Sunday, 18 December 2016

SNOW ON THE MOUNTAINS AND FIRST FROSTS.

Since getting back from our visit to England we have felt so much more at home here. Something almost imperceptable has shifted toward this new place feeling like home. We have again relished the unspoilt nature around us and new places to explore.


We have been holed up in our little living/ sleeping space which sometimes feels like a tiny fortress against the cold of the rest of the house. Trips to the toilet are the briefest of affairs, the toilet seat itself is so very cold, even the wooden floor feels like it might give feet frostbite through socks. I'm really hoping that this British obsession with 'hygge' at the moment means I get some warm socks for Christmas. This mass comercialisation of a concept that is apparently untranslatable has come at the best of times for our family hoping for warming gifts. Our luxury at the moment is our bed. Two double matresses we place in the middle of the room each night giving all four of us a lot of space to sleep. Heaven.

It's felt very festive and cosy and we've had a veritable industry of present and card making taking place. One of my favourite things about Christmas, at least in theory until I realise that it's the 18th of December and all I have that is nice enough to gift someone is one small jar of homemade trail mix. Then the next day I see that Florent has eaten it anyway. Neither is the room an inspiring workshop of artistic crafts and inspired prints but more a working definition of carnage itself; cellotape stuck to the floor, glitter glue decorating the heater and a thousand miniscule pieces of paper everywhere, the detritus of fourteen paper snowflakes that shortly after creation were all destroyed by Little I. Despite this, I still love making things even if we will still find ourselves giving in and buying a load of craft beer for everyone at the last minute...

The mornings are frosty and the air is sometimes so cold it catches in your chest as you breathe in. I've tried to go on some early solo morning walks which are very much worth it when I have the courage to leave the warm room. The horses grazing in a nearby field have beards of ice and their breathe steams out of them. Ice covers puddles and frost every leaf and stone.
 




Work on the house slowed as we try various tricks in the engine to ease the bus through its French MOT and we prepared for our own 'Atelier de Création' at the village Marché de Noël. We plan to pick it all up again in January...
 
 
 
 

And now we're on our way home to Somerset. After two days on the road and a chilly night in the back of a van in a car park somewhere towards the middle of France we have stopped in Normandy. Visiting Florent's family is always a treat and the girls are beside themselves in the sea of toys and the lavishing of attention. Little L has also begun to speak in French, something that has moved both Florent and I as she begins to speak to her grandparents in their language for the first time: "C'est pas very much chaud!"  and "Oui, I like ça" etc. 

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Friday, 25 November 2016

THE HOUSE IS A HOME

These are perfect Autumnal days, beginning close to freezing and ending with warm afternoons where a heavenly light bathes everything in a warm yellow. The afternoon sun illuminates the hillsides where goats graze to the melodic ringing of their bells and poplars stretch up like brush strokes of a golden tumeric.

There are moments when the light is so perfect that the scene before me appears so fragile that if I reached out into it all it might crumble to a fine dust. Moments where the girls look up to the sky, delighted by aeroplane trails or peer down to the ground to examine an acorn in their path. This ephereal light catches in their hair or eyelashes, casts shadows across half of their faces or dances in the leaves in the trees behind them.



 
We carved two small pumpkins for Halloween and then, as a necessary sacrifice for our frugality, cooked them the next day in a soup. I suspect this will be a trauma that Little L rebukes us for in later life. How she had to bear parents so cruel and financially inept that a lovingly created decoration had to be eaten the next day...

I realised the other day that I hadn't posted for over a month. This is in part because we finally moved into the house (!) and also because I returned to England for a visit with the girls. So we have been really busy and the ever promised 'day-for-myself-without-the-girls' has been postponed continuously.

Moving into the house felt like such a celebration. Despite the lack of comfort, the sense of satisfaction of finally being able to live here is immense. We're slowly getting through our 'Absolute Priority' list, almost as fast as we are adding new tasks to it. We are living on one floor in the bedroom with a soon-to-be bathroom with the landing hosting a temporary kitchen. We have heating, running water, a toilet (flushes with a bucket), a bath and the trusty camping stove is back in the game. Perfect!





Returning to Somerset to see family and friends felt really special and equally left us excited to return here. The trip put a helpful perspective on what I am missing and what is, in fact, pretty good here. Perhaps these returns home are always a part of building something new elsewhere as we are able to shake off some of our rose-tinted pinings as well as dose up on time with much missed loved ones.
 
So, as the nights draw in, we're all holed up in our little house ready for what the winter has in store for us and it feels great.





Wednesday, 12 October 2016

FIGS AND CHESTNUTS

The beginning of October; chestnuts, figs, crisp mornings and evenings drawing in ever earlier. We are relishing wrapping up under more and more layers as we make the most of the clear skies before winter arrives.

Autumn here is also the time when animals are walked back down from high grazing in the mountains to lower, more hospitable, ground for the winter. These 'Transhumances' are often accompanied by 'fêtes' and communal meals as the village traditionally welcomes back the shepherds and the herdsmen. We watched a flock of sheep arrive back in a nearby village with the community out to welcome them home. It was quite moving to think that in the past these farmers may have had no contact with their families and neighbours for those summer months spent caring for their flocks and this welcome home was a real reunion.


 



My sister came to visit and we had a special weekend of adventure with her: Vulture spotting in Bugarach (the mountain destined to be the sole location to survive a 2012 Apocolypse according to some interpretations of Mayan prophecies- or something like that, I didn't check the details), hot springs in Rennes-les-Bains where you can bathe in warm pools in the river (it feels magical!) and the nearby Fontaine des Amours where the freezing river water runs through a beautiful deep pool carved out into smoothly shaped rock – only for swimmers as brave as my seven months pregnant sister. Then some time spent modelling clay figures in the wood around a fire and barbecue and lots of chatting...



 





The girls and I have been trying to mark Autumn in our crafts and walks and wanders. Collecting lots of leaves; enormous Plane leaves the size of my two hands together, picking out the brightest coloured ones like magpies after jewels and stashing them into pockets for afternoon collages. We've made a 'hybernation nest' out of a takeaway pizza box and lots of seasonal decorations although it remains very clearly a cut up and reimagined pizza box and it usually looks like it's hosting a crazy animal discotheque rather than cosy nest for the winter. I'm regularly inspired by ideas about how to live seasonally, ground the children in nature's rythms but there always lies a conflict between my vision of this and the children's own imagination and creativity. Our Autumn display, on the window sill outside of our house, is in fact a constant battlefield, my conkers and rosy crab apples vs. Little L's scavanged old crisp packets and cigarette butts. I'm really not sure how other parents ever create anything that looks vaguely 'nice' with their children. I fight hard to not stiffle their creativity but it's hard to accept the small scale recycling centre on our window sill.



THE HOUSE

Throughout this process of renovation we are trying to recycle the maximum of materials and use as many 'eco-materials' as possible (taking into account our budget).

This week Florent has been plastering onto the areas of exposed stonework inside the house (the plaster is a mix of calcic lime, hydraulic lime, hemp, horse manure and water). This mix should serve a number of purposes  ; the hemp reinforces and adds flexibility to the plaster necessary because of the uneven stonework behind and will therefore guard against cracks forming. Over the years, fires burning in various hearths and chimneys led to a build up of black soot and grease difficult to remove and the horse manure is added to prevent the blackened surface of the stones leeching through the plaster and eventually staining the surface of the wall. As I am writing this, Florent has admitted that the manure bit is an experiment. Finally the calcic lime is for workability and the hydraulic lime is for strength and also speeds up the drying time.

Below are some pictures giving a little tour of the house and including Little L learning on the job... Putting these photos together brought into all too sharp a focus that the house looks less habitable than it did when we started. We hope this is normal.














Thursday, 22 September 2016

WHEN FRIENDS ARE FAR AWAY...

We've lived here for three months (and half of that was in a tent in some woodland out of the village) so I know rationally that it is fine not to have made friends yet. I know that just because I have not made friends so far, that it doesn't mean I will never make friends here. However, who considers these things rationally when they are missing their friends from home and life as a family of four needs some serious fresh air ? I am prone to emotional responses to most things in life, it's what led me sob whilst listening Nadya Hussein on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, as if I had forever forfeited the opportunity to bake cakes or reminisce about the Backstreet Boys with friends simply by moving to France. It was perhaps also the repetitive task of chipping plaster off a beam combined with a lunch of tinned mackerel that led to the emotional outburst but the bottom line is, if there's an opportunity for teary melodrama, I generally take it.

When we first arrived I threw myself into making friends so enthusiastically that I think most people I met were terrified. There were certainly very few positive receptions to my manically friendly 'Hellos' in the park or indeed anywhere where I came across someone: in shops, in the street, on foot paths... 

 

Today, I think someone was about to say 'Hello' to us. Not the polite Bonjour to each other the-way-we-do-when-we-pass-in-the-street that everyone does here. He might have actually wanted to talk. He looked our age, had two young children, reminded me of friends from home and my imagination took off; someone to invite to dinner, someone to have a drink with, we were no longer that weird family conspicuous for their lack of friends, the possibilities seemed endless. And then Little L cried out 'I need a poo'. I hesitated. What was the probability that she would actually do a poo if I ignored her and started to chat and, if she did do a poo, what was the probability that the man would be put off from being our friend. Perhaps it would be a bonding moment. All parents can bond over their child shitting themselves when you really don't want them too. ('Shit yourself all you want inside my love, just never when I'm trying to make a friend and I've not got any wipes with me'). By the time I had thought all this through Little L had repeated herself four or five times, the volume increasing. I took a deep breath to stop the fury at the injustice of this from overflowing and headed back home. There'll be a next time...

Sometimes I think about some of the great people I know and how they inspire me and one thing that comes up is their open homes and their welcoming in of, for want of a better term, waifs and strays.

When I was born my parents were homeless (temporarily after a run of bad luck) and a friend of theirs welcomed them in, first the two of them, then the three of us. He even drove my Mum back to his home from hospital with me, all new, next to a collie dog and a spare car engine on the seat because my Dad was hay making. (English summers do not allow hay making to wait, even for new babies to be driven home). I have loved this story for as long as I have known it, in the way we all love these stories which frame our lives from before our own memories begin. Particularly I have loved how this friend of my parents so unhesitatingly welcomed so many into his home; the displaced, the unlucky, the unwell and that at the very beginning of my life I was one of these people and so lucky to be so.

I have always imagined that I would have one of these open homes and my children would learn wonderful things from this. Like other friends of mine, I would take hospitality to incredible lengths and welcome everyone through the door. I have been so humbled by other people's tales of their willingness to share their homes and time with strangers or friends in need I've been inspired to do the same. This openness seems to bring a richness to life, it's a small and peaceful revolution against the pervasive suspicion and mistrust around us.

Then, I realised that, right now, we are the waifs and the strays. So much for my lofty ambitions... I am the person feeling homesick, feeling lonely and, tragically, thinking every day, perhaps today is the day I'll make a friend. So each chat with the librarian or our neighbours means so much. Even each Bonjour that hints at something more than just a polite formality but suggests a genuine wish that I have a good day is sustenance.

A man who works in the village kindly offered to show us some walks we could try out that would be suitable for two small children. We met with him the next day in his office and he showed us a few circular routes along gentle forest paths. I explained that what I was really after was a walk with friends, or people who might become friends, 'I don't have any friends here, yet' I finished lamely. He looked uncomfortable but not unsympathetic. It's true that when somebody tells you they don't have friends it's really hard to know what to say. Loneliness is a great taboo but we should talk about it because it'll happen to a lot of us at some point or another and it's nothing to be ashamed of (so goes my new mantra). Then, he scribbled down his contact details and invited us out, along with his family on a walk they are doing this Sunday. I was embarrassed, there's no denying that, clearly he'd be explaining to his wife later that he'd had 'no choice', 'they look really desperate', that he 'felt sorry' for us.

We are the waifs and strays.

But, it would be silly to let pride get in the way of an opportunity to spend time with someone generous enough to offer... So we'll see. Perhaps we've made a friend.






THE HOUSE

Things are beginning to feel exciting. We have some bags of hemp and horse manure for insulation and plaster respectively and this feels like the turning point from demolition to construction. Little L spends a lot of time planning furniture layout, always unorthodox and always fun; sofa's on top of wood burners and a lot of purple paint. Sadly we're much too boring to concede to her instructions but the suggestions liven up the discussions about whether intact window panes or a safe staircase are the priority before the move in. Little I runs about the open floor spaces like she's found a cache of amphetamines, throwing herself to the floor as if she's playing rugby with imaginary friends and having a whale of a time. Ignorance is bliss.

Six weeks until we move in...