Mother Nature has us in her icy grip and when we step outside winter smacks us in the face, with the icy chill raw against our cheeks. This week much of France is shivering within a frozen landscape. Driving through our village early in the morning I see little children walking to school, clutching an adult hand in thick gloves, their little bodies bundled up against the cold. All that is visible are bright red noses, rosy cheeks and eyes sparkling with excitement, and even though it’s not snow on the ground the weather is still just a little out of the ordinary, enough to create a frisson of anticipation.
Winter here is normally a quiet time, and whereas snow creates a sense of peace and gentleness, frost and ice tends to sharpen the senses; everywhere is silent, beautiful and frozen, but the atmosphere is expectant and alert, and it feels as if everything is holding it’s breath, waiting to see what will happen next.
Hoar frost creates delicate, intricate patterns.
Walking in a frozen landscape has it’s challenges, most notably for me, as I struggle to keep some feeling in my toes and fingers. I put my foot on a frozen puddle to test the ice and immediately wish I hadn’t, as ice cold water splashes up my leg. I’m attempting to keep Evie on the lead in one hand, hold my camera and take photos with the other whilst trying not to hop from foot to foot in an effort to keep warm. I’m wondering if my face will ever revert to normal again for with the biting wind whipping around my ears it feels completely numb. It’s not that cold, but it’s cold for us, -5.5C/22F as I drove the usual school run this morning. I heard on the radio with the windchill it feels more like -12C/10F and I can quite believe it.
Everything around me seems magical, I need to photograph it all, and I need to stop shivering and hold the camera steady; I’m also quickly realising that I have become rather soft, far too used to our usual mild temperate coastal climate! But I’m not the only one feeling the cold, for even the swans are hiding their faces against the bitter chill.
A brave farmer was working amongst his vines.
Elsewhere shutters remained firmly closed and vegetable gardens and small holdings lay empty and deserted.
The girls have continued to play tennis, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors. Two nights ago it was the latter. As we sat in the car afterwards there was a plaintive cry from Gigi, “Mama my hands and ears are so cold.”
“I know” I said, “I know just how you feel,” and the conversation went back to my childhood. For some reason the children love hearing stories of how I played sport outside every day, a typical British boarding-school upbringing, and whether it was rain or shine, we still did sports. If everything was frozen or covered in snow then we were sent out on cross-country runs instead. Always in shorts with just a shirt and a wool jumper on top. I remember riding ponies in the holidays and actually crying from the cold; my feet in leather boots were like solid lumps of ice in the stirrups. Roddy says he remembers playing rugby on ground so hard from weeks of frost that play would be abandoned and they too would go for the dreaded run around the woods.
Later that evening, around our supper table (the best place for good debates and family stories), the talk returned to the cold. It was forecast to be well below zero again, and while I know this is not cold for many people – especially those of you that live for months on end on a frozen tundra, shovelling snow and dealing with ice – but for us it’s not quite so common, and it made me wonder out loud, “Are we all getting soft?”
Personally I love walking in the winter, for once I am outside I will go out in all weathers; but, do people complain more about it nowadays? Have we been mollycoddled for the past few decades by a combination of better clothing, modern heating technology and the insidious creep of global warming? Do we overprotect our children by wrapping them up, worried they might get wet or cold?
I know that I start more than one conversation with, “Back in my day….”, but I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think we are being too gentle on our children, and I don’t think we are mollycoddling them. I think instead that we are just lucky to live at a time where we actually have the capability to soften the shrill sounds of winter, and keep its icicles at bay outside our generally warmer homes.
Of course, you explain this all to your children, starting with that aforementioned, “Back in my day…..” and they roll their eyes and complain how it’s their turn to choose a Wii game and someone else’s turn to get wood for the stove (I’d like to insert a ‘smiley’ here wearing a hat and gloves, to double the point of my remark, but will settle instead for, “They’ve never had it so good…”).
Meanwhile, our plumbing problems have continued, yet again centred around a loo! You might recall last week we had an ongoing saga with a slight leak in the pipework of our downstairs loo, Roddy did his valiant best but eventually had to admit defeat with the antiquated system and call the plumber. Now as anyone in France will probably tell you, finding a good plumber can be tricky, but finding a good plumber who will come at the drop of a hat is nigh on impossible, or at least it has always been so in our experience – until now, that is.
Let’s rewind a few months, to another saga involving a loo, but this time in our guest house. We’d had to move it while re-tiling, and the pipework needed some urgent re-soldering when we put it back. So, we called one plumber, one we used before – but he didn’t turn up after saying he would. We called another – and he didn’t even return our call. Several days passed while we wrung our hands and kept leaving messages and eventually in desperation we called a French friend in Rochefort and asked if he could recommend anyone. He gave us a name, François, and a telephone number; we called straightaway, he answered his phone immediately, and then said he’d be with us that evening. We sighed and waited with no great expectation, but on the dot of time he arrived at the gate, and promptly got the job sorted out efficiently and professionally within an hour. Cash in hand he left, promising to come whenever we needed him.
We’ve had no reason to call him again since then, until last week, when after battling for three hours with the previous installation from decades past and pipes that were of a bygone era, Roddy had once again called François. Yet again he answered his phone, he would be with us immediately! Whilst Roddy and I were still talking about the incomprehensible improbability of such good fortune the doorbell rang. The job was not quite so simple, and another phone call was made, new pipes were magically delivered by a man who lived in the next door village, three men struggled, three men cursed the ancient pipes and the differing sizes and the bizarre way they had been previously joined, but eventually that same afternoon three men succeeded, job done for a mere 60 euros. We were curious, Roddy just had to ask “how come you always respond and arrive so quickly?” François replied with a shrug, “I was at home awaiting a delivery that never showed up.” It seems we were just lucky.
On Monday afternoon this week, I called Roddy upstairs, the loo in our en-suite bathroom was constantly pouring water out of the cistern and it wouldn’t stop. Another very old installation. In fact we had thought of changing it when we completely redid the bathroom, but it is made by Villeroy Bosch. “This is like loo royalty” we were told and so we kept it, knowing it was of extremely high quality. Once again the old fittings worked against my husband, a bolt snapped, a swear word could be heard echoing around the bathroom and Roddy reached for his phone. Time to call the plumber once again. And sure as eggs is eggs François arrived the same afternoon, a new fitting, a relatively simple half hour job, a few euros exchanged hands and everyone was happy.
We felt we were getting to know him a bit better now, three different loos, three different visits, third time lucky. So we pressed him further, “you have to tell us exactly what is going on” we said. “You’re busy, you’re good and yet you always come as promised the same day and sort out our problems, why? Does everyone get this gold star service.” He looked at us, a frown crossed his brow and then he smiled sheepishly, “when I was a kid I used to live nearby” he explained, “a friend and I would sneak into this garden, through the gap in the wall right down at the end” and he pointed towards where the chickens were happily foraging around, “we would steal cherries and plums in June, figs and grapes in September! I’ve always loved this old house, we came in here for years, throughout my childhood, no one ever caught us or stopped us. When you first gave me your address I was amazed, I hadn’t thought about it for years and I hadn’t been back here in decades. I’m a respectable grown man in my fifties, I have my own fruit trees” he laughed. “But when you called, even though you didn’t own the house back then, I felt it my duty, my repayment to put things right!”
I’m hoping with these sub zero temperatures that we don’t get any burst pipes, but at least I feel confident that if we do, we can just call François. Or, I suppose in desperation we could use our Victorian commode. To all and sundry who visit the house it is just a mahogany box, a piece of furniture in the sitting room. On the sides are brass carrying handles, for ease of movement. A portable loo no less!
But it houses the first form of flushing loo.
With a loo seat to cover the bowl and a brass handle with an intricately carved hand which pulls upwards to flush the system. We have no idea if it still works, but all the old lead piping is still in place, and underneath the blue and white ceramic bowl is the bucket which held the waste.
Anyway, finally moving on from sanitary fixtures, another exciting development this week was our first egg from a chick who was hatched here on the property. Our first home grown egg! The hens have been good girls, despite the cold they’ve been laying steadily all winter. Roddy walked up the garden a couple of nights ago and called all the children into the kitchen, “I have a surprise” he said and he proceeded to lay four eggs on the kitchen table. “Hermione has laid her first egg” he said with a certain amount of pride in his voice “which one do you think is hers?” We all looked closely, she’s a small bantam so it would certainly be one of the little ones, but nothing stood out, but Roddy is very good at practical jokes, grinning he put his hand in his pocket and produced a fifth egg, a tiny little speckled brown specimen, no bigger than the size of a grape, this was Hermione’s first egg. You see we have different colours and different sizes, our ladies offer a full spectrum of choice! Now we just have to add blue eggs to our range and plans are afoot to bring this to fruition in the spring!
And finally the answers to the doors and gates and their interiors. The correct numbers were:- 1F, 2K, 3R, 4M, 5B, 6J, 7A, 8N, 9G, 10D, 11P, 12S, 13Q, 14C, 15H, 16E
No one got it completely right but the five people with the highest number of correct answers were Joséphine, David, Nancy, Amanda B and Susan. I have your emails from your comments and shall send you a quick note and perhaps you can then come back to me with your mailing address so I can get these out to you. Thanks so much everyone for entering, I can’t wait to see where in the world we are sending Charente Maritime toffees!