“No sky in all France is more blue than that of Collioure”: Henri Matisse. Not this week……

Because of our 6 weeks’ hard labour, because the weather here is so unseasonably gorgeous, and most of all, because it was Mal’s birthday yesterday, we decided on a Mid-Week Break.  A friend had just posted some photos of the sea at Collioure, radiant in the early spring sunshine, and we thought we’d like an off-season visit too.  The Pyrénées Orientales are nearly always sunny, with high temperatures and blue skies, even if we’re shivering over here, so we never bothered to check the forecast.  Big mistake.

Half way through our journey to the coast, the mist descended.  The sky turned pale, then grey.  The temperature fell.  Sea mist, we thought.  It’ll burn off.  It didn’t.

So our afternoon consisted in making the best of a bad job.  Which worked.  Rather than stop for lunch first at Collioure, which we feared might be closed for business, winter, mid-week, we went on to Port-Vendre.  This is still a busy fishing port, with tuna and sardine canning factories, so we had the idea that we’d be lunching with fishermen in oilskins.  Well, not at all actually, but fishy menus are centre stage, and we ate well – very well.

Then we came back to Collioure.  As we’d thought, nearly everything was closed, and without the sun to add sparkle and joie de vivre, we contented ourselves with an invigorating walk along the front before moving on: this is a region with plenty to offer.

This is Catalan France. It’s been ruled by Spain, by France, back and forth over the centuries, and many of its current inhabitants fled from Spain during the Franco regime, so it does have a very Spanish feel.  The frequent change of rule means that many bloody battles have taken place here too, and back in the 13th century, the fortified town of Elne suffered cruelly.  Under Catalan rule at the time, the troops of French king Philip the Hardy laid waste the town.  The townspeople fled to the traditional sanctuary of the church.  There the soldiers killed the menfolk, raped the women before the altar, and flung small children against the walls before burning the church, which still bears scorch marks on the main doorway.  It was this church, Sainte-Eulalie and its cloister we’d come to see. The church itself is a strikingly simple Romanesque building, beautifully lit and inviting quiet contemplation. It’s a little reminiscent of Durham Cathedral, but on a more domestic scale.  The cloisters are really special.  Partly Romanesque, partly Gothic, the capitals and pillars have been immaculately carved with foliage, animals and biblical scenes still in crisp and fresh condition.  It’s a lovely, quiet place.

We stayed the night at a traditional Catalan 19th century farmhouse, Mas Bazan.  After a night in our elegantly simple room, we enjoyed a ‘bio’ breakfast of home made cake and jams, newly baked bread, and the company of our stimulating and cheery hostess.  It was she who planned our day for us, suggesting things we might enjoy.

The misty weather limited our choices to some degree, but we had two highlights.  As we left the coast, we climbed upwards into the scrubby, shrubby Mediterranean hillside which we now know is called ‘maquis’, rather than ‘garrigue’, because the soils are different in each.  And we spotted in the distance our first destination, Castelnou,  not destined to be twinned with Newcastle.  A mediaeval castle and village appeared through the mist, with beyond, tantalizing glimpses of the massif of the Canigou.  As we wandered round the village, a few minutes later, we wondered who would choose to live in such a picturesque museum, overrun with tourists in summer, its several restaurants and craft showrooms overflowing, while in winter nothing, apparently, happens.

We had lunch in Ille-sur-Têt, which also has medieval streets, but ordinary small town life goes on there: it’s no tourist showpiece.  We’d come to see Les Orgues, north of the town.  These take the form of an amphitheatre of cliffs which the elements have eroded, and continue to erode, into extraordinary columns and pillars.  It’s arid, quite desert like, and quite ephemeral in that it’s constantly changing as the sand from which these structures are formed wears away and is re-deposited.  The photos I took record them as they are at the moment.  In a few years they’ll be different again.

And then we wound our way home, on a series of snaking backroads through the maquis.  The nearer to the Ariège we got, the hotter the sun became, the bluer the sky.  It’s not supposed to work like that.

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Learning to speak French again after 6 weeks’ hard labour

Returning to France on Wednesday was a bit of a shock to the system.  Six weeks speaking English every time we opened our mouths, and then…..French again.  It was there somewhere, deep inside the recesses of our skulls.  But it was hidden right away at the back, covered in fluff, layers of dust and paint splashes, and scarcely fit for purpose.

Opening our mouths to make simple comments to the receptionist at our overnight hotel stop in Blois that first night back seemed strange.  Standard phrases escaped our lips, sounding odd, like some once familiar lesson learned at school, since long-forgotten.

Two days on, things are returning to normal: the language machine has been oiled and serviced, and is creaking back to business as usual, as we resume our daily round.

But in those 6 weeks in England, we scarcely engaged our brains at all.  We painted the house ready to be put in the hands of a letting agent.  We packed.  We discarded years of family life.  We sorted out bags and bags of stuff for the local charity shop: we called there so often that we fully expected them to open a new branch named after us, and were convinced that the one day we didn’t go, disgorging huge plastic bags of donations from the car, they’d put out a Missing Persons enquiry.  Things that neither family members nor the charity shop wanted got advertised on Freecycle, and we had fun helping those who responded to cram large bookcases or cumbersome chairs into rather small cars.  ‘Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. Our goal is to keep usable items out of landfills’.

Furniture and books – 9 cubic metres – were collected by a removal firm who’ll deliver it all to us here in about 10 days, after they’ve collected and delivered other consignments all over England and France.

What would we have done without all the friends who fed and entertained us in the evenings after our 10 hour-long-days labouring in the house?  They made it possible for us to pack up virtually every cooking pot and plate days before the end of our stay.

And what would we have done without our friends in LETS?  Some of you have asked what LETS (SEL in France) is:

LETS – Local Exchange Trading Systems or Schemes – are local community-based mutual aid networks in which people exchange all kinds of goods and services with one another, without the need for money.

Nidderdale LETS is the group in the Harrogate area.  With about 50 members, many of us have worked and socialised together over the years, helping each other revitalise overgrown gardens or have a big spring clean.  People offer massages, Alexander technique, translation services, animal care, teaching and practical skills: all sorts of things.  This time, LETS members turned out in force to help us paint and clean the house from top to bottom.  We couldn’t have done without them, and working together was fun and gave us all a feeling of real achievement as we shared lunch and conversation after a hard morning’s work.

After all that, though, our bodies were exhausted, and our brains non-existent.  No wonder speaking French again seemed a bit of a challenge.

Marmalade: the bitter facts

Forget politics.  Here in the UK, the news story that really means something to any right-thinking English man and woman is that marmalade sales are falling.  The reason though, according to most commentators, is that many of us prefer to make our own.  I do.

Over the last few years, I’ve been so glad to have come across Jane Grigson’s recipe, which gets me out of the whole business of hacking mounds of tough raw orange peel into marmalade sized chunks.  It delivers a tasty sweet and bitter marmalade which beats anything you’ll meet on the grocer’s shelf

Our house, now a temple to magnolia paint and packing cases, is currently innocent of recipe books.  Somehow I contrived to find my preserving pan the other day, and make her marmalade, or something  jolly like it, from memory.  Impressive, huh?

I kg. seville oranges (about 10 fruits)

1 lemon

3.4 litres water

2 kg. granulated sugar, or half granulated, half light muscovado.

Scrub the seville oranges and the lemon, and place in a large pan with the water.  Bring to the boil and simmer till the fruit is soft – maybe an hour or so.  Allow to cool.  Cut the oranges in half, scoop out the flesh and pips and reserve in a large muslin square.  Chop the skin as thick or as thin as you chose – it’s so easy now the skin is soft.

Tie the muslin with its contents into a bag, and put it, with the orange peel, remaining water (about a third will have evaporated) and sugar, into a preserving pan.  Bring the mixture slowly to the boil, so that the sugar dissolves, then cook rapidly till setting point is reached (I can’t manage without my jam thermometer, but that’s pathetic.  Most people seem happy enough to test for the setting point by putting a spoonful of marmalade onto a cold saucer, and seeing if it crinkles as you push your finger through the cooled mixture).

Allow the mixture to sit for about 15 minutes before pouring into sterilised jam jars.  Makes 6-7 jars

Getting in touch with our inner magnolia

Here we are, still in Harrogate.  We’ve given up trying to sell the house.  Perhaps we could rent it out instead?

The Letting Agent called round to give advice.  ‘Hmm.  You’ll find neutral colours are best on the walls’.  So this month is devoted to making the house not neutral, but bland.

Wedgwood blue, sunshine yellow, saffron orange, Moroccan red – all need to go, in favour of  – magnolia.  Well, we could have chosen barley white, walnut whip, almond blossom, Jersey cream…………, but they’re all much of a muchness, and magnolia was on offer when we went shopping for paint.

And what you need to know is that we can’t stand painting, neither of us.  Any dispacement activity will do.  Washing up?  Great! Cleaning the bathroom?  Wonderful!  When we do finally get started, we try so hard only to look at our watches once an hour….and then discover 10 minutes has passed.  We thoughtfully offer to make each other cups of tea at every opportunity, and consider it important to empty our bladders before there could be any possible discomfort.  We climb down ladders to go and inspect each other’s work, brush stroke by brush stroke, and really, it’s a miracle that we have in fact managed to paint 2 whole rooms since Wednesday.  That’s partly thanks to our friends in LETS.  You don’t know about LETS?  You will.  To be continued , perhaps not in my next, but some time in the near future

Down at the Greasy Spoon

No stay in England is complete without a visit to a Greasy Spoon.  Hot, crowded, cheerful,  and full of burly men stolidly chewing their way through mountainous piles of chips, bacon and sausage, the average transport caff is not the place for fine dining.  But the good ones are worth a visit, and today, we visited the Bridge Cafe at Apperley Bridge, on the way over to Bolton to see the boys.

It was only quarter to twelve, but we needed an early break after a hard morning shifting furniture, skidding up and down our impossibly icy street, lugging huge bags of books and discarded household items to the charity shop, visiting the Letting Agent, scouring Bradford’s Asian shops for essential supplies of Indian spices that are hard to get in France.  After that, what better than a hot plate of comfort food washed down with a huge mug of tea?

Yes, quarter to twelve.  But the place was already crowded with joiners, truckers, shoppers, pensioners.  Most were having the all-day breakfast.

This is what you get if you order the small one: £3.80

2 slices bacon, 1 sausage, 1 egg, beans, tomatoes, toast, fried bread, tea.

Some had gone for the Full Breakfast: 2 slices bacon, 2 sausages, 2 eggs, spam, black pudding, mushrooms, hash browns, beans, tomatoes, fried bread, toast and tea or coffee.

Nope, not a chance that we could cope with that: poached eggs on toast was more like it.

A quick flick through the daily papers provided – tabloids of course, broadsheets need not apply – a quick chat to the owners ( Italian?  Lithuanian? We couldn’t agree), and we were off, sustained for an afternoon of meeting 5 year old twins as they came out of school, to enjoy the rest of their action-packed day

Urban wildlife

When we left Laroque for Christmas and New Year in London and Harrogate, we thought we’d left most wildlife behind too.  Not so.  It seems as if wherever you are in South London, you’re only yards from a fox’s lair. Tom and Sarah refused to share our excitement at seeing so many.  ‘They’re on the station every night when we come home from work’, they yawned. ‘They’re quite mangy anyway’.  We didn’t think so.  We loved to see them trotting spiritedly along the street once darkness  had fallen, sniffing round the dustbins for Christmas turkey.

Back in Harrogate, the birds we thought would have abandoned our garden, now we aren’t there to feed them regularly, have quite simply moved in.  Chaffinches hunt for seed, blackbirds tug at worms, and all of them relish the garden pond for regular bathing sessions in the all-but-frozen water.  They’re obviously glad we’ve not been there to disturb them

On the day before Christmas, my true love showed to me….

…1 flying heron..2 bright kingfishers3 Christmas robins4 mighty buzzards5 shy pied wagtails6 cheeky sparrows7 busy nuthatches8 chaffinches feeding9 active coal tits10 cheery redstarts11 hungry blue tits…..and 12 busy birds round our birdfeederHappy Christmas, everyone.

I chose these birds because, apart from the nuthatch, they can all be seen from the house.  In fact the heron cruises past down onto the river to feed once, maybe twice, every day.  We still get quite excited every time it happens.

But in most cases, not so very different from England, eh?