Wednesday, 22 November 2017

What? Downsize to an Over 50’s Community!

Time flies when you're having fun...Well, we must have been having fun because three years have evaporated and we've hardly noticed. That's three years since our return to Australia after our "splendide longues vacance" in France, our year-long home exchange.

Val and I have downsized; gone from a 366sqm home on 6000sqm of land to a 174sqm villa on a 292sqm postage stamp of earth...and we don't even own the earth! Here's our personal experience.


Our former Maleny home and, below, our new villa!                                                       

After one has achieved that near perfect state of nirvana, i.e. “Retirement”, and after one has made provision for maintaining a decent  income into one’s future, one, hopefully, will have a certain amount of left over lolly.

This lolly is used by one to facilitate enjoyment of those traditional perks shall I say it?’s advancing middle age. Perhaps travel to distant shores, a new caravanning rig, a sup or two of a rather good red,  but just from time to time, mind you!
For me, though, a time arrived in “Retirement” when the carefree experience of cheerfully maintaining a picture perfect  two acres of luscious green lawn morphed into a terrible chore to keep ahead of that bloody defiant grass...always bloody-well growing. This moment coincided with another moment of realisation; that the pile of left over lolly was a pile no more.
Good grief, what to do? Apparently “Downsizing” is the regulation answer to this conundrum, but one must of course decide on where to downsize to.

My spouse, Val, and I thought that moving to the seaside town of Burrum Heads would be perfect.

Warm seaside climate, an abundance of choice in quality housing at very attractive prices, a lovely river estuary for mucking about on water (sometimes, erroneously, called fishing) and like-minded folk in the town.

But the BIG C came to visit. Val was diagnosed as having cancer.

There is no point in asking “why me?” because the answer is simply “why not me?” Get on with life. And Val did just that with great determination and an absolutely positive outlook on our future life.

A visit by the Big C, however, forces the rather unpalatable realisation that one is not actually invincible, as one had previously thought, and it also forces one to re-evaluate one’s plans, doesn’t it. Not only that, Val and I were overwhelmed by the support and love shown by so many friends and acquaintances around Maleny.  How could we even contemplate leaving such a wonderful network of loving people?
Of course, the Big C, even in remission, casts a long shadow, a shadow that cannot be ignored. So the former Captains Invincible threw out the Burrum adventure choosing instead to downsize into "Nature's Edge Buderim", an “Over 50’s Lifestyle Village”. A key determinate was that if one of us should cross the rainbow bridge the other would be well settled in a close community without the unnecessary disruption of another relocation.

Now to say "Nature's Edge Buderim" is to stretch a long poetic bow, a long merchandising poetic bow. We are actually situated at Forest Glen, but Forest Glen is on the lower (lowest?) slope of Buderim Mountain. Come to think of it, to say "Buderim Mountain" is itself a bit of a stretch...rather one should perhaps say "Buderim High Hill".

As you would know, over 23 years, if one is not vigilant, a lot of stuff can build up in a large house, a  large double garage and a large cellar. We had not been vigilant.

Our new villa complete with double garage of rather modest proportion and no cellar is just half the size of our previous home. A lot of stuff had to go!

Come removal day, the removalist and I were dismayed to find that, even after culling, we still had 140 variously sized cartons plus the furniture.  Add in the gargantuan number of plants and pots and statuary that Val absolutely had to keep. “You worry-wart” she scolded “I’ll find a place for all of them.” Much to my surprise, she has.

Val and I are now certified inmates of our new “gated” Resort, along with 130-odd fellow inmates already ensconced  in the village. Eventually there will be about 340 bodies enjoying the “Over 50’s Lifestyle” but I’m not really sure how that particular style of life is supposed to unwrap.

Raising money for Cancer Research in our villa

Certainly it will revolve around the three million five hundred thousand dollar plus leisure centre now abuilding. All the usual modern facilities are coming: library, heated pool, gym, tennis, bowls, art-house cinema, circular  fire hearth,  tepanyaki BBQ etc etc...oh, and bar. No self-respecting over 50’s Lifestyler could style his or her life without a bar, certainly not this particular Lifestyler.

Living in the Village, I have an unexpected feeling of difference and separation from life in the outside world (although I’m reasonably sure that the outside world is still carrying-on, albeit with Mr Trump). We villagers are all of a type, I think. Reasonably well-off, of a similar age, new in our little community and definitely looking for a companionable on-going out-going social experience.

Already in our short street we local Lifestylers are busy establishing a Friday tradition of 5’Oclock Conviviality-on-the-Street. Currently attention is focused on how to set up a movable, safe fire-pit. Val is brushing up on her mulled wine recipe and sourcing  the best cheap spring rolls too.

The next monthly village-wide Happy Hour held in the partly constructed Leisure Centre is scheduled shortly; champagne and canapes courtesy of management.

But I do hope that we Lifestylers are not enjoying the equivalent of a sheltered (but much less voluptuous) lifestyle inside Versailles while the peasants burn Paris.

Au revoir

Bryan and Val Hughes
The Former "Captains Invincible"

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Postcards from The available as a Really Great Book

Dear Reader,

After so long away from the blog keyboard I'm now back with some very important news....well, very important news to me but just perchance of little import to you.

That's unless you have been waiting with growing impatience these few years for my blogging output to be collected into one unforgettable and un-put-downable BOOK.

Here's what I have so modestly said in my eStore blurb about this Book Sale Event:

"11 months house exchange in the sticks in France! What will you DO?" was the constant question asked of us by our friends. "Simply a day at a time!" was our reply. "But you don't even speak French!!!" they cried. "Hang on", we replied, somewhat miffed, "we've been studying the language  diligently under our Professeur, Patricia, at the University of the Third Age. We can even say: bonjour mes amis."

We are two not-so-young retired Australians who love France and we wanted the real experience of actually living in France, not just the "18-day typical drive-through just $8,543 discounted if you book NOW" experience.

We were seeking authenticity! And we found it. In the tiny hamlet of "La Petite Ferme" located between two small and unremarkable French provincial towns in the "Department de la Chatente". Now, the Charente definitely is not Provence nor is it on the banks of the Loire. It's rural France with a capital R. The location might be unremarkable, but the experience was most remarkable.

The simple adventure of shopping in supermarkets and street markets almost as a local. The time to discover the treasures of our countryside, the lane ways and walkways, the village "vide greniers" (car boot sales). The opportunity that arose in an unlikely quarter to develop lasting friendships.

With a laid-back, humourous style Bryan captures the essence of our wonderful experience in a series of Postcards home. They are true to the experience, peppered with real people, all stories and events real and unadorned. This truly is a delightful read.

Actually what this book of Postcards now reveals is something more of the real life behind the magical moments of our Exchange. 

This version is in Black & White meaning that the 37 pictures are in B&W. I have published it this way to keep the price down to US$12.50.

Full Colour Version is also available now! I now published my wonderful book in full colour under the title "Postcards from La Charente". The minimum price allowed by my self-publishing house will be US$30.00 buying from Amazon or CreateSpace. The colour version is definitely the way to go...much more evocative of the experience.

Now, where can you rush out and buy my book. It's available from and from the various Amazon European websites and the CreateSpace eStore at this address;

Buying in Australia? Best price for "Postcards from La Charente" (the colour version) is to buy from me direct, ordering by email to    Price: $27.00 (AUD) plus postage

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Treasures in our Charentaise Backyard

"The Charente in France... where's that?" we asked ourselves when the invitation for a long exchange in that region arrived.  Brittany, Provence, the Loire, even Burgundy,  all the romantic tourist names, had an established position in our picture of France. But "Le Charente"...nothing!

Google answered the basic questions. Very rural, West coast area, no specific great attractions but with the second sunniest climate after Provence. Juignac, the nearest village to Le Petit Maine, was almost a non-entity, the ancient village well perhaps being its most significant feature. But La Charente" was to be our home in France for almost a year.

The great advantage of a prolonged stay in the one area is the chance to explore it  in depth. Over eleven months we did just that and we found wonderful little treasures in our backyard: treasures that don't figure on tourist itineraries, that don't have large coach parks, and that sometimes are even in disrepair. 

Murals in the Church of  Saint Arthemy, Blanzac

Blanzac-Porcheresse, or locally just Blanzac, is an extremely  nondescript small town about 20 minutes drive from home, population just over 800. It's clearly a poor commune. A casual traveller simply would see no reason to even think about stopping over in Blanzac. I go there to play tennis quite often (yes, I did eventually make contact with a very friendly expat tennis group).  The local club apparently has withered but the two courts are maintained by someone and always open.

When passing through Blanzac (going somewhere else) one doesn't actually  drive into the town square; the "main" road from Montmoreau takes one  around a corner past a decrepit Tabac, over the creek and through  the potholes and up past a small shop and out of town. However, in passing through, as we often did, we had noticed that a rather large church sits in the town square. Its' L' Eglise Saint Arthemy, " a twelfth century church with Gothic and Romanesque influences". Saint Arthemy, apparently, was a bishop of the Arveni Celtic tribe who achieved martyrdom in the 4th century.

Now one can't be visiting grand sites and spending lots of money every day, can one? So to relieve the boredom of another cool but sunny day at home, we decide that today is the day to visit that church in Blanzac and find a quaint cafe for a coffee.

We push open the door to Saint Arthemy's church and carefully close it in accordance with the flapping notice: "Please close the door so the bloody pigeons can't get in"...or words to that effect. It's musty and dim but we are amazed to see three huge murals on the right wall of the nave. One is more an unfinished drawing. The two finished but very faded works here are framed by formed arches. In the right hand transept  chapel are two lovely murals framed by painted copulas together with many earlier very faded works. The left transept has matching murals, also under painted copulas. However, the general deterioration of the church is very visible. The works are stunning but clearly in need of much restoration and preservation.

Your author understands that it is the responsibility of the commune to maintain any historic churches in its area if the church is not heritage listed. If the commune is small then usually it simply does not have the funds for preservation. So dampness and neglect slowly destroy this priceless legacy.
One can see that Blanzac has tried but is failing. Sadly, green algae and mould from rising damp are ever where evident.

In a sombre mood we leave St Arthemy's  church...alas the Place de St Arthemy is as sleepy as the church. No cafe, no bar open so no cheery "bonjour monsieur, deux vin rouge SVP" in Blanzac for us today.

The Templars' Legacy in the Charente

The Templars, as in the rest of France, had a strong presence in the Charente; Wikipedia lists 13 "commanderies" in the Department. Commanderies would be built around a permanent water source and probably comprise as a minimum the monk/ knights' living quarters, prilgrims' house, stables and of course, the chapel.  All that remains on most sites is a small chapel, perhaps indicating only a modest number of knights in residence. Twelve of the 13 sites are actually still in use for regular worship, the 13th is in ruins.

If one takes the winding lane past the tennis courts in Blanzac and continues out of town for several kilometres one comes to the  wonderfully named Chapelle des Templiers de Cressac-Saint-Genis, perched on a low hillside. The original commanderie was built over the years 1150-1160; now all that remains is  the chapel. There is still a working well in the church yard. Adjacent to the chapel is a "modern" farmhouse and garden. On our visit, bushes bearing beautiful succulent ripe red tomatoes were staked out quite close to the garden fence. Possibly the ghosts of knights past helped me to  resisted the open temptation offered by these gorgeous fruits!

The glory of this relatively unknown chapel is its astonishing frescoes still adorning large parts of the interior walls. During the Revolution the chapel frescoes were partly destroyed and subsequently the chapel was seized and sold by the new anti-clerical government and used for centuries as a barn.  It is amazing that that any frescoes survived at all!

Let me show you some of those that did survive.

The frescoes were created in the same style as the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The fresco narrative apparently tells the story of the victory in 1163 of  Templars and the rest of the French army over the Saracens, led by Nour Ed Din, at the Krak des Chevaliers in the Holy Land. Now the French army happened to have been led by one Geoffroy Martel, brother of the Count of Angoulême. Which does make one wonder if the choice of subject was, just perhaps, influenced by the fact that Angoulême and its count were a mere 22 kilometers north-east of the commanderie!

Pilgrims at this Chapel in a show of penitence and zeal were encouraged to rub their hands down a particular stone in the wall. The wear marks of the fingers are clearly visible but the blood has long since been washed away. Perhaps it was a case of  "no rub, no grub"!

The chapel was declared an historic monument in May 1914 and  is now owned and regularly used by the Protestant Reformed Church of Barbezieux.

At Gurat, a little known "Monolithic Church"

One of our simple pleasures is driving along any byway or laneway in the countryside that takes our sudden fancy. Driving to Villebois-Lavalette one day we took a side road that led though the village of Gurat.  On entering Gurat we spied a small sign pointing to "L'église Monolithic", 100 meters.
"Monolithic church" actually refers to an underground church that has been carved into a cliff face. A justly famous example is the magnificent Church of St Jean at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne but we had never heard of one at this seemingly insignificant village called Gurat.

Down a side road we find a 3-space car park opposite which is a track wandering away beside a tiny creek we later learn is called Font Longe, which runs into the nearby River Lizonne, a tributary of the Dronne. The track and the brook lie at the base of a low rocky cliff atop which sits the village.

Walking down the track 200 meters we see a large hole above us in the cliff and a little sign saying: "L'eglaise".  The top of this hole is only a meter or so below the very obvious foundations of a substantial village building. As this has obviously been the situation for hundreds of years we reason that the "church" roof is unlikely to fall down on our heads, even though we have not actually graced a proper church for quite some time!

Clambering up the steep path we find ourselves on a wide stone ledge into which have been carved fifteen or so sarcophagi, plus pools and drainage channels. This is the forecourt of the ancient church of St Georges. The interior is only about 6 metres by 12 metres with support pillars forming nave, choir and apse. One side tunnel tapers upwards to a crude wooden gate, chained shut. Behind the gate is a store room and a flight of steps clearly leading up to the cellar of the building above.  We explore all the nooks and wonder about the monks and villagers who may have called this their parish church.

Wikipedia tells us that the community was at its height in the 12th and 13th century but why it  apparently was never finished and why the community of monks suddenly dispersed is unclear.

A sign back at the car park informs us that the Commune is working to enhance the tourist visitor numbers, hoping to encourage perhaps one tenth of the people who visit Aubeterre to come visit Gurat. Good luck, but I have to say it's a very big ask indeed.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Place de la Fontaine, The Language Group and a Picnic at Silvie's

Le Perroquet Vert is a quaint English cafe cum club for anyone; it's a meeting place, a craft club, an outlet for artisan made clothes, a book exchange and many other things. It's in the heart of Chalais  on the wonderfully French "Place de la Fontaine".  The central fountain features a bronze statue of  a beautiful young woman in a modern high-cut bathing suit standing in the fountain and cupping her hands under the water pipe.

The lady in the fountain.
The music maker

The Place, an intersection of five streets, is quite small, about 75 meters across, on several levels and is surrounded by picturesque 19th century buildings. Well, they're picturesque to us southern hemisphere visitors but probably  quite ordinary to the French eye. I like to think that they give  great character to the Place. Built of grey stone (the building material of choice in Chalais), they are mostly four stories high, typically with a shop or cafe at street level and apartments above. Several of the buildings feature narrow,  ornate,  but rusty wrought iron balconies wrapping around the first floor. The apparent condition of the balconies would not invite one to throw open the French windows and step outside to take the air. And, naturally,  all the sagging window shutters on the upper floors are tastefully decorated in that French provincial “peeling paint” style.

There's a very good pharmacy on one corner of the plaza, a bucherie opposite, a forlorn closed shop "for lease" on another  and cafes on the other corners, one being Le Perroquet Vert.

In the Place. Is the blond lady perhaps appreciating the aroma?
Summertime enjoyment is taking "un café” or “une bière" at a table in the plaza under the shade of the leafy plane trees. On Mondays this enjoyment is enhanced by the hustling spectacle of the street market.  A fish monger's stall is always thoughtfully situated right alongside the plaza seating where its aroma can bring tears of pure joy to the eyes of fish monger aficionados.

On market day, a regular busker plays to the captive audience under the trees.  Youngish, with  moustache and stubble, dressed country rustic style, he hand cranks the music cards through his organ grinder and sings the old French songs in a suitably husky voice. His performance adds to the great atmosphere of the morning. It's so arty that I think we customers could all be extras in a film production and I look around for the film crew and cameras.

One morning in February Val and I decided to take coffee in " Le Perroquet Vert". We sat next to three ladies talking quietly in English. So Val leans over to the ladies, excuses herself and asks if they know of any social tennis group in the area. (I had carted my tennis racket half  way around the world in the fond hope of somehow breaking  into a tennis group.)   No, unfortunately they didn't.  But the ladies became interested in our plans for a long sojourn in the area and the whole house exchange experience.

This was a most serendipitous meeting, the single most fortunate meeting in our time in France.

One of the ladies, Barbara, was the convenor of an informal French and English language group. She explained that the group met every Thursday evening (excluding holiday periods) in the “Amicale Laïque de Chalais” rooms and invited us to join. Which we did.

By this time it was clear to us that very little social activity would arise from our French connections at either Le Petit Maine or Juignac, the local village where we attended that end of season  fete and dinner. Our French, while adequate for day to day living and (very) short conversational needs is certainly not adequate for any extended social interaction. Hence we were quite keen to grab the opportunity  to join Barbara’s group.

Turning up at the next Thursday evening class we were made most welcome.  Barbara had us introduce ourselves. We did try our broken French but lapsed into English, which was quite OK as this provides good exercise for our new French classmates . Us being on such a long vacation with a house exchange and coming from Australia...."oh, that is so far away!"... did create some excitement  for the group that evening.

The group comprises about equal numbers of English and French people, of middling to later years. The exception is young Arnaud who works in the family hardware business and wants a better command of English so he can attract the many English home renovators in the area. That's his official line but maybe he really wants to better chat up the girls when on holiday in England ("oh, what a lovely accent you have Arnaud… must let me see your etchings"). With his wicked sense of humour and a full range of Gallic facial expressions we all think he has totally missed his calling.

Jolly Ian...that's not Pam by the way.
In the group there's Jenny and Mick, retired from their undertaker business, Barbara's husband Pete, a retired prison governor, Phillip  and  Laura who love horses and dogs and old sports cars, Patricia and Roy, a lovely Welsh couple, Pam and her husband, big Ian, who is suspiciously reticent on any details about his past (shady?) history and then there’s Carol and Linda.

On the French side we have petite Claude and Jeanette,  retired professionals, gentle and courteous. Silvie, Genevieve, a senior manager with a large engineering company, Marie-Pierre, Francoise and Jean-Yves, retired farmer and for many years deputy mayor of his commune. And of course the afore mentioned group comedy relief, Arnaud.

Mea culpa...I know there are other lovely people in the group whom I have not mentioned by name and I beg their forgiveness.

The sessions are great fun with much laughter. Usually Barbara has each person briefly tell of their activity during the last week with anyone free to correct mispronunciations, of which there are many. Jean-Yves always seems to be working in his garden or cutting wood. Quite often someone's chance remark will lead into an extended impromptu "lesson" led by Barbara. Val once remarked on the absolute lack of pumpkins in the shops or market stalls (she had wanted to make pumpkin soup) which led to a discussion on the seasonality of French produce. One lesson was given over to the humble lamington when Val  brought some to class.

The upshot was that your intrepid travellers struck up lasting friendships within the group.

The social ball started rolling when Barbara and the charming Peter invited us to lunch in company with Pam and Ian at their home in the village of Passirac. Ian is a large, jolly man possessing  a wickedly dry sense of humour, one liners delivered deadpan while his eyes twinkle and his hand reaches for the pint pot, be it beer or vin rouge, both of which he consumes copiously. I try valiantly to keep up but the competition is just too good. Pam, his wife, rolls her eyes yet again.

 Barbara serves a traditional Charentais  cassoulet.  The lunch, the wine and the conversation is delightful with everyone getting nicely nicely. Val drives home (as usual) via the little back lanes (as usual).

This first invitation was especially appreciated as we had begun to consider the doubtful benefits of a year in the social wilderness and the lack of extended  convivial conversation with anyone but ourselves.

High summer arrives and Silvie announces that she intends to throw an afternoon garden picnic for the whole group. Everyone turns up at Silvie's and there is much bonjouring,  kissing of cheeks and hand shaking.

Silvie's is a long house with a totally windowless rear wall which forms one side of the rustic courtyard of a much larger and grander farmhouse. Entry to this house is via a shallow sweeping staircase onto a terrace and into the ground floor. The elevated ground floor is built over a cellar level which is only half below ground. There is a second floor,  above which is the attic space with a series of round dormer windows presumable giving light and air to the servant quarters.
Ourselves on the left, Patricia and Roy on the right.
Barbara and Pete are centre on the left
Everyone has bought something for the feast and something for the glass. Long trestle tables are placed end to end on the grass and are soon covered in food. There's bread and green salads and quiches, rich pates, charcute, gateaux, English sausage rolls and scotch eggs, many varieties of cheeses. Jean-yves is the hero of the day. He opens and distributes a seemly endless supply of his farm pineau. It's a tasty drop and easy drinking. Jean-Yves is justifiably proud.

What a day in the sun! Happy friendly people with a common bond, laughing, chatting loudly, eating and drinking. Your travellers feel themselves privileged to be part of this lively gathering of French and British friends on a farmhouse lawn deep in rural France. Forget the organized tours...this is the real thing! Thanks Silvie.
Arnaud: I theenk there ess an escargot in my salade!!!
That's Jean-Yves with the bottle.

Val drives home (as usual) via the little back lanes (as usual).

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Learning The Great Lesson in Life: “Joie de Vie”

 We are home in Maleny. The great experience of living for almost a year in an ordinary backwater of rural France has been fascinating and very rewarding for us.

The one big thing which made it so good was the accidental meeting with our now good friend Barbara, convenor of a local English/French language group who invited us to join the group. Both English and French “learners” attend and just enjoy the camaraderie and the fractured language. We now have quite a circle of good friends in the Charente and expect to entertain the odd traveller to Maleny….that’s when they overcome their reluctance to undertake such “a long voyage”.
The language group enjoying a long picnic lunch
at Sylvie's home. The black bottle is one of Jean-Yves
very own pineau. Ian is making a dash down the side.
In truth, the year could have been quite sterile if not for this happy group. It is simply a French characteristic that close personal relationships with new-comers are very slow to develop. Take our little hamlet. While our few neighbours are very polite, with a nod, a wave, even a short conversational exchange in passing there is no personal invitation to come closer. 

Jenny and Mick, another Anglais couple we grew close to, were delighted to report recently that they had just received their first invitation to visit a neighbour’s house, this after five years local residence. Barbara was quite jealous since she and Pete had been in their village for seven years but with no invitation yet. Both are active participants in village affairs, too.

Amaund, the young guy at Sylvie's lunch: "Ugg...I theenk there
esss an escargot in my salarde!" Meanwhile Jean-Yves
opens another pineau.
However the language group's easy, fun atmosphere did break down this French reticence very nicely and very quickly. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon picnic at home with Sylvie, one of the French ladies. And Genevieve insisted that Val and I linger for drinks and a chat at her home on our return from a group excursion to London...and is that another story!!

Patience is another stand-out French characteristic, at least outside Paris. And finally, at 69, I have acquired some patience .…”and about bloody time” I hear Val saying in the background. 

I learnt this life skill in supermarché checkout queues. The supermarket might actually have a dozen checkout lanes installed but it is rare to see more than three open.  One simply must wait in line patiently. Each customer and the check out operator exchange the obligatory “bonjours” and then the items are processed through and build up on the packing counter. Then the customer will slowly put the items away in bags in the trolley. Then the monetary transaction occurs, very often requiring a search through the handbag for a chequebook. Then the cheque is passed back and forth several times and sometimes identity documents are reviewed and notes taken. And then, at last, we have the “au revoir” and “bonne journée ” (for you French learners, that’s “have a nice day”). And I have not made all that up. Next customer, please!  

Here’s a free lesson on correct shopping etiquette: On entering any shop, no matter how humble, one MUST exchange “bonjour” with the shop keeper and “au revoir” when departing, even if one is just popping in for a quick look. A small café or bar with customers rates an audible “messieurs” or if ladies are also in attendance “messieurs/dames” and “au revoir” on departure.  Apart from that supercilious waiter in La Rochelle we have never meet a rude French person.

Sometimes you just have to pull over.
Its sometimes said that the French are rouges on the road. However, we have not seen one instance of road rage in France, but then again we have not driven in Paris. Certainly the French motorist can’t stand being behind another vehicle and will pass at the first, hopefully safe, opportunity. But they also give way where required, don’t use their horns, and often show great patience and consideration. After all, what else can one do in the narrow streets of a village or when faced by a farmer on a huge tractor hauling an even huger farm machine?  Note to those afoot in France: don’t trust a French driver to stop at a pedestrian crossing just for you…no, no, no!

Was language a problem? In truth, no, but we had made ourselves relatively capable of conducting everyday transactions before setting out on our adventure. The pressure to achieve this level of survival French was of course considerable; you will appreciate the absolute need to be able to book a table for two at a romantic restaurant or two nights in a lovely B&B or just to buy the lovely French bread and cheese and wine. But protracted conversation in French is just not on for us…protracted in our case means anything over two sentences! Its also often a problem to speak French as the other party will break into English so that they can practice their language skills.   

However, we have both become fluent in the use of the thumb as the indicator for “we want just one”, not the
index finger.

Now for the Great Lesson on Life. The number one “lesson in living” we have learned is “don’t do stress”. Relax. Be patient. Let the other motorist come through the narrow street first.

After six months I had need to renew my blood pressure pills. We had already established a relationship with a local doctor who speaks great accented English and has a ready sense of humour. He checked me over thoroughly and remarked on my excellent blood pressure. I replied that our lifestyle for the past six months had been bucolic with no committees, no commitments, no pressure.  We have no stress anymore, I stressed. To which he replied with a straight gallic face: “Ah, monsieur, we do not do stress in France!”

 “Joie de Vie”.  That’s the great lesson we bring home and which we intend to apply. Don’t do stress.

Au revoir and goodbye

Bryan and Val
Don't do stress, do a crossword, but in our case
definitely not a cryptic!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Heaven on a Sidewalk in the Sun

The Cost of Living the Good Life in France

One must maintain one’s standards when living abroad, even when one is communing with nature in the French countryside. Now our standards, I must admit, are actually fairly pedestrian. However, the big questions remain: What’s it all cost? Is it expensive? Can one afford to live a house swap dream?

To answer these profound questions one needs to look at the absolute essentials of modern living: an adequate wine supply, good wholesome food (i.e. great red meat), dining out and those little romantic trips away.   

On wine, obviously one could spend real money if one had that predilection and the income stream, neither of which we have.  A quite acceptable quaffing red by the bottle can be had for $5.00 or, say, a better full-bodied “Cahors” cab/sav for $8 to $10. A 5ltr cask of Bordeaux Superior: about $22.40 or $4.50 a litre (a Super U Supermarket brand cask can be just $17.00 or $3.40 a litre). If things have not got totally out of hand since we’ve been away, a local Aussie 4ltr cask would be $15 or $3.75 a litre. So, everyday wine is much the same as at home. For the true blue bottom feeders, the LIDL supermarket chain regularly has wine offers around $3.00 (or less!!). We have not found a bad bottle yet.
Val checking our the chook for a coq au vin dinner in our
Montmoreau Super U

Fancy the odd wee dram? Here are some supermarket prices: Grants scotch at $21.00, Jameson at $26.00 or Laphroaig 10 year old at $56.00. Not bad at all.

If one must, absolutely must, carve a succulent lamb roast for Sunday lunch or love the taste of artfully grilled lamb chop (aren’t the tails simply divine) then French living  may not be for you.  Try digesting a leg of lamb that cost $59.00 or putting on a chop when a pack of two chops has a per kilo ticket at $29.30! Val was overjoyed at finding frozen NZ legs on special at $28.00. We were just in time to grab the last two….or perhaps there were only two at the price.

Pork (a three meal pork roast, unfortunately sans crackling, $16.50) turkey (tender, juicy fillets at $10 a kilo) and sausages (a pack of 8 Toulouse snags $10.00) are the go here.  A rack of spare ribs casually thrown on the barbie, a bottle of Bordeaux, and tasty cheese does do wonders for the appetite. Venturing into the exotic, a box of 20 quail eggs is just $6.50 while a whole skinned bunny runs to $18.40 (no pun intended).

Sad to say, to us, the supermarket red meat just does not look appetizing. However Val does create very tasty slow-cooked casseroles with the chunky cut stewing steak ($12.00 a kilo).

 Oh, LIDL does have great little whole trout and packs of Atlantic salmon at prices to hook you.

Veggies and fruit supply in our part of France is highly seasonal unlike the year-round supply of most items found at home. In July Val wanted pumpkin to showcase her pumpkin and citrus cake for a language club cooking project; sourcing a pumpkin of any variety was simply impossible. (Maybe I shouldn’t   tell you that her fallback display was lamingtons.) Perhaps this seasonality helps to maintain the so evident tastiness of the products.

Veggies from Le Petit Maine garden
The home vegetable plot, “le jardin potager” , contributes greatly to the daily fare for many French tables. Tomatoes, leeks, onions, garlic, courgettes, pumpkin, lettuce all seem to grow prodigiously in the well tended gardens. Thanks to Brian, our exchangee, the jardin potager at Le Petit Maine was well prepared and ready for Val’s enthusiastic efforts. Early in the season we had a fine crop of onions, leeks and garlic. We haven’t purchased spuds or tomatoes or courgettes or cucumber or squash for several months and the butternut pumpkins are almost ready to store. So, if one does have a working veggie garden everyday eating costs can be slashed (well reduced). But, I ask you, just how many ways can one eat yet more courgettes and squash?

The regular street markets are great for atmosphere and lively activity. Wandering our local Chalais Monday market followed by a coffee or beer and people watching at café Le Flore is now something of a ritual for us. We do find that market prices (no haggling, thank you) are usually higher than supermarket prices but quality and freshness does seem a little better than the supermarkets.

Dining out in rural France can be so cheap! The “resto” in the nearby hamlet of Nonac offers restaurant quality four course “formula midi” lunches for just $20.00 each. Others offer the same price but including wine. Our anniversary dinner at Chateau Talleyrand (white linen, professional service, excellent food over four courses, champagne apero and wine) was just $137.00 for both of us. Try that at a good restaurant in Oz!

For those trips away, fuel is dearer at $2.04 for deisel and $2.40 for petrol but the compensation is excellent accommodation at very reasonable prices. Just last week, two nights in the “Donjon Room” (55sqm suite really) at the Chateau d’Avanton was $282, brekkie included. There was just one tiny drawback at Chateau d’Avanton; our suite was on the top two floors of the donjon up seven flights of concrete stairs…but the view was magnificent.
Chateau d'Avanton....our room was at the very top of the tower
(windows open). The suite entry and bathroom were on the floor below.

On this outing, we had intended to visit Futuroscope, a futuristic theme park outside Poitiers. “Zoot Alors”, we got there on Monday in early September to find that the Park was closed; it had just that day gone into it’s post-summer reduced opening period. I suppose that falls into the category of experiences: “merde happens”.

Anyway, we did visit Chateau La Rochefoucauld on the way. The chateau has been in the de la Rochefoucald family for 1000 years entirely via the direct male line until three generations ago when it passed to a cousin’s line. The family holding got through the Revolution only because Napoleon recalled the self-exiled duke (a very able administrator and sympathetic reformer) to assist his post-revolutionary government. He restored the chateau to the duke but with much reduced land holdings.

I digress yet again, back to the cost of eating out. It was lunch time when we finished the chateau tour ($36.00 for two adults….well, the current duke does have overheads I suppose and what with no peasants these days). We settled on the very ordinary looking Café de Commerce in the village, the only café open, in fact the only café.  The “plat de jour” was a plainly served yet excellent country cooked “boeuf bourguignon” so tasty and melting in the mouth. Just $24.00 for two with a glass each of a yeasty dark local beer followed by a “petit café”.  Ah, heaven on a sidewalk in the sun.
Real cheap dining out. This is a little "ptivate" picnic spot
behind the church in Bonnes on the river Droone

Bottom line: living a full life to our Aussie standards in La Charente is no more expensive than living in Maleny and we dine out much more often! And I haven’t even mentioned the pate, the cheese, the bread!!!

The last word goes to our exchangee, Brian, on mushrooms (ceps). “Sept to Nov is the mushroom season. The locals go mad in search of Ceps. On many mornings,  M and Mde M, our neighbours, will often leave the hamlet in a small white van. They are off in search of the sacred cep. No one knows where they go. It’s a secret location and rumour has it that if they think they are being followed they take evasive action to shake the tail. You will see cars parked in lay bys and gate ways often miles from woodlands. The occupants are hunting for ceps but don’t want people to know where so diversionary tactics are used! “

Friday, 29 August 2014

A Snapshot of our Hamlet in the Charente and Jerome's farm

In our tiny hamlet in the Charente region of France we have five neighbours.

In the first small house live Eloise and her partner Amaund, a young working couple. They have a new puppy, not a house dog but destined to grow up as a great hunter. So he lives and whines in a dog house in a pen in the back yard. He loves company and would love to be molly coddled but this is not the French way for the serious business of raising a hunter!!

Opposite we have Vincent, a young single teacher with a lovely throaty sports car which he loves to drive with proper French élan. From time to time he has extended company, a lovely young lady, or is it a series of lovely young ladies. Ah… such proper French élan!  

Down the road a bit resides Monsieur et Madame M, who keep a beautiful house set in a beautiful garden. M et Mde keep the village looking spruce all year with trimmed green lawns and gorgeous seasonal flowers. “Mon Dieu” said Val on our arrival so many months ago…. “we simply can’t let the side down”.  So Val matches seasonal flower with seasonal flower and I drudge with the mower. Our reward: gracious nods and a few words of approval, en passant!
A view of Monsuier and Madame's garden

Where the hamlet lane peters out to a rough farm track we find Sally and Colin, absentee English landlords (for the time being). They are rebuilding a tumble down barn into a lovely farm home, mezzanine floor, gorgeous open plan living area and stunning bathrooms and kitchen with beautiful timbers, new and old.  Everything one reads about the “joys” of renovating in rural France is absolutely true, they say.

Jerome, the farmer, lives between us and Sally and Colin.

In my naïve way, I had envisaged Jerome as being the latest incarnation of a long line of farmers tilling the same village patch, century after century.  Well, his grandfather owned a small farm near the village of Pillac, just outside our commune of Juignac. Claude, his father, was also a farmer who in 1972 purchased a different patch in the Juignac area. Twelve years ago, Claude retired from active farming and Jerome bought his 60 hectares. He has since built this up to 100 hectare and would buy more if it was available.

My ignorance knows no bounds! I assumed that 100ha must be a fairly small farm. (Now, dear reader, be honest: did you too think this was small?) Amazingly, a whopping 96% of the 490,000 French farms are less than 200ha in area, with 40% less than 20ha! Jerome is up there in the top 20% of farms that are of 100ha or more.

Before you start to think the Australia has it all over the Frenchies in farm size consider these facts. There are 135,000 farms in Oz, 36% are less than 50 hectares in area and a further 36% have between 50 and 500 hectares. Not only that, but 55% have a turnover of less than $100,000.
Val, Jerome and Jerome's dog with some of his tractors

 Now anyone that has driven in rural France will allow that an awful lot of French tractors roar around on French roads. I can now reveal why this is so!

Jerome has an astonishing 32 separate land titles making up his 100 hectares, spread over six major but quite separate concentrations which are kilometres apart.  His smallest field is just 0.25ha, the biggest 13ha with an average of 3ha. Apparently, this is quite a common structure for farms. So he has to tool around the country lanes on one of his four tractors just getting to the different sections of his farm. All the other farmers are busy doing the same thing. And of course there is the traditional 2 hour French lunch break. Just think, come 1200 noon, 490,000 farmers jump on their tractors and head off home for an apero and four course lunch!  

Except for livestock paddocks, the farming fields in this area usually irregular in shape and are completely unfenced with just a rough post or bit of iron rod to mark the various corners.  Ancient walkways cut through farms and even in places proceed between a farm’s buildings 

Claude’s retirement interest is in wood. He supplies split fire wood, however, I suspect his greatest pride is his 85 year old farmyard saw mill. It’s a beauty, a two meter high bandsaw arrangement complete with baling
Claude and dog pose with his 80 year old bandsaw
wire repairs and chocked with wood blocks where necessary. With this he produces oak planks and beams to order. In fact Claude supplied the new oak beams, 8inchx8inch, for Sally and Colin’s rebirth of the old barn. Delivery would not have been difficult as the old barn is only 10 meters from the old saw mill.  

All you old farmers out there already suspect that the French farmers are handsomely subsidised.  Last year the European Community gave France 11 Billion euros as the farm subsidy payment. 490,000 farms means an average subsidy of E22,000 per farm. But, of course, averages can be highly misleading as clearly the 40% of farms with less than 20 hectares must get less cash each than, say, the 20% with more than 100 ha.
The upper wheel of the bandsaw!! 

Jerome points out that the subsidy is compensation for the low controlled price that he gets for his wheat, maize and sunflower. The price is set at the going world rate for the various commodities. He must also abide by a contract with the agricultural department enforcing such things as the maintenance of ancient walkways, riparian zones and the use of pesticides. That can’t be bad.

As France is the second biggest European economy much of that 11 billion euro package would come from France itself. So France gives the EU heaps of money, the EU then gives France heaps of money back.  Then 490,000 French farmers have multipage agreements with the French Agricultural department. All that lovely paperwork for all those lovely bureaucrats!  It’s a lovely system! It’s French!

A bientot, off to Prague tomorrow for a few days

Cheers to all

Bryan and Val