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Well that’s Christmas over with!

7 Jan

It’s all quietened down here after Christmas and the New Year. To be honest, it never got into gear! It’s one of the differences we noticed when moving over here – Christmas is not a big deal. Firstly, only 25th December and 1st January are public holidays (and only if they do not fall on a weekend). Secondly, as the holiday break is so short, there is not the frenzied rush to go shopping beforehand. So we quite enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere.

The ice skating rink – Place Carnot, Carcassonne

It can get quite cold over here, says Trish!


Les Gilets Jaune

The astonishing site of people protesting in yellow high visibility jackets (“les Gilets Jaunes”) has created quite a stir in France. It has certainly shocked the French government. The demonstrators have intermittently blocked roundabouts, commercial centres and motorways over the last eight weeks. They have caused chaos – and many firms are laying off people, complaining of drop in sales (up to 30% has been reported which is bad news just before Christmas, especially when many seasonal businesses get about 40% of their sales in the run-up to Christmas). They have also caused an immense amount of damage – in Carcassonne they have defaced the Prefecture and the Town Hall, vandalised nearly 30 cash dispensers and burnt part of the toll booth at Carcassonne East exit.

It has to be explained that this type of protest is perfectly normal in France – the police or gendarmes will only intervene if the protest or assembly is illegal (all protests have to be notified to the Prefecture three days in advance). In general. French people see this type of protest as perfectly acceptable; it is the right of the people to demonstrate. I know I found this hard to understand before I moved to France but now I see it is part of the culture here. And it often works.

However, the level of violence and damage is much higher than usual. And in part this is due to the average person feeling unrepresented by the authorities. The price of fuel (which has risen by 15% in the last 12 months) was the last straw. But many feel isolated, under-rewarded and forgotten. So they are making their feelings known. And it has worked in part.

Each mayor has opened up an official book in which any citizen can write what they want to see changed. It is based on six main themes, so as to give the result some cohesion. The results will be fed back to the elected people and from this the government will set out their revised programme.

Protesters in action

But now public sentiment is turning against the protestors as the mindless violence and damage continues. In Toulouse, there have been groups of female protestors, marching to say it’s not them that is causing the damage.

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.

Whilst the cat’s away, the mice do play!

24 May

So, taking the opportunity whilst Trish is in Nigeria, Richard decided to pop down to the true south of France – Provence! Here is his little story.

I booked a tiny self-contained flat through Airbnb in Sanary-sur-Mer which is just west of Toulon. I wanted to visit the historic port of Toulon, to find out why the French Admirals had based their fleet there during the Napoleonic wars. I now know why – it’s vast and well sheltered. Prevailing winds made it easy for the French to come out and pretty hard for the English to get in. Which is why Nelson had the port blockaded. And quite successful it was too until a storm blew up, scattering the blockading fleet and allowing the French out. It’s a long story but eventually they joined up with the Spanish fleet and got beaten at the Battle of Trafalgar, by Nelson.

Sanary-sur-Mer is a lovely seaside town with pretty streets, neat houses and a gorgeous seafront. It’s expensive, mind you. I chose not to eat out here, preferring a neighbouring town which is slightly downmarket.

Today was a lovely sunny day, with temperatures of 27 deg C, which is only five degrees less than in Abuja, Nigeria! And the sea sparkled, as only the Mediterranean can in summer. The holiday season is a long way off getting into full swing but everything was open and freshly painted. So I got the full version without the crowds. Bet it’s not like this in August!

The journey from Montolieu to Toulon takes about four-and-a-half hours. I posted the journey on BlaBlaCar and immediately received six bookings going. Of course, it was a railway strike day. Thank you SNCF – I made €69 instead of you! Tomorrow, for the return journey, I’ve got three bookings, as far as Nimes, then I’m on my own but it does give me the chance to meander a bit and not to worry about meeting strangers in strange places at fixed times!

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!

 

Bachelor life

17 May

I’m a temporary bachelor as Trish has gone to Nigeria to spend time with our friends Irene and Michael, who live there. Trish left on Monday – she was so excited and it was my pleasure to support her in getting all her papers and travel plans in order.

The day after she left I thought I’d struggle to find things to do. I’m pleased to say I’ve been busy ever since. When living as a couple, one has to compromise and share, naturally. Living on one’s own means I can pretty much do what I want when I want. So my present life has more of a natural rhythm to it and it’s a more efficient way of living – only for a short time, though!

One thing I have noticed is that despite saying to myself each night “I’ll have a lie in tomorrow” when the morning comes I’m up and rating to go at 7:30 am!

Another thing – I seem to be eating less food than I do when there are two of us. Perhaps it’s easier to cater for just one. I know I eat smaller quantities anyway after my gastric bypass, however, I do normally eat five times a day and my calorie intake is about 1,800 a day. These last few days I’ve gone down to three meals a day! My normal weight is now 110 kgs or 17 stone 4 lbs and over the winter this crept up a tad. So hopefully by the time Trish returns to Montolieu (28 May), I will be below my goal weight.

Today I am going to work this morning in the garden with Mareva and Nicolas (who live here). No doubt we will be ’assisted’ by Nettles as we weed the vegetable patch! Nettles in the gardenThen we will plant vegetable seeds and the potatoes. After lunch, I plan to continue the work removing the old window panes on the veranda of Irmtraud’s loft. It’s a noisy and tough job, as the windows are three storeys up and I can only work from the inside. Replacing windowsAlso, the putty is over 50 years old and is pretty much like concrete! I’m about to deploy the electric concrete chiseller! Later this evening I plan to pop into the village and eat a crepe cooked by our friends Veronique and José from their mobile creperie called Speedycrepe.

Tomorrow Louise and I plan to go to the seaside at Gruissan, to get some sun. So possibly a day off! Yippee!Gruissan harbour

Is winter over, over here?

2 Mar

It’s not been that cold in the south west of France this winter. So far, we’ve had two separate snowfalls, each lasting just two days. So, merely a dusting in comparison with what the UK has been receiving this week. And we’ve only had two nights since the beginning of the year where the temperatures dropped below freezing.

I took Nettles for a walk this morning and shot these views of our village from down below where the residential home is.

In the top photograph you can see our church, which is an ancient monument, built between the 13th and 15th centuries.

But it is not all good news – for the last two months we’ve had exceptional rainfall. In one weekend in January it rained the equivalent of one month’s precipitation. The river which passes by our garden is running in full spate (and is very noisy at night).

Anyway, now that spring has arrived, the gardeners are active again. Soil has been carefully prepared and marked out. A garden plan has been drawn up by Trish. And she and several volunteers have already dug-in the compost, ready for the seeds be planted. In fact, Trish has already planted broad beans and peas. There are also seedlings growing in the greenhouse.

Later, we drove into Carcassonne and visited a place where they sell everything that is required for watering a garden automatically. As we jokingly explained to the man behind the counter, coming from England meant that we had little or no experience of automatic watering systems, since it usually rained a lot where we lived in Kent. He understood completely what we were saying! The next step is to go back to see him and show him the plan of the garden and then he’ll be able to calculate precisely the components that we need.

Below is a shot of la Montagne Noire that I took on our return to Montolieu whilst Nettles playing in the field nearby.

Keep warm out there!

A lot of effort for such a small thing!

31 Dec

When I last saw the rheumatologist in Carcassonne, we discussed a nodule on the heel of my right foot which was causing me some discomfort. It rubbed against the back of my shoe when I walked. He suggested having it removed but first the surgeon would need to know whether the nodule was attached to the tendon or not.

So off I went for an echograph at the local clinic where the doctor carrying out the ultrasound scan pronounced the nodule to be free-standing. Next, I had a consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, again at Carcassonne Hospital. The hospital is new, eco-hopital-carcassonnehaving opened just two years ago and is comprehensively equipped; there are even two MRI scanners here. He told me the operation would take him 10 minutes and proposed a date six weeks ahead. I left his clinic with the following:

  • Confirmation letter of the date of the operation
  • Letter from him to my GP
  • Prescriptions for crutches, bandages, painkillers, antic bacterial wash solution, and for a nurse to visit me every three days after the operation for two weeks.
  • An appointment with the anaesthetist
  • An appointment with the surgical nurse
  • A follow-up appointment with the surgeon at the end of January

During the appointment with the surgical nurse, their process and procedures were explained in some detail, backed up by printed documents. Very comprehensive. The day before the op, I was telephoned by a nurse and told to arrive at 9am.

Thursday 28 December saw Trish deliver me to the operating suite where I was duly received, given a private room, thoroughly checked as to who I was and what I was having operated. I put on a surgical gown and waited for about an hour until a porter took me to the theatre area on my bed. Here I was transferred to an operating bed and after a consultation with the anaesthetist (who advised me to have a spinal anaesthetic), I was good to go. I waited on the rather hard bed for about 45 minutes, then was wheeled into the operating theatre.

The anaesthetic was most strange; it’s not that comfortable losing all sensation below the waist! The operation was over 15 minutes later (I never saw the surgeon) and then I was wheeled into the recovery area and transferred back onto my original bed (and that explains why the bed had a name tag attached to it which was identical to the one I had on my wrist). I had a funny spell then; apparently, my blood pressure dropped through its boots but something was added to my drip and I was soon OK again. The anaesthetist kept an eye on me every 20 minutes. Then the surgeon dropped by to say the operation had gone well.

It then took about two hours for me to recover full use of all my muscles below the waist! After that, I was wheeled back to my bedroom. After a much-needed cup of coffee, a bread roll and a slice of cheese, I was ready to go home. Which is where I am writing this, three days after the op.

Richard "Hopalong"

Here I am just back from the operation, wearing my scarf which is a Christmas present from Trish!

The district nurse has just been to change the dressing. I am able to walk unaided around the flat but I use the crutches walking around the factory floor, as a precaution.

So there we have it! I forgot to mention that the hospital called the day after the op, to make sure everything was going well!

We were both impressed by the health system in France which is clearly well resourced, although we hear rumours that it is costing too much and economies may have to be made. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Hello

12 Nov

Hello to all our friends across the world some of whom have helped us to maintain and improve the factory and all the gardens and buildings on site. With your help we have achieved so much but still have more work to do. It is a life long project for us. The list of tasks completed is too big to put into this newsletter.

We really enjoy meeting new people and old friends and have kept a photo album of many of the volunteers working here which I show to new volunteers so they can see what type of work they may be asked to help with.

Richard and I have now lived here for almost five years and have seen some changes in the weather. In the last two years we have had a drought and the river almost dried out next to our garden. However this has allowed us to remove a lot of bamboo and brambles from the riverside and to rebuild the small barrage in the river at the end of our garden. Unfortunately we have also lost a few trees from the surrounding hills and now as we are experiencing strong winds have to watch out for falling branches on the road and terraces.

Our road has been given a name by the Mairie at the request of the French post office. Our address is now 272 Chemin de la Tannerie.  We have also changed our websites and separated the NVC training from the volunteering and our new website is called volunteer-france.com. If you have any friends who would like to volunteer to help us please show them the new website.

We are looking for specialists to help us with pruning and tree cutting, woodworkers to help build windows and doors and roofers to help repair the roofs of the buildings. But we still have the garden to maintain and cleaning of the training centre and buildings.

This year’s project was to build a used water treatment plant using reeds and water plants. We are now in a position to recommence growing vegetables and are preparing the soil with home-made compost and compost collected from the road when we cleared the track. Over the winter we will be preparing the ground for planting vegetables and pruning all the trees and shrubs.

We are very pleased that a young couple are moving into the Peace Factory as permanent residents and they are interested in helping us to grow fruit and vegetables.

Look forward to hearing from you, Trish.

It’s finally finished!

5 Sep

We don’t really believe it but the reed bed sewage system is finally finished. At the end of July we had a visit from the company who’d designed the system. They requested that we make a few changes to the layout of the vertical bed. This entailed moving the dispersers, raising the separator and reinforcing and raising the grill that stops people and animals from coming into contact with the effluent.

Trish, I and Dylan, a volunteer from Missoula, Montana, USA, worked during August to carry out the work. We also tried out two ways to cap the edge of the bed – roof tiles and stones. It was decided that the tiles looked nicer. We had a stock of old roof tiles in the old factory. The only problem was that to get to them we had to go under a huge beam supporting the floor above and this beam had broken in two!

So we then remembered seeing four new metal props which had been stored under the terrace of the Old House. Provenance unknown but they did the job. The beam can’t fall any further but will need specialist help to push it back into place and brace it.

Here is Dylan working in the sh*t!

We had to carry out a number of adjustments in order to meet the specifications of the system’s designer. Now these are finished, we are waiting for a visit from the SPANC (Le Service Publique d’Assainissement Non-Collectif). SPANC is the public body in France that controls the design and implementation of sewage treatment systems that are not connected to the public sewer. If they are satisfied then they will issue an approval notice which we can present to the Town Hall.

This has been a major project here. Over the last three years I have gained a lot of knowledge (perhaps too much knowledge!) on how sewage is treated. We looked into pumping stations which could deliver our waste up to the public system, which was 300 metres up our track, and 30 metres higher. This was discarded as too costly even though a sewage pipe had been installed under the track when the renovations were carried out some 15 years ago. We then investigated micro-systems, both above and underground, but the logistics of installing a large plastic structure were interesting and the running costs were also a factor, as the systems need electricity and emptying annually. It was finally decided to install a reed bed system (phytoépuration in French).Here is a shot of the finished system. I promise this is the last you’ll here about this subject for a while!

For us, it’s been a major project. Trish and I organised the work, most of which was carried out by a working party of 26 volunteers over six days at the end of April. They dug out the 25 tonnes of soil to make the lower bed, filled 500 sandbags to create the upper bed, laid the liners in each (three for each bed), installed the drainage pipes and vents, hand shovelled 42 tonnes of stones, gravel and sand into the two beds. This required a lot of coordination and arranging and fetching of supplies – all conducted in French.

Then over the next four months we procured hundreds of plants (some bought, some dug up from waterside locations and some propagated). All were planted by Trish and our volunteer Dylan, who is in his final year studying for a degree in ecology. Another team of volunteers, attending a six day course here on living NVC, demolished the old sewage pipes and installed the new delivery pipes and diverter system. Finally we built a protection grill to keep people and animals away from the effluent, mounted a capping of roof tiles, experimented with covering the sand bags in mud (work in progress here), and tweaked the layout of the delivery pipes and dispersers.

Finally I am pleased to report that the system is working! It coped with over 70 people who attended a 10 day course here in August. The water discharging into the river is clear and we now have an ecological and natural system for treating the sewage here at the Peace Factory.

If you want to know more about the NVC courses go to our website. If you’d like to know about volunteering here, go to our volunteer website.

Thanks for reading.