Our family and other animals

Every night, about 10.00 pm, a mouse appears in the living room. It scuttles around the edge of the room until it reaches Rafiki’s cage. Then it begins to climb up into it. That’s no easy feat, as the legs of the cage are slippery. Sometimes the mouse almost reaches the lower tray, then falls back to the floor. But it keeps trying until it can squeeze through a narrow gap which allows it into the tray where the food waste falls. I can hear it scrabbling around. Rafiki knows it’s there, too. She sits on her swing with her head tilted, watching it benevolently. She likes furry things, and sometimes flies to sit on the bookcase with a teddy bear.

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When it’s satiated, the mouse takes on a new challenge – the water bowl, which is high up in the cage. Once there, it drinks its fill, then abseils back to the floor and vanishes.

Sometimes I see it (I’m saying ‘it’, but of course that is delusional. There are probably dozens of them) during the day, as it whizzes around my office. I don’t know why, the only food here is the biscuit crumbs in my keyboard and there’s no way it can reach there. Anyway, I’m quite used to it.

This morning while I was writing I caught a glimpse of movement beside the cushion where one of our dogs was sleeping next to me. Thinking it was the mouse I waved my hand to frighten it away before the dog woke up and jumped on it. But it didn’t move. I had a better look. And this is what I found.

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Just a little chap, about 3″ in length.

We’re used to wildlife in the house. Newts, tree frogs, birds, beetles, mice, it’s nothing new. I just wonder why? They have nearly two acres of field, dozens of trees and bushes, and a pond. But this house seems like a magnet for them. :D

I wanted to photograph the toad on my desk, but it was very squirmy and very dry, so I took it outside and put it on a stone, near the long grass.

Next, please. :D

Never say never

After losing Dobby nearly five months ago, we decided not to take on any more pets. Losing them is so traumatic, and we felt we couldn’t face any more. That left us with Tally, now twelve years old and as calm and well-behaved dog as you could wish for. However, he has become increasingly needy since Dobby’s death, and last week the first stirrings of new dog syndrome appeared, when TOH suggested that we should find a companion for him.

He wanted another Hungarian Vizsla – a breed we’ve had for over 30 years – that was a few years old and in need of a new home. None of the rescues anywhere near us had any, but an Internet search brought up a “4-year-old Braque Hongrois croisé” – a Vizsla cross. The dog had been removed from the previous owners because of ill-treatment:  it was attached to a radiator by a 50 cm. (20 inch) chain, without food or water. It was emaciated, suffering from muscle wastage, starvation, dehydration, skin complaints and numerous injuries.

A particular characteristic of the Vizsla is its unconditional worship of its owner. They’re known as “Velcro dogs” because of the way they stick to you, and they are highly sensitive, easily broken by harsh treatment. They ask you to love them, and to let them love you. If you can add to the mixture fun and food, they’re satisfied. The thought of such a gentle-natured dog being so badly abused decided us – we were going to get him.

There was a drawback – he was in the SPA kennels in Dunkirk, over 400 miles away, with horrors of the Parisian périphérique on a Saturday during the holiday season unavoidably bang in the middle of the journey.

We left home yesterday at 9.00 am, finally reaching Dunkirk at 4.15, fuelled by three chocolate chip cookies each. Tally slept all the way in the back of the car.

From the photograph of the dog – ironically named “Lucky,” I knew that he wasn’t going to be strikingly beautiful. Apart from most of the bones in his body showing through his coat, he had a rather flat head, and very flat feet, and he seemed to have lost the lid of his lipstick. :)  Still, looks aren’t everything.

Lucky

 

The SPA kennels in Dunkirk are tucked away in a peaceful cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the town. Thanks to the generosity of a retired couple, the entire place is being rebuilt into a beautiful modern facility. http://www.spadunkerque.fr/72641953 Work was well underway when we arrived, though not yet completed. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly, and I noticed that they also have boarding facilities for dogs and cats, which seems a sensible idea to help with the funding of the rescues.

We were led through the buildings to one of the new sections, where a dozen large dogs shouted from their spacious individual enclosures.

Lucky was easy to spot, the only russet-red among the blacks.

Forewarned by the photo and the knowledge of what he had endured, we were prepared for this less-than beautiful dog, cowed by his ill-treatment. What we hadn’t expected was a tornado of wiggling, wriggling, writhing, squirming, widdling, tail-wagging joyous missile, shouting “Hey – you’re here! I’ve been waiting for you. Let’s go.” Lucky bounced and jumped and spun in circles and nearly fell over his own feet in his excitement. He’s on the small side, with a large white splash on his chest, and a very male jaw, but looks like a pure Vizsla. Even after more than three months of care by the SPA, he is still underweight, with his ribs and backbone clearly visible. However, since the photo was taken, he has put on weight and his head shows the classic Vizsla “apple” shape. He’s now “up on his feet” and stands proudly.

With the paperwork done, the adoption fee paid, and Tally and Lucky introduced to each other, we set off for home. Lucky immediately burst past the dog guard and established himself on the back seat, and for the 8 hour journey home tried to force himself into the front against our raised elbows. He was bright and alert, needing to watch the road and take note of every péage or interesting noise within the car.

It was a little before 1.00 am when we arrived home, three of us ready for a good night’s sleep, and our new family member needing to gallop around the house and garden, inspecting every corner, every kitchen surface, behind every chair, round and round and up and down, with the combined energy of a bus-load of school-children arriving at the beach. He couldn’t keep still long enough for a close examination, but there are old scabs on his paws; the tip of his tail has been bleeding from wagging it against the concrete walls of his kennel; there is a small bald patch on the top side of his tail, and a sac of inflamed skin on his stomach from where the harness to which he was attached had rubbed him raw. However, he had been with the SPA for over three months being cared for and nursed by them until he was well enough to be rehomed. What condition he must have been in when he was rescued, I can’t imagine.

In the few hours we’ve had him (during which I managed two hours of sleep before he was wide awake and ready to eat/play at 5.18 am), we’ve found that he’s house-trained, and plainly used to being spoiled. He seems younger than 4; his teeth are tiny and he is puppy-playful.

Someone, somewhere, must have loved him once. So how did he end up near death through deliberate ill-treatment? We’ll never know, but we do know that there’s work ahead – he’s very wilful, but he’s never going to be chained to a radiator again.

Should he remain Lucky, or shall we change his name? My choice is Tommy – as he comes from Dunkirk, in memory of all the “Tommies” who didn’t make it back during the evacuation. However, being as we are fairly democratic in our family :D, and after TOH’s heroic drive yesterday, we need to agree. So I’ll try twisting his arm again today, unless he can come up with a better idea.

Photos will follow shortly. :)

You were wrong today, Mr Wrong

“A rainy day is like a lovely gift — you can sleep late and not feel guilty.”
― Elizabeth Jane HowardMr. Wrong

Unfortunately that is not always the case. Today was the date for TOH’s eye operation in Montmorillon. It was an early-morning appointment and is quite a way from us, so we had to be up at Horrid O’Clock. As is always the case when we have to be awake particularly early, neither of us slept well. I woke at 5.00 am, while TOH was awake on and off most of the night. Although we both set alarms, neither of us fully trust them, consequently we sleep badly, if at all.

Never mind. He would have a few hours to doze in the hospital, while Tally and I enjoyed another day of exploring the town. The morning started dull and grey, but as we neared Montmorillon the sun was making a timid appearance. Once TOH was dressed in a fetching, if somewhat sloppily fitted pink gown and he was installed in bed to await the operation, I skipped out of the door looking forward to taking some photos and walking Tally by the river.

Alas and alack, it was hammering down with rain and continued to do so for the five hours that we had to spare. Tally had a brief walk and wee on a small patch of very wet grass beside the river, then I parked the car in town and went to a café, where Tally behaved impeccably and was a subject of  great interest.

Back we walked to the car, in the rain, and sat there for some time, while I read my Kindle in between bouts of nodding off, and Tally dozed in the back. We drove around again in search of something that was worth photographing, but even the cherry blossom is at its resplendent best failed to lift the relentless grimness of the weather.

 

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Having had to abandon the idea of a riverside picnic, I settled for a pizza, freshly baked in a wood oven while I waited beneath a dripping awning, and eaten in the car.

To compensate for the miserable weather, however, I treated us to some of the famed Montmorillon macarons, pistachio flavour. Here they are, traditionally served by the dozen, glued to a sheet of paper.

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TOH reports no ill effects from his operation, other than feeling tired after a sleepless night. He is tucked up in bed. If we didn’t have chickens, I probably would be too, but they are a wilfull trio and refuse to go to bed until the last glimmer of light has left the sky, so I’ll be up for a few hours yet.

Tomorrow we have to back to the hospital for a check-up. Another early morning, another long drive, but there is only one word for the standard of cleanliness, friendliness and professionalism at Montmorillon hospital: Impeccable.

 

How to turn a Gallic shrug into a charm offensive

There are many joys to living in France, but until recently dealing with customer service has not been one of them. ‘French customer service’ was in fact something of an oxymoron. Our first unpleasant experience, 16 years ago, came courtesy of a major supermarket chain from which we bought a computer one Friday evening. After plugging in our new acquisition, a message popped up on the monitor: ‘No hard drive.’ We unplugged, replugged, rebooted, switched on and off several times. ‘No hard drive’ insisted the monitor.

On Saturday we returned the computer to the supermarket, and told Service Après Vente there was no hard drive. Impossible, they said, all computers have a hard drive. Not this one, we said. After switching it on and twiddling, they reluctantly agreed there was no hard drive, looking at us suspiciously as if suspecting we might have whipped it out for fun. Begrudgingly, they gave us a replacement.

We plugged it in and it whirred into life! Four hours later, it was stubbornly refusing to connect to the Internet, and it was too late to make another 50 mile round-trip to the supermarket, so I phoned the helpline, which was premium rate. Put on hold for an hour, I finally gave up. Same result on the Sunday.

On Monday I took the machine back and said it would not connect to the Internet. After leaving it with Service Après Vente for an hour, they assured me the problem was fixed. They had connected to the Internet and tested the machine fully. It was in perfect working order. Back home, another 50 miles and 4 hours later, it was still not connecting to the Internet. An engineer was despatched to fix it. After taking it to bits and scratching his head, he announced that there was no modem in the machine. But surely there must be, I said, if Service Après Vente had connected to the Internet? They could not possibly have done so, he replied. There is no modem in this machine.

Disheartened with the machine and with Service Après Vente, on Wednesday I took the machine back and asked for a refund. That was not company policy. I could only have another replacement machine. I didn’t want one of these machines, I wanted a different make, one that worked. That was not possible. It wasn’t company policy. I drove home with a third machine.

14 frustrating months later the computer still didn’t work properly. If the modem worked, the monitor didn’t. It constantly crashed, froze, switched itself off. I can’t recall how many trips I made to the supermarket, where I was asked if I had owned a computer before, knew that there was an on/off switch at the back, had plugged it into a power source and was generally treated as a trouble-maker and object of ridicule. I am fairly patient and never resort to rudeness, but my patience and politeness were making no inroads into the intransigence of the supermarket.

A French friend gave me a telephone number for our local AFOC – Association Force Ouvrière Consommateurs – a consumer rights organisation. I phoned for an appointment, and the next day, armed with three A4 sheets detailing the whole saga, sat in a small office facing a man with a bristly beard and brusque manner.

‘Tell me what has happened’ he said, ignoring the papers. After two sentences he raised a hand, snatched up the phone, dialled the supermarket and proceeded to shout and roar. Three minutes later he replaced the phone, tore up the papers, and told me to go immediately to the supermarket and collect my money.

With trepidation born of months of abuse and disdain, I announced myself at the reception desk. The previously scornful salesman appeared at a sprint, wiping sweat from his brow and waving a fistful of bank notes and apologising excessively. Quelle satisfying volte-face!

A couple of years later we had ordered a supply of crushed limestone. The man who delivered it tipped three cubic metres of sharp stone chippings onto our drive. We had a mighty argument when I said it was not what we had ordered and that he would have to take it away and replace it. He shook his fist and called me an English whore, furiously shovelled the stuff back into his truck, failed to deliver our order, and sent an invoice laced with threats. After two months of invoices and threats, I telephoned the shouting man at AFOC, who shouted at the rude man while I listened on the other line, and that was the end of the invoices and threats.

Two years ago we bought a coffee machine from another supermarket. It failed after two months, so we took it back and asked for a refund or replacement. It was not company policy, explained the man at the counter. It would have to be sent for repair. How long would that take, I asked. No idea, he replied with a Gallic shrug. It was August, the factory would be closed, there was a backlog ……

Four months later, he was still shrugging, so I mentioned that I would pass the file to AFOC as the machine had been in repair twice as long as we had owned it. Within an hour, we’d received a full cash refund, warm handshakes and profuse apologies.

A friend who bought a new professional coffee machine for her café asked for a refund or replacement when the expensive machine failed after two days. She was told she would have to be patient until it was repaired, which could take several weeks. The fact that the machine was crucial to her business was of no concern to the supplier. When she pointed out that under European Law the supplier was obliged to give her a new machine, or a refund, she was told: “Madame, you are not in Europe. You are in France.”

When discussing customer service, lack of, with a French friend, they explained it thus: After the Revolution, all French people became equal, so being a customer does not make you superior to a waiter or salesman. Therefore, do not expect deference, and be thankful if you are treated courteously. The customer was not always right in France. In fact, he very seldom was.

Happily we have seen a radical change in this attitude over the last few years, both in the private sector and among the ‘fonctionnaires‘ who are generally unfailingly polite and helpful. We are all still equal, of course, but customers are treated with respect.

However, if you are unfortunate to find yourself with defective goods and faced by indifference and insolence, it’s comforting to know that help is available. Keep Calm and Mention AFOC. You can find your nearest branch on the Internet from their site: http://www.afoc.net/rubrique.php?id_rubrique=10

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Vive l’entente cordiale. :)

Oops – j’ai dropped un clanger!

The region in which we live – the Poitou-Charentes – is primarily an agricultural area, and one of its best-known products is goat cheese.  It comes in a variety of tastes and forms, from soft mild creamy curds, gooey rolls covered in ash or wrapped in oak leaves, through pyramids and onto small, withered brown discs that stink of ammonia and burn your throat. There’s something for nearly everybody – except confirmed goat cheese haters.

One of the most charming sights when we arrived nearly twenty years ago was Madeleine, the tiny ancient goat lady from the next hamlet. Bent over like a comma, with a cape over her shoulders, her knitting in the basket of her bike, a folding stool strapped to the pannier and her Collie frolicking beside her, she led her little band of goats down the local lanes, where they could graze from the roadsides and among the fields of stubble. In all weathers she would find a suitable area, set up her stool, dig out her knitting, and sit for a few hours while the goats wandered around nibbling contentedly, before it was time to turn for home and the milking shed.

Hélas, grazing goats are a rare sight now. There was a flock just up the hill from us until last year, but they seem to have vanished and been replaced by cattle.

But that is not to say that there are no goats in the area. On the contrary, there are more than ever. It’s just that you won’t see them unless you go and visit one of the gigantic barns that have sprung up in what were once fields of crops. For now goats spend their entire lives inside those barns. Pampered, knee-deep in fresh straw, heated, vaccinated, fed on cereals designed to give optimum milk yield. As they are born into those conditions and know nothing else, I suppose they are happy enough with their lot; being herd animals they have plenty of company of their own kind. But when I watch our two pet pygmy goats nibbling at the hedges, rolling in the sand and chasing each other through the fields, I feel for the animals that will never know that pleasure.

Recently a gigantic complex of barns has been built just outside town. I asked one of our neighbours from the village when he came round for a coffee what the barns were for.

Goats, he replied.

But why are the buildings so huge?

Because there are 1,200 goats in them.

For their entire lives, without ever going out?

Yes.

That isn’t natural, I said.

No, he agreed, but it’s profitable. That’s all that counts now.

His parents and grandparents were all goat farmers, here in our hamlet.

What would they think, I asked, if they saw the horrible way goats are treated now?

Actually, he said, my mother and father were among the first people to keep goats in barns.

Ah, I said. Would you like another digestive biscuit?

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 It’s early morning, the sun is just rising over our frosty field. We have 24-hour access to a barn with a thick straw bed, and we can come and go as we please. This morning we are starting the day with a little violent head-butting.

 

Almost fisticuffs at la caisse rapide

Or how a simple shopping trip can turn into a drama.

Up in town yesterday while waiting to meet a friend, we went into the hypermarket to buy half a dozen items.

To wit:

6 kilos (aka 13.25 lbs, or almost 1 stone) of sunflower seeds

2 kilos of sugar

12 toilet rolls

6 litres of milk

1 large jar of coffee

1 pack of 10 small batteries

Plus an impulse buy of 1 small bottle of smoke-flavoured olive oil

 

The winter sales are on at the moment, so the place was heaving.

There are about 30 check-out counters, of which 5 were in operation. The remainder were fermé.  As you might expect, there were long queues of heaped trolleys at the few open check-outs. But no matter, there are two ‘quick’ DIY areas. For one of them you have to use a self-operated scanner that you carry around while you shop. I’ve never used one, wrangling a handbag and shopping list are as much as I can manage.

The other ‘quick’ check-out is a cluster of weighing points where you scan items over a piece of glass, and a robotic voice orders you to place them on the counter, and when you’ve scanned them all you can prod a screen and make payment. It’s generally a simple operation, and there’s a lady who sits at the exit on a sort of podium to watch for any ‘oversights’ and helps when things go wrong.

We were cheerfully wheeling our trolley (or as it’s called here, caddie) towards the first machine when the podium-lady called out ‘No caddies in here.’ She was perfectly pleasant, and came over to say we couldn’t pass through the ‘quick’ check-out with a trolley, so she suggested we went to the nearest normal check-out. Which was fermé.

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Naughty caddie

Resignedly I turned the trolley to join a queue, but TOH had other ideas. He was not going to stand in a long queue. What we would do was pile the shopping into one of the smaller plastic trolleys that you can drag around and which are permitted in the ‘quick’ section, pass our items through the scanner, push the empty forbidden trolley to the exit 5 feet away, where it would wait while we scanned and paid, and we would then pile our goods into the forbidden trolley, leaving the plastic trolley behind – you can’t take a plastic trolley out through ANY exit.

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Good caddie

 

“Non!” cried the podium-lady. We could not push the trolley to the exit. It was forbidden. It was not her decision, but the store’s policy. Simultaneously a loud altercation broke out from a French gentleman who found himself in the same predicament. It was ridiculous, he yelled, he was a customer and he would take his trolley through; just let anybody try to stop him.

Security was called.

While the Frenchman shouted, waved his arms and stamped his feet and made a formal complaint against the store, I prepared to scan our articles and TOH determinedly pushed the trolley towards the exit, where the podium-lady placed herself as an obstruction.

No, she said, he couldn’t push his trolley through that exit. He had to walk all through the store, right to the end, and push it out from there and back to where I would be waiting with a heap of shopping. He was livid, and that’s always a danger sign.

By now security had diverted its attention from the shouting Frenchman to my shouting TOH. Security and the podium-lady were talking in French, and TOH was shouting in English, and we’d been at the ‘quick’ check-out for nearly ten minutes without having yet scanned a single item.

Even under extreme provocation I will walk an extra mile to avoid confrontation, so I said calmly but sufficiently loudly to make certain they heard, “We will abandon the goods and go elsewhere.”

The security guard was apologetic, and said if we left the trolley in the store, he would return it to the car park later. But how, we asked, without it, will we be able to carry 8 kilos (18 lbs) of dry goods, 6 litres of milk, plus the toilet rolls and expensive oil back to the car?

Ah yes, he could see the problem, but he could also see the solution. HE would push the trolley through the forbidden exit while we scanned our purchases and put them back into the plastic trolley, dragged it through the exit and transferred the goods into the forbidden trolley.

And that’s what happened.

But not quite as smoothly as that.

When I scanned the second bag of sunflower seeds the screen locked and ordered me to summon the podium-lady. She pressed some buttons and I started again. Her intervention was required four times, and as the final item passed through, she prodded the “Pay now” button and went to deal with another angry customer.

But I wanted to claim the balance on my fidelity card and deduct it from the total payable. She hadn’t asked before pressing the “Pay now” button so I had to call her back for a fifth time to reset the machine.

At long last we could drag the overloaded plastic trolley past the podium-lady, who, to her great credit, had remained polite and helpful throughout and wished us farewell with a smile.

What was quite astonishing about this whole episode was that standing behind us were two ladies, each with a few items in their plastic trolleys. There are, I think, eight scanners, any of which would have been quicker than ours, but they stood there patiently. Maybe they were just enjoying the spectacle and storing it up for entertaining friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonjour, beau cheval!

Autumn’s brilliant colours were shortlived this year, in the area where we live. Yesterday was wintry and bleak, the countryside bare and dismal. On a trip to town we’d taken our cameras and failed to find inspiration.

However,  on the way home we passed a field of horses, and one in particular, a large, stocky fellow, came over to socialise. I took a number of shots of him. He brightened up an otherwise dull day.

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