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The Good Life Diary 2014

 
December
 

How wonderful the weather was this month with frosty nights and sparkling mornings followed by sunny and amazingly warm days where at times the temperatures reached into the 20's. Sitting on the veranda with a book after lunch was the most pleasant of experiences and reminded us both of the benefits of not going to the UK for Xmas.

We had the coldest night of the winter so far this month which turned the landscape into a shiny, magical wonderland, even transforming our back garden into something quite photogenic.

 
 
Of course, walking becomes a complete pleasure at times like these and Martha and I went on some longer jaunts than usual to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.
 
 
With all the fields having been cleared of the maze (the residue of which I continued to collect), the deer and hare could be seen more clearly and for only the second time this year, I was fortunate enough to sight a family of eight wild boar wandering across the hill opposite us. They trotted along in a line, with the largest black boar at the front and the cutest of babies at the back. Sadly there was no time to get the camera, but later a small clutch of deer proved to be more obliging.
 
 

It was a happy time in our house this month as our son Fin celebrated reaching his 18th year with a big party in the adjoining gite where he entertained 25 of his friends. It all went without a hitch (nobody was sick or broke anything), but we did have one or two disorientated teenagers wandering into our room in the early hours, looking for somewhere to bed down.

I really went to town with the decorating this year which was helped by the fact that there was an abundance of holly with berries and of course mistletoe, which the French never use. All the windows and beams were adorned with greenery and decorations and the wine press in the kitchen shone through-out the Christmas period.

 
 

December was a very hectic month socially where we seemed to be forever joining people for pre-Christmas drinks etc. In one week, I attended three events that featured carol singing – the first at Tillac church, then at our neighbours and lastly at our friends' Letty and Christian's house.

The yearly service at Tillac was very well attended and consisted of a mix of carols (sung by a 20 strong choir), readings, accordion playing and another excellent performance from the ladies' group. Afterwards, everyone went on to the Salle des Fetes for mulled wine and cake and I returned home where Fin's party was in full swing.

 
 

Later in the week, we joined others round our neighbours house for drinks and carols; Ralph had just acquired an old Yamaha organ, so we sang and played along to that. Having recently played my brother's super 'state of the art' Roland keyboard, it is clear to see why the original Yamahas are being given away now!
Later though, Ralph left everyone dumbstruck with some quite amazing guitar playing (lovely open tunings) and it was wonderful to play along to something so inspiring.

For me, the most magical pre-Christmas event was the carol singing evening at our friends' house. Fin and I arrived very late having got lost in the French country-side with each of us having a different idea of where we should be heading. We were nearly an hour late and feeling very stressed but that tension lifted immediately as we were transported to a magical winter wonderland where there was an open fire blazing and the smell of mulled wine in the air.

 
 

After exhausting everyone's carol repertoire, a few of us got out guitars etc. and had a great time singing and playing together. Through-out all of this, a donkey and a pony slept peacefully in the stable next door. 'Away in a manger' . . .

There were a lot of Xmas fairs this year – particularly ones organised by members of the x-pat community. While I embrace the non-commercial attitude that the French have towards Xmas (including the fact that decorations don't go up until December), shopping for presents is very difficult which is perhaps why so many people lay on these fairs.

We took our pottery stock to a two day one in Seissan and although we didn't sell a huge amount, we did manage to buy a few home-made presents and met some lovely people.

Marciac Christmas market proved to be an enjoyable and very sociable event too, but I was glad that we hadn’t had a stall there and been sat out-side the whole day!

 
 

Of course, I cannot write about December (my friend Paul has reminded me) with-out mentioning one of the most spectacular aeronautical events of the year – the mass congregation of pigeons and starlings in the skies. They fly over in such numbers that they sound like a huge wave breaking above your head and from a distance, they resemble a dark cloud that is forever shape shifting.

In contrast, I saw two cranes making their noisy way towards Spain and no doubt panicking at the thought that all the others had left way before them!

After having all our French and English neighbours round on Xmas eve for drinks and nibbles, Christmas day proved to be a very quiet affair with just the three of us; but this was almost welcome after all the socialising that we had been doing up to this point. While we did miss our family, it was wonderful to be able to sit out on the veranda, drinking champagne, eating oysters and enjoying the sunshine in a temperature of 24c.

Over the next few days, Fin and I worked on a mainly 60s set to play as a surprise for our friend who was celebrating her 60th birthday. We ended up learning some songs that we had never heard of before – which was excellent practice for us. Though we argued when ever we practised (normal for us), it did go OK on the night and I enjoyed playing the bass on a couple of numbers. As a few people mentioned, Fin's Jazzy/bluesy version of 'Heard it through the Grapevine' was truly excellent!

 
 

On New Year's Eve, some members of the curry club got together for a non-curry evening (moules et frites), toasted the new year in and made a private toast to absent friends.

 

 
November
 

This must be one of the worst months. It marked the end of what proved to be quite a long summer and the beginning of the most miserable time of the year. Rain featured a lot during November and the frosty, sunny days that we are used to here, were few and far between. There was an up-side to this wet and depressing weather however in that it gave our pumpkins, squash and chillies the chance to ripen with-out being ruined by heavy frosts.

Hopefully our crop of chillies will be sufficient to keep us going for a good six months once they are dried and we easily have enough harricot beans to last us until next year's crop.

 
 

Since all the maize fields were harvested, I have been walking with Martha each afternoon, collecting up the remaining cobs to feed to the hens; so for the last month we have not had to buy any food for them and they have been enjoying their favourite meal.

Our seven bantams that hatched back in July had almost reached maturity by the end of the month and we were delighted to discover that out of the seven, only two were cockerels.

One cockerel is enough for our hens and it is unlikely that anyone will want them, so the inevitable will happen soon. In the meantime, the young ones continue to enjoy the freedom of the garden as they are still small enough to be able to squeeze through the enclosure gate and it has been satisfying to watch them all roam free range.

 
 

As someone who has worked all her life, I do struggle to find purposeful things to do particularly during the winter months out here. We had hoped to find another renovation project, but with house sales being stationary at the moment our only option has been 'stay put'. This month therefore, I started redecorating our existing home. This has been a first as we have generally moved house every 6 years, thus avoiding further decoration.

Still, it has been satisfying to see the shutters and doors freshly painted in a much softer shade of green and the lounge is looking much better for a coat of paint – four coats when it came to the beams! Paint is incredibly expensive here in France, so a much cheaper (and more satisfying) option is to buy a decent emulsion and add stains to it to create exactly the colour you want.

On the 11th of November, we attended the Chasse remembrance meal again at the Salle des Fetes. As this was the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, we were hoping against hope that the menu and format of this event might have changed a bit; Sadly, this was not the case and the meal consisted of sanglier, sanglier and more sanglier in various guises and in fact the whole menu was as it was when we first started to attend this meal six years ago.

Still, the food was very good and the wine was free flowing and we are now used to sitting at long tables with plastic plates, florescent lighting and no music (this year we did have flowers on the tables), so a good time was had by all.

The following evening, we had a surprise visit from a couple of Frenchmen who had tapped on our kitchen window to get attention. They claimed to be pilgrims on their way to camp at the lake before continuing on their journey, but were in need of a bottle of water to take with them. We willingly gave them this though it was soon made clear that a bottle of wine might also be appreciated. Happy to oblige, we gave them the unwanted 'white' kept in the fridge for visitors, but it was a while before they moved on and we were under the impression that they might have wanted to be invited in.

There appears to be some sort of understanding in France that Christian pilgrims (following the Compostella route), should be treated with respect and possibly generosity, though having made a cursive search, I have not been able to find any written confirmation on this.

 
 
The highlight for me this month, was coming across these three handsome creatures during our usual walk to the big lake. It was the first time that I had seen cranes so near but sadly as soon as I got close enough to photograph them, they were off into the air chattering happily as they went. There are times when I wish that I had a better camera and this was certainly one of them!
 
 
After relating this sighting to friends, I was again reminded that this time of the year, hundreds of cranes congregate at the lac de Puydarrieux before leaving for Spain so at the week-end we took the drive out there.
This proved to be a very worth while visit as it was possible to circumnavigate the lake as the sun slowly set and in doing so, witness the hundreds of cranes as they arrived in their small groups to settle by the lake. Unfortunately, it proved to be impossible to get close enough to take any photos of them on land but it was still such a thrill to hear and see them above us in such large numbers.
 
 
 

We had some unwelcome visitors in our commune this month in the form of three beautiful horses that had broken out from their enclosure at the top of the hill; for several days, they would wonder into people's gardens (fortunately not ours), helping themselves to the remaining roses etc. Each day, various people could be seen trying to herd them back up the hill.

The coypu were also out and about, unperturbed by the rain and certainly not bothered by us approaching them. Martha always makes a vague attempt to chase, but I'm not sure she would know what to do if she did ever catch one.

I am very happy to report that Martha seems to have found a new lease of life since we have entered a colder climate and she has returned to an almost puppy like state for the time being. This is quite remarkable considering that she is old for an Italian spinone. We had read that the breed only tend to live until they are about 11 (Martha is 12 next year), but then we were reassured by an x spinone owner who said that hers lived 'till she was 16.

Judging by the way Martha is behaving now, I am thinking that she will be with us for a good while yet!

 
 

 
October
 

Yet another month of gloriously warm weather, which meant that our swallows didn't actually leave until the middle of October - unusually late for them. After all their noise and kerfuffle, the skies seemed so empty and quiet with-out them and served as a sad reminder that the summer was indeed coming to an end.

To cheer myself up, I went to my friend's grand book swap and came away with enough books to take me through the cold winter months ahead. All the money raised at this event went to LADA, a charity that contributes towards the cost of sterilising cats and dogs in the Gers. A very worthy cause considering the number of unwanted pets there are in this area.

Towards the end of my friends' stay, we took the long and windy drive up to Hautacam, (one of the skiing resorts in the Pyrenees) with the hope of taking in a good view and a picnic from the top, but sadly this time, it was far too cloudy. We had a pleasant wander around Argeles Gazost however, where they were preparing for breast cancer awareness week and all the streets were festooned with bright pink umbrellas.

 
 
Lourdes was looking less cheerful during our visit. While the tacky souvenir shops were doing a very brisk trade, the numerous beggars were looking cold and miserable as the many Christians passed them by. Despite being a dull day, the cathedral was shining in its magnificence as small waves of worshippers poured in and out of it.
 
 
On a much sunnier and very hot day, we went to our friends Lynda and Chris' afternoon music party at Tillac where there was all manor of musical entertainment to enjoy and participate in.
 
 

Here, the woman's group (still with-out a name), did their best performance yet with a new bunch of songs including an excellently arranged version of 'The fix' by Elbow.

Our cats had a busy time this month judging by the number of dead animals that they either kindly brought into the house, or left in the garden. As well as killing a couple of beautiful wrens, Anchovy also managed to catch quite a big grass snake - only the second one I have seen this summer.

 
 

During the half term,my son and I took a trip to London in order to view a few universities prior to Fin putting in his applications. With my appalling sense of direction and lack of city savy, travelling around on public transport along with hundreds of others, did prove to be a challenging experience, but hopefully one that I have learnt from. I'm still not sure how we managed to get fined by London transport, but my appeal is on it's way!

On a positive note, all the universities that we visited, were very impressive and our trips confirmed to us that UK undergraduate courses are far preferable to the ones in France, despite the cost.

We did manage to do a bit of sight seeing in-between and were both hugely impressed with the way the city welcomed its many guests. Good signing made it very easy to get around – even for me!

 
 
 
After four days, we went to see my brother and sister in Canterbury where I was at the art college nearly 40 years before and hadn't really been back much since. I had forgotten how beautiful this city is and over the years it has become even more lovely. Unusually, we did not see one empty shop and as we walked through on a Sunday, we were amazed to find most of the shops open and hoards of people enjoying the great British pastime of shopping. This served as a reminder as to one of our reasons for leaving the UK in the first place.
 
 
We witnessed some good music over the week-end, with some excellent buskers from Folkestone in the city centre and then in the evening, we went to see my brother's new covers band as they performed at a private party. John, Fin and I did get to play a little during our stay, which was wonderful but left me frustrated with the knowledge that it would probably be unlikely that I would get the opportunity to play with a keyboard player of my brother's calibre once I returned to France.
 
 
After a further couple of days in Farnham, we returned to France and it was an absolute delight to have all that space back and feel the warm sunshine on our faces again.
 
 
The news of our friend Sholu's sudden death near the end of the month, took that sunshine away. Sholu was an amazing woman who touched the lives of so many people across the World. She was one of the founder members of 'The Curry Club' and a very dear friend. Her presence will be greatly missed and it will be a while before we will feel that sunshine again.
 

 
September
 

I have no complaints about the weather for the past month - August and September more than made up for the very wet July that we had experienced. I am also pleased to report that we had no further major storms and most of the rain that we did have came at night, which is always the best time for it to fall.

For the whole of the summer, there were no crop sprayers in action and our pond remained unusually full – for the first time in the six and a half years that we have been here.

Making the most of the clement weather, we spent another week-end camping and headed to The Lac d'Estang for a picnic and a walk. Our timing was excellent as we witnessed some sort of sheep shearing competition in the valley where quite a few sheep, goats, dogs and people were congregated.

 
 
Through-out the time we were watching and through all the noise and activity, the little boy (bottom left), remained asleep-obviously exhausted from the day's events.
 
 
 
Later, we set up camp near Argeles Gazost at a small camp sight called Death Pots (Deaf Potz), nestled up in the hill side above the valley. After a night out on the town (a pleasant meal in the Italian restaurant and lots of wine), we again, woke to a wonderful view.
 
 

September was a great month for social events; We were invited to two impromptu bar-b-queues and attended a curry evening at Antin where I discovered Hugh FW's excellent Cambodian wedding dip (thanks Frances)!

Finally our friend Jeanette held her yearly Accoustic Evolution party. Her home has no mains electricity so is reliant on solar and wind power. The cabin itself is on a ridge with the most wonderful view of the surrounding country-side. Over 100 people attended with many of them being musicians, so there was a great variety of entertainment including my friends who have formed their own singing group and were performing for the first time. Initially we all sat out-side on the hill listening to all the performers, watching the skies change as a storm slowly approached. Once dark, the skies opened and people scurried, trying to save (in vane) the gazebos and their dry skins. The party continued however and once the rain had subsided, bonfires were lit and we were treated to the spectacle of some fire eating.

 
 

Despite the weather, the whole party had been a huge success – thanks to the efforts of Jeanette.

The end of the month saw the welcome return of the robin family and as usual, the red black starts started to act as if their beaks had been put out of joint. Usually the two do not co-exist in the garden and come the Autumn, the red black start makes an exit.

The swallows also looked as if they were contemplating their departure looking very much like dam buster squadrons as they flew and ate, frantically binging before the long trip ahead. It is always such a treat to watch them during their last few weeks here, but also rather sad when they finally start to congregate ready for their long journey.

 

At the end of the month my school friend and her sister came to stay. On their first day, we thought it would be quite nice to take the walk to Aux-Aussat and have a look around the village vide grenier – this sadly, was a complete waste of time as there were only 5 stalls there. We did however, manage to eat grapes, figs, walnuts and plums which were growing on our walk. Previously on the same route, I had seen a red squirrel, some rabbits (rare here) and a little owl, but this time we were so busy eating and talking that we didn't see anything.

While reading my book at the front of the house, I sensed something moving above me and soon discovered that there was a lizard caught in a very strong cobweb. Fortunately I was able to stretch down from the window above and release him before any harm was done. I have wondered since, how big that spider must have been and wish I'd seen him!

 
 

September is often a very good month for the vegetable patch and despite the damage the storms had caused, and the tomatoes getting blight, we still managed to remain self-sufficient in veg most of the time and provide vegetable baskets for our gite guests.

Personally I can't wait until all the squash and pumpkins will be ready next month.

 
 

 
August
 
 

Last month had been the wettest since records began and this bizarre weather looked to continue into August ;The subject of the meteo seemed to be on everybody's lips. Fortunately the temperatures still allowed us to eat out-side most evenings and we enjoyed some balmy nights with Dave's niece and her family and later, our friends from Brittany.

In the whole month however, I failed to see one shooting star when August is usually the best time for metier showers etc.

The garden benefited from all the rain – our grass remained green, the pond full and the flowers that I had cut back after the hailstorm, returned in abundance.

With Marciac Jazz festival just happening down the road, we took the opportunity to pay several visits during the three weeks. While we got to see a few bands (none of which were particularly memorable), the exhibitions in the various galleries provided me with the greatest thrill.

The Espace Eqart held an excellent variety of works this year and managed to sate my appetite for the slightly grotesque with creations by Sabrina Gruss and Gerard Cambon.

 
 

While our friends were here to look after the animals, we took the opportunity to spend some time with Dave's cousin Al and her family who were renting a huge house right in the centre of Lectoure. We had not been to this town before and were immediately taken aback by how beautiful and bustling this town is. We had a wonderful evening catching up with all the family in the evening while sat out in the delightful 15th century courtyard and the next day, taking in the local sights and the visiting the brocantes. Sadly though, I had forgotten to take my camera, so we shall just have to pay the town another visit in the future.

On the last day of our friends' stay with us, the weather changed dramatically; The wind whipped up and the heavens started to open. Our friend suggested (very sensibly) that we should close all the shutters, but we told him not to bother. This was a big mistake!

Within seconds, a hurricane and blankets of rain were hitting the front of the house and water was pouring in at every orifice. With only two mops and buckets, we couldn't keep on top of all the water that was pouring in under the front door and through the windows and it was only when the rain started to ease off 20 minutes later that we could really start getting on top of it.

Rivers had formed in the front garden and to our absolute horror, our lovely willow tree had collapsed and was lying across the lawn. The 'river' had made it's way to the chicken enclosure and as we ran towards it, we could hear the little chicks calling and the disturbed sound of their mothers wailing. The hens had left the chicks stranded in the little hut where water was now pouring in. We quickly lifted the hut and managed to transfer the very soggy babies into the large hen house where all the other hens were.

It wasn't until later that we realised how lightly we had got off compared to our neighbours down the road where there had been a huge land slide from the adjacent field. The road was two foot deep in mud and all the gardens were covered too.

It took a while to sort out the mess, with diggers working daily to clear the roads etc. There were a lot of angry people who felt it was the fault of the farmer and the Marie, as the ditches by this huge field had not been maintained, the hedging had been removed and the field had been recently ploughed vertically.

So, our garden took its second great battering of the year and we finally learnt that in future, the first thing we do when it looks like a storm is coming, is to close the shutters!

The weather let us down again when we went out for the evening to 'Montesquieu on the Rocks' – a three day festival of music set in a very picturesque village close by to us.

It was raining when we arrived and as usual, everything was running behind time and we ended up having to wait an hour before the first band appeared. Sadly, this British duo proved not to have been worth waiting for and they were embarrassingly awful, though their mainly French audience were very polite and appreciative all the same.

In contrast, we had a wonderful curry evening the following week, held at new members' Sandy and Mike's home near Blajan. The usual August weather was back and we all sat out on the large patio, enjoying great Indian cuisine and views of the Pyrenees as the sun was setting.

At the end of the month, Dave and I went to the final evening of food and music at Lupiac lake. To avoid the 'discussion' about who wouldn't be drinking (I think it was my turn), we decided to set up a small tent by the lake and stay there the night.

We ended up having an excellent evening and enjoyed a better than average blues/rock band who could still be heard playing hours after we had bedded down in our tent.

Despite having had little sleep and spending most of the time guessing what numbers the band were playing, we woke up refreshed and uplifted by the view from our sleeping bags.

To add to this pleasure, Dave also managed to catch a small perch.

 
A walk around the lake with the dog, soon got rid of the hangover.
 
 

Towards the end of the month, the birds started singing again and the black redstart returned to its posts in the garden. The swallows could be seen bravely chasing away the sparrow hawk and, with the reappearance of the hen harrier, fresh video tape (French and Saunders) was applied around the chicken enclosure.

The fields of sunflowers started to wilt, while in our garden, the roses were out in profusion and the surrounding maize (despite the storms), had grown taller than ever. The resilience of nature is truly remarkable!

 
 

 
July
 

My Grandfather used to warn us as children, 'Be careful what you wish for' and this month I got to understand exactly what he meant. Readers of this diary may recall that in June I was complaining that the storms that we had witnessed so far had not been nearly dramatic enough and I was hoping for 'bigger and better' in the future. Well, weeks later this wish was granted.

At the start of July we were lulled into a false sense of security with some wonderfully hot and sunny days during which I spent a lot of time in the garden with the occasional afternoon spent by the lake with a good book.

On one sultry evening, Fin and I enjoyed our friend's vernissage at the tourist information centre in Aignan. It was the first time that Francis Uwin had exhibited all the paintings that he had produced over the years and he viewed selling them as similar to when his children first left home!

 
 
With the arrival of Dave's parents, the weather began to deteriorate slightly, but on their second day, it was still pleasant enough to have lunch outdoors. In the afternoon I went with my neighbours to an amazing book swap; With thousands of books to choose from I felt just like a child in a sweet shop. It was as I was rehoming the pile that I had returned with, that the weather suddenly changed and within seconds, the sky darkened, the street lights came on and an incredible gale blew against the house. Hailstones the size of large marbles fell to the ground with amazing force and quickly created a white blanket over everything. The noise was incredible.
 
 
 

If I hadn't been excitedly taking photos I would have noticed earlier that water was pouring into the house from every orifice and my in-laws who were in the gite next door were experiencing the same deluge.

This freak weather was over within 15 minutes but during this time, all the flowers and most of the vegetables and fruit had been devastated and the whole garden looked as if a giant shredder from above had destroyed everything. All the mattresses in the gite were soaking where water had come in from the velux windows, we had water marks down several of our walls in the house and hell of lot of mopping up to do.

This appears to have been a very localised storm and our valley within the commune had experienced the worse of it, along with Tillac where several of the lovely trees that had lined the road had fallen. Apparently the mayor had quite a few ducks killed by the hailstorm and follicley challenged people who had been outside during the storm, had acquired lacerations to their heads.

Remarkably roads were cleared within a matter of days and as usual, everyone in our commune rallied around for each other.

It wasn't a great start to John and Ailene's holiday with us and I almost felt like crying when I saw all the damage that had been done to the garden that I had been spending so many hours on!

The three brooding hens were completely saturated as was the bedding and I had to reluctantly move them out (they didn't like that), change the straw and return the eggs in the same position they had been in.
Remarkably, despite all the trauma, our chicks hatched a week later.

 
 

Initially eight were born, but it soon became evident that the smallest black and white one was being rejected and picked on by all three Mothers. By the end of the day, the poor little chick was in such a state that the only kind thing to do would be to put it out of it's misery. It should have been so easy, a quick stamp of the foot but I spent a good half hour with the suffering chick in my hand looking for my husband because I couldn't bear to do the simplest thing myself.

More drama was to follow days later, when Dave and I (enjoying our first beer of the evening), noticed that there were a pair of hen harriers flying very close to the chicken enclosure. Half an hour later, the female returned and could be seen hovering high above before taking a vertical dive at incredible speed towards the cockerel in the centre of the enclosure. We rushed across the garden screaming and waving our arms as the bird struggled (preyless) to take off again. All the chicks and their mothers (who had sensibly been keeping close to the outskirts of the pen), were now hiding in their small hut and the poor cockerel was cowering in his shelter. He was quite traumatised (but unhurt) and it took quite a few days before he resumed his crowing and usual sexual activities.

I cannot believe that we had not considered the risk of losing our chicks to the hen harrier before (the clue's in the name) and now understand how in the past, they have just disappeared. As a deterrent, I stretched lots of video tape across the chicken area which doesn't look very nice, but hopefully will do the job.

Toward the end of David's parent's stay with us, we all went to a 'pub quiz' at the Hotel de Ville in Marciac where the competition was as hot as the weather was. We had hoped that having three generations in our team would prove to be a bonus, but we lost miserably – in fact I think we came last!

Following our family's departure, we headed off for a few day's camping in Sanguinet, close to the Atlantic coast and next to a huge lake where we spent quite a bit of time as it was so incredibly warm.

 
 

Despite the gear box going in the car, my croccs (that had been in the back of the little car the garage had lent us) shrinking to a child's size in the heat and Fin suffering from a stomach bug the duration, we still managed to have a reasonably good holiday.

One of the highlights for me was our first visit to Arcachon which proved to be a delightful sea side town with far more about it than Biarritz and well worth a visit.

We also went to see what is boasted to be the biggest sand dune in Europe where fortunately steps have now been built so that people can climb it more easily.

 

Having driven through Les Landes several times now to get to the coast (which is nowhere near as beautiful as the Cornish one), I have decided that this time was going to be the last. It is the most flat and boring landscape you are ever likely to come across in France; The roads are completely straight and there are just miles upon miles of pine trees and little in the way of wildlife other than a huge population of mosquitoes. Definitely a place to avoid as far as I am concerned.

It was therefore lovely to return to the rolling hills and sunflower festooned fields of The Gers again where the weather was (after a good amount of rain in our absence), equally hot.

The next evening, we had a surprise invite to go for drinks at our friends' house as they had 'something to celebrate'. It turned out that our friend had just heard that he was going to be awarded the D.Litt (Doctor of letters). This was celebrated through drinking copious amounts of champagne, enjoying some great food and excellent company in a most wonderful out-door setting. It was so lovely to hear some good news after all the recent bad luck that we had been experiencing.

The following week, our 17yr. old son took his first trip to Paris on his own to take up a work experience placement (stage) with a small two person company whose business is writing and producing music for films, adverts etc.

Over the next few days, our son had a wonderful time learning more about the business that he hopes to go into and also enjoying a 'networking evening' with people working in film and advertising. While explaining why he was at the event to one person, it was suggested to him that he should spend some time in London to 'pick up the language' and the man was taken aback when our son explained that he was English not French.

While Fin was 'hobnobbing' in Paris, we attended another excellent music quiz hosted by our friends Caroline and Colin. It was held on a wonderfully balmy evening, so all 25-30 of us were sat out in tables in the candlelit courtyard. I say 'excellent' music quiz as my team came second and for the first time in ages, I had made a reasonable contribution on account of my memory for lyrics. I think Dave's team came last!

More family/friends arrived during the last week of July at the same time as our friends from Brittany set up camp in Marciac for their yearly pilgrimage. During another balmy and very pleasant evening, we all met up out-side the great chapeteau, celebrating our reunion and the start of the three week jazz festival.

After I had cut everything back and resown some things, our garden was slowly showing signs of recovery from the storm.

While the hailstorm had had tragic consequences, it also acted as a reminder of the amazing power that nature has over us and how very humble and insignificant our little lives are in comparison!

 

 
June
 
 

June proved to be a wonderful month for the garden with lots of sunshine during the day and storms and rain at night. We had a glut of courgettes (no change there), ate the last of the peas, enjoyed our first crop of French beans and had a regular supply of coriander and basil.

Our wild plum trees excelled themselves this year and littered the lawn with their fruit which proved to be fodder for Martha and it has been an uphill struggle trying to dissuade her from eating them. In her old age, she has taken a liking to plums, but the effects of this addition to her diet have been far from welcome.

Over the weeks, the fruit has also attracted a new visitor to the garden – a beautiful young fawn which I am guessing has been recently orphaned. I had the pleasure of having a very close encounter with this creature as I was cleaning out the pond and it bounded towards me. There was a magical moment when we faced each other and she was so close that I could see her long eye lashes flicker as she decided what to do next.
While it has been a pleasure to have such a beautiful and graceful animal in our garden, I am hoping that once the plums dry up, she will leave and not move her attention to the roses!

The war on crayfish continued during June and by the end of the month, I had caught an amazing 39 of them, some of which are now in the freezer. The number of fire salamanders caught diminished considerably, so I'm guessing that their true colours of yellow and black have developed and they have migrated now.

 
 
While our Manchurian friends were staying we went to the goat’s cheese festival held in the very pretty medieval village of St. Arailles. It was a particularly hot day and the narrow streets and stone buildings provided some much needed shade as we meandered around the stalls and listened to some wandering Gascon minstrels.
 
 
 

The storms we have had over the past few weeks have not been quite as dramatic as we had hoped, with the skies threatening much, but sadly failing to deliver; I'm guessing that we will have to wait until August for anything truly amazing.

At the time of the equinox, the sprinklers around us were activated, and, along with the hum of millions of crickets in the neighbouring wheat fields, the familiar sounds of Summer returned.

 
 

On another very hot week-end, we took part in a treasure hunt which was organised by friends Angela and Fred and involved seven car loads of people. Over the space of 5hrs. we navigated most of the villages between Marciac and Estampe, (some of which, we had never come across before), following clues and struggling with anagrams. Our team did very badly on account of an impatient driver and my inability to read instructions (while moving) with-out feeling sick!

At the end of the hunt, we returned (mentally and physically exhausted) for some much needed refreshment. Every one had prepared something to eat, so there was a real feast to be had and more importantly plenty of cold beers.

During the Fete de Music, we spent an afternoon at Vic Fezensac where our friend Jutta's son Jake had his debute performance, drumming with his school band. Later, we enjoyed some blues music and a group of very interesting street performers who later were sweating so much in the heat, that they were sliding all over the place!

 
 
 
The end of the month brought more music when we went to Mauvazan for a battle of the bands that our son's group had entered. This proved to be a bit of gruelling 5 hrs. sitting on hard plastic seats in a huge hall, listening to (at times) some pretty awful music. One particular band (embarrassingly British) called 'Curfew' sung their own protest songs which were so dated and cliché ridden, they would have made Billy Bragg cry. At one point, the microphone packed up and we were given respite from the female singer's rather appalling and notably sharp voice. Another band playing the blues, had a guitarist whose ego was suitably reflected in the cheap silver bowler that he was wearing. He was so obviously keen to play and be heard, that he kept coming in prematurely and totally drowning out what was a very good vocalist. Anyway, it was worth enduring all of this as Mentalament Malade were voted the best band and Dave and I won an acoustic guitar and case in the lotto – so we all came home happy!
 
 

The question of the identity of the calling frog/bird, remains unanswered, though it is clearly not the green tree frog or any other frog or toad that we find about the garden. This animal sings solo, but it's call does not resemble anything that we have heard before – so it looks like all bets are off for now.
 
One of our bantams suddenly turned broody during the equinox and over the next few days, was joined by two others, all sitting in the same small hut. This left us just one bantam and a cockerel sleeping in the big hut on their own, with the hen laying the occasional egg.

So we are excitedly looking forward to next month when we will finally have our own brood of chicks – watch this space!

 
 

 
May
 

It seems that we are becoming creatures of habit (having lived in the same house for over six years) as there are many local events that we attend regularly now – one of these being the Floralea at St. Sever d' Rustan.

The beginning of May marks the time when most French country folk buy and plant out their tomatoes as we do too now and we've been buying the same varieties from the same stall at the same Floralea for years. Of course, this event does have many other attractions:- it is held within the romantic grounds of an old abbey, there is much more to see other than just plants (this year an excellent jazz manouche band were playing) and finally and perhaps most importantly, there is a delightful river next door perfect for picnics and fishing.

 
 
 

When we got all our tomato plants home, we discovered that the bags that had been put by for us (along with many others) were not ours and we had taken someone else’s. So this year, I have no idea what kind of tomatoes I have planted and am joyous in the knowledge that at least one routine has been broken and I can expect the unexpected!

Something else unexpected was spotted in our small pond later on in the month – a North American Crayfish. We had caught quite a few in the past from Monpardiac lake with our crayfish net and so I carelessly threw that in our pond, using fish tales for bait.

The next day I was horrified to find that the net was totally below the water line and along with two of the live critters, there were 9 young fire salamanders that appeared to be dead. After hours of sunshine, five were revived and re-entered the water, but I felt dreadful about the four that had not survived. On re-examining the pond, it appears that the newts are nowhere to be seen, we are overrun with salamanders and have a considerable number of crayfish that need to be predated (an over used 'Springwatch' euthemism)!
So the war against crayfish has begun, but in future, I shall ensure that the net is never submerged in the water again.

 
 
On a lighter note, we enjoyed a very lively evening at a great venue (half bar, half braccante) in Aignan , listening to our son's band Mentalement Malade. While the first set was a bit shaky, their second set was confident and very entertaining with the highlight for me being them playing the theme tune to Pulp Fiction ( a request from the proprietor), that they had never played together before.
 
 
We took one trip to the Pyrenees this month, which entailed a gruelling hour's walk up hill to the lac de Gaube for a picnic under rather chilly conditions. It was certainly worth the effort though as I finally got to take a picture of a marmot that could just about be seen through the lingering mist.
 
 
With all the rain and sunshine that we had in the early months, everything in garden seemed to be developing early and by the middle of May, the delphiniums were 6 foot tall and the whole of the back garden was a wonderful mix of blues, purples, creams, pinks and reds. Sadly though, maze has been planted next to us again and it's looking like there will only be one or two fields with sunflowers in, in the whole of our commune this year.
 
 
 

It wasn't the best time to leave the garden for 8 days, but there was a wonderful family reunion to go to in the UK so it had to be done.

While waiting for my lift at Bristol airport, it struck me as to what a contrast there was between the French and English as regards to appearance and behaviour. At Bristol, people were mostly noisy (lots of laughing ), animated and colourful in dress whereas in Toulouse, the French had been much more subdued in both appearance and behaviour.

Perhaps they were preoccupied with thoughts of the forthcoming European elections at the time!

It was shocking to hear later that the Front National had received almost 25% of the French votes and I was equally taken aback at UKIP getting 27% of the British vote.

I'm guessing that this is perhaps not the best place to discuss politics but as a European immigrant, I do find the present situation within Europe very worrying.

 

While in the UK, I went for a few wonderful walks through The New Forest, (where we used to live) and was reminded of its' rugged beauty and varied landscape. The forest is one of the few places in the UK where you can walk for miles with-out restrictions.

It was good however, to return to our little spot in SW France, walk freely for miles, but also, to not see a single other person for the duration.

On my return, I discovered that the Golden Oriole and the Hoopoe had also come home, though I only heard the Oriole and in all this time, I have yet to see one.

As well as the mystery of the dead moles (two more found this month in the garden), there is another puzzle which I'm hoping that readers in France may be able to solve.

When the weather is particularity hot we hear an almost constant call that sounds like a cross between the loud purr of a cat and coo of a dove. It can be heard from a good fifty metres away, but of course, as soon as you get near to the sound, it stops. Sometimes you hear it in the bushes, other times the fields. I have a feeling that it is a frog, but my husband is convinced that it's a bird. If I'm right, then there's two pints of Guinness in it for me!

 

On the last day of the month, my German friend Gertrud held her yearly open garden event at Antin, where we held our pottery stall for the week-end. While I did stop making pottery over a year ago, we still have quite a bit of stock.

Although not much was sold, we did have a delightful time wandering the grounds, catching up with friends, making new ones and eating plenty of truly excellent cake.

What a wonderful end to the month!

 
 

 
April
 

Our swallows returned at the beginning of the month to their usual nesting site in the shed within the hanger, which meant we had to remember to leave the door open for them. For the first time in seven years though, they decided that the location wasn't good enough and after a couple of weeks, moved out again.

Instead we were honoured to have our own nightingale settle for the first time in the willow tree in the front garden and her amazing singing more than made up for the lack of chattering swallows.

While the nightingale seems to have on average, eight different tunes to her repertoire, she also sometimes changes key, making her singing even more unique and special.

We also have a very talented starling that lives by the chapel next door, that does quite an incredible impersonation of a golden oriole's call.

With the warmer weather, many people's thoughts turned to the garden and the first floralea of the year was held in the very pretty medieval village of Tillac which made a wonderful back drop for all the colourful plants that were on display.

Every year at about this time, we come across a number of dead moles either lying on paths or tracks or in our garden and it really is a bit of a mystery – so if anyone knows the reason why, I would love to hear from them.

When alive, they usually act as if they're on steroids and are incredibly industrious - a curse to many gardeners here. I can remember my Father spending hours poised above a hole with a giant mallet in an attempt to protect his lawn!

Socially, things picked up a bit and along with the usual house to house socialising we attended our bi-monthly curry club get-together which this time, was held in Frechede. With the lack of curry houses, these events have helped to fulfil our desire for the hot and spicy.

Also this month, our son's lycée in Condom held a musical - 'Songs of battle', inspired by the centenary of the 1st world war. Despite it being early in the year, the temperature was perfect and made this open air event (performed within the idyllic setting of the 16th century courtyard), quite magical. The atmosphere was dampened at the end however, when we had to sit and listen to the song 'Imagine' (what a cliché) three times, with enthusiastic clapping from the audience all through the final encore.

 
 
We had a few very pleasant fishing trips this month and enjoyed the tranquillity and beauty of the river Boues which lies at the bottom of Mielan hill. I have read a lot more chapters here than Dave has caught fish though!
 
 

We had much better luck on Dave's birthday as it happened.

After a trip to the delightful market at Bagneres de Beggore, we drove on to Maubourguet to have our picnic by the river there. Opposite us was a man, seriously kitted out in camouflage clothes, waders etc. and an impressive looking rod. Things were not looking good though as he had failed to catch anything all morning.
Unperturbed, Dave had a go (with his little rod) and on his third cast, managed to land a 2.5 lb. wild brown trout – enough to feed three people.

The look on the other fisherman's face was priceless!

 

The most exciting thing that happened this month however, was to take place in my neighbour’s garden where I was just dropping round some eggs.

As I was about to leave, we started to notice an amazing humming sound coming from the skies which became increasingly louder. Just by the gate a huge amount of bees were starting to swarm, creating a large menacing cloud. As the gate was my only exit, I had to wait until they had found somewhere to settle and within 20 minutes they had all attached themselves to a small fence post. An hour later and they were on the move again and everyone was closing their windows.

Perhaps because of the very wet winter we had, both our beautiful 50ft tall hornbeams died and had to be felled. In retrospect, Dave and I should not have attempted to do this on our own and it would have helped if the chain saw blade had been sharpened. While only one fell the way we had intended, the other didn't, but luckily missed the main roof of the house by inches and just scuffed the lean-to roof. Amazingly no plants were killed in the process.

 
Walking up through the woods and down to Monpardiac lake is a real pleasure this time of the year and once the ground had dried a bit, Martha and I took the longer route that takes us to the end of the lake. While I did manage to fall in the mud twice during our ramble, it was well worth it to just to see the other part of the lake in all it's spring glory.
 
 
 

 
March
 

March is definitely the most exciting month of the year for me; The flurry of Xmas is nothing compared to the anticipation and thrill that the first days of spring bring.

Probably the most exciting thing to happen during these weeks was a close viewing of a wild boar during day light hours.

My friend Fabienne and I were just about to enter the woods with our three dogs when a huge black sanglier crossed our path, heading for the undergrowth. I did run after him to get a better look and was amazed at how quickly such a stocky creature could manage to just disappear!

There are a few people who will not enter the woods on their own in fear of the wild boar, but on all my walks over the years, sadly this is only the second time that I have come across them.

I had thought that the shooting season finished at the end of February but apparently the seasons vary according to which area of France you live in and the animal being hunted. As with a lot of legislation, it is not necessarily 'set in stone' and the Marie can alter the dates if there is a particular problem with foxes killing chickens and sanglier damaging the crops etc.

We had some lovely warm days this month, with temperatures going up into the 30's. On such a day, we decided to take our yearly trip to Ikea in Toulouse and combine it with a picnic and a visit to the natural history museum and the botanical gardens. As usual, we had no problem finding somewhere to park close to the museum and took a very pleasant walk through the Jardin des Plants which was full of colour and interest including some very impressive and scary looking sculptures at the entrance to the gardens.

 
 
 
Sadly, this being a Monday, the museum etc. was closed; we had presumed that this would not have been the case in such a large city but unperturbed, we took a very pleasant walk into the centre. Toulouse is known as the 'Pink City' on account of the small red bricks that most of the buildings are made of, which is very unusual in France but very beautiful. My neck was quite stiff by the time we returned to the car after looking up to appreciate the detail of some of the buildings for so long.
 
 
 

St. Patricks was a sad day for me as it marked a year since the Celtic band I played in - 'Martha's Kitchen' had its first very successful gig in the Irish bar at Jegun. Unfortunately, we went our separate ways months later and having not managed to form another band since, attending another St. Patrick’s night event proved too painful to contemplate.

So if there are any lively musicians out there who play something other than rock n' roll, blues or country, please get in touch. I would love to be put out of my misery and resume playing again!

March saw the noisy arrival of the black redstarts that could be seen flying in groups of two or three, in and out of the hanger in a very disorderly and rowdy fashion. Their behaviour is much like that of the robin (being a gardener's friend), but for some reason, the two breeds do not seem able to exist together in our garden. Within two weeks of the redstarts' reappearance, the robins had disappeared and I found two of them lying dead but unscathed.

For sheer grace and elegance, the hen harrier wins hands down and it has been a delight to be able to watch them slowly gliding low over the corn fields in search of prey. These birds seem bigger than our honey buzzards and the male almost resembles a seagull it is so pale and sleek. Apparently it is the male that sits on the nest as he is more conspicuous and therefore more open to danger if he were to go out hunting to feed the young. So we only get to see him for a few weeks of the year.

Following a few warmer evenings, the bats finally came of of hibernation and it was a delight to hear the familiar sound of their little wings pattering as they hit the night sky.

All the trees started blossoming with the change in temperature and while the laurel does not necessarily have the most stunning of flowers, the scent they omit is fantastically heady and can be smelt metres away.

 

Towards the end of the month our son took part in the long standing tradition of 'percent' at his lycée – something that happens every year. Apparently, to mark the 100 days before a student takes his/her baccalaureate, fellow students spend the afternoon chasing them and pelting them with 'stuff'. This year apparently, eggs and flour were banned and the gendamerie were out in force in Condom just in case things got out of hand. Fin returned home exhausted and covered in what looked like the makings of a pancake.

Ordinarily we would have been out trout fishing to mark the start of the season, but because of so much torrential rain, the waters were not clear enough.

The garden benefited from the rain however and we enjoyed weeks of excellent purple sprouting broccoli and a very early start for the asparagus which should go on for another month.

Of course, one of the most magical events of early spring has to be the dawn chorus; all those birds competing with one another to impress potential partners, all singing at the same time. It has been wonderful to sit out with that first cup of tea in the morning and just listen to the cacophony of sound.

 

Just the cuckoo is missing . . .

 
 

 
January/February
 

It is a tall task to write something 'cheery' about the one month in the year when there are the most deaths and the most marriage break ups; Christmas is all but a happy memory and the signs of spring are a very long way off. On the eve of that dreadful month, all you can do is celebrate in the most optimistic of ways and hope that January will not be quite as dull and depressing as the previous year.

We had every intention on New year's eve to do just that in attending our friends' 'X Factor karaoke' party in the neighbouring village of Aux-Aussat after just arriving back from the UK. There was a great mix of French and English friends there, with some being more recognisable than others. Kylie and Bono were easily identifiable, as were Guns and Roses. Unfortunately (or perhaps not), we had not had the time to change into characters but had to sing a song regardless. This meant that people witnessed Dave's singing for the first time and it was really funny to watch so many jaws drop at the same time. There was the mass realisation that Dave's claim to be able to 'sing like an angel' was in fact a joke!

 
 

Our positive mood was effected considerably when 'disaster day' arrived and we lost most of our TV channels (including the radio) due to satellite realignment in the UK. Thousands of Satellite owners in the South of France had been expecting this to happen last year and a few had brought bigger dishes in anticipation – but not us. I believe that out of most bad things that happen, there is something good (however small), that can come out of it; now that we are just using the computer, we have been watching all the films and DVDs that we have missed and a lot less reality TV. Fortunately too, we can still listen to radio 4 & 6 music, so we are surviving culturally until our new huge satellite is delivered.

Through-out January and February, we had much the same weather as the UK . . . rain, rain and more rain, but with a few days of sunshine here and there to provide some respite.

The surrounding maze fields were left unploughed because they were saturated and instead, the farmers focused on deepening the ditches between the fields, thus preventing further flooding.

Martha and I managed to time some of our walks to avoid the showers, but getting wet and muddy became a feature of our wanderings. While we still manage to cover quite a distance each day, I am aware that my walking companion is an old lady now and that generally Italian Spinones tend to only reach eleven and Martha will be that in June. Still, there is no indication that my friend is slowing down yet and the only signs of ageing Martha is showing is that she is going slightly bald!

 
 
As well as dodging the rain, we have had to avoid the chasse, which isn't that difficult as you can always hear the barking, shouting and the sound of horn blowing from a good distance away. I am always amazed that these noisy men with their brightly coloured vests and hard hats, ever manage to shoot anything, but according to our village magazine, they had a successful season last year. Thirty-one deer, and 17 sanglier were killed in our commune and 70 sanglier in the surrounding country-side. They do not say how many foxes were killed but judging by the amount of chickens that have fallen prey to them last year, I am guessing not many. Apparently magpies, ravens and coypu were also killed in the traps that were set. In our local magazine, there was a picture (in colour) of some of the proud hunters standing over the wild boar they had shot.
 
 

In February, I returned to my original profession as a counsellor and a life coach to English speakers living in France www.helpinfrance.eu

Unlike the UK where often there are counsellors attached to GP practices, there is little in the way of psychological help available here and the health schemes only pay for psychologists in certain situations.

Despite the lack of counsellors in France, registering was made easy through the
relatively new auto entrepreneur scheme. It is remarkably straight forward to join and lacks the usual bureaucracy thus enabling many x-pats to establish their businesses with relative ease.

 
 

There are a few pluses about this time of the year - the big moons and lovely sunrises being two of them. I have also noticed a lack of cobwebs around the house, so assume that spiders take a rest from their weaving in the winter. Stink bugs are everywhere though, and when trodden on, they reveal innards they are as bright green as their coats and you get a strong smell of napalm.

Despite being stripped of all it's colour and finery, the landscape remains beautiful in all its nakedness and the soggy walk down to Monpardiac lake is still a pleasure.

 
 
The Pyrenees always look very majestic this time of the year and although we haven't a view of them from our house, a walk just to the top of the hill rewards us with a lovely view of the snow covered mountains. Some days they look so close that you could almost touch them and others, you cannot see them at all, which makes them quite magical as far as I am concerned.
 
 
To celebrate St. Valentine’s day, the commune arranged what proved to be an exceptional evening of excellent food and music in the salle des fetes. For the first time, there were no long tables and fluorescent lights and our village hall was transformed into the perfect venue for such an evening. The three course meal was produced by numerous women (the men only do barbecues) who worked really hard to ensure that the 150 people who came, had a great evening.
 
 

Perhaps the best thing about winter is the hoards of birds (usually pigeons) that create the sound of a rushing wind as they fly overhead.

Of course, the most welcome sound of February this year was that of the hoards of cranes chatting and laughing to each other as they made their leisurely way back from Spain.

A sure sign that the winter is almost over.

 

 
 

The Good Life Diary 2015-16

 
 
 
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