What price peace of mind?

One of the main reasons that we limit the number of pets we have is due to veterinary costs. For several years we seemed to be permanently at the vet, or waiting at our gate for the vet, and deeply in debt to the vet. Even his wife remarked that we were particularly unlucky with our animals, although I suspect we were like manna from heaven for her in terms of revenue.

They seemed to pick up obscure complaints which in most cases required lifetime treatment. Three cats with Feline Aids needed regular expensive cocktails of drugs to maintain them in health and comfort. Two of the dogs cornered a coypu and ended up with injuries that looked as if they’d been caused by barbed wire – an ear hanging by a tiny strip of flesh, a lower jaw pierced right through to the tongue, deep lacerations that required stitching. The first and foremost reaction of horror and anxiety for the welfare of the animals was swiftly followed by the horror and anxiety of how much it was going to cost to put them right out of resources that are frequently stretched. But I don’t believe in taking on any animal unless you are prepared to accept the cost of caring for them.

Our menagerie is now composed of two pgymy goats – hitherto and so far healthy, three hens, currently in tip-top condition, one parrot in similar perfect health, and two dogs, both seniors but fit and healthy.  Over the past year I think we had only visited the vet for annual boosters. It seemed too good to last, as indeed it was.

At the beginning of January Dobby developed a limp. He’s a very large and beautiful black dog of unknown origin rescued by the Phoenix Association and adopted by us nearly tens ago. When he showed no sign of improving, off we went to the vet, who diagnosed arthritis in one of his back legs and prescribed Locox, a medication to be taken for life. Costs about 18 euros a month. No big problem. Consultation plus a month’s supply of Locox, 56 euros.

A week later he had a problem with his eye, and I bathed it in a weak saline solution for a few days. It didn’t improve, so back we went to the vet. Diagnosis: a scratched cornea. Consultation plus eye drops: 42.60 euros.

Last week Dobby looked miserable, most unusual for a dog normally so full of bounce and life. He has always been a “noisy pooper”, emitting loud groans that sounded more like sounds of discomfort than pleasure. I had mentioned this to the vet some years ago, but after examining him he said there was nothing to worry about, he was just a dog who liked simultaneously pooping and groaning. But last week he was groaning badly. I could see pain in his eyes. He didn’t want to eat, he didn’t want to get up and his tail, which is usually like a flail that destroys anything in its path, was still. He lay on his bed, groaning quietly.


On Saturday off we went to the vet, who examined him fairly thoroughly and could find nothing particularly wrong with him, other than that there was pain in his stomach. He gave us a bottle of white stuff, which thankfully Dobby drank with gusto, but by Monday he still wasn’t eating, still groaning on his bed, and still looking pained. 59 euros.

Off we went to a different vet for a second opinion. By then Dobby was looking a little brighter, and we briefly wondered whether to wait another day. But there was at the back of my mind the possibility that there might be something sinister causing a blockage in his stomach, so we decided to keep the appointment.

This vet gave him a very thorough examination, couldn’t find anything obvious, but noted that there was pain in his abdomen, and took an Xray of Dobby’s stomach. We waited for a few anxious minutes for the result.

The outcome: Dobby is constipated, and there are a couple of small pieces of bone in his stomach, which he must have picked up on a walk as we never give either dog bones because they always cause severe constipation.

98 euros poorer, and armed with a small box of pills of which Dobby is to take three morning and evening for three days, we drove home. By this time Dobby was already beginning to look like his old self, and we agreed that if we’d waited until the next day, the visit would probably not have been necessary. But it was a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Total veterinary expenses for Dobby this month: 255.60 euros. Dobby’s value to us? Priceless.

Hands up if you are checking my maths. 😉

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?


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?


 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.


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.


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.







Control Z

My Dell laptop keyboard has an ultra-sensitive touchpad. I’ve tried all the recommended settings, but the cursor persists in bursting into song  displacing itself if a current of air so much as passes over it. Unless I check regularly while I write, I’ll find an entire page of utter gibberish. But that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is when it randomly selects great chunks of text and deletes them for no reason. In fact it has just done so, deleting everything after ‘recommended’. It’s particularly frustrating if you’ve just written a long and perfectly-crafted comment or email.

But thanks to that magical combination of two keys, all can be restored instantly – provided you do it straight away. You can’t go back at the end of the document, it has to be done the moment the text vanishes.

Control + Z

That’s for Windows.

(Don’t know about Mac, because I don’t use one, but I imagine there is a similar trick, unless  Macs are so faultless that their touchpads never become over-emotional.)

Anyway, for anybody who did not previously know how to recover accidentally-deleted text, there’s my gift to you. 🙂

An update – thanks to friend and fellow writer Andrew Ives:

“Ctrl-Z is “undo” for almost every Windows app. Works in Photoshop and even Windows itself if you accidentally delete a file and want it back out of the bin. Pressing it repeatedly is undo/redo, which is handy if you think you’ve made a photo look better but you’re not sure.”

Happy New Year.

Tortillas again

After the earlier tortilla debacle, I thought I’d cracked the flipping business.

Yesterday, conveniently, we were left with a visitor, and no electricity for several hours that encompassed lunch time, ergo no oven.

No problem, as the hens continue to lay as if they are trying to beat the world egg-production record we’d have tortillas.

All went well. The potatoes and garlic mashed, mixed with olive oil and salt, the eggs beaten in, the mixture divided into three frying pans. They were sizzling satisfyingly on the gas hob when the flaw in the plan dawned!

No electricity – ergo no oven grill!

From the previous miserable experience I knew there was no point trying to slide the things on and off a plate to flip them over. That way leads to mess, failure and disaster. So they were nicely cooked on the underside, and raw on top.

Then eureka! I asked TOH whether he had a blow torch, which he did. Amazingly he could find it. Even amazinglier, it was attached to a gas cylinder containing gas. How lucky can one be!

After waving the flame backwards and forwards and round and round over the tortillas for some 10 minutes, they were perfectly cooked.

Take that, Heston Blumenthal.