Life & Lifestyle

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Fun with cars

We've managed to have both our cars off the road at the same time.

When you live in the countryside, it pays to have a backup vehicle, given that it's 10 miles to the nearest shop. Most people round here have one main car and one tired old workhorse that can be brought out if need be, and used for taking the rubbish/recycling to the dump. 

We managed with just one car for quite a few years, when we sold our old Nissan Patrol to pay a wood bill when we were broke. I miss that car. It drank petrol like a fish, but I loved the high driving position and feeling as secure as a tank driver.

However, back in the summer, when it transpired that the DH would be off on location shooting a movie for two weeks, we realised that a second car should once again be on the cards, otherwise I was liable to be stranded.

Enter my trusty Renault 19, bought from my friend Kitty for peanuts (used cars are generally very expensive in France). I mainly use it for taking the dog to the lake for a walk, but this week, with our Citroen C5 estate suddenly making horrendous gronking noises, I decided to drive to the swimming pool in the Renault, planning to take the Citroen to the garage the following day (Monday).

After my swim, I got back into the car and pulled out of my parking space, then realised that the screen had misted up again as soon as the heater had kicked in, so stopped the car and was cleaning the inside of the windscreen, when I saw the car in front pull out of its space and begin reversing towards me.

It never occurred to me that she wasn't looking in her wing mirrors. She couldn't have seen me through her back window because that was completely covered in mud. And so, in slow motion, I saw her drive straight into me, taking out my right headlamp. 

Not just that, apparently, having now got my estimate from the garage. It was a torrent of colloquial French, so I didn't get all of it, but I gather that there's quite a bit of damage underneath, and the bill will be 490 euros. Ouch.

The good news on the Citroen is that, having looked grave and said: "It's not the exhaust, it's the engine..." the garagiste tells me the bill will only amount to 112 euros, phew.  

So, I'm off out in a minute to take the voiture de remplacement Xsara POS back to the garage and pick up my trusty C5. It can't go on much longer, though - a new car is in order in the next year or two. But how to afford it? A used C4, which is what we'd like to downsize to, is going to cost a fortune - about double the cost of the same vehicle in the UK... Time then, to do some research on What Car?

(PS: the problem with the Citroen turned out to be petrol in the [diesel] fuel tank.) 

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The UK's property-serfdom

Is the UK really becoming a country of the landed and the landless?

I've been reading articles on housing in the UK lately with a growing sense of horror. 

As the Government is about to put out the housing fire with gasoline with its bloody stupid new bill, the country seems to be dividing, more than ever, into a land of haves and have-nots. Those who have property and those who do not. 

My nephew recently moved to London, having been offered a well-paid job there. Trouble is, he'd just bought a house in Colchester, where he'd previously been working. He doesn't know how long the job will last, so he isn't looking at buying a house in London, but he daren't sell the one in Colchester for fear of dropping off the 'property ladder'. So there he is, like so many young professionals, doing the houseowner two-step, renting out his own house to someone who can't afford to buy, renting himself in London from some other houseowner.

He was able to buy, not because of parental help, but because he works in the insurance industry and earns three times the national wage. But he was still 30 before he could afford it. I bought my first flat when I was 24 when I earned £8,000 a year. 

Just out of curiosity, I looked at values for our old house in Tottenham. My DH and his ex-wife bought that house at the peak of the market in the late 80s for £90,000 - three times joint income - and by the time I met him, he'd already remortgaged it once and it was in negative equity. It remained in negative equity for the next 13 years, and all of our plans to move out of London and get a place together had to be put on hold until finally, painfully, it inched back into profit enough to cover the 110 per cent mortgage.

When we bought our house in France, therefore, we did it via savings, working five jobs between the two of us and saving every penny we could for three years. It cost £45,000, so we put down the £30,000 we'd saved and got a small mortgage for the rest. Then we carried on working, shuttling between France and the UK, renting the London ground floor out to lodgers for another three and half years before moving over in the winter of 99. 

The London house crawled back into positive territory in about 2003 but when our tenant left, no agency would handle the property unless we made considerable structural investments, so we decided to sell it. We took the 25k it made (it sold for £125,000) and paid our French mortgage off with that, paying an early payment penalty on both mortgages. Suddenly we were mortgage-free. Broke, but mortgage-free. It's a decision we've never regretted. 

That house is now valued at around £285,000 - an increase of 228 per cent in 10 years, or £333 a WEEK since 2003, if you want to think of it that way. Meanwhile, UK wages have hardly increased at all and living costs have soared. Anyone who wanted this house now would have to hock themselves up to the eyeballs. 

You know the worst thing? The house is still a shit-hole. The builder who took it over may have fixed the damp front wall and leaking pipes under the hallway floor, but there will still be the same crummy backyard view of the neighbour's fence 4ft away. The miniscule back garden (our 'patio' was 8ft x 8ft and it took up most of the space), will still look onto the blank sidewall of a house in the next street, and will still only get two hours of sunlight a day, a legacy from when all houses were built with their kitchens facing north.

The front garden will still be 4ft deep, so every passer by can look into your windows unless you hang shades or blinds to cut out much of your own light. The sound will still bounce and echo off the buildings opposite so that even whispers sound like shouts at night, and it will still only be the upstairs rooms that receive any light. 

And even if you could fix all that, it would still be in fucking Tottenham, for Christ's sake. With Broadwater Farm at one end of the road and a burnt-out car at the other. 

It is madness that a crummy, small, cramped, jerry-built 1905 house should be 'worth' so much money. It wasn't 'worth' what we sold it for. It wasn't 'worth' what my husband paid for it. How any normal person could afford it now and still afford to maintain it is beyond me. In the same timeframe, our French house has taken 17 years to treble in value - a rise of about 8 per cent per year. 

But what is to be done in the UK? When there is such a dire housing shortage, which was, let's face it, fuelled by Thatcher forbidding councils to build more housing, thus forcing people into the private rented sector, that which is scarce becomes valuable. The house owners have everyone else over a barrel. 

Some of the property speculation seen in the UK would be pointless in France because the capital gains system discourages it. Our old London house, for instance, which was bought, done up and sold on by a builder, would attract stonking capital gains in France. To buy a house, do it up yourself and then live in it is just fine, but the French government does not approve of people renovating only to make a profit. 

And why do new houses cost so much bloody money in the UK anyway? Here in France, it's quite normal to buy a plot and to have a house built to your own spec. There are masses of companies that make them, and every village has its lotissements, where a bunch of plots are sold together. You can get a perfectly nice small detached house built to a basic design from around 60,000 euros, including the land. 120,000 euros would buy you a very comfortable detached house with a big plot and an attached garage. This kind of pricing makes housing far more affordable and also acts as a damper on prices of other property. Ours will very likely never be worth more than it is now, because someone could always buy a new-build instead, at less money (and under a more advantageous tax regime).

It is terrifying to see what has happened to housing, which is SHELTER, one of humanity's most basic needs, in the UK. I can only hope that this property bubble will once again see a massive burst and that housing - not 'property' wil once again take up the place it deserves, as something that is affordable to most of the population.  

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Staying warm this winter

Tips for staying snug as the temperatures drop.

With all the furore over high energy prices, and a cold winter forecast, I thought I'd write a few words on staying warm this winter. I don't know if any truly broke people read this blog, but if they do, I hope these tips will be helpful. 

The DH and I, and all of our friends, know a thing or two about being cold in winter. It is basically impossible to heat these draughty old piles, even spending 3,000-5,000 euros a year on fuel, and most of us are more than used to coping in the cold. In our house, a normal daytime temperature is about 14 degrees. The kitchen is usually about 9-10 and the bedroom can go as low as 8, though I am hoping to avoid that this winter by moving to a warmer part of the house. 

This is as nothing compared with our friends, some of whom endure temperatures as low as 5 degrees in their bedrooms over winter.

Anyway, here are things we've found helpful.

CLOTHES

Dress when inside as if you were outside. And there are certain parts of your body you really need to keep warm: your head, hands, neck, feet, kidneys and wrists - areas where large veins run through. 

Thermals are de rigeur and will pay for themselves many times over - I've had some of mine for 20 years. You want themals designed as base layers for outdoor sports, if possible, rather than those designed as mere thermals, which are not as warm. A high neck top with long sleeves and long johns are your best bets - don't go for v-neck or short-sleeve options, especially if your budget is tight, though a sleeveless vest can be useful for layering. By far the best base layers I've found are the ClimateControl SuperMan and SuperWoman sets from Five Seasons, which you can get from outlets such as Skiwear For Less. They are also dead cheap. I am also a big fan of the Zephyr vest and long johns, and the Eddy long-sleeved base layer from Finisterre, in merino, though these are a serious investment (they're cheaper on Ebay). 

For outer layers, you can't beat polarfleece for a warmth to weight ratio. I favour stretch fleece layers from Lands' End - all winter I live in their stretch fleece pants, poloneck tops (bought in Tall to get them tunic length) and gilets. My sister has just invested in these too and is finding them a godsend. Wool layers are also good, but the weight quickly adds up and you don't want to wear anything that discourages you from moving about. Don't wear a skirt - it's nowhere near warm enough, but if you absolutely have to, for work, for instance, fleece-lined tights (ordered direct from China on Ebay) are wonderfully warm and cost about £6. 

For your feet, you want Uggs or Ugg-style boots, in real sheepskin if possible but if your budget won't stand it, fake sheepskin will do. And big thick socks - I wear the Explorer from Corrymoor, made from pure mohair. You need socks that won't make your feet sweat, so wool is the best bet here. In France you can also buy fleece-lined wellie socks that look like booties, which keep your feet as warm as toast. If you can't stretch to wool socks, get acrylic winter socks, usually in a towelling-type fabric. 

All of these clothes do require some investment but about the cost of a month's heating bill is usually enough per year.

If need be, on top of these clothes, wear a warm coat with a fleece or quilted lining. Alternative options include a wool dressing gown (easily run up from a charity shop blanket if you can't find an actual dressing gown), a fleece dressing gown (a dark colour will make you feel more dressed) or a wool kimono. I bought a bunch of wool kimonos this summer from Shinei and they cost peanuts - some of them were only $2 or $4 plus shipping. It does rather amuse me in winter that I often remove a layer such as a kimono in order to put on a layer such as a coat in order to go out - I'm not actually wearing fewer clothes indoors than out, just slightly different ones. 

Keep your head covered. Indoors in winter, I wear knitted cloche hats or beanies. Even a knitted or stretchy hair band in velvet or velour, 1920s-style, helps keep your forehead warm, but there are reasons you see all women throughout history wearing caps and one of them is to stay warm. If your head gets cold in the night, you can also sleep in a beanie. 

For sleepwear, fleece pyjamas are great. I got mine on Amazon. You can also sleep in your thermals if they're ClimateControl, wool or silk.

If you can find a back warmer, these also help keep you really snug without adding too much bulk. They're basically just a wide, knitted band that covers your kidneys. If you can't find one and have a sweater that's past it, cut it off under the arms and wear it in the same way, pulled down over your hips. 

Fingerless gloves or wristwarmers are a big help. My hands get freezing in winter when typing but a little pair of knitted gloves I bought many years ago is still going strong, along with kid leather ones from a charity shop, whose fingertips I cut out. You can also layer your gloves up. 

Wear a scarf or snood, especially if you're not in a poloneck.   

Tuck everything into everything else. I wear my thermal top over my longjohns, then my fleece top over my fleece pants and tuck the bottoms into my boots.

THE HOUSE

If your windows aren't double-glazed, cover them with plastic sheet, which you can secure with double-sided tape and then tighten with a hairdryer. It obviously means you can't open those windows all winter. 

Stopper up cracks with Feb spray foam or silicone seal if possible, or papier maché made from torn paper and glue or paint. 

Run Sellotape or duct tape down the hinge side of doors, and around all window frames. Add foam sealing strips to all doors, if possible.

Make sausage-dogs for the bases of doors. The most effective are stuffed with sand, but anything will do, from shredded newspaper to old sweaters.

Where you sit, cover the furniture with a fleece or wool blanket to retain your body warmth. 

An electric blanket for the bed is a cheaper option than heating the room.

You can double-hang curtains, if the rod will stand it, by hanging a lining set from the spare eyes on the header tap. Alternatively, line them with blankets or old duvets - it makes your curtains pretty fat, but they do a better job of retaining the heat.

Keep curtains drawn unless it's sunny outside and the external temperature is higher than 7 degrees centigrade.  

HABITS

Each morning, have as hot a shower or bath as you can bear, then get dressed immediately - this way, your body retains heat for hours. If you can't afford to shower every day, bang up the electric blanket to maximum before you get out of bed, get yourself good and toasty and get dressed immediately - you can even pull your clothes into bed with you to warm them up too. When I was a child, we all used to lay out our clothes on the living room furniture overnight, as this was the only room that had a fire.   

Eat something every three hours, or at least drink a hot drink. Oxo is worth its weight in gold at this time of year.

If you're sitting or in bed, use a heated pad in the small of your back (I got mine from Lidl), or fill a hot water bottle as your own personal heater.

Snuggle under a blanket or slanket of an evening.

Move about as much as you can. Star jumps every hour are a good way to get your circulation going, if you're able.  

FOOD

For cheap recipes, buy my book, Make Do and Cook, or visit Jack Monroe's blog, A Girl Called Jack. Cheap foods you can keep in at all times include pasta, bread, lentils, chickpeas, baked beans, potatoes and tinned tomatoes. In winter, you can just about manage without a fridge, incidentally, as many of us grew up doing in the 60s. Just stand your milk, etc, in a large bowl of cold water, renewed daily. Back then, we all had large Tupperware bowls for this purpose, which looked like a half-barrel and had a dead-flat bottom. Today, something like a washing-up bowl does the trick. 

 

 

 

 

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Covered in bees

It's like Wildlife on One in here.

It's the third time in three days that this room has suddenly filled up with bees. There is, methinks, a nest somewhere in the ceiling. Or possibly a swarm. 

So, here I sit, with the wind picking up and the temperatures falling (a whopping storm is due tomorrow, apparently) and all the doors and windows wide open to let out our dumbass pollinating friends, who, right now, seem more interested in kissing the lightbulbs than heading for the outside world.

The fresh air is just as well, really, as the smell of death is hanging over the place, courtesy of a rodent that my cat, Mini, brought in and thoughtfully secreted somewhere about three days ago. I'd managed to wrest one as big as a grape off her that morning, and I found yesterday's critter dead in a box, glued with its own blood to the cardboard. But this one has eluded me until it's made its pungent, methane-laden presence felt. 

Is it under the sofa? No. Is it under the armchair? No. Is it under the coffee table? No. Nor the buffet, the two logboxes, the recycling cupboard or the side-table. I have run out of moveable options, but I'm pretty sure it's under the oak sideboard that took three men to shift in here 16 years ago and has never been moved again. It's probably a mouse charnel house under there. 

The options, then, come down to air freshener, scented candles and joss sticks, all of which might be resorted to over the next day or two, and all of which give me more incentive to get out of the house and head for the EuroMayenne fair tomorrow. 

I had my heart set on buying a hat, but since I found my cloches, I'm now not so sure. Maybe if I can find something mad enough, perhaps made of felt and with several colours... Or maybe a cape, with bright autumnal colouring, something I can chuck on over a coat. Today, as we walked around the lake, watching the panting fun-runners huff and puff past us, I suddenly got a craving to get my orange wool 1960s coat out of storage, ready for winter.  

The problem is, the Euromayenne fair has been quite dispiriting this past few years. Five or six years ago, it was well worth a visit, absolutely packed with stalls (I took one myself and sold clothing for three straight years), but with every subsequent year, there seem to be fewer stalls and fewer visitors, traipsing around the vast, echoing hall. They would do far better to take a smaller space and create a warmer atmosphere, really.

It marks the final event of the year, however, so I don't like to miss it, before everything shuts down and goes into total hibernation till about next May. And thank heavens, it is at least indoors, even if it does lack atmosphere.  

I think today is the cusp. We walked the dog in 19 degrees of heat and blazing sunshine after lunch, but with stormy weather due, the DH decided it was time to take the cover off the pergola and put away the patio furniture till next year. Now dismantling that really does feel final - it was with real melancholy that we packed it away - the true acknowledgement that we will not sit outside again until 2014. 

PS: found the mouse - inside the cover of my cat's headed bed, cooking away nicely...  

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The last days of summer

Autumn is coming and it'll be a hell of a shock.

Just back from the annual vide-grenier at Passais. You thought last year was bad? Jeezy Creezy. 

Last year I was weirded out by endless needlepoints of scary-assed clowns, but this year, all told there were only about 20 stalls, all loaded with absolute crap; a bunch of oldsters doing line-dancing on a raised stage, in mock country and western gear; the usual kiddie roundabout thing with rocket cars; and a troupe of people walking through the village dressed in the fashions of yesteryear, singing a traditional song.

And that was that.

Sadly, due to a nuit blanche last night, I was feeling too parlous to drive all the way to Bion, where there is meant to be another fair, but I am also a little tired of wild goose chases where these things are concerned. Ten or 15 years ago, these vide-greniers were a good laugh. Between 50 and 100 stalls, and packed with people, they were a fun day out and you always knew you'd come home with a little something.

But today all I came home with was a couple of bits from a local second-hand shop that I'd already had my eye on a few days ago - a little wooden box decorated with agapanthus and a bud vase in turquoise ceramic.

Oh la. And the weather's not helping, as this dull, grey day is a sudden shot across the bows to remind us that in actual fact, it's nearly autumn.

Traditionally here at our house in France, we light the first fire of winter on 1 September, to get the house nicely stoked up before the temperature drops. And 1 September is now only a week away.

It will come as a great shock after one of the sunniest, driest and hottest summers for a long time to realise that no, it's not actually going to last forever. My body and skin have gotten used to warm air and comfort, to the touch of linen and the thinnest of silks. We have spent most of July and August out on the patio under the pergola, hosting barbecues and lunches for friends.

Even my beloved cabin was way too hot for comfort and has been sadly neglected this summer. On Thursday I was lounging in the deep shade of my friend John's hedge as we waited for principal photography to finish on my husband's film, while his cast and crew were sweltering indoors with all the lights on, and plagued by flies. 

But last night for the first time in a couple of months, I actually felt cold in bed and found myself reaching for an alpaca throw to top off my thin linen nightie. And at the next bed change, the electric blanket will be going back on, followed, not long after, by the move to our new winter bedroom, and the closing off of the top floor thanks to our new stair door, which is being installed this week. 

I cannot say that I welcome the idea of autumn this year. Normally I find September an energising month, redolent of all those back-to-school days when you got to see your friends again after six weeks with the family. And normally August is a sultry month, peppered with thunderstorms and often grey skies, so that by the time the cooler days return, you're utterly sick of being hot and sweaty and you welcome the drop in temperature. 

But not this year. The summer has been - after its very late start - so preternaturally perfect that I would really love it to go for a while - say a couple of years. It's not easy to tire of these cool, refreshing mornings and evenings, and warm, relaxed days. Waah. I am SO not looking forward to bundling up in fleeces again.

Nevertheless, I have been a sensible girl and recently ordered some winter clothing - winter walking boots, new trekkers, winter snow boots and a couple of fleece items all from Lands' End, along with some long socks from Corrymoor, including Woodlander Plus Fours that come up over your knees like your old school socks. Now all I need do is order new Uggs and I'm all set for the season. 

 

 

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Avoiding the news

Apart from some slight guilt, I feel massively better for no longer reading or watching the news.

A housing crisis

There are so many empty houses near where we live - you'd think something could be done.

Busy doing something

Today I have mostly... been a scrubber

Les nuits blanches

Looks like another sleepless night, then...

A grand day out

Well, not grand, but at least it got us out of the house.

Ghost town

Our local supermarket has closed, a victim of recession

Another week bites the dust

Snow, snow, and more snow....

The end-of-winter blues

Spring, spring, when will it be spring?

That was the week that was

Some weeks just aren't worth repeating.