mercredi 20 octobre 2010

Sooo long in coming but here is an update...

Sept 24, 2010.

Exciting day! We have electricity and plumbing on the ground floor! I can now wash up and use hot water from the tap to do it! I can also use more than one appliance at a time as we have sufficient “puissance” not to keep having the power cut out every few minutes. I can wash and dry at the same time and don’t have to worry. We have a downstairs loo and wash basin. I am in hog heaven!!
We are using terries for the twins so it hasn't happened a day too soon either. I bought up a supply from a "vide grenier" which appear to be little used (the lady explained she started with high ideals and soon switched to disposables - something I shall not be doing now we have blown all our budget until next June...) Our baby gear currently consists of two "manger" affairs which Mack built, a couple of new mattresses and bedding made from cut down "vide grenier" buys. Ditto on their clothing - I'm not interested in dressing them identically, fortunately. Otherwise I just have a breast pump which has been really useful now I've got the hang of it. We will need some sort of transport for them and car seats in the next few weeks I suppose, but so far we have managed with some very interesting improvised carriers made from some Indian cotton scarves. Very colorful ... I'm going to buy new car seats even if we buy used buggies, I read somewhere not to compromise on the quality of car seats. Pia and Luca have renamed the twins Vi and Gee. I somehow hope those names don't stick! They have also suggested we use the wheelbarrow to transport them around the village when we go for a walk. I suspect that might just push the mayor over the edge though... So far the twins are contented little souls; we hardly know they are around except at about 3am most mornings. They seem to be night owls and I hope they will soon grow out of that. Morris lurcher keeps well away and Nobu (the adopted cat from our "neutering" programme), who has gradually become more and more domesticated, gave them a once over sniff and then backed away under the settee with his tail looking like a bottle brush. I'm surprised he hasn't decided to revert to being a wild cat but he has apparently decided to learn to live with these strange screeching intruders, especially now he has realised they can't actually touch him or chase him.

Sept 15, 2010.

We can proudly announce the arrival of Geneva Meadow and Vienna Rae at 6.15 am today. Each weighed EXACTLY 6lbs 3ozs (translated from the metric). Boy, was I HUGE for the last three weeks! They were a little early but are perfect - lots of dark hair and my olive complexion. I had grand hopes of having them at home as we now have electricity and so on but the "powers that be" persuaded me that I would be better off in the local hospital. We stayed a grand total of 4 hours from arrival to departure and stayed together "en famille" throughout. The kids probably enjoyed it far more than Mack or myself though. They each chose a second name - Pia chose Meadow and Luca chose Rae after being gently persuaded that Jake just wasn't appropriate. They are identical, and each have a little gold name bracelet with their first initial (thanks Eve!) as I can't tell them apart at the moment. She pleaded to know the names in advance but we just gave her the initials - she decided that we were probably going for Genevieve and Virginie for some reason. I came home having lost 22 lbs in weight! Not bad as I had only put on 30 lbs. I've been eating well throughout, probably all the hard work we have been doing (Mack does not see pregnancy as an illness and had me helping with the upstairs work right up until last night...)

August 7, 2010.

Things are looking up in the madhouse! We have moved upstairs at last! It's still very "Heath Robinson" but true bliss nevertheless. We now have a proper living room (almost devoid of furniture), a proper dining room (no furniture at all), a downstairs cloakroom (not plumbed yet) and electricity and water to the kitchen (neither yet connected). I have a wonderful, huge fridge freezer and a proper washer and drier in the kitchen which are not connected yet, they're waiting for the electricians to sort out the downstairs electrics once and for all. We have been able to finally stop using our neighbours electricity and now have extension leads running down the stairs from our own sockets, although we are still using their broadband connection. It looks as if that might take a while to sort out . Any upstairs internal walls are just chalk marks on the floor, which is not a problem except the kids insist we knock on non-existent doors every time we go into their "rooms". Only one of the bathrooms is installed, the other items are sitting in the barn waiting for us to decide exactly how we want to do things now we have to make room for two more bodies. This installed one will be the "house" bathroom eventually, although it's hard to imagine it with tiled walls and hidden pipework. Anyone on that floor at the time you are "in residence" has a prime view - it's just as well we have no visitors at present. The wonderful, long-awaited electric water heater is attached to the wall too, it will be hidden inside a cupboard eventually. Hot water now flows at the turn of a tap upstairs, the loo flushes and the shower/bath water is hot. I can't believe the sheer luxury of all this. Who cares if we blew almost the whole of the coming years budget? I enjoy this self-sufficiency lifestyle anyway but I hope it won't be too difficult with two little extras at the end of September!

July 4th, 2010.

We had our own crazy celebrations. It was a good excuse for a bonfire and we had a barbecue, sang silly songs and generally made total fools of ourselves. Fortunately it was in our own garden so no one was bothered by us. I am expanding! I have a couple of "floaty" cotton dresses, various baggie T shirts, a couple of Mack's old shirts, jeans which sit below my bump, fat-man style and some stretchy shorts and they will just have to do. I have put on 17lbs, so far so good!

June 1st, 2010 and I can carry out a review of our store cupboards. I’ve already itemised what we started the year with and we have spent a total of €247.37 on such things as gas for the car, a calor gas refill for the fridge, a couple of trips to vide greniers and a few extra food basics like oil, coffee and red beans, cheese, yeast and dog chow.
So now we have a freezer full to bursting with frozen fruit, veggies, herbs, rabbits, ducks and prepared dishes. We have shelves full of jam, pickles, bottled vegetables & fruit, pickled eggs and pickled walnuts. We have sacks of potatoes, carrots and parsnips, strings of onions, shallots and garlics and gallons of wine and cider in various stages of readiness. We are still using up huge crops of walnuts and cobnuts from last year and it looks as if there will be lots more this year too. We have tried drying both grapes and figs reasonably succesfully too. I still have around a quarter of all the “basic” items we started with and now have “free” sources of eggs, milk, butter and walnut oil. The hedgerows are bursting with goodies and I can see bumper crops of blackberries, sloes, figs, apples, damson, walnuts and chestnuts later in the year. I have even been initiated into the search for mushrooms by an elderly neighbor, although I will only use those he says are edible as I am still sceptical about my abilities on that front. Nevertheless I have some dried and some frozen and feel reasonably confident about the Meadow Mushrooms I have found. Roll on autumn when there will be lots more! So later in the week we will be off to buy the next year's basics - flour, rice, oil, yeast, sugar, salt, pulses, TVP, coffee and tea, perhaps a few more spices from the local market - they are irresistible. We will expand a little this year and also get some chocolate powder and pasta flour.
On June 2nd we should have been able to say goodbye to all that frugality. But do you know what? I loved it! We are going to try for a second year as we think we will use up the whole of this year’s budget to have electricity and mains water installed, buy more oak for the attic floors and investigate the ”fosse septique”. The inspector says this is a modern one and passed its certification but I think we should have it emptied and the pipes to it blown through. We can’t discover where (or if) it has ever been connected to the main house so that will need to be investigated once we get to the plumbing for the THREE WCs and showers we have ordered. I can’t quite believe we will have our own shower and can do away with the “waterbutt on the barn” summer shower and the tin bath in front of the fire. And the brown porcelain French flat pan style loo in the shack down the garden (which apparently DOES drain into the fosse) can be abandoned for good.

May 31st, 2010.

We have survived for a whole year on next to nothing. I never did count things like insurance and taxes as those have to be paid and we can't get away from that. But overall we seem to have managed a whole year on less than €1500! I'm all registered with various clinics (I've needed to go private for various reasons) and so on and even had a scan 10 days ago - the first for some reason, I suspect I managed to miss one somehow with all the paperwork. I'm so calm now but was not when I saw that scan. We are expecting TWO babies. I wasn't planning on one more and now we will have two. Oh well, I suppose it will all work out...

March 28th.

Major crisis! It seems I probably didn’t have flu, although the chickenpox was real enough. The throwing up was because I’m… wait for it… pregnant! This was definitely NOT on our agenda, totally unplanned, unexpected and frankly a bit of a disaster. A bit of calculating and a trip to the doctor confirms I’m probably ten weeks along.

March 20, 2010.

So now I have it too! Didn’t I ever have this as a child? Surely so! I phoned Eve this evening – no, she thought I was immune as all the others had it at the same time but not me. I feel awful - spotty, itchy, headachy and irritable. The kids’ calamine is useful but I just feel miserable.
To top it all I seem to have come up with a dose of flu to accompany the chickenpox. I’m achy, dog-tired and throwing up – I feel even worse than before!
The garden is looking so much better this year. We already have lots of things sprouting. At last we can start picking “outdoor” lettuce. My experiment of growing lettuce in trays on the kitchen window sill has worked in a way but outdoor ones are so much crispier and greener.

March 14, 2010.

Pia & Luca seem to be sickening for something. They are normally such healthy little beasts and they are now miserable, spotty and hot. I’ve been through some of my premed books and think it may be chickenpox! I called our Dutch friends to see if they had any ideas and they confirmed all three of theirs have the same thing and had it confirmed as chickenpox by the local doctors. It’s been doing the rounds of the local schools and of course we have a little French girl who goes to the same school as their kids every afternoon. They have been given red antiseptic paint and tranquillising lotion for their three which seems a bit extreme. So we have so far managed with calamine lotion and aspirin which is all our medicine chest can come up with. I suppose we will have to dash off to the local doctor’s office if they don’t pick up shortly.
The kids look as if they have some sort of strange medieval mange – bright red weepy spots ringed with white powdery patches all over! But they are now cooled down and seem perfectly happy so no trip to the doctor after all. We have so far persuaded them not to scratch and it probably helps that we no longer have the fire in the evenings and their bedroom/the living room is cool at night.

March 10, 2010.

The whole first floor now actually has a floor and also stairs to get up there too! We’ve both been working so hard on it and it looks lovely. There are only two original stone walls up there, one on either side of the stairwell, so we will have to put in stud walls to make dividers but we have planned two large bedrooms with ensuite shower rooms, two smaller rooms for the kids and a family shower room with room for a bathtub eventually. I’m so thrilled to be able to walk up the stairs and reach the windows at last! We still have fresh air way up to the roof beams as the top floor has no floor (so this new one has no ceilings either) but we can live with that and our trusty tarpaulin. It will be a while before we move up here (probably after June 1st when we have money to try to organise plumbing and electricity) but it’s such a huge step in the right direction!
The weather has been so lovely and the garden actually has flowers this year, I planted bulbs everywhere last autumn - someone in the village had dug a huge pile up and just wanted rid of them. I had no idea what I was getting but there are all sorts, all jumbled up and mismatched. Just how I like them! The goat had had to start being tethered in the garden - she is desperate to get at them and is practising extending her neck as far as possible.

dimanche 17 janvier 2010

Updated at last!

January 17
When we left the UK just over a year and a half ago we literally took with us what we could stuff into the car. All the rest of our possessions were either sold or given away - with the exception of what we thought at the time were treasures we couldn't part with. We left these in a colleague's garage in a small trailer he no longer used. He has just very kindly driven them down and I've been unpacking. So we now have....

Four matching pairs of lovely lined cream curtains which aren't actually long enough for any of the windows we can get to at the moment even though they are "full length" by English standards. They might fit upstairs once we have a floor up there I suppose.

Three boxes of books. Some of them are my old text books but we have cookery books, gardening books and novels too. Fortunately Mack made some lovely bookshelves from some of the old wood we've been given so they have a home straight away.

A bag of clothes which includes suits, frocks and high heeled shoes (what WAS I thinking about?)

Wedding present stuff like matching china and silverware and wine glasses. That will stay right were it is in the boxes as I don't see us doing any entertaining (or certainly not any that needs "posh" stuff) any time soon.

More wedding present bedding, unused duvets and bed linen, plus a table cloth. Not likely to be using that last one I don't suppose but the bedding is welcome!

Some nice brass and copper bits and pieces I had forgotten I had bought just before we left.

A huge box of giant lego which I can't imagine how got in there. I thought we had given it away. The kids have dived on it and have been squabbling over it ever since!

Electrical goodies which are pretty useless here at the moment as we only have an extension lead and double plug courtesy of our neighbours. So I have a kettle, my wonderful coffee-maker, a hairdryer, an iron (haven't missed that in all the time we've been gone!) and a vegetable steamer. None of them will be used in the foreseeable future but it's strange to see them come out of their boxes with their funny English plugs.

My old hand operated sewing machine and big sewing box. I'm going to rescue these for use now. I have a big box of fabric I was given on one of my bartering missions. I'm going to try a few simple pinafores for Pia for the summer - poor child has nothing to fit her this coming year. She prefers wearing absolutely nothing or just her panties but we DO have to go out occasionally!

Photo albums, certificates and other bits of "important" paperwork.

I love having all this stuff back but isn't it strange that you pack things away as "can't live without" treasures and after a year and half you just can't generally remember why you bothered?

Our friend Richard is probably going home tomorrow and he's leaving the trailer with us as he's moving house and has no room for it any longer (hence the visit now to drop off our things). It will be SO useful as we have all the bits on our car to use it. We've plied him with home made wine and rabbit stew and other than he has had to have a sleeping bag in the corner of the living room (which is still Luke and Pia's bedroom too for the moment) he has loved his visit and says he'll be back to help out when we start on the upstairs floors this spring!

January 16
The goat duly arrived, complete with leather collar, a length of chain and a "goat jacket". Apparently she is particularly touchy about bad weather, hence the jacket - which she apparently snacks on when nothing else is available. I haven't studied it too closely but it seems to be two layers of sacking stuffed with straw and all held on with baler twine. The sooner good weather comes the better so that I can get it off her and perhaps, once my sewing machine arrives, I'll make her something better.

We made her a nice warm pen at the back of one of our barns and begged two huge rolls of straw to keep her going in bedding. So far she has eaten a small rosemary bush, a large part of the parsley, a lavender bush and a chunk of bark off the cherry tree. So we've taken a few links out of her chain to restrict her to a grassy area. I think we'll have to make her an enclosure once the weather improves. Nobu (our part time cat) thinks she's lovely and spends most of his nights sitting on the edge of her pen watching her. I think he likes the idea of the straw bed.

We won't be eating her but the milk is great. The kids have named her Rapunzel. No prizes for guessing what they are reading at the moment!

January 15
After his fall through the rafters and collection of cracked ribs Mack has been dawdling about any plans for the floors above and the attic.  I can’t really blame him as he was in quite some pain for a few weeks.  But I did point out to him that he can work out his  requirements based on the ground floor, the size is the same although we have a few walls down here he needs to measure around.  The floor above has walls which match in fact so we need to do the equivalent of the hall before we get to any rooms proper.  I can’t believe we will have a bathroom (we do need a few essentials such as a fully working fosse septique, electrics and plumbing before we can use it) but just having a bathroom , albeit a non-functioning one, will be the height of luxury.   We’ve been counting up our oak flooring supplies.  We originally bought enough for the whole ground floor and immediately had spare as we then tiled the kitchen except for the bit above the cave.  We have now calculated we have enough to do the upper hall, main bathroom (over the kitchen) and the large bedroom with shower room over the dining room.  The two bedrooms which will be over the living room will have to wait until we have next year’s budget.  In fact they will probably wait longer as we have to seriously look into electrics and plumbing soon.  I can’t see us getting up to the attic this year so we will have to have a tarpaulin ceiling to our upper rooms next winter.  I quite like that though, especially if Mack can manage to stay up there without falling this time.  But before any of this he needs to finish his staircase.  It looks lovely but he’s left it open at the moment and it needs filling in so that we can have a downstairs cloakroom underneath eventually.  Reading back through this it sounds so blasé – showers rooms, bathrooms, cloakrooms... and currently we have no electricity, plumbing OR drainage.  Still, we can dream I suppose!

January 13
For some reason our garden seems to attract wandering ducks.

We had two fat white ones move in last autumn and they have never left since, no one seems to own them and they are happy little souls who live perfectly contentedly in an old wooden crate in one of our barns and lay beautiful eggs. They get along with our four hens quite happily too and petrify the dog.

Suddenly we have a new duck in the garden. The other ducks are quite amenable but one of the hens chases her off if she strays out of the barn. She's jet black, quite small with greyish legs and beak. When the light shines on her she is the most beautiful iridescent green. From looking on line she seems to be an East Indian. Ill try to get a picture next time I go out. No eggs yet so I don't know what they might look like.

What amazes me is where they are coming from. She flies well but I've never seen the white ones leave the ground. I have visions of them marching here from some distant farmer!

January 12
We seem to be about to be coerced into owning a goat.

We receive goat's milk from a neighbour in exchange for various jobs I do for them. Now he has identified one who is perfectly healthy, getting on a bit and not getting on with the rest of his little flock, biting and kicking them and so on. This morning he told me he was thinking of having her put down, said with that certain gleam that meant he knew I wouldn't let him get away with it.

I don't think we would mind owning a goat really, she is used to wearing a collar and being tethered so she would be fine in our orchard. We could make a dry pen without too much problem in one of our barns. The dog isn't worried by goats and usually totally ignores them. She could keep the grass down in the summer and I could use the goat manure on the garden.

January 10
We’ve just come back from an entertaining evening with our neighbours, Andy and Sally.  We had a great dinner and afterwards got to talking about their underfloor electric heating on their ground floor  and they were telling me about the lovely warm floor in their en-suite bathroom upstairs.  “That must have been quite a feat to lay it onto a wooden floor” says Mack.  “Oh no, it’s concrete up there, that’s why we’ve had carpets put down.” says Sally.  We all look up at the beamed and planked ceiling.  “Bloody hell!” says  Andy  and scoots upstairs in alarm.  Mack went too to see what it was all about.  It turns out their upper floor consists of large concrete slabs laid across the original several hundred year old oak beams.  And they hadn’t given this a thought...

January 6
This evening Gerard, a strange little old guy who lives in a tiny little house in the village and shows Luke and Pia how the villagers used to make sabots from chestnut wood during the war years came to deliver the little pairs he had finished off for them.  Apparently with a pair of thick socks they are warm and comfortable.  I had made a roast from one of the pieces of wild boar we have been given so I invited him to eat with us – he lives alone and although I know he cooks I thought he might enjoy someone else preparing something for him.  He looked horrified at the vegetables I offered him but was happy to eat with chunks of bread I had made.  We gave him a glass of blackberry wine but I could tell he was not impressed so he had some of our home made cider.  It is extremely rough and  cloudy but he thought it was “parfait!”  He worked his way through the remains of the walnuts we had and went away perfectly happily saying his meal had been “bon”.   Compliments indeed!

January 2

We will be taking our little Christmas tree back shortly. It looks as fresh as ever so apparently none the worse for its indoor Christmas. It was in the rather chilly hall so I'm hardly surprised.   Mom is now packing up to go, it seems crazy to have come all this way for little more than a week.  I’ve been to use her washer and dryer, I really can’t resist a chance to get our laundry done with so little stress.  She has adored France and all things French, even the weather. I suppose she has a good start as she lives just on the coast south of San Francisco where the weather is normally lovely. So a bit of rain, sleet, hail and thunder is quite a novelty. She loved the gite, the gite owner, the crazy lady across the road who spends her time searching for someone or something lost (we hear her calling for it all the time, wandering the lanes - Mom tried to find out what is missing but they had a total communication blip) and even the mayor. The mulled wine was all down to her, the poor guy was so bemused that he didn't dare refuse.

December 29

Eve has to keep up with her business commitments while she is here and spends her mornings in her gite using the broadband with laptop.  Her gite is great, nice satellite TV (some channels in English), free phone calls including to the US - plus broadband.  I know it was expensive but that seems pretty luxurious to me.  She has dishwasher, washing machine and tumbler and as many electrical sockets as a good American could want so she is happy. 

December 28
Mom told me about how much she worries about Ginny, the sister who is slowly trying to work her way through junior college and get away from being a waitress.  She’s such a bright kid and it’s such a pity that she is struggling and feeling so bitter about her life.  Apparently they haven’t spoken for three years and nothing I could do would persuade Mom to give her a call or email her.  My family can be very mule-like!  If she is so worried why won’t she pick up the phone?  I refuse to be the intermediary so they will have to fix it themselves I suppose...

December 26

Christmas Day was hilarious!  Eve cooked lunch and brought it round in the back of her hire car along with presents.  Thanksgiving is really the "turkey" dinner in the US so we really had a Thanksgiving dinner, turkey with cranberry jelly (thanks Mom!), roast potatoes, veggies, etc. Then cinnamon apple pie and custard. The only thing I prepared was a first course of homemade tomato soup – thank heavens for all that tomato puree I bottled earlier!   I did warm the pie and make the custard, but all ingredients came round in the car with her.  We just piled the food into the woodburning stove while we had our soup and it was perfect.  Mom even produced her famous “green stuff” and jelly salad (she can be so American!), much to the kids’ bemusement.  I think my Mom is quite getting into the lifestyle as long as she is able to retire to her electrical gadgets and TV in her comfortable little gite each night! Pia likes to spend the night with her but Luke is a bit more reticent, she makes him have a shower every night which he thinks is excessive!

She arrived with an enormous set of aromatherapy oils for me, something new for me to learn soon. Apparently it cost her a fortune in excess baggage!  There are 20 one fluid oz bottles of oils plus larger ones of lavender ad geranium, carrier oils, base cremes, empty jars and pots and a basic book. Mack had lots of lovely expensive lotions and aftershaves.  He loves them but I can’t see them getting any outings here. He also has a great book he has wanted for ages.  The kids are beside themselves, they have books, chocolates, puzzles and the usual stuff plus a set of little Sylvanian bits for Pia and a sort of Meccano type set for Luke. She ceranly got that lot right!

As our Xmas gifts were all hand made or home grown, I asked our friends to either give us something similar or, if they weren't into making stuff then to "donate" anything they no longer needed and thought we might like. So we have ended up with the following from our various lovely neighbours

Pate and a leg of pork (our nearest French neighbours)
A bottle of Brandy (more French neighbours
A big box of board games
A caramel coloured woolly rug (lovely in front of the fire on our new floor)
and a lovely sofa, given away because the colours weren't quite right! I actually love the sofa ( a sort of russett brown weave) but then as our previous seating was the kids' camp beds I suppose I'm not likely to complain really.  Thank you Andy and Sally.  They are so kind to us!
A box of chocolates from one neighbour who couldn't bring herself to give us anything other than something new and frivolous.
New jackets all round (courtesy of my Mom)

December 24

Her soiree was in fact good fun.  She found jars of mincemeat in the “brit bit” of Intermarche so we had mince pies and a lovely punch.  I think the neighbours were impressed, especially the ones who didn’t know we actually have a proper living room floor these days.  M Bertrand (the major) arrived at about six with a lovely bottle of crispy looking white wine and a tray of oysters.  He hadn’t been invited to the soiree (he actually lives in the next village) so it was a coincidental visit but Eve dragged him in and gave him a mince pie and a big glass of punch.  His face was a picture, he somehow reminded me of Manual in Fawlty Towers, a bit like an embarrassed sheep.  The poor main is terrified of me anyway – after the wheelbarrow incident he’s convinced I’m totally barking, to use one of Mack’s phrases.

December 22

We decided to put up our Christmas decorations today.  The children have made dozens of paper chains with glue and a roll of lining paper (€2) which they coloured themselves. We found a perfect little tree out in the woods last week which we’ve now dug up and put in a box of its own soil in the hallway.  We made stars and so on with sweet papers the kids had begged from various places, garlands of popcorn, little woollen dolls and, now Eve has arrived, fresh cranberries strings and peppermint candies.

Eve appears to have met everyone in the village (Luke and Pia took her on a tour) and seems to have extracted all sorts of information considering her only foreign language is Spanish – not much use in south western France normally.  Her every conversation seems to start “Did you know...”  Scary stuff.  I didn’t – and don’t really want to!  We are apparently having a “soiree” on Christmas Eve, she’s making the punch but I get the job of making mince pies.  I have to tell her I have no mince meat and no means of buying any either before she invites the whole village.

December 21
The”visitation” has begun!  Eve arrived in the biggest automatic hire car she could find (lovely but a bit of a liability up these small lanes), a flurry of fur coats and boxes.  Apparently she had to pay several hundred dollars in excess luggage to cover all our Christmas gifts.  She is verging on incorrigible – I told her not to bring us things.  I swear she has transformed into ZsaZsa Gabor, everything is “darling”, waving hands and trailing scarves – she must be a nightmare to live with!  She flew into Paris so had quite a long drive but seems to have coped admirably.  She seems to come from the “shriek louder and they will understand” school of foreign visitors but seems to have managed to pay toll fees and top up with fuel (and find Barbezieux) with little trouble.  We arranged to meet her at 2pm and she was waiting for us as we arrived.  I suppose a night in Parisian hotel improved her health and temper no end.  The kids are amazed, appalled, smitten and terrified in about equal measures.  What is this amazing creature? She loves her gite, has practically bought up our local Intermarche already (€327?  Who spends that on one trip to a supermarket for just one person?), cooked up her famous Beef Wellington for us all in her kitchen (who but a crazy American will pay €34 for a piece of fillet beef) and is now happily watching Disney DVDs with the kids who are apparently going to spend the night with her.  Is this my mother who never had time for her own five kids?  Strange what becoming a grandma will do to you apparently!

December 1
The living room has a new floor at last!  Mack worked so hard at it and it look gorgeous.   The planks are so thick and heavy.  He has actually been working at this in the room itself, sawing and sanding as he went.  The sheer joy of seeing that last plank nailed into place is almost indescribable!  The whole ground floor is now properly covered.  Things are looking up from June 2008 when we arrived to dirt floors, draughty and broken windows and a leaking roof.  We are still a bit short on facilities but we are warm and cosy and managing really well.

November 13

We had a very strange visit today.  Apparently there are now new French laws about the standards for sanitation.  This is a little disconcerting as, as far as we can see, our sanitation system involves a “hole in the ground” loo and a marshy bit of land at the bottom of the garden.  We know we will probably have to have a proper system installed at some point and that it will be expensive – we will have to have a fosse septique as there is no mains drainage for miles.  We also know that an inspector has been checking out local properties but had for some reason managed not to find us.  All we were expecting was a report telling us what we will need to install.
A disconcertingly young lady arrived with clip board.  She headed off across the garden with a map of some sort and started poking around an area which has been covered in brambles up until now.  Her conclusion?  We have a “modern” fosse which is an adequate size and has never been used.  It isn’t “plumbed” to the house yet  though.  We can hardly believe this!  Apparently we will now receive the requisite certificate and need only join the house to the fosse and add in a venting stack.  Amazing!

November 7
Sally and Andrew arrived back today after their mopping up operations in the UK.  Apparently it has been dire but once they got in touch with the insurance company things started to happen quickly.  Everything which was totally ruined has been replaced, sodden rugs and carpets have been lifted, cleaned and replaced, dehumidifiers have dried out all the rooms, most of the house has been redecorated and everything has been repaired.  They are so thankful they took out “proper” insurance which covered them even when they are not in the UK.  Their house here has been fine, their strange cat was very pleased to see them and stalked out without a backward glance to follow them through the hedge and they have invited us all to dinner tomorrow night as a “thank you”.  I feel it should be me doing the thanking as I seem to have come off far the better for this arrangement but Sally really is the Pimms and canapés type so would probably find our meals a bit “rustic” for her tastes!

November 2

Anyway we had a huge storm in the night which blew away every remaining leaf from our trees and knocked out the supply to our electricity cable (I had to go over to the neighbour's house, find and reset the supply).

But it's still hot...

November 1

It started to get really chilly here so in preparation for winter we have -

Made sure we have a good supply of wood within easy reach of the kitchen door and covered it with a watertight cover which is nonetheless easy to get under. (Actually it's the frame from the tent we had in the living room last year with a tarpaulin over it but it works perfectly). We also lit the living room fire and stoked it to stay burning throughout the day and night, same with the kitchen range.

Changed all the duvets to winter weight ones and packed all the summer weight ones under our mattress or under the sheets on the kids' camp beds.

Put the heat retaining tarpaulin over the ground floor to keep the heat down out of the upper floors and found our thick winter curtains to hang. Tacked one across the big hole in the kitchen door. Mack is making another door but wants to duplicate the original oak one (minus hole) and it's taking him a long time.

Sorted out all our winter clothes and put away the summer ones. Our clothes are either hanging on the few hooks and rails we have or put away in suitcases which balance on a big sheet of hardboard up on the ceiling beams (those ones Mack fell from last week) so it's not as if they are just pushed to the back of a wardrobe.

Drained our outdoor shower (basically a huge clear plastic tank on the barn roof with a shower head and shower tray and a drainage pipe off to another tank so I can use the water for watering. Hauled in the tin bath for our winter baths.

Spent a chunk of our budget on winter shoes for the kids.

So what happens? The sun comes out. Day after day. Yesterday it hit 29 degrees c, today feels even hotter. It was so hot in the kitchen last night we had to have the doors and windows open. No one could sleep because they were too hot. And today there's me running around in jeans and a sweater. The kids are moaning because their sandals, shorts and teeshirts are up the "loft" and I feel the same because mine are up their too. Mack is still refusing to go back up there because his ribs are still sore from his fall (we think he probably cracked a couple of them after a long distance consultation with my doctor brother). And I'm not brave enough to balance on the beams 12 feet up to get things out again.

I suppose I shouldn't complain but talk about best laid plans...

Actually it's now started raining. But HOT rain. I suppose it might turn into a thundertorm and cool off a bit but it doesn't look that way. The thermometer outside the back door still shows 26 degrees so it looks as if we have our own microclimate in this village. But I've now found enough teeshirts in our ragbag for all of us so everyone is now happy!

Actually the kids are running around the garden (plus Morris Lurcher) playing their version of one on run plus dog rugby (he changes sides depending upon who has the ball). They will definitely be stripped off before they are allowed in as they are so muddy I can't tell one from the other. Were it not that I am supposed to be doing battle with a dead rabbit I think I would be out there with them!

26 October
I understand there is a mini heatwave in the UK at the moment. We are also having something similar, our outdoor thermometer is showing 28° at the moment. All this makes the problems we had last night sound a little pointless but it really does get chilly here in the evenings!

As our living room is open right up to the roof tiles (probably about 50 feet at the highest) we put a large old tarpaulin over the first floor beams last winter. It kept the living area snug and was actually large enough (it's one of those heavy duty truck sheets) to cover the dining room (our bedroom at present) plus most of the kitchen and hallway. Putting it up involves Mack sitting on the beams, folding the cover out and holding it down in various places with some bricks.

So up he went last night, spread it all out beautifully and secured it, then got as far the uprights he has installed for the top of the new staircase which is going up from the hallway. He promptly forgot they were there, backed into them, lost his balance and fell out of the roof! Fortunately he managed to grab a pair of cross beams as he went and when I came in from the kitchen to investigate the shouting and swearing I found him dangling six feet from the floor like some sort of maniacal gymnast. I had visions of broken bones and took a few seconds to work out how on earth we could get him down. I wanted to dash out to the barn for the stepladder but he had the only torch up there with him and it's pitch black in the barn so decided against that on the basis I would probably have ended up with a broken neck to go with his broken legs. I eventually grabbed the kids' camp bed mattresses to put down so he had a soft landing and he dropped onto them. He seems more or less none the worse for wear, thank goodness.

I suppose the funniest thing was that he had to go back up there to rescue his torch. I DID offer but he knows I'm pretty clumsy and with the tarpaulin down there is no way of really seeing where the cross beams are to walk on because the material is too thick. I must say he was a lot less blasé this time!

So if it's really cold tonight and we have another log fire the heat will stay in the room, Mack will stay on the ground floor, the kids will stop thinking their Dad does these strange things just for their entertainment and I will stay calm and collected for once...
October 25
Our next door neighbours, who allow us to use their wifi internet connection in their barn, an electrical socket in the barn for charging our laptop and also an old chest freezer in the same barn all in exchange for me mowing their lawn with their own sit-upon mower arrived unexpectedly yesterday evening, he pulling onto our drive in their car and she arrived via the gap in the hedge. I thought this was odd, if they both nip through the hedge it's no more than 30 yards from their property to our kitchen door, why the car too?

It turns out they had had news that they have damaged pipes in their UK home and water has been leaking from their loft into the various rooms for nearly a week, causing huge damage. They are dashing back this morning (they have in fact already left) to try to sort it out - but in the meantime they have -

Brought us (the reason for the car, it all becomes clear...)

Their cat in a cat carrier (it's some type of exotic cat but amiable enough). Apparently getting it all organised to take back would have involved them waiting until Tuesday for various paperwork.

A mountain of cat food and money for any extras (they are only planning on being away for two weeks max so what on earth they think these extras might be is worrisome...

The spare keys to their house and the strict instructions that we "deal with" the contents of their refrigerator (always welcome!)

A long cable winder roll, attached at the other end to the power socket in their barn. I have now have real electricity in our kitchen at last! It's only one socket and a double adaptor but it's like heaven! No need to go over to recharge batteries, we can plug in the CD player.... I'm just SO excited about it!

Another cable roll but this time with ADSL cable. My laptop is now online in our own kitchen!

With those luxuries I could hardly refuse to look after the cat for a couple of weeks, could I? He hates Morris (lurcher) and the feeling is mutual but he knows his way around so he'll be content.

So I'm sitting at the kitchen table using my computer at 9pm. Totally unheard of! It's such a pleasure for us and I'm really grateful to them.

Apparently they had arranged the cables last week with the intention of surprising us as the winter arrived so it was just a matter of bringing things forward. And, as they said, now I have the laptop permanantly online and charging they can use Skype to stay in touch to make sure things are OK with their house here.

But this is sheer luxury for us. Even Magda the cat seems happy enough, she actually came in of her own accord at 6pm for her food and is now asleep in front of the fire. Morris is still keeping his eye on her from under one of the kid's camp beds but he'll come round eventually I hope.

And their fridge was crammed with food. I think they had just gone shopping for the week coming when they got the news of their flood. So we are, at the moment, one very happy little bunch.

 October 21

As I mentioned before, we are living in a very dilapidated house and have only just managed to repair the roof and windows, now have a lovely tiled floor in the kitchen and a new oak floor in the dining room and hall but still have bare earth in the living room, no upstairs floors, no running water so no inside loo, no electricity, no kitchen to speak of and so on.

However I got up early today, it was dark, pouring with rain and pretty cold. But the house is warm inside (although I imagine most of the heat is hovering somewhere just below the roof tiles) no leaks, we have several lovely oil lamps, the oak floor is warm to the feet, the woodburning range is throwing out piles of heat, I probably have jars and pots and packages of food we have grown and preserved to last until spring, we have great neighbours and no need to step out into the rat race unless we want to - and I realised how blessed we are.

I suppose the down sides are that I'm going to have to pick up a bucket of water from the well on the way back to make some coffee, it takes an hour to heat up enough water to give the kids a bath (we are still managing with the outdoor shower but I can't see that lasting much longer, the water will be pretty cold today after all this rain), I have to be constantly on the alert that the kids or dog don't dash in from outside and into the living room and turning the earth floor into a quagmire (hard as all the doors are off at the moment) and I now have to juggle the budget to buy them some winter shoes, their current options being wellington boots or sandals.

But all in all I think we might be getting somewhere with this crazy project!

 October 17

I have just come to pick up my laptop after it has been charging all morning in the neighbours barn. This usually involves nipping though a hedge but as I was taking the wheelbarrow today I walked the long way round, about 50 yards along a tiny lane where three cars a day passing through is a major traffic event. During this detour into the real world I managed to bump into our mayor walking his dog. He looked at me very strangely, raised his hat (really!) muttered "Bonjour Madame..." and scuttled off. I've just realised why!

I took the wheelbarrow because I wanted to take a large pot of green tomatoes with me and use the neighbours' power point to use my "whizzer" and chop them up. Lazy I know but I DO miss using my electric gadgets. So, I had a wheelbarrow, a large cast iron pot, an electric whisker, two dead rabbits (a present from a neighbour which I found on the doorstep this morning and which were on their way to the freezer) a small child sitting in the barrow with her face painted like a cat who was miaowing and shaking a big jar of milk (butter making). I was wearing pyjamas and Mack's jacket (it's cold!), wellington boots (wet grass) had my hair in braids with a cardboard head dress complete with chicken feathers (Pia thought I should be a Native American today) and Japanese geisha face paint (this went on before she decided I should be a Native American and while we were doing the cat face - face-painting is her latest obsession).

Poor man now thinks he has a family of lunatics on his hands!

We got one - stray cat that is.

I knew I wasn't going to be able to contribute financially so I actually caught the little b****r. However it turns out the village has a spare fund amongst the ex-pats and a couple of locals here who organised a plant swap last Spring. Swapping plants wasn't high on our agenda at that point (still isn't!) but apparently they had people turning up to buy as well as swap and they have several hundred euros put aside to "do something" for the village. So this is it!

So, I caught him (a sort of gloved and overalled flying tackle - I knew I should have tried out for the 49ers) when I found him in next door's barn on Sunday evening, another neighbour shoved him in a cage, they took him off to the vets in the morning and he returned later yesterday, was given a tuna supper and set free. It's a small start but we are reasonable content with our project at the moment and still have enough money for another five, although I imagine the word is out to keep out of that particular barn. AND the vet allowed a discount when he realised what this is all about and also wormed and de-fleaed him for free.  The worming and defleaing was just an added extra from the vet. We will have to give each one a name for the vets' records.

Nobu went to the vet first thing in the morning and was not released until about 7pm. He was not a happy bunny and ready to go. He did hang around long enough to demolish a dish of tinned tuna first, although if the waving tail and general hissing was anything to go by we were wise to keep out of his way. He seems more amiable now, he spent a large part of last night sitting on the forecourt outside our kitchen.
 Nobu now looks looks fine, I saw him on the way over here this morning (where it's pouring with rain!)

If we manage to catch any of the females (they are even more shy) we will keep them in our chicken pen (the chickens and ducks have decided the hay stall rails in a secure part of the barn are much more to their liking) for a few days. It's made from rigid mesh and very strong so probably a good place. They are far too uncivilized to have in a house for long.  I understand the vets in France do a far less invasive form of female spaying too, something on the lines of tube tying rather than a hysterectomy, and do it from a very short cut up the centre of the stomach rather than in the side?

 October 15

I don't get much time for socialising with the neighbours but this morning a small bunch of us "collided" at the bottle bank and ended up sitting over a coffee in our kitchen. It was a cross section of the village - French, Brits and Dutch (I put myself in the Brit category by association).

The discussion meandered around to the local stray cat population. I think there are about two stray cats for every person in the village. However as there are only about 20 people it isn't quite as bad as it might sound. We don't feed any of them because we don't generally have meat scraps, cat food doesn't star too highly on our budget, Morris (our lurcher) doesn't like them much and to be honest neither do I. But then we discovered which of us DO feed them on daily...

It turns out that there is a hard core of five or six cats who are eating on a regular basis at the FOUR different households represented at our impromptu coffee morning. No wonder they look so sleek and well-fed. They could well be eating elsewhere too, although it was noted that they are particularly wary of the houses of the older "country folk" in the village who are known to chase them off and dispose of any stray kittens they find.

None of these cats are actually "owned" so we are thinking of starting a programme of catching them and having them neutered.  An interesting project!
  The local hunters aren't averse to taking potshots at them on a Sunday afternoon, one of the old locals puts out snares for rabbits and we know he's done away with domestic cats he's found in his snares so almost certainly manages to catch some of these too, some of them look pretty pitiful and need some sort of veterinary attention and there are just too many kittens in the Spring

October 13
We’ve had old neighbours staying for a few nights – they are on their way to Portugal for a few months.

They have four children, ranging in age from two up to ten. They are educating the oldest three themselves and no doubt the youngest one will follow. They are bright kids with enquiring minds, precocious and eloquent. But I did notice they were not very good at socialising with our two and had no knowledge of certain things I would have thought were important to little ones. Being able to tie bows, read or write fluently, do jigsaws or tell the time from a standard clock were four of these. I’m sure they are very well taught in areas their parents think are important and are off on an adventure to Portugal which would be impossible for kids in formal schooling. But are they really getting a “rounded” education? I don’t think so!

On their last evening, over a bottle of our home-made apple wine (very nice it is too!) we got into discussion about this – they obviously thought we would be doing the same. As a product of “home education” I said we would almost certainly not, especially as we are living in a foreign country where I want them to integrate. I and my four siblings were brought up in “freedom” with no formal guidelines and no formal teaching. As a result, at age eighteen I had to work my butt off to get a High School diploma to get to University and even now feel less than adequate in certain areas. I know a lot about things my parents thought were important but very little about, for instance history. They didn’t think it was important. Sometimes Mack talks about things he learned at primary school in the backwoods of Waterford and I’ve never heard of them. Things like how to tell the difference between a spider and other insect type things. I suppose I could wax lyrical on the teachings of Allan Ginsberg but it isn’t really useful is it?

This couple have no intentions of preparing any of their kids for formal exams. I wonder if they are not depriving them of the means to get on in life or make a decent living in the future. I’m pretty sure not everyone will agree with me on this one but I was just wondering what sort of guidelines home educators follow to ensure their kids receive a well-balanced education and will be able to enter formal education later if they so wish?

I also do wonder if it isn’t just a bit misguided and presumptuous if the home educators don’t have a decent standard of education themselves. This couple were our neighbours in the UK and I really have no definite idea what their business is, computer based I believe. I also really don’t know what sort of qualifications they have other than the ability to run their business (successfully I assume as they have a big newish camper van and live in a nice home). However I suspect they might be graduates and their children will not be. I don’t see anything wrong with that unless, like me, it is something they later want and have to work extra hard to achieve. Because of my parents’ “alternative” views this is exactly the dilemma I faced.
 I like to think about other peoples’ opinions and weigh them up with mine. Heaven forbid I would automatically assume that I am right or rubbish their opinions because they don’t agree with mine. However, as I was the “subject” of home education in the past I feel reasonably well qualified to throw in my opinion. I was somewhat bemused about these visitors' automatic assumption that, because we seem to lead a rather alternative lifestyle we would automatically follow the home educator path.

I absolutely agree with home education where the child is seriously disadvantaged at school, whether that is because they have special needs, they are bullied or the schooling is otherwise inadequate. As you say, exams are not the be all and end all of getting a job. But I’ve found they very often are the opening to gain the experience you need to move forward in a career. They are a measure potential employers use. My education until age 18 was totally informal. From that point I had to get myself a High School diploma (try getting anywhere without one in the US) talk my way into University (not the one I really wanted as I had not been able to pull up my grade averages up high enough with just one year to cram everything in) get a degree then talk my way into ANOTHER university (I was a bit more pushy by then and got into the one I wanted) to study dentistry. What I am saying is that, given the direction I wanted to go in I personally was hindered by my parents’ home education programme rather than helped by it.

And no, I would not say this to their faces even now. They did what they thought was best. I still a bit let down that I had no “best friends” as a child as we were always wandering about and I had no chance to form attachments. I don’t think it is the same to meet other kids once a week at some sort of organised event - childhood friendships are formed in a day in day out environment. I’m particularly close to all my siblings for this reason. Two of these siblings followed more or less the same route as me and earned MAs. The other two did nothing to formalise their education. One is now a carpenter (and perfectly happy) and the other is currently a waitress. Ginny hates her life and is only now looking at getting her diploma and trying to do something with herself. She is 28 years old and reads and writes like a 10 year old despite having a high IQ. Three of us were self motivated, one wasn’t but is happy nonetheless, the other blames our parents for what she sees as their “trendiness”. They haven’t spoken in years and it has taken her a long time to feel good enough about herself to set herself some goals and try to pursue them. I might add that our mother is a graduate of Berkeley in California and our father was a highly qualified surgeon in later life. He took his Medical degree as a mature student (with our mother supporting him) but had been out and out hippy in his teens and twenties, dropping out of University to live in San Francisco and watch the flowers grow. He happened to be lucky enough to have someone to bear the responsibilites of five kids whilst he fulfilled his dream.

Our two are alternatively little monsters or little angels but mainly somewhere in the middle. They are sociable and chat happily with anyone of any age, their current favourite being the elderly man who lives along the lane by our house who lets them help him pick his apples. The children who have just visited were shy and monosyllabic with ours although they were happy to chat with adults. I will make sure I teach ours everything I can before they start school but I still fully intend for them to attend mainstream schooling throughout unless there is a very good reason for them not to.
No, it didn't work for me. But then I don't doubt it WILL work for others. I never did get to learn anything in High School other than the basics to get me to diploma level and I wish I had had chance to explore other areas. My parents did what they thought was right but they were very influenced by what happened to be the "in" thing in their circles at the time. They are two highly intelligent people but they had zero abilities as teachers, not a lot of patience and not a lot of time. I think they actually sacrificed very little to do what they did. In fact it meant that we were easily portable and they were not obliged to stay in one place to allow us to settle into schools and communities. I learned how to do some stange things during my childhood. I can light a fire with sticks, I can tie-dye material and I can roll a joint. But basic little things I know I missed out on. In fact I'm only grateful that none of us ended up with overly hippy names like some of the kids we encountered on our travels. True, Aurora and Falcon spring to mind...

I shall see what Mom has to say on the subject when she arrives for her Christmas break with us. In the meantime I'm off to practise one of the talents I DID manage to learn in our wanderings. The kids want me to make them a rainstick. Now that I CAN do!

mardi 13 octobre 2009

October 12

Ben and Rosie called in again on their way back from Spain. We have no visitors for ages then have two lots within days of each other, our old next door neighbours arrive sometime tomorrow.

They were impressed by how much work we have managed to do since early last month, particularly the new staircase Mack has started on. We might actually be able to get upstairs on something other than a ladder before much longer. However as there are no floorboards up there it will be a pretty pointless exercise!

They brought us a couple of very welcome gifts. Firstly a three litre bottle of a cheap Anisado, used in northern Spain to make liqueurs. I'm going to do some research but apparently it works wonderfully with red berries, apples and even coffee. This will be good for Christmas! Then there were some sheepskin slippers for the kids, they will be glad of these this winter as they have both outgrown their own. Finally they emptied out the larder in their camper van - they have only one more night before they are back home and so have no need of the bits they have left. So we've acquired

2 tins of sardines
A large jar of peanut butter
A large tin of chicken stew
4 tins of soup (tomato, chicken, vegetable and lentil)
A jar of mustard
2 jars of frankfurter sausages
4 packets of cream crackers
2 packs of Weetabix
and a big bag of fig rolls

We lit a fire tonight, opened a bottle of blackberry wine (very new but very drinkable) had some salted nuts and felt we were living in the lap of luxury!

lundi 12 octobre 2009

In the beginning...

I'm posting a big chunk of my diary to start this Blog off so it will all begin with the same date. From October 12 onwards I'll try to update as often as I can. We are definitely living a self-sufficient lifestyle at the moment, although I sometimes have reservations about what we have got ourselves into! Being an American I grew up being used to having everything working at a touch so I DO sometimes struggle with this new regime of ours.

15 months ago Mack and I gave up our decent but boring jobs, sold our home in the UK, packed up a few possessions in our car and headed south. We added a dog, two toddlers, a guitar and a laptop and bought a run down farm (as it turned out, far more so than we first thought) in France. We have a five year plan and have allocated our available capital to do the renovations and keep ourselves until we are ready to launch the little business we have in mind - a B & B plus restaurant attached.

We arrived in June 2008 to crumbling walls, a leaky roof, missing or broken windows, a battered door with a foot square hole in it but no glass, no electricity, no running water (we DO have a well though), no real drainage other than a suspiciously swampy area at the bottom of the garden, bare earth floors on the ground floor and no floors at all on the first floor, two rickety ladders, one to the upper (floorless) floor and the other to the cave (cellar) under the original "kitchen" which had two old wooden doors as a floor. Modcons are an ancient wood burning range and a tiny calor gas fridge plus an old tin bath. We spent the first winter living in a large frame tent pitched on the bare living room floor - the only way to keep ourselves and our possessions dry. Fortunately there is an enormous fireplace in that room and we kept a log fire burning throughout. We have plenty of wood in an huge, although slightly rotting, oak woodpile at the back of the house so fortunately that will not be a problem for the next couple of winters. We also have a great neighbour who lets us use their wifi connection and charge our laptop so we can watch DVDs in the evening.

We set to and repaired the roof and replaced the windows, boarded the area over the cave and
made that room secure and dry and bought some nice oak for the ground floor. Fortunately, all the beams in the house are also oak and look fit to last another couple of hundred years. Then came to crunch...

June 1st

We had a heavy night surrounded by bank statements, receipts and scraps of paper. Conclusion?
We have spent two year's of our budget in the first year. True we have a spanking new water-tight roof and beautiful double-glazed hardwood windows right through the house and two of the barns. We also have all the oak we need to floor the house.

Perhaps it was the flagon of wine we managed to consume which coloured our judgement but we
have decided to manage for a whole year on what we can grow, barter or scavenge. "An exciting challenge!" says Mack. "Bloody hard work for me!" says I, thinking off all the picking and bottling I'm about to let myself in for. We count up and find we have more or less €750 of the budget to keep our books even until June 2010. We agree to spend €200 on a basic food stock and try to manage of €10 a week for essentials.

So let the adventure begin...

June 2nd

We've bought an initial "stash" of food to act as a base. These are:

5kg cooking salt
20kg flour
20kg rice
5kg couscous
10 litres olive oil
1kg red beans
1kg dried peas
1kg chickpeas
20kg sugar
10 packs dried yeast
10 packs wine yeast
5kg soya mince
5kg dried milk
4 large jars of coffee
5kg rolled oats
2kg dried spaghetti

It looks like a lot but when I mentally divide it into 365 days perhaps we will be struggling...

Supplementing this we have what's left over in our store cupboard as of yesterday

Lots of spices
4 cans tuna
4 cans tomato puree
large tin of cocoa
Jar of honey
large bag of mixed nuts

June 5th

So far we have already grown

onions, shallots, garlic, peas, green beans, beetroot, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, cucumbers,
lettuce, peppers, chillies, potatoes, gherkins, herbs, red cabbage, melons and sweetcorn

In the garden or local hedgerows we have (or will have when they are ripe)

mushrooms (which I have dried and bottled), apples, walnuts, hazels, figs, blackberries, apples,
plums, grapes. damsons and nectarines

We have been given four hens who are laying, on average, three eggs a day between them and I
am being given goat's milk by a neighbour as and when we want any. The same neighbour says he will supply us with rabbits once the season starts.

It all looks good on paper but I'm still panicking about being able to eke out the supplies AND
preserve enough of what we are growing to last through to the end of next May. We do have the
option of going to the local shops if things go wrong but now we've set ourselves this challenge I
would love to see it through. I must admit we've demolished the tuna, honey and mixed nuts so they are now off the list!

I plan on making jam and chutney, bottling beans and storing the root veg and apples in the cellar. I will also salt the nuts. We have 5 gallons of wine on the way and I intend making lots more, also cider when the apples are riper. I'm thinking of drying some of the fruits too and wonder about making some sort of sultanas from the grapes once they are coming to an end? We have a small calor fridge but no separate freezer so all the preserving has to be in bottles, jars or pots. Cooking is on the wood-burning range so I have various ovens good for drying etc.

August 20

We have been given some very old and apparently hand made terracotta floor tiles. They are about 5 inches square and a little over an inch thick. On one side they are chipped, worn and stained (I estimate they are a couple of hundred years old judging from where they came from) but they have never been turned so the "underside" is as good as new, smooth and even coloured once they have been scrubbed.

At the moment our kitchen area is bare except for a wood burning range which already sits on a
stone plinth. The floor is flat compacted earth for 75% of it's area and oak boarding which we have laid ourselves for the other 25%. These cover and form the roof of the cave (sort of half
underground cellar) below. The entire room is around eighteen feet square and we estimate we
have ample tiles to cover the earthen bit.

However when we put down the boards we allowed for much thinner modern tiles laid on a bed of cement, now the tiles will need to sit directly on the earth to be in line and we are wondering if this is feasible. It seems to be how they were laid originally as there is no sign of mortar etc on them. We are wondering if we just make sure the area is flat and lay them and then presumably use some sort of mortar in the joins to seal them. Or whether we should rake out the earth to a lower level and lay cement anyway. I'm going to ask advise!

August 23

I will have pounds and pounds of tomatoes and I have lots of donated bottles and jars so can probably try all options for preservation, bottling, coulis, chutney, etc.

I also have a potentially enormous pile of chillies, shallots, garlic (I put in 5 heads broken into cloves) and onions so hopefully if I can preserve them properly I will have enough for the whole winter and into spring.

We've been picking sloes today and have a gallon of wine started. They are fiddly to pick put I imagine they will make some delicious wine. I have some ripe grapes and will be making grape jelly tomorrow. I'm about to research making some form of sultanas right now. Unfortunately I don't have the luxury of hours of surfing, I spend about 30 minutes when I come to charge the laptop and a similar time when I pick it up later. Sally and Andrew say we can use the wifi whenever we like (it reaches to the barn where we plug in so we don't actually have to intrude upon them) but I don't want to be seen to take advantage. Also, I might need to beg some space in their spare freezer before the summer is out so I'm saving any favours for later!

August 26

I have been getting really into the swing of bartering over the last few days. Once I've got over the hurdle of persuading people that a) yes, their junk is actually going to be my treasure and b) I really want "things" rather than money in exchange for the jobs I do then we seem to get along very well.

So far I've negotiated to do lawn mowing (they have a sit on lawnmower and provide the fuel but it IS nearly half an acre) until mid November and then again from mid March in exchange for the use of a large old chest freezer in their barn plus electricity to run it. This will be an absolute godsend to me and they think they have a wonderful deal too!

Cat sitting and house plant care for two months (in their home) with another Scottish neighbour. The exchange is, as they put it, a pile of old wood plus rusty tools and nails etc. It is in fact a mountain of finished pine, chestnut and oak which has not been used before, some good quality hand tools and enough nails and screws to turn the whole lot into something useful. Also a wooden barrel (soon to be a waterbutt) an old but serviceable sack truck, a big box of glasses and crockery and an enormous and beautiful deep blue woollen Oriental rug which is totally undamaged and just needs airing and a bit of cleaning to the fringes. Amazingly both of us think we have a very good deal!

After school care of a French child when school starts again. This involves picking her up from the bus stop and keeping her for an hour each evening for a two month period. In exchange I get a perfectly good chicken run and two beautiful oil lamps. Also my Pia and Luke get an hour a day of free French lessons thrown in.

I'm now in the midst of negotiating for a big box of fabric, wool and sewing items plus two more of English books. The lady concerned is determined to just give them to me so I think she might be getting some jam in exchange. I suppose it helps that we are surrounded by people living in old houses with lots of accumulated junk but it's a great way of recycling!

August 27

We've been advised to lay sand onto the soil and then put the tiles on this. The floor is amazingly
flat and a thinnish layer of sand will bring the tiles up to be level with the boards so it would all work well. From counting and measuring we have discovered we have more than enough for the kitchen and also there are some thinner tiles (about a quarter inch thick) which will make a great "skirting" all the way round. We seem to be lucky that the tiles will fit with only a miniscule gap at the wall edges which we can fill in and cover with the thinner tiles. Also the room doesn't have any nooks and crannies - I'm not sure how we could go about cutting these tiles if we had needed to.

August 29

A long long day but we now have a lovely kitchen floor, all laid by ourselves. I'm so proud!

I'm about to start wine making with a vengeance but am concerned about our lack of demi-johns. We only have six and little hope of finding any more here in France. I DO have lots of corks and airlocks though and have searched without success for something I could use as a substitute, unless I want to spend cash we don't have.

When I took some broken glass up to our bottle bank yesterday I discovered a pile of nasty looking old flagons which obviously would not fit through the hole of the bottle bank. They were dirty green and were covered in mouldy wicker. Anyway I turfed Pia out of her pushchair, piled Luke up with four and put the rest in the pushchair for the walk home. Once the wicker was prised off and the bottles were scrubbed and cleaned inside with a handful of gravel I find I have fourteen large and four small elegant pale green bottles. They are very slim at the neck and broaden out at the base. They have the word Ayelense embossed around the neck.

I've discovered that a demijohn cork and airlock fits straight into the top of the bigger ones (they hold around 6 pints each). I'm wondering if there any reason why I shouldn't just go ahead and use these for our winemaking? I don't think there is! It would certainly broaden our scope for all the fruit I'm coming across at the moment. The small ones (about 3 pints) should make great bottles for the wine once it's ready, they take a normal sized cork. So I'm off to see what I can find in the hedgerows now...

August 30

At the moment we live in total chaos in a three storey house with no upper floors and no mains
water or electricity.

As of yesterday we now have a beautifully tiled kitchen floor but no facilities in the kitchen other than a wood burning range, a marble slab on a barrel, a big home-made table made from sanded and oiled scaffolding planks plus two similar benches, a pair of buckets (one for washing up when it's filled with hot water from the range and the other for rinsing) and a couple of shelves which hold all our other kitchen goods, crockery, pans etc. The buckets double as our personal washing space too, we have a tin bath for use in the winter and right now we have an outdoor shower with lovely warmed water from a big plastic tank on one of the barn roofs.

Our living area currently has a bare earth floor, a huge open fireplace which we will use in the winter and houses two camp beds for our children which we use to sit on during the day time. The ceiling is open right up to the (newly tiled) roof with nothing but beams showing for the upper floor and attic and this can only be accessed by ladder from the hallway. Last year we laid a huge tarpaulin over the beams to keep the living area cosy - this was in fact lovely.
The dining room is currently having a new oak floor fitted but doubles as our bedroom with the only "new" piece of furniture we possess, our bed. Other than various makeshift little tables and stools plus hanging rails and hooks this constitutes our current living arrangement. Oh, and we have an outside "privy" which is little more than a hole in the ground which drains, when it's in the right mood, to what may or may not be an antiquated fosse at the end of the garden - we haven't dared investigate yet.

Now suddenly Eve (my mother) seems to want to plan a Christmas visit. She would be flying in from San Francisco to London, then presumably to somewhere like La Rochelle (which would involve us in a longish round trip to pick her up). Much as I love her and haven't seen her for a few years I'm horrified at the prospect! Although we all seem to be muddling through quite happily here I just don't see her, 1960s/70s hippy or not, finding one single aspect of this lifestyle acceptable. No telephone, no electrics, no drains, no TV, no giant size refridgerator, no instant heating, no hot power showers, no spare room... the list goes on and on. The thought of traditional Christmas cooking is scary and we are on a self-imposed strict budget this year which will probably not stretch further than a box of chocolates and small presents for the children.

Basically I think I have to say a big NO without offending her forever. I feel mean as she hasn't even see Pia in the flesh and last saw Luke when he was a baby. However I just dread the thought of making excuses for how we are living for a fortnight. If she lived "locally" (ie the UK) a few days might be acceptable but it's unreasonable to expect her to stay for such a time when she would be flying for travelling for around 14 hours. Am I becoming paranoid? I need some input on this one!

August 31

I've had some suggestions and one of them is renting a gite. I love the gite idea! I'll check them out. It means SHE could do the Christmas day entertaining too. I'll take some pictures of the house to show her why it might be a good idea to think about staying with us...

September 6

So in the end I didn't say no. The deed is now done, flights booked, etc. I DID manage to talk her
into hiring a car...

"...but surely it isn't that far from Paris to where you are?" ... only 800 k approx round trip so no way!!)

and she will be installed in the only gite in the village. I've already seen it, it's enormous and lots of room for a Christmas party.

In order to pull this off I sent some photos of the house and the extent of our "modcons".. The
deciding factor was the lack of power to work her hairdryer! I know she will come totally laden with gifts so we are now busily inventing Xmas presents which cost next to nothing and which will fit in her bag for the return flight. Homemade jams etc will be out of the question but we have LOTS of lavender, aloe and rosemary so that has lots of potential for lotions etc.

September 9

We've just had an old Uni friend of Mack's plus girlfirend (Ben & Rosie) to visit on their was to
Spain. They parked their camper on the garden and were self-contained so I found it quite stress free from a visitor point of view, especially as they left us with a pile of paperbacks and a pack of six cans of baked beans they were finding a nuisance in the van!

However, in discussion with the girlfriend one evening I began to wonder whether we are being
mean to our two kids, aged nearly three and four and a bit. At the moment they run around the
garden all day virtually naked (I only see them in the house at lunchtime although I can generally see exactly what they are up to from the windows) amusing themselves with an old wheelbarrow, a big paddling pool made from hay rolls and a tarpaulin, some old cord (skipping, or trying to, neither of them have succeeded yet!) and a mammouth mini racetrack they have smoothed out in a sand pile for some little cars. Oh, and the dog of course, who is as crazy as a loon and spends all day joining in. They look happy and healthy, both are articulate & polite and they come in and sleep like tops at night. The suggestion was, however, that we are depriving them of a "normal" childhood without playgroups, TV, "proper" toys, sweets and comics. However they can both write their names (admittedly they each have very short names but I still think it's not a bad achievement), count as high as most people would feel necessary in life and the older one can read little books aimed at 5 year olds and is trying to teach his sister what the words mean. They don't have many "same age" friends but there is a French child I collect from the school bus each day and they seem to relate to her pretty well in their way too. I know they can speak bits of French from this and I think they will pick it up quite easily this way.

So are we depriving them? I thought not but she has made me wonder. Sure they will grow up
somewhat different to the "norm" but is that a big deal? We grew up in a hippy household.
Fortunately there were plenty more in California at the time but even so I remember being a bit different and enjoying it. Oh, and another thing. She can't quite see how they are getting all the "nutrients" they need from our self-imposed spartan food regime. They didn't actually eat with us so I'm not sure how she worked this out, other than seeing the very basic dry food supplies I have stored around our kitchen area.

I'm busily compiling a record of what we eat each day for a week so I can get an overview. I'm not a nutritionalist but I don't think we are missing anything essential. Knowing this Uni friend I don't see this latest self-opinionated Dudley Doright of a girlfriend lasting that long once their holiday is over but I do wonder if there might be some grain of truth in her observations? I'm going to make a list of our "menus" for a week and see how they look in retrospect.

She was in fact a lovely person, just highly opinionated. I discover after a further chat with Mack that she has just finished her mature degree in some sort of social work and has never had her own children - now she's on a year out so has not used those qualifications anyway. Before that she was briefly an infant teacher. She was lovely with the kids, making up stories for them and drawing all sorts of funny things and even helping them make a tepee in the garden. It was just the rush to fit them into pigeonholes which began to annoy me. It's not as though they are totally cut off from modern life - we sometimes watch Disney DVDs in the evening with them and they do some educational packages on the computer too, assuming we have battery power (no mains electricity here at the moment anyway). Worrying as it may seem I do see the day sometime in the future where kids will be taken from their parents if they "subject" them to a lifestyle which is not considered to be the norm.

People I've consulted love the way we are raising them, even ask if they can come to play in the garden too. My goodness, our very conservative neighbours are only just getting used to seeing these bare little heathen kids whooping and hollering in our garden. To see a bunch of naked adults running around would finish them off!

Someone asked me if they are home-schooled and they are not, or not formally anyway. I'm hoping they will go to the local school (a bus ride away) eventually but it won't be until next fall for Luke and probably two more years for Pia. I'm hoping they will both be reading and writing well by then, and speak decent French to help them integrate. I really don't think I'm wholly in agreement with home schooling but I would have to sit and think about where my prejudices lie on that one...

September 11

Just before I headed off to charge the laptop batteries in Sally'ss barn I was straining the fruit out off four gallons of peach wine and had the remains standing in a bucket. Just at that point Didier arrived with yet another rabbit (this one is going in the freezer later, just in case we run short of food options later in the year as I can't bring myself to pick all the bones out of another one so soon after the last one).

We struggle a little to communicate as he speaks the local dialect which is incomprehensible to me and my French is nowhere near perfect anyway. But he indicated he really wanted the fruit for his pigs! I tried to explain it had been fermenting and might not be good for them. I don't think the French make country wines as he brushed this aside and ambled off complete with the fruit. There was 24 lbs of fruit in there to begin with and I now have visions of drunken pigs tearing up the village a little later tonight...

September 24

We are now four months into our self-imposed year of frugality, living in our still rather dilapidated farm with no power or running water.

We have a a great woodburning range plus a basic store cupboard of flour, pulses, rice and dried
pasta plus a few other "essentials". I have also managed to negotiate various barters and swaps
and now have access to eggs, milk, an occasional rabbit, freezer space and power to charge my
laptop battery. Other than that we are completely dependant upon what we can grow or forage.
A few weeks ago I decided to keep a copy of a week´s normal meals as a visitor expressed doubt
that our kids were eating "properly". This is what I've come up with. Nothing is "shop bought" other than the basic supplies plus the baked beans which were a gift. I've done a rough check and think we are covering all the bases as far as nutrients go. I forgot to add that we drink wine, ginger beer, boiled well water, fruit and herb teas and we will soon have cider too. For the kids "treats" I have been making frozen fruit popsicles, mainly raspberry and blackberry. They see very happy with these! Hopefully the supplies will last right through to next June. I get more and more determined to see this through. We haven't used a quarter of our supplies yet, although I can see us really ploughing into them once the winter starts.

Home made bread with goats milk butter (I can make about half a pound a week from the excess goats’ milk I’m given) and quince jelly (from some hedgerow trees). Apples.

Hummus (I make it myself from our chick pea store) on rolls with tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

Home made veggie burger with jacket potato and salad. Rice pudding (really nice even though I
made it with ordinary rather than pudding rice) with blackberry jam.

Toast (I have problems making this as we have to hold the bread on a prong in front of the open
“furnace” bit of the woodburning range) with more butter, scrambled eggs and baked beans (free gift and very much appreciated). Nectarines.

More hummus. Salad with pickled onions, chutney and beetroot on homemade bread rolls and
goats butter.

Rest of the veggie burgers with creamed potatoes and green beans.
Scrambled eggs with onion and herbs on bread and butter. Sliced tomatoes.

Mushroom and herb omelette (we had a lot of eggs that day and probably were in egg overload)

Chick pea and potato curry with pilau rice and some not very successful home made naan breads (I’ve since perfected them – I now add home made yoghurt and onion seeds to the mix). Home
made yoghurt & fruit.

Home made tomato soup (don’t ask why!) with bread (we ran out of butter), hazelnuts and raisins (I made them from our own grapes – they taste fine but look a bit odd).

Fried egg sandwiches. Nectarines and plums

Three bean & soya chilli and rice

Oatmeal porridge. Stewed tomatoes on toast . Plums

Baked potatoes with chilli (I made too much the day before) with salad.

Tomato, onion and cottage cheese Quiche with salad and bread rolls.

Homemade hazelnut butter sandwiches (we like peanuts but that’s all we have and they taste great on bread). More plums

Scotch eggs (made with a TVP and onion mixed) and salad

Spaghetti Bolognese with green salad. Coffee fudge squares ( I was experimenting with these for
Xmas presents. Mmmm!)

Boiled eggs with bread and butter.

Chip butties. Home made yoghurt with fresh fruit sliced in it.

Rabbit stew (our neighbour came up with the promised rabbit, although I didn’t enjoy preparing it one little bit) with potatoes and green beans.Nectarine pie with cream skimmed from the top of the goats milk (I save it for butter making but couldn’t resist it on the pie).

I'm still trying to bottle and pickle as much as I possibly can and the freezer I have been given
access to is bulging so I'm hopeful we will manage to pull off this experiment. If so we will be back on budget to get on with the renovations next June. Fortunately we have plenty of jobs to be getting on with in the meantime which don't involve using our funds. Since the begining of June we have now spent €67 on essentials (including lamp oil, seeds, petrol & chicken feed) so I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself!

Two beautiful white ducks appear to have moved in with us. After asking round I've discovered that they apparently have not escaped from anywhere in the village or from any of the properties nearby. They have been with us for nearly a week now, seem to have taken to living in an old wooden crate in of of our doorless outhouses and have dutifully laid quite a few eggs since arriving. They seem happy enough eating whatever the hens are having and otherwise seem to happily go about their own duck business - even taking a dip in the kids' paddling pond.

I'm fascinated to know how they got here. They don't appear to have shown any intentions of flying since they came. Can domestic ducks normally fly I wonder? And if so do they normally travel far? Otherwise I suppose I'll just have to wait and see if anyone comes looking for them or if they decide to go back wherever they came from!

September 27

We've just had a morning out at a local village "vide grenier" - arriving just as they were all packing up. This is a sort of once a year yard sale when everyone drags out their old junk (some of it looks as though it has been dragged out on an annual basis for centuries), asks ridiculous prices and then settles for pennies. We went with €10 (plus 1c we found in the grass as we walked there) and came back with:

3 lovely blue cast iron pans (Le Creuset style)
3 jigsaw puzzles (the guy threw in a bag of partially used felt pens too, I suspect the kids were doing their poor child act as they managed to get the puzzles AND a box of books for 50c, although I was impressed as they did their negotiations in French)
A big box of children´s books (French)
A smallish bottle of home-pressed walnut oil (we have a lovely laden walnut tree so if we like it he has said he will press ours too and give us back 50% of the product for doing it).
2 sturdy cane gardening baskets (I can now pick stuff from the garden without having it folded into my tshirt)
4 red cabbages (guess what I will be making later today!)
A big bag of new wine corks (probably 50)
A new-looking cane dog basket (I'm not sure the dog is impressed but it looks lovely)
4 brass candle holders and a new oil lamp chimney
An antique looking wrought iron central light fitting (we have no electricity yet but it can be situated when we start on the upstairs floors).Another big box of rags (perfect for oiling the new floorboards we are laying)
AND, what we originally went for, an large oval tin wash bucket for the wandering ducks to play in (no one has claimed them so I guess they are now ours).

I feel as if we have won the lottery! We had a fun morning out, actually had money in our pockets for a change (we spent every penny - the last guy accepted our last 41c for the rags) and came back with treasure.

September 29

Over the last few months we have made friends with a Dutch couple who run a campsite in the next village. As it is Macks' birthday today, they invited us for lunch. I knew they run some sort of restaurant attached to the campsite but I've now come back totally inspired. I now know this is the sort of restaurant I want to incorporate into our B & B business when we eventually get it going. I suppose I do have to point out that the two barns we have earmarked for this business have a good solid roof and newly installed windows. What they DON'T have are floors, internal walls, plumbing, electrics, etc, etc. Never mind - after all it IS a five year plan and we are only just into year two...

Their restaurant works like this. Customers phone the day before to book a table so there are no "on spec" customers. All the meals are served at 8pm so there is just one sitting. They are given a choice over the phone of two starters, two main courses and two desserts and order in advance. She says she will cater for special requests too. She then shops next day so all the ingredients are fresh, many of them she grows herself. She does all the cooking so the maximum number she will cater for is 20 and the restaurant is open from May to October. She says she is invariably full and turning people away so will be very pleased if I start something similar as she will refer her extra callers my way. I'm so excited about this - I thought one of the main problems we might have would be attracting customers as we are well off a main road. I also love the idea of cooking to order so there is no wastage.

So she tried tonight's menu on us. We had a wonderful home made mushroom and herb paté on very thin toast with tomato marmalade. Then we had pork loin with juniper and garlic dressing, tiny buttered new potatoes and green beans in a chili and mustard dressing. For desert we had fresh black figs and sliced oranges with honey and yogurt. Then lovely coffee. No wine as

a) one of us had to drive and we had work to do this afternoon and
b) she had cranberry juice, which is something I absolutely crave.

I will definitely be stealing her recipes as well as her customers!

The visit made me start thinking about why English speakers are so awful at languages. This Dutch couple have three children aged 8, 7 and 5. Not only do this couple speak their own language, they also speak absolutely fluent English, apparently "passable" German, perfectly good French and, from the chat I had with her in that language, better Spanish than me. I know I'm a bit rusty but I did part of my college degree in Spanish! She assures me that they just grow up learning languages in Holland - more or less everyone can speak two and sometimes three. The three children can pass for English with no problem, are in French school so apparently fluent there too and, according to their mother, have no problem with playing with whatever nationality of children arrive at their campsite over the summer. She says she suspects they can speak bits of some languages that they couldn't even put a name to themselves and which she is not familiar with herself. She imagines these are probably Polish and Italian but could be some of the south eastern European languages too.

I know that the whole world wants to learn English these days but I'm surprised about how little emphasis is now put upon learning a second language in both the US and the UK. I learned
Spanish because California is next to Mexico, there are many, many Mexicans in that State and it was in fact a part of Mexico until a reasonably short time ago. It isn't the same in many of the other States. I started learning French when we decided to come here as I thought it would help us fit in (and it certainly has). Mack learned some French in school and speaks some Italian courtesy of an Italian mother. The kids are soaking up French like two little sponges and are quite fearless when trying to shuffle their smallish vocabulary to fit whatever they want to say. But most English speakers I meet really struggle to express themselves in anything but their own language. So why are many English speakers like this? Are we lazy? Do we think all foreigners should learn our language? Are we shy? Or is it because both the the UK and the US are essentially island races (don't forget that only 10% of US citizens have ever owned a passport)?