Simple Things

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The bread machine has become fussy about what flour it likes, seemingly, in order to avoid sad-looking deflated loaves, only a particular French brand will now do that I can no longer find in supermarkets in the Small Country. This necessitates another occasional trip across the border to stock up. Having done a local, fairly large supermarket shop yesterday, there was very little on the list aside from flour and vacuum bags. A kiss goodbye to a hundred Euros and any plans to spend the coming week on a ‘clean’, dairy-free eating regime having wandered past the cheese counter, we detoured, following the signs for an Italian shop.

This resulted in a packet of linguine that is possibly as long as I am tall and a late lunch at home of sliced tomatoes that yielded slightly when pressed, with equally soft, yielding puffy pillows of buffalo mozzarella followed by coffee and a biscotti or three.

A long, rather costly way round to realise that often, the simplest lunches really are the best.

More than mirabelles

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The landscape changes somewhat if you head South across the border. Roads get longer, stretching out in to the distance, fields get larger with the earth likely being turned over by enormous machines in the early Autumn sun and occasionally you can come across stretches of sad sunflowers, heads bowed, their jobs done for the year. The sky looks huge.

The villages are not the same either, there is not the same tidiness to them as there is in the Small Country, with many houses looking somewhat tired and, in10134273103_87fc61d31e some cases completely dilapidated but clearly lived in. Hoes are leaned on, spanners dropped, brooms stop sweeping as an across-the-border car number plate is registered and met with a long, steady gaze as it passes. Even a small chat tigre will watch intently as you pass and leave the village. It could only be France.

The rural Lorraine region of France looks peaceful, sleepy on a Saturday afternoon Autumnal drive through it but if you look at the road signs it is apparent that there’ve been times when this was not so. Signs point ways to cimetières, both French and German, with hundreds, thousands of soldiers laid to rest amongst the gentle terrain and there are many whose names are not known. You can follow a sign which leads to a small memorial, surrounded by youngish trees which stand amongst strange lumps in the ground and you can look at old photos on boards which show you are standing where once stood the ‘Grande rue’ of a village. The strange lumps are the ruins of the houses, shops, church, the village détruit. There is more than one village détruit. War has left its mark here but the places to remember are tranquil, with a quiet dignity to them and it would have felt wrong to take any pictures.

10134055974_bce0167c42If your eye is caught by a charming L’Epicerie next to a Cafe and you ask to stop so you can take a picture, you may have to wait patiently, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, as the door opens and a lady appears, gently holding the arm of an elder lady walking with a stick who is helped down the steps. You may be somewhat startled by the cheery “Bonjour” directed at you by the younger of the two and stumble slightly over your French as you try to say you’d just like to take a picture if that’s OK because it’s all rather charming. You may be surprised when she invites you in and shows you around, explaining that L’Epicerie and the Cafe is now one, offering bed and breakfast by her and her husband who’ve spent the last few months doing up the place. You may feel it would be an imposition to ask if you could take photos inside whilst cooing at the original woodwork, tiled floor, enormous fireplace, wooden bed frames and renovated bar where once the elder lady with the stick stood behind pouring beers and, surely, glasses of Rickard for the locals alongside her husband.

“She lives next door now” it is explained. “A widow for many years”.

You may later learn that this village was also détruit after the first world war but, unlike others, was rebuilt.

You will later be pleased that somebody else stepped in and took a couple of pictures whilst you cooed at bedrooms upstairs but was politely waiting outside as you thanked the lady for her kindness at the door. You may also be pleased that generally, somebody else’s pictures of that day were far better than yours and here for you to see.

10134070854_38dd614d30This region of France is also known for its mirabelles, small plum-like fruits which ripen late July to early September.  Golden yellow, they become slightly flecked with pink as they ripen and are often made into tarts, jams and brandy.  Villages are, it seems, surrounded by mirabelle orchards which I suspect are privately-owned. Late summer will find what looks like whole families sitting amongst their trees sorting fruits before setting up stalls at village edges selling their wares whilst they can. The mirabelle season is short and what is not sold by the roadside will appear in supermarkets.  A tip-off from my French teacher as to a particular place to buy them had me knocking on a door in a small village, watched over by a wizened lady stacking wood in to a trailer across the road. With no answer to my knock and no phone response to the number I’d been given, I found myself in the midst of a typical French conversation between neighbours which involved a Gallic shrug of “But I am French” when I asked if the wizened lady could slow down because I am English, shouting down a hallway by another, being barked at with machine-gun French as a phone conversation was relayed and finally, a motion to “Suivez-moi” in the car. This resulted in squelching my way between rows and rows of mirabelle trees in a huge orchard, their fruits already dropping on the grass and coming across a whole family shaking trees and sorting fruits before returning to the car with a bagful, supposedly of three kilos but was likely nearer eight. It cost 3 Euros.  A further, impromptu trip a couple or so weeks later resulted in four kilos, carefully weighed by a dour lady who only smiled once as I helped her push up her garage door to fetch her scales as she pointed out “Vous êtes plus grande“.

The flavour of mirabelles is more subtle than plums but when eaten fresh has the same slightly perfumed taste that wanders up your nose. Leave four kilos in a bag in a warm kitchen overnight and the sweetness will hit you in the morning. Jam-making, like anything that involves lots of stirring, is hugely therapeutic, particularly when it’s been necessary to wash, halve and stone what seems like a million fruits. Left to macerate for a few hours in sugar, the heating, frothing and stirring can commence, surely the whole point of the exercise.  Wondrously, the colour changes, turning amber and then darkening to orange.

I am not, in fact, a great jam-eater (batch 2 proved I’m not a great jam-maker either as I left it to go past its setting point and resulted in a too-hard, chewy 10134131375_fbce5e0fecjam) but there is, and will continue to be, something thoughtful, very mindful as I spread it liberally on toast or weekend croissants and think of dilapidation that the French carry off so well, charming L’Epiceries, elderly widows, but-I-am-French ladies, suivez-moi sons and hundreds of people whose villages were destroyed and thousands of sons who never made it home.

 

Recently …

– we went to a small-ish summer barbecue at friends, the number of nationalities present were about twelve.

– on a balmy early summer’s eve, we sat on our terrace drinking champagne with four friends before wandering down the road to the restaurant for astonishingly good food and, unusually for this restaurant, astonishingly slow service. The restaurant is the only ‘public’ place in the village. There is, in fact, no shop in the commune (equivalent of a UK parish council).

– Big Bro and his wife came to stay for a few days. Given that I’d never hosted Big Bro in my house before and Joe Brown hardly knew either him nor his wife, I was a tad nervous. It was all rather mighty fine despite the changeable weather but excellent planning on my part meant that the wettest afternoon was spent at a private wine tasting followed by a tour of the cellars, headed by the chap who runs the winery who was possibly young enough to be my son. Interestingly, when I asked if he’d noticed a problem with pollination due to reduced number of bees, I was told that vines aren’t affected as they’re wholly wind-pollinated.

– Joe Brown and I did a day-long road trip on a fiercely hot day, as much as possible using the road winding along the Mosel river in the ridiculously fast, air-conditioned car. This was a good call on his part and one of my most favourite days since being here.

– I narrowly missed the birth of a calf in the field at the back of our house. Lots of mooing and broken waters heralded the arrival but after an hour of no further progress I thought I had time to walk down the road to post a letter. By the time I came home, there was a pure white, still slightly steaming calf in the field, complete with wing nut ears. It was up and wobbling around within half an hour. Three days later, the other cow produced a beige calf overnight. They’ve become good chums and often canter round the field together playing chase in the cool of the evenings.

– over dinner one evening, my neighbour announced she would cut her forthcoming holiday short by a couple of days when it became apparent we were both away at the same time and neither of us would be at home for cat-duty, both her and mine. Her husband was clearly horrified by this, particularly as this was partly so she could look after le chat roux who’s Belgian.

– le chat roux, usually only absent for an hour or so, went missing. I would like to say I was quite chilled about this, confident that he would return home, but I was not. Convinced he’d come to harm or was trapped somewhere, I wrung my hands, looked forlornly out of the windows, pitifully called his name as I walked round the small village and knocked on neighbours doors to see if he was perhaps shut in their garage. It was only after I’d compiled a ‘DISPARU!’ notice, in two languages no less, to print and stuff through letterboxes that the little orange git returned home, apparently none the worse for wear.

– I’ve bought shoes; heeled black sandals, strappy red wedges (a first for me) and sling backs, the colour of which can only be described as fuck off pink.

– after a seven month sabbatical, purely on the basis of laziness on my part, I’ve resurrected my French lessons with the lovely French teacher.

– the summer flies have arrived in the small country and seem even more numerous than previously.

– I had an appointment with a gynaecologist (anything to do with down there isn’t dealt with by a general doctor). I have never seen a more Gallic-looking man in my life. His profile must, I’m sure, be stamped on a coin.

– I sewed a cushion cover. Believe me, this is noteworthy, really it is.

– I sat on the terrace with a friend I’ve known for over thirty years drinking far too much champagne late in to the night and the small country showed her just how good their storms can be.  A couple of days later, we sat in a sunny cafe in the city square drinking coffee and listening to a string quartet in the bandstand a few feet away playing The Dying Swan. There are many sublime moments in my life and this was up there.

– after a couple of afternoons spent sitting in the garden, barelegged, I have freckled knees. I’d forgotten this happens.

– on a perfectly still, breathtakingly clear night, I stood in the garden and saw three shooting stars within a couple of minutes.

– I saw an exhibition of photos and had a hankering to pick up my camera more often.

And now? Now Joe Brown and I are imminently heading to London  to watch a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Afternoon tea is also planned. Rest assured, fuck off pink sling backs will be packed.

 

Across the border

The wood anemones sparkled in the low morning sun through the trees as I drove through roads that cut through the forests across the border.  The heavy mists had lifted and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.  I’d rolled out of bed just as the light vaguely stained the curtains that morning, made a packed lunch and, after dropping Joe Brown at the bus stop, had headed for the motorway, heading North East.  Traffic had, at times, slowed due to the heavy greyness hanging over the Small Country but, once across the border, the sun began to shine through the grey gloom and speed ensued.  The road surface on some of the autobahns leave a lot to be desired, in places as bad as those in Belgium, causing the tyres to fill the car, my ears and head with never-ending long wails of agony and it was a relief to finally turn off at an exit and leave the demented banshees behind.  As I neared my destination, I twisted and turned along roads with rising rocky crags on one side of the road and rivers running through the drops on the other.

By 9am I was parked and sitting on a treatment table, jeans in a pile to my side and the room filled with a number of clinically white-coated women, the number of which was difficult to keep track off as they kept appearing and disappearing through the multitude of doors in to the room.  There was little talk other than from one nurse who spoke a little English. To an audible gasp by the nurses, the door opened and a man walked in.  This was who I’d come to see and the reason I was half-dressed.  After a cursory look at me, followed by a vague handshake and equally cursory look at a clipboard waved in front on him, he held his hand out into which magically appeared a large syringe with which he began to jab in to my leg in an apparently wholly random fashion, all the while talking to the nurses who flapped about around him. I have no idea what he was saying, my aptitude with German pretty much runs to ‘rubber gloves’ and that’s all (gummihandschuhen, should you ever need it).  Having indicated that I should roll over and continuing to jab for a while, he then circled one finger in the air without looking up. I rolled back over and had a long wavy line drawn on the lower half of my right thigh with green felt tip.

“This” he said in English, tapping the felt tip on my thigh, “this will be removed”. He then vaguely shook my hand and left.

Medical compression stockings are not the easiest things to put on, believe me but so I did and I was sent away and told to walk for half an hour, no less, and come back at 2pm that afternoon.  I half-wobbled down the stairs with tight legs, passing the waiting room filled with people who looked equally tight-legged, sitting with their feet up on stools placed in front of the chairs.

The clinic sits in the middle of a small town which, in itself, is perched half way down a craggy decline with a river running at the edge down to the car park.  The main street is filled with cafes and shops that sell clothes, the likes of which would not be out of place in a British Sunday morning market – all appliqué, glittery tops and Stevie Nicks hemmed skirts that hang on wire coat hangers.  The footfall of the town seemed to consist primarily of elderly people who could well have also been wearing medical compression stockings, many of which were walking with either sticks or zimmer frames.  There are thermal baths nearby and Joe Brown tells me that this would be a popular pastime for the more senior of Germans who apparently have a bit of a thing about “taking the waters and cleaning the tubes”.  I filled various tubes of my own with a squashed packed lunch eaten in the car and zwei cappuccinos sipped whilst sitting on the terrace of a deserted cafe in the hot sun, overlooking a large pond, complete with swans.

Medical compression stockings are shockingly difficult to remove, believe me but at 2pm, the whole process of white-coated, gasping nurses, Herr Doctor sweeping in and randomly jabbing my legs was repeated and I was told to come back next week.

“Two more sessions next week” said Herr Doctor and, tapping my thigh, continued “and we will do this at the same time when you have the correct paperwork”.

I drove home, running the gauntlet of the wailing banshees on the autobahn which nearly caused me to not take advantage of the lack of speed limit thereon, with toes curled over and, whilst driving, trying to smooth the stockings further down my shins to give them room to move.

The green felt-tipped vein in my right thigh, which I just thought showed up so much because my legs are so lily-white, was dealt with by phlebectomy, i.e. it was removed because it was pre-varicose.  This was paid for by the health care system.  Presuming the jabbing of Herr Doctor was not as random as it looked, the spider veins, zapped using sclerotherapy, will fade. Four sessions at a total cost, which I paid for, of 292 Euros and, for the first time in probably a decade, I may consider the option of wearing a knee-length skirt and go bare-legged.  Believe me, I’ll find this rather astonishing.

Also? Medical compression stockings are far easier to get on and off if you use gummihandschuhen.

In this country …

… there is more mistletoe on the winter-bare trees than I’ve ever, ever seen anywhere else.

… when seasonal pruning of roadside trees is done, the prunings are piled up into a series of bonfires a couple of inches from the main roads and set alight with petrol.

… huge trees growing inches from the road are not cut down on the grounds of health and safety, a white line is painted round the trunks that show up in the dark.

… car indicators aren’t used much here and if they are, it’s occasionally advisable to not believe the indication.

… roundabouts are a fairly new phenomenon here and are used as if they’ve never been seen before.

… white plastic bollards by the side of winding roads up steep hills are cleaned – by men wearing high vis jackets and using buckets, mops and cloths.

… speed cameras aren’t really used here but the police sometimes lurk with their speed guns. It’s possible, however, to look up on a website where they’re going to be over the proceeding few days.

… it’s possible to have a leisurely breakfast, go out for a drive, criss-crossing your way through three other countries and be home in time for afternoon tea and cake.

… there are houses painted the colour of highlighter pens. I’m serious.

… the average property price here, irrelevant of colour, is over 500,000 Euros.

… the population is half a million. Nearly half of those are, like us, ex-pats.

… it is advised that an annual blood test be carried out. This, the doctor told me, “may highlight any problems early which can be dealt with before they get more serious”. This sort of pro-active malarky can be hard to take in sometimes.

… when prescribed daily iron supplements (see above), they may come in the form of individual glass vials, the top of which needs to be snapped off. I feel like I’ve morphed back to a bygone time.

… when buying glycerine at la pharmacie for cake-icing purposes, you will be asked how much you want, the quantity of which will be decanted from a huge glass apothecary bottle into a tiny glass bottle and labelled, handwritten. Bygone times again.

… it is impossible to buy any form of painkiller anywhere other than a pharmacie.

… it is possible to buy large apothecary bottles, 20.00 Euros for eight, from flea markets.

… the locals are likely to be able to speak three languages, often switching between them mid-conversation. This is both maddening and hugely impressive.

… when in waiting rooms, whosoever joins the room will say hello as they enter and goodbye as they leave.

… it is highly likely you will be greeted as you enter a shop, probably asked if you need any help and if you advise you’re just looking, you will be left alone. I repeat, you will be left alone to browse.

… there is not a Starbucks on every corner in the city. There is not a Starbucks. This makes me happy.

… there is a supermarket which supplies various fancy restaurants which is also open to the public although not over the lunch period. The supermarket shuts for lunch.

… by and large, on the whole, generally, women are more well-turned out and better groomed here than in Blighty.

… vet bills are considerably cheaper than in Blighty. This is just as well given Le Chat Roux seemingly requires weekly trips for various ailments or afflictions.

… there is an annual potato festival.

… the old, now unused railway line which passed through our tiny village, complete with tunnel, has become a well-kept cycle path.

C’est la vie

The November mists have descended upon the Small Country, just as they did this time last year, cloaking the countryside in ethereal ghostliness.  The car headlights snake their way through the gloom on our morning drive up the hill through the trees to the main road for Joe Brown to face the white-knuckle ride to work on the bendy bus so I can have the ridiculously fast car for the day.  Sometimes the strength of the sun is sufficient to burn the mist off by mid-morning and a couple of weeks ago, on a perfectly clear day and a perfectly clear, straight German autobahn with its lack of speed limit, I tried testing just how ridiculously fast it is.  I think the car laughed in my face when I got sweaty hands and lost my nerve but I certainly drove faster than I ever have before.

It’s over a year since I arrived here and much has happened and much has not.  Progress with learning French is, I feel, timorous due to my seeming lack of ability for concentrated study outside my one-to-one lessons and I’m being a rather timorous beastie about joining in with the two social groups I’m a fully paid-up member of.  I know not why.  As is apparent, I have blogged little.

I would have thought I’d have had much to say about our trip to New York at the end of June to which we travelled first class but I did not.  I said nothing of the wonders of turning left as you step on a plane rather than turning right and there was no mention of the amount of walking we did in a city that seriously doesn’t sleep, any more than we slept in the hideous summer heat in a sweltering hotel room.  The only shoes I found comfortable were a pair of pink flip flops.  We sweated our way round the usual tourist spots, putting our hands on the names of people who were felled, on the spot where they were felled.  We ran our hands along bannisters in a building which was the first building thousands of people came to from far, far away decades ago to start a new life in a new country.  We sheltered from lashing rain which cooled the city for an hour or so, by which time my feet had turned cheap flip flop pink.  I took a multitude of mostly crap pictures, Joe Brown’s were better.

The three cows were taken away from the field out the back of the house some time after we returned but, it must be said, the farmer was astonishingly gentle about it, leaving the open trailer in the field for a week and daily trying to coax them in with food rather than forcing the issue.  We missed their puffs and wheezes as we sat in the late summer evening sun on the terrace after they’d gone.

Having, in the past, dug out pernicious weeds in an area the size of the whole garden here at the Tangerine House, as well as doing the same at the allotment I had in Blighty, even I couldn’t believe how much hand-wringing and bitching I did when digging relatively small flowerbeds here but, in my defence, I’ve never come across such shite, heavy-clay soil.  I fear for the survival of some of the plants given that they’re facing a Small Country hard winter in waterlogged soil that will undoubtedly freeze solid.  I started walking past the enormous pile of manure at the end of the village and staring at it wontonly.

Joe Brown has blatantly said in the past that he would have difficulty being in the house with my sisters and I for any length of time – the phrase used was “a cauldron of women” – so, during his fortnight stint of business trips at the end of September, Sister Two came to stay for a long weekend, bringing her impossibly neatly-packed bag, flips flops that don’t dye her feet, shorts and perpetually lightly-tanned legs.  A fellow gardener, she poked a fork in the rock solid, as then un-dug and sunbaked lawn, and laughed at my misfortune.  This tells you something about Sister Two.  Her casual enquiry as to what temperature I wash the bedlinen tells you something else about her and the fevered manner in which I cleaned the house before she arrived probably says something about me too.  We drank cremant in the unseasonally hot garden – she in her shorts and me with lily-white legs covered – and watched the birds of prey hanging in the air high above the tree line beyond.  We mused on manure and my reticence at speaking with the gentle farmer, fearing inability to make myself understood.  We drove in to the city, something that took me ages to conquer the fear of doing – this from a woman who, years ago, would drive in to London in a car whose ability to make it to the end of the road was highly questionable.  We walked down to the old part, which is  a World Heritage site, ambling along winding valley paths lined with narrow houses and, surprisingly, vegetable gardens.  Tiny lizards scuttled near our feet on the ancient walls.  We had lunch at Le Fromagerie, a shop that Joe Brown and I came across a while ago, the smell of which hits you as the doors slide open.  As we slid in to our seats, I leaned forward and told Sister Two she was in for a treat and indeed, she was.  We lunched on glasses of red wine and platters of breads and different cheeses, slicing slivers from each others plates and comparing favourites.  I think we were at our table for well over an hour before winding our way past the Royal Palace and across the busy city square which, a month or so later, heralded its own royal wedding, stopping at a cafe which serves coffee at its best.  Sister Two simply nodded at the first sip of her double espresso.  No more words were needed.  As we drove home, we cruised round the village and spotted the gentle farmer.

He had no manure at that time but explained in a mixture of French and, surprisingly, English, that his neighbouring farmer did have and the pile I’d been coveting was, in fact, horse manure.

“C’est mieux, non?” he said as I explained why I needed it.  Indeed, yes, horse manure would be better than cow for heavy clay soil.

“Ah, oui” he continued, adding that he’d seen me in the village and that I was “a strong soul”, a phrase I think is the local equivalent of “a sturdy girl”, a phrase bandied around our family for some years, the reason for which is Sister One’s daughter, as a robust toddler in her pushchair, was deemed by a Bahamian to be “a sturdy girl”.

Sister Two and I drank more cremant chez moi that evening whilst we made an enormous fish pie and planned a river trip the following day but regrettably the scheduled sail was cancelled and Sister Two was flying home later that day.  On the way to the airport, she pointed to our right and observed “stick-on cows” in the field across the way.  She’s quite right – a herd of cows in the distance look like they’ve been stuck-on the landscape, cows close up do not. Have a look next time you see a field of cows in the distance and you too will now point and say “stick-on cows” I’ll be bound.  I shocked myself by getting a bit weepy at the airport as I waved goodbye and came home to an empty house, with an impeccably made spare bed and leftover fish pie I picked at later.

A week or so later, after many wanders round the village which takes all of five minutes, I finally found someone in the farmyard at the end of the village and stated my desire for “le fumier”, apologising for my poor French.  The wizen-faced man I spoke to pointed me in the direction of another man who I approached, picking my way across the muddy yard.

I pretty much skipped up the road towards the Tangerine House some while later, partly because I was on a promise of a pile of manure being delivered over the fence the following day but also because, as the wizen-faced man wandered across the yard towards our conversation, he gestured towards another man who apparently spoke some English and the farmer I was speaking to replied:

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, c’est bien”.  My French was seemingly sufficient.

Joe Brown returned home as the sun lost its heat and, with it, our joie de vivre seemed to dissipate.  We both became lethargic and a tad dull, not helped by the shocking news that a work colleague of his is possibly facing not being around to witness his eight and ten year-old sons’ voices breaking.  This outrage of life happens, I know, but it seems particularly cruel to happen to an infinitely kind, gentle giant of a man who looks capable of ripping out fully-grown trees with his bare hands.

A week later, Joe Browns’ father called to let us know that Mrs Brown would imminently be going in to hospital.

“Private health care” she announced to me on the phone at the weekend. “I refused to let him cancel my health care when he retired” she added.  Wise lady, Mrs Brown.

She had surgery on Monday and during an update phone call yesterday, Mr Brown recounted how a nurse explained that his wife had given her a seriously hard time earlier that day on the grounds of rudeness.  Apparently, the nurse had, in an endeavour to reassure Mrs Brown how pleased they were with her progress, she’d told her she was doing really well “for a woman your age” and got severely reprimanded for her impertinence.  She’s had major surgery.  She’s in intensive care.  She’s eighty-three.  She’s a sturdy girl.

Also? There’s someone else living with us as of a month or so ago.

He’s Belgian and, obviously, a redhead.  Le Belge Roux.

Really?

 

We’d turned off the motorway just in to the border after hours of a long, hard drive, pitiful mewing coming from the back every time we’d bumped over a pothole on the way.  Belgian motorways are pretty crap, it must be said.  The car seemed to crawl through the smooth, even streets after hours of whistle and whiz and I remember the butterflies, the short breaths and wide-eyed need to take it all in.  The houses looked vaguely familiar after months of daily trawling through a louer websites in an effort to find a new home, their style, however, unfamiliar and strange to my British eyes.  There were snapshots of oh-so-continental French mixed with dashes of German and modern boxes dotted amongst them looked like enlarged models on a table in an architect’s studio.  Staring through the floor to ceiling windows, I half-expected to see life-size plastic models going about their business, showing how life could be in these tile floored, triple glazed, class B energy-efficient abodes.  Le chat quietened in the back.  Village after village passed until we wound our way upwards and a scene I’d envisaged hundreds of time in weeks previously unfolded as the car finally slowed to a halt.  This was really happening.  This was it.  I was really here.

I sometimes drive through those first villages I saw, my first real glimpse of the Small Country that was to be my home for the foreseeable future three months ago and, every time I do, I still get butterflies and stare at the houses, the memory of that day having been etched in my head.  The open land between the villages look very different now, trees are mostly bereft of leaves, twisted branches pointing upwards to an often wild sky or looming out of a foggy gloom.  The slightly raised beds in the centre of the roads as I approach the small roundabouts have had their shrubbery neatly pruned now and salt grit bins have appeared, complete with handy shovel standing to attention next to them.  The Gaura lindheimeri and Verbena bonariensis which waved in the autumn breeze amongst the central bed through one village has been cut down for the winter but I recall the delight and almost relief at seeing such treasures were here.

A few days after we arrived, I heaved my old deckchair out of the small barn at the side of the house and spent a couple of hours sitting in the warm afternoon sun reading a glossy magazine, a scene which caused Joe Brown to smile widely.  It’s not often that I just sit in a garden but, that afternoon, time stretched out before me a’plenty. I’d tackle the dull garden later.  The warmth didn’t last and I can’t remember the last time I walked up the steps outside the back door to even look at the back garden which can’t be seen from any window in the house.  Later, another time, really.

We slept on an airbed the first night we were here, our furniture thundering across crap Belgian roads on its way.  The morning sun pressed against the curtains, the light slowly seeping out their sides and spreading across the bed.  I didn’t hear the 7 am church bells that morning.  I hear them most weekday mornings now although, for the most part, the first sound I hear is a slight click of a cup being put down on the chest of drawers.  Joe Brown is unfailing in his daily task of bringing me a cup of tea in bed.  Occasionally I wake earlier, sometimes stirring as he leaves the bed when it’s still dark, the skin on his back and shoulders looking momentarily patterned as though covered in a huge intricate tattoo until my eyes adjust.  We are a one-car family of two now and if I want the car for the day whilst Joe Brown’s at work, I have to leave the warmth of our bed and drive him to the bus stop, full beam headlights snaking round the hairypin bends and over the top of the next hill, the narrow road cutting through fields with dark silhouettes of cows and horses, their shapes filtered by the heavy fog often hanging in the not quite dawn.  We drive past the donkeys who seem to have finally been taken in for the winter.  There were three when we first arrived but now there are two.  Joe Brown tried to placate my worries by suggesting perhaps one was in training for forthcoming manger duty but I’m not convinced and fear the worst.  I confess I’ve sometimes returned to bed once home again, not to sleep, but to contemplate my day and make decisions as to what to do with it.  My work trousers have remained in the drawer since arriving and I’m shocked that this is the case, cold weather and not really looking for work aside.  The one gardening job I did two weeks ago in a garden a few kilometres away resulted in a swollen thumb which is still far from right.

I have driven a lot, my fear at driving on the other side of the road slowly abating as I swing round corners and across junctions with sometimes nary a thought in my husband’s ridiculously fast car.  Sally satnav has become a jolly good friend although I confess I sometimes snicker at her appallingly bad pronunciations of French-named roads.  I can occasionally be found trailing round a supermarche or two undoubtedly wearing a look of some bemusement and vaguely confused.  I find it strange, nay rather bizarre, that I am doing something as basic as food shopping when I cannot understand many of the signs and tannoyed announcements which can be in any one of three languages.    Clementines can be bought still with leaves on and I buy oranges individually wrapped in twists of paper.  Cherry tomatoes taste as though I grew them in the garden.  I scrabble in my bag for the now tatty list of translations for different fish whilst waiting in vague line at the poissonerie, watching a madame next to me choose two crabs which are held up for inspection before being put in a plastic bag, their claws and legs still flailing at their forthcoming fate.  Shopping malls are awash with the scent of freshly brewed coffee from the plethora of cafes and eateries, trolleys full of bought provisions parked near tables as shoppers rest with espressos or glasses of wine.  A young mother, her long blonde hair pulled in to a ponytail, rocks a pushchair with one foot whilst eating a plate of moules mariniere on her own.  Triangles of pre-packed sandwiches are here but they are not easy to find.  Piles of baguettes, stuffed with ham, cheese and salads are everywhere.  I have found a lingerie shop full of pretty frillies, with bras three times the cost of the pair of Levi’s acquired today.  The cup size of bras in French is bonnet which made me chortle at its sweetness and apt suggestion of ribbon and lace.

A lady who at 30 paces is so obviously French has started to come to the house once a week.  I make coffee in proper cups with saucers and ensure I am wearing lipstick.  We speak French the whole time although I am very stilted and slow, often trailing off as I either cannot remember or simply do not know the word.  Despite this, we press on, sometimes lapsing in to conversations about shoes and the oft square shape of German clothes and she leaves workbooks and papers with me to study before the next lesson.  She strokes le chat as she leaves, referring to him as le minou.  I sometimes have to stifle a laugh as I stand in warrior pose with three other women in an apartment in front of a lady whose serenity dribbles all over her yoga mat because this, all of this life that I have, the place where I’m at, seems rather unreal.

As I lay in bed sipping tea this morning, I asked myself if I wanted to go back, go back to The Little House by the Big Wood and the life that we had there.  My answer was no.  I’ve been slow to start here for sure, picking my way round this tiny country rather timidly and by no means have I hurled myself in to a social whirl but I’ll find my way.  Still, surprisingly, my answer was no.

“Really?” I queried my self

“Really”.

Sunday

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I’ve been looking forward to today for weeks, with visions of a lazy Sunday breakfast at the dining table with my husband in our new home in our new country, morning sun streaming through the window, house with some sort of semblance of order given we’ve been here since Wednesday evening.

Instead, large vital furniture are in the wrong rooms as they either won’t go up the stairs and/or through the living room door which is upstairs, boxes are still packed full of crockery as the small kitchen really does have a storage issue and it’s lashing with rain, with rumbles of thunder.  Joe Brown and I are full of colds – he having driven us here for seven hours with a fever, a fever I caught up with on Friday.  The cat, albeit not happy at spending so much time in the car, coped remarkably well and seemed reasonably happy the day after we arrived, has now not eaten since Thursday afternoon.  Weepy session on my part resulted in trip to gentle-voiced vet yesterday morning and we came home with a veritable meze of different foods, in line with his known kidney issues, to try and tempt him.  Desperation has halted all major unpacking and moving around of furniture in the hope that calmness will ensue the consumption of more than the occasional laps of water.  Light pottering is the order of the next couple of days – Joe Brown is changing plugs and I plan to clean the bathroom.  Coaxing doesn’t work, smearing his paws with food just pisses him off.  In the meantime, he displays moments of acute alertness and feline deftness but mostly curls up or crouches sphinx-like on the chair, occasionally padding slowly and carefully out in to the garden where he sits on the edge of the border, end of tail swishing slowly back and forth, back and forth.

Twenty Third: And so to bed

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Two weeks from hereon, Joe Brown and I will have slept in the Little House by the Big Wood for the last time before tunneling our way to the continent with the cat.  It’s been a long time coming and neither of us envisaged it would take anywhere near this long but, for one reason or another, it has.

Seems likely we’ve found other people to live here – a young, smiley, laughy couple who cooed at white walls and size of bath and shower head.

I suddenly feel a little bit cosmopolitan and awfully small.

Ninth: Barley twist and beeswax

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I worked this morning in the garden of a lady who’s 80.  She has an easy but difficult garden to work in – borders are stuffed which make for less weeds but what weeds there are can be pernicious and require careful stepping amongst plants to get at them.  She also has a penchance for the likes of lemon balm and mint and certainly when I first started working there I had to negotiate hard on just how much lemon balm and mint was really necessary.  “But it’s really pretty” she’d say which became something of her catchphrase before wandering off and muttering “Oh you, you’re just like the nit nurse” as I pulled great chunks out.  Her house, a tiny cream-coloured cottage down a quiet side street, would not look out of place if you came across it in the midst of a wood and, in many ways, she wouldn’t look out of place either – a small grey-haired lady with bright eyes and capable hands who pumps at the well in her garden for longer than I can before my arms give out.

Today, after I’d finished my stint, we had lunch in her garden then headed off across winding roads that rolled across wide open countryside to go see a place she thought I might like.  Garden furniture, new and old, were stacked in buildings dotted round the site, containers full of planks of differing sizes, old doors leaned against walls and a warehouse full of old furniture which was our main reason for going.  We wandered through the aisles, peered in to wardrobes, opened chests of drawers and ran our hands along dressers.  We sat on chairs, cooed at dainty tables with barley twist legs and said hello to an inky black cat with a long twirly tail and came across her cardboard box full of fat, roly poly kittens who she was happy for us to gently stroke.

“I haven’t seen a cardboard box full of kittens for years” I remarked.

My camera was bereft of SD card and the only photo I could take of my day was of a stunningly beautiful stained glass window in a church it was suggested we stop at on the way.  If I work out how to work out the built-in memory malarky I’ll upload it although it won’t do it justice.  It was truly breathtaking.

I bought no chests of drawers nor barley twist legged tables but a few packets of seeds and four blocks of beeswax were brought home to plant in my new garden and make polish to wax the furniture we already have.