Facebook addiction, moi?

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever. Lately, there have been quite a lot of articles, such as this one on LinkedIn, warning of impending mental health doom as a consequence of social media. It’s not all good, apparently. Naturally I read many of said articles, since they were being spoon fed to me and Liked by many of my friends – how could I resist! The thing was they resonated with me. I was thinking only the other day how distracted I was feeling, wondering how I was ever going to get anything done when I could so easily waste an entire morning filling out a form, with one 10-minute job on the computer and turning into the best part of an hour, still with nothing accomplished, and social media was high on my radar as the source of this growing frustration. The final deciding factor, the push I needed, was a few days of  emotional turmoil during which James was pretty clear about having lost all patience with my attachment to my status updates and all the groups I was busily interacting with. Apparently it’s been going on for a while, I’ve not been present, I’m always on my phone (blah, blah, blah, right?) and he’s sick of it. I went off the deep end at the suggestion (of course I did, I’m an addict!!) but after staying up late in a strop but also having a good think about it, I decided he was right (darn) and I definitely needed to take a break from it, if not give it up completely.

Social media, eh? How can something that was supposed to be so good be so bad!?? It wasn’t meant to be this way. It was supposed to be about keeping in touch with friends, staying connected to people we care about, but – after a heated discussion forced me to think more deeply about it – I realised most of the time I was spending on there I was “talking” to people I didn’t know and would probably never meet. And that was the problem. My concern with “quitting” was that I would be missing out – that my entire social calendar was organised via Facebook and life would fall apart, I’d cast myself into social oblivion by turning my virtual back on my virtual world of social connections. To some extent that was true for a while way back when, since my mountain bike club was mostly Facebook-based, as were Team Glow (another cycling club – spot the pattern, folks), NW MTB Ladies (er, same same). Those groups were my lifeblood before having kids and I think it was true to say then that, yes, everything was organised on Facebook. But things have changed alot since then.

For one I am no longer go riding with those folks. Obviously now I’m in another country, which makes it particularly tricky, but before we moved I’d switched nights out on my bike for never-ending newborn nursing sessions, a new “hobby” which brought with it new interest groups on Facebook and an overbearing need to stay connected to my pre-child friends via their ever-dwindling Facebook updates; a desperate need to feel like I was still in the loop, still connected to those old ways, old friends, favourite pastimes that I just couldn’t do any more because now I was a mummy tasked with keeping a small and desperately needy human alive. What a shock to the system that was! To soften the blow of the huge identity crisis this brought with it, social media enabled me to still “hang” with my old buddies, virtually, at least. I needed to be there, active in the groups and so on, so that even though I was at home with my lovely, sleep-proof baby,  my friends and all the people from my old pre-baby life wouldn’t have the chance to forget me!

Then, when DS arrived, having by then given up all hope of ever rejoining my old social cycling networks and having reconciled my present as being quite different, for the time-being at least, to my past and therefore being barely a distant memory in the lifecycles of the cycling clubs I used to participate in, I found myself tandem nursing – a strange and not altogether common experience – so I sought out new child-rearing-related groups to hang out in, most recently the Wild Schooling group (which I love!) and a Breastfeeding Older Babies and Beyond, which I can credit with helping me to stay sane (just) on the many nights when nursing both a newborn and a demanding toddler (now preschooler) were on the verge of being waaay too much.

As life settled down around in our new home far from our old home, I started to become a more active member of these various online communities and contribute to discussions. Why not!? I was now a veteran breastfeeder. I actually had advice for new mothers – I wanted them to succeed! If I could add a comment that would make a difference how could I not!? And this is where the problem started because, with over 2,000 subscribers worldwide, this was quite an active group. Add into the mix the oh-so-inspiring Wild Schooling group – 20,000 subscribers worldwide! – and that’s a lot of posts, updates, questions, discussions to distract an ordinary and slightly bored and disconnected woman who is four years into nursing with no end in sight. Oh, and did I mention living in a foreign country having left all my friends behind!? And this is how I felt it crept up on me. It’s really hard to concentrate, to focus, while nursing two small wriggly and sometimes also slightly fighty small beings. It’s not like I can concentrate on anything work-related or do anything that involves one or both hands, so I can’t program Anki with new words or grammar; I can’t even revise my Anki cards because for that I have to be able to speak and to play audio, which might risk waking one or both of my non-sleeping perpetually breastfeeding children. Which also rules out Duolingo. And anything else that involves audio: so no podcasts, movies, videos. I can’t speak to anyone, obviously (noise!), so no phone calls. Speaking to an actual person generates noise as does speaking to an app. Which reduces me to reading. So I’ve been reading, reading, reading: interesting threads on Facebook groups mostly, along with blogs, and news articles (links from my Facebook feed or the the Guardian, because I like the format of the app as much as anything else.) I’m also pretty good at tapping out posts one-handed, which is why I think Facebook (and maybe other forms of social media) are places that many women, especially mothers to small children, go to hang out. We easily find a tribe there because the world-over there are slightly bored women nursing children, lying still and quiet in the dark, with one free hand hovering over a smart phone, reading about the woes and wonderments of other women the world-over, and so it goes on.

That’s part of my story. I don’t deny there are benefits. It has definitely served a purpose but now the scope has started to creep to the extent that my virtual life, chatting with virtual friends about real-life problems (theirs and occasionally mine), was getting in the way of my real life simply because I had the best part of 22,000 “friends” – so that’s a lot of chatter! I learned some new stuff but a lot of the time it was not stuff I actually needed to know.

As for my real friends, well they’re hardly ever on Facebook these days (probably because they too are buried up to their necks in comments and conversations in other Facebook interest groups!) so the old days where it was all photo of a cat or kid doing something cute were long gone. Since that was my main justification for staying on it, I was basically unable to justify to myself the time I was spending there when I asked myself the question, how much time to do I spend engaged with my actual real-life friends?

So what am I missing? In short, nothing at all. I’m still logging in for 10 minutes here and there to check the items I have listed on various selling pages, as I do need to keep clearing out and those are quite active, but I’ve put some blocking software on my PC to prevent me going over time. (It’s called StayFocusd and it seems to work well.) I’ve deleted it off my phone and the iPad, so I can’t be tempted to just check in now and again and I’m deliberately not carrying my phone around like I used to. Thinking about it now it’s actually pretty strange that I carried my phone literally everywhere with me. Sneaking off to the loo to check Facebook isn’t addictive behaviour, right!?

Since taking the Facebook-free plunge I’ve been making much better use of my time, for sure. Within the first 24 hours I felt like I could think straight again, make plans, have ideas. In short I was already less distracted within the same day of turning it off! James came back from the school drop off and as well as getting DS and myself dressed I’d also done the washing up. Hurray! (He cooks, I clear up, if you’re wondering about division of labour.) This week I’ve managed to get a tonne of things done – little admin jobs that I’d probably have been too busy checking Facebook or replying to someone having trouble with their three-year-old nursing to sleep to focus on for long enough to actually finish.

(“Will my three-year-old ever stop nursing to sleep!???” Short answer: no, it will feel like probably never until they stop. They do stop, right!?)

I’ve also thrown myself back into my language learning, starting to build my Anki deck again, revising the list of neglected cards from my original deck, and also listening to podcasts, trying to read a bit online, and signing up for a new community called iTalki to try and build some interaction (beyond actually being in France and having to try and talk to my neighbours!) into my learning experience. I’ve also felt more present generally. Absolutely there are benefits to this Facebook-free lark.

That’s not to say it was – is – all bad.  I really, really enjoyed the #naturehackchallenge I’d signed up for and was so inspired by many of the ideas in the Wild Schooling group. I do think there’s value to engaging in things like that. And then there are the selling groups, which are pretty handy and also tend to be busy. There are some really useful groups out there, able to offer advice and support on anything from bike maintenance and sewing pattern advice to multiple miscarriage and domestic abuse (not my problems but I’ve read some pretty incredible posts that have quite literally changed lives!) In that sense it’s a bloody revelation. In moderation though. And when it’s driven by need rather than a compulsion – and I think that’s where I’d got to with it.

So that’s me. Facebook free for over a week and enjoying the newly focussed, status free me. Luckily I’ve never “done” Twitter, so that just leaves me and my blog, which I plan to update as regularly as I can. So far it feels a bit like when I stopped smoking: basically, I have time on my hands again and the main aim, for the first few days at least, is to stay well away from the biscuit tin!

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Where’s all the free stuff?

It’s been a busy week here. On top of all the usual to-ing and fro-ing, parenting stuff, trying-to-set-up-a-business stuff, and day-to-day stuff, I signed up the #naturehackchallenge on Facebook, which has meant allocating some time each day to decluttering (day 1), letting in light and thinking about the different play spaces in the house (day 2), building a nature table (day 3) and now, on day 4, sharing how we incorporate nature objects in our play (short answer: currently, we don’t.)

Today one of the other nature hackers in the group posted a link to a US-equivalent of Freecycle or Freegle; all popular sites that allow use to give away things we no longer need and also to find things we do for free. Of course! I was quite active Freegler when we were at our old house. In fact I dread to think what the value of all the stuff we gave away when we cleaned ot before our move. Probably enough for a holiday! Yes, we felt virtuous at the time. It seemed like a good idea, giving away lots of our low-value things that would cost more to move than to give away and re-find once we arrived. But that was without knowing that, it seems, no-one gives anything away here and everything that is no longer needed is sold for as high price as they can get! Even at vide greniers price are high. Maybe it’s because there are so many Brits here. I don’t know. But I have always had the sneaking feeling that there’s information I don’t have: part of the one price for the English (who are usually happy to pay “too much”) and the price for the more budget savvy French. Instead of paying through the nose on one of the (mostly expat driven and therefore expensive) Facebook sellings groups, or the French equivalent of Gumtree, called Leboncoin, there was something out there for those who wanted to give away their unwanted possessions rather than profit from them?

So I Googled. Of course, various sites turned up:

Not a bad start. Whoopee! Now perhaps I could find some of the bits and bobs I need to finish off declutter (which of course somehow necessitates accumulating more stuff in the name of getting organised: boxes, baskets, and the like.)

Shame then when I find that although there are groups in Limoux and Carcassonne, there isn’t a single listing local to me. The Donnons site wasn’t quite as bad: one listing, 45 minutes from here, someone selling a bunch of drop files. Whoopee.

That leaves me having to plan a day trip so I can visit the Emmaus superstore in Pamiers (it’s not called a superstore but I’ve been told its gigantic so I’m setting my expectations high.) Hopefully I will be able to search out the bits and bobs I need to finish my #naturehackchallenge home decor changes and also potentially drop some off bits I want to get rid of. It’s just a shame because as much as I’m happy to support charities like Emmaus there was always something so simple about Freegling unwanted goods, often things you wouldn’t think to donate, like yarn or fabric scraps, broken but repairable electricals, that sort of thing. It was always nice to meet fellow Freeglers who would turn up at the door to drop off or collect something: some would stop for a chat, others it was quite matter of fact, formal and over in a flash. A few times someone I’d met before at an event but not seen since would arrive, so we’d have chance to catch up and arrange to connect in future! It had something of a community built around it. I’m convinced there is something like this here but am going to have to try harder to find it. I will report back!

In the meantime, here is the result of day 1 and day 2 of the challenge, the whole point of which is to re-evaluate space to encourage and enable creative play, bringing more nature into our homes as a way of facilitating this. It’s Day 4 today and I’m supposed to be sharing pics and inspiration about how we use natural loose parts and instead I’ve written this blog post. Time to catch up!

NatureHackChallenge1

 

48 Hours in Narbonne – with kids

Ah, the city break. Before having kids we were quite big fans of city breaks: meandering around back streets, in and out of cafes and the odd bar, heading out in the evening for a meal in a cosy looking restaurant. Oh, those were the days. Not that we had them very often but, being country folk at heart, we always quite enjoyed a few days in the hustle and bustle before skulking off back to our quiet life in the sticks. So it was that we were looking for somewhere to go for a few days away in the holidays. Our first instinct was to look to the mountains. James was keen to explore the area around Les Angles, having talked to someone who regularly goes there for holidays, so that was the first place we looked. If it had just been the two of us, fine, no problem. But out of season, with cold weather approaching, possibly in the wet, what would there be to do with two small children? After trawling the Internet and having a good look at various maps, we hadn’t found anything that was much different from our regular life here. If we struggled to get out for “proper” walks where we live, which is pretty wild as it is, spending a couple of days somewhere even wilder might not be much fun. I also didn’t want to drive too far. I don’t think it’s fair on the kids to spend too much of the day in the car and would rather just get somewhere than take up too much of the holiday travelling.

The idea of a trip to the mountains just wasn’t cutting it. Then were remembered the city break. Why not!? We’d really enjoyed a few days in Cahors on a trip back from the Charente earlier in the year and there was the added bonus that it would probably be warmer than out in the sticks and have a few more wet weather options. But which city? We haven’t been to any French cities, ever – other than a trip to the Carcassone to register the car. Toulouse was an option but in the end we decided on Narbonne as we could also easily reach Gruissan, somewhere we had wanted to visit in the summer but had decided against due to the travel factor and being unable to find accommodation for a short camping trip (and also not having the bottle for a camping trip!) I found a nice-looking apartment a short walk from the city centre, promptly booked it, and that was that: we were going to Narbonne.

As with so many things these days the whole trip was a bit flying by the seat of our pants. For example, it was only as we approached Narbonne that I even looked up the address of the place to get directions. In days gone by I’d have printed maps and had a least some idea of where it was. No more. It was a miracle we all ended up in the car, frankly, as the morning we were due to set off did not go well! James had done a little bit of research previously but hadn’t turned up anything particularly good to do with kids. Just the usual site-seeing stuff: old buildings, city tours (for the full list, check out Trip Advisor). I did a bit of Googling while we drove down and managed to write a very small list of child-friendly things to do, thinking also that it might be cold and wet, so with wet-weather as well as child-friendly activities. Here’s what I found and what we did.

Narbonne Swimming Pool

Narbonne Piscine Municipale

Website: http://www.espacedeliberte.fr/piscine/ 

Top of the list was a visit to the swimming pool. DD loves swimming and is as happy as anything splashing about in arm bands. The pool looked quite impressive, with some fantastic outdoor facilities (not open in November, of course) as well as some fun indoor things, like a waterslide and a play area. The reviews weren’t great with some people saying it was a bit dirty, but there was only one way to find out whether that was true. So off we went.

 

 

And it was great! It seemed pretty clean to me, plus it was warm in both the changing rooms, the pool area, and the water. I hate a cold pool! There was plenty of room in the small pool, which started at 40cm and then dropped down to 70cm, which was perfect for both DD and DS. There wasn’t a massive queue for the water slide, so DD went on three times, twice with James and then with me, and DD enjoyed the play area once the water sprayer went off. Once she discovered how fast she could go on the small slide, she really went of it! We passed a happy hour there and only left because DS was getting hungry and showing signs of tiredness. We’d definitely go back!

Pricing was hard to find on their website though. For the four of us (two adults, one 3 year old and a one-year-old) we paid 11 euros 30 cents. Not bad. It’s a bit more than we pay locally but there were more facilities. You’d definitely get better value for money in the summer, given the access to the outdoor facilities, but really it was perfect for us on a grey and stormy looking afternoon.

Other facilities at the same site include a skate park – very popular, looking at the numbers on it – and an ice-skating rink, which DD was fascinated by. Another one to revisit if we end up in Narbonne again.

Google Maps reckoned it was a 30 minute walk from the centre, so we drove. I’m glad we did because it was dark when we came out and everyone was tired. There are supermarkets near by as well as a few fast food places, if that’s your thing.

As far as refreshments go at the pool, there’s a restaurant (open for lunch and dinner) and a couple of vending machines in the foyer.

The Indoor Market

Les Halles de Narbonne

Website: http://www.narbonne.halles.fr/

An indoor market wouldn’t have been my first choice with two small children but as it was we struggled to get DD out of there. She loved it, especially the lobster tank (kids, or at least my kids, really don’t care about the killing and eating thing) and the baskets with all the strange-looking shellfish, including the very odd looking (for a foodstuff) sea urchin. Who would want to eat those!?

The nice thing about the market is that there are also a few cafes and bars – more wet weather places to hang out. And you can also do your shopping while you’re there. We didn’t but a few stalls that caught my eye included one selling moroccan food, with various tagine-cooked meals for sale, and an Italian stall with some really tasty calzones and pizzas. DD was very interested in some the cakes, of course.

The Playground

This isn’t really an official tourist destination of course, but anyone with small kids knows that you can’t beat a play ground. The kids get to let off steam instead of being dragged around the streets (or around boring churches and museums) and you get to put your feet up. The play area was clean – fenced off from the main park – and within a small, quiet park. We had a happy 20-minutes here.

It’s only a few minutes walk from the centre, just past the Cathedrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, behind the MJC building on Place Roger Salengro. Pick up a coffee then take a seat on the bench while your kids run about.

The Roman Road

Via Domitia of Narbonne

Website (Trip Advisor Review): https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187155-d11548276-Reviews-Via_Domitia_of_Narbonne-Narbonne_Aude_Occitanie.html

This is a section of the original roman road in the main square that has been exposed. What’s particularly nice is that you are able to walk on it – it’s not just something to look at. The striking thing about it is the depth. Roman Narbonne existed a metre or two lower than the present day. Also the stones are giant compared to anything we would consider road-worthy today. Cobbles these rocks are not.

On a quiet autumn day there’s space to sit while your young ones jump around all over the rocks. Again, DD was very happy there and could have stayed longer (in fact I’ve just remembered we promised to go back later on – but didn’t.)

Gruissan Beach

Gruissan Plage

Website: http://gruissan-mediterranee.com/escale-nautique/les-plages/ 

On our last day, after leaving the apartment, we drove down to Gruissan Plage. We’d been given a map with some walks on it and wanted to look for some flamingos! Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great for walking, so we just headed to the nearest beach after driving through the small town of Gruissan and ended up on the Plage de Chalets, which was interesting in itself as I’d almost booked up as place there before deciding we’d be more comfortable in town, given the time of year. Anyway, with the wind blowing a gale, the sea was choppy and the kite-surfers were out in force, which both DD and DS loved. Obviously, given it was November, the beach was empty, so both kids had a really nice play: DD playing horses, galloping around, and even going in for a paddle, and DS rolling around in the soft sand! We picked up some shells and a short walk up the beach and back. DD walked on the rocks and DS on the wall. Both were happy (simple pleasure!) Afterwards we sidled into the “beach bar” which also happens to be the surf rental shop. We had a couple of coffees and they made a couple of babycinos for the kids (hot milk with chocolate sprinkles.) It was a bit of a rip off (12 euros!) but then it was a tourist spot.

From here it was an easy drive back to the auto-route through the salt marshes on the D32. Happily, really only a 100 metres from the bridge out of Gruissan, we saw some flamingos, stragglers stuck inland, most likely waiting for the wind to change before setting off. That rounded things off nicely. And we’ll definitely be back in warmer weather when the flamingos will also be in abundance for the walks around the Etang and other nature areas.

Royal Kids Play Centre

Royal Kids Parc de Jouet

Website: https://www.royalkids.fr/parcs/narbonne

This was on my wet weather reserve list. As it was we didn’t end up visiting as it was dry the next day so we were able to visit the beach, but we visited one of these when we were up in the Charente earlier in the year and it was a great place for the kids to let off some steam, especially before the journey back. Soft play, slides, and a cafe. We used to visit these almost weekly when we were in England but they’re few and far between here, usually just the odd one close to the city, so it would have been quite a treat for them to go. Another one for next time.

Conclusion

So there we have. We easily filled our full day there and I was happy that we also made it to the beach and saw some flamingos! The old town in Gruissan looked nice and in warmer weather we would possibly have walked a bit more and stopped there for a look around.

Narbonne itself, despite finding things to do, wasn’t our favourite destination. It was just too dirty. With two small children who like to touch everything and occasionally, spontaneously, throw themselves on the floor and roll/crawl around (while channelling a horse or a dog, presumably) it was one of those parenting-on-high-alert type experiences. It was marginally more relaxing once they were both on our backs in slings but still, as James pointed out, we weren’t getting to see much of Narbonne because we were constantly looking at our feet. It was dire, actually. Every wall had been peed on, recently, it seemed, and you could barely walk 5 metres without coming upon another patch of dog poo. Yuck, really yuck. On that basis, it’s unlikely we’ll go back to the town. The beach, on the other hand, and the area around Gruissan was clean, so our next visit will be to there, I think.

Have you visited Narbonne as a family? If so, what did you do? Have I missed anything off my list?

 

Language Learning and Energy Drain

Moving to a new country is exciting, yes, but it’s also incredibly tiring to live somewhere where you don’t (yet) speak the language. You need time to learn, obviously – and I’ve been short on that – which means every encounter has to be planned and prepared for. This makes so many of the little things we do day-to-day extremely tiring and time consuming, things we totally take for granted when we’re a native or fluent non-native speaker. Things like going to the bank, the post office, the school. The shop, even. Even if you’ve been in this situation before you still have to rehearse, to check yourself, to brush up a bit, to ensure you correct any mistakes or answer any unanswered questions left over from the last visit.

And then there are entirely new situations where you need to learn new vocabulary. Like my recent trip to the docs for my slightly overdue smear test. In a second language that I’m currently a bit hopeless at it was pretty interesting inasmuch as I spent the whole appointment more embarrassed about my terrible French than the act of having the smear test. (It’s called a le frottis vaginal, if you’re interested, and is just as undignified with a French doctor as an English one.) It was a little overdue because there’s only so much I can do admin-wise and it took me ages to get round to booking a doctor’s appointment. On the one hand I didn’t have the confidence to do it over the phone but then I never seemed to have the time to pop in and do it face-to-face. In the end I braved a phone call just to get it done – and it went just fine, thankfully! But that in itself is an example of the extra mental load of being a language learner living in a foreign country. You can’t just pick up the phone and sort shit out!

And then there’s the headspace all this takes up. I realised the other day as I was driving to school to collect DD that possibly one of the reasons I feel so tired some days is because of the extra mental load this whole language learning process requires. On that particular day I was driving to the school but first had to pop to the bank to pick up a cheque book and pay some cash in. Ordinarily I’d just be driving the car, minding my own business, watching the road, maybe singing along to something on the radio, doing a mental check about whether I’d picked up my wallet or my phone, but this particular day I was running a conversation in my head along the lines of…

“What’s the verb for collect? Okay, er, so I want to collect my cheque book. Cheque book is probably un livre de cheque. Yes, that will work. So maybe, “Je besoin de colliere ma livre de cheque.” Is that right?? Is it ma or mon livre. Maybe I should say “Est-ce vous-avez ma livre de cheque?” Is that better. Have they got our new address? I should probably check that too. I’ll have to check it on my phone when I stop. So I’ll say…”

And on and on and on the conversation went in my head.

I got to the bank, went in, said something that may or not have been correct but was the best I could do, picked up my cheque book (so whatever I said worked), checked the address on the account then got back in the car – feeling very pleased with myself indeed. But it doesn’t end there, you see, because now there’s a new conversation to be had: the post-discussion analysis which goes along the lines of…

Did I say that right? What did they say? Did I understand that right? Next time I should say X instead of Y. Or would Z work better? What was that verb they used? So the past is.. Oh, I can’t remember. I’ll have to remember to look that up.” 

And so on. It’s exhausting! On the upside, the fact that I am actually having these conversations in my head – and using my terrible French out loud in the real world whenever I have to get the chance – is evidence that I’m making progress, but I can already see how greatly life will be improved once I have a good handle on many of the everyday interactions that we normally take for granted.

It’s given me a new perspective on the lot of an immigrant and I really feel for them. When talking about immigration the lack of language is something that people often whinge about but now I totally get how people who move to a country manage not to learn the language, especially when the natives tend to be hostile to immigrants and not particularly helpful. Because it will always be easier to hang around with other first-language native speakers. Of course it will. To put yourself into situations where you are struggling is not all that pleasant. There’s the mental toll before and after and the high-probability that you will humiliate yourself in between. But that’s how we learn. Kids don’t learn to walk or talk by imprisoning themselves in their comfort zones. They learn because it’s really frustrating to be stuck on the floor in one place staring across the room at your favourite toy, or having someone feed you apple when what you really want is carrot and a drink. So I take my inspiration from my kids. Both of them. Both of them are busy learning French and they don’t even know they’re doing it. DD is at maternelle and DS is at creche. Neither of these places have English speakers so they really are immersed in the truest sense of the word. DD has embraced it so well that she now says, proudly, “I’m French, not English.” She watches all her movies in French and  I’m pleased to say that the last time I watched Happy Feet with her I found myself listening to the audio more than reading the subtitles. So I can take all the extra hours it takes to figure out how to ask for my cheque book or book an appointment with the doctor over the phone. To learn the language is one of the reasons we came here, after all!

I first mentioned this in another post a couple of months back but as with everything there hardly seems to be time and most days it feels as though we’ve been busy-busy but accomplished very little. Perhaps energy drain is part of that equation? I won’t know I’ve cracked it until the first time that I manage to march into the bank or the doctors or wait at the school gate without all the mental chatter before, during and after. I have a feeling it will feel like being on holiday – mentally, at least. Until then I’ll just have to keep working at it.


The featured image used for this post is “help” by Patrick.
Terms of Use: This work is licensed under the Non-Commercial Share-Alike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Creative Commons License.

Life in France: The Healthy Eating Challenge

Since moving to France we’ve fallen into some pretty bad habits food-wise. Think white bread, full-fat cheese, yoghurts, charcuterie, pasta, and so on. On top of that we also had, for a while, an intense relationship with multipacks of chocolatines which, thankfully, we’ve managed to break. Although I’ve not been gaining weight (okay, maybe a little) I had started to feel a bit sluggish – lack of exercise and lack of sleep were also contributing to this feeling of course – but a recent trip to the doctors with a higher than usual blood pressure reading gave me the kick up the bum I needed to take a closer look at our diet.

Another reason to make the change is to save money. Food here is expensive! Whether its because of the crappy exchange rate and because we do generally still think in pounds rather than euros, we’re spending much more than we thought we would on food each week and with two small but growing and occasionally ravenous small people to accommodate, those bills aren’t going to go down unless we change the way we eat.

Before we moved we ate pretty well, combing limited red meat and pork-products with chicken, fish, and meat-free options. Here, possibly due to laziness or two-child-related time-challenges, we were suddenly eating a lot of meat, especially pork, in part because DD can always be persuaded to eat sausages and pasta and sometimes it’s easier just to cook what I know she’ll eat. For one the sausages here are high in fat, low in actual pork, and also pretty salty. Pasta, on the other hand, is cheap as long as you’re buying white pasta. Wholemeal is hard to come by in the supermarkets which means making a trip to one of the specialist Bio (organic) shops and paying through the nose.

So, how to reduce our bills while also improving our diet? Well, there are few different ways. First, I’m reducing our meat intake, totally eliminating our charcuterie intake (except for now and again) and adding more pulses and grains into our diet. This is more akin to the way we used to eat pre child #2 and our house move. I don’t think these things take any more time to prepare but they do need a little more organisation because beans and pulses need to be soaked and also sometimes precooked. Plus to make tasty veggie food you need to have a nice selection of herbs and spices handy. We’re buying in bulk again too – just like we used to – but swapping Sheffield-based Lembas who delivered to Manchester for Internet-based Buy Wholefoods Online* who deliver anywhere within the EU free for orders over £100, which makes them excellent value.  So what’s on the menu?

To make sure we’re getting plenty of protein but also cutting back on salt and cash, I’ve replaced ham and pork with chicken so instead of buying anything sliced or processed each week I buy two whole chickens which I roast. We eat hot roast chicken on the day of cooking then save the rest for lunches and dinner through the rest of the week. Then I make bone broth with the carcasses, which usually makes enough for two hearty soups. This week we tried Cock-a-Leekie (made with rice instead of barley), which went down a storm. Other weeks I’ve thrown some carrots, ginger, and peas with pasta or noodles (to soak up the broth to make sure the kids get some of it into them) which is really lovely and gives us an excuse to eat some bread. The chicken gets used through the week as sandwiches or wraps (chicken, avocado and basil is our favourite at the moment) or thrown into stir fries or a curry of some description (green thai is our current favourite.)

I’m still buying and cooking beef, which we cook either cook into a simple bolognese, adding extra vegetables to pad it out into two meals-worth, or I skip the tomatoes and mix it up with carrots, brown lentils and cumin. This is my favourite way to eat it. Adding the lentils works really well, making the meat go further, adding healthy protein, and also soaking up the flavours. James didn’t even know they were there the last time I made it.

As for the grains and pulses, so far we’ve had Aduki Bean Burgers, using a variation of the recipe on Veganuary, which went down well with James but were totally overlooked by the two small people; On-the-Fly Hummus (made from a recipe in my head) served with carrot and cucumber crudites, which is lovely; and – a regular on the scene now – Sweet Potato and Lentil Red Thai Curry, yum!

I’m not organised enough to do any meal planning yet. That tends to happen on a day-by-day basis. I’m sure we’d save a bit more money if I could do that but we rarely waste any food so I think I’m doing okay at meal planning on the fly. The main reason to get on top of this would be to reduce my mental load, as I do spend a fair amount of time staring into cupboards wondering what I can rustle up with the contents.

Of course the other way to save money is by growing your own. From the garden we’ve had tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, and radishes, with more to come.

And then there’s foraging; with so much wild, free food around here it would be rude not too. Both of these activities are also way more fun and interesting (for us and the kids) than a trip to the supermarket! I currently have a huge stash of hazelnuts begging to be turned into cocaonut spread and a similar quantity of walnuts, which I plan to make into pesto. Then there’s fruit – we’ve had damsons, grapes, apples and pears so far this year – and currently it’s mushroom season and foraging is no effort at all as there are field, parasol and even chanterelle mushrooms within 10 minutes walk from here so no excuse and what could be better than a freshly-picked mushroom! Yesterday we ate garlic mushroom and leek risotto (again, swapping the rice for barley) for lunch then used to the walnuts to make walnut, basil and feta pesto for dinner. Yummy! I’ll add the recipes for all these things in future posts.

I doubt it’s possible to live off the land without making that a focus and devoting a good amount of time to making it work, but with the right knowledge plus some outdoor space and access to plenty of water (plus the time to work on it) there’s plenty of opportunity for growing all and foraging year-round and reducing our costs while also ensuring we eat good quality organic produce. Since you pay through the nose for that here (I’ve no idea why it’s so expensive!) growing and finding food is undoubtedly the way to go. Lucky for us that’s one of the reasons we wanted to move here!

Despite not having our own land yet, I’m happy that we’re doing the best we can and it’s nice to be eating better again. Already, only a couple of weeks into the healthier eating regime, I feel better: less bloated and more energised. Hopefully that will translate into a lower blood pressure reading the next time I go to the docs rather than a symptom of the peri menopause, as she suggested. Thanks for that, doc!


Do you have any cost-saving tips for feeding a family? Maybe you’ve relocated from the UK to France or elsewhere in Europe and are surprised by the cost of food and have found clever ways to reduce your bills while also eating healthily. I’d love to hear your tips and ideas!


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Recipe: Homemade CocoaNut Spread

That’s not a typo. It’s basically homemade chocolate-hazelnut spread (otherwise known as Nutella) without all the bad stuff. Before we get started, I must warn you, this is delicious! It’s also vegan, sugar-free, and probably good for you. Not that that matters. It’s chocolaty, nutty and very tasty indeed.

After collecting a crazy amount of hazelnuts and with plenty more where they came from I needed to make some space in the cupboards so it made sense to find something to do with the nuts I had leftover from last year (obviously we weren’t here then – these were kindly given to us by our landlady.) But what to do with them? Hazelnuts, hmmm? For some reason, whenever I think of hazelnuts I think of only one thing: Nutella. Boy, do I love that stuff. When holidaying pre-kids it was one of the staples in my holiday shopping basket of baid-for-you treats. But here I am, trying to keep the kids off the sugar-waggon so the shop-made stuff was out. Could I make it myself, I wondered? A short Google later and a plan was formed. Homemade Nutella!

IMG_0435

Hazelnuts!

As is my usual way with recipes, I read a few, found one I liked then lost the link to it, which meant I was basically making it up as I went along. In the end, the recipe I “used” looks like this:

Ingredients

1.5 cups of hazelnuts
1 tbps coconut oil
2 tbps of cocoa powder

And that is all!

Method

Here’s to do it.

  1. Roast the nuts for 10 minutes at 200 degrees C.
  2. Try remove the shell. There are various ways of doing this. I tried shaking them in a wet towel after roasting but think they may have been just a little bit too well toasted for this to work. Next time I plan to soak them overnight then slipping off the shells before roasting them (as advised by one of my neighbours.)
  3. Whiz up the nuts in a food processor. I’m sure one recipe said to do this for only 10 minutes but I swear it took longer. Put them in a leave it on until the nuts have been chopped down and, with the oils from the nuts, have formed into a paste.
  4. Add the extra ingredients (oil first, if you need to add it) and then cocoa and whizz up again to combine them well.
  5. Pour into a clean jar for storage.
  6. Sample.

Result

I’ve only tried this once so far and didn’t come out quite a I expected as it was really liquid, not at all like nut butter I’ve made in the past.

Chocolate Hazelnut Spread

The result: ChocoNut spread – with no nasties!

But what it lacked in visual appeal it made up for in taste. Yum! There was a slightly bitter flavour that we put down to the fact that the skins didn’t come off the nuts. Hopefully removing them will fix that.

I recommend making as much of it as you can then trying not to eat it all at once. On bread. This stuff tastes great slathered all over a fresh, white baguette.

UPDATE! I just stumbled across the original recipe that inspired my DIY attempt. This version is over on The Minimalist Baker and uses real chocolate instead of cocoa while also giving suggested mods for the sugar-free version like mine. Next time I plan to add some vanilla (if I have some) and maybe a little salt too but will still skip the sugar.

A Tiger Moth displaying resting on a cucumber plant leaf displaying its red and black underwing.

A Month of Many Moths

Three weeks or so ago an unusual looking moth arrived in our village. The moths arrived en masse and everyone noticed them. We talked with M, our neighbour, who wasn’t sure what they were and seemed to be suggesting, at least from the way she kept gesturing towards our Morning Glory flowers and the straw bale vegetable patch, that their appearance for the first time was somehow connected with our presence and our strange new ways.

A picture of the Box Tree Moth on a piece of wooden board
One of the thousands (millions?) of Box Tree Moths that have taken over the village

I searched online and didn’t find anything. The next day M told us that she’d heard about them on the news as their arrival was something of a local phenomenon. The species was the Pyral de Buis (Box Tree Moth or Cydalima perspectalis), an invasive species that arrived in Europe via Germany in 2006, reaching France in 2009. Originally from China, it’s preferred food is box wood, on which it lays its eggs before the caterpillars hatch and duly decimate it.

For the first few days we enjoyed the spectacle, especially when, on about day three, an enormous flock of swallows also arrived, eating them on the wing. We would stand on the balcony and give the fence a shake, which would cause a huge cloud of them to take to the air, at which point the swallows would move in, chasing and swooping, picking the out of the air. Here’s a short video I shot on my phone.

​But the novelty has worn off. They are everywhere: in the house, on virtually every leaf, and busy on the figs. They seem to be here for the fruit, with the moths gathering to feed on the figs to the extent that they are crowding out the wasps who usually feast on them! Having read up a bit about them online there’s not much that can be done. There’s a pheromone trap that attracts the males but they’re expensive to buy. Our other neighbour, P, is so sick of them he’s been setting a light trap at night, content simply to reduce their numbers by a few hundred at a time. Not that it makes any difference because they’re everywhere, dead and alive; in the car, the house, in the plants, the washing – basically anything outside. The moths have basically taken over the place! Even the birds can’t keep up, visiting every three days or so, taking their fill then disappearing for a while, possibly to sleep off their feast!

While having a little potter round the village with DS I noticed they were also eating the grapes and asked another neighbour about their impact on the wine harvest, but he said something about pesticides and suggested they weren’t a problem! There isn’t any box wood in the immediate vicinity of here but there is a lot of it around so I would imagine it was being decimated as the only way to rid the plant of the caterpillars is to drench the plant repeatedly with pesticide and no-ones going to be doing that on the necessary scale anytime soon. Nice.

So there’s that.

Another new (to me) moth is this one, which I found sitting on the road.

A picture of a tiger moth, with white and brown wings, on grey concrete.

A Garden (or Great) Tiger Moth, resting on the road

When I moved it to a safer place it opened its wings slightly to reveal the stunning red hindwings. I’ve not seen one before or since so I am glad I got to photograph and identify it. It’s a tiger moth (Arctia caja)! I do think the name is a bit weird because it’s markings are more giraffe-like than tiger-like but hey. I can’t believe I’ve never seen one before, even though they’re listed as common in the UK. Beautiful!

A Tiger Moth displaying resting on a cucumber plant leaf displaying its red and black underwing.

A tiger moth showing it’s red and black spotted hindwings.

There are other creatures I’ve not seen before around but my phone keeps running out of memory so I’ve not managed to get photos, which make identification after the fact a bit difficult. The only other one I can definitely remember is the Slender Scotch Burnet (Zygaena loti), which some of the kids at the school were “playing” with when we were there the other evening. Unfortunately, one of its hindwings was broken and kids being kids they weren’t all that gentle with it. What was nice was that they were really examining it closely, as well as having made a “home” for it out of sticks, twigs, leaves and petals. In the UK this is a priority species listed in the Red Book. I hope they don’t have the same status here in France because the kids really weren’t interested in its conservation value!