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. The terribly rough and uneven walls that were now exposed had been skilfully hidden for many years. 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 the outbuildings that 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 desceased 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 drained into a small brook at the bottom of the garden and had a skull in the attic. Another had gutters that drained into the small 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 parents 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, 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 I 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 – 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, 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. chttps://www.carcassonne.org/sites/default/files/paragraph/field_fichiers_ressources/2020-02/2019_GUIDE_ENSEIGNANTS_MUSEE_ECOLE.pdf. 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€.

Amblevins

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!

Corks

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.

Good news for Piglets

If you eat pork, bacon, ham, sausages or chorizo and care about animals then this week’s news will interest you. The French government has announced that from January 2022 it will be illegal to castrate baby pigs without anaesthetics. The procedure has historically been done to stop the meat having an unpalatable smell at maturity. In spite of a European declaration in 2012 it has yet to be halted even though the aim was to end castration without pain relief in Europe by 2018. Other countries such as the UK, Ireland and Spain slaughter pigs before sexual maturity, therefore avoiding the problem of unpleasant smelling meat. However, the problem is far less important now than in the past. Once, 20 % of pork was tainted but with selective breeding and improved feedstuffs, the strange smell only appears in 2% of carcasses. Yet, castration without pain relief was widespread.

Some French products demand pork from castrated piglets – Bayonne ham for example. Avoiding the possibility of ‘boar taint’ has been the priority of French farmers and pork product manufacturers. Only, 2.8 million piglets went uncastrated in France in 2019, just a fraction of the 23.5 million produced overall.

Another problem with the French pig industry is that it is very intensive. Pigs have 1 square metre to live in or less. We live in the north-east of France where several pork dishes are part of the region’s heritage, yet we have never seen a field of outdoor pigs enjoying mud and space to roam. Most pigs never see daylight nor feel anything but wooden slats under their trotters.

So are the piglets that provide your pork and sausages now living happy, contented lives? Well, no. There is still the problem of tail docking. In the first week of life 99% of piglets in France have their tails chopped off. The problem goes back to the number of piglets kept in small spaces with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The only thing of interest for them to play with is the tails of their fellows. The bitten tails can become infected, so many farmers like to chop them off to stop the problems progressing.

There is also the practise of cutting or grinding down piglets’ teeth supposedly to prevent damage to the sows udders. What is the answer to all of this?

We now buy very few pork products. When we see frozen ‘sanglier’ (wild boar) on sale in Aldi we buy it. It tastes and looks very different to the pink, insipid pork meat that everyone is used to. It has flavour, taste and texture.

If you are fortunate enough to live near an enterprising farmer who sells direct to the public, embrace his products. It is likely that you will be able to see his animals and that they will have ample space to move, access to fresh air, straw to lie on and burrow into and most importantly, enchanting, curly, waggly tails.

Dust

Today my usually smart clothes are streaked with grey. I want to  

brush myself down but that would be counter productive…it will only

 return to plague me again. It is dust.

         I hate dust. It is the bane of every housewife and househusband. It is relentless. It makes us into sluts without us doing anything. We go on holiday, have a lovely time, we clean the gite from top to bottom before we leave and come home to a house covered in dust. It calls out to us with an evil sneer, “You can’t escape the chores. Relaxing and holidays are not allowed!  Look at me, this house is in a mess!”

         Dust is universal. The Queen has dust at the palace; the prisoner has dust in his cell. No one can escape dust. Charles Darwin, sailing aboard The Beagle noted that dust fell on the ship even when it was thousands of miles from land. Dust can be carried in the air from continent to continent. Given particular conditions cars in Britain get covered in red dust, blown all the way from the Sahara. I even read that rally driving in dusty deserts was stirring up such huge clouds of dust that is causing pollution in other continents.

         Dust is always grey. It never ceases to fascinate me that whatever the colour of carpets and soft furnishings the dust produced is always grey. Dust consists of soil particles, flakes of dead skin, pollen grains, bacteria and viruses and carpet fibres amongst other things. Some of these are amazingly beautiful. Computer generated pictures of viruses are fantastically complex and colourful. Pollen grains are unique to the plants they come from. Individual pollen grains take many diverse forms such as tiny sea urchins and miniature hand grenades. How is such beauty reduced to a grey gritty powder?

         Dust can travel in all directions and is as good at gaining entry as the best burglar. It gets into every crevice. It gets behind clocks and under cupboards and down inside empty vases. It gets into glass covered bookcases and on top of lampshades. It can cling to vertical walls and collect on cobwebbed ceilings.

         Dust embarrasses us. A friend of mine always manages to run her finger over some surface in my house where I haven’t dusted. Once she even wrote her name in my dust on one particular shelf. Dust calls forth emotional resolutions to clean more often. However, seeing dust in other people’s houses can create feelings of superiority and pride, that our dust is not quite as thick or at least not quite so obvious!

I once read that the latest health fad in Sweden was pills that contain garden soil. Apparently soil has an abundance of micro-organisms that we need for effective digestion. If someone can make their fortune from selling soil pills, I wonder if I can put my dust to good use? After all it contains bacteria, viruses, pollen grains and soil particles which in small quantities would almost certainly give a boost to the immune system. There is the theory that living in environments that are too clean has caused the rapid increase in allergies. So therefore dust is good for you! But not of course your own dust, because you have already been exposed to all your own bacteria and soil micro-organisms.  But my dust could be just what you need to give a burst of vitality, a lift up to better health!

Perhaps I could turn my dust into an asset? When I feel people are looking rather too closely at my dusty surfaces, I can say,”Oh yes, haven’t you heard that dust is very good for you? Would you like a finger full? Maybe I could even market it as genuine household dust. I could franchise my ideas and become the first Dust Magnate! My epitaph would read, “From dust she came, dust was her life and after death she returned to it!

P.S. After one year of living in a rented house, we moved into a house we had bought. On moving day I was horrified to see the amount of dust that had collected under the beds and furniture after just one year. Our French friend said that they have a name for balls of dust – moutons -wooly sheep! I am now convinced that there is more dust in France than in the UK. The fact that there is is name for balls of dust and that they grow so quickly.

Fourteen Stones Lighter

A friend has just informed us that he had to have an emergency gall-bladder removal, which reminded me of this article from 2008 when we had only been in France for 18 months.

NO, IT’S not due to some trendy new diet, but to a short stay in a French Hospital.

A couple of months ago I went to my doctors because I had a pain in my back. I also experienced a very strange pain under my ribs after I had drunk a small glass of Chartreuse.  A scan revealed an enlarged liver and gallstones in my gallbladder (vesicule). The next step was to see a specialist at the St. Andre Clinic. Now, I don’t know what the word “Clinic” conjures up for you, but for me, we used to go to the clinic to have our teeth checked by the school dentist and to the clinic to have babies weighed. Both were very small establishments with perhaps 5 employees. In Reims there are 3 clinics each the size of a hospital.  My specialist at the St Andre clinic recommended surgery as a stone could easily move into the bile duct, block it and cause liver failure at any time. I was offered a date before Christmas, but wanted to be back in the UK with the family so opted for 5th January. I often say that you have to be quite fit to be sick in France as you are given so many things to do if you go to see a doctor. The wad of papers that I came away with included a prescription for some support stockings, a paper to take to our health insurer to check that we were covered for the cost of the hospital stay, and an appointment with the anaesthetist, and an inordinately long list of towels of various sizes that I would require for my hospital stay.

            I had to arrive at the clinic on the Sunday afternoon before my operation the next day. At the reception, we waited to be booked in by a clerk, which involved signing various pieces of paper, presenting my “Carte Vitale” and paying upfront for the stay, 150 euros. I could also opt for a telephone, a television and some other extras each of which carried an extra charge.

            We were then given the building number, floor and a room number. We found the right corridor and the nurse’s station and were directed to a double room with ensuite bathroom and shower. When the nurses knew that I was English they all spoke very slowly and clearly. I was very grateful for that because my fear was not about the operation but about being an English person in a French hospital.

            After Graham left I was alone with just my Collins pocket dictionary for support. Its introduction states that it contains a wealth of modern and idiomatic phrases not normally found in a volume of comparable size. It does not lie. It has been my saviour on numerous occasions. But could it cope with an operation on my ‘vésicule‘?

            After a nurse had checked my name, the reason for my stay and given me an identity bracelet, another nurse appeared who wanted to shave me! (raser). As I had to undress from the waist down, she obviously wasn’t worried about the hairs on my chin! This was quite a shock as the NHS in the UK abandoned this practise long ago. There were no curtains between my bed and the bed next door so there was no possibility of privacy, only the hope that your roommate will avert their eyes! Perhaps I will get used to standing ½ naked in front of medical practitioners. The French are a lot less uptight about it that I am used to.   

            The anaesthetist called in just to check that I had arrived. I was relieved that he didn’t go through the checklist of allergies and illnesses again which I had gone through at a separate appointment. I remember being very irritated in the UK having to go through that list with 3 different personnel one after the other and thinking, why don’t they look at the form their colleague has just been through with me.

            Another practitioner came to take a “Prise de sang” which amounted to 6 phials of blood, albeit small ones!

            My light “léger” evening meal arrived, which couldn’t have been any lighter without being non-existent, a bowl of bouillon and chocolate yoghurt. “Oh, well my post-Christmas diet has started”, I thought.

            The last act of the evening was to take a shower. I was given a bottle of brown liquid and told to wash not just my body but my hair as well. In the bathroom was an illustrated card detailing the exact method to use. First the hair and the face, then the body, not forgetting the ‘aisselles‘ (armpits), ‘nombril‘ (navel) and a word my dictionary couldn’t cope with but as “plier” means “to fold” I supposed must mean creases. I must use one of my two “gants de toilette” (bathmit) and dry with a clean “ serviette de toilette”(towel) of which I had had to bring four.

            The next morning I had to have another hair-wash and shower using some more brown liquid and fresh towels and this time to dress in a disposable surgical gown. I wonder if any cases of MRSA have managed to evade such a thorough system of prevention?

            By this time I had got to know the lady in the bed next to me. She had lived in Reims all her life and would have been born in the city had her mother not had to flee during the First World War. During the Second World War her husband had been a prisoner in a German concentration camp and she had sheltered English and American servicemen in her house. She said that the English were “sage” (well behaved) but the Americans were not and kept looking out of the windows. Fortunately she had good neighbours and received certificates from the British and American governments for her bravery. I had just been reading a book about the Bedford Triangle and the Carpetbagger flights to drop supplies and resistance workers into occupied Europe during the war, and had read about the reprisals that the Germans did to people at that time. Would you put your life and that of your family and neighbours on the line for stupid Americans who couldn’t resist looking outof the windows?

            After the operation I found myself back in bed and connected to a drip. My blood pressure and temperature were taken regularly and I was asked if I was in pain. It didn’t start to hurt until everything started to knit together and then any movement pulled at the wounds. As soon as I said that I had some pain the drip was replaced with something that ameliorated it. There was a chart in the welcome pack that said to grade your pain from 1-10 and that the nurses’ mission was to get rid of small pains and to lessen bad ones. 

            I was impressed that anything that we needed was done with cheerfulness. My roommate had had a bowel operation and needed pads. These were offered regularly without her having to ask. The bedpan was brought in the middle of the night with only a cheerful comment about the feebleness of my efforts. Sterilizing hand rub was used by the nurses after each contact and also offered to us. 

            Unfortunately my “léger” regime continued that evening with a repeat of the bowl of bouillon and the chocolate yogurt. By the next morning I was awake at 6.00 and longing for the sound of the breakfast trolley. To my horror I was obviously still on light meals as only a packet of 2 melba toasts and a cup of coffee arrived. At least my neighbour got a bread roll! My nice lady surgeon visited after breakfast and brought me a phial containing my 14 gallstones, all nicely flattened where they had been squashed in against each other. Proof of her hard work. She asked if I wanted to go home before or after lunch and I replied, ”before” in case I was still on the “light menu” list. 

            As I said, you need to be quite fit in order to be ill in France. My leaving instructions were to go to the payment clerk to settle anything remaining on the bill, go to the office of the surgeon to get an “arrêt de travaille” and a prescription for painkillers and 10 daily anti- thrombosis injections, go to the chemist to get the prescriptions and arrange for another blood test from my doctor!

            The “arrêt de travaille” certificate proved to be for 2 weeks. During this time you must remain in your house during working hours and an inspector could call at any time to check that you are not working. Friends have told us that you can creep out at lunch times because no self-respecting French inspector would visit during his lunch break.           

            We arrived home from the hospital and waited all day for the nurse to come and give me the next anti-thrombosis injection. Then the neighbour called round and said that it was up to us to phone the local nurse to ask her to call. He looked in the telephone book and found one who lived just around the corner. She was very obliging and when she heard that I had not had my dose for that day, arrived within half an hour. She said that I would need another blood test to check my “plaquettes”(blood cells) so that’s another phone call to the doctor and a trip out to the laboratory. But without doubt I will be given the results of the test by the end of the day, together with a list of norms within which my results should lie.

            I have a follow-up appointment to go to with my surgeon/specialist in a month’s time, by which time we will have had experience of almost all of the facilities that the French health service provides.

            All that remains is to fill out the questionnaire given me by the clinic. Of the 20 or so questions asked I shall have to tick the box marked “bon” in every case, if there was a box for “excellent” I would happily have ticked that. The only question that I am hesitating over is the one about ‘Quantity of food’. Is it fair to leave them scratching their heads by leaving a great big tick in the “Insuffisant” box?