Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve, 2009.

There is no ice and fire here this New Year's Eve,


only things sponged down to a pallour and greyness, like disappointment,

drained, thawed into deliquescence.

There seems no beauty to be made here at this time, and I won't cheat, pretend, enhance, delete, crop out the ugliness, decide 'I'm Feeling Lucky' to brighten things up. (Though I am).

All is beset, complicated, compromised by feed, need, and greed, by squalor and cruelty and by kindness and talk, by muster and requirement,

the messy, unenraptured threads and loops of custom and connection.

Me, no, I'm not complaining.  But I am wanting:

the hills beyond, the crystallizing clarity, burned in by freezing time. It is chill and fog and drab outside, and I am missing light and vision.

I search for embers, a fleck, a glow here or there, of gold, yellow, ochre,

or smouldering orange, in the smeared, wet-ash world.

But it's fine.  Dull is fine.  Whatever stalks out there in the murk-bound lands beyond, in the country of the future, here, now, we - I and mine - are safe and well, warm and fed, with stores of love and joy and beauty to be going on with.

It's more than I've a right to wish for, and I wish it for you too.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Further artistic achievements of the festive season.

Marzipan fruit and veg.

... say the bells of St Clements,

no prize money,

and ratatouille.  Woke up early Christmas Eve and realised too late I'd forgotten the pepper.  It probably won't make much difference to the flavour.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Light and doorways

Three small watercolours Tom did for Christmas cards.  Some of you will have seen them already, but when he asked if I could  put one of them here to wish everyone a happy Christmas, I couldn't choose, so I've posted all three.

So, with thanks and appreciation of your company, your wise and cheering words and presence, may you have light in dark corners, and doorways opening, a very happy Christmas and a hopeful New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Where are the snows...?

In fact what was left of them have hung around overnight, since the temperatures dropped, and last night the garden twinkled in the torchlight like sugar.  Today is the big cooking and wrapping day, where the contents of the jam and chutney shelf which have accrued over the last year are raided, repackaged and reinvented, the pile of slabs of plain German marzipan (which I found at a cut-price supermarket of German origin which will remain nameless because I think I promote them too much here and am in danger of laying on my inverted snobbery with a trowel) are converted into marzipan fruits with the help of food colouring, a fine brush and the fruit dryer ( does food colouring ever go off?  I realise mine is rather old...), and the cobnuts Marcelle gave me in the autumn, already shelled and picked over, get made into nut roast along with the tail-end of a packet of pistachios and the breadcrumbs I carefully hoard in the freezer, since I hate throwing even crusts of bread out, and the birds can't have them as Molly would nick them. 

(For any who have felt or expressed curiosity about the kitchen at Maison Box Elder, here is an angle of it in all its shambolic, cluttered, boozy, less than elegant glory, cables showing, box of Roche Mazet cab sav from the Pays d'Oc, various bottles of mostly alcoholic liquid - abstainers pace, my excuse is I'm cooking with them - bits of unresolved paper dangerously close to the toaster, pots and pans suspended from a hanging rack left us by the long deceased Victoire who lived her before us.  Straining a batch of rosehip and rose geranium schnapps... does liquid come in batches?)

We braved Carrefour in the afternoon yesterday, three days before Christmas and vowed never again, as one always does, but as ever, I'm quite happy that we keep our involvement with that kind of Christmas insanity to a minimum.  When we first arrived here, 12 years ago, we were a bit depressed by how little to-do there was about the holiday.  Now there's a lot more conspicuous consumption, though much of it is still centred on oysters and foie gras and it's still not as crazy as in Britain, and we rather wish there wasn't.  But at least you don't hear Slade's 'Here it is, merry Christmas' belting out anywhere, which was always one of the blessings of not being the UK at this time of year.

When I got home I realised I'd still forgotten the porridge oats for the flapjacks, so I'll have to hope I can get them in Moncontour, and leave it until this afternoon so I don't have to venture out on the ice too early.  How intrepid that sounds!


'Où sont les neiges d'antan?' - Where are the snows of yesteryear?  Villon's question which Joe put to me pretty much exactly a year ago, as part of the 'Questions' project at the time.  Finally the thread, as it now continues, drawn out sporadially fine but still resilient, went another way, and this question was not included.  But this, with pictures for ekphrastic substance, was the reply at the time.

Hushed white liquefies, flows

to the lowest place, distills, climbs,

forms in time the sixfold crystal, clothes

earth once more in lovely blankness.

Is trodden, again, to slush.


Must be getting on.  I'll post briefly once more before Christmas Day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More snowy bits and pieces.

So, this was how deep it got, at least.

We fed the birds, as usual.  The small ones, the sparrows, robins, tits and dunnocks came, of course, but then there was this thug.  A young blackbird, still mottled and grey-brown, who was determined to have the whole table to itself, and must have expended as much energy chasing the other birds off as it consumed in  the food it was eating.  We developed quite a dislike for it; the smaller birds can share and co-operate, why couldn't this one?  (As you may note, we have no qualms about anthropomorphism...)

Young Ludovic, who has come to live in Marie's and Pierre's old house, with his very nice girlfriend and lovely border collie, had a most impressive piece of snow-clearing kit;  a mini push-along tractor, like a converted rotivator.  He works for the commune, mind, so he probably gets all the best motoculture equipment.

Victor's motley collection of useful stuff, standing out against the snow: chicken shed and run, an old privy, half a cider barrel, sticks and stakes, woodpile and corrugated, a weathercock on a pole, a row of leeks...

Snow on his barn roof.

Later in the day, we got out for a walk.

Though the snow was thick on the banks and fields, the roads were quite clear, and Mol didn't pick up pom-poms till  we were nearly home.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Guest Post - Cats

This is a piece of writing my brother Chris sent me a week or so ago.  He and my sister-in-law live about a hundred miles south-east of here, in the Mayenne region, they came to France a year before we did, about 13 years ago.  Chris likes to write, and might be one member of my family who could be persuaded to blog and continue blogging, except that he has an aversion to computers and keyboards bordering on the phobic, and tends to like to be outside anyway.

He's never seemed a great cat lover, possibly because my sister-in-law is compassionately devoted to them and he has felt the need to keep a degree of moderating emotional distance from them.  Cats in rural France rather live life in the fast lane, sometimes by their own preference, but also because it's simply hard way of life and people aren't soft on them.  They can break your heart with their combination of toughness and fragility, and are subject to all manner of potentially fatal hazards, which is one reason why we've avoided having one, since the pretty tortoiseshell with half a tail who adopted us in her last year, before we had Molly, died from anaemia probably brought on by ingesting rat poison. This hasn't always been easy, when there is a never-ending stream of kittens with death sentences over their heads and all manner of other waifs and strays, and usually a tender-hearted Anglo wringing their hands about it.  You get the picture?  I'm afraid it's not a pretty one. But we hold out, we couldn't save them all, we say.

But without further ado, here is what my brother wrote. (Cretouffiere is the name of their home.)

Since this appeared, it has received more hits, by a very long way, than anything else I have ever posted.  While I can quite see why this should be the case, I would dearly love to know where everyone is coming from!  Is there a link to it somewhere I don't know about? Surely you don't all arrive just by Googling 'cats'... Please leave a note in the comments if you can tell me how you got here, anonymous comments are allowed so you don't need to be logged in to Blogger or anything.  




Well the last Cretouffiere cat has gone, the last of the originals that is. Hoppy, or Hop as we knew her, like a shadow has departed from the light. She was the dark shape that could be seen at one end of the garden, and seconds later at the other, staring intently into the tussocks before she pounced on some unsuspecting mouse which was pawed, tossed, ignored, shaken and then gobbled up.

She was the creature that emerged from the darkness if we arrived home late at night, more often than not preceded by Fatso (Dublin to her friends) who went to the cattery in the sky only ten months ago. On those dark occasions you always heard Hop before you saw her. Sometimes you thought you saw her when you didn’t, or did you? Mostly she minded her own business, but always knew when you’d cleaned the car, or left a basket of ironing unattended. I know they all do it, have this uncanny knack for finding and walking in wet concrete, but she asserted her rights to make a mess like no other.

She was the last survivor of four, born when we arrived here in ‘96. Jack left home early because he didn’t like Gremlin, who was lovable to those with a preference for the mentally retarded but also had wicked claws. Gremlin wouldn’t have made it in the big wide world so he chose to stay with us. He could be guaranteed to make an idiot of himself, he didn’t even need to try, he didn’t have far to go. Jack just vanished into the countryside to try his luck elsewhere, while Gremlin remained to make a nuisance of himself with his two sisters and old aunty Dublin, who despite her odd name hailed from Gloucestershire. Hoppy was one sister, Silky the other. Dublin was three years older and not happy to share her owner but she got used to it. Bewildered at first, grumpy later, demanding, possessive, tried to act dignified, wouldn’t get off your lap for love nor money until she was good and ready. In later life she competed with Silky for top female cat. Silky was a wise one but a few years back her blood turned to water and she had to go.

Other cats have come and gone. Stray Toms have sniffed us out. Them at La Cretouffiere are an easy touch. Ginger was I believe the first. He never bothered the others and eventually got his nose through the door. We were getting very fond of him because he was so affectionate and harmless when another brute arrived, a white creature with black spots determined to drive the others out. We suspect he was responsible for mutilating Ginger, who was taken to the vet and proved to be beyond repair. More anguish and more determination on our parts to keep the white monster out. One freezing winter night he asked me if he could come in. I told him to piss off. The following morning I buried him.

This year another Ginger (this one with white patches) has been ingratiating himself. For many months he slunk around with his tail trailing the ground so we couldn’t detect the golden balls that we suspected were there. As he became more confident they revealed themselves. Of course, Hoppy didn’t want him around, but we thought they were getting used to each other until Hoppy took sick. Last weekend she lay down. Both Andy and I knew she was dying and should just have let her get on with. She’d never been to the vet and didn’t want to go. What a bloody dilemma. Do you gamble that the vet might have the answer, or do you leave it to take its course. We took her there and I wished we hadn’t. It wasn’t much of a choice. Sorry Hop.

My Mum sometimes appears in my dreams, sometimes my Dad. These cats don’t. I just see them out of the corner of my eye sometimes.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I can say that now.  I was edgy and worried when I woke up to it this morning, though Tom had already asserted in no uncertain terms that he would drive me in to my end of term lunch party with my students, go shopping and pick me up afterwards, even before the weather became so decidedly inclement.   Once we were down off our hill it really wasn't too bad, and after a knocking back a kir made with cremant d'Alsace I was ready to relax into the party.  They all brought in wonderful food, as always, gave me an incredibly elegant box of chocolates as always, got festive and excitable after the first kir, as always.  Seraphine sang a Nina Simone song about a no good man doing her wrong ( the persona of the song, not Seraphine herself, I assume...) and Bernard got a bit tearful and said he was too sensitive and sentimental. Marguerite just about let me escape without insisting that I took the entire remains of the buffet home to eat over Christmas.  As always I felt incredibly warmly towards them and affirmed to myself that even though they pay me modestly and will never, for the most part, achieve anything but a very shaky grasp of the propositional infinitive, I could never leave them.

One or two of them took photos which they e-mailed me later which had the effect that most photos of myself do, which is to make me quite certain that I should never be seen outside the house again, or not without a burkha, and that unphotographed web presence only is probably the best way forward from now on. ( No seemingly fished-for compliments please; the best response was once from my very gallant brother-in-law, who said "Well, that's what you look like.  What do you think it's like for the rest of us having to see you all the time?")

When I came out and met up with Tom, it was wet but perfectly manageable, until we hit the high ground inland round about Quèssoy, and from then on it got more and more hazardous, far worse than in the morning, so that we nearly finished up in the ditch with rather a long way to walk home a couple of times.   We cancelled the second party of the day at the Quiet American's and B's, I cancelled my last lesson tomorrow with The Beautiful Maxime, and now we are officially snowed in.  We have plenty of wood in the shed, a full gas bottle, food in the freezer and wine in the hall, a warm and very excited dog (she loves snow even though she ends up with intractable pom-poms of it all over her legs), and it's really rather a shame it'll probably all be slush and meltwater in a couple of days.  We feel sorry we missed the party, which may have been postponed until tomorrow anyway, though in fact I was rather full of terrine and cake aux olives and bûche de Noël from lunchtime anyway, but there is really no question of getting out of our village tonight, much less getting home again safely.

So there was nothing left to do but don wellies and get out and photograph it.

(Above is Bel Air, the highest point in Cotes d'Armor, don't you know...)

Or, equally, stay inside and photgraph it through the windows,

or even stick your face in it, because stuff smells good in it. Even though it does give you pom-poms.