Life & Lifestyle

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The end of the maize

The last harvest of the year is upon us

Maize

They are taking the maize. 

It's always with a touch of melancholy that I write that phrase each year - though this year it's later than usual, due to the wonderful long Indian summer we've all been enjoying. The end of the maize is the signal to hunker down for winter, to make sure the woodpile is well stocked, the oil tank is filled and the velvet throws are back on the sofa. 

The maize in this part of Normandy is for animal consumption only - we simply don't get the sun and heat that would ripen it enough for humans to eat. All day long and all night the combines have been running for the past few days, as hunters gather around with shotguns in case of the wild boar or deer that hide within the maize fields. The farmers don't own the behemoth machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of euros each: no one farmer can afford one, so the plant is hired out, hence the 24-hour work schedule. 

The maize is beautiful when it's standing, forming great tunnels 8ft high, turning country drives into something of an adventure (when lost, head uphill - at some point there'll be a church and then you can find your way again). But the harvest brings consolations with it as the landscape opens out again and fills with light, restoring a view that was lost for months. 

In normal progression, then will come the rain, which turns the stiffly stubbled fields into something resembling the paddies of South East Asia - on a bright day, the reflection from the water is like walking on a landscape of mirrors.

This autumn, though, it is particularly beautiful, with china blue skies above, the golden maize, and all the trees still in leaf, turning shades of gold, russet, ochre and saffron. Walking the dogs means crunching over acres of chestnuts - one of the biggest crops I've ever seen in our 18 years here. If only they weren't so fiddly to cook... I always feel it's such a waste that these trees, planted originally by the Romans that came this way as food for their troops, are so little harvested - and when we eat chestnuts, it's usually the Italian bottled variety. 

The apple crop is bumper too this year, at least for the late bloomers, and the whole district smells of apples and pineapple weed and camomile.  

The maize is the last harvest of the year, barley being the first. Our land is entirely surrounded by the fields of one farmer and this year he planted barley for his chickens - my favourite crop because of the achingly sweet smell when it's ripe, turning every day into a honey-dipped festival. Every other year he plants wheat, which takes the longest of all crops to grow - the farmers plant it in November or December and by Christmas, it's coming up like a lime-green pelt clothing the furry landscape.

The barley is taken in early summer, the wheat in late, when cutting through a field smells like walking through a loaf of brown bread. Between may come oilseed rape with its insistently bright flowers and sickly honey smell when in bloom, followed by the rotting cabbage stench of its leaves, usually ploughed in for green manure when they shoot again after the seeds are taken. Occasionally the farmers plant oats - a tough grass that will grow almost anywhere and which I dread a little because the next year it will come up all over our courtyard. 

So, just a few more weeks to enjoy nature's bounty and then it will all be gone, the morning walk with the dogs will be in wellies over ploughed brown earth, the silhouettes of trees will be like black skeletons and the colour will drain from the landscape, leaving the eye to frantically seek out colour when it reappears again in spring. 

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Puppy love

As if life wasn't complicated enough...

Cezanne 1

The house has been in uproar for weeks now. So after three weeks of renovating a caravan, then making a short film, then having our bathroom ripped out five weeks ago (and yes, we're still without a bath), the refrigerator packing up and the kitchen taps falling apart, we decided to complicate matters by buying a puppy. 

The timing's not brilliant, admittedly, but when IS a good time to have sprogs? Not ever, if you stop to think about it.

The catalyst for getting the new pooch was our friends C&G, who lucked onto a beautiful puppy and phoned us to crow about it. His name is Rufus and he is absolutely beautiful - one quarter each of husky, malamute, Belgian shepherd and Pyrenean sheepdog. He looks like a little rust-coloured husky and we were quite smitten. This is how I am with animals - our friends have kids and I couldn't care less, but kittens or puppies, well that's another matter. 

We bought Rufus's brother and named him Cézanne, but while he was still at his original owners' I did some more research on his breed parentage and I panicked - both huskies and malamutes are known cat-killers, and unlike other breeds that are fine with cats they were raised with, they are known to turn on cats they've known their whole lives and tear them apart.  

I joined a husky owners forum in the hopes of being reassured but they all insisted it was a bad mix and that they never, ever turned their back on their dogs. We have three cats and we're cat people - we're known as cat people, sometimes having as many as nine at a time. We can't endanger them for a dog we don't know yet. So regretfully, and I did cry a bit, we decided against the husky cross.

I was bitterly disappointed, as I'd met the little fella and he was gorgeous, but as luck would have it, I almost immediately spotted another puppy, this time a Breton spaniel/Labrador cross - sometimes known as a Labny or Brittador. This one, I thought, must surely fit the bill, and I provisionally arranged to go and see her.

The temperament is perfect, but a brief look at what these dogs look like when they're grown up and the DH lost interest. They are basically Labradors with Breton markings (white blaze, etc), and this is too big and too smooth-coated for us. We love Zola, our Breton/Gordon setter cross, with his big foofy tail and leg feathers and floppy ears - for us, he is the perfect dog - so I set about finding something similar.

Next up was Bella, a gorgeous three-year-old rescue dog down south, who was a spaniel/setter cross of unknown origin, with markings almost the reverse of Zola's - mostly white with black details. But the shelter said she hated cats, so again with regret we gave up on this idea. 

I was beginning to think we weren't going to find anything in the short term. There were several purebred Breton spaniel litters coming up but they either dock them at birth or they're born without tails, and we did specifically want that big flag tail, so I enlarged the hunt to setters of all kinds, French spaniels and Epagneuls bleus de Picardie. But then suddenly I saw an ad on AngloInfo for the last puppy in a litter of Sprollies. 

A Sprollie is a Border collie/Springer spaniel cross. Not a true breed, but those who breed them are hoping to have them recognised as such at some point. I researched them online and got very excited - gorgeous working dogs that are generally rather calmer than collies, but with a long lean body, great leg feathers, short flop ears and an alert, but soft expression. They are good at agility, though not as good as Borders, and any given pup may lean more to one parental side than the other. 

rang for more info and gave our circumstances: childfree, home all day, 1 hectare of wild garden surrounded by farmland, rarely travel and never abroad, lots of time for training and walking, etc, and we arranged to go see him. Within minutes of walking into the room, I could see the DH was in love. He got this soppy expression that I'd only seen before when he saw Zola for the first time, and within minutes we'd made the down payment. 

8 weeks

Cézanne, for thus he is named, is the ugly one of the litter, and since he is beautiful, that might give you an idea of what the others were like. He had four litter mates, plus his mum, five older siblings, his dad and a Border collie named Jenna. They are all beautiful dogs - keen, bright-eyed, lean and full of bounce.

We visited him one more time to take over a towel, fleece, toys and cat carrier so that he could come home with something familiar, but there was no need. When we went to get him for the final time, aged eight weeks (see right), he attached himself to us instantly and doesn't appear to miss his canine family at all, the heartless little sod. He slept on my lap all the way home, isn't travel sick and appears to fear nothing except Zola barking, at which point he heads for the corner.

He's had a busy few days in the four days since we got him: travel, visits to the vet, repairmen coming to the house, friends visiting for brunch, a trip to the supermarket to see what crowds look like, a trip to the local park where he struggled to be put down (not allowed until he'd vaccinated). And lots of playing and running about and playing with Kongs and annoying the crap out of Zola.

The cats have decamped to the woods, the kitchen and our bedroom in their respective huffs, but they will come around in their own good time, no doubt (he's already had one claw through the nose for looking at Bembo the wrong way).

And Lord, I had forgotten how full on this is: toileting every hour during the day, and every time he plays, eats, drinks or wakes up (one of which he does at pretty much every given time...). But it's the nights that are the hardest, going to bed at 11.00, setting the alarm for 1.00, and 3.00, and 5.00 and 7.00. Blurgh. 

Roll on 12 weeks of age, at which point he'll be able to hold his bladder for four hours!  

 

 

 

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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.

The last days of summer

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

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....