Sex a la francaise - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Part 3. ...Now I came to think of it, no woman would have leaped astride a seat in quite such an inelegant way. We women have learned from years of experience what to do with our legs when we sit. This woman, man or whatever he was, certainly hadn't yet learned that vauable art, his legs all akimbo either side of the rounded, almost womanly, curves of the cello. Now that I knew, I almost expected the musician to shout out 'Whatcha mate' in recollection of Danny la Rue.
Later, having got used to the idea but having enjoyed immensely the lilting strains of the music for the last hour, we walked over to the bar and chattered to her - sorry, him. It appeared that he was English. His name was Marie, nee Mark, and he had led a very interesting life. Marie, formerly known as Mark, came to France being fed up with work as a builder in England. His brother was building in France and needed help so Mark said he would come for a couple of weeks; eleven years later he is still here.
In recent years work as a builder became impossible as fairly serious hormonal changes made Mark feel that he was a woman. In fact the hormone imbalance had a physical as well as a mental impact on his life. Impossible to work on a building site in a dress but Mark, now Marie, knew he still had to earn a living.
A lucky chance brought him to this bar at the same time as the owners were thinking of selling. (Of all the bars in all the world, you had to come to this one...) Mark jumped at the chance to step in and has worked hard for the last six months to make the bar and restaurant a success. Marie admits that she made a few mistakes at first but now with a new chef planning an exciting international menu, she feels very positive. Marie still has many problems to face including the prospect of a full sex change operation which her doctors are advising. We had to admit that listening to her story certainly changed our previous view on transvestites. Having listened carefully to her whole courageous story, we told her that whatever she decides to do in the future, we sincerely wished her well.
That night, lying in bed unable to sleep, I mulled long and hard on that emotive word 'sex'. If we're ever to get to grips with what it's like to be a Frenchman or woman, it's time we got to grips with French social customs, and not before time. Let's start with kissing......
To be continued.......................

30th August 2008

In our mailbox this morning was the September edition of the English-language newspaper The Connexion. We particularly like it because it reports on French news, but in English. The French themselves aren't great newspaper readers, and only one household in four actually buys a newspaper. The two best-known are Le Monde and Le Figaro, the so-called tabloid press being virtually non-existent in France. Of course, we can read UK newspapers via the internet, but these are naturally UK-biased and we need to keep in touch with what's going on near to where we now live. Although my spoken and written French has improved markedly in the 3 years we have lived here, it still helps a lot to read The Connexion because it focuses on the issues affecting English people living in France and the many problems that involves! In this month's edition I read that President Sarkozy has made sure that all workers in France, including part-timers, will not earn less whilst employed than they would if receiving unemployment benefits: something that Gordon Brown would do well to take on board. Mind you, as him indoors often used to say when asked how many people work at his establishment: 'Oh, about half of 'em.'
P.S. Don't miss part 3 of Sex a la francaise - appearing exclusively tomorrow on this site.

29th August 2008

Watching last night's TV made me mull over a lot of things. In the programme 'Who do you think you are', Jerry Springer was attempting to trace his ancestors. Quite apart from the anguish of revisiting the horrors of Nazi Germany, he was able to see and feel some of the all-too-real artefacts of that time: newspaper stories, buildings, trains. It became clear to him that these tactile objects from that time weren't merely the remnants from one lunatic dictator's rule, but represented the actual feelings of the general German population 70 years ago. After watching the programme, I looked out of the window and realised that today I was living my life in what was once German-occupied territory. How is it that for such a long time we have been free from world war? Could it be that the EU, for all its bureaucracy and accusations of identity-blocking, is something not to be abhored but to be lauded? Since moving away from the UK, I've come to realise that people become too-insular and narrow-focused living tightly-packed together, brain-washed by all the strident messages from the local media. Pause a while, give yourself time to stand and stare. The more democracies there are which are willing to sign peace treaties with each other, the more chance the people of the world can live without fear or restriction. If this is what the EU has done, then I'm all in favour of it. Nazi Germany must NEVER happen again.

28th August 2008

I have always had a somewhat eclectic taste in music, ranging from the really old stuff like Al Jolson, through the wonderful '50s music of Doris Day, Alma Cogan and Patsy Kline, the heady pop days of the '60s to the almost wistful American country styles of John Denver and Crystal Gale. So, it was with some trepidation that we went along to a classical musical soiree last night, held at the prestigious chateau home of some friends of ours. The event was held in aid of two local artistic charities so it would have been churlish to refuse. It was a beautiful evening, gloriously warm with streaks of red and gold in the still-blue sky. The reception was held in the grounds, where we were able to chat in both English and French. There was also a sprinkling of Dutch (who, from the road-sweepers up, speak every known language under the sun). Soon, we all climbed upstairs into a giant barn, with huge wooden rafters way above our craning heads. Examples of local artwork, towards which we would be donating, were displayed all around the heavy stone walls. The music started and for an hour we were lulled into reverie by a trio of musicians: a flute, clarinet and bassoon. There was a gentle selection, flowing with ease from Stravinsky, Debussy to Beethoven. Even to musical heathens like us, it sounded good. Afterwards, we wended our way through the sunset, despite stories of the history of the chateau where someone was apparently beheaded! But, I wasn't worried. If music be the food of love, play on.

27th August 2008

Interim report from the torture chamber.
I am now half-way through the standard 15 sessions with my physio and I am still alive to tell the tale. Yesterday my appointment was at his other consulting room in a pretty village called Arnac. Apparently he holds his morning sessions there and the afternoon sessions in the nearby town of St. Antonin. Anyway, with my usual trepidation I drove up to Arnac and saw that his rooms were actually based in a large, beautiful old stone house, overlooking the Midi-Pyrenees hills. When I arrived, the mist was just starting to lift over the distant peaks, giving the whole view a surreal feel. I shivered involuntarily. But there he was with his usual jovial bonhomie and firm handshake, waiting for me in the drive. Is this your house? I asked him, to take my mind off things. No, it's my mother's, he replied. Another shiver, as I imagined some ancient crone living in the upper dark turrets of the house. Maybe, like Toulouse-Lautrec, he keeps her hidden because of the hump on her back. Before going in to start the session, where no doubt he would attempt to continue pulling my arm through its usual tortuous angles, we looked way down the valley, an almost vertical drop. What's that? I pointed down below. 'Oh, that's the cemetery,' he said blithely. 'You can just make out the tops of the white tombstones.' Uhh Ohh. If the treatment hasn't worked, or worse, if his previous clients haven't (like me) paid the bill, is that where they end up............

26th August 2008

Today is the 89th birthday of my aunt. She is a very special lady (the last remaining of my elderly relatives) and I wish I could send her a cake complete with candles, but she lives in Glasgow - too far away. But if it were possible, I know where I would go: the boulangerie just around the corner in our village. Every day they make the most wonderful bread, pastries and gateaux - the smell of freshly-baked bread wafts out of the door at every tinkle of the doorbell. It's no wonder that him indoors buys bread there every single day. It reminded me of what happened last year on my 60th birthday. Unknown to me, H had decided to order me a special birthday cake with a French inscription. It wasn't until afterwards that I heard exactly what had happened. He had apparently explained in tortuous French that he wanted to order a birthday cake with the words: Bonne anniversaire a ........... 60 ans, and that he would collect it on the day. The trouble was that he wasn't at all sure that the baker had understood him, so to make sure, H repeated the message to M. le boulanger a few days later. They carefully wrote it down in their order book. The big day arrived and H called at the boulangerie to collect the cake. Oui, Monsieur, the baker said, Voici vos 2 gateaux! proudly producing 2 beautiful cakes, exactly as ordered with my favourite raspberry filling. Non, non, says H, I didn't want two, just one. This wasn't the time for one finger gesticulations, as the baker looked somewhat confused. In the circumstances what else could H do? He paid the baker, arrived home and somehow we had to manage to eat two delicious cakes instead of one. Quel catastrophe!

25th August 2008

Living in the middle of nowhere can be uplifting, surrounded as we are by all those golden fields and sheep, but sometimes I feel the lack of good shopping facilities (such as we were used to in the UK). I therefore decided to make use of the internet. I remembered those shops that were particularly good for my size(!), so looked up sites like Evans and M&S. Him indoors, not to be outdone, sometimes looks up sites like Draper Tools etc. However, what we have discovered is that these stores still seem to be living in the dark ages. Yes, someone has produced a snappy website for them, but they still talk about such things as 'freight' and 'shipping' as if we were a big company about to move our whole house abroad. One store replied: '...we don't deliver to France...'. I carefully explained that what I wanted was not 'freight', it didn't need to be 'shipped' and that all they needed to do was to pop my desired item into a sealed bag and mail it to me by standard mail. But no! Did they think I wanted it delivered by special van with a driver in a peaked cap? So, what did I do? I went to the place that is number one for customer service: the USA. Stores such as LL Bean in Maine and JC Penney said to me 'no problem'. Their websites had a special international site and they mailed items to me in a sealed bag, sent by airmail. Voila! Please take note, M&S and Evans. It's about time you brought your services into the 21st century.

Sex a la francaise - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Part 2. Whilst on the subject of sex, we thought again about the French. After all, when not eating they are all supposed to be making love. They are internationally known to be obsessed with sex and have a long history of debauchery. Think of the Marquis de Sade, bordellos, French letters, the town of Condom, adultery and masturbation. Ironically, homosexuality is called here le vice anglais, even though their capital city, rife with transvestites, is known worldwide as 'gay Paris'.
In all innocence, as is our wont at our time of life and having led a very sheltered life, one Saturday evening we walked into a local bar to enjoy a quiet drink and take in the ambience of local culture. We gave no thought to a rather beautiful old cello standing idle in the corner. Perhaps there'll be some music later, I thought idly to myself as I looked around at the crowd of locals clustering around the bar. Leaning up against the bar was a wooden hand-painted sign advertising Saturday evening musical sessions. Ah, that was the reason for this sudden influx of people. We smiled indulgently to ourselves, until the attractive busty woman serving the drinks suddenly wiped her hands, lifted up the counter and tottered over to the cello in the highest heels I had ever seen. She was wearing a coral pink, figure-hugging gown, decadently split right up to the thigh, the bodice encrusted with glittering pearls. Her eyes were expertly but heavily made up a la Dusty Springfield , thick clusters of black mascara clinging to her upper and lower lashes, with gold dangly hoop earrings completing the ensemble. As she ran to the cello and with a whoosh jumped astride the wooden chair placed before it, we wondered if we should have moved a little further away, but it was too late as a change of seats now would be an insult to the musician. As the lilting strains of a Jacqueline du Pre wafted around the room, filling our ears with a haunting sensation, H seemed busy studying the musician. Well, he couldn't do anything else sat where he was. I could see him staring fixedly at her almost bare thighs as she sat astraddle the wooden chair, the skirts of her gown straining hugely across her lower regions. Having come to a momentous decision, H leaned over to me and whispered in my ear. 'I think she's a man - or rather he,' he mouthed. 'What? No!' 'Oh yes,' he said, finger tapping the side of his nose. 'I think by now I can tell the difference.....'
To be continued....................

23rd August 2008

When we first contemplated moving to France, it was clear that the ideal scenario would be to enjoy all things French but also to have a few essential things from the UK: i.e. the BBC. Of course, him indoors quite rightly said 'what's the point of moving to France if all we're gonna do is watch Eastenders and all the other soaps?' However, how could we actually obtain English TV/Radio programmes so far away? I'd heard that it's illegal to watch Sky in France, so needed expert advice. We asked around. Apparently the whole subject is a grey area. Sky's broadcasting licence covers only the UK. Because of Sky's licensing restrictions, though, you can't subscribe to any Sky service from a foreign address, you shouldn't connect the Sky box to a telephone line if it's overseas (which means you can't use most of the interactive services) and you should never phone Sky from overseas. We had two choices: Ask to connect to Sky from a UK address or via a company based in France that is licensed to supply and instal Sky systems overseas. We chose the latter. So, voila! We can now watch all the BBC stations plus ITV, Film4, SkyNews, CNN etc. But - and there's always a 'but' here in France - every time it rains, we get pixelated faces on screen and an alarming chunking sound. And, of course, this always happens just when we've reached the denoument in a particularly exciting film. Another problem is the frequent power cuts round here, when in a flash, our English programmes change to French! Oh, the wonders of modern technology.
P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's exciting episode in the Sunday serial 'Sex a la francaise'.

22nd August 2008

There are two things that make Bruno go beserk, other than the dog next door: guns and thunder-storms. Yesterday was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, but I should have guessed from the actions of the old lady who lives in the back lane. Somehow she always knows. The last thing I remember was seeing her shutting and barring all the heavy wooden volets to her house. Suddenly, Blackpool Illuminations blinded us through the open window, followed by a tremendous roar. Blearily I looked towards the night sky, just in time to see a jagged lightening bolt strike with lightening force, followed almost instantaneously by the loudest bang I have heard this side of world war two. Rather like Tchaikovsky's Fifth, the heavens resounded to wave after wave of cymbals and timpani. Him indoors rushed outside in an attempt to shut our own wildly-swinging volets, swearing as he was hit with a blast of wind-lashed rain that angled under the overhang of our tiled roof. As I leaned out, all I could see was Buster Keaton struggling against the odds to shut the volets against the prevailing wind as the hurricane-strength storm was now battering the house from all angles. But, as with everything round here if you're patient, the storm eventually receded, followed in its wake by hours and hours of relentless pounding rain. Bruno, of course, went berserk as expected. And I? I decided, in my wisdom, that the only thing to do was to put the slavering Bruno and the now-drenched Buster Keaton in the sous-sol under the house to quieten down, whilst I relaxed to Jacqueline du Pre's lilting strains on the cello. Well, what else can a poor old ex-pat do?

21st August 2008

This morning the sky outside our window is a glorious deep blue, the quality of light here evocative of an Impessionist painting. The fields are golden brown, shaved of their bales of hay and early autumnal sunlight is glistening from our newly-refurbished swimming pool. All is well, unlike a few months ago when everything resembled a disaster zone. A leak had occurred in our pool and we couldn't find the source. All we knew was that a steadily increasing seepage of water was apparent, bubbling up through the cracks in our patio slabs. Rather like that legendary Dutch boy who tried to stem the tide with his finger in the dyke, nothing we did helped. And to make matters worse, when the water had descended to just a few centimetres, the laws of physics came into play and the inner walls suddenly collapsed inwards with a pop, pop, pop sound - something like press-studs breaking open of their own accord. The whole area looked like a scene from Basra, so with a heavy heart we contacted the pool installers and told them it was an emergency. But, as you know, everything moves slowly in France (rather like les escargots and you know what happens to them). It took two months for them to fix it! No doubt, all through the long winter the pool will be perfect. C'est la vie. At least now, him indoors can invite friends around with his customary 'why don't you drop in sometime?'.
P.S. Don't miss part 2 of Sunday's serial 'Sex a la francaise'.

20th August 2008

Lying in bed this morning, I was thinking back to that first frantic house-hunting trip to this region four years ago. Fate often hangs on seemingly innocuous things. That English estate agency near here had seemed so quaint, situated in the most picturesque part of the village. I had been so nervous walking down the mediaeval cobbled alleyway towards our first look at our future. Everything would depend on it. However, we were in for quite a few disappointments as everything in our price range turned out to be one renovation job after another. I remembered discovering that the most promising property at that time had a tombstone in the front garden, complete with large cross and rosary beads to the fore. We certainly couldn't live with a dead body lying in our front garden. At that time we had already sold our property in the UK and were desperate to find somewhere - anywhere - or we would be homeless. What a time! However, as you've by now gathered, we did eventually find our current house, a pretty bungalow with sky-blue shutters and roses around the door. After our earlier disasters, it was easily the best we had seen. It had a beautiful natural stone fireplace, complete with insert log-burning stove. The French don't seem to worry about smoke-free zones. Set above the insert was a heavy dark oak mantlepiece, rather like a railway sleeper. But for him indoors, he'd already shaken hands with the owner and the deal done before we'd even walked through the door. Why? Because Monsieur had explained to him that the sit-on mower came free with the house.

19th August 2008

Once a week in Caussade the stall-holders arrive, armed with all their latest stock. Unlike our local village market, which basically is just fruit and vegetables, this one is extensive and includes a pot pourri of everything under the sun. After three years in the area, me and him indoors can usually be relied upon to arrive at Caussade without taking the scenic route. As we approach we are always impressed by the hat sculpture at the side of the road. An assortment of delicate straw boaters are artfully displayed on an iron carousel and, guess what, no-one steals them! The city is called 'Cite de la chapeau', being famous for supplying Maurice Chevalier with his famous headgear. (For all you oldies, how can you forget: 'Sank 'eaven for leetle girls....'). A very useful addition to the market is the underwear stall. Can you believe it: they actually stock Playtex Cross-your-Heart bras! I thought they went out with the ark. All this takes him indoors back to his own market-stall in the UK. He sinks back into reverie about all his old customers. 'Can you tell me where I can get felt in the market?' was one never-to-be forgotten moment, as were requests for 'candlestick bedspreads', 'Durex batteries' and the unforgettable 'You can't get a decent screw anywhere'. Ah, such memories.

18th August 2008

We've all been saturated with wall-to-wall Olympics. And ever since John Major paved the way with Lottery funding, team GB has actually been winning some medals for once - certainly above France which does nothing fast. But for me, I can't cope with looking at all those super-fit, toned bodies with their washboard stomachs. Staring at myself in our full-length mirror this morning, I could only groan in comparison. Maybe I should take up a bit of sport. I looked down the Olympics' lists. Ivor Legover, hurdles champion; Eva Mountain, Russian shotputter; Eileen Dover, diving belle; and that polite losing Irishman, Hugo First. But in all seriousness, I'm not convinced that keeping fit makes you live long. You only have to look in all those care homes: where are all the athletes of yesteryear? They died of heart attacks at 50. Ask any of the old inmates why they have lived so long and they all say the same: everything in moderation. Don't sit down all day, but don't wear out all your organs in one go either. It's the same with cars. A Ferrari might run sweet and true whilst new, but how long does it last? So, to look after your parts, move them about a bit but not to excess. I looked again for my ideal gentle sporting event: the beached whale class, but in vain. Oh well, maybe in another 4 years' time.

Sex a la francaise - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Sunday serial.
I can't discuss la vie francaise without talking about sex! We started thinking about it when we realised that we may have done a gross misservice to our dog Bruno. Everyone at the SPA rescue centre in Montauban had insisted that we have him 'fixed' because of the ever-increasing numbers of unwanted dogs in France. We agreed because Madame had told us that, in her opinion, Bruno was a cross between a spaniel and a red setter, in view of his long legs. However, after talking to a few people in the know since, it could well be that Bruno is, in fact, a pure-bred gun dog who must have gone off the rails a bit. As him indoors ('H') put it to me: 'Just think what a fortune we might have looks as if we might have recouped up to a thousand euros each time he was mated....' Quel catastrophe! Nothing we can do about it now, though, of course. 'Makes you think, though', mused H. 'I mean, just think of the money I could make myself...'
'You mean, with you as gigolo?' aghast.
'Yeah, well, if there's that much money in it....'
'Yes, but knowing our luck, the thousand you might make each time would be in rupees!'
'How much is a thousand rupees, then?' interested.
'Oh, just about twelve pounds sterling.'

To be continued...........

16th August 2008

During our son's recent visit to chez-nous, I had the usual problem of finding vegetarian products in Intermarche. The French don't really understand vegetarians and think that sort of thing is quite bizarre. I haven't found any veggy restaurants locally either but found a super one in Toulouse in the rue du Puits Vert, near to the place Capitole. It's called La faim des haricots - literally The hungry beans. On the day we visited, their set meal of the day was Indonesian curry with rice. Now, this isn't something that I would normally go for, but it was very tasty. The whole set-up is based on a buffet, and for him indoors this was ideal as he could go back again and again. What was nice was looking around and seeing all the different religions, creeds and colours all eating together, safe in the knowledge that there weren't any hidden ingredients that might offend their beliefs. It was interesting to try all the exotic looking vegetables, some cooked in mediterranean or middle eastern style, followed by some of my favourite puddings! Yes, I know.... Some time ago, when both our veggy children were visiting, our neighbours Maurice and Monique invited us around for an aperitif. When our daughter explained that to be vegetarian meant not eating 'anything with a face' Maurice looked incredulous. He just couldn't contemplate such a step. 'C'est un catastrophe!' he expounded.
P.S. Tomorrow's the day - what you've all beeing waiting for........

15th August 2008

Just discovered that today is a bank holiday in France. We keep getting caught out by this as they never seem to be advertised locally and the only way we find out is by pressing our noses against shut doors and windows of the shops, but by then it's too late. Apparently it's Assomption day today. So now we know. France is a curious country, merging some really up-to-date technological advances with traits from the middle-ages. One of the latter is to continually hang on to that dratted 2 hour lunch-time closing. The English, particularly holiday-makers, often don't leave for the shops until 11 a.m., only to find their arrival coincides with noon closing. Many's the time that him indoors has been racing around Brico to reach the queue before the cashier says Non, hurrying him out of the door. But the French can be quite canny too, siting their bars and restaurants next-door, so picking up custom from all those English folk with nothing to do but eat for the next two hours. If we're caught in Montauban at this time, we always head for the Alsacienne, a restaurant that specialises in wonderful desserts. My favourite is the long-yearned for knickerbocker glory which was my childhood treat from Lewis's back home, costing all of 2/6d! Piles of different flavours of ice-cream, topped with delicious raspberry topping, all ate with a long-handled spoon. Ah, such memories. I know - it shows my age and my waist-line. But who cares. I can always diet tomorrow. But going back to those dratted bank holidays....him indoors says he doesn't know why they call them 'bank' holidays as for them every day's a holiday. His bank manager was called Ron Seal because he always treated him with distain.
P.S. As well as this daily blog, a special feature coming exclusive.....'Sex a la francaise'. First extract (from 'Pensioners in Paradis' - see link top right) in a few days' time. Don't miss it!

14th August 2008

Oh no, it's Thursday. Time for my second physio appointment. French physiotherapy or kinestherapie, as it's called here, is conducted in private rooms, not within hospitals. Patients call up and make appointments themselves, then proffer the ubiquitous carte vitale after treatment. I was really nervous the first time, as the following will reveal. So, for those of a similarly nervous disposition, look away now. I arrived in good time after parking the car by a strange family of French holidaymakers who had decided to set up their table and partake of their lunch right by the side of the road! C'est la France. I rang the bell and entered, nearly falling down the huge stone step which all village houses seem to have. On opening the door, you must then step down....perhaps it's a way of getting more patients, I thought... Inside was an array of implements enough to impress the Inquisition: wall racks, screws, ropes, bars....and that was only the waiting room. Eventually the physio entered. Bonjour Madame. Firm handshake, as you'd expect, leading me to the point of no return. After scanning my x-rays and tutting his disapproval, he started with a massage of my offending shoulder. I relaxed. This was O.K. after all. But then the pulling started, teasing my arm further and further away from my body each time. I'm sure my left arm is now longer than the right, I told him indoors afterwards. Did he say 'this will hurt?' he enquired. Well, yes, I replied. Ah, said he. That'll be when he was about to present his bill.

13th August 2008

The French are famous for two things: food and sex (and about the latter, more later). I always hate to see our fridge looking empty because it means the shelves need cleaning again. So, it's off to the local Intermarche in nearby Caussade. I say nearby, but in truth nothing here is down the road - it's at least 30 km away. As I lower myself gingerly into the car (my shoulder's still causing me trouble), him indoors says his customary 'corsetier'. After 41 years of marriage, I realise this is the prelude to yet another joke. Corsetier? Yeah, he says, that's the driver's seat - you cor sit 'ere. Grr. The Intermarche supermarket is as busy as usual, with hordes of those dratted English tourists taking all my pasteurised milk. Him indoors has a tin of peas in his hand. What? I say, stupidly. Yeah, you said you wanted some canapes! Give me strength. At last, our chariot is full of food and we head for the caisse checkout. From previous experience, I know to watch out for the French in the queue, who love to leave their trolleys to go on sporadic trips around the shop to look for forgotten items, leaving us fuming behind them. Also, I have learned to unload the trolley from behind, not from the front. Otherwise, the French customer behind you has a curious habit of stacking her produce on the belt before you've finished, pushing your available belt-space to about 3 cm! At last we've finished unloading and insert our debit card. (The French don't have debit cards because the bank charges too much, so take ages to write cheques and produce id). Whilst waiting, him indoors whispers that he knows why there are no hold-ups in France. Why? exasperated. Because money in French is not la monnaie, which merely means coins. So, demanding la monnaie with menaces from the cashier is only likely to produce a handful of change! Vive la difference.

12th August 2008

We were woken up this morning by several loud gunshot cracks coming from the woods behind our house. Our redsetter Bruno - a gundog - went berserk, barking and scratching at the door to be let out. What? I said bleary-eyed. Isn't today the 'glorious 12th' or something? Him indoors was scratching his head. 'But I thought that the grouse is native to Britain, not France.' We were puzzled, but there again, puzzlement and complete confusion reigns large in our new life here. Anything we don't understand, we put down to 'C'est la France' and leave it at that. I suppose we've got to come to terms with living in the country now, where living creatures are shot. The French will shoot anything that moves, then cover it with sauce! For me though, being English, I couldn't kill anything. I even look down when I walk so as not to tread on some tiny defenceless insect in my path. The other day someone asked if I were Buddhist. Er, no. Just sensitive. For me, life is everything and should be protected at all costs. I just can't understand why weapons are made at all. But it's wonderful that we now have the time to observe all the beautiful creatures that abound around here. The darting tiny lizards, rainbow-hued butterflies and, best of all, the graceful hirondelles (swallows) which every evening swoop down and take a sip of water from our pool. When we first moved here, I rather fancied having some chickens to give us lovely warm farm-fresh eggs every morning. However, the dawn crowing would drive us mad and the chickens would clearly have to eventually die of old age, because no way could I ever kill them - no matter how hungry I was.

11th August 2008

It's Monday morning. How wonderful to wake up and know I don't have to go to work! For me, it was never the actual work that was the problem; just the physical energy to get out of bed and travel to my workplace every day. For him indoors, work was always centred around DIY, selling it and half-starting things all around the house. Some things never change. Every week he travels to our local Brico Depot to spend more than our food bill. I've given up going with him as he says he now has his own French dictionary. No, it's not a Collins dictionary or a Harrap's, but a Brico Depot catalogue! Armed with his dictionary, he confidently marches into Brico and spouts his favourite phrase: Avez-vous quelque-chose comme ca? (Have you got something like this), pointing to a picture in the catalogue. That's all very well, I say to him, but what if you want to buy something in another shop, without a catalogue? Oh, that's easy, says he. I just have to remember to take a sample item with me and point to it. I mulled all this over for a while, then was struck with a thought. I think you may have problems, I eventually said to him. What now? he replied. Well, what if you need to go to the pharmacie because of, well, constipation.......

10th August 2008

Reading today's Sunday Times, I noticed several letters to the editor about civil administration in France. Big-city life is probably the same everywhere: trouble, aggression and too many cars. But for 60-year-olds like us, moving to the countryside was like travelling back in time to that flickering, grainy image of the past. Everywhere we go in our village, people greet us with a Bonjour, older men actually doffing their hats on greeting me. Now you don't see that any more in downtown Birmingham. I am told that in our local secondary school, boys actually kiss each other on the cheek every morning. (No, it's not that kind of school!). C'est normal. Each village commune in France is run by a Maire, who deals with everything from births, marriages and deaths to local issues and residential difficulties (e.g. fights between neighbours). Recently I read an edict on the mairie (town-hall) wall decreeing that villagers should refrain from using noisy lawnmowers on a Sunday for fear of disturbing the neighbours. We thought, O.K., that's fair enough, until this morning. We were sitting on our sunny terrace enjoying a cool glass of orange juice when our reverie was disturbed by a noisy agricultural harvester, busily gathering up the giant bales of hay in the field behind our house. As this giant industrial machine approached the perimeter of our back garden, a sudden burst from its tall chimney-pipe sprayed a ton of golden grass seed all over our newly-filled swimming pool! It seems that nothing, but nothing can interfere with France's hugely-subsidised agricultural workers. Grrr!

9th August 2008

Saturday mornings mean market day in our tiny mediaeval village. As I write this, the August temperature outside is already around 30 degrees C and the sky is blue, so it is just the day for me, him indoors and Bruno our dog to walk up our country lane and through the ancient alleyways towards all the noise and confusion. Every French village has a Place de la Halle market place - usually a raised concrete dais surrounded by ancient flaking pillars. Ours is no exception. As we approach we can already see the many-hued produce on display. There are bright purple and white aubergines and sun-kissed tomatoes en grappe, giant peaches, their skins furry and succulent, alongside home-grown strawberries, hairy pink raspberries and juicy fruit of every size, texture and hue. What I particularly like about French markets is that the produce is locally-produced. When I asked why there were no mushrooms on display, the answer was 'c'est fini'. They clearly don't stockpile produce in deep-freezers because in many cases they are just small farmers only selling their home-grown products when they are in season. Him indoors gets by very well these days with his improving French phrases. 'Le plein, s'il vous plait' (fill-it up please) works well whether he's proffering an empty basket at the market, an empty car at the garage or even an empty wallet at the bank! At least our bank manager here isn't like our old one in England, though, who used to say: We have a policy in this bank, Mr......., you are supposed to put money IN occasionally.......

8th August 2008

Just realised today is a palindromic date: 888. Better than 666 anyway. It's Friday, so in this new life of ours, me and him indoors venture out to play petanque. We drive up through golden sunflower fields to the village of Verfeil, a journey of about 6 km - just up the road. Petanque is just the game for two creaking pensioners like us. Although the similar game of boules was introduced to France by the Romans afte the conquest of Gaul, petanque had an even stranger beginning. Legend has it that there was an old man called Jules le Noir who went out to play one day. Because he suffered from arthritis, he drew a small circle in the sand and played with both feet together on the ground - a pieds tanques, as it was spoken locally. Onlookers so sympathised with Jules and his painful bones that they too changed their normal one foot in front of the other stance to the pieds tanques as Jules did. And so petanque was born. Well, we thought, if he could do it.... What puzzled him indoors was the name for the coloured ball - apparently cornichon. Why do you need to throw a pickled cucumber? asked he innocently. No, no! came the exasperated reply. It's not un cornichon (cucumber) but un cochonnet (the tiny ball you aim for in the game). Ah! we said in unison. Such are the vagaries of learning the French language. Towards the end of the game, I preened myself to hear a local Frenchman apparently say to me: Ah, elle est belle. But I was somewhat discomforted to learn later that he was talking about the role of the ball, not about me! I obviously still have a lot to learn about the mysteries of le francais.

7th August 2008

After my shoulder injury, I was asked to return to the hospital after 3 weeks. However, because this coincided with the not-to-be-tampered with 14 July Bastille Day celebrations, the receptionist booked me in after only 2.5 weeks. I arrived at the Villefranche hospital in good time and, after a few wrong turnings along corridors full of old men, was duly seated in the consultant's waiting room. He arrived. Bonjour, Madame. Bonjour, Monsieur. My x-ray was produced and scanned. Ahh! he said. Can Madame remove the heavy strapping? I shifted nervously in my seat as I knew that I wore nothing underneath. To the French, this was of minor significance. They remove their clothing at the drop of a hat, so to speak, but we English? Non. I bit the bullet and, with some difficulty, removed the strapping. For some reason the doctor then decided he needed to get up and go out. He walked over to the intercommunicating door and opened it wide, only to reveal two men in deep conversation in the next room. They looked up, I drew in a breath, Monsieur le docteur gave his apologies and closed the door again. He then walked over to the main office door, walked through and left the door open! What can you do? I suppose it could have been worse: he might have been a gynaecologist. I've led a very sheltered life.

6th August 2008

I've just returned from Toulouse (Blagnac) airport, where we dropped off our son for his return flight to the U.K. I've invariably discovered that motorway route signs for airports are relatively straight-forward, but when the traveller arrives at the airport, it can take as long as the whole journey to negotiate parking the car! And couldn't they call the airport building anything other than terminal? Such an unfortunate word for those like me of a somewhat pessimistic outlook on life. Once inside the building, I can understand all the security rules in force in these days of frightening terrorist attacks. But a tip for the unfortunate traveller who needs to take water with his/her 'mal de mer' tablets: don't buy a bottle of water until AFTER you've been searched, prodded and x-rayed by Customs, or you'll just get it confiscated along with all the other essential liquids in your hand-luggage. (Wonder what Customs do with all their contraband? Hold a garage sale??) There's always a shop in the departures lounge the other side of security where you can buy bottled water and carry it onto the plane quite freely. For EU passengers arriving at Toulouse airport there's a curious situation for those collecting baggage from the hold. Those awful dizzying carousels are situated in the main airport concourse. This means that anyone can walk into the airport off the street, stroll into the baggage reclaim area and pick-up the first few items of luggage that arrive before the harrassed arriving passengers have walked through customs! You couldn't make it up.

5th August 2008

After numerous dealings with the infamous French bureaucracy, I now have my 'carte vitale'. For those not familiar with the health service here, this is the golden key to enable you to use the health services. How it works is that, once you have your carte vitale the government pay 70% of all your health costs, whilst the patient finds the remaining 30%. In practice most people pay for 'top-up' insurance to cover this remaining bit. The monthly premiums for this are calculated according to your age at set-up. For me and him indoors, it amounts to 40 euros each a month - a price worth paying we thought. What I discovered is that it doesn't work like other insurance claims. There are no forms to complete. When you arrive at the hospital, you present your carte vitale and voila, everything else is sorted out. The hospital liaises with the top-up insurance company so that the patient doesn't do anything or pay anything. Just my kind of transaction!
The way insurance works elsewhere though is infuriating. I'm sure that insurance companies send their employees on special training courses to entice the unwary, then send them on special courses to learn how NOT to pay out! And governments collude with this practice by making so many insurances mandatory. Makes my blood boil. It would make more sense for everyone to keep their premiums under the mattress, ready for that once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Then, your money would be there - no forms to complete and no petty official to tell you that you didn't read the small print so they can't pay out. Hah! I've got their number. They can't fool me.

4th August 2008

After 3 years of hilarious situations and continuing traumas, I'm still here in the S.W. of France! June was a particular case in point. I managed to break my shoulder - that bloody dog again! He decided to chase after another canine, pulling me heavily to the ground. The best bit was that I got to experience the pompiers (emergency service) at first hand - or my only hand as it happened. The French health service is fantastic. No waiting around in crowded A & E departments - I was taken straight to a doctor on arrival. X-rays of my offending shoulder were displayed within 5 mins, prognosis made and the vagaries of a complicated shoulder-sling explained. Why can't I have a plaster cast? I asked stupidly. And just where exactly would we put it? replied the doctor patiently. Quite. I learned that in-patients in French hospitals get served wine with their meals. Just like in the U.K. (I don't think). And they can choose from glossy brochures exactly which extra services they might like during their stay. Another thing I noticed was the uniforms. Nurses and technicians employed in the hospital I attended wore super cool white or yellow loose-fitting tunics and trousers. They made the ridiculous UK hospital uniforms look like something from Florence Nightingale's era. (No stupid starched caps, matronly blue dresses, black stockings etc. etc.) - and that's only the men!