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.
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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.

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

Monsieur Albert takes over the Saw Mill

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We went out one day to tidy up the wood pile. There was a heap of logs as tall as me: old shutters and all sorts. We worked for 3 hours flat out and finished with it all chopped up and piled neatly with plenty of room for the delivery of  fire-wood  which was to arrive the next day.

Ever the meticulous medico, Davis put on his overalls, his helmet, goggles and gloves. He knows how dangerous chain-saws can be.  He positioned the saw horse and set to. I carted loads of wood down to the house and chopped up all the kindling. After a very short while the small French Gnome appeared and walked around us rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he assessed what we were up to. He muttered  ” Oui. You have all that is needed to do a good job!” He was a bit impressed with the helmet and goggles. Then he spied a few huge long logs of really very hard wood that Davis had put aside as too much for his blunt chain saw. Nothing would do but Davis had to saw these logs of hard wood now because it is such good wood for burning. Monsieur thumped them and sized them up as if they were a couple of bullies. He said “Oh la la!” But Davis was not going to be interfered with and, calmly, he continued sawing up the soft wood – much to Monsieurs chagrin.

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After a while Monsieur Albert realized that Davis was taking no notice of him so off he toddled and moments later I heard his chain-saw fire up. Back he comes with no helmet, no gloves, no goggles – only a cigarette between his lips to protect him. He tackled the hard wood logs and soon Davis stopped what he was doing and watched admiringly. Monsieur handled that chain-saw as if it were an extension of his arm. Just effortless grace. It was very sharp where as Davis’ was quite blunt. After a very short time Monsieur was gesturing authoritatively at this and that while Davis and I scurried about as his willing assistants. A more senior surgeon had arrived and after a bit of a tussle the junior surgeon had to give way. I took several photos of the whole coup. I really wished I had managed to get one of him standing there sizing up the situation before concluding that he had to take charge.

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We then sat in the sun and had a glass of champagne. I went up stairs to the bathroom before champagne and was amazed to see my face completely covered in red saw-dust and dirt. It was lovely having done a good morning’s work. Davis then retired to his Harmonica practice while I pottered around doing odd chores until I felt I had done enough to earn a nice hot shower.

When the wood was delivered the next day there were 5 men and Hannah (our agent’s daughter). They only charged E57 for a steyr of wood and they had 5 men to stack it. They piled it rather nicely, but I would have done it more fetchingly if I had my way. I remember our first winter in France when we had 3 steyr delivered we had to stack them ourselves. I was very keen on stacking it artistically and with various patterns and Davis wanted that wood stacked his way – which was quickly. We had a bit of a falling out over it and he won of course. To my eye it was all piled in an uninterestingly uniform sort of way. I caused tremendous hilarity which is remarked upon to this day by going out with my paints and painting the ends of the wood so that they looked as if they had been carefully arranged in diamond patterns.

Now that I reflect back upon it I can’t imagine what on earth I could have been thinking of. What a dill. An aesthetics of existence perhaps. That is Michel Foucault’s (the French philosopher who was also a hospital ward’s man for several years) phrase for what is a bit like our attempts at mindful enjoyment I suppose. He said we should try to live our lives as if they were a work of art and make them as perfect and beautiful as we can. Plato said that the “unexamined life” is not worth living. All variations on the same theme which boils down to: it pays to have a good think about yourself. (As my niece CC recommended to her small son Tom when he was a youngster).