Monday, December 8, 2008

The Call of the Pompier!

HARK! Who comes there down our chimney, this festive tide?

Well - he doesn’t quite come down the chimney… But I bet he could if he wanted! And he does bear gifts and glad tidings and plenty of Christmas Cheer... He’s the POMPIER on his annual calendar round! (Firefighter in England-our-old-country).

This year it was Caporal Legrand (or Bernard as he introduced himself) who called with the 2009 Pompiers Calendar. Their visit is always a delight. They come in the early evening, take a glass of wine and stay for a jolly chat. Bernard even invited us to his home for aperitifs!

Our first calendar-call seven years ago was, admittedly, slightly tricky; we’d only been in the country for three days and didn’t immediately grasp his Fund-Raising purpose. It took the poor man quite some time to get money out of us for his kind offer of a calendar.

Pompiers deal with fires, road accidents, medical emergencies, escaped llamas… in fact traumas of every ilk. They also attend commemorative events, and spread the Joy of Community.

Astonishingly, 85% of Pompiers in France are volunteers. (Well, it astonished me, but I hadn’t realised that in other European countries they’re mostly volunteers - the UK seems unusual in being largely professional). Here, they often have full-time jobs but are constantly on call.

During our first year in France, the village Chef Pompier came away immediately from his masonry to do something about the seven trillion bees we’d just found upstairs. How exasperating for him! Yet after bee-banishing, he even gave us his mobile number in case we needed to contact him urgently again! I wanted to marry him.

And I’m not alone… there is a huge feeling of warmth, respect and trust towards Pompiers. Some people even choose to phone them instead of the Medical Emergency number when they’re having a cardiac arrest or the odd arm has been broken... A friend explained that for her, it's an inbred response from childhood – Pompiers are like Supermen – they can solve anything.

This year’s calendar is fabulous as always: packed with colourful, exciting photographs of these amazing men and women coping in all sorts of dire emergencies, saving people, shrugging it all off with a smile. And there are photos of the local force posing shyly with helmets and handy digging or chopping implements. Inspirational people - always looking happy, always ready to make it better!

(Of course, I could have been one if I hadn't just reached the upper age limit)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Youth of Today

The man behind the ticket desk at our local station recently had the gall to ask if I was eligible for a reduced fare!

Surely it was obvious to him that I was at least five years too young? I mean - I’ve always looked masses younger than I am and everyone has always said so. Always…

Something bizarre is happening now, though; some hideous reflection of modern fixations, no doubt… For example, last week a saleswoman in the hypermarket made a beeline for me, to tell me that her "Lifting" products were on promo. As well as her treatments for age-freckles and the "difficult eye area".

"SO?" I wanted to shout at her. (I didn’t shout. I just muttered "Not today thank you," and shuffled away thinking, She could do with some Retraining).

But something about her concerned gaze made me glance in the mirror at the ReadyReader Specs counter. And something about that made me rush to google ‘eyebags’ as soon as I got home.

What could have caused the insidious emergence of these generous little pockets? The usual culprits, it seems: stress, tiredness, caffeine and alcohol. So All is Lost. Although drinking seventeen gallons of water a day might help, apparently.

Google also suggested giving That Woman’s creams a go or, and this seemed interesting and rather less extortionate, trying a nice lie down with a frozen teabag on each eye (preferably green tea).

I happen to like green tea with mint, so I shoved a couple of used bags in between the Baby Peas and the Rich Chocolate Chip, and retrieved them later for a relaxing and rejuvenating spell with The World at One.

They felt like lumps of coal! Never mind; I pressed them coolingly to my eyes and laid down on the rug with a happy sigh. After ten minutes I rushed to assess the results: I looked like I’d gone three rounds with Mike Tyson before dipping my head in the dregs of the teapot. Perhaps the ordinary ‘fridge would have been cooling enough. Or perhaps I should go the camouflage route and decorate my under-eyes with a nice mural.

The day after this depressing failure, I got into conversation with a pleasant woman at the cheese counter – her family roots in Italy, her gifted and multitudinous grandchildren… Then, she went and asked me how old I thought she was. Always tricky, this – too young can be silly; too old can be mortifying… She looked about fifty-eight, and obviously thought she looked forty-eight, which is what I’d normally have suggested. But I was fed up, and suffering to boot from self-inflicted Hair Colour Calamity.

"SIXTY-THREE!" I yelled across the goat cheeses, and smirked off to the tills.

No, I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. I gritted my teeth (better grit while I've still got them), and said "Forty-Five?"

(Old Boot)!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ode to a Fun Park

O for another Go on La Vienne Dynamique; another Plunge under Les Mers du Monde!

This week George and I were whisked by super-speedy TGV to Futuroscope – a land of astonishing experiences and startling sensations… A fabulous present from our lovely English Conversation Group.

We had in fact been once before – during the Dreadful Heatwave of ’49, when grown men melted and children were on School Holiday. It was a fester of hour-long queues for two minute rides. (I exaggerate a little).

This time we went on a balmy September term-time Tuesday – what a Joy! We were the only two getting off the train, we strolled across the bridge in gleaming sunshine, and the park was empty but for a woman on a gyroscope who appeared out of nowhere, keen to Be Of Assistance.

So many Experiences to choose from, so to start off we plumped for the nearest one and were transported to Patagonia, where all the Dinosaurs live. Pchaw to Jurassic Park – we were right there with them!

We left the cinema quivering with anticipation.

Did we choose the wrong exit? The gleaming sun had gone and we had emerged into a veritable Tempest. Hordes of people in hooded plastic macs (how did they know?) were being blown sideways along the maze of wide paths, their Visitor's Maps flapping soggily.

Still, we all grinned bravely at each other. Luckily George and I had brought bananas. And not-quite-waterproof hats. But who cared? The sun came back out, and by jumping up and down waving our arms about, we were almost able to dry off our outer layers.

We had a SPLENDID day. We "touched" weird creatures, sat next to 3D characters, were enveloped by gigantic land- and seascapes, had a wonderful gyratory view of the area from the top of a tower…

But the absolutely best of all the incredible rides for us was ‘La Vienne Dynamique’. You sit in huge plastic seats and cling to a safety bar. Then, perhaps like The Feelies in ‘Brave New World’, you share not 'every hair on the rug', but the experiences of a desperate bridegroom late for his wedding.

When he leans out of the train, your head gets blown off; when he falls down a hole, drives a racing car, smashes into things, gets sneezed on by goblins... SO DO YOU! (In a bizarrely exciting manner). We laughed out loud for the whole 21 minutes.

So, Thank you Enormously, Lovely English Conversation Group, for lavishing this wonderful experience upon us - it was Unforgettable!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Little White House on the Prairie

Dancey live music playing off the back of a lorry, enticing aroma of pork chops wafting across the field, convivial wooden tables newly swept of the latest downpour – what else could one want to celebrate Bastille Day Eve?

‘So,’ I said merrily to our bench neighbours as we toasted Jeanne d’Arc again (patriotic festivities demand sporting acknowledgement of our English sins), ‘I suppose that big white building is the toilettes?’

Nicole seemed to find this hilarious. ‘I’m afraid that Nature is our toilet this evening,’ she gurgled, before adding, ‘If you go behind that big white building, you’ll find a path leading to some nice thick forest.’

Oh hell! Why did I start drinking? I can’t bear peeing anywhere without a comfy seat, comfy paper, and comfy brick walls on all sides. Our French friends are baffled by this angst. They are happy (females) to run off gaily into the woods for a friendly mass wee-in, or (males) to ask at the end of a meal in the garden, ‘Shall I just faire pipi in the bushes or d’you want me to go indoors?’ Umm, well, I suppose if you’re behind the bushes…

After five years here in France, it doesn’t get any easier. (George is unaffected, having steel innards and needing no loo but our own).

Toilets in a bar or restaurant are usually mixed, so my cunning plan is to survey customer traffic and when it’s safe, move briskly across and scuttle inside. Inevitably the room is small and dark except for a fluorescently illuminated corner with a bloke standing face to the wall, scantily shielded by a half-metre square of wood.

Mercifully, there is a cubicle to go to, but what is the etiquette here? En route, do you smile and nod, "Cold, isn’t it"? Emerging, do you pause to repair your lipstick, smiling chummily as another man stands freshly-zipped at the adjacent basin?

The great thing is that public loos here, mixed or not, are always extremely clean – much more pleasant than I remember in the UK. The dreaded Hole-in-the-Floor is rare, though I did confront one recently in the back yard of a country inn.

It was a sparkling white ceramic depression in the middle of a shed, and easy to use even without a seat – a huge relief. Until I pulled the chain dangling over my head. Immediately 500 gallons of water surged from the back of the depression, filled it up and seethed over the top in a terrifying whirlpool that flooded the shed before I had time to hitch up my trousers and run.

When I returned to the bar George did not notice me signalling frenziedly from the door, so I had to splosh back inside, smiling desperately at customers and wishing I’d been sucked down the hole with the 500 gallons.

Anyway, back in the Field of Bastille Eve, Nicole’s husband had gone off to investigate. He returned looking very pleased with himself. ‘Over there!’ he beamed, ‘A little white house! It’s only a hole in the floor, but it’s a clean one!’

Splendid. Perhaps I'll roll my trousers up first...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Have You Seen This Tortoise?

We were rolling merrily along a quiet country road, fresh from the rubbish tip, when I spotted this German-Helmet-on-Legs paused mid-amble and mid-tarmac.

With lightning reactions and superb control, I missed him by an inch. (Fortunately, we were at reasonable speed – the extortionate fine we once got copped for, worked)!

The tortoise had come to a halt in prime splat area, so George ran back to rescue him. As soon as George picked him up, the brave little specimen retaliated by peeing vigorously down his leg. Amazing how much liquid can come out of such a tiny little tum. Luckily, George’s reactions are also pretty lightning when his trousers are at risk; the road bore the brunt.

Once deposited on the other side Tarquin (it suited him), retreated under his German Helmet. He was unscathed physically, thank heavens - Lord knows how we’d have dealt with a half-mangled tortoise. It’s bad enough when you accidentally step on a snail - heavily, but not quite heavily enough, so you have to resort to mercy-bricking. Don’t you? Ghastly, but better than their further suffering, surely. I once employed the tactic with a badly cat-gored goldfish, and George has never quite adjusted to the fact that I could.

Anyway, Tarquin soon got bored with our gawping, unleashed his legs and set off in search of fun. He soon disappeared purposefully into the ditch.

But I started to worry – do tortoises live wild and free in France? Or had he been abandoned by grotty people like the dog in that TV advert: ‘Brutus loved his owners; he thought they loved him too…’ And they abandoned him by the ringroad – I’m frequently racked by this image at 3am.

Had Tarquin been abandoned? It’s hard to read the expression on a tortoise’s face.

George was sure he was a happy wild tortoise with a happy huge family. In fact, after a quick google, he was sure Tarquin was an exotic pond turtle from Greece. We sought advice from a friend who has a turtle with its own tiny pool in the living room. But as George and I still cannot agree on Tarquin’s markings, (George is Wrong), identifying him is tricky.

The important thing is, though, that our knowledgeable friend reassured us that tortoises/turtles do live joyously in the wild. So we were right not to retrieve him and bring him home to meet our rabbit and two savage cats, the hunting dog next door and the sudden plummet into the stream at the bottom of the garden .

I have to admit, though, I do wonder how he’s getting on…

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grumpy Old Bun

Feeling gloomy and neglected in the dismal springtime, our aged houserabbit Olly had a cunning plan: pretend to be ill and get pampered to death.

And our aim was exactly that because, just like Roland before him, he suddenly lost almost all the use of his back legs. Like Roland therefore, he wouldn't last much longer; we must make his final days very happy. We began showering him with favourite greens and oats, letting him select only the colourful bits of his dry mix, and giving him constant attention until his body gently gave up.

It is two months now. His appetite is greater than ever, he loves the pampering, and he has perfected methods of making demands; he only has to raise his head and glower and we rush over to proffer a banana chip and stroke his furry brow. If we have misunderstood his demand, he growls like a bear. If we hold his parsley incorrectly, he snarls and gives us a nip. From time to time he even manages to convey a martyr'd, "No, you go - I'll be alright..."

We're uneasy about inviting anyone to the house since, in spite of daily dunking of his nethers, the fragrance of bun is all-pervading. (You can always tell when someone's trying to hold their breath).

What do we do? Two months ago we had the trauma of imminent loss; now we have the trauma of perpetual hanging-in-there.

Oh damn! He'll probably leave us out of his Will now.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What's to become of us?

Ages since I babbled about the local elections here, and now we have a new Mayor and completely new team. It didn't even get to the Second Round.

Of course, nothing could extract from me which candidates George and I were sticking up for, but I suspect those in charge might guess - we were the only ones to lick our envelopes and so drench them in dribble.

How were we to know they didn't have glue? Apparently the idea is simply to fold them shut with voting papers hidden inside, then the clerk shoves them rapidly inside the box. In our cases, he was particularly keen to let go.

One of the new administration's major headaches must be the sudden disappearance of the village butcher. Myriad rumours, but most likely reason is unpleasantness between him and his boss. Even more disturbing, however, are rumours of the imminent disappearance of the baker! Bread is of paramount importance in France - a mere week's holiday for the baker results in agonised gnashing of teeth and renting of garments.

I wonder how desperate they'd have to be to eat George's recent Hot Cross Bun efforts. Which, despite puzzling consistency of the Cross, are very flavoursome (make sure teeth are firmly glued).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

I Wanna Be ELECTED!!

George and I are ensconced in concentrated study of our Candidate Lists for the Local Elections. As it's our first time voting in France, we feel it deserves particular effort.

One of the Village Elders contacted us (twice) just before the New Year deadline to urge us to get onto the Electoral Register. This could be because he thought we'd be on his side. Nevertheless it was kind of him to take the trouble, so we joined the ranks of voters. And we're PROUD!

France goes about its elections in unusual ways... our village has less than 1000 inhabitants and we have received two "Lists" of candidates. Each List equals a "Team", consisting of a Head Person (the current Mayor is Head of one Team), and fourteen other members.

What we do on voting day tomorrow, is go to the Mayor's Office brandishing several thousand Proofs of Identity, Eligibility and Worthiness, and pick up a copy of each List which will be decoratively displayed on a table. (I won't even mention the simultaneous District Elections - it's just too fiddly).

We then plunge into a dark and curtained cupboard, and are not allowed to come out until we have finished voting correctly. We do this not by putting a friendly cross next to our favourite(s), but by scoring in heavy black ink through everyone else. It seems very impolite - they all look so... deserving!

When we received the first List - beaming Team photo, reminders of previous achievements and impressive reports of future plans, I was hugely enthused. Then we received the second List - equally appealing photo, reports and plans. How to decide? Specially as we don't know them all - it's one thing not to vote for a person you don't know, but scratching them out is somehow quite venomous.

Apparently we can mix and match from each Team to choose our own Supergroup of anything up to, but no more than, fifteen finalists. What's more, you can even add a name - why not your own? And I'm sure this eventual melange will be able to work harmoniously and productively together, no matter what they've said about each other during the campaign.

Counting is done at the place of voting, and results will be known tomorrow evening. Then we find out who's going through to the crucial Round Two, next Sunday - MORE decisions!

Being Politically Active is such a responsibility.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Let Them Eat Dumplings

On Saturday night we had friends round for dinner - always a joy.

It's a long time since our first angst-ridden invitations to natives of this Land of the Bonne Cuisine, when I hyper-ventilated my way through three days of preparation, (George unflinchingly laid-back), and guests had a sandwich before they left home Just in Case. (We always clung to the possibility they were joking).

These days their gay banter (and ours) is almost comprehensible, and we have a repertoire of simple but UTTERLY DELICIOUS recipes gleaned from magazines, cookbooks, and Bon Appetit Bien Sûr! on TV.

So why, oh WHY on this occasion, did I let George talk me into doing Stew and Dumplings?

My own thoughts had leaned towards a delicately-spiced "Chicken Tagine with Citron Confit" (from my Tagines for Any Old Nincompoop book). George, however, insisted that Dumplings would be a fascinating new taste sensation for French palates, and that a Big Pot of Festering Stew is just what everyone needs on a cold winter's night.

To do what with?

Back in the Old Country I used to make this every time we had Roast Chicken leftovers - easy and flavoursome. But it was never on the list of what to impress guests with; usually when you parade a dish to the table with your triumphant (but modest) smile, then flamboyantly whip off the lid to gasps of wonder, you're not proffering... A Medley of Animal Bits and Root Veg. Where's the panache?

So I suppose my heart wasn't in it, and I found myself frenziedly chucking in all sorts to add a bit of verve - bushfulls of withered thyme from our kitchen sill, several tattered bay leaves I found at the back of the pantry, a halved lemon (astonishingly potent)...

But what caused universal bewilderment was, of course, the sight of the dumplings bobbling around on the surface like lumpy balls of putty. It's funny how much menace someone can put into the phrase "what are those?" when they think you're trying to kill them.

I have no idea what went wrong - you'd think it was impossible to make dumplings chewy. But our guests valiantly ate them, and even accepted seconds.

They haven't been in touch since with final appraisals. But they're probably still ruminating.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Mastering the Kazoo

God!! The hellish family feuding, the desperate over-spending, indigestible pudding, endless bacchanalia... Actually George and I prefer to keep all that for the rest of the year, so we're bouncing into 2008 after a Fat and Friendly Christmas repose.

George bought me a Kazoo. Recently I was dazzled by an impressive rendition on Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and he apparently made a note.

I love this present - it's the only musical instrument I can play, and I've discovered a Definite Gift for it. (In spite of the fact that when I first picked it up I blew down the wrong end, and then didn't make the necessary dzuh dze dzuh dzuh noises).

But now I've mastered it, my Sooty and Sweep impressions are unsurpassable. Plus, I can play along to any song, can summon the cats from twenty miles away, and need never more be tongue-tied at parties.

One of George's presents (sadly he had to ask for this and then order it himself on the net) is some weird contraption for recording and instant replay of musical phrases so you can make layers of music and build up a backing. Hours of pleasure and great practice for the musically talented.

And George is musically talented. In fact when we met at a party, he wooed me with his Eric Clapton guitar-playing - Wonderful. Then six months later he discovered Cajun music and took up the accordion. Agonising.

With relentless determination he kept going until he was good enough to start a group back in the UK, and they ended up being very well-known in the World of Cajun, playing clubs, festivals, weddings, Oxford balls, biker gatherings - to name but seven...

He's played here in France too, and now, of course, I can attend gigs not only in Groupie Capacity, but as " - PLEASE WELCOME, ON KAZOO..."

Can't wait to suggest it.