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.

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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.

IMG_9704

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.

Renting again

We’ve just returned from an exploratory trip (holiday, of sorts) from the Charente and Limousin areas where we discovered there were houses with the kinds of specs we were looking for for sale within our price range. Having stumbled upon a few potential properties a couple of weeks ago we decided it would be good to get out and also to make sure we weren’t missing out by restricting our search to the area local to our current home, so I booked some accommodation with AirBnb and arranged for a neighbour to cat sit, James informed DD’s school, and we were all ready for the off on Monday morning.

It was a very interesting trip. Apart from the horrendous weather we found the property search pretty interesting. Yes, we could, if we wanted buy a property there that does, on paper at least, match our requirements. We saw two great properties: both stone buildings, small so easy to heat, with good roofs and land of between 2 and 3,000 m2. What’s not to like? Well, it would seem that a house in a place that you don’t want to live is not a house to buy. It was quite confusing really, to be in a house that ticked all our boxes and not be enthused about it but the reality was that the whole area was just too darned flat for us both. The countryside rolled endlessly in every direction. Yes, it was raining, which probably didn’t help, but it was more than that. The roads just went on and on. I realised that at no point had I had the urge to get on my bike and explore. The opposite was true in fact. The thought of going out on a ride there made my heart sink! Too many long, not quite flat, never-ending, to the horizon and back roads. No hills! No hills anywhere nearby either. It was my idea of countryside hell.

After three of the five days there we decided we’d seen everything we wanted to and set off early so we could spread the return journey over two days to make it easier for the littlies. I found a nice apartment in Cahors on AirBnb and was able to book just 24 hours before we wanted to arrive – and now we had something to look forward to again. Good. We took a slow drive down, stopping on the way to visit the mum of a friend (who has a house for sale that we wanted to check out), having a leisurely lunch with her before continuing on to the town, opting to wiggle along on back roads rather than aiming straight for the autoroute. It was lovely. We drove through the Dordogne, passing Sarlat and Domme, almost going past the door of a gite we once stayed at, and on through the Lot. It was interesting to observe how the landscape changes made us feel. I was pretty happy as soon as there were hills and wiggly roads again, preferring the more dramatic Dordogne to the Lot, where the hills started flattening out again.

After a relaxing couple of nights in Cahors we continued south, this time pitstopping at IKEA in Toulouse. Living the dream. There we were able to compare and contrast the food offerings (in the IKEA Toulouse vs IKEA Manchester/Ashton stakes, France wins hands down!) and pick up a “euro-dryer”, as the one with the gite is broken, and a step for DD so that she can use the “big toilet” on her own. She’s growing up so fast!

Finally, at about 4pm, we made it back to our “home” – feeling quite upbeat about everything. While we didn’t find a house we both felt it had been a worthwhile trip in that it had focussed our minds on what we do want. We realised we badly need to get out of this claustrophobic little hamlet and this stupidly small house so our immediate focus will be on finding somewhere to rent long term so we can get settled and start to work on our businesses. We also agreed that, when it comes to finding a permanent home, we need to be in the hills and close to the mountains. In terms of buy vs. build we have seen so much rubbish we are going to push on and build, but take our time to get our plans together and to find the right piece of land with good access, good aspect, etc. We needed to get away to get the headspace to make those decisions, as something about being in this small place makes it really hard to think straight.

So now we have a plan. It’s a far cry from Plan A (move to France and buy a house, blah, blah, blah) but it is nonetheless a plan and one that is based on reality given the confines of our budget and the general state of properties we can afford around here.

First things first though, escape from this crazy-making little hameau.

To be continued…

House Hunting is Hell

Oh, it’s been a long week. Plan A was always to buy a small house with a large garden but when we arrived all the properties we saw were so terrible we decided to investigate building instead. Plan B. That all seemed straight forward – we’d buy land, live in a van onsite, etc. – until we had a close shave with a land purchase (constructible according to the agent but no CU, according to the local Mairie), which taught us just how naive we were and how easy it would be to make a colossal mistake so decided to rethink our plan. In the end we agreed that we don’t have the language skills to properly navigate the system and – given we’re also supposed to be parenting two small children – aren’t prepared to take on the risks associated with a build. We’ve found a kit house we would like to build, if we ever get to that stage, but we don’t have the time or the money for that now because we want time to focus on our family. Plan C then became that we would use roughly half our budget to buy a small village and a small plot of agricultural land closeby. That would allow us to get on with our lives and also keep an eye out for land to build on should something become available in the areas that we like. We learn French in the meantime, earn some money, the children go so school/creche – everyone’s happy.

Plan C felt like a huge weight off. It’s claustrophobic in this little house we’re renting; effectively one small room, since we battened down the hatches to survive this cold winter, and the idea of buying a house and just getting on with life made all of us happy. We whizzed through the various agents’ websites and found quite a good list, all in areas we liked, and saw six houses in the space of two weeks. No good, for reasons I’ll get to. Our French friends say wait, something will turn up, but we have to leave here at the end of April and then where do we go? A rental property we were told about won’t allow pets and that is the only house for rent that we’ve heard of that be in the catchment for DD’s school. Rents are high – as high as they were in Manchester – which is crazy considering no-one here seems to work, and the houses aren’t great (no insulation, etc.) and we didn’t come here to rent a crappy little house; what we all want is to feel settles somewhere.

Plan C then – which was more in line with the original plan when we came here. Spend more of our budget. Just get a house in this area so that DD can continue at the maternelle she’s so happy with; any house preferably with some outside space, that we can move into straight way without having to do any work on it and buy a small plot of agricultural land for vegetable growing; live our lives, get our feet under the table, start earning and saving some money. If this smacks of desperation it’s because we feel desperate right now.

Why the rush? Well, I guess it doesn’t feel like that to us. For us this has already been a 12-month journey, starting when I lost my job and we started decluttering and making plans to move. I had DS in March and then the packing began while the decluttering continued. We came here in September and all we’ve done since then is run around looking at houses, looking at land, having heated discussions about sun exposure, thermal efficiency, market value, etc., etc., etc. And yesterday DD started crying because Lion (a giant cuddly toy she’s fond of) is in a box upstairs, along with many of her other cuddly toys. When your three-year-old daughter sobs in your arms because she’s missing her cuddly lion, your heart just breaks and you’d do anything to put it right, including deciding to have bought a house by the end of next week. She’s right too. These two kids couldn’t care less where we live as long as it’s somewhere safe and warm that we can all be happy. Home is where the heart is, for sure, and no-one ever got happy spending all their days driving around endlessly looking at houses with imminent homelessness looming over their shoulders.

Every other day I’m in tears too. It’s emotionally exhausting – made worse by “advice” from French friends who tell us that whatever the price is is too much or the sun exposure isn’t good enough; how for that money we should expect x, y, z (insert: more land, more sun, more, more, more) and just wait, wait, and wait some more for the right thing to turn up. This is made worse again by French owners who are blatantly taking the piss, probably because we’re “Rich English” folk, which we’re really not. We’re assured that there isn’t one price for the English and another for the French but another agent said as much and I think he’s right. For example, we learned that a house we’d viewed earlier this morning day, on the market with an (English) agent for 99k euros, is being advertised locally (i.e., not through an agent) for 70k. And the owner had the nerve to say to the agent he’d consider an offer of 90k. How generous of him! We viewed four properties in total today – all overpriced. One seller had the audacity to say to James with an almost straight face that the “garden”, which is actually a parcel of agricultural land a good 10 or 15-minute walk from the property, could be sold with the property for 15k euros. Apparently she paid 8,000 euros for it 8 years ago and now she wants 15,000 for half of it. Half of it! I mean seriously. Since that conversation James has busy translating some new phrases into French, including: “You have to be kidding me” and “I’m insulted that you think I’m stupid enough to pay that much.”

The search continues. I just hope we find a house before we all have nervous breakdowns!

Measles and the Anti-Vac Mood in France

Something I hadn’t considered at all when moving was that there might be different attitudes to health outside of the UK. A different language and culture I expected, or course, but as far as health goes I’d generally heard that the French have an excellent (albeit not free) healthcare system and as such had no concerns. We’re all Europeans, right? A rude awakening came my way just last Saturday when one of the women I’ve become friends with took me aside after an event to let me know that her children had been in contact with some other local children (the cousins of several boys living in our hameau) who had rougeole (measles) and were contagious the last time they all played together. Whaaaaattt!!?!?

For one, this event was one where babies were present. There were one-month-old babies there and a heavily pregnant mum-to-be, due any day, all of whom have fragile immune systems. And, of course, my unvaccinated baby. How could anyone be so foolish? Once back home and having let the news sink in, James and I started on some internet research, trying to understand the situation in France so we could decide how best to protect our children. DD had been given the MMR vaccine in the UK at 12 months, as per the schedule there, and could have a second does at any time – recommended for more thorough protection. DS, only 9 months, would usually have three months to wait before being given his routine jabs but in cases where younger babies were known to have been in contact with infected children GPs in the UK offer the vaccine earlier to babies from 9-months-old onwards.

But where to start in France? We are here on our EHIC cards and haven’t signed up to the Carte Vitale or any private medical insurance yet since until we’ve bought somewhere this whole trip may turn out to be temporary. Luckily, I remembered a conversation I’d had with someone we considered renting a house from. We’d had a nice chat on the phone and I remembered her mentioning the English-speaking doctor in Esperaza. I found the lady’s e-mail so sent her a quick message. She replied quickly with the details we needed, then it was easy enough to find the doctor’s address. James and I would be there with bells on first thing on Monday morning.

Of course, this being France there was no way to find out what time the doctor was open so we just had to turn up and see. We were met by a receptionist who was very friendly and helpful, taking us into an office and quickly booking us an appointment with the doctor, who would be in tomorrow morning. Job done. The next day we went along and explained the situation, taking along DS’s red book so we could refer to the British schedule. The doctor was very sympathetic but explained it would be best to wait two weeks to give the virus chance to come out in case he had already caught it because, if that were the case, giving a vaccine would be pointless. Hmmmm, not ideal (what if he hadn’t caught it but picked it up from someone else in the hameau during the next two weeks?) but that timing would fit with the French schedule, as they usually give the MMR at 10 months. Okay, well that would have to be okay. We handed over our EHIC cards and were given a facture (invoice) for 26 euros – the cost of a consultation – and a prescription for us to take to the chemist (and pay for) along with some really helpful advice on how to treat the symptoms of measles (primarily, high fever) if either DS or DD became ill with it. It wasn’t quite the outcome we were hoping for but we respected the doctor’s advice and that was all we could do.

A week on, the children we were originally told about still haven’t shown any symptoms. That’s 17 days after contact with the symptomatic children but we’re still on lockdown here – at least until I return from the UK in a few weeks; if anything causes me to have to cancel that trip I fear the consequences! – so why all the fuss?

I’d say that for most Brits it’s just not something we come into contact with any more, depending on the circles you move amongst, and most of the people are know are on the side of modern medicine when it comes to vaccination. Measles has all but been wiped out in countries where vaccination is the norm and, from a quick read of the data, outbreaks tend to occur within closed communities or as a result of an unvaccinated person travelling to another country where vaccination is not the norm. So why is it here in France? Well, it would seem that there are certain areas of France where the residents are particularly sceptical of vaccination to the point that even those attending the public schools will often only give the mandatory list vaccines. Since MMR is on the optional list, parents often opt not to have it administered; consequently, there are areas of France (just as in other countries) where anti-vac attitudes prevail. And it turns out we’re in one of those areas. Oh joy.

What has had me hopping madly about over this though is that I genuinely had no idea that we were living amidst this kind of mindset. The friend in question (who I know is into homeopathy) seemed to be fairly pleased at the prospect of her two children contracting measles. It beggars belief really that anyone could justify such an attitude given all we know now about immunisation and the dangers of this particular illness. The big issue for me is herd immunity: it’s fine for someone to make a decision about their own child informed by their own beliefs, that’s parenting, right? Who am I to tell you your way is wrong and mine is right? But decisions about health are bigger than that, in my mind. What about people who can’t be immunised? One of the kids in this village has a health issue that doctors are currently trying to get to the bottom of. What if he caught measles and it didn’t turn out so well for him? I’ve had a good rant and rave about this offline and really could fly into one here, so I’ll rein myself in and keep a lid on it. By coincidence, at this exact time an article on this very subject was bumped on one of the parenting groups I belong to, so I’ll share it here along with a bunch of other interesting links.

http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/dear-parents-you-are-being-lied/

Other Links
International Measles Outbreaks – https://www.verywell.com/international-measles-outbreaks-2633844
ECDC Vaccination Schedule Comparison Table – http://vaccine-schedule.ecdc.europa.eu/Pages/Scheduler.aspx
Info Rougeole – Sante publique France – http://www.info-rougeole.fr/rougeole.html
The Guardian (UK Newspaper) – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/apr/15/homeopathy-measles-mp
Quackometer (results of articles for the search term “measles”) – http://www.quackometer.net/blog/?s=measles

What do you think about this? Is it something you thought about when relocating or travelling to another country? Share your stories!

Gite mods: why you really need to think about winter if you’re buying a place to live here

When we agreed with the owners to take this place that we’d previously rented during holidays in June and September, both nice warm months, we were warned by our neighbour, Marie, who we know from those holidays, that it wasn’t very warm or well insulated and that winters here could be pretty hard. We shrugged off her concerns, naturally; we’re pretty resilient types, used to winter camping trips in the UK and also used to some pretty grim weather in our damp old house near Manchester. This is France, right, so how bad can it be? As it turns out, with a few creative modifications we’re perfectly comfortable and we’re also learning a heck of a lot that’s useful when we are looking a houses. So what have we done and why – and what does this teach us?

First up, the drafts. The building we’re in is a “renovated” barn along on old, narrow street. Luckily one side faces South, so on sunny days we benefit from the winter sun warming the wall and the roof, which means we don’t need to light the fire, even on cold days (as long as there’s sun, of course.) The downside is that whoever fixed the walls probably did it during warmer months and didn’t do a great job so when we light the fire in the evening and the air temperature inside rises inside, cold air comes pouring in through every available crack and crevice, of which there are many – some more severe than others. Our first hack involved stuffing cracks in the render with tissue paper, which is very rough and ready but works pretty well – and is great fun for DD too. Once it got colder, around mid November, we took down the thin summer curtains and replaced them with thicker, heavier ones, meaning that the room we sleep (which is the main room with the woodburner) keeps the heat better. Now, because some pretty cold weather is forecast in the next week or two, we’ve upped our game, so now the arch between the kitchen and our bed/main-room now looks like this:

Really, it’s not for everyone, is it!? That’s my 4.5 tog summer duvet right there on our wall and it’s doing a fine job of keeping the other room very cosy and snug indeed.

We’ve also had to hack the woodburner. This place only got a woodburner a few weeks into our extended stay. I think it was early October. The owners decided to put one in primarily to make winter rentals possible but, like all “good” landlords, they didn’t want to spend much money, so we have the pleasure of spending winter warmed by the Panadero Gothic 2, now out of stock but originally purchased from Mr. Bricolage for less than 200 euros. And what a billy bargain it has turned out to be. Not. I mean, seriously. The first or second fire we had caused the door to buckle, making it now impossible to fully choke down. Consequently the fire goes out usually some time between 4 and 5am every night because burns through the wood too quickly. As any wood stove aficionado knows, airflow management is the key to a successful burn. We figure we’re getting through about 25% more wood than we need to because it is burning so fast all the time. And of course there’s the waking up cold at 5am thing. James has managed to hack the stove, improving this slightly, by stuffing the gaps and cracks with foil. It’s not pretty but it works.

Then then are the handles. That’s the handle for the door and the knob that is used for the vent. You’d think it would be a good idea to equip a wood burning stove with handles made out of a heat resistant material but no, not the bottom of the range Panadero Gothic. This meant that they too suffered in the heat, breaking into pieces within the first week or two of usage. Brilliant. James fixed them with wood glue but now that’s given way too. Perhaps there was a label somewhere saying that this particular model is for decorative purposes only but it was in French so the owners missed it? That would make more sense of why anyone would buy this. It does look okay, I suppose. But at least with the hacks, which you can see in the picture over on my other post about the rainy day, it is functioning. Thank goodness for aluminium foil!

This whole experience is teaching us so much more than we thought we needed to know; we learn something new every day. So what are we learning from tin foil door handles and duvets for curtains and why am I writing about it here? Well, fundamentally, the big lesson for us or anyone moving to a hotter climate than they’re used and buying (or renting) a house to live in year round, is to think about winter and what that means in terms of heating and cost. That’s why James is being so meticulous about checking the sun exposure to every property we look at. Essentially it’s why we haven’t bought one yet, too! We are really glad we’re doing this now because we can see how it would be all too easy to turn up in France or elsewhere during the summer when the sun is high and the air is warm and to be swept off our feet by some land or a property only to find that we are saddled with somewhere cold and expensive to heat during the winter. As a pretty extreme example we were shown a gorgeous plot of land – on the side of a hill, lined with trees, totally private and secluded, away from the main village – that felt right. When James first saw it he was so excited because he loved it and he knew I would too. It ticked many of our boxes but, knowing how cold it can get, James went up there early one morning to check the time when the sun would hit the site – and it’s a good job he did, because it didn’t! He came home two hours later, freezing cold, relieved to be able to sit on our South facing balcony to warm up. It was exactly 10 degrees warmer here than there. Can you imagine!?He went back later to check with the fancy Sunseeker 3D app and that was the end of that because it turns out there’s no sun hitting that plot for more than 30-minutes each day in winter. Brrrrr. The sun is so important here in winter. As is having a warm, well-insulated house that is cheap to heat.

The money side is critically important unless you have money to burn, literally. As another example, we were put off renting a large villa-style house only a few miles from here after being told by the owners told to expect a 2,000 euro bill for heating during winter. Two thousand! The owners typically live there all year round and, get this, said they only heat the main room and one of the bedrooms – and still it costs two grand to heat during winter. And we’ve read stories online where that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Heating bills of 6- even 7-thousand euros are not unimaginable. In contrast, one stere of wood (equivalent to a cubic meter measured as a single scoop of the JCB), is costing us about 75 euros and we’ve had five and a half so far (one lasts just less a month) and we expect that will see us through to March now we’ve erected the duvet mod. We’d have spent less if this dumb stove could take 50cm pieces of wood (65 euros per stere instead of 75) but it can’t. That’s not bad though, is it. Plus we know how much we’re spending because we buy it then we burn it. The idea of being on mains gas or oil central heating, where you can just pop it on or turn it up if you feel cold to get hit by a bill later, is terrifying. If you just want to spend summers here, fine, you don’t need to be so discerning. But we do so we must; as much as it works, I’d rather not spend all my future winters huddled in one room with duvets for doors but I also don’t intend to spend what’s likely to be two-month’s wages on heating!

And buy a decent stove. Period.

Our first Christmas in France

While we’re in no way religious, Christmas has always been a special holiday for me. I think it goes back to my University years, when I looked forward to coming home, meeting up with old school friends who had gone our separate ways and also, of course, reconnecting with family. Since settling down the draw back to “home” dimished, as we took it in turns to spend time with each other’s family, or friends, or just to have a quiet time together. Now, with two children in tow and DD of an age where Christmas is meaningful, it feels even more like the right time to just hang out at home together rather than getting sucked in to the existing Christmas traditions our parents initiated. What do I mean by that? Well, a downside of Christmas for me was always the way it happened the same way every year, at my parent’s house at least, and always centred around food and TV. You could call it gluttony but that’s in part due to the fact that my Mum always stocks up her three fridges (yes, she has three – albeit one that is only switched on over Christmas) as though we’re home for 3  weeks from Uni rather than just passing through over 2 or 3 days. It always felt like we just got together to eat and watch TV and since James and I aren’t really TV watchers there was never anything appealing about the Eastenders/Casualty/Coronation Street/*[insert name of other regular TV show] Christmas special, or any TV, really. We would sit around eating and pretending to laugh along while the fans in the room tried to fill us in on what had happened since we last watched any of the shows. The only thing worse than soaps is someone trying to bring you up to speed on everything that’s happened since you last watched the programme in question, particularly when you last watched it the best part of 20 years ago!

Then there’s the consumerism of it all. My parents go into overdrive when it comes to presents and I know, looking back, that I was pretty greedy and ungrateful. I have memories of ripping paper off with heady abandon, going for quantity over quality, with Christmas presents done and dusted by 7am after some heavy-duty trading with my sister over this and that. We had so many presents – a huge sack plus a stocking; it was too much. Since DD arrived, we’ve tried hard to keep her away from shops in general, supermarkets in particular (in the UK, anyway) and have restricted screen time to movies on DVD, so she’s rarely exposed to advertising, which helps alot and means when asked what she would like she is usually pretty individual in her choices. You won’t find Peppa Pig here, thank goodness!

And so it was we had our first Christmas in France. What a contrast to “home”! Honestly, while there are lights in the towns and decorated trees around, the place is so un-Christmassy it almost passed us by. We did the last of the Christmas shopping (all the food and presents for the littlies) on the 23rd, didn’t do much at all on the 24th other than enjoy a walk have lunch in the sunshine on the terrace – unthinkable in the UK at this time of year! – and had a very mellow and relaxing day on the day itself.

It was interesting to spend Christmas with DD this year as it’s the first year she’s had any idea about Father Christmas. In the run up we listened to her Christmas CD of stories and songs, a gift from my parents two years ago, at least 5 times each day, so you could say she was very much in the mood! On the night itself she couldn’t sleep, wanting to watch him making his way around the world courtesy of Norad, and when she finally did I wondered what time she’d wake, as I still remember waking excitedly at about 5am then ripping all my present open. At it was she slept until a reasonable 8am and her first thought was not about presents. If anything it was me willing her to see the pile or presents we’d sneaked in the night before. I was impressed by her restraint but also a little worried. I felt like grabbing her by the shoulders and yelling, “It’s Christmas!! Where are your presents!?!?!” DS, bless him, lay there snorning his little face off for at least another hour after DD woke up but was eventually woken by his sister’s excited squeals. Not long after James was persuaded to emerge from his duvet and as soon as the fire was lit and the first cup of coffee had been sipped, present opening began.

With fairly strict limits in place for Christmas purchases* we had that part of Christmas over by 9.10am. Then it was time to Facetime my parents., who were just having their breakfast, getting ready to travel down to my sister’s for Christmas lunch there. Next, breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast with more coffee for us (we drank our bottle of fizz the previous night and were feeling a little the worse for wear!), clearing up, and we were heading into 11am. Then it was time for DS’s nap – now overdue by an hour – so James played with DD while I ordered just-in-time Amazon vouchers for my nephews. By the time DS woke up it was getting on for lunch time. I remember thinking how nice it was that we weren’t rushing around anywhere, expected here or there or even expecting anyone round, just huddled in our little home with the fire burning, with no pressure, no excess.

Lunch was similarly low-key. I can’t even remember what we had. Fish finger sandwiches, perhaps? We had some ice-cream for pudding – a Christmas treat shared early in the day to ensure DD could run it all off by bedtime – then it was nap time again. But DD was so excited there was no way she could nap so we got ourselves organised and, since the sun had come out, headed out for a walk.

By the time we got back it was starting to cool down outside so we stoked up the fire and curled up with DD’s new DVD to kill the time until dinner. There was no way I was going to go to the bother of making a full on Christmas dinner for two small children who couldn’t have cared less and James, who had requested beans on toast (er, no) so we had homemade chicken kievs – one of my favourite meals – timed nicely to coincide with the end of the movie, then showers for the littlies and bed. DD hadn’t napped so she was in bed at a sensible time for a change leaving us to reflect on our first Christmas as a foursome. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of traditions we’ll end up creating for ourselves, ones that our children will come to expect as they grow older. Going for a walk is something James and I have always done when it’s just been the two of us for Christmas, and I like eating a simple, fuss-free meal later in the day. Maybe that’ll be our thing? It was also nice too huddle round the fire, watching a film together, as well letting both littlies have time and space just to enjoy their new toys. Who knows what we’ll do next year – or where we’ll be but this Christmas was just right for us right now.

Merry Christmas, everyone! xx

* For DD and now DS we have a “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read” policy plus a small stocking and a single gift from Santa each, as much to keep our spending in check as keep DD’s expectations in check.