30 Jan 2007

Fig Trees and French Lessons

The lovely fig tree in the courtyard, seen here in September -

And seen here on Saturday morning

Sadly is no more.

It was in the wrong position, and not only would it have turned into a monster (the roots were already cracking and lifting the concrete of the courtyard), but the leaves in summer blocked out a lot of light from the barn. And the architect said it needed to go.

So that was Saturday’s work – and by putting the front passenger seat and two rear seats of the car down, and cutting all the minor limbs into box-size pieces, I managed to get the whole lot packed in. An interesting trip to the tip, with fingers crossed I didn’t need to hit the brakes at all. And it was with great delight that I was able to understand the tip attendant’s [simple] instructions that I had to take that type of rubbish elsewhere – to St. Nazaire a few kilometres away. Straight ahead, over the bridge, and first right. Voila.

Yesterday I had the second visit from Bruno the architect. He outlined the processes involved, the permissions required etc. Realistically, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be lucky to start work on the barn in 6 months. Ah well, plenty to go on with here. And the budget is tight – especially after we discussed the fact that the roof of the main house at the rear probably needed a little work. He got up into the attic and confirmed that yes, it was in need of work – and to keep costs down, perhaps incorporate it into the barn renovations while the builders are here. That made sense, especially when he mentioned the amount of 10,000 euros. I should have asked if that was the price for a stand-alone job, or the extra amount I could expect to be added to the main build. Frightening. Even though I knew things in France were not that much cheaper than the UK for renovation work, I really have had my grand plans (?) for the barn reined in somewhat. A much more modest abode indeed is in the planning.

But so far I like the things he’s suggesting – he’s very environmentally aware and this shows in his thoughts for the design. It will have solar panels for hot water, with a backup system of gas (bottles, not mains) fuelled UK-style radiators for winter heating. As much as I would have liked a wood fire, I weighed up the amount of time of the year it would be needed, the wood storage issue and the heating and cost effectiveness. And how long the novelty of lighting a wood fire each day would last. I’ve grown up with wood fires and in my first built house in Albany, I opted for a wood-fired furnace for the water heating. But in the end, the radiators won out.

And speaking of environmentally aware, I noticed after he’d left that his business card is printed on both sides – he apparently is also a ‘vigneron biologique’ – a producer of organic wines. So I’ll have to find out more about that. With Nic and Duff visiting in August, that will be something they’ll be interested in.

And the French lessons – well, yesterday was our first French lesson with Dennis (Den-ee!) the local resident artist. There were only three of us – myself, Sandra and Thiego, a friend of Miki’s and recently arrived from Brazil. His English is very good, but we are all at about the same level with the French. It’s very informal – we’re going to be at a different person’s house each lesson. Cups of tea all around, and some very simple conversations. In fact the lessons are going to be twice a week – the more at the lesson, the cheaper the cost. But we figured 4 was the best number, so Sandra has enrolled Patrick her husband, who will attend when he can – his work commitments permitting.

This morning the notes from the yesterday’s lesson were put through the letter box. Later, the door bell goes and it’s Dennis on his bicycle – Did you get the notes? Have you done your homework? Have you memorised it all? Err, yes, no, and no. But before the day is out, I definitely will have a crack at it. I don’t want to be the only one on Thursday not up to date.

Oh, and here’s a picture of Susie and Bruce – my first dinner guests in the house. As you can see, they paid heed to my advice to dress warmly for the evening!

And for a bit of trivia – here’s a video clip Nic found on YouTube relating to the village. It’s different!

25 Jan 2007

Carcassonne Market

On my trip to Carcassonne on Saturday, I visited the market in one of the squares - here’s a few pictures.

And how good was it to go into a cafe afterwards, order a piece of tarte tartin with espresso, and be served something THIS amazing!

A little DIY

On the road again the other day – back to Narbonne with Sandra. I needed to call into the phone shop to sort a few things with my new mobile phone and also to buy a cheap electric drill. On unpacking my last box of tools, I thought I’d packed a cordless drill with the incorrect charging unit – nothing seemed to fit together. The cordless screwdriver was just fine – plugged in and charging away. (There were a lot of tools to sort through in Scotland, and some of the pieces went to a boot sale).
We got sidetracked to a few second hand / antique furniture stores – SO much cheaper than in the UK – you can understand why people drive down here and load up with furniture to take back. However, it really was just looking – I’m not looking to squeeze anything more into here just at the moment.
Anyway I managed to buy some plastic trays to install inside the food cupboard in the kitchen – to hang off the doors. The cupboards are so deep that food at the back is impossible to see. Also got a cheap drill in Carrefour and given that time was running out, gave the phone shop a miss and headed home.
A funny ‘car moment’ on the return journey. We’d left Narbonne when we noticed that the hazard lights were flashing. I fiddled around, trying to find out how to turn them off. Traffic was quite heavy, so decided to pull over to work this out. Still no joy – Sandra gets the manual out of the glove box to see if we could find the damn thing. And then we spotted the big red button – right in the middle of the dashboard. What had happened was that a few minutes earlier, someone had pulled out in front of me and I’d had to hit the skids. While applying the brakes on her side, Sandra had also grabbed hold of the the dashboard! And yes, must have pushed the hazard light button. Mystery solved …..
And so onto the DIY. An embarrassing start was to discover that the battery that needed charging actually was INSIDE the handle of the cordless drill, and DID of course fit into the charger unit. Woops. So my next trip to Carrefour will be to return a redundant cordless drill.
I managed to get most of the trays screwed onto the inside of the door – sadly I drilled right through to the front in three places, but not too obvious unless you look hard! And the cleanup wasn’t without incident either. I had trouble getting the vacuum cleaner plug into the adapter, and figured I may as well keep going with the DIY and change it to the French plug. So cut it off with the scissors, dismantled the French adapter to attach, only to discover I’d bought the wrong sort of plug! So there’s the vacuum cleaner out of commission in the short term.
And to top it all off, the trays don’t actually hold a lot, some are crooked and they hang down at alarming angles with the weight of whatever’s in them. Thank god this is only temporary. I’ll leave the new kitchen cupboard/storage installation to the experts.
Case in point. I'm not about to hang out my shingle any time soon . . . .
Weather has turned freezing – howling winds – but still some clear blue skies. It had snowed briefly overnight – just a bit on cars in the morning. But the Black Mountains about 15 kilometres north of here are covered in snow. And does this house rattle and shake and howl in a strong wind! I lay awake a lot during the night, thinking some of the shutters had blown open … but no, they’d all held. Just made a lot of noise. Here the wind is called Tramontane, similar to the Mistral.
And here's picture of the snow on the mountains - taken this morning. Still a blue sky but freezing cold.

More settling in . . . .

Hard to believe that I’ve been here for over two weeks already. Most things are now unpacked and put away, if only temporarily. The garage is still full of furniture to be collected (not yet organised) and rubbish for the dump.
My internet is now connected – the password and connection instructions arrived in the mail from France Telecom and I managed to get that organised. However, the satellite television connection is not so straight forward. Martin the electronics man turned up as planned yesterday and spent a lot of time high up a ladder against the courtyard wall. Then gives me the bad news that he can’t get a signal for the channels I want from there – cannot clear the neighbour’s roof. However, it can be rigged up from the front beam of the barn, on an extension pole (not that pretty!). But – given the developments of my meeting with the architect a few days ago – this will only be a temporary installation…….
Bruno was recommended to me by someone in the village who had used his services previously. He is an architect, and previously the Maire of the village of Homps (where I stayed in September). We went out to the barn and discussed the possibility of converting it into living space. Quite early on, he discussed budget and cost per square metre – sadly it was immediately apparent that it was way beyond my budget to do this. In hindsight, I had been overly optimistic in this department …..
So – back to the house and a walk around to discuss ways of dividing the house into two living areas – one to rent, one for me. This took a while, and finally we’d hit upon something that could work. Oh, and he advised that there was no way I would be able to turn any part of the attic into a roof terrace. The village is listed as ‘historical’ and this type of renovation is no longer allowed.
And then he says – but of course, you don’t need to develop ALL of the barn. So back to the barn – and to cut a long story short – it will probably be possible to halve the size of the conversion and create a much smaller living area for myself. Basically, it is an area of 10m x 10m (two levels). The idea is to remove the roof and beams from the front half, and be left with an area of say 10m wide and 5 deep. Still a good size of living area for one person. Not only is this the solution that allows me to go ahead with this plan, but it also increases my courtyard area by approximately 50 square metres. Yeh – more plants!
The architect is coming by again on Monday, and we will discuss what role he will play. There are three ways in which I can use him – (1) to apply for the planning permission, (2) to design and draw up the plans, and (3) to oversee / project manage the whole build. At this stage, I’m only committing to 1 and 2, and will decide how to approach the construction side of things a bit later.
So, back to the satellite dish – Martin says that the re-installation of the dish can be incorporated into the new build so that it is disguised as best as possible. So, he'll be returning in a few days with a new-improved mast.

15 Jan 2007


The electronics man arrived to have a look at my satellite set up and internet problems. He’s an expat who has been here for 25 years - within an hour had sorted out my TV and got things happening with regard to AOL. Well, actually, convinced me AOL France were rubbish and after a phone call to them, he established that as I hadn’t signed anything, I didn’t have to go ahead with the service. He reckons France Telecom (Orange) is the way to go – he figures they supply the lines, they are the best to go with. He told me horror stories of other people’s problems going with various other companies. Later I went down to his office in a nearby village where his secretary helped me sign up online, so I should be up and running at the end of the week, with an @orange.fr email address. He’s also got me five French television stations running through the satellite box that was left here, and is going to rig up – somehow piggy-backing on the current dish on the barn wall – another system where I can get the free UK channels (all legal he reassures me). He very passionate about the area and says ‘you should have seen it 25 years ago – filling up now….’.

Last night I watched a bit of French television – a political debate – thinking if I watch a little every night, perhaps I’ll pick up a bit more. Didn’t appear that way – I could only pick out the odd word or two. I have the radio on in the car all the time – again in the hope that my ear will become attuned to hearing French spoken. Sandra wants to arrange some French conversation lessons in the village with a local resident artist. Apparently he’s offered to do weekly one-hour sessions, but with a minimum of four people. So Sandra’s mission is to find two more non-French speaking people to join us.

I had a wasted trip to Carcassonne on Friday. Not happy because I got very lost finding the place – spent half an hour driving around suburbs and stopping and asking people directions. And then Abdel wasn’t there – and no one could understand me – and in the end it turns out the he didn’t have permission to lend me a car – Henri is responsible for that and Henri wasn’t there – and I have to go back next Friday when there WILL be a car to lend me …….. arrgghhh. I also got lost – again – getting out of the area. The sooner I get the GPS fitted to the car, the better. In fact Martin the electronics man, is going to contact someone for me – said if he can’t do it, he will know someone who can. So I need to chase that up quickly.

A trip down to Narbonne yesterday to visit the Sunday markets. The undercover food markets are quite famous and housed in a beautiful building – purpose-built at the beginning of the century. Glass panels and domed roof. And an amazing array of food inside – gorgeous. The markets outside are extensive – I hadn’t intended to buy a thing, but bought a lovely blue-patterned throw-over quilt for my bed – very French! A bargain at 40 euros, reduced from 60.
And as can be seen from the photo of the Robine Canal at Narbonne, the weather is gorgeous. The last few days have been so mild – up to 18 degrees. Most unusual for this time of year apparently.

Oh, and some good news – a phone call from Neil (a work colleague of Steve’s from British Airways) - my luggage has been found. It has been sent on to Paris (where there is a backlog) and from there it should go to Toulouse, and then be couriered here. It was lucky that he chased it up for me – the young guy who logged my claim at Heathrow had input my mobile number into the system incorrectly, and THAT would certainly have complicated things – the idea is that I get a phone call when it’s on its way to make sure I’m here to collect it.

Yesterday afternoon I did a bit of a clear up of the courtyard – full of fig leaves. Also some severe pruning of the pot plants. I need to get onto the web to find out when is the best time to prune roses as I have two scraggly climbers that need attention. Given that I grew up with mum and dad’s garden full of roses, you would think I should know this already …. In fact, I need to find out HOW to prune them.

I have many many trips to the tip ahead of me. I hadn’t realised quite how much stuff there is in the barn that needs to go. The back seats of the wagon are down, and I suspect they’ll be that way most of the time.

Susie and Bruce arrive back from holidays today, and they’re going to put me in touch with an architect. To renovate the barn, I need planning permission. And this can only be done through an architect, who submits the application. So as soon as that’s done, I’ll know which way to proceed. Barn or no barn renovation. Plan (a) or Plan (b) for the house. In the meantime, I can only really press ahead with cosmetic decorating of the rooms in the house that won’t be involved in any renovation – which at this stage means painting the wallpaper in the kitchen and bedrooms.

Back in France

An interesting journey – on standby until the last minute for the flight from Canada – one of the last allowed on and literally running for the flight. Arrived at Heathrow mid-afternoon, but my luggage didn’t make it. 

After registering the luggage as lost, I caught a bus to Gatwick for my onward flight. Given the problems that Heathrow has been having with luggage these last few weeks, and the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of bags are still laying in piles around the arrivals hall, I’m not that hopeful that my bag will make its way from London to Toulouse, and then by road to the village. I despair when I think of everything I’ve crammed into it – I didn’t travel particularly light this time.

Well actually I travelled light on the way out, but Nic has donated a few things for the house – a few framed pictures, carefully packed, and other bits and bobs. Not to mention some Chrissy presents (most importantly a jar lid opener for my arthritic hands!), my near-new Rossi boots from Australia, two smoke alarms for the house and a pair of sheep skin slippers for the cold! 

These I have to say were bought at great expense – ‘Go on’, says Nic, ‘they’ll last a lifetime.’ Hmmph – I may never get to wear them.

As I arrived in Toulouse late at night, I stayed in a hotel above the train station, and caught a train the next morning to Carcassonne. And then a taxi to the car yard to pick up the car. It was all made easy because Abdel had sorted all the paperwork while I was away. 

Just before driving off, I did a quick inspection to make sure the three bits of damage had been fixed. Nope, just two. Abdel said ‘merde’ and said could I bring it back on Friday, he would lend me a car overnight, and I could collect it on Saturday. Merde indeed – two round trips to Carcassonne. And I’m not sure I can find the car yard easily – it’s on the outskirts of town. 

I got lost trying to get onto any road I recognised, despite Abdel saying to just follow the signs to Narbonne. What signs? I ended up heading north instead of east, but I did get see a few other villages that I’d not seen before.

The nun-mobile is smaller than I remember, and looks funnier – nor is it a particularly smooth ride – but it goes ok. And it’s the same colour as most other cars on the road here. And it fits a washing machine in the back. Sandra, my neighbour from down the road, offered to come into Narbonne with me to show me how to get to the Carrefour centre and the location of a few other shops that I will be needing – hardware etc. 

A couple of hours later, with the seats in the back down, the washing machine is bought and loaded in. With room to spare. Patrick her husband helps me uninstall the old one (the one that only runs on VERY hot) and install the new. Pride of place in the garage. They stay for a few drinks – in a freezing cold house – and invite me down for dinner. But I am so tired, still jet lagged, and take a rain check.

I haven’t fired up the oil heater in the kitchen yet but think I will today. The weather has been fairly mild, but the house is very cold. I can’t imagine what it will be like if/when it turns cold. And odds are it will – it’s unseasonably mild at the moment apparently. The stand-alone radiator in the lounge room doesn’t really do a lot as there is no lounge room door. And the first night was so cold that I slept in a fleece, Steve’s thermal beanie, warm trousers and socks, and a blanket doubled up over the duvet. Not a pretty sight by any stretch of the imagination, and to boot, I was still cold! 

So as soon as Patrick and Sandra had left, I cut the cord of the electric blanket and put a French plug on it. I couldn’t use an adapter as this was the blanket I’d bought in Australia in October, and I didn’t have an adapter to fit.

As I drove into the village on my first day back, I saw a familiar smiling face in a little white van and waved. It was only after I’d waved that I remembered it was Pascale, the son-in-law. When I opened the garage doors, and tried to turn the power back on (it had been turned off at the source while I was away), nothing happened. No electricity. 

I was standing in the doorway wondering what my next move would be, and Pascale cruises by again. I suspect he’d gone around the block – I called out to him and he came over and showed me that it was another button I needed to press …. he grabbed his mobile phone, waved it around, saying that any problems, I must call him. Very reassuring indeed.

I collected my mail from the post office and had nice chat with a different woman behind the counter. This time, there were no other customers at all. A very pleasant woman who was happy to chat and reassure me that little by little by little, things would improve (with my French that is …)

The weather that day was glorious – not a cloud in the sky and the sun was warm, so I got an espresso from the bar and sat in the sun and opened all my mail. What a nice day to arrive back to.

Part of the computer problem is sorted – I was missing a vital bit of equipment – the recharging cradle the cordless mouse sits in, and which also communicates with the cordless keyboard. It turned up in another box – so after I plug it into the back of the computer, it’s away. 

But when the computer is on, the phone shows busy, which isn’t how it should be. So still no internet. I’ve contacted a guy from another village who deals with both computer problems and satellite TV – he’s coming around at 2.30 today. Fingers crossed.

Moving sideways

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