But our shelves are already well stocked with John’s home-made jams. John is also brushing up on walnut recipes, as, for the first time for several years, there were no frosts at inopportune times in late spring and it looks like being a bumper walnut crop in the orchard this autumn.

We have also made some holiday plans, via a circuitous process. We had thought of a trip to Sweden (but the timing wasn’t right when we decided we wanted to see the football), then got diverted by a book on Helsinki architecture to Finland (but we couldn’t really find enough in the rest of Finland of interest to us for a long holiday), so have eventually decided on Ireland with its wealth of Romanesque, Celtic and prehistoric remains. Neither of us has been there before, so this will be an introductory central regions driving tour, starting in Dublin, then staying in Kilkenny, Cashel, Birr, Athlone, Cong, Ballina and Kells. We will stay a few nights in Letchworth on either side of the Irish trip, and bring Leila back here for a short break. After we had booked the Ireland crossing and accommodation, Toby realised that he would be free at the last moment to take a break while Jacob and Farrah are on holiday, so the whole family including Rachel’s two elder daughters and their boyfriends and not forgetting Teddy the dog will drive over and stay here while we are away. We’ll definitely feel like ships that cross in the night (even if they will use the tunnel), though we’ll see them in Letchworth before and after. The hairdresser in St Dié was low on customers today as if most of St Dié is away on holiday too.

We hope you enjoy your summer wherever you may be!

A Week in the West: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux and beyond, April – May 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no2.pdf (three A4 pages)

There are comprehensive sets of photographs:
Going west – Val de Gartempe and the Loire
and Villa Majorelle, Nancy
as well as some other links in the text

The good thing about visiting the UK is the pleasure of catching up with friends and family there and the bad thing is catching up with the garden here afterwards. So you won’t be surprised to read that most of our E2E time since our Easter UK visit has, apart from our Week in the West, been spent on horticultural tasks including wood-chipping, rotavating and mowing for John and composting, marking out paths and beds, weeding, sowing and planting for Helen.

lemon surprise

Light relief has included lunch at L’Imprimerie in our Book Village (Fontenoy-la-Joute) where the chef’s surprise menu culminated in a lemon on a plate. Yes, a lemon on a plate. On being cut into it turned out to be a delicious lemon and cream concoction in a clever mould.

Majorelle House, Nancy

Villa Majorelle, Nancy

Our only Sunday flea market was a stop in a village in the faïence producing area near Nancy where we were heading to visit the Majorelle house. Some of you may have visited the famous Majorelle garden in Marrakesh belonging to the artist Jaques Majorelle, and the Nancy house is the art nouveau Villa Majorelle of his father Louis Majorelle, one of the School of Nancy craftsmen. Much of his beautiful wood and metal work survives inside, though not his furniture. It has been sadly neglected over the years, but the town has bought it and so far renovated the exterior, with the interior to follow, so we need to go back in 2020 to see the interior in its full glory. And there was also a fascinating historical conference in St Dié one weekend on the theme of Transport in the Grand Est (the posh name of our new grouping of communes of communes, departments and regions, which sounds like a Victorian Railway Company). But we somehow failed to notice the visit of President Macron to St Dié, so missed any excitement. Interestingly everyone we meets mentions “our” royal baby and Royal Wedding (and usually asks if we are going) but no one seems very interested in the proximity of their President. No doubt it will be assumed that we are going over for the wedding in a few days, rather than for Helen’s cousin’s funeral.

But for us the excitement has been in planning a short trip west as a diversion for Helen’s 75th birthday, to the Val de Gartempe whose prehistoric sites and church frescoes our friend Val had enthused about. It’s easy to forget how long it takes to cross France from east to west, so it was an after thought to set out a day early and break the journey in Troyes, and the only accommodation was in a chain ACE hotel. We were later to realise how accustomed we’d got to the standard facilities of chain hotels and how quirky and fascinating French chambre d’hôtes (like British B+Bs) can be.

Château Les Vallées

We spent our next night in the Val de Gartempe as the only guests in a small 19th century chateau whose corridor walls were lined with the owner’s exotic photos from all round the world, which was like walking through the pages of a dated National Geographic. We then stayed a couple of nights in a “manoir” chambre d’hôte run by a plump and slimy Mr Nosey and his blonde wife he would slip out of his office or kitchen every time we came in or out to check what we were doing. But I also saw him slink out with a bottle of wine clutched against his portly belly during breakfast, and heard his wife going out, calling, to look for him shortly after. Is there a story there? It was only after we left that John realised he hadn’t restored the dangling bits of the chandelier in our bedroom that he’d tied up with twisted loo paper after he kept walking into them during the night in our over-furnished darkened bedroom. I wonder what Mr Nosey made of that? We stayed in a family-run hotel near the Loire for a night, which was intended as a birthday treat. But we got off to a bad start with Madame as we felt our rather expensive bedroom ought to have a blind in the bathroom (which had a large window overlooking the car park) and also a bath mat. There was a fitting for the blind but “it was our choice when renovating not to replace the blind”. John pinched a swimming pool towel and hung it from the fittings (and pointedly left it there in the morning). It would also be nice in an expensively refurbished room not to have to crawl under the bedside table to find a socket to charge the mobile phone (and to be unable to use the bedside light at the same time). And of course the television and phone were out of order. So after that Madame was a bit tight-lipped when she served us dinner, and for our tastes their menu gourmand was disappointingly bland. They did however do a very good breakfast the next morning and didn’t charge for it after all our various complaints! Our last night was spent in Troyes again on our way home, but this time we had a room in an elegant but untidy town house where our hostess was effervescent and obliging such a change from the previous day and she even provided a pretty little jug of milk for les anglais to have with their afternoon tea (it was the only room during our trip with tea-making equipment). And our French windows overlooked her front garden.

John was sadly disappointed with the restaurants in the area, with their carefully cooked food with no interesting flavours. We are perhaps spoilt by the more adventurous chefs in Alsace. However, that last night in Troyes was perfect at Valentino’s in the old town with its narrow streets and timbered houses. And no, it wasn’t a spaghetti house. We had the menu de la mer which was delicately and tastily spiced and beautifully presented. A lovely conclusion.

Jouhet Chapelle Sainte Catherine

And of course it wasn’t all eating and sleeping. Visiting churches can always be a bit hit-and-miss as to whether they are open, but we were keen to see the frescoes in the Val de Gartempe. In the first village we stopped at we had to find the cafe and ask for the key to the little chapel. It was amazing when we opened the door, with the upper walls and ceiling covered in vibrant fifteenth century paintings of Bible scenes and a big hunting scene in which three skeletons rose from graves to remind the three carefree horsemen of their mortality. It was handy to pause for a coffee while returning the key. Further north on the other side of the river the door of a larger church was ajar, so the nesting birds could fly noisily in and out with worms, and the frescoes, especially in the side chapel, were equally vivid. The monks at the nearby St Savin Abbey clearly had greater funds available, and the lofty vaulting of their church nave had more sophisticated scenes from the Old Testament for the monks to contemplate if they craned their necks. We also headed that day towards a huge nuclear power station very close to a village with a tiny twelfth century church with amazing polychrome capitals, an informative small museum of prehistoric and mediaeval finds (some found during the construction of the power station), and a huge necropolis (with a legend that the bodies in the sarcophogi were the bodies of the army of King Clovis which were lifted up and rained down on this site after a battle); but we avoided the nearby planete des crocodiles.

12C capital in Eglise Saint-Pierre Chauvigny

We had however, forgotten about all the public holidays in France during May. The reconstruction (sadly disappointing) of a prehistoric overhanging sculpted rock site was open on the Tuesday which was VE day. But the book shops in the book town of Montmorillon were all closed on the Thursday morning which was Ascension Day, though we did enjoy the small typewriter and calculator museum there before retreating to the mediaeval sights of Chauvigny which were open for the holiday crowds.

And we finally got to visit friends in Loches. The buildings of Loches seemed familiar as we walked around, as Anne had painted evocative watercolours over the years, many of which they had sent as Christmas cards. Sadly Anne is not well now, but we enjoyed sitting in their garden chatting to Martin.

Ruddy shelduck

We were lucky with mainly hot weather while we were away, but have returned to a wet week of gardening. Our last newsletter mentioned our loo with a view. Our first view on our return was of the black plastic bales, as the north field’s straggling winter crop had been cut while we were away. There was also a steaming aromatic muck heap very close to the window as well as one further up the slope. As if that wasn’t enough, once the bales had been moved, the farmer began to spray liquid manure. The usual large black crows descended on the feast, then from our window yesterday we spotted two exotic birds; they are not in our bird books but Roger has kindly identified them as ruddy shelducks which are rather rare in France. Who knows what we will come back to!