Making Compote, Making Friends

The day after the incident with the text message and shortly after DS was stung by a hornet, I was chatting to our neighbour (voisine) – “M” – who kindly invited us to join her the next afternoon when she was expecting a visit from a friend. Together they were going pick the pears that had ripened and make them into compote. Would we like to help? Yes, lovely!

During this same conversation she’d been trying to tell me something (in French, of course, as  M doesn’t know English) about a congélateur. I was tired. She was saying something about putting pears in the congélateur for 12 hours then they would keep. Eh? I envisaged her friend coming down from Paris with some fancy processing machine I’d never heard of.

The next day, when James had to pop out on an errand leaving me with the two smalls who were keen to play outside, I saw M was busy preparing the pears with her friend so popped over to ask her about her congélateur and to help. What is it? Could she show me? She led me through to the kitchen to… the freezer, of course! Feeling a bit daft and with that cleared up we headed to the terrace to join her friend who was still busy chopping pears ready to cook down on the stove into compote. My French was sadly lacking that afternoon (it was about 5 o’clock already and it had been a looonng day after another not so great night) and while usually M and I can muddle along, I was really struggling to either hear or speak – but luckily her friend spoke enough English that between us we could manage a conversation. It didn’t take long before I was seated at the table chopping pears while the kids picked out and ate the juiciest ones in between bashing rocks with sticks. We’re quite easy to please really.

James arrived back just as the pear preparations were complete and bubbling away on the stove. By now it was 6pm, so what else to do but pop open a bottle of vin de noix and rest before continuing with our evenings. I think I’ve discovered a new favourite tipple. Maybe it was the booze, but somehow my French came back and I managed to join in the conversation with M, her friend and James. Since her friend is here to buy a house and has a similar remit to us we talked house prices, the English invasion (they’ve pushed up the prices here and aren’t popular for it) and how there isn’t any work locally to justify the high prices and then what can be done about all that. It was really lovely and just what I needed after the unpleasant encounter with Mr. Front National two days previously. Because M doesn’t speak English it forces me to speak French and she is so patient with me, as I try to wrestle words from the back of my tired brain, always telling me to take my time when she sees I am getting frustrated. I think she likes us and we all really like having her over the road, sharing her knowledge of the place, the people and the land. Even though sometimes I can barely understand half of what she’s saying we get the idea muddling along together, or we just give up with a shrug and a laugh and go on our way. Other times it all just flows and then magic happens – along with compote.

Wasp? Pft. Fear is relative.

The other day this not so little critter put it’s sting into the soft, delicate foot of my DS. Yes, there was screaming and also a small amount of panicking.

European Hornet
A Very Dead European Hornet

We quickly spotted the culprit  – a European Hornet (frelon, en français) –  as DS was standing right next to it when the screaming started). The quick-thinking James placed it under house arrest under an upturned PlayDoh bucket, where it would remain until one of us could get out to buy some RAID. It was a one way ticket.

We figured this was one of the two that we’d seen early today, sniffing around the main beam in the house. When we saw them thought, as it was from a distance, that they were two large wasps and, as we didn’t want them deciding to make a nest then heading off to tell mates about this fantastic new beam we’d found, we kept an eye on them then shut the windows when we thought they’d found a way out.

Or so we thought. There seemed to be a few flying around outside and another one came in but soon fled when confronted by an angry mummy (me) with a fresh can of RAID. That evening James found another one over by the fire (also dead – we had fleas a few weeks ago and the house is generally an A1 danger zone for insects, even before the RAID arrived) and DD spotted one on the windowsill. We dealt with those, figuring they’d come in with the one that stung DS or during the day, before we battened down the hatches, and went on with our lives.

The next morning I opened the door onto the terrace and another one flew straight in, like it had been waiting for the door to open. RAID to hand, it didn’t stand a chance and was soon under house arrest, this time under a large jam jar usually reserved for rescuing lizards the cat has brought in.

That put the hornet (in the house) count to four, which is exactly three more than I had seen in my entire life up to that point.

I sat on the terrace for a while to see whether any more were around and, yes, before long there was another. It seemed very interested in the wood around the upstairs window and at the top of the door but, after dabbing around for a while, it bobbed up the wall and made its way over the roof and was gone.

A short time after another one appeared but this did much the same. I didn’t see one go in anywhere and announced as much to James.

Because we didn’t want any of them coming in again but we’d decided to keep all the windows closed until we could get some mosquito nets up – a good idea even without the hornets as there are plenty of wasps around and also some very determined mosquitoes! Saturday came and our mission was clear. We left the house all sealed up and came back with the netting and some insecticide spray that would supposedly act as a barrier when sprayed around window and door frames. James wasn’t convinced it would work but bought it anyway, just in case.

So how was it that when we came in there were two more hornety house guests having a jolly old time in the bedroom? With sll doors and windows sealed it could mean only one thing, so where was the hole they were exploiting?

I sat outside with the littlies while James stayed inside to valiantly battle our foes. He’d said to wait outside making sure his exit was clear in case he had to make a run for it. He emerged a short while later telling me he was fine. It was quite comical listening from outside as the pshhhhhh, pshhhhhhh, pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh of the RAID can gave a fairly visual picture of the state of play. They’re quite robust creatures but he got there in the end.

We gave those two (taking the hornet count to six) enough time to properly die then sent James in to block up what looked to be their entry point: a giant hole by one of the upstairs windows. I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before given it was large enough for a couple of cats to curl up in. Really it could do with being properly filled and sealed but, given we’re renting, we went for the bodge so one inseticide-drenched blanket later and the hole was no more – but, hang on, what was that buzzing noise!?

In the time between taking out the first two and having a breather outside, another one had made it in from somewhere. Maybe that wasn’t the right hole. Maybe there was another hole? Oh boy.

With the hole bunged up James turned his attention to the windows and got the netting sorted out. Surprisingly, the question, “what good is sticky-backed velcro that doesn’t stick to anything,” has not yet been asked on Quora. It should be. I mean… anyway. Wood glue to the rescue. Now we just had to hope that our 4 euro solution was going to be cat resistant.

With all doors locked and all windows either sealed to all airborne creatures or closed, now we could find out whether we were officially on hornet lockdown.

Day 1. No hornets. Not many flies either. Result.

Day 2. Still no hornets. A few more flies owing to our becoming more relaxed about leaving the doors open.

Day 3. Still no hornets.

And that’s it, maybe we’ve cracked it. But what has this to do with things being relative?

Well, in short, I’m no longer one of those people that jumps up and runs around flapping their arms and screeching when a wasp starts buzzing around. And I was that person. To my mind now wasps are teeny tiny little comedy bad guys with a silly high-pitched whine that barely registers. I first observed this change in perception while helping M prepare the pears while sitting in her garden (blog post on this to come). There were a fair few buzzing around while we chopped pairs and I was idly batting them away. Be gone, minor irritant.

Hornets on the other hand. My God, I am not happy about them at all.

And as for DS? He was lucky, we were all lucky; he’s not anaphylactic, thank goodness. We treated it with After Pick® and got him into a paddling pool filled with cold water and ice as soon as he was calm enough to leave my lap. Thirty minutes later he was laughing with his sister and splashing around. But it hurt him a lot. For him, having lived his first 16 months without fear, without pain (except for the odd toddler tumble or his routing injections) it was traumatic, to the extent that he now stops dead, points, and then screams his little head off if there’s anything unidentified – fluff, plant material, an insect – in his field of vision. It’s all relative and I feel terrible that he had to go through that. If only it had been a wasp.

A first taste of hate

It happened. James said it would sooner or later. I was always more optimistic but now the shine has come come off and I’m awake to it.

It started because I tried to buy a secondhand bike. DD is now well into her third year and I’m wracking my brains trying to think up interesting projects we can work on together over the summer holiday. The obvious one, given she’s not really old enough to sustain interest in the kinds of projects older kids could perhaps be persuaded to engage with, is learning to ride a bike with pedals. She’ll love that and I think in the 8 weeks we can get her really going strong. But first I have to find a bike.

I’ve been using the minutes I grab at the computer to scour LeBonCoin for bikes. I’d really like to get her a nice, shiny one but we can’t justify that financially right now and since it’s not her birthday (or Christmas anytime soon) it’s not really the time to give her an expensive, shiny present, and a good secondhand steed will do perfectly well. I searched eBay.co.uk and there are tonnes of great bikes being sold in the UK but it’s harder to find one around here.

And then I found one. Two, actually, but the newer and slightly more expensive one has already been reserved so I continued my search and found another one, closer to home too; older but also a better make (Orbea).

We were heading that way the next day and, as it was the first chance I’d had, I dug out my phone and sent a text message. The owner had said no e-mail, which was a pain, but I can’t manage the phone without James’s ears as backup and James can’t manage it while driving – and he was driving. Text was the next best thing. A few minutes later I checked my messages and was happy to see that I’d just had a call from the owner. I’d missed the ring because my phone is often on silent but we were in the car so I wasn’t going to be able to manage a conversation and I couldn’t call back until we’d stopped. So I sent another text.

My French is now at a level where I can as least figure out what I want to say in French then put the English into a translate programme to see whether I’m anywhere near close. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not, but I’m learning all the time and it works. Of course translate programmes don’t deliver perfect French and sometimes they get it quite wrong but as we were really close to the owner’s location I didn’t want to put off the conversation until I got home and then have to go out again. So I used the translate app on my phone and embarked on a conversation that went like this:

A screenshot of an SMS message between me and the seller.

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It all goes wrong fairly early on when I accidentally copy the English from the translate app instead of the French. I was in a rush, on the phone (small screen, stupidly small keyboard) and I didn’t notice until – after the question, “are you English?” and my answer “yes!” – he came back with this:

“Yes, and well go elsewhere, because once you spoke french and one other time English, so you don’t care about me.”

Er, WTF? Then I saw it – drat! But hey, it was an honest mistake! Foolishly I’d hoped that the question, are you English, would lead to a “hey, me too” – not this madness. One the first thoughts I had was, of course I don’t care about him – I just want to buy his old bike, not marry one of his children. Anyway, I really don’t have enough French for an argument and really, I just wanted to buy his stupid bike, so I tried to fix it. “I’m learning French, sorry”, I said, but it was too late. Monsieur Front National – as I’m calling him – was flying into one.

“Yes, and when I call I get you no.” 

Which I think means I didn’t answer when he called. Just to clarify, he goes on…

“I don’t time to write SMS all day – it irritates me, bye.”

At least I’m assuming that last bit was bye. It came through as baye, which I can’t find a translation for, so either he was so pissed that he could no longer be bothered to text properly or it’s some traditional insult that can’t easily be translated. If the latter, I’m happy not to know!

Honestly, it upset me. I’m nice! I’m here with my family to work, to pay tax, to start a new life! I don’t deserve shit from a nasty angry person who says the has an old kids bike to sell for 20 euros! So I block the caller and that’s that. I hope he spent the next 20 minutes writing a really long and insulting message that will never get to me. Hah.

And there it is. Just like the Polish, the Romanians, the Germans and many other EU citizens making the most of their right to free movement, travelling or working in the UK, or indeed anyone making a new life in a foreign land, I have felt the wrath of a bigoted fool. I guess it was my turn. At least it wasn’t a brick through the window or worse because there are always people capable of worse. It’s sad though because my parents – like many other Leave voters – don’t want all those other people coming to Britain and taking “our” jobs (never mind they’re retired etc.) so I wonder what they’ll make of their French equivalents having a dig at me for, assumedly, similar reason. I look forward to telling them to see what they make of it, how they’ll excuse their casual racism towards others but sympathise with my experience. Seriously.

As it happens, today I’m over it – and I still don’t have a bike for DD, which is a shame. Hopefully the other one I was interested in will become available again. I wouldn’t want my beautiful, innocent DD riding his racist old bike anyway.

We had a takeaway!

If I had to list one thing that I miss about the UK it’s being able to sack off cooking the evening meal and pick up a takeaway. We were totally spoiled for a choice at our old house and being so close to the city and with so many densely populated suburbs around we could have a different takeaway every night. Not that we did: we weren’t big fans of Chinese food so it was usually emergency fish and chips or a curry. At peak times (like when DS was born) we’d have one maybe two takeouts a week. More often it would be one or two a month.

But it wasn’t just takeaways. There were also many great places we knew we could nip out to for a quick and cheap lunch. Actually too many to list but two worthy of a shout out were Dukes in Glossop (definitely a favourite) and Dolly’s in Hadfield. Thinking about it, there was food everywhere where we used to live. Fast forward nine months and here we are in rural France where a) nothing is open and/or serving food outside of regular lunchtime hours of 12-2 and dinner time hours of 7-10 and all those places sell either pizza or burgers or a three-course set lunch (plat de jour) for between 12 and 15 euros, and b) places that sell takeaway are few and far between and at least a 20-minute drive away.

And so it was that James had to make an emergency trip to the tabac in Quillan in order to pick up some e-liquid. It had been a particularly long day with DD really putting us through our parenting paces with lots of shouting and attitude, tired out after a couple of long days and late nights (how do you make a three-year-old sleep!?). He’s been trying to quit the nicotine but hasn’t quite made it yet, so… We’re trying to keep our spending low and one of the main ways to do that is by limiting trips here and there in the car, which means planning round trips for errands rather than thinking of things and going back and forth at the time. Fine. But we’d already been over that way today so I was a bit cross both that he felt this warranted the extra trip and also that he was about to leave me to wrangle both children, one of which was malfunctioning, which would mean a delay to our meal time and, consequently, a later bedtime, which was the last thing DD needed! But then it came to me. There are two Chinese restaurants in Quillan and they both serve takeout – yay!! So that was it. Sod the cost-savings, this was a sanity saving mission and worth any amount of money.

Excited by the prospect of an end to the takeaway famine, off he went armed with rough directions from me based on where I thought it was. I waited expectantly. I’d seen signs on the main road for a restaurant and emporter but couldn’t remember the name of the place, so I did what anyone else would do these days and Googled it.

asian emporter quillan

A place called Asily came up but that wasn’t in the right place. I’d told James I’d find it and check the menu then message him my order, so I had to find it. How hard could it be!?

10 minutes later I’m no closer to finding it. This is a feature of life in France that I really can’t get the hang of, namely, the Internet just doesn’t work properly! Either businesses don’t have websites at all or, if they do, they are shockingly bad with terrible URLs, no use at all to Google, or totally lacking in content – many are still using frames, animated GIFS (flaming text, anyone?), and other horrors that were normal on the Internet over 15 years ago but not the done thing any more. It’s pretty dire. I tried so many search terms. In the end I resorted to using street view in Google Maps to “drive” to the outside and see what it was called. Armed with the name of the place – Tamarin – I was able to Google it and see what I could find. Try it. Try not to laugh. It turns out not only do they not have a website they also aren’t listed on TripAdvisor. By now I’m thinking suggesting we buy anything to eat from here is going to be a bad idea. Then James turns up. No going back then.

When he walked through the door I was half expecting him to be empty handed. It was probably closed. Or not serving yet. Or not serving takeaway. Or didn’t have any change so couldn’t take his order. Honestly, France is like that. Surprisingly though, he managed to both find the place (it’s easier to find in real life than online) and actually buy food there. But it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Twenty euros lighter, he had four plastic containers of food and was busily warming them up on the hob. Apparently there was no menu and the guy “serving” gave no indication that he would be cooking anything that evening. Takeaway food was prepackaged and stored in plastic containers in a fridge. Sounds weird, right? Of the six or seven dishes there were to choose from James came home with two noodles dishes and two with chicken. That was about all we knew about them.

He heated it all up. We ate it. It was entirely unspectacular. I was struck while eating them that I could have rustled up something tastier for much less money in the forty minutes it took for James to go out and come back. Even with two screaming children in tow I could have done a better job, frankly. Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t bad. I’ve had bad Chinese before and this wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good either. If that’s the standard I can see why takeaway really hasn’t caught on over here. Really. If that was the only one takeaway in the world, yes, I would probably go back but it would be like an act of self-harm, one where it seemed like a good idea at the time but with every mouthful I’d be thinking how I’d rather have spent the 40 minutes cooking something and not spent the 20 euros.

And because they’re not on TripAdvisor I can’t even leave a lacklustre review. Sigh.

So yes, we had a takeaway but it was a far cry from what I was hoping for so now I’m on a mission. If there’s a place out there that serves decent takeaway, I will find it, dammit!

Nine months (and a bit) later…

It’s just over nine months since we left our old home and relocated to France so how are we getting on? Since the 6 months review we’ve moved house to a new, long-term rental, making the move official in the sense that we now have a rental contract and have bills to pay. It’s great to be living somewhere without holes in the walls, a good stove, and a safe outside space for the children and cats. Since this move we’ve been feeling much more settled than we were three months ago. We’re still checking the property pages but aren’t feeling the intense pressure of those first months. And we’ve learned a lot; not only about the do’s and don’ts of house/land buying but also about what we do and don’t like and what need as individuals and a family. For example, when we first came we were worried about being too out on a limb, too remote and in the sticks. There’s a lot of remote about here! Coming from Manchester, where we had access to everything, it’s taken a while to wean us off having more immediate access to things we need (or want) and to other people. It’s taken 9 months but I’d say now we’re over it and are slowing down, finally. The first six months were intense, living in a tiny hameau, dominated by a few home schooling families; too much for us. Now we’re in a hameau, yes, but there’s more space simply because the people here also like to have their own space. There’s no “thing” going on, just neighbours living their lives. Our new neighbours definite look out for each other and those relationships are important, yes – we speak to at least one of our neighbours every day – but we’re not in each others pockets or trying to live some sort of shared life, which was how it felt in the last place. We’re happy to be out of there.

So, time for a progress report. The five areas to report on are:

  • House buying
  • Settling into daily life
  • Sorting out the paperwork
  • Learning the French language
  • Earning some money

Here’s the low down.

House Buying Progress = 3/10

I’ve moved this up to a 3/10. No, we don’t have a house and we’ve only looked at a couple since we moved into this new rental place but we have made some progress in the sense that we’re learning all the time what we do and don’t want and what too look for when buying land or property. Of the places we’ve looked at all were overpriced and some were over our budget, so no good. Some we’d be interested in if we had more money, others we wouldn’t pay all the money in the world for. It’s nice to feel like we’re in the driving seat now whereas before, when we were staring down the barrel of homelessness, it all felt a bit desperate. We’ll find something or we won’t. Either way I’m loving life here and without that intense pressure it feels like we can make the right decision and find something that’s right for us. The best bit of advice we received when we came out here was from a fellow Brit who said: “remember what you came for and what it is that you want.” The hunt continues but we’re both convinced we’ll know it when we see it.

Settle Into Daily Life = 8/10

I think we’re all feeling vastly more settled than we were three months ago. DD is still going to the maternelle but is enjoying it so much she asked to go full time so now she does two full days and then the rest half days. That’s great for us as we’re starting to have more time to work, to focus on admin, to getting things done generally, and just to have a bit of a break (one child is definitely less work than two!) DS has started at the creche too. He starts properly next week – just two short afternoons – then we’ll add a few more hours from September. He’s still my baby so I’m not in a rush for him to spend too much time in someone else’s care.

Of course, the school holidays start in just three weeks so the timetable we’re starting to work too will all be thrown in the air for 8 weeks after that, which is why, even though I’m now registered as an auto-entrepreneur (business website and info coming soon), I’m not anticipating getting anything meaningful done until September at the earliest. A few hours a week is the most time I’m likely to have. (James is busy, of course, and his work takes priority right now.) But as this is our first summer in the south of France I don’t intend to feel guilty about taking more time off and enjoying it with the kiddies.

Sort Out the Paperwork = 8/10

Slowly, but I am at last getting there. I have mail redirects in place, my tax return is sorted out, I’m about 90% of the way through my address change list, and – with becoming an auto-entrepreneur – I have a social security number, meaning myself the little ones have health care (within the terms of the French system.) At a later date I’ll probably bother to sort out a French driving license but that’s not necessary at the moment. Just having an hour or so every other day has made an enormous difference – and, of course, fast internet. I never ever want be without fast internet for the rest of my days.

Learn the French Language = 5/10

It’s still early days and I’m by no means fluent so 5/10 may seem overly optimistic but… and it’s a big but… I’m feel like I’m at least capable now of getting by. It really helps that our new neighbours are French and have limited or non-existent English: one of them doesn’t speak English at all but loves to chat, forcing me to dig deep both on the listening and speaking front, and our other neighbour speaks French but, along with his wife, is a keen student of English, so when we often talk about language, comparing differences and similarities, and I learn a lot from those conversations.

In terms of speaking when I’m out and about, just last week I managed to go into the bank and talk with the bank manager, about opening a business account, changing our address, and ordering a cheque book – all in French. Absolutely I could not have done that nine or even three months ago. I’m so happy with myself!!! As someone who didn’t speak a word (beyond ordering a coffee) when we arrived and was nervous about conversing with anyone, that’s real progress.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. I know what I know but there’s still plenty I don’t know, like how to say anything about what I did (past tense) or what I’m going to do (future tense) but what I’m doing right now, I’m good with). I’m terrible at asking questions so conversations are not really flowing yet, but I’m learning all the time. Once DS starts at the creche, once DD is back at school, I should have enough hours to not only work but also to study a little. I’m building a foundation for sure but in order to ever reach fluency some effort will be needed. Getting by is good for now but not good enough in the long run. I’m definitely happy with my progress though.

Earn some money = 2/10

I haven’t earned a bean yet, no, but I’ve taken steps towards that so am happy that things are afoot and it won’t be long now. It’s good to be thinking along those lines again. Does that count as progress?

Conclusion

We’re back on our feet and feeling much more balanced and focused. It’s starting to feel like we have a life here. The next few months will most likely be filled with distractions again as it’s the summer holidays. I expect we’ll be socialising more than working in this time but why not enjoy ourselves! We’re getting used to the pace of life (hot and slow – it’s summer!) and settling into our new routines and, who knows, maybe the right piece of land will turn up when we’re not expecting it to? We’re not where we thought we’d be at this point but we’ve dodged many bullets along the way so where we are right now is definitely the right place.

Most days I marvel at the fact that we’re here to live not just for a holiday. Then I hear DD speaking in French with other children and I’m blown away by the whole experience. We might be blowing our savings, living in a rented house with no end to that in sight, but it’s worth it. Our quality of life is fantastic and I’m excited to be learning a new language. It’s a good place and every day I think to myself that I’m so glad we made this move. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live somewhere as beautiful as this!?

Wildlife Wonderland!

I was a passionate wildlife watcher back in the UK and was pretty good with the names of most species of plant, animal, or bird that I came across. Not so much insects, but I’m not an instect-y person. Anyhow, now I live in France there is sooo much that’s new as well as an abundance of certain species that are considered rarities in the UK. There’s so much to see it’s keeping us all quite busy! So, what new and wonderful creatures have I discovered since moving here?

Well, the warm sun is certainly bringing the wildlife out on display. A few days ago we were treated to well over 20 large birds of prey riding thermals in the skies above our house. It was wonderful! I managed to get a couple of reasonable photos with my camera too.

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A tatty looking eagle or a vulture?

At first I thought (hoped) they might have been short-toed eagles (this website was my main reference, then I checked images on Google to see whether they looked similar) but the underwings, with the white “v” shape, are quite distinctive, so definitely not short-toed eagles. Then I thought maybe they were booted eagles but while writing this post I’ve been back and forward with Google images to try and figure it out and now I’m thinking it was one of the vulture species that frequent this area. Oh well. Given the numbers involved, it probably was “a kettle of vultures” – in which case I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for booted eagle.

Lucky me though, because only a couple of days later I spotted a short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus) flying on the low hills in the Faby Vallee when I was on the way to drop DD at school! I’d say I haven’t been that excited about a wildlife sighting since I can’t remember but…

Did I mention the stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) that was flying above the hazelnut trees at dusk the other night?

Or the western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) that was sunbathing on the wall, not far from where I saw the stag beetle the night before. (James saw this not me but I know it’s out there.)

Then there’s the midwife toad (Alytes), bip-bip-bipping away from under a rock somewhere near our front door. James and I were both wondering what it was that was beeping downstairs, thinking it was an electronic device malfunctioning somewhere in a box, but T, our landlady, told us it was a toad. A toad! I haven’t seen it yet but it’s out there calling every night now it’s warm.

Oh, and the giant peacock moth (Saturnia pyri). Let’s not forget this one!

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Saturnia pyri, just chillin’ on our terrace one morning – all 5-plus inches of it!

It’s called a grand paon de nuit in French (the large peacock of the night) and I’d say this particular creature was lucky that I had some washing to do first thing in the morning because I dread to think what the cats would have done with it had they spotted it first. Yes, one morning we awoke to find the largest moth I have ever seen, the largest moth in Europe no less, resting on the wall outside our house. While we were watching it the sun moved around and started to warm it up (it had been in the shade, until then) so, when it began to show signs of movement we gently persuaded it into a box then relocated it into the trees further down the lane. We’ve not seen it since but it’s out there, no doubt. Our neighbour, who’d seen one flying around a few nights before and had mentioned it to me, specifically because she was worried about our cats eating it, was equally excited when I interrupted her breakfast so she could come and take a look!

And finally, processionary caterpillars, which are the larval stage of the pine processionary moth (Thaumetopoeidae). These are my least favourite “new” discovery but that’s probably just because I haven’t yet seen what James describes as the millipede on steroids that is living somewhere near the terrace. When that pops into range it will take the creepy crawly top spot. Uck. The caterpillars are interesting though because despite looking relatively friendly – they’re furry, you know – and innocently marching through the forest nose to tail with one another, they can leave us humans with very irritated skin and can also be fatal to dogs. And they’re everywhere! We thought the webbed nests on the ends of branches of the evergreens around were spider nests but it seems they’re very densely populated caterpillar homes. The lifecycle of is pretty interesting too because they live in the tree until they’re ready to pupate, when they then leave the tree so they can burrow into the ground. The day I (literally) stumbled across them, there were well over 100 (I gave up counting at 100) marching in a long chain. DD spotted them first, which is how I ended up treading on a few. Luckily we didn’t touch them – I know enough about furry caterpillars to know better than that but it was helpful to be reminded and to be informed about their toxicity to dogs when James mentioned what we’d seen to a neighbour.

That’s it for all the exciting new stuff. Then there’s more every day stuff to here that I’d see every now and again where we were in the UK but here they’re common and everywhere. I can add to this list jays, redstarts, and orchids.

 

Busy, busy

There’s so much going on right now I have no time to blog about it! What with the classic Easter cold, taking us all down one by one, and a visit from my parents I’m only just starting to catch up on all things computer-based. I’ve got a bunch of part-written or planned and not started blog posts so plenty to keep me busy when I do find the time to sit down and write/think for any amount of time. For now though, here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve been doing since I last posted:

  • Herding goats
  • Planting up more of the garden
  • Sewing
  • Finessing the worm bin setup
  • Picking cherries
  • Thinking of things to do with a gazillion fresh cherries!
  • Horse riding with DD
  • Swimming
  • Settling DD into her first full days at the maternelle
  • Settling DS into the créche
  • Setting myself up as an auto-entrepreneur
  • Land and house viewings

That’s pretty much all the fun/interesting stuff, which doesn’t look like a lot but when crammed in amongst everything else it feels like a lifetime’s worth of achievements!

So, more blog posts to follow – but for now, bed. Zzzzzz.

DIY Worm Composting

Something that irks about not having our own garden space is not being able to make our own compost. At our last place we donated our food scraps to others’ heaps, which worked out just fine. We thought we’d got a similar arrangement going here but our new neighbour turns out to be a bit fussy about what goes in her heap, accosting me one morning with a list of things that she didn’t want in there, all of which we happily chucked in our compost bins in the past without any issues. From the outset we had a feeling that would happen. You know how some people can be and as lovely as she is it was fairly inevitable that she’d go picking over the compost and find a problem. C’est la vie, as our compatriates like to say.

So what to do with our growing mountain of food waste? We contemplated a regular compost bin but they seem to retail at around 30€ here. These bins make compost slowly – not always helpful in a rented and (hopefully) fairly temporary house  – as well as requiring quite a lot of work and taking up a lot of space – time and space we don’t have. A compost tumbler then? They retail upwards of 80€, so a no go. That’s a lot of bags of compost and the 80€ ones didn’t look great and there was no question of us spending more than that. DIY? We thought that was the best option and even bought a barrel to use but the cost of all the small parts to make the door, the catch, etc came in at nearly 40€ – crazy! Another option bites the dust. That left us with one option: worms!

It turns out that composting with worms is actually the best way to turn your old food scraps into garden fertiliser and soil conditioner. In fact, if you are regularly chucking your food scraps into a plastic bin and letting it turn into compost, you are effectively composting with worms because the worms that turn up in compost bins – tiger worms – are the same worms used in most worm composting systems.  In the UK our old composter seemed to just get on with it: we’d chuck our food waste in and later in the year it would be gone. We barely got any usable compost out of it but at least it wasn’t in land fill. I presume the worms were eating it!

Contrast that with my repeated failed attempts at worm composting. I had a Can-O-Worms and after three failed attempts gave up and gave it away. With this in mind I was reluctant to spend any money on a proper wormery so we went DIY. There are a lot of good wormery suggestions out there and they’re all pretty simple. We wasted an evening trying to find the things we needed online (a plastic box for under 10€ -how hard can it be!?) then found everything we needed at Mr. Bricolage for 41€, which included 10€ on a fancy drill bit. Here’s the shopping list:

  • 2 x black plastic containers. We went for the 48 litre ones which are wider and flatter than the 50 litre versions.
  • Something for the lid. Our containers didn’t come with lids so we bought some chip board, enough to make two lids, if we decided to set up an other container.
  • Mesh to cover the base and the ventilation holes. This just stops flies getting in and worms getting out.
  • A tap. This is for the bottom container so that we could drain off the liquid, which is a fantastic plant feed known as “black gold”!

We also had to buy a special drill bit so we could fit the tap.

Here’s the result.

 A picture of a worm bin made of two black plastic containers with a wooden lid and a plastic tap
Worm bin with tap
A picture of a piece of chipboard with 8 drilled holes covered in mesh
The lid: 22mm holes covered in fine mesh to stop the flies getting in
A blonde girl leans into the open container that contains a layer of compost, the tiger worms, and some food waste
DD checks out the finished product, complete with worms and food waste

It’s a really nice and simple design. The bottom box is used as a reservoir to collect the liquid. The tap just simplifies removing it and isn’t absolutely necessary – a hole in the bottom draining into a cup or jam jar would work just as well. The second box is the worms’ home. We drilled drainage holes in the bottom then lined it with mesh so that our little wormies don’t fall into the bottom box and drown (that happened a lot with my Can-O-Worms wormery – a tragic as well as stinky thing.) For the lid we drilled more holes and covered them with mesh held down with wood glue. And that’s it. All that was needed then were worms.

We asked around, posted in a couple of Facebook groups, but ended up buying some from a local fishing shop – another 20€ but we now have a ready-to-go wormery that cost, in all, around 50€ with enough parts left over to make another. We’d need a couple more plastic containers but can transfer worms from this one so the extra cost will be just 12€.

For the worms to be happy in their new home they need not just food but also bedding. For this we covered the base of the top bin with a layer of wet paper then put a layer of compost down. The veg scraps then went on top. Internet wisdom generally suggests letting it all get going before piling too much in there so we sprinkled some of the fresher looking scraps on there, gave it a spray with some water to ensure it’s not too dry, closed the lid and left them to get on with it.

We did have a bit of shock the next day when it looked like all the worms were trying to escape as they’d congregated at the top of the bin but some Googling later and we’re putting that down to typical worm behaviour, either because they’re in a new home or because it rained through the night. They seem to have settled down again today (Day 3) so perhaps it’s all working just fine. We will see!

From Farm to Farm

Today we ventured out to visit a few local farms who were taking part in the De Ferme en Ferme open day. I’d seen posters around for a few weeks then, after reading a really nice blog post about last year’s programme, picked up a leaflet that me, James, and DD talked about to decide where to go. The promo leaflet and handout for kids can be downloaded from the Fermiers Audios website, here. DD was very specific about wanting to see pigs, cows, and horses, and we were keen to try out some local places where we might be able to buy good, local produce at sensible prices, reducing our overall reliance on the supermarkets or towns, as we seem to spend an awful lot of time driving too and from the shops. Having studied the map and the descriptions we settled on five places that fulfilled our wishlist while also providing a sensible itinerary, since we’d be carting two littlies around.

  • Ferme de Jaffus (#9) in Couiza
  • Gaec de Bergnes (#10) in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Le Gaec du Méchant Pas (#11) also in Campagne-sur-Aude
  • Pépinière de la Roche Blanche (#2) in Puivert
  • Campserdou (#3) also in Puivert

The plan was three farms over by the D118, possibly having a burger at the beef farm (bio burgers for €6) or heading home for lunch, then the two close to Puivert in the afternoon. Manageable.

We set off. DD was excited about the pigs, cows, and horses. Oh, and ducks, chicks, and geese, apparently! A tall order. I was armed with the printed map, the address, and – having plugged the information into Google Maps for our first destination, was hoping the place would be well signed because I was pretty sure there wasn’t a beef farm where the map marker was. We got to the first set of traffic lights and there was the sign, so we turned to follow it and set off down the road. We drover further down the road. And further. No more signs. I was confused because Google (and the farm’s own website) showed the marker much closer to the village. We drove a little more then turned around, thinking we’d missed the turning and the sign. We decided that if we made it back to the main road before seeing another sign we would just skip it and carry onto the next one. We made it back to the lights, no more signs, so that was that. On we went to Campagne-sur-Aude. DS was pretty unhappy that the trip to a farm hadn’t materialised   so it was a relief to pull up at our next stop: La Ferme du Méchant Pas

 

The well-signed entrance to our first farm of the day.

 

This farm had various poultry breeds on display, all of which looked rather uncomfortable in their tiny cages! There wasn’t much to see really so we followed the sign pointing us in the direction of goats, cows, ponies, and sheep. Also lacklustre, unfortunately. So one small pony and one cow later, we headed back to the car and onto our next stop, Gaec de Bergen’s, just a few minutes up the road and where our friends, Matt and An, were waiting, having decided to tag along.

Heading back to the car

 

Our next stop, the cattle farm, also turned out to be a little underwhelming, albeit in an absolutely stunning location, on a hill high above the village with awesome views. While we stood chatting and DD did some colouring, people came flocking in, most likely because a €6 burger was one of the cheaper lunches on offer (most places providing lunch were charging €15 and up for three or more courses). We had considered staying ourselves, but now we were in the company of two militant vegetarians and DS was starting to get into don’t-pick-me-up, don’t-put-me-down mode, so I was keen to get him in the car and back home so he could have a bit more freedom away from the general muck of the farm yard – not the nicest place for a crawling boy.

We headed back, had a nice lunch, let the kiddies let off some steam (DD really enjoyed showing our friends her bed and all her toys) then it was time for the afternoon’s programme of visits. We started with the plant nursery (Pépinière de la Roche Blanche) with Camperdou, the lai cru farm, saved until last. This was the one we were most interested in as I quite fancy making some cheese once I find I have time!

The nursery site was pretty nice – another stunning location – and it was nice to walk around. They had lots of plants on sale – flowers and vegetables – all at good prices and, usefully, they supply salad and vegetables throughout late spring and summer: all I have to do is call in the morning then come and pick them up an hour or so later. Obviously I’m thinking trailer ride, yay!

James and An relaxing outside the main polytunnel

We stayed there while the little ones did some exploring, then it was time for the final farm of the day.

After a short drive we arrived. I was quite underwhelmed at first – there really wasn’t anything to see except for a few cows munching away in the barn, a few calves in a small pen in the yard, and a gazebo, from which you could try or buy the farm’s produce: essentially, the lait crufromage blanc, or confiture du lait, which is already caramelised condensed milk.

We stood around chatting again and the next thing the farmer wandered by so we started chatting to him about how many cows and calves, how much milk they produce each day (25 litres!), how the milk is processed before it’s sold, and – the burning question for me and James – why it doesn’t separate like regular non-homogenised milk. To be honest, I’m still not sure we got to the bottom of the last question, but he assured us the production process is basically cow to bottle with no messing around. While were stood chatting DD started messing around with the feed, giving it to the greedy cows. She had a lovely time! After a few minutes she wanted to see the calves again so we’d wander over there, then she was back to feeding the cows.

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James and DD on their way to the cow shed

Then it was getting late (DS was awake and trying to escape from the carrier) so we decided to head back, stopping on our way out to sample the produce. Boy, that confiture was awesome! It’s basically super-condensed milk, like the stuff you get when you heat condensed milk to make the caramel for a banoffee pie: one of my favourite puddings – yum! Of course, this doesn’t sit well with our sugar-free home, so DD was allowed to try some of their fromage blanc, which was also very good.

All in all it was a good day out. We now have confidence in at least two local producers we will definitely frequent in future and we came home with two very tired and hungry children as well as some some fromage blanc and milk fresh from the farm, the latter of which I hope to try and turn into mozzarella or ricotta cheese. Assuming next year’s event includes many of the same producers there are other 14 for us to discover and as our littlies will be older we can justify driving a bit further and hopefully they will both get a bit more out of it. A nice family day out all round!

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