Whither we go, chaos follows

After several years of following The Fly in the Web’s brilliant blogs about real life in France, and now Costa Rica, TOH, the dogs and I had the supreme pleasure of meeting her and her husband ‘in the flesh’ yesterday.

Now you are wondering what we were doing in Costa Rica, I expect. But we were not there, nor at home in France, but holidaying on the Orange Blossom Coast in Spain.

Now you are wondering how we came to meet somebody who once lived in France, but now lives in Costa Rica, while we are in Spain. Has the heat (even in early October it’s still jolly hot here) addled the remnants of my brain?

But no! By an almost surreal coincidence, it happens that The Fly and her husband are also holidaying in Spain, within a 45 minute drive from where we are staying.

That’s 45 minutes if you rely on a good old-fashioned, low-tech paper map. If, on the other hand you prefer to rely on modern, hi-tech satnav, then it’s anybody’s guess how long the journey could take, as the woman who lives in it seems to think that winding up endless hairpin bends over 1000 metre summits is both the fastest and shortest route to somewhere from anywhere else, and we have consigned her to the black hole of the car’s glove pocket in disgrace.

The directions for our visit yesterday were clear right to the doorstep. 40 minutes had us within 5 minutes of arrival. We’d found all the right roads, sighted the white blob on the hill which was a navigational aid, crossed the three bridges, taken the turning to the right, followed the road to the piggery where we were to take the left immediately afterwards.

Here things began to fall apart, as there was a very large school bus parked right across the entrance to the road. There was no driver to be seen or heard, and no way past. We drove on until we came upon the next turning left, followed a disintegrating track for several kilometers until we found signs of life – Spanish life. A smiling man and his young daughter listened politely as we tried to make ourselves understood, and we reciprocated. All we did learn was that we were at the end of the road, there was no way forward. So we reversed and made our way down the track, back to see if the bus had moved. It hadn’t. Next to the path was a house guarded by about 600 Chihuahuas who yipped and yapped madly as we knocked on a door in the hope of finding somebody who could direct us. There was nobody there.

We drove around for an hour trying to find an alternative route, up perilous tracks leading to nowhere, trying to communicate with Spanish people who had no English while we had no Spanish, to no avail. Desperation began to set in.

Then, driving along the main road, I saw the house in the distance, recognising it from a photo I’d seen earlier. The only means of access we could find was an crude agricultural track running through an almond plantation.

“Let’s go for it,” said TOH, raising the car’s suspension and grinding over the track. We had arrived!

The Fly was so exactly as I had imagined her from her blog, and her husband – gosh, what a gem. I’ve never seen such clear, large brown eyes, nor such a splendid mane of steel-grey hair.

After a couple of glasses of liqueur that had me confusing my words and getting people’s names wrong, we had a tour of their astonishing house, with more twists and turns and rooms than I could count, a gorgeous swimming pool and stunning views across the plains to the mountains beyond.

The dogs instantly made themselves at home and were welcomed with hugs and compliments. Tommy put all his devilish charms to work and looked set to be off to Costa Rica if we didn’t keep a firm hold on him.

We had come for a cup of tea and a chat, but found ourselves invited to stay for supper. A quick trip to the nearest town was called for, and off we went with Fly to do her shopping, which included several bottles of her husband’s favourite wine.

Back at the house, TOH carried the box of bottles into the house, tripped up a step, went flying, breaking one of the bottles and covering the floor with broken glass and spilled wine.

No sooner was that mopped up, than Fly’s husband gave a cry of mock horror (I’m fairly sure it was mock), discovering that one of the dogs (it would be Tally, he’s getting old, he drinks a lot and he can’t always hold on for long) had peed all over the living room floor and firewood.

Despite the swathe of catastrophes we were cutting in their house, we were overwhelmed with hospitality and a superb fish soup, cooked by Fly but overseen by her husband to make sure she had added the correct herbs in the correct quantities. We women need to be kept up to the mark.

Our host and hostess are both great raconteurs, and kept us open-mouthed and laughing with tales of their earlier life in France – gypsies and riot police – and their current life in Costa Rica – murder in Chinatown. Sometimes I think our life is a bit peculiar, but next to them it seems remarkably ordinary. :D I was also pleased to know that they both shared my views on the literary efforts of Ernest Hemingway.

I frequently curse the Internet and the way we have come to rely on it, and spend so much time on it, but without it there is almost no likelihood that we would have ever heard of the Fly, her husband and their extraordinary life, let alone had the privilege of spending several hours with them.

 

 

 

 

 

The best laid plans ……

which ours seldom are.

(By the way, due to the difficulties with Internet and the horrible cost of using it for just half an hour, this post is unedited, just whizzed up before I’m cut off. So it probably reads like a jumbled mess, which will be entirely appropriate.)

We would leave on Saturday. But we did not because (a) the connection between the car and the caravan’s indicators failed, for some reason unknown, and despite many helpful suggestions, culminating in a suggestion that we needed a new part. The car had already needed four new tyres, now it needed a horribly expensive component. Happily the supplier had none in stock, so it was time for Mr Fixit-it-somehow to spring into action and work out away round the problem.

The second reason we did not leave on Saturday was because of a last minute arrangement from friends we hadn’t seen for far too long, to come to us for coffee in the morning.

By mid-afternoon one indicator was rigged up by means of a long cable, some insulating tape and various connections snaking through the caravan. But it was too late to fix the other indicator, so we would make an early start on Sunday, leaving as soon as the indicator was working.

But again it didn’t work out like that. I didn’t seem to be able to organise myself, and wandered around vaguely scratching my head, picking things up and putting them down again, and by the time we had all systems go, it was late afternoon by the time we had located the parrot to our kind neighbour, loaded the dogs and their paraphernalia, and set off for the 500 mile drive to our destination on Spain’s Orange Blossom Coast, where we were heading for a highly recommended campsite.

Our logical route should have been from our home in south-west France down to the south-east corner, over the border there into Spain, and down the coast. However, three days earlier the region had been affected by floods that left five people dead, and general devastation, so we decided it would make sense to avoid that route, and head instead due south to San Sebastian, and from there diagonally to our destination.

I am not going to even try to explain why we had three different GPS systems plus a tablet, but I’ll just say that between the four of them we seemed to be going in ever-diminishing circles in sync with the ever-diminishing daylight.

Darkness fell, and we were trundling around in the Landes. We’d been travelling for five hours and failed to find a single campsite, when at last we noticed a sign to a site 15 kilometres off route. So we headed there, and were met by a delightfully friendly and accommodating gentleman who invited us to just put ourselves anywhere we were comfortable, and we’d sort out the formalities in the morning.

We were at last able to let the dogs out, and walk and feed them, after which they were happy to climb back into the car and sleep.

Meantime we were trying to find a way to get comfortable in the caravan with the huge awning bag in the way, plus a large white garden table, numerous plastic bags of food and equipment I’d flung in haphazardly, and TOH’s bicycle which he insisted on bringing with him.

I can’t remember what, if anything, we ate, but we scrambled over the heaps of stuff and grabbed the duvet and pillows and were gone.

By daylight, we saw that the campsite was carpeted in heather and pine needles, quite beautiful. The facilities were a little primitive, but there was a good swimming pool and it was a very pleasant location, Lugos, about 30 kilometres from Biscarosse and Arcachon.

Once we’d fed and walked the dogs and they’d hopped back into the car, we hitched up and set off in good spirits. I imagined we’d be installed in comfort on the Orange Blossom Coast by late afternoon.

Then the car began to play up. We were on a motorway on a very slight incline – the Landes are about as flat a landscape as you could imagine, but the car went slower and slower, we were down to 30 mph, and now instead of the comfort of the Orange Blossom Coast I could visualise breakdown vehicles, horrible expense and no holiday. On we chugged in tense silence, until we came to Dax where I bought a heap of fruit, a box of turron, a large cheese loaf and two cups of steaming coffee. We sat in a car park munching and sipping for a while, and discussing the route. Each of the GPS devices was giving different itineraries, which was hardly surprising as they were variously set for shortest, fastest, most economical and non-toll routes. Naturally, it was somewhat confusing, but refusing to be confused, TOH took first the fastest, changed to the shortest, and then to the easiest route – always avoiding tolls.

Thus we began an enchanting tour of the Pyrenees, which as you may know are one of my favourite regions of France. The landscape is just glorious, gentle mountains, gushing springs, tropical vegetation, mists snagging the mountain tops, lush, green, rich, majestic. I haven’t worked out in kilometres just how much of the Pyrenees we covered, but it was a lot, and lasted for several hours. Miraculously the car was now working well, towing the caravan effortlessly up hill, round narrow bends, and through little stony paths that grew smaller and stonier the further we went, following the GPS “easy route” that we had decided to stick with.

Then we came to a tunnel, which as you may also know is something I loathe, but to give it credit it was well-lit and as far as I could see very well built, and though we were in it for several minutes I didn’t feel the usual panic.

We emerged into Spain. In our planning, one thing we had not planned for was carrying a Spanish map. With four different GPS systems, it seemed somewhat unnecessary. One of the GPS systems kept losing the signal. The other couldn’t find the roads we were on – I think its maps must be out of date. The third one had a rather abrupt tone which we didn’t much care for, and none of them could show a map of Spain larger than 3” x 2”, thus we had no idea where we were going. I had a vague recollection from a previous trip that we should go to Pamplona and from there to Zaragoza, to Barcelona and onto our destination.

So we headed towards Pamplona, and then we headed to Zaragoza, and the hours went past and it seemed we were forever driving through bleak and barren mountains, and each time I checked the distance left it was over 300 miles and 8 hours. We kept seeing the same signs pointing to places we had already driven through. Once again we were in mountains. Didn’t they have any plains in Spain?

We’d been driving since 9.30, it was now almost 5 pm and the distance finally began to shorten, and our time of arrival was estimated at 9.32. With 200 kilometres left to run, the system calculated it would take nearly five hours. We laughed – 5 hours to drive 160 miles! At the rate we were going, we’d make it in 3, easily.

Then we hit the next mountain range. I crushed a small spark of anger and frustration as the road wound up and up and back on itself, and up and up some more.

“What altitude are we?” enquired TOH.

“820 metres,” I replied, thinking angrily that if we’d come by the original route not only would we have been at sea level the whole way, but we’d have arrived and had a leisurely meal by now, instead of climbing these awful roads. Night began to fall. We climbed ever higher. Surely there must be an end to mountains; they couldn’t just keep on going for ever. But they seemed to. As soon as we crested one, another one popped up ahead. We reached 1200 metres before the final descent, and we were now only 90 kilometres from our destination. We’d be there well before 9.30.

Then GPS-man told us to turn left, which we did, and astonishingly, we were in mountains AGAIN! I was so angry inside that I began thinking of painful ways to kill whoever programmed the “easy” route into the GPS.

By 10.15 pm we had reached the town, with only 3 kilometres left to the campsite. We followed the signs round the outskirts of town and onto a rough road. Which deteriorated into a rocky pathway strewn with boulders and holes and gulches formed by storms. If I hadn’t read a warning in the guide before we left, I wouldn’t have believed this track was navigable. On and on it went, every metre causing the suspension to groan and the crockery and cutlery in the caravan to shake and rattle. Something fell out of a cupboard and landed with a crash.

Just when I was about to burst into tears, we saw the entrance to the campsite, and gave a triumphant little laugh. We’d finally made it!

The campsite was locked by a sturdy wrought iron gate two metres high. There was nobody to be seen. But I found a bell which I rang, and a man appeared on the balcony above us. One minute, he said.

Down he came, and although we had plainly got him out of bed, because he was wearing pyjamas, he was as civil and helpful as one could expect under the circumstances. He guided us to a pitch, and said we could sort out the formalities in the morning. Off he went, back to bed.

It took a long time to reverse the caravan onto the pitch, in the dark, and tempers were short and language impolite, but eventually it was parked, the dogs were attended to, and once they were settled, we decided to go for a calming walk beneath the stars.

We walked around the back of the campsite, which is set in a natural park, about 50 metres from the Mediterranean, but the path was uneven and we had no torch, so after listening to the sea for a few minutes, we went back to the caravan.

Except the gate was locked again and we were on the wrong side of it.

Once again I rang the bell, once again the pyjamaed man came down and let us in, giving us a targeta – a card that operated the gate and asking, with a touch of sarcasm, whether we would be needing anything again tonight.

We assured him that he’d not hear a squeak from us ever again, and tiptoed back to the caravan, falling asleep instantly.

Next morning – Tuesday – started very, very hot and sunny. We walked the dogs down to the sea. On the way through the campsite an indignant English voice shouted: “Excuse me – your dog has defecated on our pitch.” Sure enough he was right. Tommy, in his hurry to go for a walk, had not stopped but gone on the run, so to speak, leaving a trail behind him. TOH cleaned it up in the plastic bags carried for the purpose, and we had a wonderful walk through the pine forest down to the shingle beach, where we met some friendly Swiss people with their two Leonbergers.

Now it was time to set up the awning. It was incredibly hot, the dogs were panting, I was dripping, and the skies over the mountains behind us were darkening from blue to grey to purple and black. I could hear distant cracks of thunder.

“We need to get the awning up quickly” I said, “before the rain comes.”

We tried. We really, really tried, but nothing seemed to fit where it should, the poles kept collapsing, bits went missing, and the storm broke.

The rain hammered down, lightning lit up the hills and the thunder cracked. Tally went into panic mode, rushing into the caravan and trying to dig his way into my handbag, panting and gasping. As the poles fell down the for sixth time, I was fully occupied with trying to calm Tally, leaving TOH to assemble the framework and fit the awning over it. When he’d almost finished, I tried zipping in one of the side panels, stood back triumphantly and then saw it was a front piece, not a side piece and had to come off. The zip stuck.

We were drenched by the time the thing was finally up, and Tally was a quivering, shaking, trembling, panting wreck. So was I. We went to the office to complete the formalities. The computer was down. The Internet was down. The girl laughed and asked if we were enjoying the Spanish weather.

Do you often have such huge storms, I asked?

Not like this, she said. Not for a very long time had they seen such a ferocious storm. It was very rare. Sometimes there was a lot of wind, but this storm was very unusual. It had also managed to knock out the electronic gate, too.

It had been a traumatic 48 hours, so we’d go into town and have a drink and meal at a restaurant we knew and liked. Tally settled immediately, he knew how to behave, but Tommy got over-excited and began knocking over chairs and tables, so back he went into the car, where he settled happily. He loves the car and jumps in at every opportunity.

Back in the restaurant, a woman came towards us and bent to stroke Tally. Then she asked if she could sit at our table. We thought she meant for a few minutes, and by the time we realised that she was digging in for the duration, it was too late to do anything about it.

She lived locally, she told us in her very fractured English, interspersed with her native German.

How did she like living here, we asked.

Well, she explained, not too much really.

First of all, everybody she knew had cancer, and the wife of one of them was also suffering from depression and kept correcting her English, which made her very angry, because it wasn’t how well you spoke a language, but how you communicated with people. As far as I could understand the depressed person was her best friend, but she didn’t like her. There was also a problem with her house, because it was on an estate that was independent of the Spanish government, but the residents had been very foolish and now it was part of Spain, and the electricity was very expensive and she had to collect her post from town, as it was no longer delivered to the house. And with all these people getting cancer, she worried her husband would be next. (He was away in Germany buying German sausages, she said.)

What about the weather. That was quite a storm today.

It was like that all the time, she said. Always storms.

We were getting a little hungry and tired of listening, but as she showed no signs of leaving and we wanted a drink, we offered her one too.

Then she started talking about food, and specifically meat. The kind of food Germans like, Sausages of all kinds. TOH said that we were vegetarian and didn’t eat meat, and she said that was OK, but she liked meat very much. We said that was OK, but could we talk about something else because we didn’t like talking about meat. But she did, she exclaimed, and began to describe the kind of meat she liked, mainly beef and chicken, definitely not pork.

TOH was now becoming visibly angry, and asked her if she could talk about something apart from food. But, she said, she liked talking about food.

TOH finally snapped.

“How do you feel about Hitler and the war?” he asked.

That brought her to a temporary halt, and she blinked. She wasn’t born until long after the war, she said, and German schools didn’t teach anything about it. What about her father, TOH pushed on remorselessly.

He was just a child, she said.

What about your grandfathers, asked her inquisitor.

She didn’t know what they did.

I had gone past exasperation at her intrusion and accepted she was going to stay put, so decided to get along with her, and we had an interesting conversation about war in general, bravery on both sides, mistakes made, regrets ………

By now we had ordered our meal, and thought that maybe she would take her leave, but no, she ordered for herself, and before long the topic had returned to food once again, specifically meat, and TOH’s jaw was getting set. I sensed that it was time to go. We ate quickly, then I pushed back my chair. We needed to leave, Tommy was in the car.

We said goodnight to her, and left her sitting with a bowl of mussels.

As we left, the restaurant owner came over to chat.

He mentioned the storm. In seventeen years, he said, he’d never seen anything like it. Lightning had hit the TV satellite three buildings down, and blown the dish across the street.

So these storms weren’t that common, then.

No, he answered. Very rare.

Perhaps if you’re lonely, you hate your best friend and everybody around you is dying of cancer, and you’re pining for the food of your homeland, it just seems as if the weather is always stormy.

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.