An interview

The English Informer in France magazine kindly invited me to do an interview with them.

And here it is. :)  The magazine is crammed with interesting articles on every topic you could name. Well worth having a look.

Starting this Friday, over the next few weeks they will be publishing extracts from my travel books and memoir, on their

Café Pause page.

Don’t forget to have a look. :)

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. :)

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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.

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Autumn rose

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Cosmos

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Virginia creeper

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Liquidambar leaves

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Reclining walnut tree at Hedgehog Hill

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Gingko

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Honeysuckle

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Hypericum

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Nasturtium

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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?

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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.

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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.