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Life in Montolieu

30 Jan

We’re just beginning our ninth year in Montolieu. It feels like we’ve always lived here and yet it doesn’t seem possible that eight years have passed since we left the UK. Life here has been and continues to be interesting although now it’s a little quiet with COVID and not so much happening except through the internet. Let me introduce you to our village.

It’s a small rural village on the tourist trail. Consequently it’s very quiet in winter but very busy in the summer. It’s in the department of the Aude and boasts many attractions. We have thousands of visitors from across the world and many nationalities have settled here. The village dates back to the twelfth century and is included in the history of the Cathars. In fact the region now focuses its tourism on Cathar country. The earliest evidence of its age that I’ve seen in the village are the dates which are etched on some of the houses, 1700 is the oldest. It was a walled village and some of the walls still exist but I don’t know how far back it dates. The houses on les Ramparts have very interesting gardens which are built on several levels from the river Alzeau up to where the old wall used to be. On the other side of the village the houses rise up from the river Dure with terraces for their gardens.

We live in the Old Tannery which is situated just outside the wall next to the river Dure. Ours was one of five mills around this village and was used for preparing the leather for making leather goods. Other mills, as I understand from locals who used to work here, were for making the clothes. The village was surrounded by not only a wall but two rivers either side of the hill, the Dure and the Alzeau. This made it a secure village in medieval times. There is still a paper mill further up the Black Mountain which still produces paper 📝 and is open to the public.

Today it is called the village of books. There are 18 bookshops and 29 art galleries and artist workshops including a large old mill which has been converted into an exhibition centre and currently houses a collection called the Cerés Franco Museum and there is a museum with exhibits of printing machines and other items which relate to the area. Our church is a National Monument in the centre of the village. There are around 850 inhabitants of 28 different nationalities who live here all year round and we have gîtes, hôtels and B&Bs and five restaurants and cafes.

Alas we have lost one our restaurants, les Ange au Plafond during the COVID-19 crisis. We also have two food shops now. Our well established mini supermarket which is run by Nelly and was run by her mother and father before her and a small shop of local products which opened last year during the crisis called l’Abeille noire.

We are so lucky to have two automatic food dispensers in the village also. One selling organic vegetables from a local farm and the second local goods. This one is sited with our farm shop which opens every Monday and Thursday evening. Unfortunately all the shops have had to change their hours at the moment due to the curfew which means we have be be in our homes by six o’clock until six in the morning. However most French people buy their vegetables at the local markets and there are markets on different days in all the surrounding villages. Our wine merchant Adrian is open almost everyday and is well known and respected by the French for his knowledge and choice of wines from the region. The post office is run by our town hall and is open every weekday morning. Unfortunately there’s still two things missing from our village, a cash dispenser, which means we have to drive up to Saissac up the mountain or down to Carcassonne and a boulangerie as ours closed down a few years ago and we haven’t found a new baker yet to take it on.

The walled city of Carcassonne

Our health care needs are well provided for with a pharmacy, two doctors (a third one starting in June), two physiotherapists, one podologue, one speech therapist, two osteopaths, one naturopath and other therapists. We also have two schools and a care home which is a convent for retired nuns and is now open to members of the village. Before Covid-19 the children at our schools used to be able to have their lunch in the convent in their refectory. But the convent has been closed to visitors during the crisis. So the children now have their lunch in the village hall where the cooked meals are brought in for them. We are also well catered for with hospitals with two in Carcassonne, three in Toulouse, one in Narbonne and one in Perpignan.

Whichever direction we look there are places of interest for everyone. Up the Black mountain there are lakes and rivers and forests and the incredible Rigole which feeds water from the reservoirs into the Canal du Midi which winds across the plain between the Black mountain and the Pyrenees and stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

Or we can go south to the Pyrenees and across to Spain or Andorra. If we go west there are the cities of Toulouse or slightly further north are Castres and Albi or the Atlantic coast. Going east we can visit the Mediterranean or the Camargue and a little further on to Narbonne, Montpellier and Marseille and onto Cannes and eventually into Italy.

Whatever your interests we can provide for most of your wishes from mountain climbing and skiing to sailing, swimming and parasailing 🪂 in the Mediterranean or hill walking in the National forests or visiting the huge caves with stalagmites and stalactites. There is a flying school at Carcassonne airport and a go kart circuit. From pony trekking to walking with llamas or water skiing on a lake. Many cyclists love the challenge of the routes which were taken a few years ago by the Tour de France up through St Denis. A route which is also favoured by motorcyclists along its winding roads up through the forests and down into the valleys.

Not forgetting the castles and chateaux of which there are numerous which you cannot get to without passing vineyards and olive groves or during July and August huge fields of sunflowers 🌻. A feast to the senses as well as great food. I almost forgot to mention that as in most villages we have a group of regular pétanque players who welcome visitors to join in. Who wouldn’t want to live here?!

Keeping Life in Perspective

6 Nov

Being in confinement (or lockdown as it’s known as in the UK) has made me think about life in ways I haven’t considered before.

I always try to look on the bright side of life and spread happiness where I can. Most of the time this has been achieved by my actions helping people from all walks of life. And by thinking what have I learnt from this negative experience. At the same time I know I can be critical and sometimes appear negative but I consider myself a realist and not a dreamer. By this, I mean that I consider what I would like to happen and then try to look further into the future to see if it is possible. The danger of this type of thinking is that you never try anything because you talk yourself into thinking it’s not possible. I think I overcame this way back in my life because I have tried many different things. But I often put off doing things longer than necessary.

As I grow older I’m beginning to realise that we make our decisions according to our perception of the time we have available. When we are young we think we have a lifetime ahead of us. As we get older we begin to think time is too short. That got me to thinking about people who are incarcerated for whatever reason or people who are locked inside themselves (who may be described as being autistic) or people who are disabled and unable to get about by themselves or the elderly who for their own safety have to stay away from others during the COVID pandemic and how they might feel about time. I am sure that many of us feel bored and frustrated when our freedom is restricted.

The question is how we deal with boredom. Do we allow our frustrations to boil over into anger and take out our frustrations on the people closest to us by shouting, arguing or even physical abuse or do we turn it inside and decide it’s easier not to talk to anyone but ourselves? When this happens most of our thoughts are critical and blaming and it becomes a vicious cycle. So how do you deal with boredom and frustration?

I feel grateful that I live where I do but it doesn’t stop me from being bored or frustrated at times. Hence, this blog. I realise I can walk into the garden or simply look out of the window at the river or the forest to marvel at nature or I can take the dogs for short walks. So what stops me? It’s too hot or too cold or windy outside or my joints and muscles are causing me some discomfort. I’m enjoying being in the warmth of my home. So why do I feel bored? I can read and have hundreds of books to choose from but I’ve been reading for weeks now and I’m looking for something different. I can sit and listen to music or an audiobook or talk to friends on the phone or even see them, even from miles away with all the technology available to us today. So why do I feel bored? I believe it’s the feeling of having our freedom taken away from us and our routines changed by someone else. There’s something unsettling about not being able to do what we want to do when we want to or go where we want. It’s not simple dealing with boredom and frustration, is it!?

It helps me to think about the people I mentioned earlier and how much luckier I am than them. I have a tendency to think too much and things get out of proportion. So my message to myself is to go and do something different from what I’m doing at the moment within the constraints that I have. Perhaps connecting with someone else who’s in a more difficult situation than I am will help me feel more satisfied.

How lives have changed

12 Jun

This year has been very different for almost everyone around the world. Life as we knew it became untenable. It was necessary to change the way we live our everyday lives to protect ourselves and those around us from a very virulent virus which has killed so many across the globe.

Richard and I are both OK although Richard’s rheumatoid arthritis is flaring up frequently, and he has tendinitis in his wrist. These problems make it difficult for him to perform some simple tasks sometimes. I have had a painful knee which has reduced my walking, as well as the regulations to protect us from COVID-19. With a new puppy, it is necessary to give the dogs as much exercise as possible so Louise has helped by taking them out on long walks in the countryside.

We are in advance of the UK inasmuch as we have been released from confinement in stages and in different parts of France. Our region was one of the first to be able to relax restrictions due to the lower mortality rate. Our restaurants and cafés were allowed to open again two weeks ago but have very strict rules to follow. Such as the person cooking the food is not allowed to come in contact with the customers and the use of credit and debit cards and contactless are strongly encouraged. Everyone must wear a mask and only remove it while eating. Our distance is one metre between people and all shops are marked out with a one-way flow and one-metre markers at all tills.

Many people are still working from home where they can and only last week have we been allowed to meet in small groups in private homes. So we had our first English class last week for Montolieu in our flat. Some schools are open & others aren’t. The library in the village is closed but many of the bookshops are now open. Visitors are still not allowed inside our care home in the village. There are many more rules which are being monitored by the police and gendarmes and the majority of people are following them. Before we were released we were allowed to go out singly or with the person we live with for food shopping, for medical visits or for exercise within one kilometre or for work for essential workers only, and we had to complete a self-certification stating what we do at what date and time we left and for a maximum of one hour.

Some of our families have been ill and had to visit the hospital. My cousin’s husband died of cancer as he was my cousin’s carer, and she is very susceptible to infection life is very difficult for her and her family. So it was difficult with a funeral to cope with. One of my sisters-in-law had a coronary last week & had to have stents put in. She’s now home in confinement but will have to return to the hospital for another stent later. Richard’s cousin’s wife had appendicitis and had to go into hospital for an operation. She then tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be confined separately from her husband at home. During the crisis, my niece had her second child and grandma and grandad had to wait to go and meet him. A friend of ours also had her first baby born in this period.

We were lucky here to have 2 volunteers staying with us before the lockdown, and they had to stay with us longer than expected, so we managed to get a lot more tasks done. They have both left now, so I can relax a bit.

Now confinement has ended here (although sports and other social functions are still not allowed) many businesses are reopening. One such business is Le Boat on the Canal du MIDI and around other parts of France. This has had a direct impact on our lives as Richard has been offered a job with them as an assistant customer service helpline operator for the whole of France. He started working this week and will be working 30 hours a week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and all day Sunday at home taking emergency calls from customers. He will also work at the canal basin at Castelnaudary on Friday mornings. He’s so happy as it fulfils many of his passions, engineering, boats, water and helping people.

Now confinement has ended here (although sports and other social functions are still not allowed) many businesses are reopening. One such business is Le Boat on the Canal du MIDI and around other parts of France. This has had a direct impact on our lives as Richard has been offered a job with them as an assistant customer service helpline operator for the whole of France. He started working this week and will be working 30 hours a week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and all day Sunday at home taking emergency calls from customers. He will also work at the canal basin at Castelnaudary on Friday mornings. He’s very happy as it fulfils many of his passions, engineering, boats, water and helping people.

Also, this week my Mazda car passed its MOT which we thought maybe a problem as it is an old car but I love it because it’s so flexible and can be used for towing the trailer and taking passengers and dogs which are things we do frequently here.

I’ve also had success with my bees and hope I’ll be able to take some honey from them this year. I need to learn how to use a centrifuge first which I can hire from our local Apicop which is an association of beekeepers which sells all the equipment necessary and gives advice on the management of hives.

Marseille in April

7 Apr

I’m not sure how I imagined Marseille was going to be like. Many French people told us of all the different places to visit so we went off in the car with a long list of interesting places to see. We picked up a young man as a BlaBlaCar passenger in Narbonne and he travelled to Marseille with Richard, myself and Nettles. I discovered he moved to France from the UK when he was 15 months old. He now works as a scientist on research into immunity. After dropping him off near a Metro we drove to our holiday apartment. Once we found somewhere to park, we settled into a comfortable apartment on the ground floor with a double-bed, shower room and open plan kitchen, dining room and lounge. It had all the amenities we needed for a short stay. It was located in a residential area but unfortunately we weren’t able to walk to any attractions as it appears that Marseille is built on hillsides. Many of the streets in that area are very narrow one-way with cars parked in every available space including the footpaths. I found a boulangerie, a boucherie and a small corner shop just down the road. There were roadworks everywhere as well as graffiti and dog poo, except the tourist area in central Marseille. Due to our physical disabilities we were not able to walk far and Nettles was reluctant to go to the toilet as she couldn’t find any grass!

Tuesday evening. We drove to the harbour and walked around the pedestrian area which was very extensive and clean. Many people were using electric scooters which they could pick up anywhere they found one and pay online for its use and leave it wherever they wished. Apparently at the end of the day trucks would go around picking up them up and returning them to their pick up points. On returning to our apartment Richard managed to find a place to park not too far away. That evening we walked to a little Italian restaurant. But we decided to take a Uber taxi back because we found it a little bit too far to walk back as well.

Wednesday. We decided to take a tour on an open top bus (yes a London bus) with Nettles. We stopped off for lunch and a large square full of restaurants. Nettles not only is invited into the restaurants but she’s also offered a bowl of water. After lunch we walked back to the bus stop to wait for the next tour bus to complete the tour. Unfortunately before the bus arrived the thunder and rain started so with Nettles shaking like a leaf with fear we got onto the bus and sat at the front downstairs. After a while the rain came down very heavily and I realised Nettles were sitting in a pool of water. When we looked around we saw the rain coming down the stairs like a waterfall so we moved to the back of the bus where it was dryer. After leaving the bus we rushed over to the café to get warm and it was filled with men smoking hookahs. A few ladies came in later and started smoking too. It was time to get a Uber taxi to take us back to the apartment. The first Uber taxi we took from the Italian restaurant was very nice and allowed Nettles to travel in the back seat with us. The second one we used to take us to the city centre accepted Nettles reluctantly if she travelled in the boot. Naturally she was as good as gold on both journeys. However the third Uber taxi driver refused to take Nettles at all which meant Richard had to go in the taxi to go and collect our car and come back into the city centre for me and Nettles who were getting and wetter and colder by the minute. It would have taken almost an hour for the return trip so I took Nettles into another café and ordered a hot chocolate. But before the chocolate came, I had a call from Richard saying he had persuaded the taxi driver to take us as well! We decided we didn’t want to go out again and Richard didn’t want to cook so we ordered an Indian takeaway to be delivered by Uber food. It arrived on time and was delicious.

Thursday. We’d been told that Aix en Provence is very beautiful and that it was only a half hour drive from Marseille so we decided to go there for the day. It is a beautiful city and it was a sunny day but with a cold wind. Again we decided to take a tour on a little six seater electric bus. The people were very friendly and helpful too so again we stopped off for lunch with Nettles and a super little restaurant with excellent food and service. With the electric minibuses there were three routes to choose from so we chose a second route after lunch and the third later. Each one only cost €1.60 for the three of us! That evening we ate in with a pre-prepared meal Richard had made and brought with us. Then we watched a film on TV.

Friday. After packing up we drove to the port again and found another little restaurant where we had swordfish to eat, before setting off to pick up our return BlaBlaCar passenger in Marseille to go to Narbonne. I should state that Richard did all the driving around Marseille as I didn’t feel confident in his car in so much traffic so many roadworks and so many parked cars everywhere.

My first impressions of Marseille. It’s a big city! It has a multinational community. It has a lot of history, good restaurants and many tourist attractions. Apart from the tourist area it is dirty and overcrowded with traffic and roadworks. There was too much graffiti and dog poo for my liking. The people in the restaurants and shops were friendly but like in any big city people did not speak to you in the streets, unlike the small villages like Montolieu and in Aix en Provence.

Worst floods in living memory

23 Oct

As some of you may have read, the department of the Aude has been hit by the worst floods in living memory. Our commune, along with 125 others in the Aude, has been officially recognised as being a zone of natural catastrophe.

Fortunately our dwelling has not been affected but our organic garden has been wiped out. The disaster figures are staggering:

    14 people are dead with scores more in hospital
    6,000 people without homes
    Over 10,000 tonnes of household possessions to be removed and scrapped
    Many bridges need rebuilding or replacing
    The total damage to possessions and infrastructure is estimated at €300 million.
    Over 6,000 vehicles to be scrapped

All this happened within an area about 30km diameter of where we live.

Here are some photos of our damage.

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The mysterious hole

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We have lots of wood now!

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There is one of the decking pallets under this lot!

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Where to start?

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We cannot access this area yet

We are now taking stock of what’s happened. Sadly the beehives were swept away along with the colony of bees that Trish had been nurturing for the last two years. One of the four goldfish seem to have jumped ship. The new watering system has lost only the pump, amazingly. We think we can find three of the nine pallets that made up the garden terrace, but the frame of the marquee that covered it has gone. The reed bed system seems to be intact although the lower filter is almost entirely covered with debris.

This is what the garden looked like before the flood:

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A New Venture

6 Oct

Since we moved to France we have learnt new skills, a new language and a different way of life. Probably one of the biggest and most difficult transitions being learning to be retired. Fortunately we moved to a place which requires a lot of labour, creativity and interpersonal skills while living and working in an international, frequently changing community. Besides learning French (Richard has had a shorter journey than me with this), we’ve also learnt about Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I prefer to call it compassionate communication as this better describes what it is about. This is also a long journey and a transition because it questions our habits and thought processes. I’m not about to go into describing this in any detail as this is not the purpose of this blog but necessary to understand why we are doing what we are doing.

During this journey Richard continued to improve his French by having weekly Skype calls with his teacher Pam Bel. As I started from a much lower level, I used the internet and a program called Memrise. I’m also teaching English to the French in Montolieu and in Carcassonne.  We’ve both attended several workshops in NVC. Recently Pam decided to retire after having written several short books on France and the French and asked Richard if he would like to sell off her stock of books at much reduced prices.

Meanwhile during this year’s European Intensive Course (EIC) in NVC, one of the trainers Liv Larsson brought several of her NVC books with her to sell during the course. These books are written in English and she asked me if I would like to help her to sell them during the 10 day course. I sold most of her stock. The course is in English due to the wide variety of nationalities present and uses interpreters to translate into French.

As many of the NVC trainers have written books it was decided to begin promoting NVC books in French on the NVC Peace Factory website. So we were also given a stock of NVC books in French, quite a few of which we sold during the course.  We live in the village of Montolieu, which is known as the village of books, so can you guess what our new venture might be?

Yes, we are going to sell books through the internet!!  At present we have stocks of very useful English books about living in or visiting France and books in French about NVC. We also have books in German which are currently being translated into English and French.

As this blog is written in English we are promoting the books on France and the French first. We think they will appeal to people who have homes in France or travel to France frequently for holidays or work or for students learning French or even the teachers who teach French to English speakers.

We have read many of them and will finish reading them all during our stay in the UK and have found them to be very readable and interesting even though we live in France and have done so now for five and a half years.

Here is a link to the synopsis of each book.

Thunder in the hills

19 May

Last night I was woken by the dog, who was panting and moving around in an agitated state. Nettles always sleeps in our bedroom since we moved out here; it was a way to reassure her. About an hour later I heard the first roll of thunder. It must have been a long way away, by the sound of it. Nettles has always been our early warning system of an impending storm. I don’t know how long the thunder lasted as I dozed in and out of consciousness but I do remember some pretty long rolls. It was not the short bangs that we normally associate with a thunderstorm. It seemed to be rolling around the plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees. I didn’t see any lightning either.

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep. I was woken at about 8 by the table on the other side of the bed moving, and a box of vitamin pills falling on the floor, as well as by a desperate scrabbling sound! Our dear dog, in an attempt to hide from the storm, had got behind the table and was now trying to extract herself! You see, normally she goes to hide in the shower area of the guest bedroom or under one of the beds there but the bedroom door was shut.

The second favourite place is under the kitchen work surface, behind a curtain and next to the gas bottle! Anyway, there are more thunderstorms on the way, so I’ll have to watch out for her this afternoon.

When we first moved out here, there was a pretty big storm and Nettles fled out the back door and disappeared! We were terribly worried as she was in a strange area and feared that she would get lost. It rained torrentially – the French saying is “il pleut comme une vache qui pisse”! Five hours later she reappeared, dry as a bone. No idea where she’d gone! It happened again some two months later, despite our efforts to close all external doors as soon as a storm was on its way. This time she came back two hours later but looking like a drowned rat!

Hey ho! The joys of dog ownership!

 

Successful Entertaining in France

29 Mar

It is a truism to say that food is important to the French and that business entertaining should be considered a matter of great importance. Business lunches are the most common form of entertaining business contacts with breakfast or evening events being much rarer.

Lunch is usually quite a grand affair and will usually comprise of starter, main course and dessert followed by coffee. Wine will also often be served.

The quality of French food is a matter of great national pride and therefore talking about food is a national obsession. On the whole, you are much better advised talking about the food or other social issues during a business lunch than talking about business. The meal is a time for cementing relationships and learning more about each other. Business matters should only be raised during the coffee.

If inviting French contacts out to lunch, make sure you take them to a good quality restaurant and, unless you are an expert, let them chose the wine.

Restaurants usually include a 15% service charge but it is still customary to leave a small tip as well. Tipping is not compulsory in France but is recommended. (10% would be adequate.)

Visit to the Auvergne 

16 Dec

Returning home from Paris recently, I decided to break the journey half way and stay the night at Clermont-Ferrand. This medium-sized city is located in the Massif Central region. The Massif Central is an elevated region in the middle of southern France, consisting of mountains and plateaus. It covers approximately 15 percent of the country.

This is a volcanic area of which the Puy de Dôme is the highest volcano in the range known as the Chaîne des Puys. 

And it is possible to visit the summit of this impressive (and happily defunct) volcano. 

Puy de Dôme volcano

At the foot there is a visitor centre where one has a choice of methods for gaining the summit – a two and a half hour walk or a ride on a rack & pinion railway. Guess which I chose!

Brand new trains

The views on the way up are superb


Some of my fellow passengers where carrying massive backpacks which turned out to be hang gliders. This is one of the most popular places in France for hang gliding. One reason is that jumps can be made irrespective of the wind direction as the summit is perfectly circular. 

I had a thoroughly excellent day out at a very modest cost (the visit being heavily subsidised by the authorities – I believe building the brand new railway cost over €76 million).

Getting to know the locals better

28 Oct

We have lived in Montolieu 33 months now and we have made some connections with local people. Of course the shopkeepers know us quite well now – Adrian in the wine shop, Nellie at the grocer, Saskia at the baker, Terry and Bernard at the restaurant; and the pharmacist sees Richard quite frequently! We love talking to Monsieur Escarré, who is in his 80s and walks down our track most days with the aid of his walking sticks. Talking to him is a bit of a challenge as he has a strong local accent, giggles a lot and his teeth seem to be quite mobile!

We have joined the retired peoples’ club where we have made some more friends. This month we went to the club lunch where 64 of us enjoyed a four course meal with wine and coffee (great value at €15 a head).

M Borillo, aged 92

M Borillo, aged 92

We sat next to Monsieur Borillo, aged 92, and his wife who together with their daughter had worked at the tannery where we now live. He told us a little about his working life. Before he went to the tannery he had worked on the land at Saissac, an outdoor man. Before he retired (30 years ago!) he had worked on the first floor of the tannery (where we now live), operating a machine that cleaned the skins before they were processed into leather.

When he worked here, there were about 50 people employed. The owner and the manager lived in the Old House. The buyer and transport manager lived in what is now the Little House.

The tannery business was contracting fast and just before its demise, it employed just five people. Looking at some of the old records, it seemed that the French state tried to support it, by paying the salaries of the employees for the last two years, but to no avail.

By chance I met a friend of a friend on one of our sailing trips who ran a leather trading business. He used to make visits around the world buying leather and he had purchased from the Tannery de la Dure many times! What a coincidence!

Anyway, back to the lunch. After consuming a tart and salad for starter, followed by coq-au-vin with dauphenoise potatoes, then cheese and finally a desert followed by coffee and all sustained by copious bottles of white, rosé and red wine, we got discussing our life and background with Daniele, the president of the Club de Retraite. She explained that on Tuesdays they had a course learning English. About seven people turned up but the tutor had returned to England for several weeks and they wanted to continue practising. So Trish agreed to go along! I will let her tell you the story but I am pleased to report that she has made at least three new friends and is talking about inviting some of the group to come and eat a meal with us or perhaps have a drink with us!

Meanwhile I flew off to England for five days for business meetings. Thanks to Graham and Sue Whibley for putting me up yet again!

Interesting sky at Carcassonne

Interesting sky at Carcassonne

I flew from Carcassonne and this time bought a Business Plus ticket – more expensive than cattle class but you get 20kgs into the hold, a reserved seat, priority boarding and most importantly for me, as I have problems standing in queues, fast tracking through security at Stansted.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Got to hit the sack ready for a Skype call tomorrow with my French friend, Jean-Pierre, who lives in Beavais.