Couples whirl round the centre of the floor – all those elderly men I usually see in T-shirts or anoraks now resplendent in bright coloured tailored jackets, pressed trousers, and polished shoes, gliding and steering women I’ve only seen moving in walking boots or keep-fit plimsolls, now elegant in slim glittering skirts and high heels, elaborate make-up and freshly waved hair. It is January 6th and the retired residents of Sainte Marguerite (and surrounding villages) are celebrating Twelfth Night. The invitation mentioned the galette des rois, an almond puff pastry tart (containing charms like our Christmas pudding ones) in honour of the three kings. It didn’t mention the champagne, the live music and the dancing! Outside is a thin layer of snow, the temperature having dropped overnight to minus 12 degrees. A very jolly conclusion, back in the Vosges after Christmas and New Year in the UK, to the festive season.
This Christmas everything had seemed to be in reverse. Instead of packing up to leave for France, we had packed the car for the trip back to England. However, it was most relaxing not to be doing it at the same time as working! The highlights of our trip were Christmas dinner cooked by John in my mother’s little kitchen, a birthday trip with Leila to the second part of Lord of the Rings, Boxing Day with John’s mother at her nursing home and then with his sister and family, a couple of nights in Putney with visits to the new British Library and the start of the sales, and the second hand bookshops of Broadstairs and Canterbury. Toby phoned on Christmas Day from a hot, relaxing beach in Mexico. He didn’t seem to be missing the British rain, the damp or the post-Christmas sales at all! But for us it was lovely to see the rest of the family and those friends who weren’t off skiing or globe trotting. John didn’t feel like socialising very much with friends over Christmas as he had an ear infection which caused deafness on one side. He went to our old doctor on Christmas Eve morning (a choice of appointment times and an empty surgery waiting room – very different from the rest of the year!) and was prescribed a course of antibiotics; but the infection only finally cleared up earlier this week.
As we drove back towards Entre-deux-Eaux on 2nd January, we could feel the wind getting up. St Dié was a blaze of pretty white lights up the main streets (there seemed to be more for New Year than for Christmas and far superior to the lights in Nottingham) and despite my pre-Christmas disparaging remarks about French illuminations, felt welcoming, as did Entre-deux-Eaux. As we unloaded the car in the dark, the wind was getting stronger and we could hear an odd noise up the chimney. However, we slept soundly after the long drive. In the morning, John noticed plastic sheeting, which we use to rot down weeds, had blown off the garden and also one of the patio tables was reclining in the field minus one leg. On investigating he also found that the top section of a cement chimney cowl had blown off, shattering several roof tiles as it fell, and that several other roof tiles had either blown off or slipped down. Fortunately there was sufficient lull in the wind and rain for him to get out the ladders and re-position some tiles and insert new ones (we have a stack ready for such emergencies – those removed when the Velux windows were installed!). Our friend Nicola and her dogs in a neighbouring village hadn’t slept all night for fear that her roof would blow off again (as ours had) in the great tempest of Christmas 1999. Even the newspapers reported it as a mini-tempest with trees snapped and uprooted in the region. It was fortunate that we hadn’t lingered longer in the UK as we’d initially thought we might.
The following day we drove over the Vosges to Colmar and Mulhouse in search of a replacement analogue satellite TV box for French programmes, our old one having given up the ghost whilst we were away. I think we must have located and viewed every single DIY and electrical retailer but found none that had the same specifications as the old box. In the end we settled for a cheap box from a store in St Dié! As we returned over the heights, the snow was beginning to settle. Now this won’t be news to you all back in the UK, following all the disruption there due to snow, but we did feel relieved that we (notice the use of “we” – well, I did put on a builders’ helmet and hold the ladder whilst John did all the dangerous work) had sorted out the roof before the snow started to settle that night and before the winds had got up again (for, if they’d blown into the holes, they could have lifted even more tiles).
In the old part of the farmhouse, we are on a cheap tariff for electricity (those of you who have experienced it will be groaning already!). For most of the year unit electricity costs are about 40% cheaper than the standard rate. However on the 20 coldest (or what are expected to be the coldest) days of the year the unit cost increases to about five times the standard rate. These “red days” and can occur any day between the beginning of November and end of March, except at weekends and public holidays – and you only know the next day will be a red day after 8.00pm in the evening. The high charge is obviously to dissuade those otherwise benefiting from the cheap tariff from using electricity and so leave more electricity to meet demands of others (reducing the need to power up reserve power stations). To cut down our electricity usage (and bills!) on these days we have a switch which automatically cuts power to the electric heating circuits. As the temperatures dropped after that first snowfall to below minus 10 and the weekend ended, a series of five consecutive red days started!
With the imminent arrival of the first red day we soon decided that the time had come to move our beds and armchairs up into the new apartment, where we could luxuriate in the warmth of the oil-fired under-floor central heating. Initially it took a day or so for the concrete floor mass to heat through thoroughly (the circulating heating water runs at a lower temperature than standard wall radiators – about 45 degrees) and to warm up the rooms, and then patient adjustment of the controls to a satisfactory temperature (since there is quite a time lag for changes to take effect). But now it is wonderful. We still have to come to the cold farmhouse to cook and to shower as the new kitchen and bathroom are not ready. And the computer is still in the cold dining room, so this newsletter has been delayed until the old farmhouse electric heating came back on this weekend!
So with all these heating changes taking place last Monday, I particularly enjoyed sitting in the warmth of St Marguerite’s community room, swigging champagne and eating my galette des rois. John decided there was no pleasure to be had in making French small-talk to pensioners, but that shopping (including DIY shops) would be more interesting, so he agreed to pick me up after an hour. It turned out that festivities would continue for several hours, with more food and coffee. However, I had plenty of time to chat with acquaintances from keep-fit, and to be introduced to a member of the Scrabble club.
As a result of the latter, I intrepidly set out to play Scrabble, French community style, on Thursday afternoon. The group’s know-all was seated next to me to help me with the intricacies, but he soon got absorbed in finding his own highest scoring words for the group’s grid! However, I pestered him about the solutions. French Scrabble has a different letter distribution and letters score differently, as z is relatively common, whereas there aren’t many w words. The brilliantly scoring w word was “wu” a little known (apart from scrabble addicts) Chinese dialect. Well, I definitely learnt lots of new words (including the imperfect subjunctive of the verb obtenir, a word for a Quebecois cheese which is useful if you have a k, “paf” useful when hitting someone in a cartoon strip and if you have an f, and English-looking words like “liner” and “out” which aren’t in my French-English dictionary, but are in the French Scrabble dictionary!). I was just pleased to make any word on each turn! There was also a pleasant surprise at the end, as the scrabble letters and boards were packed away and more champagne and galettes des rois laid out! So I had a festive introduction to the group. From now on, Thursday afternoons will offer a choice of walking with the St Dié group, Scrabble with the Ste Marguerite group, or DIY with John!
Social engagements aside, the rest of the week since our return has been spent on tidying the barns so that the first can house the car now the weather has turned snowy and the second can house the bay trees and rosemary (as well as cardboard boxes full of kitchen equipment, piles of wood, ladders, tools freezer, geraniums, fuchsias, garden tools, cardboard, plastic, etc.). The third barn really needs a rear door before it will be useful for keeping things frost-free!
We spent a delightfully warm Friday morning in the showrooms of a specialist Scandinavian wood-burning stove dealer after a snowy drive over the cols. We were so impressed by the stoves that we fell in with the French way of doing things and are having someone come over next week to eye up the space and the chimney in order to give us a quotation for installation. The idea is to be able to sit by a flickering real log fire – but of course, as we know to our cost, it is also very useful to have an stand-by means of heating when electricity or oil fails!
So warm thoughts to everyone. We hope you’re all surviving the cold in relative comfort. Thank-you for all the Christmas letters, e-mails and cards. It was great to catch up on news. Very best wishes for 2003.