An English Interlude

We were back in England for a while, getting our house ready to market.  Those TV makeover shows have got a lot to answer for.  It’s no longer enough to do a bit of casual dusting.  We de-cluttered surfaces, touched up paint, knocked the garden into shape, and even gave one room a total makeover (‘People are so thick’, advised one chap who’d come round to give us an estimate for removal. ’Just because you’ve got that room organised as a study, they won’t be able to see it as the house second bedroom.  If you can, get rid of all those books, and set it up as a bedroom’). So we did.  We boxed up several hundred books and put them in the garage, then covered the dark green walls in restrained buttermilk paint, and popped in a spare double bed we just happen to have, a chest of drawers, a bedside light or two.  Add an artificial orchid from Habitat, et….voilà…one genuine bedroom makeover.  And then we had to live in, and keep up with, all the unaccustomed tidiness.  We hated it.

But we did love being in England.  At least I did.  Here are my 13 reasons for happiness.  Definitely NOT in rank order

  1. Harrogate in crocus and daffodil season must be one of the loveliest urban sights in Europe.  The Stray, that splendid open parkland which girdles the southern part of the town, was all but submerged in a sea of purple white and orange crocus, gradually opening to reveal saffron coloured stamens as the sun teased the flower petals apart towards midday.  The crocus fade away to be replaced by an equally extensive display of daffodils. They were only just reaching their best as we left town, but we did at least see them.
  2. Radio 4. I had it on constantly. From Our Own Correspondent, Paul Merton on Just a Minute, Daniel Corbett’s animated and informative weather forecasts, Gardeners’ Question Time….. all to help the day go by as we scrubbed and polished
  3. Spending time with those fantastic twin boys, the grandchildren, as they discovered the new adventure playground in Harrogate’s Valley Gardens.
  4. Nidderdale LETS. What a great bunch of friends.  We’d organised a Task Force of willing members to tackle the overgrown jungle that was our garden. Naturally it rained on the day.  So everyone turned to in the house.  They scrubbed paintwork, wrapped ornaments, painted the above-mentioned bedroom, hoovered…And we all had fun, and lunch together.  How do people manage without LETS, or SEL as it’s called in France?
  5. Friends. We had little enough time to socialise, but those hours spent sharing time at our house, in Ripon, in Huby, and in various spots in and around Harrogate were all very special
  6. Charity shops. Whenever I’m in England, I spend time combing through the stock of books in all our local charity shops. With everything from the latest Man Booker winner to little-heard-of classics all going for anything from 30p. to a pound, why wouldn’t I want to stock up?  And this time, we off-loaded quite a few things too
  7. Freecycle. The amount of stuff that Harrogate Freecycle keeps out of landfill must be quite phenomenal these days.  And its members seem to be amongst the nicest people in town.  So we were glad to pass on some stuff to various happy recipients.
  8. Pontefract cakes. Nothing else quite hits the spot.  Oh, except perhaps luxury-end crunchy hand-cooked crisps from Marks and Spencer or Waitrose.  Chilli flavour.
  9. Power walking in the Valley Gardens, 8.30 a.m. Sunday morning, with Angela and Chris.  Best start to the week.  Not sure we really ought to call it power walking any longer though.  Power chatting maybe.
  10. Hot cross buns. When I was younger, Good Friday was the day of the year when we ate hot cross buns.  Maybe for a day or two after as well, but no more than that.  Freshly toasted and dripping with butter, the sugary cinnammon smells wafting through the kitchen, they were one of the food highlights of the year.  Now they’re available all the time, they don’t seem half so special.  But during this last English fortnight, Good Friday or no Good Friday, Malcolm and I made sure we got quite a few hot cross buns under our belts.
  11. Indian take-away. After hard days spent painting and cleaning, few things are more reviving than a good Indian take-away.  Hot, pungent, spicey, sour, the vivid flavours cheered us up and brightened our mood.  The French don’t know what they’re missing!
  12. Guardian and Observer. I know I could read Polly Toynbee, Nigel Slater et al on line.  But it’s really not the same, is it?
  13. Talking in English. The sheer relief of being able to chat, chunter, chew the fat, confide, discuss, digress, argue, amplify, explain, entertain, without pausing to consider whether I’ve chosen the right gender, the right word, the right ending.  Yes, perhaps this really is so precious it really needs to go right up to the top of the list at number 1.

Life on the Ocean Wave?

We’ve just come back from a fortnight or so in England – To Be Continued in our Next.  I just need to get our journey off my chest.

We generally cross the Channel by ferry.  Neither of us is keen on the Tunnel, and a nice breezy trip on a boat always seems a cheery, day-out-by-the-seaside way of travelling between England and France.

Not that Dover’s much fun.  Despite having some elegant and interesting buildings, Dover always seems a dingy, down at heel and down-on-its-luck sort of place. And this time, it looked as if we’d have longer than usual time to kill there, because LD lines sent a late text saying our ferry would have to leave at 1.30 p.m., not midday, and we’d arrived in town just before 10.00

Why not go down to the port, then, and see if the ship before had been delayed, and whether it could perhaps squeeze us in?  Down at the booking office, the news was that because of atrocious weather, the 6.30 a.m. sailing still hadn’t been able to leave.  But it was loading, but if we hurried, we could go too.

We hurried.  We caught the ferry.  We regretted it.  Even behind the harbour walls, the ship was pitching and tossing.  As we started our voyage, the well-named tug DHB Doughty struggled to keep us on some kind of suitable path between the harbour walls.  Out among the waves and spray of the open sea, the ship immediately started to lunge, roll, and sway, and kept up this uneasy surging throughout the trip.

I’ve always been a rotten sailor, but told myself firmly that this time it would be different: it was just a case of mind over matter.  Less than 10 minutes later I was sick for the first time.

Nearly an hour and a half into our hour and a half journey, the French coast was nowhere near.  Then the captain announced that some cargo had come adrift, and we’d have to stop till it was sorted out.  Half an hour passed.  Then yet again it was Our Captain Speaking.  There was, he said, a Force 10 gale going on.  He didn’t propose to risk getting into the harbour in Boulogne in these conditions.  We’d just have to sit it out.  I went green.  I went yellow.  I went glassy eyed. I used up several sick bags.  So did half the passengers.  The other half (including Malcolm) only had boredom and ailing partners to contend with, but they weren’t having a lot of fun either.  Malcolm struggled off to find water for me, and found broken crockery all over the cafeteria, books and souvenirs strewn over the shop floor, and the toilets awash.  He lurched back empty handed, though stewards came round with water and sympathy later on

And we sat, hunched miserably in our seats, until finally, the captain reckoned there was a slight change in the weather. At last the French tug Obstiné brought us into port .  Those tugs with those inspired names were the cheeriest things about the whole journey

The photos show the sea hitting the harbour in Boulogne.  That’s the sea as it lost power and hit the coast, not the raging sea we’d been putting up with in what felt like mid ocean.  For six long hours.

Next time there’s a storm, I ain’t sailing.  I’ll just sit it out on dry land.

Open Day at the Lycée

Having had three children, I’m no stranger to school open days.  City life meant they had access to any number of High Schools, so between the three of them, over the years I’ve been to Open Days at: Abbey Grange; City of Leeds; Granby;  Harrogate Grammar; Intake; Lawnswood; Pudsey Grangefield; Pudsey  Priesthorpe; Rossett; St. Aidan’s, and probably a few others as well.  You’d think that would be enough.  But no.

Today we had the chance to see the Lycée des Métiers J-M Jacquard in Lavelanet at work when it threw open its doors.  We couldn’t resist.

It was like none of the above.  I’ve not been to a school before where pupils trundled round a huge loading bay in forklift trucks, moving pallets of goods into a ‘shop’ area where they practiced using computerized stock control.  They’re the Logistics students.  In another department, white-coated teenagers in white rubber shoes conducted experiments into water purity, or calculated how much salt a particular water source would need to optimize dishwasher use.  They’re destined for the Water Processing & Treatment Industry when they leave school. In an enormous modern factory type space, several boys and one lone girl were applying their new skills to the Maintenance of Industrial Equipment.

Somehow, I don’t think any of my three would have wanted to be there – though they might have enjoyed driving the forklift trucks.

Of course, all the usual core lessons go on too – though no music, art or drama, and Mal and I had fun in an English class (none of those students wanted to be there, either).  Their teacher was showing them pictures of the sights of London, and she encouraged us to help her prise English words and phrases from their reluctant lips.

By English standards, it’s a small school – maybe some 500 students (and all aged over 14). You might guess that there are about twice as many boys as girls.  About 100 are weekly boarders, coming from as far away as Albi, almost 200 km. away.  We inspected small dormitories and games rooms, which seemed curiously impersonal spaces for teenagers who spend their evenings there.  In fact the whole school was a bit like that.  It was impressive – wonderfully equipped with every technological gizmo; polite, helpful and enthusiastic staff and students; views of the Pyrénées . The focus in this Lycée is preparing for the world of work, and there’s no room for the displays of pupils’ work, the pictures on the wall, the school Annual Production, that are typical of an English High School.

But it’s clearly a happy and successful school, and we’re glad to have had the chance of a glimpse through its open doors.

The Big Snow: Chapter 3


Sunday, March 7th. Malcolm and I go for a walk in the Aude, near Limoux.  The day is full of the promise of spring, bright and sunny.  The almond blossom is out.  We spot baby lizards darting along stone walls, and enjoy watching more lizards sunning themselves on the rocky ledge where we have our midday picnic.

Monday, March 8th. We wake up to snow.  And more snow.  It was snowing as we got up, and it continues to snow, hour after hour.  We watch the flowerpots in the yard as their hats of snow become taller and taller.  By mid-afternoon, they’re 24 cm. high, and by 7 o’clock, as it begins to get dark, they’re about 28 cm. high. Up on the roof, the icicles become stouter and as long as the snow is deep. The trees stand stiff and silent under their heavy bonnets of snow.  The snow continues to fall as we close the shutters at nightfall. TV news reminds us that we’ve has it easy – look at the deep drifts, and hundreds of stranded lorries backed up in the Pyrénées Orientales!

Today, Tuesday March 9th – no more snow falling- but it’s not ready to melt either.  The wind snatches the snow from the trees, and when we leave the house, slaps our faces with flurries of flakes whipped from the rooftops.  The birds are constantly busy at our ‘Resto du Coeur’, and we replenish their feeders several times.  Gym?  Cancelled.  Choir?  Cancelled

As I still haven’t got my camera, the snowy photos on this blog come to you courtesy of my friend Marianne, who’s been busy with her camera as she and Réglisse, her dog, slip and skate round the chilly streets of le Peyrat, just down the road from Laroque.  Thanks, Marianne!

Suddenly, earlier today, I remembered this ditty the children and I used to chant when they were small:

Whether the weather be cold,

Or whether the weather be hot

We’ll weather the weather

Whatever the weather

Whether we like it or not

The Broccoli Blog

There are two things I especially love about early spring.  Daffodils.  Purple sprouting broccoli.  The French don’t really do either.

Well, that’s not fair.  In the woods near here, in a few weeks, there’ll be swathes of delicate, rather pale and lovely daffodils blooming.  At weekends, people will go and pick enormous basketsful of them.  They’ll take them home and stick the flowers in vases, where they’ll last only a day or two before wilting in the indoor heat.  But the civic displays which for me are one of the glories of the UK simply hardly exist here.  No dual carriageways are planted with unreasonable quantities of brilliant yellow daffs announcing to every passing motorist ‘Spring is here!’  There are no newspaper headlines ‘Daffodils on the Stray’, featuring a couple of four year olds gambolling among the flowers.  No florists or supermarkets here have buckets of blooms ‘3 bunches for £1’.  I probably won’t buy any here if I can find them, as they’ll already be open and the joy of watching them unfurl won’t be an option.

Purple sprouting broccoli’s even more unknown.  I haven’t even found an exact translation.  Like other English here, if I want to eat it, I have to grow it myself, with seed brought over from England. For 9 months of the year, the large ungainly plants occupy more than their fair share of the vegetable plot, and really, half the time I wonder whether it’s worth it.  Well,  it is.  Today, I picked the very first handful of tightly closed purple heads, enclosed in a collar of dark frilly leaves.  And now I know that there’ll be enough and to spare for several weeks to come.

Such a special vegetable deserves to be more than a bit part, one of two veg. playing second fiddle to a plate of meat. This is the meal we cooked this evening, thanks to Nigel Slater and his newest book ‘Tender’ (Read it, even if you don’t cook much.  It’s as good as a bedtime story, though it WILL make you greedily hungry)

Pasta with Sprouting Broccoli & Cream

250g. sprouting broccoli

250 g. orechiette or fusilli

30g. butter

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

4 chopped anchovy fillets

250 g. crème fraîche

170 g. crumbled gorgonzola (well, we used Roquefort – you would round here)

Put 2 pans of boiling salted water on the stove.  Drop the pasta into one, and the trimmed broccoli into the other.  As soon as the broccoli’s tender – 3 or 4 minutes- drain it, wipe the pan, and return it to the heat with the butter, garlic and anchovies.  Let them cook slowly for a minute or two before adding the crème fraîche and cheese.  Bring to the boil and turn down the heat.  Add the broccoli, season with black pepper, and then add the drained pasta.

Cheap, quick, delicious, and a real celebration of early spring