Provence sabbatical day 27 – Christmas Day 2013

Wow. You wait 365 days a year for it, and then suddenly it’s here. Christmas Day. And here we are in the South of France, with our great buddies, celebrating Yuletide.

We wanted to give Mila as good a run as possible, so she’d be knackered and not miss us while we were enjoying a Christmas celebration. Rob and I hopped into the Mudster and drove down the little (off)road path Marcel and I discovered a last week.

On our way back, we drove through the village. The Cours has never been quiet … in Dutch they say, “geen kip op straat” [not one chicken on the street]. I guess in this instance, a chicken could be likened to a tumbleweed? Back home, we all walked up an appetite to Patricia’s place.

Christmas at Patricia’s – Thank YOU xxx

Over the last 4 or 5 years, we’ve been introducing Rob & Diana to an English Xmas dinner – magic to have experienced it with English Roses. In France. With an extremely international guest list. Simply fabulous!!

A whisky and cigar …

Let’s face it … we’ve experienced much colder Christmases with Rob and Diana over the last few years. Especially the Crouching Man Christmas dinner in Lelystad. This evening was particularly mild. Not South Africa (evening in summer) mild, but Winter mild. We closed off the evening with a whiskey outside, and the chaps enjoyed a cigar. Thanks everyone, it was “heel gezellig”.

Merry Christmas 2013!!

Provence sabbatical day 26 – the day before Christmas

Marcel and Rob made an early start by organising some croissants from the village for breakfast 🙂 Then we all took a leisurely stroll around the shrinking market that has fewer and fewer stall holders, the more Winter sets in.

This afternoon Diana and I packed Mila into the car and popped past Patricia’s place to chat about plans for tomorrow. And then took the back roads to Carcés, via Entrecasteux to get some chewy things for our young charge a.k.a. “the Shredder”.

Mila is loving the back garden, and runs around with the youthful exuberance that only a year-old dog can. We’re doing our best to keep Mado unstressed and keeping them apart. Don’t think the ol’ chap would appreciate it much, considering how he reacted last week when a little fuzzy white dog unexpectedly popped in for a visit. As Queen Vic used to say, “We are not amused!”

Marcel got the lamp chops in the oven while we were away. Kudos man, your dad would be proud! While Naomi watched a movie, I got introduced to Yahtzee, and Rob’s excellent tips. Or not?? An excellent way to brush up your sums without a calculator. How’d it go again?

What a lovely way to enjoy Christmas? Cozy and warm with candles and a lovely fire, amazing smells emanating from the kitchen and a relaxed vibe. Life is Good!!

Merry Christmas! Hope your day is filled with much love, laughter and joy.

Provence sabbatical day 25 – Christmas madness and fabulous friends

We thought we’d get in some last minute shopping before our fab friends arrived from Holland. As we drove towards Brignoles, the mist (or low clouds) set in over the hills. Stunning. After all the rain we were welcomed with streaks of sunshine. Like those depicted in Sunday School stories, where God speaks to mortals. There must have been a huge influx of Dutchies, because the shops … they were CRAZY!! Everyone had the same idea.

Having survived the last-minute shopping at L.Eclerc, we found a lovely little greenlaning route on the way home. Via the Olive Oil press. Up to the Abbey and then down the hill on washed-away gravel roads. Later we decided to get some dried wood and chips to help the fires get going, and took a little sight-seeing drive to Carces. Another helpful lady at the garden store near Intermarché!

Bienvenue chers amis!

It was after 5pm when Rob, Diana and Naomi trundled into town. We just missed their arrival down the main street. I was seriously hoping to capture the look of disbelief on people’s faces as they witnessed the stunning Volvo TGB 6-wheeler squeezing between these narrow alleys. Enfin. We had a welcome drink at Brasserie Phils. And then got them settled in and had dinner, albeit late, even by French standards. I’m still getting to grips with Pen’s oven that doesn’t have any markings anymore … someone had removed them in an over-eager cleaning spree.

Provence sabbatical day 23 – Cotignac tourist office

It’s been raining solid for 2 days. I’m not complaining. We’ve had amazing sunny weather, and the land needs rain. But when it stopped today, Patricia and I hopped and skipped our way down to the village. I wanted to pop into the tourism office to find out things to do for when Rob, Diana and Naomi visit us next week.

The lady in the tourism office was extremely helpful and friendly. Handing me brochures for horse-riding, walking routes, the local monthly programme and she also included a map showing the general regions where a 4×4 is recommended. Or in our case next week, a 6×6. They’re driving down in their Volvo TGB camper.

On the way back to the village, I was able to take “THE SHOT” … of the swimming pools hugging the cliff side. You can’t really see them in a normal car. And taking this shot during a drive-by just didn’t work. I precariously balanced myself on the wall, and hoped a truck wouldn’t drive by and blow me off. It looks like it could be a painful drop.

Cotignac in winter is very quiet, but you still see people around. If it’s raining, the awnings come out, and when it’s cold, the outdoor heaters are turned on and we happily accept blankies from the cafés for our knees.

Provence sabbatical day 20 – fire nooks and e-cards

If this post is a blurred mess, please forgive me. I think we got about half an hour’s sleep last night. Don’t ask me why. Just couldn’t sleep. Eventually I gave up trying and came downstairs to a bewilderd Mado … “What? It’s breakfast time already?” He thought it was Christmas. Peeking through the windows, I rubbed my eyes extra hard because I couldn’t figure out whether it was just overcast and misty in the hills, or if the villagers were setting fire to their piles of leaves and other autumn debris. Makes for a pretty photo anyway!

I touched up the ceiling in the fire nook again, and despite the paint being half a centimetre thick, the water stain stubbornly shines through. Argh!! Finally, another couple of licks of paint seemed to have helped! I finally rinsed off and hung up my paintbrush until the new year. Marcel was treating the loo upstairs and I noticed a big leak in the cellar. We suspect the piping is too narrow to accommodate the loo, shower and washing machine. But it’ll have to do for now – we’ve just got to make sure everything is used separately. I scrubbed the tiled floor and got rid of the paint splatters that slipped past my plastic sheeting. And even tried to remove splatters from years gone by. They weren’t having any of it. “I’m staying right here, thank you very much!” So I let them. The newly dripped blotches relented a lot more easily.

My darling … eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow, we decorate 😉

The tree fits it’s little nook perfectly, thanks to a couple of branches I removed from the back. They’re going to become some sort of table decoration. Mado was very happy to have the place back to normal. And even allowed me to take his pic!

Late this afternoon I popped around to Kirsten to show her the pics we’d taken during the Cotignac Christmas Market and how to edit a picture and send it as an e-card. It’s one of those things … if you don’t do it often, it’s damn confusing if your instructions are missing a vital step. Like “Double click on the name” or “single click on the name and then on CC”.

After successfully sending cards, we had a glass of wine in her lovely kitchen; chatting about life, relationships and travelling. And also how it’s difficult to fit into a “close-knit community” after you’ve moved around extensively. I have to admit, there are times when I’m jealous of the the apparent simplicity of a life where you’ve lived in one place, with the same people, same work, same everything. But when I weigh it up against an international, broad-minded approach to life … and all things being equal, I’m glad I was born to travel.

Provence sabbatical day 17 – Cotignac Christmas market

It’s a little weird not joining other Landy owners for the annual LRCH Christmas drive. I’m wishing them well. Thinking of my bruv and Kinga too. Can you believe it’s been a year already? Love you guys!!

We were only planning on going to the village after 2pm, so I tackled the bedroom corner; trying the grey paint on the leak stain to see if it’s easier to paint over. I’m sure Christiane meant for it to be painted evenly, but I was kinda digging the abstract coloration. Funny how the leak part was a completely different colour?

It was lovely being in the village with my honey. Nice showing him the little places I’d discovered, and he discovered a few of his own. Why did I decide to wear boots with a heel? Hello?!? It seriously hampers my sense of adventure 😉

Not much text today, I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves. And get back to the crackling, sizzling fire. Not all the logs of wood are dry, methinks?

Provence sabbatical day 6 – sparky and the rocking pot

Maybe it was all the fresh air, olives and excitement, or maybe it was sheer exhaustion, but I slept like a baby. We woke up late 🙂 Even Mado seemed to understand and only meowed once. Our first task of the day was a semi-panic SOS call to Christiane … during the evening, we sniffed out and traced a dreaded burning plastic smell to the main’s fuse box (of all places). Christiane has looked after and worked on the farmhouse for 8 years, and knows its deepest secrets. The stories she can tell …

Christiane came around as soon as she could, and we showed her the problem, and what we’d done. Nothing out of the ordinary really; plug out the washing machine and plug in a little blower heater to help dry the washing. She phoned Bruno, the local sparky, who said he was working in Brignoles and could only come around after 5pm. Because the trouble came from the fuse box, Christiane prepared us for the possibility of it only getting fixed in the morning. Gulp. It’s pretty damn freezing without any heating. And the chimney sweep only arrives on Friday, so any fires made would have to be small. She showed us secret wood stacks in the garden, and we saw the old donkey shed. COOL!!

Marcel then helped me coax the sun-battered shutters and window frames from their slots, and I started removing the window panes. It went really well. Until I got to the cracked pane, and nicked the corner. It spread like a spider’s web. I hoped superglue would work, but managed to glue my fingers to the glass instead. Luckily the Terps was at hand. Think we’ll be getting a couple of spare panes just in case …

It seemed like DIY was in the air. Our neighbour was tinkering outside the whole day, and sharing his penchant for the Blues with everyone. Further down the hill, someone else was going wild with chain saws and drills. Marcel even got the ol’ sander out and tackled the shutter door sides – taking off just enough so they close again. Every bit helps when you don’t have heating inside! He also secured the wood panelling back on the bath and replaced the leaky shower hose with one that we found in the bathroom cabinet. He also installed a little shower hook so we can use both hands when soaping up.

It was still light when Bruno arrived. With our broken French, and his broken English, and Christiane on the phone we managed to find out that the fuse box had “fondued” (melted). It was just too old. Nothing that we’d done. PHEW! He phoned EDF and asked them to replace it. They said they’d come around this evening. Really? Wow. Bruno smiled contentedly. Christiane phoned to make sure everything went okay. We feel so lucky to have such excellent help. We started a fire, and got the camping gas light and burner at the ready. Around 7pm the electrician arrived, switched off the mains, replaced the box, was bemused by my request to take a photo, and hey presto. Before we knew it, a sparkling new fuse box!!

Turning on the heaters, we phoned Christiane with the great news. She was as relieved as we are that the farmhouse is safe. It gets under your skin … you can’t help but love this old dame. Hell, even the “Snert” was rocking on the stove!! It could be that the pot holding the Dutch pea soup had a round bottom, and the thick bubbles caused it to go off balance, but we believe it was just as happy as were are.

Provence sabbatical day 4 – taking care of the supplies

3am and I can’t sleep. Wide awake and thinking about everything and nothing at all. A little blue light on the screen casts a lovely shadow of Marcel on the wall. He looks like a reclining Moore sculpture. Tossing this way, turning that way, I eventually nod off again. Mwaauwwww. It’s late-o’clock and Mado, the cat, reminds us of our obligations.”Hey, I’m here. Feed me.” First time he’s reminded me.

Feeling ever so groggy, I decide a bath in the Hobbit’s cove is just what I need. The plug system is the same as ours at home. Some stupid knob you turn to lift the plug in/out of the water. And just like ours at home, the mechanics have rusted away. A great idea … on paper. Only, I realise this after the bath is full. And I can no longer get the plug out of the bath!! Much swilling later, the plug finally lets itself loose 🙂

Feeling out of it, I move from one thing to the next. And finally, Pen’s brass candlesticks can taunt me no more. The one sits perfectly taught, and the other is like me after an evening of too many rosés – way too wonky for it to be safe. They’re dismantled, old wax removed, and soaked in boiling water. Marcel helps out with a particularly sticky stick and we manage to reassemble them tight and proud. Hoorah. A SEAL team would be proud.

“How will we know which shade of green to use?” “I have no doubt you’ll be fine.” Aunty Pen has full faith in us. Nothing like a bit of pressure then. Trying to match a piece of heaven? Marcel and I looked around for an easy-to-loosten piece of painted green. The flaking pieces in the front are sun-bleached and have gone yellow, and the garage door looks decidely blue. The bath panelling has come loose, and I’d made a note to fasten it down, but then we figured .. that’s got to be perfect!! Marcel expertly wiggled it out, and we had at least something to go by. And what a choice. At Mr. Bricolage in Brignoles, about 20 kms away, I was happy to settle for “Verte Provence” but comparing it to the slat … way too blue. Hoo boy!! We organised a whole bunch of other stuff, like window putty for the bedroom windows where the glass panes are “hanging in there” and even found a universal plug with a little loop handle thingy for bath time bliss.

After 14 years, I know the secret to shopping with you is to keep moving. If you spend too long in one place, you zone out … so c’mon …” I’ve said it before, shopping is not my thing. Especially on a few hours of sleep. Thanks honey, for knowing me so well 🙂 The drive home was pretty fabulous. In the dark, no street lights, no protective barriers and windy bends.

Provence sabbatical day 3 – watch paint dry or visit the village?

After the gentle rain yesterday, we woke up to sun dashing past the curtains and finding it’s way to our eyeballs. A day of rest! And it wasn’t from getting wrapped on the knuckles for working too hard, I had every intention on taking it easy today. The big question, however, was do I watch the paint in Pen’s room dry, or even more exhilarating, the washing in the basement? Or do I stroll down to the village?

Triiing triiing (the phone is only allowed to make that noise, even if it doesn’t) and Patricia said she was on her way to village … I didn’t hesitate and invited myself along. In Marcel’s words, “I’m on sabbatical from my sabbatical” so I comfortably left him here with his e-books.

Don’t know why I thought the shops were closed on Sundays?!? The Spar is open until noon. Check. We won’t starve. It’s one of the friendliest Spars I’ve seen, and stocks pretty much anything you might need. We met the rest of the gang for a “vin rouge” (or blanc or rosé). They are such nice people! Even after I informed them we’re keeping a photo blog of our sabbatical, they they agreed to being photographed for today’s entry. I tried setting the Pentax up on “auto shoot” but couldn’t get the right angle, and flailed a Scandanavian passerby to assist. The first photo took 12 seconds 🙂 Umm. I set it back and we got a lovely group shot. Everyone smiling, fantastic. Me looking like a Mexican, priceless.

After facing my level of (un)fitness climbing back up the hill, I opted for a cuppa coffee in the sunshine. This yellow tree against an azure sky is quickly becoming my shrine! I love the sound the leaves make when the breeze gently rubs them against each other … as if they’re saying “Good-bye” before shedding for Winter. Thinking of Uncle John in Barrydale, and how he named his dog “BE” to remind him to be in the moment, I found a deck chair in Pen’s shed, and christened it “BE” … it’s the perfect position to lie back and enjoy. Did I drool? My husband didn’t say anything, and I didn’t ask 🙂

Provence sabbatical day 2 – the sun has deserted us

It’s amazing the difference between being a guest and being a caretaker. Don’t think I got a wink of sleep last night. Where I’d rolled over and gone back to sleep the nights before, I was alert to every noise and non-sound. Madonna, the cat, is settling well with us, and was active last night, as Pen had said he would be. At one point I heard a doorbell .. and there isn’t one here! Okie dokie … 1 night in and I’m losing it!!!

Despite it being overcast, I grabbed a cuppa tea and some yoghurt and claimed Wolf’s special breakfast spot. Oui, I can understand. Determined sun beams find their way to flush your cheeks while your nose is protected from the oncoming winter breeze. I had no choice but to grab my camera and discover the garden. There are still loads of flowers and insects (I even got a mosquito bite!!) and buds on the bushes. Hello … don’t they feel the minus degrees we’ve been having?

Marcel spent most of the day reading … fab to see my guy relaxing!! I tackled the painting again, and this time with better luck. The paint was indeed better in a warmed room. Every now and then, however, I saw bubbles on the wall 🙁 arghh. With the slightest encouragement, the old paint just peeled away leaving a nasty bald spot. A little trick I hope will work … I scraped away as much as I could, and then sanded the spot and edges. The new paint seemed to stick better. I slowly built up levels of paint, so it kind of matches the rest. Another coat of paint will be needed.

By 2:30pm the light isn’t good enough to carry on … well, that’s my excuse. We’re still finding our feet in our “new home”. When you’re away for so long, you’re kind of between travelling and living somewhere. But one thing hasn’t changed, me … I’m still in my work clothes. My jersey is getting decidely more speckledy-white. I can only imagine the white band of paint on the back of my head from leaning too close to the wall. My husband hasn’t said anything and I haven’t asked.

On Monday, we’re going back to Mr. Bricolage to get green paint and other stuff for more reparations. We should have enough food until then … the shops are closed from Saturday morning. Á bientot!

Provence sabbatical day 1 – it officially begins

We’re looking at each other in bemused wonderment. Who would have thought that we’d be overwintering in the South of France? But here we are for much-needed R&R and to look after “Madonna” (an elderly, sometimes grumpy cat) in a gorgeous old farmhouse in a picturesque village?

Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

During our 4 months in Cotignac, we’ll be doing some TLC on this fab home in exchange for electricity, etc. So to make sure we’ve got the right tools, we drove down with “Smiley” (our Renault work van) and with “Muddy Boots” (Land Rover 90) for exciting adventures despite the wintery roads.

Enroute however, Muddy’s clutch decided to start packing up. What do you do? It’s Saturday afternoon and you’ve promised to be 1000km’s away by Monday. There’s no time to wait for a tow. So we figured leaving him in 5th gear was the best option and headed straight for the Autoroute du Soleil, instead of taking the back roads. We were handsomely rewarded with the first sunshine we’d seen in ages.

On our arrival, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. Auntie Penelope and Uncle Wolf introduced us to their friends and showed us the hows, wheres and whats. Pen had written a great A-Z of names, numbers, services, entertainment, and loads more. They want to make sure we enjoy our stay as much as possible, and that we don’t get cabin-fever. Actually, we get asked that a lot … 4 months of doing nothing??

Pen and Wolf left for Istanbul this morning, enroute to South Africa. It felt weird saying good-bye and walking back into their home … without them.

To thank Marcel for his humungous effort in Holland, I’ve insisted that he come here and do NOTHING. Okay, reading is allowed. And writing. But for the rest, I’ll do whatever I can to take the pressure off him so he can RELAX. Alongside Madonna, who has spent the whole day snuggled in Pen’s chair. He’s missing them already, but is allowing us to stroke him more and more. I’ve missed having a kitty to look after!

Sabbatical in Provence (day 1)
Sabbatical in Provence (day 1)

We will be moving from the guest room to Pen’s room, with it’s most fantabulous views across the valley, but it needs to be painted after the roof leak. So after a bunch of other “settling in” chores, I stripped the paint bubbles and started painting. But it didn’t go 100% to plan … it got all thick and chunky. Hmmm. My hubby gently reminded me that painters don’t usually work in Winter, and the room probably needs heating. C’est la vie! Tomorrow is another day. I’ll switch the heater on in the room first thing and make a fresh start.

My education with Pen’s stove continued as I set my attention to a yummy chicken and lentil soup; loosely based on Pen’s winner recipe with Balsamic vinegar that we enjoyed during the Apéro on Wednesday night … and of course, too many vins rouges.

Radio “France Bleu Provence” is playing in the background – nice combination of songs from all genres and a good balance of talking. It’s encouraging being able to recognise some French words, and get the ear in on those accents.

Not sure what tomorrow holds … but all we can say, is that it’s simply awesome to be here!! A huge thanks to auntie and uncle. And also to our good buds in Holland for handling our matters there xxx

The Festive Season, As It Should Be

Oldenburg in Germany is some four hours away from us, but we took a drive there on the 16th of December, to meet up with our cousins for just a few hours at the Christmas Market. These German markets are renowned for their festive spirit and good cheer. It was worth the effort and we found the greatest gifts … love, care, attention and time with family and friends.

Why the title? I’m horrified at what the Festive Season has become. The first news report that appeared on Dutch television after Christmas was about people placing their unwanted gifts on auction websites like e-Bay. Gee, isn’t this just a sad reflection of what the Festive Season has become? Instead of showing our loved ones how much we love them by giving them our time, care and attention, we buy each other gifts as a replacement or representation of our love.

And because we’re too busy rushing around leading hectic lives to be able to afford these unwanted gifts, and to maintain our materialistic lifestyle, we don’t have the time that is needed to find out more about the recipient, or to discover what he / she might actually enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting and opening presents as much as the next person. We should give each other gifts. Giving a gift is a personal, vulnerable thing. What if they don’t like it? Is it the right thing to give? Will they understand why I want them to have it?

Perhaps these questions play a big part in why so many gifts are unwanted? People don’t necessarily want to expose themselves like that, so they buy a generic gift that carries the promise “people will love you for giving it”. We eagerly listen to marketers and their big promises. But the recipient often looks at the gift in disappointment. How does it make us feel when we receive an unwanted or a strange gift? Do we wonder why that person bought that item? What were they thinking of (us) at the time of purchase? Was it just the quickest thing at hand? Or was it … er … gasp … a re-gift?

In the spirit of giving

The whole idea of giving gifts (and Santa Claus) originates from a Dutch / Flemish festival called Sinterklaas, which is a shortened version of “Sint Nicolaas”. Nicholas lived in Myra (present day Turkey) between 271 and 343 AD. He inherited his parent’s wealth when they died of an epidemic. Unhappy, he distributed the wealth among sailors and merchants, and then became a priest.

The Dutch and Flemish still celebrate his life on the 5th of December each year, giving small hand-made gifts and making good-natured rhymes that poke fun at the recipient. “The emphasis is on originality and personal effort rather than the commercial value of the gift.” Sadly this tradition is giving way to the commercialism of Christmas. Even more sad is that our Western culture discourages hand-made gifts. Things are said to only have value if they’ve been bought. But how can the hours and care taken to make a gift be worthless?

Surely the greatest gift we can give each other is our time, care and attention? I would love to see the Festive Season return to being about spending valuable time together, caring for each other and sharing special moments, and being less dependent on the gifts that are given.