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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Syndrome (de) Mémoire Fausse

While we have been travelling around Europe we have largely been out of range of good English language radio (or any other language, as far as I could tell) – the World Service of the BBC having substantially disappeared from the terrestrial World to the Online, which is fine if you have internet access but not otherwise *. As a result we have had recourse to local stations. With a few exceptions - Turkey being among them, where we could listen to a channel playing Turkish music - there was no local traditional music, only the same fodder, mostly post-pubescent nymphets squealing in pseudo-American accents about “ivry tam Aa see yaw fez”. The nymphets generally went on to tell about how the object of their affections made them “feel saddisfaad, deep down insaad”. Anyway, that’s when we plunged the CD’s into the player.

Now that we are in France we have a choice between Radio’s “Culture”, “Musique (Classique)”, “Info’s”, “NRJ” (Energy –geddit?) “F U N” and, what is currently playing in the background, “Nostalgie”. This last plays hits from the 70s and 80s, rather as Radio Two used to. Given the world-wide dominance of American and British pop music, most of what is on Nostalgie might as equally be aired on an equivalent UK station but occasionally a piece comes on in French or a familiar song is played in a version which was not successful in Britain. When that happens it’s a shock. It’s as though The Grim Reaper has abruptly appeared at your dinner table or you spot a helicopter in a depiction of the Crucifixion and nobody else seems to notice or find it odd. I’m suddenly hit by the idea that memories that I thought I had of thirty years ago which I believed were common to everyone of my age were not shared as much as I thought. Perhaps that’s true even of close friends?

A lot of the music of twenty to thirty years ago is still played frequently on the radio and so to an extent is still current, but in the mid-70s I lived in Belgium and had a brief exposure to French pop music. Quite a lot of that I hadn’t heard since, but now, here on Nostalgie are Maxime le Forestier, Sheila, Michel Sardou, Gérard Lenorman, etc. sounding just as they did then and wiping out the intervening years. It’s weird, man! (On the other hand, I have seen photos of them as they are today – French singers going on forever, like Cliff Richard – and they look older than I do. Well, they must do, I don’t look as old as they do, do I?)
*I suppose the advent of mobile phones has made those public service announcements which used to be broadcast on Radio Four on the lines of “could Miss Jacqueline Armstrong from County Durham, believed to be travelling in Devon and Cornwall in a Ford Anglia, registration number 531 PTN, please contact Newcastle General Hospital in connection with her sister” obsolete. I wonder when they stopped? Did anyone notice?

Monday, 26 January 2009


Why this part of France ?
We started looking at Languedoc-Rousillon and the areas of France that John knows and likes. Montpellier is too expensive so we looked in a rough triangle between Beziers, Narbonne and Perpignan and went as far west as Carcassonne. This is wine country in recession and tourist country so, sadly, it’s dead in winter. We hit two main problems. Affordable houses were in dying hamlets and no houses at our price had gardens. The houses are stone and attractive – part of once semi-fortified villages on rocky hills and outcrops but all required very hard and major renovation work.

Nothing seemed right. In desperation we moved our search north and west to the Charente where we hit a week of arctic weather, van trouble and snow and ice. The property here was much more what we were looking for but the area though beautiful, didn’t feel right for us. This may sound strange, but it was too provincial and too French especially by comparison with the South of France which has a mixed community into which we felt we might assimilate better.

Absolutely by chance we had stopped in Tarbes, a place that meant nothing to us, to see friends on our way to the Charente. They sang the praises of the Tarbes climate and the local house prices but as it was dark when we arrived in Tarbes we had no idea at all about the appearance of the town or the region until we drove out the next day imagining that we would not be back.

We had, however, established contact with an estate agent in Tarbes and were sent some properties to look at that seemed promising. Our Charente shortlist still hadn’t given us ‘le coup de Coeur nécessaire’. We were cold and the van was b***d so we went back to Tarbes, looked at some properties and are still here enduring ‘les tempêtes’ and waiting to see if the place we like may become ours at some happy future moment.



The plan was to house hunt at an unfavourable time of year so that we would experience the worst that our new home could ‘throw’ at us. We thought this was a good idea even though John had said not to pack warm clothes as we would ‘never be cold’ because we would just ‘head south’ if the temperature dropped to freezing. (Fortunately I disregarded his advice.)
So here we were parked at ‘La Bergerie’ near Tarbes Airport when the ‘tempête’ hit us at 112.5 miles an hour last night. We had parked a tree’s length from a row of pine trees and woke up to find six of them neatly laid out behind us. They had decided to ‘coucher’ – go to bed too! So here are the pics! I must say that other campsite residents had narrower escapes!

So to give you the low-down about the climate of our future home – it is reputed to be mild in winter though close enough to the Pyrénées for a day’s trip to the ski slopes. It rains a great deal (all day and all night) in January and February which is why the countryside is green! It does not get very hot in summer – just too hot to sit outside without the shade of a patio or tree or a gin and tonic. At least this is what we have been told but by the summer it will be too late to change our minds. We have had many frosty mornings but if it is clear and ‘calme’ the days are pleasant and not cold.
It took us two hours to drive the camper to San Sebastian. In a faster car this could make a day’s trip to the seaside a pleasant possibility out of season.
Tarbes is a very ordinary large town with all facilities on a plateau in the foothills of the Pyrénées. The countryside is agricultural, maize, stock, and some wine. It has pretty meandering rivers and streams with woods of deciduous trees.

We have reaffirmed that France has become very expensive. This is not just the recession but sharply escalating food prices in French supermarkets. (Tescoland impoverishes us all!) I don’t know how we’ll manage but meat is pretty much unaffordable here and bread is not cheap. Fast foods are destroying cheap restaurants. (Perhaps we should return to Britain!) We will however have a veggie garden with a longer growing season. John will take up hunting and I will fish and we will have to eat our own rabbits and chickens! Now that I look at what we have written, it sounds like John and I will be working very hard in our old age.

Je dois affirmer avec réluctance, que mon français parlé est très pauvre et je n’avais pas l’habilité de me joindre dans une conversation jusqu’ici.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


We hope soon to report a positive outcome fron our efforts to find a home. First though - some more of the agony.
I am using a French computer to blog in an internet cafe. the keys are effaced and are in different positions anyway so I am making mistakes - sorry!
The snow photos are from the Charente just to give you a flavour of the weather. We managed to see many houses before the estate agents were snowed in - literally. Unable to leave their French cottages in small villages. Obviously we couldn't buy there after that!
Photos also show the Tarbes canpsite and our bed!
As said - we ended up in cheap hotels while the van froze up. The showerhead shattered with a drop of water. Pipes by the boiler and the basin had to be thawed out slowly. The miracle was that the ceramic candle water filter did not freeze and shatter. The bubble wrap worked! Silk thermal underwear and long-johns saved my life - and warm John also helped.
The warm pile of bedding wasnt enough to keep us warm when our heating failed and there were two nights we didnt undress properly as it was too cold!
It is lovely being back in a warm wheely cabin and not having to wash in the morning in the tepid water saved from my hotwaterbottle! We drew the line at making tea with the water afterwards you will be pleased to know!


Wonderful sculpture by Chillida at San Sebastian. very difficult to photograph in situ - he interacts with landscape and I have wanted to see these actual pieces for a while.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


We decided on a break this weekend. We went to spain to San Sebastian hoping for downtime and milder weather. We found milder weather, a lovely seaside city with fantastic beaches and many, many of the best Tapas bars we have ever been in.
Rehearsals were going on for San Sebastian Day when hundreds of drummers - mostly kids take to the streets to celebrate San Sebastian's survivial of many seiges.
(San Sebastian was burned to the ground when the English liberated it from the French.)

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


We left Spain early.
We had planned a riotous Spanish New Year but as we were on our own and had been disappointed by houses on offer in the Aude, we decided we might as well follow a lead in the Charente where houses do have gardens.
Life had been tough in the cold campsite near Narbonne. As I struggled with cold water, I comforted myself by saying 'It was worse in the Gulags'
It didn't occur to me that this was a ridiculous comparaison until a beggar came bounding up to us in Narbonne. He looked warm, cheeerful, and well-rested. John and I looked worn out, cold and haggard!
After that common sense prevailed, we rationalised and left for Spain as soon as the wheely cabin was fixed.

Well - you should see us now.
We left for the colder region of Charente. We decided it is sensible to see property at the least favourable season. Our first stop was in Tarbes where we had warm hospitality from more old young friends who are also renovating a house in France.

As we left Spain it became clear that the wheely cabin boiler had not been fixed. The first day into our trip the boiler let water out under pressure and ceased to provide either heating or any water. The towels we used to mop up the floods froze solid inside the van. We were well into our Charente house hunt down on the Rue de la Fantaisie, but temperatures of minus 8 forced us into a very expensive B&B and now into a Formule Un hotel. Here we are trapped. The campervan repair workshop is 500 metres up a steep slope and we can't get the van there because of a fall of snow last night.
The Mairie sent men around with salt but the slope has defeated better vans than ours so far this morning.John has ddecided to cheer himself up by doing his tax returns. I am stealing teabags and secretly making coffee in our room. This is the city of Angouleme but the cleaners couldn't make it to the hotel either!

Monday, 5 January 2009


When the wheely cabin was finally fixed we decided we had enough of house hunting and we flled a few days early to Spain and our log cabin.
It was sunny!
It was not windy!
It was warm enough for John to wear shorts - not hot you understand!
We were joined for Christmas by family which was a lovely treat.
Friends from England went to the trouble of stopping by in Cambrils so we could meet and we had a very good evening out and stayed up till the small hours in a good bar.
Then to my delight, young old family friends from Zambia, who live nearby came to see us. It was a great day.
Christmas Eve we had a smashing meal and champagne in a restaurant with a fantastic family atmosphere. John, as usual determined and indefatigable,had against all odds found one of the few places that was open. It was a long walk there and a short walk back!
Christmas day we started with Bloody Marys and pressies then had a barbecue and the chaps went for a swim. The evidence is here.
Notice the problems caused by our shiny Christmas hats.
We also publish here the proof that shoes on a beach are left! John's theory.
Boxing Day we had to take B to the airport and it started to rain and get cold!
However we recovered and spent a pleasant day in Tarragona which is a very attractive city - and had paella with two friends we last meet in Cappadocia Turkey.
We failed to take photos of anybody. This was because we were enjoying just being with them too much but I do apologise all the same!