Monday 25 March 2013

Cake, chocolate and raspberry tarts.

Here's a lovely picture of Mark's birthday cake, for once not created by himself, but by a fancy shop in town. The Sydney Opera house, chocolate sculpture topping was worth a couple of days of puritan vegetable soup, 6,000 calories a wave I should think.
We very rarely go in Pujola: once a year at Easter to buy something for Ezra, mainly as it's a chance to gawp at the array of beautiful chocolate eggs, fish and chickens all done up with bright satin ribbons. Occasionally I might call in to buy a jam tart as theirs are better than any others I've ever tasted.
My Aunty Lily (featured as the Queen a few posts back) used to make raspberry jam tarts. I'd love to be able to say that they were delicious, that I would crave the sound of her ancient biscuit tin being taken out of the pantry. Alas not.
Out would come the tin: "Here, my darling, I've made tarts! I know how much you love them." They were almost ceramic in their hardness, the jam burnt to the bottom of the pastry in dark, Dracula pools. Aunty Lily and her musty smelling front room with the three bar electric fire; 1950's red and black curtains, Daily Mirror and Players No 6.
We would eat the tarts, drink tea and then she would heave herself out of her chair muttering about where the cat had got to. I would shrink into my own chair, embarrassed, knowing the words she was about to yell over the back garden.
The back door would creak and she'd stand there, calling for the huge monster cat: "Nigger, NIGGER, Nigs, where are you?"

Sunday 24 March 2013

Building No 19

The famous (for around here at least) wine festival 'Toques et Clochers' was held this last weekend. We went up on the Friday evening to claim Ezra's prize for the painting competition, (proud moment), and then escaped with his cheque before the hours of speeches that would no doubt follow. This building has something to do with wine and sits in majestic ugliness at the start of the village of Gardi. It's all you really remember of Gardi as it dwarfs the church, the war memorial and the few streets. Did planning exist then? I assume in the 50's? . . . obviously not, or perhaps Paul Nash lived there for a while and designed it for them. I can imagine it featuring in one of his eerie landscapes.
Actually, I rather like it. It might look more at home in a huge port or something, not on a gentle slope leading into a small French village, but it obviously has or had an important role to play.

The splashes of colour are, I think, decorations celebrating the festival that became dislodged in the mad March winds.
May might be a better month. The thought of walking around a drizzly, cold village clutching an even colder glass of Chardonnay never appeals to me.

Hey . . . d'you wanna cabbage?

I was just walking the dogs back from the school amble a couple of days ago and this guy popped out from behind a tall gate and said the above (in French). I wondered if 'chou' was also used as a local word for indulging in something deviant as he was looking a bit shifty. Then I realised he was one of our neigbours from over the train tracks. I've only spoken to him a couple of times, not because either of us are unfriendly, but we just don't cross paths very often.

I followed him into the garden and he pointed to a row of magnificent cabbages growing in dark rich loamy soil.
I was immediately wildly envious as our garden's crappy vine soil won't grow such things. Put in a baby cabbage plant and it sits there, growing in a sort of arrested state, perhaps a nano-millimetre every month, not actually dying off, just not really getting any bigger. Eventually, plucked from the crusty soil about a year later having ingested a bath-worths of water, off to the kitchen.
Nice folk invited round for dinner say things like: "Mmm, so fresh, such a condensed cabbage taste, you can always tell when something's organic by the number of slug holes in it." - In this case more hole than vegetable.
Anyway, Monsieur vanished to a shed, came back with a large knife and proceeded to remove one of the cabbages (pictured here with a key to show its monster proportions). He put it in a bin liner and presented it to me: "Voila, madame."
       "Merci bien, Monsieur!"
       "It is my pleasure, madame . . . we never eat cabbage."
What?You grow these things, well, just toss a few seeds about - they grow into Women's institute vegetable show specimens, without a single word of encouragement from you . . . and you don't eat them! Merde alors! "Vraiment . . . really? How strange, monsieur," Grrrr.
He then told me many interesting stories of the various roads in that part of town: who's donkey lived where in 1933; what Madame Dupont sold in her shop on the corner, and how there used to be a fabulously beautiful stone arch and ramparts at the end of the road before the hideous fire station was constructed in the 1980s. It was all really fascinating. I would like to go back and write this valuable history down. He had been born in the house behind us; his parents and grandparents had lived there and had no doubt always grown magnificent cabbages, which in another era they certainly would have eaten.
I walked back clutching the bag and shouting at the dogs as they wandered off in search of unspeakable things to consume.
How wonderful, I thought, (as we passed our own sorry looking, weed-strewn veg patch), it would be to look back in time at that garden when his grandparents were using it as their main food source, chickens, pigs, fruit . . . and cabbages.

Thursday 21 March 2013


Here it is: our feathered, hot-house inhabitant's, signature.
This and the greeny-white splodges . . .
Lucky it wasn't a first edition but sadly a historic book, however. When I went to examine the debris further, I discovered my 'birth plan' - that we had taken in the misguided theory that it would be used - to the hospital on the night of 17.1. 2008. This - above - was the book that Mark had been carrying about with him that evening (containing the plan), thinking he might do a spot of reading between contractions, presumably. The book had got lost in that weird, time-warped parallel universe of the Birmingham maternity ward, along with the cheese and pickle sandwiches, incense, opera/Indian music CD's, water sprays and all the other well-thought out accessories to a happy, pain free natural experience. Ha.
The only thing that went according to 'plan' was the staff presenting us with a Tupperware lunch box containing the placenta after all the excitement had died down. Well, I hadn't stated Tupperware, but someone had obviously removed their salad or whatever and replaced it with . . . part of me.
So much for the water birth, the music, the non-intervention etc, etc. Sorry I digress from the parrot story somewhat. But perhaps without the book-destroying beast I never would have found the plan, (also largely eaten).
I used to keep budgies when I was a child; they too were masters of book-munching. All of my favourite paperbacks of that time, mostly Gerald Durrell, had an interesting serrated edge to them.
In case you might be wondering what happened to the contents of the box . . . Mark heroically planted it under a crab apple tree at three in the morning in our front garden.
I understand that some people have a party, cook the 'thing' and serve it up, perhaps with some fava beans and a nice Chianti? phe phe phe . . .

Monday 18 March 2013

French car ads

What  . . . were they thinking. On so many levels this is . . . creepy, weird, worrying and certainly wouldn't make me want to buy this car. In fact, it's so awful, I can't remember what the car is like. Could have been a Robin Reliant for all I know.
French ads seems to fall into a small number of categories: cheese, chocolate, cars, yoghurt, double glazing and insurance. Can't think of many other ones. The cars ads are almost all the same - sleek silver car in a  cityscape driven by gorgeous, lightly stubbled, pale grey silk-suited 'business man' happily cocooned in his private world of brand new grey plastic and pretend chrome.

Damn. They won't let me upload it. But if you have a mo . . . look up on youtube Citroen baby advert 2013.

Saturday 16 March 2013


Everyone has them. Mine: cockroaches, dentists, jellyfish and anything to do with tax, banks, pieces of illegible paper demanding money.
I'm a law-abiding person, very honest, (my old accountant said, far too honest . . .) and try my best to keep our money affairs in some order, or rather Mark does mainly.
a couple of days ago one of those incomprehensible letters appeared from an arts organisation I belong to. I didn't want to belong to it, but like so many things in France, you have to belong to it, sign a several tree worths of papers, and then pay charges, in order to have the right to show some pictures in a possible gallery, which in this current climate is as likely as finding the Holy Grail in your woodpile.

We looked at the letter, or Mark did while I trembled pathetically. He then wrote an email, this is incredible in itself . . . being able to send an email to any quango like this is usually impossible. He pressed the send button in total confidence that it would then sit in someones inbox for seven years and we would here no more about it.
In fact someone phoned me the next day: a humourless voice told me to go to the TAX OFFICE . . .uh!! It's OK madame, it's very simple. They may only remove one of your arms, have no fear.
I managed, through whimpering and pleading, to get Mark to go with me and we arrived in the newly painted office, nice and early the next morning.
The boy, he looked about fifteen, took the letter and gave me some forms. Seeing our non-comprehension, he gave us a supermarket queue style ticket and told us to wait for the controller. EEk.
The ticket said: estimated time of wait: zero minutes: number of people waiting: zero. We sat and waited fifteen minutes, looked at a sort of charter type poster that stated that all staff would be friendly and talked to an old man who said that the tax system was all bollocks.
The controller arrived in a floor length leather coat with two drooling Alsatians and a tool box . . . Not really. He was brown suited, chubby and mighty pissed off at having to stop having a coffee break, or perhaps he hadn't been able to park the Mercedes close enough to the office. Anyway he didn't like the look of us. When we falteringly asked him what to do, he pretty much told us to piss off while shaking his head and clucking like a deranged turkey. How dare we soil his pristine office with our arty fartyness. If Dickens had ever written about an angry French Bureaucrat - Monsieur Taupe bof-legrand,  this man would have been the book plate.

P.S Mark just looked up phobias. There are some quite surprising ones. How about — Peanut butter sticking to the roof of mouth - Arachibutyrophobia 

Thursday 14 March 2013

I knew it . . .

The Queen and my Aunt Lily are the same person.

Aunty L didn't really pass away, she just moved from her bungalow in Poole to Balmoral, taking with her the hearth rug, the electric fire, all the knic-knacs, her white perm, a range of nice cardigans and her black handbag.
I don't remember her being quite so formal with folk generally though, more a quick peck on the cheek, leaving a dob of bright pink lipstick and a whiff of cologne.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Arrested development

While Mark was walking nine kilometres or so to get to the building in afore-mentioned post, I was clambering around looking at rocks and tiny spring flowers. The 'Cap de Creus' is a volcanic, (or rather was) region, hence the extraordinary rock shapes.
This was the most action-packed rock I had ever seen, well, action-packed a very, very long time ago. I stood for a while thinking about the point, however many thousands of years ago, it had cooled into that shape, the temperature being just right to allow the rock to solidify into that emerging dragon head form, for ever.

I risked my dodgy hip, climbed onto the top of the rock and sat for a long time listening to the wind ruffling the low scrubby bushes and the distant gulls wheeling over the sea. It was one of those moments when I felt so aware of being on the turning Earth and all the usual questions tumbled over themselves in my mind: how does the sea really stay where it is, why is the sky so unutterably blue, etc.
I know I've been told all this stuff in science lessons, or checked it on the internet, but sitting there it all seemed as if it was all such a vast mystery and tears rose in my eyes.
Eventually I stopped being in awe as I realised Mark would be arriving at our meeting point and I was really thirsty having forgotten to take water with me; clambered back down and took a tiny glittering piece of rock to remember the moment.
It's now joined all the other bits of rock that litter the terrace and front room. I generally can recall where most of them come from and the day they were transported in the car back home to remind us of a certain favourite place.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Building No 18

Look at this place . . . is it not an incredible structure? Maybe not compared to Sydney Opera house or the the Taj Mahal, but its presence in this wild, windswept part of Spain is heart-stopping nonetheless.
When we first saw 'Restaurant Cap Creus' it was rather more crumbly looking, which I preferred, being an admirer of the crumbly genre of building, however, I'm sure it was necessary to slap on a few coats of paint in order to combat the horizontal rain and violent winds.
This time we visited, we had just stocked up on as much food as possible from the hotel buffet, so food was not actually important - most unusual. So we just had a drink, gazing out over the impossibly beautiful sea, inlets, coastlines and rugged surrounding hills.
Trip advisor revealed a great variety of reviews encompassing total snarling hatred through to, this changed my life, thank you guys. Seems the chef (and owner) has good days and bad days like us all, but I for one salut him for getting this place up and running, and it being there to offer delicious looking-fish dishes, tapas and beers to weary hikers. Actually, most people there seemed to have rolled up in shining Audis and had deigned to walk thirty metres to the terrace in their leather jackets and reflective sunglasses.

I was so taken with this building the first time we visited the region that it's become the basis for, 'The Mad Dog Café' in my series of novels, but set somewhere on a hill near Cerbère and Banyuls-sur-Mer

Saturday 9 March 2013

Building No 17

Do you have anything to declare?
Yes. The intention to buy this place, do it up and make it into a fabulous bar/restaurant called Border Point or something.
This building or rather collection of buildings is of constant fascination to Mark and I - the old customs control between France and Spain, high up above our beloved small seaside town, Cerbere.
I don't know how long it's been abandoned; whenever they stopped checking passports, obviously, anyway, a long time.
The rounded 50s structure in the middle of the road still holds a coat rack, a couple of desks and the ghosts of deceased or at least, retired, rubber stamp-wielding customs officers. Even a couple of brooms and dustpans -  there, all done. Well, I'll lock up and er . . . well, see you then . . 

I stayed in a B and B in Cerbere a few months back and the owners, who seemed to know all manner of news about the town, said that apparently the buildings are owned by a man who refuses to sell them and hangs onto the license for the bar by opening it once a year, thus preventing anyone else doing anything with it. Bastard. It would be such an awe-inspiring place to sit and have a beer . . .

Wednesday 6 March 2013


Technology don't you love it!
You may have gathered that me, being a luddite, only like limited amounts of it, and only if it's really useful.
I scoffed at Mark for being a gadget obsessed male person, but I must admit this iphone 5 thingy is totally  . . . awesome. There I said it. Mr Bell, wherever you are - look what you started.

These are three panoramas taken by Mark the other day. I love the one of Ezra looking like something from Carpenter's 'the thing'.

Monday 4 March 2013

Things in odd places

Went for the normal stroll round the field to get the day moving. It was a lovely morning, and everything looked just as it always does, usual trees in usual places - surprising if they weren't - the minutiae of this same daily walk: rusty coil of wire, boulder in the middle of the river, the hill of a hundred cypress trees, and . . . a hot water bottle - in the middle of the path between the two fields.

Apart from the mud, it looked quite new, rather an unusual colour for such an item, almost electric turquoise. Ours are all faded pastel pink and blue. How did it get there? Had someone experienced a particularly strong sleep-walking episode and taken the bottle into the middle of a muddy field? A farmer with need of comfort in the recent cold snap had lost it due tractor tremor? Or a passing plane: someone at 50,000 feet had somehow flushed it through one of those aircraft loos that make that scary sssccchhhhhlep noise. 

Friday 1 March 2013

Violets and song birds

We were wakened this morning by the first dawn chorus. Well, I wasn't out there recording it and comparing it to other mornings, but it was as if a few sleepy blackbirds had suddenly looked at the calendar and, op, 'hey it's first of March, tweet . . . bit rusty, but yep, I remember this.'
The snow has gone, just a few ragged lines of white on the 'Pic de Brau' which I hope doesn't mean we're in for more. Just lots for all the ski-hungry people keening for a 'piste' and heading out this morning to the Alps or the Pyrenees.
We did toy with the idea of skiing once, but it was quickly forgotten again in deference to a nice amble round some empty sea-side place instead, preferably with a café open . . .
Back to this morning: watched the news and was horribly depressed by such items as some poor man being tied to the back of a police van and dragged along the road in South Africa, subsequently to die in a cell later. Following that: the fact that crops are failing due to lack of bees - due to poisons being put on crops, hmm, didn't the developers of the products think of that ? They did? Oh, what you mean they don't care?

So to regain the bird-song euphoria, took the dogs out and was reminded again that spring if not exactly here now, will be soon.
The bank along the road is always covered in these delicate flowers for a month or so and it's always a joy to see their tiny heads each morning.
There are shops in Toulouse full of products made (allegedly) from violets. I went in one with Ezra once to buy some purple bonbons under nag-pressure; the smell in the shop took me right back to my grandma's bathroom - and herself: a pale hazy sweet smell: soap, chiffon scarves done up under her chin to keep the wind from deranging her new purple rinse and perm. Bingo and a packet of Player's No 6; thermos of tea and digestive biscuits on the beachfront on a tartan blanket.