MiMi and Monsieur Albert

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One summer in France we were adopted by two little Kittens. We treated them for fleas, wormed them, “de-mited” their ears, put collars on them and arranged for Monsieur Albert who lives across the street to feed them. We hoped they would be OK. They were both girls and we could not arrange for them to be neutered before we had to leave to go back home. So it would be a hard life for the poor little creatures. They were so cheeky and friendly we just fell in love with them. So did Monsieur Albert thank heavens. Our plan was to press to get them to the vets when we went back in 6 months time.

One of these little cats became MiMi and the other Prune. Prune adopted our neighbours from behind and MiMi decided to live with Monsieur Albert.

Hence we share responsibility for MiMi with Monsieur. When we arrived back in France a few months after first meeting MiMi as a kitten she was living in a big drum in Monsieur’s work shop. She had two kittens. When ever we went over to look at them she appeared from no-where.  The minute we went near those babies she was there watching us and trying to hide them. She is such a little mite herself and the way she glowered at Davis and his camera had to be seen to be believed. “Come any closer with that device and I’ll tear you limb from limb!” She looked very serious.

Monsieur Albert called me over to inspect the new cat box he had built for Mimi and her offspring. He was very proud of it. It looked like a rabbit hutch lying on its back with the wire netting uppermost. At first it appalled Mimi and she kept removing the “Chatons” (Kitties), but Monsieur managed to persuade her that she needed to be upwardly mobile in the real-estate world and she settled in grudgingly. MiMi had found the old drum extremely comfortable and secure.

Monsieur Albert had a lot of trouble with those kittens. Kitten trouble. They were “Here! There! and Everywhere!” He shook his head in an exhausted fashion and said “Oh La la!”  He couldn’t keep up with them. They were very pretty and had deserted his rabbit-hutch affair for an old fruit box he had placed by the door. He was mystified as to why they would give up the Ritz of Cat accommodation to sleep in a rough old fruit box. But I knew why. It is because the fruit box was up on a bench and the cat Ritz on the floor. Cats love a vantage point. It suits their sense of natural superiority.

We knew that Monsieur Albert would miss the kittens when they went to their new homes. I took over some kitten food for them which offended Monsieur. “Kitten Food!. But already they eat cat food!”  I talked him into keeping the cans for kitties, but he didn’t want to. He seemed to think that I was molly-coddling his cats and would do them no good at all.  Soon I hoped to take MiMi to the vet. At that stage MiMi was still very protective of the little ones, but they had started on solid food. So that was good.

I was reminded again of that book “We need to have a Talk about Kevin” when I saw how Monsieur favoured the female kitten. He brushed the little male aside and spent ages training the tiny female to try to climb up his arm. The small male sat there whingeing plaintively and Monsieur scolded him and telling him he is “Malin! Tu est malin toi!” – Naughty! you are naughty You!” Poor little cat. Predestined to naughtiness because Monsieur Albert knows that is the way of the world. Males are more likely to be troublesome.

We were out in the garden and Monsieur Albert came over to tell le Patron (as he calls Davis) that he could take a photo of the kittens if he wanted to. The kittens had ventured out through MiMi’s cat door and they looked so surprised as they emerged and tumbled onto the step with no control at all. Monsieur clearly thought that these babies were worthy of a photograph. I was a bit chagrined because it doesn’t take much to get the good Doctor to abandon his gardening fork and spade and pick up the camera. However, I agreed that the kitties looked  “very naughty” as Monsieur Albert said shaking his fist so fiercely you would swear he was talking about the Bolsheviks.

Monsieur Albert lives alone. We watched him feeding the kittens from his finger one morning. So patient. They were sitting side by side on the chair looking  adorable. And he put a morsel of food on his finger and gave it to them one at a time. Davis and I went into the vet to see about getting MiMi neutered. The vet said MiMi should have the operation immediately. Any longer and she might get pregnant again. Monsieur however, thought otherwise. We had to enlist the aid of our French agent to help persuade him.  We bought some more flea and worming medication for them all and it costs a fortune (same as at home). The operation is very expensive too. But it seemed the right thing to do if we could convince Monsieur.

The little moggy looked a bit less disheveled after we had wormed her and dressed her in a red collar. I gave Monsieur the drops to worm the kittens when they reached 6 weeks, but he was mystified as to why they would need them. “Worms? Worms? I do not think they have any worms!” So I didn’t like their chances of getting done. I put MiMi’s worming drops on her neck with my own hand. He still doted on the little female kitten and tried to ignore the male, but the little male was not having any of it. He ran and climbed up Monsieurs trousers and hung on fiercely. It made Monsieur laugh delightedly. We could hear him talking to them all day. They would be lovely tame cats for whomever adopted them. Mimi is not a really tame cat and for ages she only let me touch her in Monsieur’s presence.

Monsieur Albert came over this to inform us that the kittens had gone to their new home.  He seemed a bit down but MiMi seemed OK. Job well done mother. They have just moved up the road. We planned to take MiMi into the vet the next week. Or Friday perhaps. Monsieur was not at all keen. He has not a lot of faith in Vets. He kept saying “Oh don’t trouble yourselves!” Then he wanted us to wait another 4 weeks after the kittens had gone. MiMi would be in the family way again by then.

We had MiMi booked in for the following Monday, but I thought it would be too late. She was calling out to her swains around the place. Monsieur was finally persuaded that it was not too soon when I pointed out the 2 Tom cats waiting outside his door and suggested that they might have been the fathers of her earlier kittens. He looked very surprised and turned and surveyed MiMi and said “But she is a good cat! Elle est mignon ne c’est pas? She is cute is she not?” As if that would protect her. He was building yet another box for us to use to transport her.

When we went in to the Vet to discuss the MiMi situation. We went through the entire, long conversation in French – with the vet explaining things to us in great detail several times because, as she warmed to her subject, she would speed up and at times we had a bit of difficulty keeping up.  So we had to keep stopping her and asking her to slow down. But we understood her well enough in the end. As we were leaving she ran through it all in English for us. They are funny the French. She could have saved herself a lot of time, but then we would not have had such a good French lesson. It was useful because when we were trying to persuade Monsieur we had all the correct French jargon.  He was hammering and banging away at making his Darling a cat box for her transport. His way of contributing and feeling involved.

Monday was MiMis day and we took her in at 9 am. We were up at 7.30am and that was the earliest we had been out of bed in the miserable weather. I went over to collect her from Monsieur Albert and he had her in his arms. He whispered to me so that MiMi couldn’t hear him. “Get the box!” I didn’t catch it the first time and he leaned over and mimed elaborately “Get the cat-box!” So I got it and he deposited MiMi therein. Monsieur looked very forlorn as we packed her into the car and drove off. She hardly said a word. Once she heard us say her name in conversation and gave a little peep of a “Meow” in response. Not like Madam Pops at home who screams with indignation at the very sight of the cat-box. Queen of the house is suddenly being treated like a cat!

The vet phoned at 12md to tell us that the operation proceeded well “toute rouler bien!” (all went well) and that MiMi was “resting tranquilly”. We went back to fetch her at 5.30pm. I had been terribly anxious in case the operation might have killed her and we would have to face Monsieur. He only allowed it because we insisted.  So I hoped it all worked out for the best. He understood that it was for the best in theory, but he was afraid for her. She is such a tiny creature with the biggest round eyes you have ever seen on a cat.

When we collected MiMi at 5.30pm she was more than ready to come home even though her I.V. drip was still to be removed. The vet gave us strict instructions that she should be kept inside the house for 24 hours and not to eat anything. She could drink something, but no food. So we explained it all to Monsieur Albert and gave him the special food she is to eat when she was back on solids. He put on his glasses to attend us better and seemed to understand everything. So we left him raining endearments down upon his Darling’s head. She was still in the cat-box at that stage. A few minutes later we looked up and, who was over at our place eating a hearty meal put out for the other cats, but “herself”. Davis called out in surprise and we all went rushing out in time to see her vanishing up the road. Monsieur appeared waving his arms and calling out that as soon as he had opened the cat-box she had just “shot away”.

 

We all retreated quietly hoping she would come home – which she did immediately. Monsieur talked to her gently and tried to reason with her – indeed he thought himself successful.  He called out triumphantly :”I have her! Tout va Bien! (All goes well)” And peace descended on our little corner of the world. We retired to our belated happy-hour celebration.  About 15 minutes later I looked out and saw a tiny, brindled bottom parked determinedly beside the food bowl again. She had escaped despite Monsieur having talked it over with her and put her on her honour. She had decided that she was hungry and that was that.

 

It reminded me of Davis’ Intensive Care web discussion page that he checks every morning. One of the Doctors said that he used to take his cat into the Vet Science School to donate cat blood when they had emergencies. The Doctor owner said : “Tancredi (the cat) had told me he was not going to do it again – and he was right!”  Unless you are a cat person you might not realise how amusing that is, but every cat-lover will recognise it.  Cats are very determined creatures.
So, MiMi enjoyed a meal before I discovered her and then, and only then, she retired to accept Monsieur‘s ministrations – and NOT BEFORE. I was quite anxious about it, but David laughed and said “This is a tough, feral, little Moggy. She knows what is good for her.” I hoped he was right and I suspected he would be. The Vet said she was a healthy little cat with no fleas, ear mites or other parasites. Good teeth too.  So Monsieur (and her co-owners ) have done a good job on her.
5911738515_97cda5093f_oMiMi
We came back from taking MiMi in to the vet for her post-op check-up. She was fine. When we brought her home and handed her over to Monsieur Albert he presented us with a hand-made cement vase. White cement and studded with mussel shells. It  is an extraordinary looking specimen and he showed us how he made it with white cement etc. This is to thank us for our help with MiMi. He told us not to leave it outside of the house because it would be stolen “toute suite”  (immediately)”. The Good Soul.

 

MiMi seemed to be doing well. On the last day before we left to drive up to Paris the neighbour from behind us came over looking for the other small cat who is MiMi’s sister.  We had put a collar on her last November along with MMi. She is a very personable little cat (if one can call a cat personable). Extremely friendly and good-looking. Bigger than MiMi. The neighbours behind us had adopted her and named her “Prune”. Watching a French person grimace in order to give “Prune” its correct English pronunciation is a sight to behold.

 

I was upstairs packing and they were down below my window shouting up to me. They had no doubt heard all about our deep (and some times unwelcome) interest in MiMi and all the goings on with her because when I asked for a description of Prune they fixed me with stern, assessing gazes and said “She is just like MIMI!” As if to say that they were perfectly well aware that I was acquainted with Prune and that I am not to be trusted within a mile of anyone’s pet cat. I told them I would keep an eye out for her. I was glad when she turned up. They thought I had her in my bags I’m certain.

 

I watched an interesting documentary featuring cats. It was Sir Trevor Howard (BBC) inside death row in America. He went in and interviewed several of the 12 men on Death row. It was fascinating. The men all seem so child-like. Most have been there since they were children so they are a bit like the Carmelite nuns who don’t really get much of a chance to interact with the world and mature out of that child-like manner.  When they are finally allowed to speak they are amazingly girlish. One of these men had been there on Death Row for 25 years and he went in at  15 years of age. He murdered two people when he was 13 years old. He had educated himself and could discuss metaphysics sensibly. It is a paradox that he has spent all these years on Death Row getting a wonderful education where as if he had been outside he would almost certainly be dead. Like those Memphis teenagers wrongly imprisoned as children for murder. They went in to prison as extremely under-priveledged, under-educated waifs and when their sentence was finally over-turned they emerged as articulate, educated men. Some small compensation I suppose.

If the men on death row earn the privilege they are permitted to keep a cat. They apply and get them as tiny kittens and you have never seen such devoted cat-lovers. The men have not experienced anything like it in their lives before and it exhibits that they are not psychopathic. One man had been there 10 years or so with his much loved cat. The cat had a crucifix hanging from its collar and the man’s face softened and doted as he introduced her. When these men are interviewed over the years they are always asked about remorse and they have their answers off pat. It becomes extremely mechanical, but this man said sadly: “I love this cat, I adore her. I almost worship her, but if I could undo what I have done I would give her up even.” It convinced me. As a beaten child of a drunken, violent step-father his first experience of unconditional love was from the cat.
We saw a TV program on unlikely cross species friendships the other night and it showed some really funny pairings. The secret to all of their friendships was in the fact that they had all known each other as babies. A taboo in the animal kingdom against eating your brothers and sisters. They showed some really funny footage of a barn cat who gave birth to her kittens at the same time as a bunch of little golden ducklings hatched. The cat, who would normally have put on her bib and tucker to eat these small birds, adopted them with her kitties. She had such trouble with them too. They kept escaping the nest and she had to spend so much time catching them and bringing them back to the warm. They showed footage of them later and the cat was still being trailed by fully grown, big white ducks.

 

A year after her encounter with the vet  MiMi and I pruned the rest of the roses. She sat at the bottom of the ladder “peeping” at me. She wondered if all this ladderwork was really necessary when I could be sitting down playing with a small cat. In the evening as I was lying on the couch reading I heard a “peep” and saw a tiny stripey face peering around the edge of
the couch at me. She was longing to come over to me, but found
herself unable to muster the courage.
When we were out having lunch (again accompanied by MiMi) we were visited by a beautiful, young Tom cat-strong and lithe. He had a grey and white face with a wonderful spray of white whiskers.  We were sure that he was one of her MiMi’s kittens from last year. He has the same markings. He is twice as big as MiMi who is a petite little baggage. She is very territorial and guards our front yard as her very own. She sees off all the other cats, but she allowed this young chap to come up and bump noses with her – go over and inspect her food bowl. So she knows him.
I was watching MiMi walking toward me one day and it suddenly
occurred to me that the origin of the term “cat-walk” may not only be
referring to the narrow stage the models walk upon, but a description
of the way the girls actually walk on that narrow platform. She is
very dainty. She lifts each paw high in front of her and places it
down very precisely and neatly across the mid-line of her body. It
makes her sway in a pretty, prancing manner that is very reminiscent
of the models sauntering along the “cat-walk”. She seemed very healthy.

We called into the Vet to get some worming medication for her. We
put a new collar on her and I bought a knock ’em down toy for
her, but so far she has disdained it. She will dab at our hands playfully, but it is another conceptual leap to understand a toy made especially for her.

 Mothering is an important part of life I guess and we are glad that MiMi has had the experience, but now she will live longer to comfort all of us. She is such a help in the garden.

 When we were in Mirepoix for a visit we were befriended by the most beautiful, creamy, long haired, green eyed oriental kitten. She came to our door and yelled loudly to be let in – which, of course, we did. She reminded us so much of our Ozzie Pops. When we walked off up the street, she accompanied us down the entire length of the block with her cries getting louder and more strident as we went along. Finally she stopped at the corner but she continued to yell after us reproachfully. It nearly broke my heart. I remarked to Davis  “I think that is my cat.” “No it is not.” said he. “Yes I think it is” said I. “No one is caring for her. No collar and such a tiny and beautiful person should not be out wandering the streets. I am going to take her home to Monsieur Albert.” “No you are not!” and his brown eyes were fixed on me sternly as if he just would not put it past me to snaffle that moggy.

France: More on Dogs and Horses

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Henry Ward Beecher: (abolitionist) For fidelity devotion love, many a two-legged animal (man) is below the dog and the horse. Happy would it be for thousands of people if they could stand at last before the Judgement Seat and say “I have loved as truly and I have lived as decently as my dog”. And yet we call them “only animals!”

Dostoyevsky: “Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave traces of your foulness after you- alas, it is true of almost every one of us! “Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

One of the wonderful things about life in a French village is that there are animals everywhere: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, hunting hounds, game birds, deer, rabbits, hares and hedgehogs for starters. The French are animal lovers – notwithstanding the fact that they are perfectly happy to eat their fellow creatures.

In a nearby town on the 27th of each month, regardless of which day of the week it falls upon, there is an agricultural fair. We try not to miss it when we are in France because it is a true, rustic idyll straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel (only French). Balzac or Flaubert would be the French approximates. Flaubert has Emma Bovary attend a local agricultural fair at Yonville. The farmers are there in great numbers to inspect the animals and perhaps to buy or sell some. Every sort of farm animal one can think of is there on display and for sale: Horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, birds of all kinds, rabbits, dogs and so on.

There are scores of trestle tables laden with farm products and equipment.  The pepinieres are there with truckloads of plants and trees ready for planting; and all the equipment necessary for running the farms is available. Labourers with various skills for sale stand around dressed for the role hoping for employment. I was hard put not to gape and point my camera at the shepherds in their tunics and holding their crooks.

Once. when we were out on a country walk, we came across a farmyard: roosters, hens, geese, dogs, cats and lots of hutches housing an exotic variety of rabbits – lop-eared and otherwise. Madame spotted us peeking in and gestured for us to come over to admire her menagerie. She opened one of the cages and hauled out a wonderful, butter-fat, lop-eared bunny that she placed in my arms. Docile and dozy, it enchanted us and we were full of admiration. I asked Madame why she kept so many bunnies. “Pour manger!” (for eating)  she said with an air of surprise. Why else would one breed rabbits?

4903738178_70175bed99_zPatience on a monument

We have made the acquaintance of most of the local pets be they horses, cats or dogs. We are regular visitors to their paddocks and gardens. We equip ourselves with bread, corn, dandelions and whatever we can think of that might exhibit our good will. Sometimes they remain stubbornly aloof, but we never tire of trying to commune with them.  We stopped one day to admire some baby, black lambs. We walked down the field and Davis had his tele-photo lens at the ready because we thought the sheep might be a bit timid when they saw us. Not a bit of it. They turned, saw us and came at us en masse galloping like the Charge of the Light Brigade.  About 15-20 of them. We could hear them thundering along. They skidded to a stop beside us and looked up at us with profound and heart-breaking expectation. But we had nothing to give them except our admiration. They were as tame as pets. They let us stroke them and when they realized we didn’t have anything for them they sloped off baahing disgustedly. Talk about raising a person’s hopes to no avail! There ought to be a law against it.

Floating in the fields, their slender legs not apparent through the grass, there are picturesque sheep everywhere, fat and fluffy. Sometimes we stop to admire them and “baa baa” at them companionably. They lift their black faces and, still chewing, they regard us with alien eyes, but make little reply. We suspect that French sheep do not speak in “baa baas”.  French ducks after all, say, “coin-coin” instead of “quack-quack”. My misgivings concerning the correct way to address a French sheep were heightened because one summer, one of them, a magnificent and sociable fellow was in residence in a field adjoining our back garden. His field itself is next-door to a kennel in which abide pack of handsome and vocally gifted hunting hounds.

The field is home to different creatures from season to season: a horse, now geese, and on this occasion, I have no idea why, a wonderful talkative sheep. Spying me out in the garden weeding he would come to the nearest corner and “baa!” at me imperiously in an attempt to communicate something about the circumstances in which he found himself. When I grew tired of stooping I would take a walk over to parley with him, but with the best will in the world, we were unable to achieve much more than mutual admiration. Nevertheless, I am not so sure that the philosopher Wittgenstein is correct when he says that even if a lion (in this case a sheep), could speak, we would not understand him.  His experience of the world is so different to our own. The sheep looked at me and I looked at him. It seemed to be enough. Something was understood between us.

 

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Another such encounter occurred when, on a drive to a nearby village, we came around a bend to discover a big white boof-head standing as if waiting for the “walk” sign before crossing the road. He had a good long look at us. “What are you doing?” we asked. “What business is it of yours?” he stared us down. We tried to shoo him back into his paddock where all his companions seemed to be, but he gave us a huge and indignant “MOOooo” so we edged around him and  left him to it. He was out of sorts no doubt because they hate being separated from their companions. It causes them real anxiety because they are herd animals.

If we happen to be on the road near the local dairy when the farmer moves his herd from one paddock to another we have the happy experience of sitting there as the cows mooch past shouldering the car as they bump by at a a calm pace. Most of them find it necessary to have a really careful, long look at us through the windows and at very close proximity. It is another of those “Am I looking at you or are you looking at me?” situations.

Further along on the same day that we were dispatched about our business by the white calf we came across a wonderful big duck wandering nonchalantly along the foot path as if he were off to attend an important meeting. The feathers on his head were all standing up in a cantankerous quiff.  He clearly had in mind to go somewhere special. He gave us a very cursory glance as he waddled by – despite our attempts to engage him in conversation. Davis said “Perhaps he knows what we had for dinner the other night.”

We used to drive by a particular garden often to see a wonderful spotty pig and suddenly he disappeared. We convinced ourselves that he had become the dinner of his devoted owner. He had been gone for nearly 2 years and, miracle of miracles, there he was! Looking at us with his mild and inquisitive piggy gaze. “Are you looking at me? Or am I looking at you?” We were so happy to see him because we had grieved for him. His owner had seemed very fond of him. The pig played around his feet having his ears scratched occasionally as they worked in the garden. When his owner is there he frolics around his feet – friendly as a puppy. Sometimes he goes “skitter pig” and dances about the field in a corpulent rendition of joie de Porker.  We should have had more faith. Yet the French do tend to think nothing of eating their pets. It is the same pig there is no doubt because we have several photos of him and his spots are identical.

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We showed our lovely, freckly, pet pig to our visiting cousin who remained resolutely disinterested. The pig himself was lying curled up in a spotty heap having a nap against a warm stone wall. His enormous, dotty belly ballooning around him and his sweet, piggy face peaceful with slumber. It appalled us that our guest was impervious to his considerable charms. The man has no heart and no eye for extraordinary beauty. Like Basset hounds, this particular porker has the transcendent beauty of sublime ugliness (as Kant would describe it). We just love that huge lump of lard. As the saying goes: the way to a person’s heart is “to praise the beloved.” Our visitor missed a big opportunity there. We would have felt very warmly toward him if he had only admired our beloved spotty friend.
 

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We walk to the edge of the village to feed an old horse of our acquaintence. He is a crabby old Neddy that is for sure. He will eat the apples, carrots and bread out of our hands, but flatly refuses to allow us to pat him. No liberties of any kind. His carer came out one day and explained that the horse, whom we call Brunellus, is 34 years old. That means he is a nonagenarian in human terms. He became part of the family when the daughter of the house-hold was a child. The daughter is now married with children of her own and Brunellus remains.

5888729042_867dccd626_zTatin and his friend Tartine

One evening while we were sitting out in the garden at happy hour we were visited by the huge 4 year old draught horse and his life companion – a small donkey. The draught horse is a deep reddish gold with lighter gold mane, tail and frilly, golden feet. They were being taken on a promenade from one field to another. As they walked by our front gate the horse‘s proud owner heard our exclamations and they stopped in their tracks to receive our admiration. We took some photos of the enormous horse standing with his head through our gate-way and his bottom out onto the street. (I was feeding him bread.) Davis crept around behind to take a photo of the lovely round BTM, but the owner spied him and quickly turned “Tatin du Champs” around to face the camera so that Davis could get him from his best angle. The besotted owner kept saying “He is gentle. He is good. Look at his beautiful feet!” and other such doting remarks. He told us that, on the occasions when they harness the horse to plow their little vegetable field, the Donkey stays behind in their home paddock and cries. Sobs. (as you would of course).

5888159937_9a0b2716c2_zTatin pays an afternoon call

Dogs have participated in human social groups since we lived in caves. Studies done by reputable scientists demonstrate that even though humans are more closely related to chimps, dogs understand us much better than do those closest relatives. Dogs will follow the human gaze to discover what it is we are looking at, while a chimpanzee will not. The French respond to this sympathy and the long association between man and dog with deep devotion. Their dogs are more indulged than most children. They accompany their human companions to church, on public transport, to restaurants, shopping and everywhere humans go, dogs go too. They are better behaved than many Australian children. Alarmingly however, the French still think it permissible to dock their best friends’ ears while in Australia we have largely abandoned that cruel practice.

In the country villages many of the towns people keep hunting hounds. We have a beautiful pack living nearby and we can hear them baying for breakfast. When we succumb to the temptation to visit, they turn their faces skyward and through perfectly pursed lips they greet us with a full-throated concert. I lean into their kennel and the most intrepid leap to lick my fingers, grateful for any human attention even if it is not their beloved hunter.

Often people who are not even hunters will keep a pack of four or five large, handsome dogs. Dogs and their keepers go out running en famille. On many occasions when we are out walking through the hedgerows, a few well-cared for, well-mannered dogs join us, willing to give us a try as potential walking companions. They oblige us with their company for short time but since we stop to pick the berries and take photos, most often, they are forced to abandon us as too slow for them to tolerate and we part with no ill feelings. In nearly every car in the supermarket car park there is a trusty mutt on duty overseeing the family’s property. More often than not a lovingly constructed and elaborate bed has been provided for the car’s four-legged custodian.

Once at a fair we came across a woman selling Lancier puppies. They were like huge white fluffy balls as they slept calmly in their playpen. Beside the pen their mother sat with sweet dignity greeting and being greeted by all the passers by. She would smile and raise her white paw to shake hands politely and the recipients of her courtesy would all fall about in enchanted delight. Lanciers are the dogs that shepherds place in flocks of sheep in order to protect them against predators. The dog looks just like a big white sheep (only much more intelligent) and it becomes emotionally attached to its herd and guards them with its life. We had trouble tearing ourselves away from that beautiful creature.

While we were having brunch one day in the garden a beautiful Belgian Shepherd came bounding in under the mistaken impression that we were waiting for her to join us at table. She must have been just out of her puppydom because she was very friendly and skitter-brained. Her frustrated little owner came rushing in and tried to drag her out by the scruff of her neck, but she flopped and declined to be moved. She found our company so congenial. Eventually Davis and the owner had to carry this huge creature out through the front gate where, as soon as they deposited her on the ground, she took off as full throttle after MiMi. She finally understood what was required of her. To deal with this pesky, previous cat. Fortunately the small cat was more than a match for Her Galumphingness.

There are handsome dogs everywhere in the village. We were driving along a country road we spotted and a beautiful golden retriever who was trotting along the road sniffing at this and that and completely alone. Davis said “Lets say hello to him!” so we stopped and wound down the window of the car to greet him. He trotted up to the car and, looking troubled, he peered in at Davis. Then he leaned round Davis to get a better look at me. His face was a picture of curious consternation. “Do I know you?” then he decided that he didn’t know us and returned calmly to his sniffing. “Don’t know you at all! Don’t know why you’re wasting my time”.

 8210806306_3a24e3fa20_oSt. Bernard keeping the guard

Finding Tourners

 

Tourners

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We were down to the last few days of our expedition to find a French Home. I began to sense in Davis a grim determination to see every house in the district. I was Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote in this quest and he had convinced me that the house that we had come to the other side of the world to see, Coeur de Prieur,  was out of the question.  Too much work needed to make it habitable. Accordingly I had subsided into sight-seeing mode. But the Don’s determination was not as easily subdued.

The real estate agent, Mme. Di., had another house to show us. It was situated on the edge of a small village. When the widow and her family who owned the property decided to sell it the angry tenants had damaged it. They left taking some of the marble fireplaces surrounds with them. This house had been the property of the one family for the last 150 years, but probably because of the difficult French inheritance laws the Moinet family found themselves obliged to sell. It was a sad thing for the family and for the house.

In its four attics, one almost as big as a tennis court, we found piles of children’s school exercise-books over a hundred years old; the painstaking copying exercises as generations of the children of the family learned to write in that distinctive French style.

As with the other houses we viewed we recorded a video of the first moments we saw Tournasol. My breath was visible in the cold air as I opened wide the rusty iron gate and made my way across a large drive-in entry area and the front garden, through another smaller iron gate. The internal courtyard gate was almost hidden in honey suckle and climbing roses even in the cold of November.

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With a sense of occasion Mme. Di laid the ornate key across my palm: it was longer than my whole hand. When we viewed the main body of this Charentaise house we encountered none of the problems that plagued  Coeur du Prieure’.  That house was without heating and had one long dormitory bedroom with a door at either end. Tourners had seriously hideous and elephantine oil heating fixtures throughout, but at least it was there.

There were minor difficulties obvious here too and, we would discover later many problems that came with the house and with living in rural France in general. Inside, it was painted in garish, fluorescent hues, and the tenants, in their pique, had filled one of its toilets with cement. But in its absolute centre, in a modest hall there is a handmade, curving staircase that sweeps up through the two stories and on to the third and attic floor. It has a wide, graceful and rather rickety swirl. The rooms  downstairs on either side of the hall were, to our citified eyes, enormous. That I had already been reminded of my country childhood was evident in my rapt comment: “big enough to hold a barn dance” I told the mystified Mme Di.

Hall

The house rests on one of the highest vantage points in the village, its “great windows open to the south.” We took along a compass to check.  Its face is turned directly to the south. Hence, it is in sunshine the whole day through. In the deep shade under the Lime tree the temperature is a good ten degrees cooler than the sun filled parts of the front courtyard. In high summer, all around the village, there are colorful, wide, market umbrellas for the outdoor living that the French so love. Fortunately too, the house’s thick walls keep the interior at a comfortable temperature. From one side the upper stories look across the town and river to trees, fields and the beautiful 9th Century chateau. The sturdy church spire is visible from the southern-facing bedroom window. The church spire has a certain lumpish dignity that reminded us of Proust’s fictional grand-mere’s boast for their local steeple at Combray, “If that spire could play the piano, it would not sound tinny”.

In the front courtyard a stone table and its benches shelter under the Linden tree. The tree’s leaves had fallen, apricot and golden on the neglected front garden. In the other corner of the courtyard beside a young shapely bay tree is a small building with a multicoloured, mossy, tiled roof: It is a buanderie (laundry) still with its original fire place and huge cast iron boiler for the family’s washing. Behind the house we found a large neglected garden complete with apple trees, plum trees, cherry tree, and grape vines: so far so good.

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There was also an toilet situated outside the house and it had a double seat. We had heard about the double seat thing and had thought it a leg-pull. But there it was and no disputing it.

To our surprise since, as we understood it, the kitchen was the hub of French family life, this kitchen was a rather ordinary affair. Its only interesting feature was its main cupboard inset in the metre thick wall and covered with chicken wire to keep the rodents at bay we imagined. In rural France they don’t do built in kitchens and this one was completely bare except for an ugly, leaky sink.

Immediately behind the kitchen however, where we admire it each time we pass through on route to the “barrel room” that is still further behind the kitchen, there is a wine press. The press is an enormous – over a metre and a half in diameter. It was the biggest we had seen until then. It sits majestically in its own specially built concrete trough and its huge screw is up at eye level. With all its slats, screws and weights it looks as if it would make a handy instrument of torture if ever we have need of one.

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Wine Press

A rough conduit runs through the wall behind to empty into an even bigger barrel in the adjoining room. It is so big that I can sit in it and with my arms outstretched they do not touch its sides. Standing, I can just peep over its rim.

Scan Cleaning the receiving barrel.

The barrel room is full of barrels and is the coolest place in the house since it is two thirds underground. Perfect for cheeses and wines.

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But more intriguing, for Davis at least, was the fact that four keys to the dependent buildings (les batiments) were missing! Mme Jones undertook to get the keys and we were to return the next day. This meant that we had the good fortune to meet Madame Moinet who had spent all of her married life in this house. An elegant and playful woman Mme. Moinet was about seventy years old. When Mme. Di  telephoned to arrange delivery of the keys she was questioned about our nationality. “Ils sont Francais ou les etrangers?” she asked. “Etrangers.” Came the reluctant reply.

Yet Madam Moinet  escorted us over the house, gracefully telling its history and showing us its virtues. “In this room I had my two daughters” she said, and meditatively “the carpet was green”. She looked down at the current coir matting, her gaze dreamy. Her husband had died and we think she was obliged to sell the house because of French inheritance laws. If the family home is listed in the name of the male partner only, his widow does not inherit and it is left to the children.

In the garden Madame stooped and plucked a violet which she carried as we perused her garden. She pointed out the English roses climbing meters high and spreading wide against the walls of the barns. Her husband had planted them thirty years before, “When they bloom they cover the wall so completely, it is as if it is one single flower.” “Here we grew our vegetables.” She pointed to the vines climbing over a very rustic trellis “These are delicious grapes.” She twinkled at Davis even swishing her skirt at him playfully and before she left she offered the violet to me. I took that to mean though we are “etrangers” we would do. We hope she and her family drive by occasionally and see all the attention and love we have lavished upon their home.

IMG_0022Muscatel grapes, holly hocks and roses

It seems also that it has never had a name of its own. In everyone’s memory it has always been called “The Moinet House.” Clearly this would no longer do. We did not have to rack our brains about it because the name seemed to come to us. We like sunflowers. They are cheerful. In summer, all the fields surrounding the village are filled with sunflowers and because the house has its sweet old face turned so perfectly to the sun, we call it Le Tournesol.  Tournesol is the French for “sunflower” and like so many French words it is an adaptation of a descriptive phrase. It is a fusion of “turning” and “sun”, and in the Australian way, we have nicknamed it “Tourners”. Since in our experience the naming of houses is reminiscent of the naming of cats, we have borrowed a sentiment from T.S. Elliot. A cat, says Elliot, must have three different names:

“The naming of cats is a difficult thing/ It isn’t just one of your holiday games/ You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names./ First of all there’s the name the family use daily/…. But I tell you a cat needs a name that’s peculiar and more dignified/ Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular/ Or spread out his whiskers or cherish his pride/ But above and beyond there’s still one name left over/ And that is the name that you never will guess/The name that no human research can discover/ But That The Cat Himself knows and will never confess./ …A Deep and Inscrutable and singular name.

Tourners boasts an even more complex nomelacture. It has four names: the names we have bestowed upon it,  Tournesol in summer, and in spring, Les Iris, since it has deep purple bearded Iris around the bases of its walls. It has the name the village people call it: The Moinet House; and finally there is that secret name which it discloses to no one, but keeps to itself and we can only guess at.

Tourners is a handsome old house, but Davis is right to have fallen in love with its dependant buildings. Flowing on from the house in a gentle arch sweeping round behind the generous driveway there is a row of connected batiments: a wine cellar, which Monsieur Albert assured us was once used to house horses. That might have been the case but when we cleaned it out we discovered several very old looking, unlabeled bottles full, it transpired, of cognac. Next, a large cobbled workshop packed full of exotic old tools, horse collars, saddles, and harnesses. Then a double shed seemingly used for trucks and the like and finally another vast building that we call “the tall Barn”. This shed housed Monsieur Moinet’s commercial sized wine vats. The roof is so high in this barn that there is a narrow mezzanine gallery. To my literary eye the mezzanine looks for all the world as if were built to accommodate a country band to celebrate the end of harvest. In fact the wine merchant used it to sample and minister to his meters-high vats. Adjoining the “tall Barn” tucked in a place we call “the Grotto” Monsieur Moinet kept his hunting hounds.

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Garden shed

The numerous and large attics were a source of wonder to us and in need of a terrifying amount of clearing out; One above the house, and over the other workshops there are three more large Grenier.  When we cleaned them we opened the shutters and threw all the decades of accumulated bric a brac into the courtyard below. The pile reached above Davis’ head: almost 2 metres tall. There are two dovecotes or pigeonnaires one large and one small. They have the special small windows built into the stonewall to allow the birds in and out. In the smaller pigeonnaire we found little roosting boxes set against the walls. They are just like the boxes in Picasso’s Pigeon series of paintings and we have painted our own homage to Picasso on the wide blank walls we discovered in the other partially refurbished pigeon coop.

There were piles of large hessian bags in the attics and we filled them all with cobwebs and dust. Neither of us can remember working as hard as this before or since, but there was something magical in the discoveries we made as we cleaned: an ancient wooden wheelbarrow, old carved pitchforks and rakes, a device with a stool for a seated peddler to turn a grinding stone wheel for sharpening tools and knives, dusty barrels and wine making paraphernalia everywhere. The surprises came quickly, one after the other, with no time to get bored with cleaning: hundreds of preserving jars and bottles and a beautiful old oak wine dray for hauling the barrels. We cleaned it and treated it for any woodworm that may have lingered. Waxed it makes a perfect receptacle for wood and now it glows warmly beside the fireplace.

Attic cleaning was like a treasure hunt and the treasure kept coming. Our bodies did tire though and after a hot bath in the evening I was always fast asleep in front of the fire by the time Davis had finished bathing too and cooked the evening meal.

In the attics there were no lights until we had them put in, so we had to open up the shutters to let in the natural light to see what was there. Generations of Moinet children had left us piles of laboriously worked exercise and copy-books in the attics; and piles of hand-sewed linen tunics they wore as wine makers and merchants. The women have bequeathed us hand stitched, nightgowns of very coarse linen and linen sheets, some turned top to middle. In one corner of the largest attic were the great arched hoops of a covered wagon that in England would be called a charabanc; its wooden arches straggling remnants of canvas canopy.

Here also there were the horse-collars and saddles for the animals that pulled the drays and elaborate and strange looking old lamps. Having no clue what these last might be since they clearly involved the use of some flammable material, we decided to ask the knowledgeable Monsieur Albert. He examined one of them with great care opening and closing its small compartment with a flourish, twisting the large knob on top and sliding the little drawer in and out with an air of tremendous expertise. “Ces sont pour le chauffage des pieds!”  He pronounced. His manner was very kind and a little bit condescending since it really should have been obvious to anyone. We were enormously pleased and completely convinced by his air of assurance. It was a very long time till Davis realised that they are in fact carbide lights for some old vehicle. We began to eye our diminutive Chef du Coin with a little less credulity, but our admiration for his air of verisimilitude was only enhanced.

Cooking in France

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 Food and cooking

There is a branch of philosophical thought that tries to understand notions of beauty.  Aesthetics deals with the nature of art, beauty, and taste. What is beauty? Why do we find certain things beautiful and others not so? The first questions we are asked to think about in a philosophical approach to aesthetics  concern whether or not we have an inborn ability to discern beauty or whether we learn it as a skill as we progress through life.

Next, we have to decide whether or not some things are beautiful in a universal sense or if beauty is culture specific. Where indeed does the beauty reside? In the object contemplated or in the eye of the beholder? Much ink has been spilled on these questions, but to my mind the answer to the innate vs learned issue is to be found in a combination of the two positions. If we are born with an innate ability to appreciate beauty then it arises as a correlate of our biological need to seek out things that enhance our potential to survive. When we need certain foods for example, those foods will seem particularly delicious.  The foods that we favour we might find so satisfactory and scarce that we could call them “beautiful”, or some other such word that indicates their transcendant desirability. Indeed for a strange reason “scarcity” always seems to enhance desirability.

The same goes, in terms of beauty, for the mates we choose. The specific cultures in which we find ourselves shape our tastes and the way we choose to fulfil those biological urges.  The degree of idiosyncrasy in our tastes may seem almost incomprehensible to people from other communities. Fashion and habit are enormously influential. Just note human beings’ changing preferences regarding body shape. Plumpness used to be attractive when plumpness was a sign of well-being and wealth. Then something happened. Plumpness is no longer a sign of well-being or wealth. Just what happened is moot point, but some suggest that the frighteningly thin body became desirable as a result of the wars. The story goes that plumpness began to seem self-indulgent. It was no longer deemed acceptable to appear to eat more than one’s share; nor to look robust and apple-cheeked. Another account along similar lines has it that we have somehow developed a perverse attraction to the image of the starved body so prevalent during and after the wars.  The current trends that laud “heroin chic” seem to support this intuition. Hollow eyes, exhaustion, grey-pallor, abstraction and sadness have assumed a perverse mystique.

The French are the first people on the planet to enact a law against the use of overly thin, indeed starved fashion models. Bless them.

So we might say that a capacity to appreciate beauty is innate and what we find beautiful is culture specific. Drawing on Aristotle’s explanation of the most superior form of knowledge we can suggest that something only becomes simply “beautiful” when we no longer require it to meet our basic survival needs. Until then it is merely necessary or useful. Regarding ideas of human beauty for example, we begin to appreciate the beauty of young healthy, fresh-faced, long-limbed creatures in a “disinterested” way when we no longer have any use for them as possible partners in the struggle to pass on our genes. In those circumstances we can recognise beauty simply for its own sake.

The same thing applies to the culinary arts. They become arts when we pursue them for their own sake and not to satisfy our need for sustenance. However, we are not creatures who are satisfied simply to follow our biological urges. Initially we learn about beauty in those most impressionable years we spend at the maternal knee. Our behaviours and choices are subject to the powerful strictures of received wisdom. We do not rely initially (or ever really) on our own tastes. One of the most powerful cultural modifiers is, of course, the media. Everything we read in books, view on television or see in films shapes our taste.  We learn from our peers, our parents and our cultural circumstances to such a degree that we hardly remember why we seek out things that taste good in the first place.

No account of a maison secondaire in France would be complete without making mention of matters gastronomic. Frances Mayes  (Under a Tuscan Sun) suggests that people who make second homes in Europe are usually foodies. I agree with that assessment, but I think it is has as much to do with the “literary consciousness” as with the love of food and cooking. Bookish people like to “lose” themselves a book and are very susceptible to the urge to live as if they are in a book. The old question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art is  a sub-genre of the nature vs nurture debate.  In our case it is definitely life imitating art, and secondarily because we are fervent cooking people.

The food in Charente-Maritime is truly delicious. No matter what the time of year we can cook in delectable game birds and superb seafood. The seasonal fruits and vegetables have to be tasted and smelled to be believed. Almost every village has a market day; some have two market days each week. In addition the bigger towns hold a fair once a month. A fair is a larger event involving the sale of just about everything one can think of from art supplies to tractors.

 

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In spring and summer these markets are joyful places. The marketplace has a perpetually festive air created by the music of buskers, organ grinders and always accordion music. Occasionally, if the accordionist is good enough, people will be moved to caper about in a few dance steps. The French love to dance. They still hold thés dansants  (literally dancing teas):  summer or autumn afternoon dances or early-evening dances from four to seven p.m. Dancing in the afternoon was practiced in earlier centuries, but it seems that it became even more popular after the world wars as an economical way to pass time and to lift spirits.

The French seem to love the tableaux vivants or living statues. They are everywhere and the actors are very talented. Once we enjoyed the sight of Mary Antoinette having a cup of coffee and a quick cigarette in between acts.

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It would seem impossible to feel cast down in these market places. The stall-holders often dress up in traditional costume to vend their wares and they seem to relish the chance to assume the roles. Even in the dead of winter there will still be a colourful display of fruit and vegetables imported from Spain.

In France I have learned to put vases of flowers out in the garden. I stumbled upon this happy practice when we had too many vases of flowers to cope with indoors and more kept arriving from our neighbours who were happy to have someone in residence in the “Moinet House.”  In order to create some space in the kitchen and dining room I put some of the vases out into the courtyard. They looked so lovely there that it has become a routine to dress up the outside dining space as well. The French delight in decorating their public spaces and put flowers everywhere.

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A feeling of well-being seems inevitable when there are large numbers of fresh flowers about. Sitting in the sun watching enormous bumble-bees tumbling and fumbling about in the sage and flowering chives, completely covering themselves in pollen; raising my eyes to gaze at a lavender hedge with its full purple fringe, roses everywhere and still more assorted flowers in vases positioned here and there to bring colour to any quiet places I feel as if I have become a character in a book. It is the practice of mindful enjoyment. It makes me laugh.

In summer the local produce is mouth-watering and the flowers are breathtaking. There are no melons that taste as heavenly as a Charentaise melon and in spring the phrase “as beautiful as the flowers in May!” begins to make sense. Everywhere you look there are flowers: roses, azaleas, tulips, daffodils, pansies, lilies, iris and more flowers. They grow wild in the streets, hedgerows and more; picking berries and plums from the hedgerows is an activity that bookish people find irresistible.

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Men who would look quite at home chopping down trees, driving tractors, or threatening other lives are happy to push around shopping-trolleys loaded with bouquets, flowering plants and one or two bottles of wine; all of these commodities are of high quality in the markets.

Always somewhere near the centre of the market place a group of several men will be found “chewing the fat” as we would say in Australia: “Bavards” the French would call them. Their wives are off making their purchases while the men occupy themselves with putting the world to rights. They are so alike as to look like brothers: all wearing berets or cheese-cutter hats and smoking cigarettes. Others are literally chewing the fat, walking around the stalls filling hollowed out loaves of bread with a variety of aromatic samples.

There is an orderly but long queue outside the local boulangeie. In this family business les grands-parents stand behind the counter and smilingly dispense the most fragrant and delicious Pain Noix we have ever tasted. Number one  fils is this generation’s boulanger and on occasions a pair of large brown eyes can be seen peeping out from behind the apron of la Grand-mere as the third generation imbibes the wheaten ambiance of his world.

 

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The pet dogs too are dressed up in stylish coats or scarves and are the happy recipients of numerous tidbits. The stall owners urge the grazers to try their wares and having done that, it is impossible to resist buying.
In the market pavilion itself there are bountiful fish stalls selling dozens of varieties of glowing, gleamingly fresh fish: huge cod, merleau, bars, rougets, salmon,  live crevettes, crabs, homards, piles of blushing langoustines, eels, gambas as large as one’s hand, thousands of mussels, cockles, sardines. The fish queue is one we visit twice a week as if we are going to church.

We are served by healthy, attractive looking young people who sing “avec ceci?” and “grater, vider?” When we nod that “yes” we do want the fish scaled and cleaned, the fishmonger “guts” the fish efficiently and then ceremonially waves the scaling device vaguely in its direction. And that is that. The scaling is of a standard that leaves a lot to be desired. One day I asked a stallholder for eight oysters and threw him and his assistant into complete confusion. Oysters come in dozens or half dozens and nothing in between. After much head-scratching and totting up I was offered a baker’s half-dozen i.e. seven oysters.

We had so many of our fellow Aussies staying (15 in all) on one occasion that even though we had invested in a car called a “people mover” able to carry seven people, still we had to split into two parties. I was driver for the seven adults who wanted to visit the market and a nerve-wrackingly unruly bunch they were too. I could have anticipated the difficulties in store by the confusion when I tooted the horn of the “market bus” prior to departure. It took forever to decide who was catching the bus and then quite a while to sort out the seating arrangements.  When we arrived at the market without mishap the enthusiastic fair-goers leapt out and scattered to the four winds. They only reappeared when they required my services as translator. I felt like a mother of a large group of toddlers. The constant demands for my services as translator meant that it was difficult to get my shopping done and when it came time to leave the trouble became acute. They were loath to leave and they were much more resourceful and unruly than any toddlers.  Having rounded up one or two and deposited them at the car I would go in search of the others only to discover on our return that those at the car had become bored and wandered off. The one and a half hours I had anticipated spending at the market grew to three and a half before I had them all safely belted up for take off. I was completely frazzled, but they seemed to enjoy themselves.

The French in our area are not tall people. A tall man would be hard pressed to reach one hundred and seventy centimetres and the women are much smaller. At the fairs we often become separated because each of us tends to follow his or her own nose. We discovered early on that we have simply to sweep our gaze around over the heads of the locals and we will discover the Australians standing a good twenty to fifty centimetres taller than the crowd. The local people think nothing of subjecting etrangers to long, hard stares.  The scrutiny is like the solemn, unselfconscious gaze of absorbed children.

When my pretty young nieces were over for a visit they literally stopped the traffic as they walked down the road to the village centre. French men are very generous in their appreciation of feminine beauty – even middle-aged beauty. When I first went to France I was surprised to discover myself once again the recipient of the interested male gaze. In Australia middle-aged women are quite invisible, noticed by no one. It is a liberating state of affairs in a way to be able to go about one’s business without anyone noting our presence. Women in middle-age are compensated for the loss of the power of beauty by the opportunity to regain the unselfconsciousness lost at the onset of puberty when we first become aware of that oppressive, assessing gaze.  Yet, each time I return to Australia I am aware that something is missing.

For us though, the real delight in food in France comes from cooking in our own kitchen. We like nothing better than to have a large gathering of family and friends to cook with. Each meal becomes a festive event and with so many people there to share the tasks it is not hard work. In the evenings especially, an atmosphere of competition and camaraderie pervades the kitchen and we have difficulty getting enough space to work. All around the long kitchen table we have chatting sous chefs chopping up herbs and vegetables, stuffing things, grating this and that, swapping cooking tips. At the end of the kitchen, where the double doors open out into the courtyard, sits Warwick, our resident artist, sketching the activities and complaining loudly when we move the vinegar bottle and upset the composition of his drawing.

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We have revamped the kitchen to a modest degree with a new floor of creamy tiles. The light tiles were a mistake because they are very difficult to keep clean. The French favour dark red tiles in the kitchen and I can follow their reasoning.  We have a lovely old kitchen dresser bought from a depot vente for the equivalent of one hundred and fifty dollars. At these depots, people leave the things they wish to sell and I assume that they pay a small fee for the service. We have been able to buy all sorts of useful furniture including a massive and ugly, solid oak dining table and chairs and a matching buffet. We call it the “Monstre meuble” because it has such a huge and commanding presence that we feel like bowing when we enter the room. We use it in winter of course, and in summer on the rare occasions we are obliged to eat indoors it accommodates a big party very well.

Another addition to the kitchen is one we call the “la folie“. It is a large indoor open cooking fire.  Again made of creamy, lime-stone it is a handsome piece of work commissioned from our local tailleur de pierre. We met Didier in his workshop just up the road from our place when we wandered in to see what was going on. As we approached the large warehouse type building with the acoustics of an echo chamber we heard him hammering, cutting and polishing away.

Kitchen fireplaceLa Folie

Didier, who was about 30 years old, and his young assistant, dressed in overalls and aprons, were completely covered from head to toe in white stone dust and as they stared at us with large dark eyes they reminded us of a pair of  startled panda bears. All around the walls were lovely stone sculptures, friezes, fountains, tables and garden benches. Didier greeted us warmly and escorted around the premises while he showed us how the stone rang like a bell when carved into certain configurations. He stroked the stone reverently and was immensely proud of his work in a shy sort of way. We explained what we wanted for our kitchen and we set up a rendez-vous  for him to come visit the site.

When he arrived chez Tourners he was no longer covered in dust and had taken great pains to give his appearance a professional yet highly individual look. He wore enormous Doc Martin type boots with a mirror shine, pale bluish-white designer jeans, a floral shirt artfully unbuttoned in places and through which we were able to glimpse his supportive orthopaedic back brace, a different floral patterned tie knotted half way down his chest and a voluminous, pastel, linen sports jacket over the top of everything. Under his arm he had a large clipboard and a pile of pamphlets and pictures and he had two pencils poking out of his leonine head of dark hair. His manner was gently formal and he looked absolutely wonderful: debonair and utterly creative.

The stone dust ingrained into his hands did nothing to dispel our enchantment. Needless to say we were pleased to be able to commission him to create our folly. He was accompanied by his wife who was keen to try out some English conversation and his 4 year old daughter. Didier himself spoke no English and his wife was not much more advanced.

We waited all that summer for la folie to be finished and finally it was installed on the eve of our departure home to Australia. The two artisans worked all day to install it and connect it up to the existing chimney by drilling a large hole through the wall into the fireplace in the dining room. With great excitement we lit our first fire and to our horror we were smoked out of the kitchen. It was impossible to stay in the room. We called the masons back urgently and they came rushing in wearing the important and anxious expressions of fire fighters who at any moment might be called upon to evacuate the premises.

There followed much testing of drafts, scratching of heads, repositioning of the fire itself and so on, but nothing would work. The chimney refused to accept any of the smoke and it billowed out into the room in choking clouds. The poor stonemason was a picture of despair; his entire bearing sensationally cast down, shoulders slumped, arms hanging heavy, mouth turned down. We felt sad for him, because he is such a proud and careful workman. We never did discover how he solved the problem because we had to leave for Australia, but it involved somehow better connecting it to the other chimney . On our return to Tourners the next occasion we lit the fire it functioned properly. It is still a temperamental and fussy apparatus but it does the job and looks very handsome and foolish doing it.

We cook fish and game birds on it and they are incomparably delicious.
We bought ourselves an ordinary kitchen stove in at a large furniture store in our nearest large town, Saint Jean d’Angely. It was a sizeable device and far too big for the smallish car we were driving at that time. Our house is at seventeen kilometres distance from the shop, so we asked if they could arrange delivery. No, they said, we cannot. The delivery people are off on holidays for the next month. The month of August is always the same. Nothing happens in France and nothing is done except les vacances. Davis and I looked at each other in complete horror. What could we do? Soon we would have a house full of people to feed and no stove.

The young man took in our disappointment and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then we could see the light bulb flashing above his head as he hit upon the solution: “You can borrow our delivery truck if you like!” So, with no further ado, no checks of driver’s licences, references or anything of that nature, the stove was loaded into the back of an enormous delivery van and away we drove, happy and pleased to have the experience.

Davis is considered by all and sundry to be a wonderful cook. A belief he does nothing to dispel. He comes from a family of dedicated cooks and as he is the adored oldest brother his reputation is one that family is pleased to endorse. However, the enthusiastic amateur chefs are no blushing violets either and there are many opinions expressed quite forcefully about how things ought to be done. Very early in our first large family holiday we decided that there had to be a head chef appointed each day or we might well end up eating nothing at all.  The chef in charge would choose the menu in consultation with the others and moreover, he or she would decide on the music to be played that evening. It works very well and the carte du jour is written up on the kitchen white board for everyone to peruse, anticipate and criticise.

Kitchen workersThe head chef of the day wears the red hat

At 6pm the cocktail du jour is  created ceremoniously, the more colourful and outrageous the better. Everyone gulps them down as if they contain nothing more intoxicating than lemonade and they are a lovely way to start an evening of conversation and scrumptious dishes. We usually cook four courses because it takes at least that number to satisfy the creative urges of all the chefs many of whom have collected appropriate recipes for months.
We have some difficulties ensuring that we are all hungry enough to do justice to the food, so we don’t eat between meals and we keep the courses small. No matter what your taste, if there are four courses to choose from you will be unlucky not to find something that you like. We eat out in the garden with the large windows open to allow the music chosen by the chef of the day to waft around us, enhancing the festivities, lifting our hearts.

For our lunches which are really like elaborate picnics we move the venue from place to place around the garden: now in front of the house, now up at the high barn, now in the back garden under the gigantic linden tree that Monsieur Albert calls La Grand-Mere.

There are few subjects that are taboo in the conversations that spring up around the table. On one occasion I began a discussion about a favourite hobbyhorse of mine: the rights of animals. Having stirred up a lively debate I was obliged to leave the table to attend to a pressing matter concerning potatoes and cream. When I looked out through the window at the seated diners I was pleased to see that most of the people at the long table were talking loudly. Not a lot of listening going on since they all felt they were authorities on the matter. It is the same when the topics of the soul vs. mind vs. brain are raised. Since we all have a brain/mind/soul we all feel eminently qualified to voice an opinion.

Arriving in Tourners

When we arrived here at Tourners we were greeted in the street by a very excited Monsieur Albert.  He positively sashayed up to the car with a tremendous air of mystery and waved at me with his whittling stick.  “Wind down the window” he had a lot to tell us.  He had been back to hospital 3 times during our absence.  We must have looked suitably dismayed because he warmed to his subject immediately and he demonstrated with wide arms the vast quantities of “something or other” that the hospital staff had removed from his person on each occasion. Finally and ceremoniously, with the timing and flare of a real story-teller, he rolled up the leg of his French Blues (Overalls) to reveal a rather smart urinary catheter bag strapped to his leg.

He told us in graphic detail all that had befallen him and his bladder.  He may have been aiming for stoicism, but he couldn’t hide his delight at all the fuss and ado.  The trousers were rolled back several times to exhibit the finer features of the bag; with solemn and precise pointing and tapping at measurement indicators. He said that his friend up the road had a catheter in situ for 18 months but that he fully expected to make that record look paltry.  Same as in Oz, the public hospital system in France is always playing catch-up.

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Clematis at the Front door.

We have never seen the Clematis over the front door in full flower, but this year we have timed it perfectly. I will be sweeping fallen petals and fluff out of the hall way for months; a small price to pay.

The garden looks pretty good: particularly the roses. They have been coiffed in the English way which is very proper and formal, but they promise to give us a good show when they get underway.   The huge pile of prunings in front are from the Plane tree; pollarded to within an inch of its life. If OLR had been here it would never have been treated so radically. The horticulteur arrived today to deal with La Grand Mere  (Grand-mother) which is the enormous tree at the back of the house for a sum of E700.  Not cheap, but he does a good job.
8976576103_a7255f4d29_zLa Grand Mere Before
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 La Grand-Mere after her short back and sides.
I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon bundling some of the prunings into manageable parcels for the fireplace. We will use them in a year or so when they have dried out. MiMi helped me in a total body sort of way. She kept diving head first into my bundles of sticks and rolling over to wave  her paws at me enticingly. She was a pest, but tremendously pretty.
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MiMi
Pavarotti appeared with in moments of our arrival and he glared at us in his “chew-backer” way and deigned to eat our gourmet offerings.
10962243176_419550f466_zPavoritti aka Chew-backer

Paris Spring

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We have just arrived in Paris in time to see the Spring. Remember Hemingway remarked on the difficulty of deciding “where to be happy” in Paris in the Spring.  We always go to the restaurant he favoured: La Closerie des Lilas which we stumbled across about 20 years ago. Good old Hemingway. He was as mad as can be, but he knew a thing or two about Paris and food.

When we arrived at the hotel were greeted by our young mate Mohamed who was behind the desk and beaming at us. Before we had even opened our mouths he announced with a flourish “The Australians!”.  It was 9 a.m. and seeing check in is not supposed to be till 2 p.m. he up-graded us to a deluxe room and we were ensconced by 9.30 a.m. We are vain old things, but it is always nice to be remembered even though I’m quite sure they try to remember everyone.

We have averaged 12,000 steps a day since we left Cairns. There was some pretty serious walking to be done in Hong Kong and OLR is concerned that he might be losing weight what with all this exercise. On day one he walked all the way down to St.Germain des Pres looking at music shops. Key-boards are his latest fad. His bag is weighted down with his favorite his mouth organs and now he wants a key board. Heaven give me strength! I thought photography was bad enough, but this current mania threatens to be even more brain-addling. The key-board when it arrives will be as tall as he is – the keys all electronically weighted so that they provide the feeling of resistance equivalent to a real piano. They cost about E500 (at the cheapest and you can be sure that the cheapest model will be unsatisfactory in some way.) We are going to be obliged to cart this blessed thing back and forth from France. If he really does enjoy it I might try to talk him into buying one for here too so as to avoid all the lugging. Heavens he is a pest. He seems to go out of his way to dream up the most inconvenient, wearisome and impossible passions.

I was laughing at security when his man-bag incurred everyone’s deep interest while mine was ignored. Mine was absolutely stuffed with illegal tubes and bottles of cosmetics, but OLR’s was full of sinister looking things like Mouth-organs, Allan Keys, a hand lens, bike mending tools etc that made them peer at him with narrowed eyes. It seems that the contents of a man bag warrant much closer scrutiny than those of  a woman’s. They took every single thing out while OLR stood there looking rather sheepish as the pile of things mounted up.  It was like a bottomless pit and he was inclined to beetle his brows at me as if it were somehow my fault that he has nearly the entire contents of his tool box stuffed in there along with his camera and several musical instruments. Clearly a neglectful wife.

We went down to our favourite little bistro for lunch of champagne and quiche and the waiter recognised us there too and recited off our order even as we sat down. Big toothy smile and much flicking and snapping of serviettes, popping of corks etc. We felt as familiar with Paris as we do with Cairns or Sydney. He shook our paws as if we were long lost buddies. It was lovely, because French waiters can be very haughty at times.
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We crashed all afternoon and then dragged ourselves down for a light dinner and the same thing happened. The waitress delighted us by whacking down two glasses of champagne before we had time even to peruse the menu. We sat there reminiscing about all the happy times we have had there with Susan Blue, and all the Hatchetts. We had the most wonderful spaghetti, shaved truffles and Parmesan cheese. Just fantastic. It reminded me of the night we went to Manfredi’s in Sydney with a very young Jax . We had fettuccine with truffles and 9 glasses of desert wine that Franke the sommelier deemed necessary to introduce Jax to the delights of desert wine. Jaxie’s eyes were like saucers. Our influence on Jax has been a mixed blessing.

It was terribly windy in Paris yesterday and we had trouble making it out the door. We soldiered over the road to the luggage shop and bought ourselves a brolly each. We couldn’t use them though because the wind was too strong and everywhere we looked we saw so many abandoned brollies sticking out of rubbish bins. They would have made a great photo, but the pestilential OLR had left his camera in the room. Courageously however, we made it down to the shops and did a bit of heavenly browsing till it was lunch time. The French shops are so magical. Completely different from ours in OZ and I always think of  my sister Doy as I wander around because she was with me  (in my heart) as I hunted for blouses etc with which to torment her.

 We had a scrumptious lunch and then struggled back down to the shops to show OLR some man bags I had lined up for his perusal because his Armani is getting really shabby. He loves it, understands it and knows what is in each compartment. Hence none of the ones I had found were satisfactory in any way. He was hugging the battered old Armani to his chest  None of them would do at all.

During our post-prandial rest I kept peeping out the windows to see if the trees were tossing their heads and they were. I was reluctant to try to go up to La Coupole if the wind was still very wild.  We decided to poke our noses out the door and decide whether or not to venture out to the restaurant. What a joke. OLR is such a party animal that I knew with absolute certainty that we would be out braving the tempest.

We slogged up the streets, weeping from the wind, grizzling from the cold – miserable as two coots with OLR laughing happily and being extremely annoying as he bolstered my resolve by assuring me that this kind of thing keeps us young. You can take this “keeping young” business too far.
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Crab and Avocado

Every time we go to La Coupole, something magical happens. We ordered the crab and avocado entree that we unusually share and now make for ourselves at home on our hill. We decided that ours at home is better. So we will be getting a different entree to share next time. Then OLR had duck done sous vide which was just stunning. I had risotto and prawns with some sort of delectable sauces. We decided we would share a mi-cuit chocolate fondant for desert. I noticed that when the waiters brought out the desert they were casting furtive glances at us and being elaborately secretive. Being careful to keep their backs turned so that we couldn’t see what they were up to. Then they descended on our table with the desert festooned with sparklers.  “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!’ (only in French it sounds better “Suuurrrrpreese! Suuurrrrpreeese!. We were presented with the desert by a bunch of very excited waiters gathered around the table explaining to us (in concert) that it was because it was David’s birthday this week. They realised it when they swiped our Habituees card into their machine. They were way more excited than we were, but it gave us a wonderful thrill I can tell you.

We were given a faintly disapproving seminar on how it would have been much better if one of us had only thought to warn them, but seeing we hadn’t done so they had done their best. Gallic shrug. There was a long and utterly adorable speech about how they understand these things by putting themselves in the place of the customer. Their heels almost clicked and there were several checkings on us involving questioning looks accompanied by the universal “thumbs-up” sign which is the same in French as in English. We just fell in love with them all over again. They were desperate to keep our champagne glasses full at their expense. And people say that French waiters are rude. Once they get to know you they can’t do enough for you.

Everyone is talking about the poor young pilot who suicided and took the 150 souls with him. He was the victim of terrible torment by his fellow pilots apparently because he had supported himself as a steward during his training. They used to tease him mercilessly with gay jokes even though he was not gay (probably). To have worked as a steward is said to guarantee that you are gay. And they say we don’t have caste systems. Of course that was only one of his problems. He had a rather sweet face though. I felt so sorry for his parents. What they must be enduring doesn’t bear thinking about.

Down to Tourners today. What bliss.