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Diary 2012

Laurel Trees and Pellet Stoves

13 January 2012 17:11

I spent three lovely sunny days cutting down some cherry laurel trees in our driveway – they had been formed by the previous propriétaire by allowing the plants in a laurel hedge to grow. They had become quite large, were blocking too much sun, getting in the way of high vans and dropping loads of laurel cherries over the driveway. Some of the trunks were up to 200mm so they weren't bushes by any means.

Laurel wood is quite dense and burns like oak, slowly with a lot of heat output, so I was determined to save the wood. But laurel is evergreen, so I've now got a large quantity of foliage that I've cut from the branches with a bill hook. It's really too much to lug down to the wood, so I've got to let it dry and burn it in situ – which will do the grass no good at all. As I was working in the lovely fresh, crisp air, warm, even too warm in the sun, I really wanted a machine that would turn all this biomass into pellets I could use for fuel – but all the commercial ones, even the smallest, look like they cost thousands.

So my musing went on to a modern version of the mobile still – a mobile shredder and pellet mill, either hired at a fee or paid by the pellets it produces. I wonder if that could be a viable business?

Back indoors it was cold enough to fire up the Godin, with the usual result that the house got too hot; even the minimum setting of our 12KW poêle gives out too much heat. So it's not used as much as it should and I'm not saving oil by burning all this wood I from the trees I fell. So what to do? In my “entrance lobby” there's a spot that could take a small pellet stove with a flue through the high roof. Do they make them in capacities of say under 4KW? Or maybe I could blank off some of the grate in the Godin with a steel plate so it would tick over better? It takes several days of burning before I've got enough ash in it to cut the draught down so it burns overnight.


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Godin Draught Regulators

16 January 2012 22:02

Further to my problems with our Godin poêle giving out too much heat on its lowest setting, I think I've fixed it.

At the back of the stove there's a draught regulator which is a somewhat Heath-Robinson affair, consisting of a bi-metal strip with a metal disk on the end. The idea is that as the stove heats up, so the bi-metal strip bends and pushes the disk to block up a circular air entry point to the base of the stove.

At the top of the strip there's a lever that can be used to set the regulator fully open or fully closed. I had a look at this and found that the disk wasn't completely blocking the hole when in its fully-closed position. The disk was attached to the bi-metal strip with a spring-loaded screw that was supposed to allow the disk to seal the hole snugly – it just wasn't working. Now I had found previously that the regulator was useless in an intermediate position – too hot and no control – and I had never wanted to place it in any position other than fully closed. So I took a short piece of sticky aluminium duct tape of the kind you seal flues with, and blocked up the hole completely, leaving the draught control to be effected by the manual sliders at the front of the beast. It's a mod that's easy to remove if proved to be ineffective. I don't think I'm very impressed by Godin design – their cast iron work and the enamelling is excellent, but it's a case of good workmanship but poor design. A typical lack of good design is that the glass front to the stove gets black very quickly, needing cleaning daily; why couldn't the grate and glass be of the sort that is self cleaning?
Now the beast is much more controllable between tick-over and full on,
by means of the draught sliders at the front.


Filing of the Paper Kind

20 January 2012 12:17

When I was in (modestly) gainful employment I made sure that my desk was always equipped with a stack of three trays. The top was labelled “Action” The centre was labelled “LTBW” The lowest was labelled “File”

The top tray (in the early days) was filled with mail by delightful creatures called “girls”, as a first stage before their progression up the copy typist/shorthand typist/secretary/personal secretary/PA/Right Hand of God route.

The second tray label stood for “Let The (Blighters) Wait” which was a sardonic way of categorising stuff that didn't need immediate action.

The lowest one was for stuff that could be taken away by a delightful creature for filing.

On arrival in the office the job for the first hour or so was to clear the top tray, dealing with urgent stuff there and then, and adding it to the LTBW or File trays as appropriate. Then I'd root through the LTBW for anything becoming urgent. At Tessel Bas I only have one delightful creature and she is far too busy in the house than to file my papers in the porcherie. Yesterday I found I couldn't add any more to the “File” tray as it was overflowing. A serious filing session was called for. So I spent an intensely boring afternoon with box files, lever-arch files and folders and hole punch, filing stuff that dated back to March 2010, and chucking stuff that was no-longer relevant into bin or shredder, depending on its sensitivity. Some of the folders were full, necessitating new folders or ditching of the stuff five years old or more. So I thought to myself “why not scan it and store it on the computer?”.

Obviously certain things like certificates and legal documents need to be kept as hard copy, but much of the things like factures and receipts could be stored as PDFs. So I did a test; an A4 page scanned in greyscale at 300dpi gives a file size of about 500 – 700 kB and it takes about 15 seconds to scan the page as part of a run of documents. Much quicker than getting down a lever-arch file, punching the holes and filing the paper. I could invent a filename system so stuff was easily retrievable and deletion when no longer relevant is just a click (or a couple of clicks if I've locked it against accidental deletion).

Now I know what you're thinking – what happens when the computer blows up or the hard disk crashes? Well, using my current system of automatic backup to my 2TB external hard drive gives a pretty good insurance – and I've still got pics and the like on this Mac from my first PC which are 16 years old. And I could supplement that with Cloud storage on Drop Box or Google Docs which would give me at least 2GB of free space – enough for 3000-odd PDFs – and they'd be viewable on any computer, including iPhone or iPad. And those of us who use Gmail are trusting all our “must save” emails to the Google “Cloud” anyway…


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Repas de Chasse

23 January 2012 09:48

We went to the Allez & Cazeneuve Repas de Chasse yesterday - a convivial affair, which at €25 a head for 6 courses with wine was reasonable value. It was notable, however, that there were probably more Brits and their hangers-on than chasseurs. We had friends Jean and Ingë with us so we at least were speaking French.

The six courses lasted for the entire afternoon - the event started at midday and we weren't home until 18:30 or so. I had resolved to record all the dishes with a photograph of each before tucking into it. However I managed a good picture of a plate of soup, a picture of a half-eaten fish course and a more-or-less destroyed plate of civet de sanglier, then I gave up. I think the red wine haze didn't help.

J'ai une cocotte minute mais ça ne dérange pas ma femme…

23 January 2012 12:30

More precisely, "une _nouvelle_ cocotte minute" - the old one was a Prestige 65, a hissing beast made of aluminium that has given me nearly 50 years of sterling service. I cooked in my bachelor house with a similar cooker and it was ideal for rustling up a hearty stew for the kids when I came in from work. Neither wife would have anything to do with it, scared that it would blow up and apply a spaghetti bolognaise render to the cook and the kitchen walls.

But it has rubber bits in it which would be irreplaceable in France, and I had a nagging worry about the effect of cooking in aluminium on Alzheimer's Disease (a phrase with "horses" and "bolting stable doors" in it comes to mind!). However Auchan's sale were offering 8-litre SEB autocuiseurs in inox at a substantial discount, so I treated myself to a new one.

I found it simple to use and potentially less frightening than the old one - it hisses gently like a contented sleeper, not malevolently like an angry cobra. On Saturday I gave it a test run with blanquette de veau - which turned out smooth and tasty. The recipe that I used is at http://bit.ly/gTYjyh.

There's another without cream at http://bit.ly/yfBBpY. The key to blanquette de veau is a smooth, white, unctuous sauce: the Marmiton recipe isn't clear on how you thicken the sauce; I removed both meat and bouillon from the cooker, returned a little bouillon and whisked in the roux, topping up with bouillon as necessary, then whisked in the egg yolks and warmed the meat up in the sauce. I suppose one could have used beurre manie instead. The Supertoinette recipe is more clear on that point, but I think real thick cream adds that extra - if calorific - degree of unctuousness!


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Rude Remorques

27 January 2012 10:04

(For a relevant picture, please see http://bit.ly/yn6mlg )

Sometimes the simplest of jobs bring unexpected satisfaction… After having chopped down the laurel "trees" over the driveway, I was left with a large pile of laurel leaves and branches to get rid of - I'd intended to burn them but didn't want to destroy the grass. So I decided to extend my trailer with some scrap wood, so I could remove the laurel rubbish and jettison it in the wood to rot down quietly.

This job turned out to be longer than I expected - I spent over two afternoons in a very chilly barn cobbling bits of ancient wood together.

Today was System Test Day - the Concept Proving Trials went like a dream, I sailed through the  Customer Systems Acceptance Test, but Handover was contingent on one Observation: there was a technical fault with the bolts holding the rear jettison hatch which cause the bolts to open when the trailer was subjected to the vibration of movement. A turnbuckle was rapidly crafted from aluminium angle, which prevented the handle of the bolt lifting out of its detent.

Since the cubic capacity of the trailer had been more than tripled, it took only eight trips to the wicked wood to get rid of  a vast pile of laurel rubbish.

Now I'm wondering about alternative uses for my creation - a couple of seats could be installed to make an open-air char-a-banc for the Tessel Tours - maybe the addition of some Roman tiles would create a charming residential caravan in case 'er indoors chucks me out. In fact Christine suggested that it would make an ideal coffin for my Death Date this December - the only problem is that I'd need to be folded into the foetal position before rigor mortis sets in.


F F F Freezing!

3 February 2012 11:43

Our lowest temperature so far was -6°C this morning, although a conventional max/min thermometer reached -8°C.

The sun has now boosted it to -1.5°C.

We've got -7°C forecast for Saturday and -8°C on Sunday and with snow!

For our gerania, prognosis is poor!

We're managing to stay toasty warm inside, the 27KW chaudière copes well and the 11KW wood-burner adds a welcome glow and saves on oil.

If you're going skiing in the Pyrénées, take your thermals; Barèges has a maximum of -10°C and a minimum of -15°C, with -21°C at 1800m!


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Chilly Paws

8 February 2012 12:10

Here's a little video of Gaby and Henri in the snow on their late afternoon walk on Sunday. Queen Magic is excused playing in the snow because it makes her arthritis worse. It was an impromptu shoot and I used my still camera in video mode.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9qm7Dhdlr0

Boite à Lettres

13 February 2012 18:09

Mme La Facteuse brought us mail today for the first time for a week (due to the snowy roads). It was ironic that the last thing she brought was a demand for me to put a letterbox on the border to my property.

Now, the current arrangement, which has been working well for over 30 years, is that she drives down the narrow single-lane chemin off the "main" road, then enters my property, turns round in the courtyard in front of the house and puts the mail in a conventional letterbox in a door.

The "border to my property" is by the well at the corner of the barn, where there is no room to turn round.

I've been to look at postboxes - those approved by that geezer French Norm with approved locks are €40 - €50 and I'll need a stake at about €20 - all unnecessary!

I've got to catch the post lady and talk to her about a reasonable compromise - which I might leave until the snow has cleared (it's +0.5°C and melting a little!).

Plusses and Minuses

20 February 2012 21:29

Today's plus was that I had a word with La Facteuse about the La Poste letter demanding that I install a new boite aux lettres on the border of my property - she agreed with me that it was a silly idea to make her come so far down an impasse and then reverse back instead of continuing all the way and turning round where there is space. She left saying "Je m'occupe" so I hope for a favourable response.

Todays minus came when I tried to use the cistern pump to wash the car - the pump had frozen and split the casing. It's in the barn and nothing inside the barn has ever frozen before - but I should have spent the few minutes needed to drain the pump. Damn! To me it was a new pump, but I bought it when I had the house converted from triphase to monophase - the old pump was triphase - which was in 2006 so it's almost six years old. I also found that the tap to the cistern wouldn't turn off and needs replacing or re-washering - to do this I have to drain the cistern of some 80 m³ of water: it's still running!

Off to town for a new pump tomorrow :-( and I hope it rains a lot this spring to fill my citerne!


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Buttered Scones for Tea

28 February 2012 21:31

It was such a gorgeous day today, I got out my lumberjack outfit (knickers & bra) and played at cutting down trees. There was an old ash that spoiled an otherwise symmetrical circle of frêne blanc and it had some rotten branches, so it was selected for the cull. The tree fell where it was supposed to fall and I had a lovely afternoon - I got down to a tee-shirt and was still sweating!

The tree made up for about half of the extra wood we had to burn in the cold spell. I've got my eye on an overgrown evergreen privet that has some useful wood in it, which should top up next year's wood supply to adequate levels.

The Artful Bodger Strikes Again

28 February 2012 22:54

If you're not of a mechanical bent you'll find the following incredibly boring. If you are of a mechanical bent, you might find it a little less boring. You have been warned!

OK, so I managed to find another cistern water pump to replace the frost-damaged one; 160€ instead of the 80€ I paid for the old one which was on special offer. Ouch. That wasn't the problem, the big snag was the tap to the water tank that feeds the pump - it was an ancient brass tap with a 1" spigot and a 1½" outlet. The gland had been forced out by the frost and the threads stripped. I tried the local hardware and plomberie emporium to see if I could get a replacement washer/gland/handle - I'll give the man his due, he didn't exactly laugh out loud but I got the message.

So I thought, just unscrew the tap and replace it. It wouldn't move. So I gave a bit more welly to the Stilsons. The spigot sheared off, leaving its brass inner in the end of the steel pipe through the wall of the cistern. Merde!

Options considered and rejected included trying to find a ¾" Eazy-Out stud extractor.

Plan A was to find a ¾" BSP screw tap to cut a thread in the inside of the brass spigot and fit a new water tap. The dimensions were OK - but I scoured Villeneuve for a suitable screw tap without success (should you need it, French for a screw tap is "un taraud". For once my dear old dad let me down; I'd got a ½" BSP tap and a 1" BSP tap - but no ¾" BSP. (My workshop has boxes of BSP, BSW, BSF, AF and BA taps and dies rescued from my dad's workshop!). Surprisingly useful in this metric country!

Plan B was to block the pipe. Just above the broken outlet was a serviceable tap which could be used instead; the disadvantage being that the lower part of the tank would not be drainable. But how to block the pipe? Easy if I could cut a screw thread - just screw in a bouchon with a bit of PTFE tape around it.

In the end I decided that if a wooden bung is good enough for big vats of wine it should be good enough for my water tank. I found some ¾" dowel and coated it with sealant and hammered it in. Since the outlet was recessed, I was able to fill the recess with waterproof exterior-quality mortier colle and fix a robust aluminium plate across the recess with stainless-steel tire-fonds. I reckon that should hold even if the wooden bung rots away (the plate is under water on the outside too, since there is a cattle trough under the tap, fed by the au-vent roof). I had to pump the trough out to work on the plate - then sit in wellies in freezing cold water while I fixed the plate!.

The only problem is that the tank has to fill up to the new tap before I can draw water - comparing the barn roof collecting area with the tank area indicates that it'll take at least one quarter of the annual rainfall before that happens.

Moral: Drain any pumps when freezing conditions are expected.


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Skiing in Baquiera-Beret

16 March 2012 15:48

There are some photos to go with this text at http://bit.ly/wDZBSP

Getting there is a doddle - A62 to Toulouse, then take the A64 South as far as the Pyrénées and make the gentle climb into Spain, following the Garonne river which rises in the spectacularly-beautiful Val d'Aran. Then hang left at Vielha at about 1000m and a good, wide road and a gentle climb takes you to Baquiera at 1500m.

The resort is purpose-built but the use of concrete has been moderated by the use of decorative local granite and traditional slate roofs. Our hotel, the Montarto, was one of those; its public rooms were beginning to show the need for refurbishment, but the individual rooms were small and unusual but well-designed and reasonably comfortable.

Booking in was my first experience of the subsequent language difficulties - the receptionist had no English, I had little Spanish, so we communicated in French. The Val d'Aran has its own language, Aranese, a form of the Gascon version of Occitan, which is taught in local schools. Many of the information signs in the resort were written only in Spanish.

The first hurdle was getting the lift pass - Christine's I had bought in advance, but mine was a special rate of only 3€ for those who are under 6 or over 70 years of age - I don't think it was mental age so the "under 6" didn't apply to me. Every resort we've been to has a different system - here it is a bar code on the lift pass which is read using a bar-code reader operated by an attendant.

We hadn't skied for four years, so we spent the first day on the green pistes. Inevitably the muscles complained, so we settled into what was to become our routine; a couple of runs, then coffee, a couple more runs, then lunch, a couple more runs and back to the hotel.

The next day was my birthday so we promoted ourselves to a blue run, which we did many times afterwards as it was interesting but not over-long and tiring. Most of the pistes are blue or red; if you crave the black runs Baquiera is not for you. But for our level of skiing it was ideal.

The snow conditions were excellent to start with; fresh snow had fallen the day before we arrived and each morning was fresh powder skiing. Towards the end of our stay it was spring skiing conditions; crusty in the morning and a little slushy in the afternoon. But the sky was an unfailing deep blue for every day of our trip.

In conclusion we thoroughly enjoyed our trip - and would definitely go there again. And neither of us fell over - good because it gets harder to get up again when you're a pensioner!

There's a very short video of Little Red Skiing Granny at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_xGl9bWPV0

Perennial Rant

2 April 2012 22:38

There are two annual jobs that I really hate; one is the cutting of the 200m cherry laurel hedge - which is usually a biannual job, but if it doesn't rain soon I'll be clipping a dead hedge! At least that job is just a tiring couple of days, whereas my other least-favourite job is dealing with the previous year's ash tree poles.  For those who don't know Tessel Bas, its southerly elevation is a steep slope, part terraced, part cliff, of about 500m2. This was covered in ash trees when I moved in and in the first year I cut down over 70 trees to open up a view over the valley and make the house seem less "hemmed-in".

Unfortunately the old stumps tend to coppice, sending up 5m poles which then break out into a canopy of pinnate leaves, masking any view. In addition the seedlings from last year grow vigorously with the first warmth and seed produced during the year can grow in the autumn; ash trees self-propagate at average temperatures exceeding 18°C.

At about this time of year, before the brambles and nettles get too high, I have to pull up the seedlings and cut down the ash poles. I'm fortunate to have a heavy-duty strimmer with a circular-saw steel blade that is very good at dealing with the brambles and the poles.

But it's very hot on the South-facing slope, the surface is rough and bouldered and difficult to stand up on and the nettles and brambles leave me with legs that are red and raw (yes I know, but it's too hot for long trousers).

It's also very tiring and I'm not going to be able to do it for many more years.

So I need a solution. There are too many stumps for the little packets of déstructeur de souche; in any case that wouldn't treat the seedlings. Loads of Sodium Chlorate would leave a mass of highly-flammable dry vegetation too near the house.

The best idea would be total re-landscaping with an excavator - hoping that the the house wouldn't slide down the slope too! As I had a large bottle of "Round-Up" Glyphosate, this year I've tried spraying; but I don't have much hope that the weed-killer will stop much other than the nettles. The ash trees have a superbly-efficient root system; a deep-seeking tap root and a stabilising horizontal root and are nigh-on indestructible. It's a good job they make good firewood!


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Albi

20 April 2012 17:11

Albi hits you in the face like a brick - millions of red bricks used to construct massive, overpowering, prestigious buildings. The red clay from the river provided Gothic builders with a cheap, readily available, solid and predictable building material which was used with precision in Toulouse but with abandon in Albi - traders and churchmen raised vast monuments to their prestige funded by the the blue pastel dye of isatis tinctoria - the woad plant.

"The brick itself produces variations in colour according to the light and the season. Pink sometimes veers towards ochre; it grows more vivid or paler according to the day, and it generates a thousand nuances, from faded or old rose, to pastel pink which emerges from the mist, and the deep, rich red that the summer sun sets against the azure of the sky ." - M. Biget (Historian)

Christine is a lifetime devotee of the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the museum at Albi www.museetoulouselautrec.net/ is housed in the Palais de la Berbie which has just reopened after a long period of refurbishment. So we drove to Albi in the morning of her birthday, installed ourselves in the Mercure Albi Bastide on the banks of the Tarn, had a light lunch in the shadow of the massive Eglise Ste Cécile, then toured the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in the afternoon.

Christine was excited to find her favourite work, the draped, empty black gloves of Yvette Guilbert.

For me the visit was very educational - previously I'd only known Henri's Parisian lithographs, but I was astounded to find the range, breadth and quality of his work - oils, charcoal, ceramic, lithography… In particular I was bowled over by the energy and vigour of his equine paintings; I was so impressed by his Tête du Cheval Blanc that I had to buy a print.

http://webmuseo.com/ws/musee-toulouse-lautrec/app/collection/record/55

After the museum we had time to visit the baroque interior of the Eglise Ste Cécile - beautifully decorated in trompe l'oeil stucco - but it was a little creepy and we weren't sure we liked it.

Appropriately, the birthday dinner was in the Restaurant Lautrec, in the rue de Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, right opposite the birthplaces of both Henri and the navigator Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. Warm, friendly, good food and fine wines - and not extortionate! The lovely weather that we'd had during the day broke while we were in the restaurant so it was a slightly soggy walk back to the hôtel. It was still raining next day so rather than fight the autoroute spray we took the touristic route along the gorges of the Tarn - but the sun came out and we enjoyed the lovely drive on empty roads roads.

We both enjoyed our "cultural day" so much we resolved to do more!

There's a few pictures of our visit at http://bit.ly/JsdAE9


Wanted: Ark

21 April 2012 17:00

Ark required, in good condition, not raced, rallied or put away wet.
Must accept at least two adults and three pussycats.
Seller delivers.
Contact Noah Gillis, Tessel Bas.


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Petite Andouillette Seeks Caring Consumer

24 April 2012 12:33

Meat was often a rare treat in wartime and immediately post-war Worcestershire. Chicken in particular was a very occasional luxury - you could get your egg ration allowance in the form of poultry meal which could be mixed with kitchen scraps, cooked in a tray in the Triplex coal-burning stove which doubled as the lounge fire and water-heater. This malodorous tray-full was sprinkled with a little Karswood Poultry Spice - a hot spice which increased egg production by the "ring of fire" effect - and fed to the fortunately capsaicin-tolerant chickens. So only occasionally would we dare eat one of the "egg factories" and the cockerel had his own job to do.

As a result our protein requirements relied heavily on offal - my mother produced some very tasty meals such as tripe & onions, stuffed hearts and faggots (US readers please refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faggot_%28food%29).

Chitterlings (pig intestines) were a popular supper dish, boiled and served on toast with loads of pepper and vinegar. I loved helping my mother cook - particularly on a cold day when the Triplex was roaring away and the aroma of fresh-baked cakes filled the air - and I got to lick out the mixing bowl. And the idea - yea even the odour - of anything made with pigs intestines is certainly not abhorrent to me.

So I have to confess that I actually _like_ andouillettes. I bought a pair the other day and sliced one into 1cm tronçons - fried in duck fat until crispy they went perfectly with my fried egg for breakfast. Yum!

Then The Boss came in, fresh from her virtuous sliced-banana-on-toast breakfast in bed. The residual aroma of pig poo was not to her liking. She spent some time opening windows and re-cleaning and generally sanitising the kitchen.

So I have an orphan andouillette which I'm not allowed to eat. Anyone like it, free to a good home? (Buyer collects)


Unlucky Geraniums

6 May 2012 15:32

I bought my gerania last week - probably the latest ever - a load of "zonal" from Auchan and some "lierre double" from Jardinerie de la Plaine.

The Auchan ones were quite large and €1.99 - but doomed.

I also bought some terreau and a 35Kg bag of cement from Leclerc bâti - which joined the gerania in the boot of the Audi.

On the way home a dog ran out in the road through Pujols; the car ahead of me braked hard, as did I. The 35Kg of cement carried on at 50kph into the gerania. Merde!

Fortunately most were just a bit bent or crushed; one was broken so I potted the bits as a cutting. Last night we had a particularly violent orage - the mains tripped and we carried on eating our "Thai Pork with Basil" by candlelight. Basil enjoyed his too.

The torrential rain changed to grêle - marble-sized balls hissing down from 40,000ft at a considerable speed. Most of the geranium flowers now lie shredded on the floor :-( But they'll grow again :-)

C'est la vie en France!


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Tote that Barge, Lift that Bale…

6 May 2012 17:23

One of the corollaries of Sod's Law is that starting any job will certainly drag in several other jobs that you hadn't anticipated – this is particularly true in French houses, I find.

I thought I might spend a few minutes spraying the weeds in the patio with my last few grams of Sodium Chlorate (which has now been banned so you can't buy it in France). Before I started I thought I should clear the ivy that had crept up the stone earth-retaining wall and was encroaching on the patio space. As I cleared the ivy I uncovered a big hole in the wall through which a tree had once been growing – long since felled and now the stump is rotten – so the wood needs chipping away and the resultant hole filled with new stone.

The first thing I'll have to do is point the stone around the potential aperture so that it doesn't all fall down on me when I remove the vestiges of wood.

On the patio I found that the wooden posts I installed 7 years ago had rotted at the base. I considered repairing them with a Metpost thingy – but driving a Metpost accurately and vertical into a load of limestone fill would be very difficult, so I decided to buy a metal socket that I can bolt to some new concrete that I'll put in the ground after clearing out the old post hole.

I didn't see the point of drilling holes in new concrete, so I've added some 10mm bolts with big washers that I'll set into the concrete. All I need now is some consistent weather that doesn't alternate pleasant sunshine with cold rain!

And I still haven't killed those patio weeds!


Barges Toted, Bales Lifted

10 May 2012 22:36

Hot sunshine with a cooling breeze was just the weather to finish off my patio post job.

I'd already dug the holes and made a jig to hold the metal post socket level while the concrete set. So I deployed the cement mixer and made a concrete mix with a relatively fine aggregate, sand and grey Portland cement.

After filling the holes with mix to the right level I pushed the metal post socket down into the concrete and made sure the anchor bolts were well surrounded by concrete.

This afternoon I killed the weeds in the patio blocks and cleared the ivy roots from the stone wall; ready for pointing and filling the hole left by the tree.

Why are French bags of cement 35Kg? I can lift them – but I suffer afterwards!


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Latest Little Jobbies

17 May 2012 10:29

Do you remember those little jobs I started on the patio earth-retaining wall and the guard-chain posts?

Well, (at long last) they're finished; the posts have been provided with a concreted-in galvanised post socket.

And the big hole in the wall full of rotten tree stump has been carved out with a chain saw, filled with limestone and pointed.


J'ai Bien Mangé, J'ai Bien Bu, Peau de Ventre Bien Tendue

13 June 2012 21:23

Here Sunday was mostly wet and grey - we went to the Repas de Chasse; yesterday we went to chez MH and the weather was a mixture of sun and torrential rain - it was quite cold and Mike had lit a fire; today started foggy and was mainly sunny with a few showers but still cold - we went to a Group47 lunch at The Moulin at Monbahus. The highlight of all this junketing was lunch in the Landes; the journey was good both ways - some heavy rain on the way there but a combination of sun and leaden clouds and watching the scenery change from the Pays de Serres to the pine forests of the Landes was interesting - I love the way France scenery can change so dramatically in just a hundred-odd kilometres. We went via the A62 and turning South on to the new A65 towards Pau - Doris the Sat-Nav lady got very confused as it's not on the Audi map DVD - she shut up while the position marker flew over apparently virgin fields, waking up whenever a minor road crossed over the autoroute! Mike, or rather Ghislaine's house is most of a traditional long, low Landaise "métairie", surrounded by an authentic-looking "airial" of grass and trees. We lunched magnificently inside, together with Snapper Mike and Lucy, on lamb brochettes done to perfection on the aforesaid log fire - unfortunately there was a "Y" in the day so I was Duty Driver and couldn't partake of the fine wines - but I'd made up for it at the repas de chasse on Sunday!

The Moulin at Monbahus is set in some lovely Haut Agenais countryside - it's Brit-owned and has a lot of Brit-orientated functions; the food is very British too and the patron had the subtly welcoming ways of a Northern Sergeant Major. There was good company there but I don't think we'll patronise the place again.

Pointed Remarks

30 June 2012 17:29

Having pointed the stone wall on the right side of our entrance door, it showed up the rather clumsy efforts of the previous propriétaire, and Senior Management demanded rectification action.

So I spent a half day with the marteau-burineur chipping out the old mortar - a cementitious mortar hastily and badly applied.

After finishing off with the Karcher I spent another half day pointing the joints with a lime mortar (Renocal) using a 1:6 riddled sand mix and finishing off the stone with a paint brush and water spray bottle.

When dry I cleaned the terra cotta tiles with a wire brush and pan scrub to remove any white lime marks. An inspection team of three felines examined my work and pronounced it "Purrfect" - well, it was tea-time!


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Que Faire Dans La Chaleur?

9 August 2012 12:15

As the thermometer climbs past 30°C on its way to 35°C + forecast today, I'm indoors in the cool 25°C of the porcherie, tinkering with the ordi. Too hot to work outside. But it occurred to me that it might just as well be raining - in fact I wish it were, my garden has cracks that you could almost fall in and the arbustes are all dropping leaves. So what could one do? The expat dream of supping gin around the pool isn't on - I doubt if the water would be cool enough refreshing, you'd fry in sizzling Ambre Solaire on a sun lounger, it's boring and there's only so much gin you can drink - and, tant mieux, I ain't got no pool, guv. So what to do when the thermometer soars?

My dream would to be at the helm of a yacht, salt water spray cooling the brow and a tack chosen to put the sun behind the sail. OK, perhaps a sailing dinghy better matches my budget - but it's a 2 hour drive to the nearest oggin - by the time I got there, it would be time to start back…

ITER - the way to new energy…

6 October 2012 12:37

"So you're spending 16 billion Euro on this machine which is the promised answer to the world's energy problems, but all you get from it is hot water?" was the very perspicacious question asked during the presentation of the ITER fusion reactor.

Well yes, but we spent the whole of Friday at the ITER headquarters at Cadarache, near Aix-en-Provence, learning about the latest status in a project that investigates the use of nuclear fusion (as opposed to "fission") to heat that water.

And after all, the world knows how to generate electricity from steam - the tricky bit is maintaining the transmutation of hydrogen isotopes into helium and at the same time capturing the considerable amounts of energy created from the annihilation of matter.

In the morning delegate partners not interested in E=mc² were taken to the L'Occitane beauty products factory - I'm told that male beauty products were available so there was no sexist bias in the trip. However I noticed no significant, subsequent improvement in the appearance or fragrance of any of the male delegates.

That afternoon the whole party drove around the ITER building site, where the Iter HQ building, the power switching substation, the field coil assembly building and the seismic isolator pads for the reactor cryostat were in evidence.

Afterwards the partners paid for their hedonistic morning with enforced lectures - some eyelids may have drooped but thankfully no-one actually snored. Joking apart, the technical presentation was a technical tour-de-force, with addresses by the ITER Director General Osamu Motojima and ten of the ITER senior staff who covered the function, construction, power supply, cryogenic, fuelling, assembly, logistic and safety aspects.

Needless to say the word "Fukushima" cropped up frequently in the latter subject - but the lessons learned were reassuring.

That evening was an excuse to get dressed up for a gala dinner and to learn more about the project from the lecturers over a glass or six of wine.

Saturday morning featured a presentation competition between three young graduates - which turned out to be fascinating; the three papers covered the construction of new nuclear power plants, the decommissioning and removal of old plants and the environmental/political responsibilities of engineers. It was good to welcome these young and enthusiastic engineers and their friends and partners, a welcome dilution of the usual predominance of retired or near-retired engineers.

The partners missed this presentation and had to make do with a visit to the Puyricard chocolate and calisson factory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calisson for those like me who haven't heard of them).

Refuelled with a sandwich or two we took the coach to the Bibemus Quarry - a scenic area that originally supplied honey-coloured stone for the building of Aix-en-Provence but which is long since disused, even in the 1890s when Aix's pet celebrity Paul Cézanne went there to paint, admired the squared-off rocks and was moved to found the cubism movement. It was raining heavily when we set off, but the skies cleared and the resultant combination of the blue sky, the late afternoon sun, the ochre stone and the green foliage made us understand why Cézanne found it so inspirational.

From Bibemus we went to the Bimont Dam. The last dam we visited was the ill-fated Malpasset dam, also a double-curvature concrete-arch construction but which burst after heavy rain. So we tip-toed over it, hoping that it wouldn't choose that moment to give way. Fortunately the French carry out regular elf & safety checks after the lesson of Malpasset.

Saturday evening was free so we dined well in the Bastide du Cours restaurant in the Cours Mirabeau in central Aix - as our hotel was on the outskirts of the town we had a 2.5 km return walk to burn up a few calories.

Sunday morning was filled with a three-hour walking tour of the city of Aix-en-Provence - a city with a considerable artistic, cultural and archaeological heritage, with fascinating mediaeval streets and elegant fin-de-siècle buildings. Lunch at the "Les Deux Garçons" restaurant in the Cours Mirabeau marked the official end of the trip - but we paused on the journey home and stayed with friends in the hills above Béziers.

Thanks are due to the ICE and, in particular, to Jocelyn and William for their immaculate organisation of the weekend. We last visited this project in 2007 - then we saw a brief burn on the Tore Supra reactor, so we know that the technology works. This time there was no working equipment presented but there was a wealth of detail on the considerable technical challenges that are being faced and the resources which have been deployed to meet those challenges. That big kettle could indeed save the planet!

For a selection of photographs, please see http://bit.ly/RDc4TU (slideshow) or http://bit.ly/QJNmOM (thumbnails). A six-minute personal video of our visit can be found at http://youtu.be/bDDlxdkBf-0 . Link to the ITER website: http://www.iter.org/

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Notre Croisière Côtes Turques et Iles Grecques

26 September 2012 15:40

"Crash" came a sound from the little bathroom, followed by the tinkle of broken glass. Our little boat had set off at 05:00 from the Greek isle of Rhodes and we were en route for the Datça peninsula in Turkey. Christine thought the porthole had broken - our little cabin was in "steerage" at the stern and the boat was rolling from side to side. On investigation the bathroom floor was covered with the remains of an apero glass which had fallen from the washbasin and had left wicked shards of glass. Bummer! Serves me right for shlurping illicit aperos made with duty-free gin instead of buying them from the bar - and of the two glasses we bought in Kos there was just one left now. Tooth mug for Ian! Kneeling on the floor clearing up glass in a hot cabin on a violently-rocking boat is not the ideal way of avoiding mal de mer - fortunately I made it on deck before the queasiness got worse and was rewarded by a beautiful orange sunrise over the misty blue sea.

Our flight from Bordeaux in a Onurair A321 Airbus was at the sensible hour of 11:30 and we joined our little two-masted gulet in Bodrum late that afternoon; time enough for a walk round Bodrum before dinner on the boat. There was a crew of just two, the Captain who spoke Turkish laced with a mixture of pidgin French and English, and Sammy who did everything other than steer - including the preparation of simple but tasty meals - including breakfast, lunch and dinner. The sails were never used - the reasons being that handling the sails would need more crew and they couldn't keep to the schedule if they had to rely on the vagaries of a wind that always conspires to blow in the wrong direction.

Our itinerary island-hopped through Kos, Symi and Rhodes, then returned along the Datça peninsula to Bodrum. There were several stops for swimming in the warm, turquoise sea and we spent the last two nights in little inlets, which were a welcome change to our first night in Bodrum where a harbour-side pop concert did its best to keep awake the weary travellers.

All stops were very interesting, but Symi and Rhodes were my favourites. Symi was an island I wanted to visit when Christine was expecting Peter, but it is difficult to get to and very hilly so we went to Zakinthos instead.

The hillsides around Symi's harbour are painted with multi-coloured Italianate villas which glow in the evening sun. Rhodes has a large and well-preserved mediaeval city with a fascinating archaeological museum.

The return flight was at the unsocial hour of 7:30 which demanded reveillé at 03:00, or 02:00 CET, so we were quite tired on our return. We've been on two other Marmara holidays and I can't fault their organisation, even in somewhat-casual areas such as Morocco or Greece. Their tours cram a lot into a few days so you have to be prepared to get up early - but that's so much better than snoozing in the deckchair frying in Ambre Solaire!

We enjoyed our holiday - as curate's eggs go it had lots of good parts - but if you go on a gulet be prepared for a tiny, tiny cabin with almost no storage space! For a slideshow, visit http://bit.ly/Q6j9Jl, with thumbnails at http://bit.ly/UDHIUe

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Pont Ba-Ba 2012

16 November 2012 10:58

The new lifting bridge at Bordeaux, the Pont Bacalan-Bastide (since christened Le Pont Chaban-Delmas), could so easily have become a travesty of ugliness with four “upturned chair” legs giving the bird to the beautiful city of Bordeaux. The idea isn't new: there are lifting bridges at Brest and Rouen, both of singularly uninspired design.

However the Bordeaux bridge is dramatic and elegant; four 80 metre aerofoil blades scrape the Bordeaux clouds, each leading edges transparent and displaying a helical staircase. Each pair of pylons has a different twist to the helix, so each pylon is a mirror image of the other – a nice touch. The light, natural concrete finish goes well with the light blue of the transparent portion and sits firmly on the solid white of the bridge span.

The last ICE visit by our group of engineers was in April 2011 when the foundations were laid and the pylons had just started their “reach for the sky”. Now they were complete and the 117-metre-long lifting span had just been delivered in one vast piece, all 2,500 tonnes of it, by barge from Venice, then installed in a nail-biting manoeuvre just two weeks before.

The lifting mechanism is of classic simplicity but impressive scale; each pylon contains a 600 tonne counterweight, so the 100 residual tonnes of the lifting span can be lifted in some 11 minutes by two electric motors of just 132 KW each(about 180 bhp).

The two-lane each way dual carriageway across the bridge was having a waterproof surface applied under a temporary marquee structure, but we were able to be amongst the first to walk over the Garonne and back across via the pedestrian walkways of the new bridge.

There was no sign of frenetic new development on the rather scruffy right bank; it is to be hoped that the completion of the bridge in March(-ish) 2013 will act as a spur even in these difficult economic times. Maybe it's the time to buy up real estate in the Bastide area?

The rest of the visit flew by all too quickly; Friday dinner was a posh nosh at the Restaurant Dubern in Bordeaux. For Saturday we headed off to Saint Emilion; I'd been there several times but I hadn't seen the Eglise Monolithe – a vast, underground church of cathedral-like proportions, excavated out of virgin rock by 11th and 12th century engineers, thus avoiding the building of walls and providing stone for building the village in one fell swoop. Nor had I seen St Emilion's hermitage or the restored wall paintings in the Chapelle de la Trinité. After a robust menu du terroir for lunch at the Restaurant Le Médiéval we made for the vignoble of the Chateau de Ferrand.

An interesting combination of traditional methods and high-tech machinery produced a Grand Cru (now promoted to Grand Cru Classé in 2012) wine that was tasted and enjoyed – of such good quality that spittoons were declared redundant!

Saturday night was free, allowing a respite from all the good food and wine, and Sunday provided the opportunity to walk some of it off with a walking tour of the elegant mediaeval quarter of Bordeaux. Fortunately the route was different to the last tour in 2011 and included the 15th Century Grosse Cloche which dutifully tolled a tocsin at the 11th hour of the 11th month – as it had been sounded on the 8th May 1945 to celebrate victory.

To fuel the departing engineers there was yet more food at La Terrace St Pierre – some excellent but waist-expanding pommes frites were a just reward for the morning's walk. All in all a grand few days out – many thanks to the ICE and, in particular, to Lucy and her “Man Friday” Derek for the excellent organisation.

I've uploaded some photographs to http://bit.ly/W9JrBK and there is a short video at http://youtu.be/Y57KgCR76_4 .

There's a live webcam feed of the bridge at http://pontchabandelmas.lacub.fr/webcam/

If you'd like to look at the old archive from 2011, see the photographs at http://bit.ly/RWbO38 and the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQiKROpOLc0

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RIP Henri IV

25 November 2012 09:44

I found our beautiful cat Henri IV dead in our park this morning. He had been badly bitten. I have a hole to dig.

RIP Henri IV – bis

25 November 2012 22:21

On our evening walks, Henri used to like to stop in a particular spot overlooking the valley but under the oak trees. I put a small table and chairs there, and he'd hop on the table and I'd sit on the chair and we'd enjoy some "quality time" together.

I tried to dig his little grave there, but it's an old road surface with loads of rocks entwined with tree roots. So I picked a place under the big plane tree that had a view of our special place and put him there.

RIP Henri IV – bis 2

26 November 2012 16:34

Poor boy had been bitten powerfully and deeply with canine teeth on the hind quarter, exposing the hip and from the amount of blood, probably rupturing an artery.

There was a trail of fur from the terrace on my barn to where I found him in the open on my park. All the cats had been spending the night indoors after I rescued Henri from up the tree, but this time both Gaby and Henri were missing at bedtime which is unusual and indicates that the attack was between early evening when I saw him and late evening when I went to bed.

When I found him he was still slightly warm but his long fur would have kept him warm for some time. The obvious culprit is the deranged labrador opposite apart from two facts: firstly the house has cats as well as dogs and I don't think he chases cats. Secondly he's a noisy dog and I'm sure we would have heard the commotion.

However he has been seen with a black rottweiler-type dog that is silent and quick - I think it was the pair that chased him up the tree a few days ago. So I'm uncertain of the culprit. We've lost three cats before, Peri, Joli and Sophie and found no trace of them and have suspected a fox - we often hear a fox's bark.

The mad neighbour who owns the deranged labrador appears to be away - I went storming up there but all the shutters were closed - just this snarling monstrosity which fortunately backs down when confronted - so far.  I need to tell the owner to keep his dog and his chickens in his garden anyway - I'm fed up with the dog barking at me when I'm on my land and his chickens scratching up my flowerbeds - and I must do this before taking it to the Maire. Of course, in France cats are next to vermin in the hierarchy - but we loved that cat deeply; he had a sweet and affectionate nature and wasn't "just a cat" - he was a close friend - and grieving for him isn't easy.

RIP Henri IV – bis 3

1 December 2012 17:51

Yesterday the Mairie was open to the public so I went and moaned about the uncontrolled, free-ranging dog opposite which I suspected was Henri's nemesis - and the poules which use my parterres as a chicken run.

The Maire is a nice man, a son of the soil with a thick and sometimes impenetrable local accent. For him it was yet another instance of the antisocial behaviour of my mad neighbour - and I did understand "je m'occupe" - but didn't hold out much hope for action.

On my return there was some activity opposite - the shutters were opened - so I went over but got no reply.

Today I tried to raise someone in the morning without success. This afternoon I tried to take the residual pussies for their walk but was prevented from doing so by this growling, barking, slavering Labrador from hell. So I stormed over again - complete with anti-dog stick - this time someone answered the door - it was mad neighbour's grown-up daughter; a nice girl - we had a chat about the whole thing and she was very sympathetic about the loss of Henri.

She also showed me a restraining order delivered by the gendarmerie - and dated yesterday. So my efforts have had some success. I owe Henri much more, but it helps.


Henri IV

6 December 2012 15:02

I made a cross for Henri today - who is the pussy cat god? - maybe it should have been a crescent, but a cross is easier.

Christine put a red rose on his grave, until we can plant a real "Henri IV" rose shrub.

Gaby and Magic are glad of the extra attention, and we share a sachet of moist food between them as a topping for the dry cat-food - so each gets 1/6 more!

Gaby is the more sensitive one; she must have shared in Henri's trauma and was very nervous about going outside - and she won't go near his grave. Magic just enjoys the extra cuddles - and I am very glad that I don't have an empty cold lap.

Time is healing but there's still a big cat-shaped empty space chez nous.


Christmas 2012 and New Year 2013

25 December 2012 – 1 January 2013

Our celebrations were somewhat muted this year – Henri's death cast a sombre shadow over it all and we didn't have any family over to share the festivities. Nor were there any “run-up” celebrations and I missed going to my Ex-Marconi and Golf shindigs in the UK. There wasn't even a “Repas des Aînés” organised by the Commune for the resident dribblies – although there will be one in January, since the Foyer Rurale is being refurbished. Just before Christmas I managed to acquire a sciatic pain in the left leg which kept me awake at night and didn't contribute to the ambience!

On the positive side the weather was largely pleasant and mild, with roses still blooming and aubretia and Japanese flowering quince blooming in the false Spring.

For Christmas lunch we went with friends to the Hôtel du Nord in Tombeboeuf. New Year's Eve went by quietly at home, but we joined friends at La Micheline near the Gare in Penne d'Agenais on New Year's Day. Both restaurants had reasonable food but were light on atmosphere – our favourite remains La Terrasse at Grezels.


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