Monthly Archive for June, 2010

Plums

I bit the bullet, shivered my withers and worked out what the impact of the change in the pound euro rate meant to my finances. If I’d bought now rather than eight weeks ago, I’d have been £20k better off. £10k a month. Och, shame. And I could have been born Marilyn Munro. I have every confidence that the pound and the euro will crash to parity should I ever decide to sell and just after the contract has been signed.

Plants installed – the smartest is a Pandorea jasminoides that I brought back from Portugal – all seem to be flourishing thanks to lots of water. Actually the exception is the Surinam cherry sapling, perhaps seedling. It threw a serious wobbly on the trip home and has shrivelled all its leaves. Fortunately it has a little brother that has sprung up beside it in the pot which is being cossetted.

The chateau has a tree laden with sweet, tiny plums that are just becoming ripe. At the moment it’s a graze but I may have to return with a bag. I’m keeping a careful eye on the adjacent figs but they’re a while away from being ripe.

With new-found confidence I tackled a letter I’ve been avoiding which is relevant to the biography I’m putting together. Dated 1735, it’s from a Scot, General Walter Colyear, Governor of Namur. He uses French, saying that his English is not good enough to write. he was the brother of the Earl of Portmore and his daughter was a maid of honour to Queen Anne. She married the Duke of Dorset.

Crew cut

I played UK call centres this morning, trying to achieve proof of a no claims bonus of 15 years. It wasn’t successful. 9 years is shown on my latest policy and I was able, through my accountant, to discover the relevant insurance company back to 1998. I think I found another two years but most of the myriad of organisations that I’d shopped for on line had dumped the information that far back.

Are 0800 numbers free from France? And what do you pay for 0845s? The bill will tell. I field occasional sales calls from utility companies wanting me to swop to them. The most persistent are the phone/internet companies. France Telecom is a monolith with other companies snapping at its heels. I was advised to start with them – otherwise I’d take ages to be connected – and shop around at the end of the year.

I have made contact with the recommended canine titivator, ‘T’as le look toutou’, which translates as ‘You have the doggie look’, which must have a better ring to it in French. Such is the pressure of business that 9am next Wednesday is the first available slot. The fluffy dog is going to stop being fluffy and have a crew cut to help him cope with the hot weather. He was panting last night which encouraged me to turn on a fan and enjoy its soothing hum and gentle breeze.

Fans

The temperature climbed to 30 today, which seems to be the usual level for ordinary summer although there can be peaks well above this. Since it’s predicted to hit 35 later in the week, it seemed wise to test hot weather survival in this house and it appears quite acceptable. The house is half a dozen degrees cooler even without the shutters closed which is the habit of many here during the day. In addition I invested in a couple of fans, one a tower fan, which were on ‘promo’ in the B&Q equivalent last time I was there. Promo here means a substantial discount. I gave the big one a half hour blast and found it made the room postitvely chilly.

This afternoon the fluffy dog rocketed from his preferred spot on the sofa when a bloke poked his head through the kitchen window that faces the street and cleared his throat noisily. He’d got lost  trying to make a delivery to a nearby village and found my open window was the only faint trace of possible life in the vicinity. I told him to go to the bottom of the hill, turn left and follow his nose till he saw the relevant signpost. He looked at me a little strangely so it may be that ‘suivez votre nez‘ is not a phrase in common use here.

Everywhere today are white admirals, some doing double-takes on passing marble whites.

Witch

The witch waddled over the road last night as I was unloading the car, her plum-duff face and eyes stretched in alarm. Her French, bless her cotton socks, is so locally-accented as to be virtually unintelligible, like deep Glasgow to an American. But I’d disappeared, she said. She was very concerned that I’d gone for good, or lying stretched out on the floor. With the car gone as well I thought the last might be a worry too far. I explained I’d been to foreign parts on a visit but she thought that pretty odd behaviour. A strange foreigner had been in the village asking for me. I suspect it was the Irish builder. Anything I need, I just have to cross the road and ask. It’s very tricky since I know that if I make friends with her I’ll fall out with everyone else in the village. I may just risk it since she seems the most interesting of my neighbours. Her family have a large marble tomb in the church yard.

These bloody little beetles – a dozen could dance on the head of a pin – make it uncomfortable to sit outside today.

I have some admiration for the football pundits. To my eye every game looks the same as any other and the players seem just to kick the ball around until someone trips them up. But no. Pundits can tell that some games are good or bad, and that some participants play a blinder whilst others are crap.

H/w the church of Santa Clara-a-Velha in Portugal and the fluffy dog looked pissed off after a swim. 

Travel

In Portugal, the Germans were the first expats to move in. They tend to stick together, do their houses up to a higher standard than others and are more adventurous in the locations they choose, often miles off the road and miles from services like electricity and mail. We ate in a good restaurant last night where all the other customers were German and the proprietor had become fluent in the language. By good it meant that the lamb chops and chips were freshly cooked. The Lisbonites are said to be like Parisians, believing that anyone who doesn’t live in the capital are uneducated peasants, the more prepossessing of whom may have the privilege of cleaning their smart weekend houses or looking after the garden.

I came back to France today. It’s odd how simple the 930-mile trip is to make. In the UK the roads are much more congested of course, but my horizon was limited to the 450 mile journey down or up from London and the West Country to Scotland and it always felt like a major and exhausting expedition. The most interesting sight was about 20 large scavengers plummeting down on something’s corpse which, unfortunately, was just out of vision. I managed to miss the motorway a couple of times. Once about 50 miles into Spain where I was stuck on minor roads for an hour, There the raptor number and variety were remarkable and not one could I confidently identify. In St Sebastian just south of the French border I took a wrong fork since the signposts seemed reluctant to advertise the direction of France and spent 15 minutes circling a bewildering maze of new roads and bridges until I found a trio of alarming-looking north African youths who couldn’t have been more delighted to help and practice their English. Diesel on the motorway in Spain is 92p a litre.

Whores and dogs

Whores seem to be a significant segment of the working population round about. In the provinces like here they are usually Portuguese and built like night club bouncers, often with mustachios. If they support themselves on local custom they need to be powerfully built as their clientele is equally massively proportioned. Many of the aging men lean backwards to avoid toppling over under the weight of their bellies. Down in more prosperous parts of the country, the East Europeans have taken over and they are said to be very pretty and stand by the side of the motorways touting for business from foreign tourists. The police are said to get freebies from them so they are unmolested. The churches that I’ve managed to get into are all white-painted and barely decorated except for small plaques on the wall marking the stations of the cross. Until recently the country was very poor and much of the people still are. The driving is atrocious. New and better roads and armies of traffic police have cut the death rate so that it is now only double that of the UK. Dogs are either pampered or utterly neglected. One neighbouring farmer to here keeps his mangy brute chained up and feeds it on sheep shit. Many roam free. The dogs in town stand patiently at the zebra crossings waiting for a gap in the traffic, But you don’t have to stop for them, so they still have to be pretty nippy on their feet to avoid getting squashed.

I’m driving back to France tomorrow. The car will be carrying plant cuttings. There’s a catch 22 about weeding. To pull them up you have to soak the soil and the soaked soil encourages regeneration. I felt pretty macho about managing it in one swoop coming down, but I heard of a guy here who drives from southern Portugal to Calais in one bound. It takes him 23 hours and he has yet to kill himself.

Traffic lights

It takes a couple of hours for the mist to burn off before the day settles to become blue and a pleasant 25 with enough breeze to keep it comfortable. Wherever I seem to be, everyone says the weather is abnormal. Here it should have been hot and settled for the last couple of months but rain and chill – in their terms – have disturbed the natives here as in France.

We did a bit more pottering along the spectacular cliffs which line the coast here and watched more storks ignoring the falcons which pick off the rock doves that seem to be the only other birds still nesting on the ledges.

The little seaside holiday villages are beginning to spring to life. They seethe next month and in August, mostly with Portuguese who leave the Algarve to the foreigners. Each has a Chinese emporium that is stuffed to the gunwales with every household item imaginable at rock-bottom prices. But, even as a joke, I drew a line at 25p cigarette lighters with ‘Fuck’ written upon them. I had a haircut and dropped in next door for a slug of the excellent coffee at about 30p which seems to fuel most people throughout the day.

Many of the villages have traffic lights in the middle. If these reckon you are travelling too fast, they will turn red and stay that way long enough for you to learn the lesson before going green. You only need to be be caught thus once to behave.

Fruit

Bananas, grapes, lemons, oranges, peaches, apricots, pears, figs, lime, olives, pomegranates, peanuts, petanga – the Sunrinam cherry – all grow in the garden of the house where I’m staying. I’ll be bringing a few seedlings back to France and see how I get on with them. The petanga is delicious although a rather dull bush but certainly worth taking trouble with.

Eucalyptus and mimosa are weeds round here. There are lots of cork oaks whose bark is removed every nine years. The number of their last year of harvesting is painted on the trunk so that the farmer knows when they’re next due. You need a lot of them to get rich as one tree produces 25 euros-worth each time. A supermarket check out worker earns 2.50 euros an hour. It’s not a rich country. To achieve anything through the bureaucracy or judiciary depends who you know or how much you’re willing to put in the brown envelope – allegedly.

We sat in a square drinking new wine. All the surrounding buildings were single storey and white with blue-painted trimmings. Apparently the blue started with one trendy soul who did his house like that and the whole region followed suit. Now a yellow fashion is beginning to take hold as an alternative. The Portuguese look as unhealthy as the Scots, many rolling along behind huge bellies in ugly clothes. The French are neat in figure and dress in comparison. A small grove of trees by the road was covered in huge white flowers, until one stretched its wings and they all turned into cattle egrets. Bee eaters abound – beautiful little birds. We walked the dogs along the beach with the great rollers coming in from the Atlantic. The high water mark was shingle, most of the rocks white-veined which I’ve only noticed before at Smiriseray in Argyllshire.

Storks

There are degrees of expattiness. From London to the country is the easiest step. Deciding to resettle in Niger may be at the other end of the scale. Portugal feels like one step further than France. In the part where I’m staying there are few Brits, unlike France. And the language is a brute. The people might as well be speaking Martian. I asked directions on my way here and finally made myself understood by spouting a mixture of English, French, Latin and Swahili. The countryside in France is prettier but the climate, the plants, the wildlife seem more attractive and interesting here. But the cuisine is about pigs and little more. The architecture is not as pleasing, nor are the villages and the colour of choice that embellishes the shutters, windows etc of the white houses to an overwhelming extent is a strange indigo blue. Government is flakier; prices are higher but one can buy more for your money than in France and, with care, the result can be stunning. But all in all I still prefer France.

We walked along a cliff top today, snapping this clutch of fledging storks on a stack 50 yards off shore. The flowers there are at their best in May but they were still stunning. The cliff is a haunt for fishermen who perch of precarious ledges to catch bass. A mess of discarded line, beer bottles and detritus show that the Portuguese are not as naturally caring for their environment as the French but, I’m told, are well ahead of the Spanish in this respect. The fat cat expats live down on the Algarve, perhaps another 80 miles south of here but they are beginning to leave, driven away by the high crime rates. Here it is rural, peaceful and the tourist industry is geared to the natives rather than foreigners. All in all a good spot.

Foreign parts

I did the trip from home to southern Portugal in one bound which was not my intention when I started out. The French take speed limits seriously. The Spanish and the Portuguese don’t and, once across the border, I settled down with the cruise control of my elderly Volvo estate car at 90 and still found myself buffeted in slipstreams of passing cars. I didn’t stop at the battlefield of Vittoria. The town looked unattractive & grottily industrial and I just kept going and arrived, still feeling quite perky, 935 miles and 14 hours later. It’s mainly due to the comparative scarcity of other road users. Sometimes one could see half a mile ahead or behind and not see any other vehicle.

Near Bayonne there was several acres of tree trunks, piled 30 high in a storage facility by the side of the road. Perhaps 50 giant sprinklers were spraying water over them to make them fireproof. The motorway on the Spanish side was remarkable, all tunnels and viaducts and fairly tight and tedious bends. Further on giant lampostsy things by the roadside each had a nesting stork on top. The temperature climbed from 15 as one crossed the border to 30. I made the mistake of not filling the car before I entered Portugal and found that the price of diesel went up from 90p a litre to c£1.20. I didn’t stop at the border but saw a giant retail facility with Portuguese coaches parked outside and lots of folk with shopping bags. I must investigate this on my return.