Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gods and rural paranoia

The gods, the weather gods are angry with us! Never should I have mentioned the mildness of this year's beginning. The Blue-Faced Hag, 'Cailleach Bheur' the Celtic goddess of winter, woke up, dumped some 10 cm of snow on La Chaise, its fields and the roads around. Given that we are northerners, she probably had help from Ullr the Norse god of snow, stepson of Thor, the thunder-bolt thrower. Certainly there was help from Boreas, the Greek lord of winter in charge of the North wind. I know it was a collective god vendetta directed at La Chaise because there was no snow in the valleys! The snow did not start until the land had risen to some 200 metres, our level.

Legend has it that the BFH is re-born on All Hallows Eve every year (October 31) and dies again on Beltane's Eve, the night before May Day. In between times the BFH creates havoc with ice and snow where she can and where you would rather she did not. The result was that we were blocked on top of our hill for four days mostly because I was too pusillanimous to drive in the snow, even when the main road cleared. But also because I judged it not necessary. No way was I going to risk sliding into a ditch just for a loaf of bread or to collect the 2 kg of Seville oranges I had ordered from the fruit seller in St Astier market. And every which way to towns from La Chaise involves going down hill. I have experience of these conditions and anyway I had supplies.

Did you know that a Peugeot 504 estate car flies beautifully? Not very high, admittedly, but on a level trajectory and with only a short run needed to stop. I was coming from from the baker in Mensignac, had just turned into the road leading up the hill to La Chaise when the hail started. Some unspeakable driver coming the other way made me brake for the road there is very narrow. ( I know, I know – never brake in snow or on ice – now.) The Peugeot, which I loved dearly, took off gracefully, managed to fly between two clumps of trees, and landed, all four wheels in damp soil. I switched the engine off and breathed. I switched on again and tried to move – no way, up to the axles in mud. Fortunately Farmer Duchoze, our neighbour, came by on his tractor and the rest is history.

At the other extreme of vehicle range, the little Renault 5 does not fly, she slides. Not my fault this time, I did not brake but the tracks made by previously passing cars were too near the ditch. Down went the car and I got out disgustedly. No friendly farmer came but, fortunately, this time I was only 200 yards from home. Got home and telephoned for help.

No way was I going to repeat history. My number one grandson is due on earth any minute and he would be justifiably cross to have such a stupid Oma.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Weatherwise, the first days of the year have not been too bad. The temperatures have been reasonable, the rain moderate – with a few exceptional days when it managed to get in under the roof tiles. The main feature of this past fortnight has been the mildness of the temperatures and the wonderful morning and evening mists.

The difference between mist and fog is that one can see through mist, fog patchily obscures roads, houses, oncoming cars. Mist drapes itself over trees, bushes, even Electricite de France's appalling pylons, softening the outlines, making the mundane mysterious.

I love walking in our valley when there is mist. It makes the place seem bigger, otherworldly, a setting fit for a novel by the Bronte sisters. The trees behind the horse-fields follow the shape of the hills on which they grow, a gentle curve from side to side with the horse boxes centred in the middle. The trees on the opposite side of the valley have a more ragged outline, certain species stand taller than others. The pines dominate whilst the leafless oaks and chestnuts seem more ephemeral.

Sitting in the kitchen at breakfast time, the Rayburn warm at my back, I look up the drive at the two linden trees either side of the gate. Their majestic outlines seem deliberately created rather than simply natural. Curiously, the softening of the mist makes them seem more solid. I worry less about the branches breaking off, about the need to prune them for stability's sake.

At ground level, spring life is beginning to break through, worm casts and weeds, also some rosettes of orchid leaves. Up near the right hand linden, the billy-goat orchid has started to show, one plant more advanced than the other. At least I think it will be a billy goat orchid (himantoglossum hircinum) because in that place last year there was a plant that looked, and smelled, a lot like one. As there was the year before. It came up nearly to my knee, was plentifully garnished with flowers and I kept the car windows closed in passing. But you never know with orchids. Sometimes they just give up growing in their habitual places and come up elsewhere.

I blame the sheep who are particularly partial, it seems, to the various pink orchids, starting with the lazy purples of end March that come up under the ash trees. Those they not only eat but also squash by sitting on them. If I knew it, there might be some ovine medicinal reason for this. Until I find out, I will just put it down to pure ovine perversity – like only eating white clover and not daisies.

Meanwhile the cold threatens. I have put emergency heating in the gites
under the vulnerable pipes and am keeping my fingers crossed. February is often an evil month, cold-wise.

Monday, January 7, 2013

First read the manual

Christmas at La Chaise was mild chaos. We managed to sit out on the terrace in bright sun for pre-lunch drinks twice. The temperature was in double figures, low but double nevertheless. The Rayburn behaved itself, even getting a little too hot at times. But the famous dishwasher, which is not connected to Bosch Central, went into a sulk and refused to wash glasses clean. So, without support from Bosch Central, I had to work out why, all by myself.

Fortunately all this happened quite early in the morning because elderly ladies will feel quite foolish if seen by guests whilst sitting cross legged apparently worshiping an open dishwasher. The lamp-bulb in the brain lit up and reminded me that this problem had occurred once before. Then it was due to clogged spray arms, top and bottom. I unscrewed the top sprayer and, sure enough, straggly grey threads of lint hung down. Where does the dishwasher get them from? Our tap water is pretty terrible, very hard and occasionally over-dosed with chlorine - but lint? Anyway, there I sat, armed with toothpick and tweezers, pulling long threads of lint from the sprayers.

So, a possible task for this new year is to see whether a new generation of water softeners is available, machines that can be fitted into very small spaces. It has to be installed after the official water meter and just before the house water supply. I looked into the problem some years ago when it was not possible. One bright engineer had pipes running under the conservatory doors, through the machine which would be installed in the anti-room to the chicken house and back again. The following winter we had temperatures of minus 15C, so obviously this was not a good idea.

But there are times when I truly long for softer water – when I am on my knees, on damp grass, scooping out the white gunge that is deposited in the
bac a graisse. Ladle full after ladle full goes into the bucket and then I have to find another home for the resulting muck. Most of it gets hidden under bushes which do not seem to be any the worse for it. Before we had the bac a graisse, the outflow pipe of the septic tank would block, even less fun. When the children were very young and their eczema was very bad, I ran the bath-water through a nylon stocking filled with oat bran. Result, lovely soft water and a ring around the bath that could have been hand-painted by an artist.

Now all at La Chaise are waiting for the first lambs to be born and praying that this season will be better than last. But the betting is that First Grandson will arrive before any of them. He already seems to be doing his rugby exercises.