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18 June 2011

May to October 2011

Saturday 18th: It’s grey and rainy, so a good morning to sit at the computer for an hour or so. Later I will tie up vines on the galerie, while sheltered from the weather. The vines grow right up the front of the house and protect us from the western sun in hot weather. I have to do the tying up in the traditional way, using willow sticks soaked in water and therefore flexible. Our neighbour looks after the vine and prunes it at the end of the season, so I really have to follow her instructions. It’s a very old vine and she is keen to keep it going, as we are of course. This afternoon we have been invited to the anniversary of a rose garden in Cluny with a vin d’honneur afterwards, but if the weather continues like this, I doubt if we will go.
No, no vine tying up today, its just too cold and miserable.

15th June 2011
Quite a busy day today. Starting the day with emails, breakfast and then an hour long walk with a neighbour in the woods. Magic light filtering through the trees, the birds singing and a warm breeze. It is a beautiful day, warm in the sun, but shady in the woods and so good for walking.
On return I baked some bread, had lunch and allowed myself the indulgence of an hour’s reading. A gripping book at the moment, a crime novel, “Christine Falls”, by Benjamin Black/John Banville.
Then a couple of hours weeding – what a battle – sweat and tears almost. In the end I got out my roundup spray and sprayed the worst parts. I hope I haven’t killed the cosmos and marigolds other plants that give colour so cheerfully.
I came inside to the coolness of the house and sneeked another hour of reading – this time I finished the gripping tale. So no excuse now, got to keep on working.

All our mails from Australia are complaining about the cold, even in Sydney - sounds incredible, everything upside down!
Here it is beautiful, low to mid 20s, very comfortable, and a bit cooler at night, and we always enjoy eating outside on the galerie.
The garden is really productive, and we manage to harvest something every day. Yesterday I picked my first courgette, lots of beet leaves, and again raspberries - there are so many. I am slightly ashamed that I find picking the fruit a chore!!! A lot of the recolte goes into the freezer for eating gradually. The figs will be ready very soon. I must get out my ice cream recipes again. Last year I made some great ice cream from our abundant fruit.
We have had a couple of Aussie visitors, and are now enjoying a few quiet weeks, with just the odd local social event to be part of.

On 27th we go to Brittany to visit John's cousins and mad uncle, staying overnight at Chartres. We have never been there before and have heard so much about the beauty of the famous cathedral, so we look forward to exploring and at the same time having a break from the long drive right across France. Have to be back in time for the village summer ‘mechoui’ - barbecue of a whole roast sheep, in the Mairie courtyard on 2nd July.

John is working on a rewrite of the film treatment, and also working on his memoirs and I am researching for my book on this French village. Lots of history to read up, and it is slow, as its all in French. However, its fun, and keeps me busy. Of course the garden takes a lot of my time, and those awful weeds.....
In the barn area of the house we either have a dormouse or a stone marten in the roof. It clatters around and pushes the insulation out here and there. We have been advised to get a machine that has ultra sound, or to put moth balls in the roof space (hard to get into) – maybe we will have to get someone to lift a tile and put some in. Apparently the animals can’t stand the smell of moth balls and it doesn’t do them any harm. Likewise the high pitched sound of the machine. And in the garden we have a mole/vole who unfortunately likes our garden and keeps popping up in my veggie patch, little nuisance. Some of my seedlings get tipped up from time to time when he chooses to surface in the middle of them. And now there are a family of new chickens across the road, and they keep coming into the garden, which I normally wouldn't mind, except they chewed/pecked half of a beautiful lettuce which didn't make me happy at all. If they were content with the compost heap that would be fine. I have put chicken wire across the gate and the hen is furious with me! She sat down with her little family outside the gate, waiting for me to open it and when I didn’t, she hopped up on the wall while I was picking raspberries and told me off soundly!

Had a lovely few days visiting a friend in the Ardeche last week - an old journalist friend from Moscow days. She is a great gardener and we came back laden with cuttings and seedlings. Tomatoes, black and white currants and a cross between a gooseberry and blackcurrant. We had a wonderful long hike with her amongst the hills around her house. Its pretty wild in those Ardeche hills, but beautifully wild. Its always been a poor area, the villages are rather grey and dreary. They produce oodles of chestnuts and farm on terraces on the sunny sides of the steep mountains. There was an abundance of cherry and walnut trees, so we helped ourselves to cherries as we walked, the walnuts will come later. Apparently in the years of the long religious wars it was a protestant stronghold. The small peasant farmhouses are fortified - strong stone houses and stables built around an internal courtyard where they hid and kept their animals when the dragoons came. They weren’t allowed to bury their dead, so there are secret protestant cemeteries - fascinating stuff. Near the top of the steep hill behind our friend’s house are the remains of stone round houses built by the Celts so long ago, wonderful to have them on the property.

We came back on Friday afternoon, in time for a concert in the local church on Friday evening. A brilliant young violinist and then a large choir singing for the rest of the session. Wonderful acoustics and all very pleasant except for the agony seats. Why did they make church pews so uncomfortable? They have a narrow bench to sit on and a single bar across the back which just digs into the spine around the shoulder blades. The back is straight up, so particularly uncomfortable.
On Sunday we went for an 8km walk organised by a nearby village. It was so well planned - we could choose 8km, 13, 18 or 24 km walk. All along little country tracks - the old pilgrims and peasant tracks that go uphill and down dale and surround this beautiful countryside. We of course felt that the 8km was sufficient for us! There was a nice half way stop with refreshments and snack, a very pleasant break. The weather was ideal and so much to enjoy looking around us, flowers, birds, babies of all kinds and interesting stone houses.
We had people here for an apero on Sunday evening and later went into Cluny to eat. We were a bit late, and being a holiday weekend, 'Pentecost', Cluny was crowded with tourists so we had to try several places before succeeding in getting a table. We intended to have a quiet day on Monday and I was in the garden starting to do a few chores when friends stopped and asked us to go with them to a brocante about 30kms away. It didn't take much to tempt us, so we had a jolly day, wandering around the flea market and then a good 'plat de jour' for lunch before returning home for a siesta. In the evening out to dinner in another neighbouring village - all good fun, but not good for getting work done.
The next 10 days or so should be reasonably quiet. We are the hosts for a street party this year in our courtyard on Saturday 25th. I will make a boeuf bourgignon and everyone else brings some part of the meal.
I am going for a walk in the woods this morning with a neighbour, it is a beautiful morning so should be really pleasant, better have a quick shower and be ready when she comes.

31st May
Today it is grey and overcast and we can see the cloud of mist approaching across the valley. At last! We just hope it gives everything a good soak. We heard yesterday that water restrictions have started here and we are not allowed to water with a hose – whether at restricted hours, or not at all is not clear as yet. It would be hard to keep the vegetable garden going without proper watering, so we are so glad to see this rain.
We had our Dutch/Canadian local friends here for dinner last night, and had our aperitifs on the gallerie – a lovely warm evening.
Today I will meet up with a group of friends for our book discussion group to discuss Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel. We are meeting at a local restaurant for the ‘plat du jour’.

30th May
We love to watch the young animals newly born and growing. It’s going to be a hot dry summer here, and everyone is worried about the lack of rain. I have been out watering the garden this morning early, and John watering for our neighbour who is away at the moment. We have harvested our first salad, poirée (like silver beet) and of course herbs and fruit. I have lots of raspberries, currants and gooseberries coming soon. The farmers are madly making hay, trying to get it in dry and grow another crop if there is any rain.
I have started reading up some history of French villages - I was able to download electronically a book written by an historian published in 1932 - of course it’s in French, so slow reading. A great deal of detail I won't need, but even so, it’s worth getting all the background.
The extreme age of the land and the length of time the land has been worked by people comes through continually, the ancient ‘petit chemins’ (pathways) were laid out hundreds of years ago with paving stones and are still used. It is something that I have always been conscious of here. Everyone works by the seasons as they have been doing for so many hundreds of years. Basically doing the same thing producing food and clothing, but just with more modern machinery. The same 'petit chemins' or footpaths/right of way exist as they have for hundreds of years. For me it evokes great interest and it will be challenging to write about it.

However, first of all I must write something for my sister - she lives in Dublin and her husband is very ill. She will turn 70 next week, and does not want any presents, so I thought I might write some 'remembrances of times past' for her, I think she would enjoy that.

The cherries are still coming - John fell off some logs he had climbed on the other day and hurt his ankle, but now tries to reach them by ladder. It is such an enormous tree - goodness knows how old it is. It is absolutely laden, for our pleasure the blackbirds sit in the top and sing to us every day. We have frozen some cherries, and just enjoy eating them for breakfast mostly. To make a tart or jam or some such thing means pitting them which is such a pain. So my excuse is that we like eating them fresh. Believe it or not, other people give us the jam!

We had two young local couples yesterday here for what is called an 'apero' short for aperitif. That can be anything from a glass of wine and some olives, to a full evening of elaborate dishes. I made some pastry thingos which have olives stuffed with anchovies inside, also a tomatoe and goat cheese tart and a quiche. I even tried Geoff Clarke's zucchini/courgette cake, but find I cannot make it as well as he can.

They are lovely clever young people, and care very much about their rural environment. We love talking to them. The wonderful advantage here is that we are not far from the TGV (very fast train) so they can go anywhere basically in a very short time. Some of them go to Paris regularly for conferences and meetings, we find it really encouraging to talk to them.

Our apartment in Sydney goes to auction on Thursday, so fingers crossed everything goes well. Plenty of people have come to the openings, but whether they turn up trumps at the auction remains to be seen.
This month is going to be busy - I have my book group lunch tomorrow, friends for an apero on Friday and visitors from Canberra this coming weekend. Then next week we will visit a friend in the Ardeche, the week after we go to Brittany to visit some of John's cousins and hope to stop at Chartres on the way. Lots of local social events too. A concert in the church on the 11th June, a 'diner de quartier' on 25th - this is just a neighbours get together and everyone contributes something, all the families around us come, and it is our turn to host it this year in our courtyard, weather permitting. Always a good evening. Then what is called a "repas d'été" on 2nd July which basically means a summer meal in the Mairie in the courtyard. Usually there is a good turn out of families from babies to elderly. Sometimes traditional country music with ancient instruments and a few keen participants dancing.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011
Great sunshine with just enough breeze to keep fresh and stir the hairs on our arms. Another beautiful day, and everything very quiet here. We had 8 people here over the weekend, old friends and mostly former colleagues of John’s, so it was a very jolly time with lots of chat and gossip, and a few bottles for the recycling.
We had a great trip to Luxembourg last week. Stopped at Toul to have lunch with old friends Lesley and Stewart Maclennan who are on a barge making their way slowly north towards Amsterdam where they will spend the winter.
The delegation in Luxembourg was mostly Australian legal people at fairly high level, i.e. Chief Magistrate of Victoria, Chief Justice of WA, Supreme Court Judge from Victoria, architects, town planners etc, who are in a group working on reform of the court system in Australia. The architects and town planners were there to see how this new super European Court building has been planned – spaces for several different courts, for the public, for Judges offices, interpreters etc. The European Court – magnificent building – although its working language is French, has to have interpreters for the 23 languages of its members. They are mostly dealing with economic matters, the treaties, common agriculture policy etc, so a lot of the work is written. However, it does mean that there is a massive staff of interpreters. Each court has interpreters’ cabins so they can see what is going on at the hearings as well as work. They can see people’s faces and reactions to the matters raised.
We had some great presentations – the history of the European Union, how the court came about, and now the purpose of the Court. How it works, how the judges are appointed etc, etc. Each country is entitled to send a judge for a six year tenure, but that judge must be able to work in French. The judges are obliged to live in Luxembourg. They often end up doing intensive language training in some gorgeous spot in France for six months before starting their tenure, while, of course, enjoying a very generous salary.
The architect flew in from Paris and took us around the impressive building explaining the structure, the flow, the wonderful amount of natural light used wherever possible. We found it all so interesting and felt very privileged to be invited.
Also interesting to hear that this court is massively well funded, but the smallest court in the Union is the Human Rights Court based in Strassbourg which struggles for funds.
We had an email from the Eastleys (Tony Eastley Presenter, AM) and their friends asking if they could arrive on Saturday instead of Sunday, so we left Luxembourg early Saturday morning – about a five hour drive – to get back in time to vacuum up the dead flies and cobwebs, check the bathrooms….
Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend. On Sunday John Budd and Lindy Magoffin came over from Geneva. They are also former ABC colleagues of John’s – John Budd now is Head of Communications at UNICEF in Geneva, Lindy works at Human Rights headquarters. So the house was bursting at the seams – we had some meals out in the courtyard at the stone table, all a lot of fun. On Monday a picnic on the Roche de Solutre – surrounded by vineyards and the views magnificent, right across the Saone valley towards the Swiss mountains.

Some of our friends have expressed surprise that I can harvest from the garden so soon since we arrived. The earth is very rich here, and I start off with some seedlings which just take off like magic. Some of the salad is certainly ready, and the chard, which is very like silver beet. Of course the fruit and herbs have all been here a long time, they just appear every year. I picked my first handful of raspberries yesterday.

The roses are magnificent this year – simply stunning. Perfume everywhere to a background of blackbirds singing…..

After trimming and tying up the tomatoes, already bearing several small fruit - I was trying to dig a hole in the garden to plant a large bush – I don’t know what it is called, but it has round balls full of pretty pink flowers. The ground is so hard, it is difficult, makes me feel so feeble, can’t get the tines of the fork even to penetrate despite bucketing. I will get John out there shortly to use his muscle power.
I put some photos up on facebook from time to time, so hope you have been able to see them.
We have a huge cherry tree – taller than the house. It is covered with fruit. We are drowning in cherries. Have cooked some for breakfasts, but will have to pip some to make jam. Tedious job so the jam better be good!

Tractors are busily going up and down the road with tanks of water to top up the troughs, and bailing machines or rakes behind, turning over the hay cut a few days ago. Everyone is harvesting the first hay madly – very short of feed for the beasts - everything is so dry. It is possible that they will have to feed their animals all summer if there is no more rain. This means they will have no feed left which would normally be stored for winter when the animals are kept indoors. Shades of the ‘canicule’ in 2003.

Wednesday 17th May

Tractors are busily going up and down the road with rakes behind, turning over the hay cut a few days ago. Everyone is harvesting the first hay madly – very short of feed for the beasts. as everything is so dry. It is possible that they will have to feed their animals all summer if there is no more rain. This means they will have no feed left which would normally be stored for winter. Shades of the ‘canicule’ in 2003. All animals are kept indoors here in winter, as it is too cold outside.

I spent the whole morning watering our garden and courtyard and plants along the roadside, Plus, our neighbours garden, as we will be away for 3 days in Luxembourg. Back into big watering regime again at the weekend.
The cherry tree is really dramatic – it is an enormous old tree as high, and even higher than our house and it is covered in red cherries – so there is this huge feast of colour of green and red. The birds are in and out but that is no bother, as there is so much food for them, there is plenty for us to share.

We plan to leave early in the morning, and meet up with Stewart and Lesley Maclennan on their barge at Toul, for lunch and gossip on the way to Luxembourg. Probably three and half hours drive to them, and then another hour to Luxembourg.

Friday, 13 May 2011
It’s a beautiful, warm and breezy day. Tried to do some weeding, but the ground is so hard and dry, I had to dowse the ground with a bucket of water to help loosen some weeds. Wet and cold weather has been forecast for the weekend, and that might help. Rain is so badly needed.
The veggie garden is growing apace. Haricot beans are already popping up and smiling at me. Salad may even be ready in another week or so. The cherries are changing colour, so I guess another few weeks for them too.
We have friends from Canberra visiting at the moment. Paul and Marilyn. Paul is writing a book on the 10th century, so we have all been visiting old monuments and churches built at that time, and Cluny is great for material as it was founded around about 910 and there is lots of information available about the great Abbey that was built here.
I have started to trim the bottom of the vines, and cut some elderberry flowers. The elderberry flowers are now soaking in a basin of water to make some juice in a couple of days. I just add lemon/lime and sugar and cook it all up and it makes beautiful juice.
There is so much growth on the vines, they will need tying up soon. It is going to be quite a season for fruit.
The days go by peacefully, birds singing, horse clip clopping up the road pulling a trap, people calling out greetings to each other and so on. The tractors are tooing and frooing with tanks of water for the animals, as it is all so dry.

After rain overnight, the valley had balloons of mist hanging over the green fields. Grey and overcast. We decided that this would be a good day to go to Cluny Cyber and do some work online. Hence some emails sent out today.
Cluny Cyber is a wifi centre run by the Council. Very efficient, very cheap, wonderful guy Alex who knows everything about computers and the internet.
Two hours were swallowed up very quickly – everything here closes between 12 and 2pm for the ‘lunch’ and it was no time before we were told to pack up.
When we returned home, we were convinced that the weather would be cool, so had to light a fire – we have two wood stoves called “poelle” slow burning wood stoves. No sooner had we started the fire when the weather changed dramatically and became sunny with some patches of grey so it was a good opportunity for me to get into planting my seeds and vegetable seedlings. This really warmed me up, but all those joints are a bit creaky with all that unaccustomed physical work. We looked into out little stable where we store our wood, and were alarmed to find we had only enough cut for about two days. So, off to a friend to borrow a wood saw and saw horse. We have plenty of wood – old beams and bits and pieces, they just need cutting up. So that is another day’s work. Despite the coolness, it was around 20c, we ate outside on the gallerie and retreated inside around 8.30pm.
Tomorrow we will drive a couple of hours north to visit some friends who are on a barge on the river Saone. On the way we will make a visit to Ikea at Dijon to see if we can find some kind of pantry cupboard that could be mouse proof. The idea is to buy a baguette, some pate, cheese and fruit for a picnic lunch together on the barge. Unfortunately we need to return the same day, just too much to do at this stage of just having arrived, to stay overnight with them.

We are safely ensconced in our French home after an uneventful journey.
We spent the first day cleaning up a dreadful mess in the kitchen – we had had an invasion of mice. My dry goods are all packed away in an esky, but they had even tried to eat the edges of the esky. Instead, they got into curry powder, tandoori powder, and cumin. They ate the plastic lids of glass jars that had sesame seeds in them. Unbelievable. Also a pack of sweets someone gave us before leaving last year. Gold and silver paper strewn everywhere. Even my oven mits chewed up – they must have been nesting I suppose. It was all so disgusting, but now the cleanest kitchen ever!

John put down poison and traps. The next day we had three corpses!!

We live in a very beautiful valley - our windows look out across the valley the lush green fields dotted with white spots of charolais cattle in the distance.
The fields are covered in buttercups, daisies and Queen Anne’s lace. Ripples of gold, white and green in the breeze! The hills around the valley are all wooded with oaks, beeches and firs - all state forest. This village has a number of small farmers, (beef, lamb & goats) as well as people who commute to towns nearby to work, i.e. teachers, tradesmen, doctors, a physiotherapist, several Gites (holiday accommodation) and the odd academic, one judge and several retirees. There are no vineyards in this village, but many lovely rolling hills covered with vineyards in the villages around.

Because we are on the side of the road on the way down into the village, everyone stops to stay hello and welcome us back, so we are getting back into speaking French again.

The weather is beautiful and I have been working hard in the garden cleaning up the weeds and preparing my veggie patch. I am planting salad, cucumber, courgette, onions, potatoes, chard (type of silver beet) and herbs. It is spring here, everything is lush and green and the blackbirds are singing - bliss. We can hear the lambs looking for their mothers, there are lots of calves, delicate foals on their long skinny legs and baby goats. It is a lovely time of the year.

We love the long light evenings, and have been able to eat outside on our gallerie (kind of stone balcony) both lunch and dinner again today. The stones stay warm from the afternoon sun – in fact the sun goes down around 7.30pm, so its very comfortable outside for a couple of hours after that. The first few nights we had dinner with local friends and caught up on the gossip which is always fun.

Neither of us have slept really well yet, both feeling a bit jet lagged - I think the third day always seems to be bad for some reason. However, another day or so and we will be fine. Last night it started to rain – we have a skylight over our bed, so it pitter-patters with a nice sound. Good timing for my veggie patch. Everyone here is dying for rain, apparently it has been dry for weeks. Amazing, when everywhere looks so green.

I love to have my siesta on a stone bench under the eaves of the barn, I watch the small birds (great tits) nesting - gorgeous little things with their dark banded waistcoats!

We had good news that our tenants moved out, and hopefully our lawyer will have exchanged with the Jones by now. It will make such a difference to be able to return to our own home in October. Everyone here fascinated to hear about it and see the photos.

We are trying to get the internet sorted out – not easy. At the moment we use an expensive dongle and the internet service in Cluny (5kms away). Unfortunately we are blocked from the wireless internet pylon by trees, but are trying to find out if a tall aerial will work. In the meantime, patience, not my favourite occupation!

Some old friends are on a barge just north of us near Beaune, so we will go up to visit them later in the week.

Next week starts a series of visitors arriving, then our trip to Luxembourg, and more visitors! So we will be busy as always, but enjoying it all.

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