Cormontreuil’s changes over 15 years

It is hard to believe that we have been here so long. When we arrived there were 2 bakeries, a horse-meat butcher, and a delicatessen that also sold raw meat. Now only one bakery remains.

Our established evening walk is to join the dots between the new buildings under construction in the roads surrounding our habitation.

The first stop is the large house only 2 metres back from a busy main road and bus route. It has been built on what was the front garden of the widow’s home. She used to say ‘I have a – large parcel – ‘grand terrain’ . This turned out to be very true as her house still exists close behind this new build. The first to be altered was her old bungalow . The roof was removed, walls were built higher and dormer windows added to make a two-story building. The garden behind became a newly built creche and the bottom of the garden has a new two-storey large home. Fortunately, her rear garden abutted the end of our road, so these properties are accessible . But it is the closeness of each property to the other that intrigues us. The upstairs windows overlook the gardens of the neighbours. French planning permission allows for garden walls being 2 metres high – but does not give anyone the right to light or a view. Our house overlooks the cemetery. This does not please everybody, but we are increasingly grateful for our dead neighbours as no one can build on the land at the bottom of our garden.

Our next stop is to check on the progress of……. well, we don’t know what it is yet. It started as an enormous hole in the ground, as do most new buildings. It’s on a long piece of garden that was beside the road for several tens of metres. Is it going to be one house? If so it will be big. Is it two houses or more? Several gaps in the brickwork indicate possible entrances. We will have to wait and see how it develops. Again, the proximity to existing houses is chilling. The homes behind this property are exactly like ours. The new house walls rise from the line that was the fence at the bottom of the garden. From having a view, these houses will be only able to see the back walls of these new builds – again – ‘thank- you God for our cemetery!’

Next stop, a block of flats three storeys high, the frontage of which bends in order to follow a slight curve in the road. Not a centimetre of ground has been left off the architects plans. The house beside it has lost its out-buildings where their children’s toys were stored. The block now has inhabitants that look down on the now tiny yard of the house that is dwarfed by it. A neat fence marks the new-build’s limits, but on the old house’s side of it are piles of rubble and roughly cut off out buildings. We assume the owners were promised that their buildings and yard would be put back to being a semblance of neatness. However, we noted with horror that there is now no access to this ugly pile of builder’s rubble except though their house. I can imagine the regular phone calls to the developers asking them to come and sort out this mess which was no doubt agreed when contracts were signed. ‘Thank-you God for our cemetery’.

Around the corner another 3 storey block of flats fills the exact ground plan of a old recently demolished house and garden. This one has strange balconies. They are not in alignment with the front of the building. They are smaller at one end and larger at the other, so the room inside is not rectangular. What a nightmare for trying to fit in furniture! ‘Thank you God for our rectangular rooms.’

This brings us to the subject of balconies. Having watched these buildings being constructed from the digging of the huge hole for the garage, to seeing people moving in, I am deeply concerned about balconies. The problem, in my eyes, is that they are not supported by any substantial brickwork and anyone standing on one is over a void of fresh air. Balconies have become of great concern to me. I note that almost every new flat must have one. Yet, architects delight in suspending them over the heads of other balcony owners and only fixing them to the buildings on one of the 4 sides. My worries are not unsubstantiated. I read about a building firm that had been passed from father to son. The father was a qualified architect, but the son had studied art. The balconies had been made from cast concrete instead of being pre-formed. A group of friends was enjoying a party and several were on the balcony which snapped off killing some of these young people. ‘Thank God for our tiny balcony that is not even one storey from the ground.’

This brings us to the last new build on our circular walk of our neighbourhood. The ground floor has been made into a little tiny shop. The name ‘Proxi Market’ hides the fact that it is a very small outlet for the giant Carrefour chain. Who would have thought 15 years ago that the independent boulangerie and the horse-meat butcher would be replaced by a supermarket selling industrial bread and pre-packed meat.


Who would have thought that a humble, yellow sauce would be something that divides our two cultures? The origin of the English word ‘custard’ is apparently ‘custarde’ which is a corruption of ‘crustarde’ which means a pie with a crust. Hum, I am not entirely convinced by the logic of the pie giving its name to the sauce.

The French equivalent is ‘crème Anglaise’ whose name would suggest that it takes its inspiration from our vanilla flavoured sauces. However, there is one major difference. French ‘crème Anglaise’ is invariably served cold. Let me tell you a little story.

When I was teaching English to a class of retired people, I would ask them what they did at the weekend. One gentleman said that as his wife was away, he used her ‘robot’ to make some ‘crème Anglaise’. I asked him to describe all the steps and procedures he had to pass through to make his favourite sauce. He related putting, cream, egg yolks, vanilla and sugar into the machine, turning it on and waiting for the appliance to mix, stir and heat the preparation until it was thick, creamy and delicious. Then I interjected, ‘And you eat it while it is nice and warm’. ‘Oh, no,’ he replied with a look of horror on his face, ‘I put it in the fridge until it is cold!’ I was equally horrified that such a gourmet eating opportunity was passed by. ‘Is this true?’ I asked the class. ‘You eat ‘crème Anglaise’ cold?

No wonder, I had never had hot custard served with a desert in France. I had assumed it was easier for the chefs to keep the sauce in the fridge and that they couldn’t be bothered to heat it up. How many times had delightful pairings been bypassed? Chocolate desserts with hot custard, apple tart and hot custard, profiteroles and hot custard – all great opportunities had been sadly missed by chefs not taking the time to heat the sauce, I had supposed.

We receive hikers and cyclists who are on their way from Canterbury to Rome. One of the deserts they love is fruit crumble served with hot custard. One group of young men enjoyed it so much they ate it again at breakfast! The custard they enjoyed was made with Bird’s Custard Powder.

The story behind the invention of the powder is inspirational. Mr Bird was a pharmacist, scientist and a Fellow of The Chemist Society. His wife was allergic to eggs and yeast, so he invented a thickening powder based on cornflower so she could enjoy something equivalent to ‘crème Anglaise’ thickened with egg yolks. Their guests appreciated the sauce and he realised that there could be a market for his custard powder. So since 1890 it has been available firstly in Birmingham where they lived and later round the country. Bird’s Custard powder was even supplied to troops during the First World War.

Only a very few British people heat double or single cream mixed with 3 egg yolks, sugar and vanilla essence to make ‘a proper custard sauce’ as Delia Smith, our favourite TV cook, calls it. There is the risk of over heating it and the whole pot curdling and separating. It is so much easier to heat a pint of milk with 2 tablespoons of Bird’s custard powder and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Eating lovely, comforting, thickened milk is far less calorific than eating thickened double cream. Second helpings will not ruin a diet. Even the British TV chef Rick Stein in says in his book French Odyssey that his TV director preferred Bird’s. AND he says to serve his french style crème anglaise warm. Quelle horreur! He calls himself a ‘francophile’?! Similar products exist in France but have far more ingredients than the cornflour, natural colouring and vanilla in Bird’s Custard powder. The one I looked at recently contained, potato starch, palm oil and lots of other unnatural things and it too was meant to be eaten cold.

But, there is a ‘grand souci’! Bird’s Custard is no longer a family concern, it is not even owned by a British company. There is talk of the plant in Knighton, Staffordshire being sold! The French take to the streets and protest over everything they disagree with. Where are the protests and petitions to save Bird’s Custard powder? It is not any old product – it has a Royal Warrant that means it is eaten in the palaces of our country. I decided to write to the company to ask if the rumours were true. I received a reassuring reply that even though the plant where Bird’s Custard is currently made is closing, that product will continue to be made.

Just to be sure, I ask you to go out and buy a tin of Bird’s Custard Powder. Let the manufacturers know that British people care about our history and culinary traditions. There is the expression, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Apparently it was coined by a French writer. I would say that he was gravely mistaken. Neither revenge nor custard are ever best served cold.

Is it possible to have a Health Service that is too good?

I am an avid reader of people’s problems on the Facebook site ‘Strictly Legal France’. Recently someone made an apt observation. Her father was getting older and every time he had a health problem his doctor sent him to hospital, where the excellent French health service would find yet another illness that he was suffering from. The lady commented in passing that the French health service was ‘too good’. Her father returned home after each stay in hospital with yet more pills to take and lists of specialists with whom he needed to make appointments.

Can this possibly be correct, that a health service can be too good?

I recently had a colonoscopy examination. I had to visit the anaesthetist and fill out a series of forms a few weeks before the operation. I had a booklet of instructions to follow for the week before the hospital visit, a blood test to book at the local labs to check my creatine levels and a Covid test to take as well. There was also the online pre-admission survey which would not accept information and required the help of my husband to load as apparently it didn’t like our Safari server. The things I had to do seemed to be taking over my life and the stress of not being able to send off the last survey became close to overwhelming.

If all that needed to be done for a colonoscopy, what would be the burden of having several illnesses to cope with? We have an elderly friend and it seems that her life rotates around continual medical appointments. The pile of paperwork becomes daunting, blood tests require an appointment to be booked at your local lab, then later in the day you must log in to their site and look at the results – for the older generation with limited IT skills all this is a daunting task. Booking an appointment these days is supposed to be easier on the internet. Doctors offices don’t answer their phones, but have voicemail messages to ask you to book via Doctor Lib. When you go onto the site, you find that many specialists are not taking new patients, so booking an appointment is difficult. Every time I phoned a Dermatologist’s office, I got recorded messages that they didn’t work between certain times and on certain days. After many failed attempts I decided to visit the surgery and make the appointment in person, an impossibility if you don’t live in the town.

In France we pay 25 euros each time we visit our GP. People expect something in return for their money. If you don’t come away with a prescription with 3 items on it, then you are not getting value for your money. A blocked-up nose might result in a prescription for antihistamines to rule out hay fever. Each visit results in the number of daily medicines being taken increasing. Anti-biotics are expected by the patients. I read recently that the over 40’s who take antibiotics are at risk of intestinal troubles in later life.When I visit my local chemist, I am horrified by the large bags of drugs being handed over to older customers.

         Yes, the French health service is good, but be remember that each medicine has secondary effects and can lead to another  problem. A good friend of ours is now so medicated that she has a nurse that visits three times a day to ensure she takes her abundant supply of pills as prescribed.

How to Fail a Test

This week I had to take a simple medical test. I’ve taken this one before in the UK where it wasn’t half as complicated as here in France. I’ve often said that you need to be fit to be ill in France because they expect you to do so many things once you feel poorly. For example, to get up and go to the doctor, when all you want to do is to lie in bed and recover; to then take a blood test that means getting up early before breakfast and queuing with other sick people at the laboratory where your blood is taken, then going back to the doctor for the results, getting a prescription, which means queuing again at the chemist. Yes, it takes stamina to be ill in France. 

            The instructions on the British National Health Service site for the test I needed to do are written as 5 concise bullet points. Number one is – take a clean container. In the UK this can be an empty  jar that has just come out of your dishwasher. In France, nothing is as simple. On leaving the doctors, it is necessary to go and queue at the laboratory in the ‘Haven’t made appointment line’  in order to be given a complete sterilized pack with 4 items in it and an A5 sheet full of instructions in small print. The container is not a simple jar with a lid, it is a plastic ‘flacon’ recipient with screw lid that for some reason has a sort of funnel that goes down into the jar. Am I supposed to fill this without opening the pot? That is the first dilemma. There is also a capped  test-tube with a small quantity of white powder in it. Do I fill this as well as the pot? 

             I have to supply a myriad of details on one side of the sheet, details I have never been asked for before, such as the policy number of my health insurance. That takes about 5 minutes of research.

            I must do the test first thing in the morning after a night of sleep during which my bladder will be awash with evidence that has collected overnight.

            Unfortunately, I fail at the first hurdle. I woke up in the early hours and couldn’t get back to sleep without a visit to the W.C. Failure number one. Will the test produce any useful result?

            Morning comes and I enter the bathroom with my kit. Our convenience hasn’t got any cupboards or surfaces on which to rest the plethora of bits and pieces so I lay them out on the floor. Clean myself with the wipe provided -‘lingette’, which I drop into the pan (later I see that I should have disposed of it in the ‘poubelle’ – bin). Fail again! Take plastic flacon, try not to fill it as the first ‘jet’ could be contaminated. It’s very difficult to stop after starting. Females are inclined to produce several ‘jets’ at the same time, which seem determined to miss the pot! Tell me if I am wrong, but I‘m sure these tests are designed by men, who don’t have numerous ‘jets’.

            I am not sure how much I need to produce and in spite of holding the pot to the light, turning it and squinting at it I can see no ‘Fill to here’ line.

            Then I have to take the test tube and push it head first into the funnel of the now closed pot. Magically, with a whoosh, the tube is full! How did that happen? Do I keep the rest of my efforts? Is this all that is required?

            I fill up the plastic envelope with both samples and 2 pieces of paper in the 2 different sized pockets (I told you it was complicated) and tell myself that after my shower I will take this to the lab and will be within the 4 hour window required. 

            After a leisurely shower I saw that my son in the UK was trying to contact us for a Facetime with our delightful little grandchildren, so a pleasant ¾ of an hour passed. When going to the laboratory came back to mind, I realised that it was now mid-day and the lab would be closed for lunch for the next hour and a half. Possible fail?

            At half-past one I was again in the ‘Hasn’t made an appointment’ queue with sample bag in hand. I was dreading responding to questions. When was the test done? ‘Vers 10h.’ Around 10 o’clock. Has it been stored ‘au frais’ –in a cool place? My reply was that it had been stored in a cold room. It is autumn here but the central heating does not come on all day so it was not in a warm or hot room. Pass or fail? I was not asked for more details.

            The results came through this morning straight to my computer. The test revealed nothing amiss, not even the presence of multiple dangerous bacteria picked up from spreading all the elements out over my bathroom floor.

            I have learned a lot including a new word ‘miction’ which I don’t think I will ever be able to use in conversation as it simply means ‘urination’. But, if it ever comes up in a test, I might pass.

The French Dream

Whenever we say that we live in France, people reply with, ‘Oh, how lovely’. There is a romantic image in everyones mind that probably has a rural house with a shady terrace overlooking fields of cows and perhaps a paddock where your own horse is stabled. The local village has a boulangerie and a café situated near the thriving market where local producers come to sell their fresh from the fields produce.

When we arrived in Reims we rented a town house for the first year while we searched for our dream house. Every week we would search the housing section of the newspaper for something that tallied with our wishes. We saw houses in cute little villages, but how would our daughter get to school each day? We saw houses where DIY enthusiasts had overreached themselves and created a nightmare of work for future buyers to put right. One set of owners had removed all the old wood panelling that had covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Rough and uneven walls that had been skilfully hidden for many years were now exposed. The owners had also sought to remove an interior wall to join the kitchen space to the living space. Unfortunately the two floors were of slightly different heights – another problem waiting to be solved.

We saw another house where the outbuildings were choc-a-bloc with old machinery and tools. Great if we wanted to open a museum. The cellar was full of the jars of bottled beans and carrots that the now deceased lady of the house had preserved – vegetables grey with age and covered in cobwebs. The seller told us we could have them and most of the old, heavy, dark wooden wardrobes and furniture. As I had recently cleared the home of a close relation, I had no desire to do the same for this man who somehow thought he was doing us a favour!

Another house had gutters that drained into a small brook at the bottom of the garden and had a skull in the attic. Another had downpipes feeding into the small walled garden at the front of the house, which explained the ominous damp patches climbing the sitting room walls. A relatively modern house was fine except the kitchen window looked out onto the side a large industrial farm building on the other side of the road – not the country view were were hoping for unless I asked if I could paint a mural on it.

Because of Napoleonic law, all children inherit part of their parent’s houses. Sometimes the property gets divided by cutting it in halves or thirds among the children. Imagine if your house included the ground floor, but only half of the upper floor and none of the attic. A friend has a house, but the garden is down a nearby lane.

After a year of looking we were on friendly terms with the nice young estate agent, but had got nowhere with finding our dream house. One evening the neighbour from number 5 knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to buy his house. His work was moving him to Brittany. In our row of 4 terraced houses, his was nearly identical to ours. I cried. It was the end of our French Dream if we said ‘yes’. But our daughter was at school in the town and the bus stop was close enough for her to still be eating that last mouthful of breakfast as she boarded. Both of us had found work as English teachers in different parts of the town and we had different schedules – impossible with one car and a house in the countryside. We knew the neighbours, the neighbourhood and all of the amenities. Our bank was down the road and our doctor was within walking distance. Our heads said ‘yes’ but my heart was forlorn.

Having lived here now for 16 years, we are so glad our French dream was not realised. My husband suffered serious heart problems and was in hospital for 3 months. The bus took me straight there or I could go by bike. What would we have done if we had lived in the countryside? Our house has a tiny garden yet I grow raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, and am harvesting nearly a pound of blackberries each day and we are gathering enough homegrown tomatoes for our daily needs. The autoroute is less than 5 minutes away, and the TGV can get me to the UK in just a few hours in emergencies.

I have a hazelnut tree that gives me several kilos of nuts. (for this paragraph you need to know that 2.2 pounds equal 1 kilo and that there are 16 ounces in one pound) As I was shelling them and longing for a machine that would do the work more quickly, I reflected on the misconceptions of the ‘French Dream’. What we think we want is actually far from easy, and far from what we are used to in our normal lives. We have freezers where we can find frozen peas and beans – do we really want to spend afternoons and evenings shelling peas, blanching them and preserving them? Do we really want to be far from medical services as we get older? Do we really want to be stranded if our car doesn’t start? I have always liked the idea of having my own chickens, but would I really trust eating the eggs or feeding them to guests, having read that someone nearly died after eating duck eggs and the doctor said it was the worst case of salmonella he had ever seen. On reflexion I really do want my eggs tested before I eat them. We have bought cheese from market stalls at eye-watering prices that make you love your local Aldi and Lidl. Here, I have 7 kilos of hazelnuts that take 30 minutes of shelling to produce 8 oz of nuts, that is quite enough exposure to the ‘French Dream’ of self-sufficiency and rural isolation that I can cope with!

Les Nuits Blanches

French people seem to like depriving themselves of sleep. I thought that it was common knowledge that a good night’s sleep was good for health, mental alertness and is a necessity. Missing sleep can lead to road accidents, irritability and headaches. Just a quick look at the internet tells us that lack of sleep can cause high blood pressure, heart problems and cholesterol increases. A good night’s sleep can help improve memory, decision making and creativity.

Why do so many French events require staying awake for much or all of the night? In the UK we have the tradition of ‘seeing in the New Year’ which means staying awake until midnight, watching fireworks and hearing Big Ben chime until the strike of midnight – then we can happily go to sleep having wished each other a ‘Happy New Year’.

In France the celebration is called the  réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre. ‘Réveillon’ from ‘se reveiller’ to be woken up. ‘Un réveil’ is an alarm clock. ‘Saint Sylvestre’ because it starts on the day dedicated to the Pope Sylvestre the first who seems to have been quite a good chap as he fought against the heretical teachings of Arius of Alexandria who was denying the divinity of Jesus. Anyway that was between 280 and 355 A.D. 

Apparently Romans used to have a meal together on New Year’s Eve, and according to the wealth of the family, it could encompass many different dishes. It seems that the idea of eating a lengthy meal together came from that time. Typical dishes for a St Sylvestre celebration include oysters, foie gras, snails and thankfully smoked salmon! People assume that you will stay up all night and go home as the dawn breaks after being served a bowl of onion soup. Remember, dawn in winter is at breakfast time!

Weddings are also occasions for sleepless nights. Often the evening starts with aperitifs, small appetisers that go with a glass of champagne. About 2 hours later the sit-down meal begins with a starter. The long pauses between courses, sometimes filled with videos made by the couple’s friends and family, or songs sung by the parents and parents-in-law mean that it is well past midnight when the couple get to cut their cake and dancing begins. We have felt like terrible party-poopers when we are among the first to leave. Our friends asked us why we hadn’t returned to the venue to take part in the breakfast provided. But it hadn’t occurred to us that breakfast would be included in the festivities!

Paris offers a Nuit Blanche the first weekend of October when restaurants stay open all night and the theme of the city is illuminated Modern Art.

The 14 July, the anniversary of the French Revolution is also an occasion to stay up all night. In Epernay people are invited to dress entirely in white for the occasion. They can bring their own picnic and sit at one of the 230 tables set out on the avenue de Champagne and celebrate with the other 3,000 revellers all night long.

Unfortunately, we are usually tucked up in bed on these occasions, our brains being rejuvenated and refreshed, while our cholesterol is diminishing and our creativity is being enhanced!

City Break to Carcassonne on a Senior Citizens Railcard

Once the age of 62 is reach in France, a senior citizens railcard can be bought. Our first foray was to Carcassonne to see the medieval city and to benefit from the promise of reclining seats on the overnight trains.

We were disappointed to receive a text message just before departure to say that reclining seats would not be available. The promise of a comfortable seat and a certain amount of sleep was a principle reason for booking the trip. Instead we arrived very tired having spent most of the night awake.

Carcassonne station did not have any of the amenities for processing the arriving tourists. To leave the station we had to lug our suitcases down steps, go through a tunnel under the rails and then climb the same number of steps on the other side. There was no sign of a lift and I wondered how anyone with a disability or a heavy suitcase would cope.

Carcassonne town looked old and worn, with little investment in infrastructure. However our Ibis hotel near the Fine Arts Museum was conveniently situated. An afternoon nap refreshed us and we explored the old town. Away from the principal axes there were many old, dilapidated buildings not at all in keeping with a famous tourist town.

Coming by train means that you have no transport in which to visit the region, but we searched out the bus ticket office and bought bus passes for the week. If I have any travel tips, this is our best one. Buy a bus/tram pass so that when your legs get tired you can go on the longest bus ride you can find, preferably to an out of town shopping centre where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream.

The medieval city was our next day’s activity. Having read about the history of the rebuilding, I expected to see busts of Viollet-le-Duc the architect that planned and executed the resurrection of the ruined and destitute mound that was the city before 1850. I wanted to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos featuring the houses that had existed between the ramparts and what it had previously looked like. I expected this man’s work to be honoured, but it seemed like the truth of the modern rebuilding was less attractive than the myth of this amazing ‘medieval’ city. There had been a lot of controversy over his choices of roofing tiles for example, as no-one actually knew what the original buildings looked like as only the floor plans were visible, much of the stone had been taken for use in building houses in the new town – the site had been used as a quarry in effect. Recently, we saw a programme on the TV about Carcassonne which said that the space between the two outer walls had been filled with houses, using the ramparts as convenient back walls. The presenter showed the holes where beams had been inserted and the marks that remained of stairs going to upper floors. Now, that was interesting, seeing what had been removed during the renovation work in order to rebuild the mound as a medieval castle again. We found a little museum of school life between 1880 and 1960 which was interesting. Pictures of children wearing the the dunces cap ‘bonnet d’âne’ feature on their webpage. c The poster showing the evils of alcohol and the illnesses it causes could possible be revived for todays gin drinking young people! TIP – take a bus No. 3 to see the castle from all sides.

Poster in the school museum.

Another day we took the bus out to Pont Rouge, an out of town shopping centre and saw some of the Canal du Midi en route. Strangely, the canal bed is at the bottom of a steep sided ‘V’ near the town so there is no possibility of cycling or walking beside it.

We took a bus to a lake – Lac de la Cavayère. Happily, there was a young couple on the same bus who got off just before us and disappeared down the road. We searched for a sign post but there wasn’t one, so decided that perhaps the young couple were also going to the lake, so set off in their footsteps. Fortunately, our hunch was correct and we found the lake. Usually, it was possible to walk all round it but there was building work taking place so we couldn’t do the whole circuit. People from the area had chosen their spots in the shelter of the forest and had folding chairs and portable picnic tables otherwise there were not may places to sit and eat. We saw various pretty butterflies and an impressive lizard.

Caunes-Minervois was listed as an interesting village with an Abbey. Again, we could get there by bus. After walking around the narrow streets for quite some time without finding the abbey, we resorted to looking at a map on our phone. Going round in a circle and arriving close to where we started, we mentioned the lack of signs to the concierge of the abbey. “Yes, everyone says the same thing!” she said.

We had passed a little park that had some picnic benches and went back there to eat. The park had many marble works of art, the marble coming from a local quarry. Even the toilets in the abbey had marble washbasins!

Caunes-Minervois Marble

The bus is also useful for having a rest when you have walked enough. We took a bus in the direction of the airport just for the ride! it It was at the end of the school day and it went to every village dropping off school children. For 85 minutes we saw every village between Carcassonne and the airport, all for the cost of a 1€ ticket – not bad value!

People told us that we must try cassoulet while we were in the south. We did, and it wasn’t the very interesting. Lots of overcooked beans and too much meat for modern people who don’t do days of hard physical work in the fields. By contrast we had a lovely meal in a restaurant called simply ‘104’ – its door number. Interesting modern dishes, beautifully presented and eaten in a little courtyard.

Just a few hours before our return journey we again received a text to say our reclining seats were not available. When a steward passed our seats, we complained that what we were having to make do with was not what we had booked and paid. The steward looked very surprised and said reclining seats had been phased out and hadn’t been available for a long time. After returning, we wrote to SNCF and got a refund of 82€.


IT IS everyone’s dream to retire to France, buy a little house in the country with enough land to grow fruit and vegetables. But what if you find your little ‘pied à terre’ is infested with the worst kind of pests imaginable?

It has happened to me. It was my niece that first said, “You’ve got vine-weevils”. She pointed out the leaves on a fuchsia that should have had smooth edges but had little indents eaten evenly along the sides.

Before you can defeat your enemy you have to know your enemy and what its tactics are. Some research on the Internet revealed that ‘otiorhynchus sulcatus’ are nocturnal creatures that live in leaf mould and lay eggs around the stems of the plant, which hatch into white grubs with orangey heads in the spring. The grubs feed off the roots, weakening the plant, and emerge a year later as adult vine-weevils.

I had just planted raspberry canes and discovered that vine-weevils are particularly partial to asters, cyclamens, geraniums, honeysuckle, roses, primroses…….   (the list continued) and raspberries. The French name is generally ‘Charançon’ but 

another is “poinconneur des lilas” which translated is ‘hole-puncher of lilacs’- not very good news at all!

More research on the Internet was required!  I learned that it’s very difficult to see or catch an adult weevil as when they are disturbed they fall to the ground and scurry away. OK, dirty tactics need cunning responses. I placed flowerpot bases all around the stems of the plants. When I got up in the night to go to the toilet (I’m that sort of age!) I would also wage war! 

When I woke up, I boiled the kettle, carried it out to the garden, gently filled up the flowerpot bases and then gave the raspberry bushes a shake. Hey presto, several of my enemies jumped off and fell into my dishes of very hot water and scalded themselves to death!! The moment was one of pure, triumphant bliss, regardless of the fact that my neighbours might see me and wonder what I was doing in the garden with a kettle, in my dressing gown at 3 o’clock in the morning! The English are very strange! 

The enemy had indeed been the, yet unseen, vine-weevil – black apple pip sized body, elongated head ending in long feelers

and 3 pairs of legs. Triumph eventually dimmed to despair when I realized that my only method of defeating the marauders was to continue to get up in the early hours of the morning! But God is good and inspiration comes to those who pray! Suppose the vine weevils didn’t just jump off plants when disturbed, but they are lazy by nature and fall off instead of climbing down?

My theory was proved right by the presence of several drowned vine-weevils in the dishes of water I had left under the plants. With the aid of lengths of guttering strategically placed I managed to drown quite a few. One day I found that one humble 3 foot length of guttering had caught 11 vine weevils overnight! This may not sound much but they can lay between 500-1600 eggs a piece.

My joy turned to further despair when I noticed that my neighbour’s huge privet hedge that ran down one side of my garden was infested with vine-weevils and also the lilac that belonged to the other neighbour! With horror I realized that although I could possibly win the war in my own garden, I couldn’t defeat the enemies of the entire neighbourhood.

I found a charming little story on the Internet that showed that even in the 1587 French villagers were having the same problems as me. The residents of Saint-Julien-de-Maurienne were having their vines ravaged by a horde of ‘amblevins’ as they are called in the Savoyard dialect. The local judge ordered a court case against them. But to represent the weevils fairly an advocate was appointed on their behalf. The local people offered the vine-weevils a patch of pasture away from the vineyards where they could munch away to their hearts content. Their lawyer argued that the area was infertile and didn’t at all suit his clients. We don’t know the end of the story, but perhaps the villagers were trying out the new legal process of allowing a Devil’s advocate, a new system that was established in the same year as the story took place.

When the Norman’s invaded England the first thing they did was to build motte and bailey castles. The bailey or palisade was probably to keep the English out, but I am sure that the water ditch was there to protect their small parcels of land from the possibility of invading vine-weevils. Even if my theory is not true, the next house I look for will have a moat!


Reims is one of only a few cities in France that has a motorway running through its centre. When we first arrived, we used to see written on the overhead gantry ‘Risque de bouchons’. As the area is full of champagne houses where bottles are filled and processed, I assumed that there was a risk that lorries could accidentally spill corks on the roads and cause hazards for motorists. After all ‘bouchon’ is the French word for a cork that stoppers the mouth (bouche) of a bottle. After a while I realised that the French for traffic jam was un bouchon, just as in English we might call it a bottleneck.

Cork is a wonderful product that comes from the bark of particular oak trees called Cork Oaks. Cork is an excellent insulator and is often used for floor tiles, place mats and trivets to protect tables from being damaged by hot dishes. Rather than throw wine bottle corks away we have adopted the habit of keeping them in a very large glass bowl. This week it was time that something must be done as the bowl was full to overflowing.

One way we had found of recycling corks to their best advantage was to make a heat mat out of some of them to protect our wooden table. I had found a shallow wooden tray in a craft shop and had carefully arranged wine corks to fit in it in an attractive, symmetrical tight fitting pattern. Corks come in slightly different sizes and finding the right cork for the right place had taken a lot of time. We had never felt the need to glue them in place as they hardly moved and it was easier to remove crumbs or bits of food by just lifting out one or two. I must emphasise just one or two, because if more were displaced it was very difficult find the right place and orientation of the cork so that they all sat level again.

Our first warning to any visitors we have is, ‘Don’t touch the corks’. An unfortunate visitor had been left in the house for a while on his own and he had had an accident with the tray. He had picked it up, turned it over to look at where it was made and …….. spent 4 hours putting the corks back in place!!

Having more corks than anyone could ever need means finding a use for them or throwing some away. Twenty or so, were plastic looking and felt like plastic. Written on each one were the reassuring words 100% recyclable. However, on looking into the subject it is not clear how this can happen or where. Those got put into our plastics recycling box.

What can one do with a collection of 125 champagne corks? I can assure you that we have not drunk all of those bottles. We often pocket them when going to events where bottles have been opened. I have made about a dozen into key rings. I am hoping that boat owners feel that an accessory that floats will be an advantage when they are on the water with their keys. I have seen that miniature plant pots can be made by hollowing out the centres of these bigger bouchons – that sounds an interesting idea.

That left 144 wine bottle corks. Oh, well that seems like another heat resistant tray is called for. As IKEA is currently selling a small bamboo tray, the idea took off. After a careful sorting out of matching corks, a neat pattern emerged. However, this time each one was carefully glue gunned in place so as to not horrify an unsuspecting visitor.

Don’t touch the corks!
Too many corks!
Key rings that float.

Pilgrim’s Rest.

Living on the ancient pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome, we volunteered to take in those arriving in Reims, looking for a bed for the night. So far we have received walkers, cyclists, single people and even a family with young children. Italians, Dutch, Belgians, French and British are among those we have welcomed. Some are taking time out to reflect about life and to think about spiritual things. We have decorated one bedroom with a large poster depicting the life of John Bunyan who wrote the book Pilgrim’s Progress. It is always interesting to chat with travellers and they usually ask why we came to France and are intrigued when we say that it was a call from God. Our guests often have catholic backgrounds and are interested in our protestant view point.

Reims is twinned with Canterbury. Both are cathedral cities associated with pilgrimage. Canterbury is the start of the Via Francigena, that was supposedly the route taken in 990 by Sigéric the Archbishop of Canterbury. As he did the return journey, he noted the 80 stages of his 2,000 km walk.

Many people think that the part though Northern France is a bit dull and uninteresting compared to the Alps or medieval Italy, but I like to remind people that the route they are taking was the front line during the 1st World War and that the now peaceful countryside was was far from quiet with the noise of shelling, bombing and explosions. The many beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries testify today to the colossal loss of life from 1914-18. It is relatively empty because so many villages were destroyed. Wood from forests became duck boards and trench linings.

So, if you want to walk or cycle 300 km on the GR 145 (Grande Randonné) and stop for a few days of rest in Cormontreuil (our part of Reims) you will be very welcome.

Pilgrim’s Rest at Cormontreuil

We have registered as a Bed & Breakfast with one double room and one single room. For 20€ /night and 5€ for an evening meal of mostly home-made food. We can cater for special diets too. Breakfast includes at least 4 flavours of homemade jams made with fruit from the garden.