Junk junkies and a naughty little bit

When my step-mother said that we would replace my outgrown jodhpurs with a pair from The Thrift Shop in Nairobi, I was aghast. I’d never been to The Thrift Shop, but I knew it was about second-hand clothes! Other people’s cast-offs. Tatty old rags with tears and stains. We were very comfortably-off, but my step-mother was ever one to count every cent. How humiliating! What if somebody we knew saw us in there?

The first person we knew who saw us was my school English teacher, and the next person one of my school friends with her mother. The teacher was buying a flowery and floaty chiffon dress, and my school friend’s mother was buying her a school uniform to replace the one she’d outgrown. None of them seemed to be the least embarrassed at being seen there. They had no need to be. The clothes were all immaculate, hanging neatly on rails, and finding a pristine pair of jodhpurs that cost a few shillings and were a perfect fit was a pivotal moment in my life. I was hooked.

When we lived in England virtually all my clothes came from charity shops. That’s how I could afford to wear designer suits and evening dresses, bought at a fraction of their original price and still in new condition.

We don’t have that many charity or second-hand clothing shops here, but what we do have is what the French call “Chez Dior”, and the more down-to-earth English call “The Rag and Louse”. It’s a gigantic hangar behind a cement works, and it’s my favourite haunt when my wardrobe needs restocking.

If you can try to visualise the world’s biggest jumble sale after an earthquake, it will give some idea of the chaos that is the Rag and Louse. There are no hangers, no tables. The clothes lie in mountainous heaps on the floor, vaguely sectioned apart. There are men’s shirts, jeans, sports clothing, frocks, ladies coats, bedding, children’s clothing, lingerie, men’s jumpers, ladies’ jumpers, ski wear, scuba wear, swimwear, hats, shoes, blouses, wedding dresses, fabrics, handbags, work clothes, leather and fur coats. There is an unpleasant smell from the fumigation process which causes people to sneeze and cough. Vast trolleys of new stock are constantly arriving.

Photography is not allowed, but this might give some idea of the scene.

There is no easy way to find what you want. You just have to do what everybody else does, and dive into or onto a pile and start rummaging. See a flash of a colour you like, and pull. Pull! Eventually it will emerge from the pile so you can see if it’s what you hoped for. Hardened shoppers sit on top of piles and methodically work their way through them, often in pairs. There’s a primitive changing room behind a curtain. Don’t think that everything is worn out, stained or torn. Some of it is, but there are also plenty of new clothes still with their price tags on them. Like panning for gold, you just have to sift through a lot of mud to find a nugget.

Are you horrified? It’s no place for the precious or the snob. But for bargain hunters it can be a gold mine. One of my French friends, a senior fonctionnaire and the chicest lady you’ll ever see, buys most of her clothes there and always looks as if she’s stepped out of the pages of Vogue.

It’s a popular haunt for traders who snap up leather and denim by the van load for resale.

When a trolley load has been treated with whatever it is they treat it with, the trolley is wheeled to the centre of the hangar, where one of the staff sorts the contents rapidly, tossing them into wooden bins surrounded by shoppers keen to have first dibs. This is the hub of the place, and the ladies (it’s not really a man thing, here) chatter and laugh while grabbing at flying garments.

I don’t know how the conversation started yesterday, as I had only just managed to squeeze between two ladies guarding the bins, but the lady sorting the stuff from the trolley said loud and clear, in English: “A little bit.”

There was uproar, the ladies laughing as tears ran down their cheeks, clutching at each other, and temporarily forgetting the clothes flying past them.

If you don’t speak French, this will mean nothing to you, but if you do, you’ll know why a little bit (pronounced with a French accent) caused such mirth amongst the ladies. :D

I came home with a gorgeous skirt, beautiful two-piece outfit, blinding white fancy top, chic black top and soft cashmere sweater.

Oh, did I mention the price? You pay by weight. My purchases cost €6.90. :)


Colour, croaks, scurrying feet and the watchful eye

Summer was late arriving this year, but to compensate it lingered long. Despite the mid-November date, we are enjoying many warm sunny days and cloudless blue skies.

Yesterday evening when we walked the dogs it was still mild at 5.30, and the sunset was astounding, like a laser display in tones of gold, dove-grey and pink, blazing, fading, rekindling itself and splashing the skies with streaks that morphed as we watched them, and throwing golden lights onto the tops of the trees in the valley. We didn’t have our cameras with us. I am always left unsatisfied by photos of sunsets, no matter how vibrant. It’s their constantly changing shape and colour that fascinates me, something a static image cannot capture.

There is plenty of colour in the garden. The gingko and liquidambar trees I planted 10 years ago are aglow, wearing their most vivid gladrags; the roses are slightly battered, sharing their stems with hips, but unbowed; the cosmos is still vibrant, the nasturtiums and honeysuckle flourishing too.


Autumn rose




Virginia creeper


Liquidambar leaves


Reclining walnut tree at Hedgehog Hill










Tiny fungi

I’ve been raking up the fallen leaves and putting them at the end of the garden beneath the walnut tree – the one blown over in the great storm of 1999, which despite being knocked flat on its side has flourished and grown upwards. Unless you look at the original trunk that now lies horizontal to the ground, you’d never know. Beneath the tree is a patch of ivy and brambles, and that is where the hedgehogs hang out. The dead leaves will give them cover during their hibernation, and provide a source of food for the insects that will provide food for them when they emerge from their winter rest. And as the leaves decompose they will supply nourishment to the walnut tree that supplies us with a crop of nuts. I don’t understand why people burn leaves.

Indoors I can hear the constant scampering of tiny feet coming from the loft. The noise they make must be – I believe – disproportionate to the size of their owners; because if not, it must be a herd of goats bashing the floorboards as they run around doing whatever it is they do up there.

Last night it was midnight when the cranes passed overhead, their haunting voices eerie in the darkness, and the familiar lump rose in my throat and my eyes did their involuntary watering at the thought of the long journey these birds undertake every year of their lives.

And through all the seasons, for who knows how many years, out in the field the unblinking oak tree eye watches ……. It looks as if at one time the tree forked, and this branch was cut. The tree is estimated to be at least 400 years old. I’ve always loved the ‘eye’, which makes the branch look rather like a large, friendly snail, don’t you think?


The oak tree’s eye

And the audiobook winners are ……

Rafiki needed some encouragement to do her part in choosing the winners. She was more interested in trying to bite through the lamp cable.

She’s a little self-conscious at the moment. We left her with a friend while we were away on holiday, and it’s the first time she’s been away from the house for 20 years. Parrots are very sensitive, and she may have suffered from stress being in an unknown environment. She shed all her chest and back feathers, and instead of replacing them with new ones, has only managed to grow some fluffy down. Hence she looks as if she’s wearing a little white woolly waistcoat. At her next moult, she will hopefully regrow her proper plumage.

She was finally persuaded to take her pick from the 20 names on the dish, and the two winners are …….

Ladies, you will  be receiving the necessary code to download your copies, and I really hope you will enjoy listening.

I’m so sorry you couldn’t all win, but thank you very much for participating.








No such thing as a free lunch, but ………….

…. there is such thing as a free audio book from Audible!

Absolutely free, no strings.

Just leave a comment or smile below. Using my ultra high-tech selection method, I will write your name on a little slip of paper, fold all the slips up tightly and put them into a bowl and let Rafiki, my parrot, choose two. The two selected names will each receive a free audio copy of Best Foot Forward, exquisitely read by Anne Day-Jones. You can listen to a sample here.


There are two copies available. Entries accepted until Monday afternoon, 3rd November at 14.00 French time, and the two winners will be named on Tuesday.

Good luck. :)


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.