Monday, January 31, 2005

Lucca to Rome

I have no muse today. It doesn't look far on the map but the journey takes longer than expected because there is not much motorway and the road is generally bumpy and slow. The scenery is pretty boring as well so I will try to avoid this road on the return journey. The hotel, which is quite acceptable, is a short ride from Ciampino Airport to the south of Rome. We meet mum at 11.30 pm along with two other Ryanair flights from the UK and Spain. I now have to eat humble pie because mum has no baggage problems. She manages extremely well travelling alone, by plane, at 80 years of age. I feel quite proud.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Menton (France) to Lucca (Italy)

If treading in dog shit is supposed to bring you good luck, then I'm in for a very good day!

We leave Menton in warm sunshine and clear blue skies, so that's a good start and subsequently the day just gets better.

The drive along the autostrada to Genoa is nothing short of spectacular. Imagine if you will, a motorway built 400 metres up the side of a mountain that alternates between long tunnels and jaw dropping viaducts, with snow capped mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Unbelievably beautiful villages clinging to hillsides or perched incredibly on mountain tops. Whatever you think of the Italians, they certainly know how to build motorways. It's good to be back.

Italy has recently introduced a no smoking ban in public places - why does the UK trail way behind other countries with this type of legislation? - but anyway, when stopping for a coffee at a motorway service area, you see hordes of people smoking furtively outside, which has the added advantage of being able to get more easily to the bar. When I say bar, I mean bar, inasmuch as you can buy any kind of alcohol in these places. They may have tried to reduce death from smoking but not necessarily from drinking. The shop is stocked with every kind of cheese, salami and booze - everything you need for a long journey. Boy, do I love this country.

Bear with me while I have a little rant. Road numbers - nearly every country on earth has a road number system. What do the EU do? They set up a department of, no doubt, highly paid bureaucrats, who commence to assign new numbers to the motorways of Europe. What was wrong with the existing system? In the case of Italy, their systems have worked perfectly well for hundreds of years. Giving each road another number just makes things confusing, especially when you have to make quick decisions at junctions, and seems a totally pointless exercise. The UK, has of course resisted this bureaucratic meddling but then they still allow uncontrolled smoking. Come on Tony, get your priorities right! Rant over!

Back on the motorway, I feel that we are driving quite quickly until we are overtaken, quite comfortably, by a very small, very old, Fiat Panda. That'll be a good buy, second hand!

We arrive in Lucca mid afternoon and drive into the old part of this historic walled city. Boy, was it old and boy, were the streets narrow! At some junctions it's impossible to make a right or left turn. Thank goodness it was Sunday afternoon (when all sensible Italians are still eating or sleeping off a huge lunch) because we had to reverse up no end of narrow streets. We eventually found our bearings and were directed the wrong way down a one way street. The police car traveling in the opposite direction didn't seem too upset about it as we squeezed past - what a wonderful crazy country. This is Italy, where rules and laws are meant to be broken - where's the fun in obeying them?

The hotel, Alla Corte degli Angeli, Via degli Angeli 23, is a delight and highly recommended. At about 5.00 pm we go for a walk and the town suddenly explodes with families out and about on their daily passegiata. In summer this would take place in the cool of the evening but I guess at this time of the year sunshine and daylight are at a premium. The strollers are all very elegant and (I'm not getting involved with this argument) if you are over 70, a fur coat is de rigeur. It's great to be back!

The hotel has no restaurant so we are directed to Locanda di Bacco on Via S. Giorgio. What a difference. We have excellent food, several courses served on white plates, excellent wine and all for 117 euros. It makes the restaurant in Menton look silly.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Home to Menton

After Max's morning training session we decide to leave a day earlier than originally planned. It should be a gentle ride to our first stop.

I call the UK to check that mum was ok. She wonders how we will get on now that the channel ports are blocked, silence.............Mum, we will not be going anywhere near the channel........oh, ok then, drive carefully.

Through Nimes and straight onto the autoroute, set the cruise control to 2500 rpm and settle back. France is one of the few places (Death Valley USA also springs to mind) where cruise control really comes into its own. With the odd exception it is a real pleasure to drive on French motorways. We sail through the toll booths, feeling quite superior not having to mix with the ordinary folk, using the reserved lane for Telepeage customers. With an attitude like mine , it's no wonder they had a revolution in France.

The towns we pass sound like a roll call of the faded past, St Tropez, Antibes, Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo. I have visited Cannes a few times, mainly to organise and run a tennis tournament as part of the weekend activities for the house party for a very wealthy man - don't we all? - you do have to mix in the right circles, don't you know. Anyway Cannes was vile and we couldn't wait to get out. It was full of obnoxious people (ok so I didn't meet everyone in Cannes) wearing leopard skin tights, white high heels, carrying small beribboned dogs and with bright red lipstick, that you could graciously say, had been put on in a hurry - and that was just the men!

Menton seemed quite a nice place at first glance but we didn't stay long enough to explore further. Trees, laden with oranges, line the route into town and the Hotel Paris-Rome, 79 Porte de France, on the sea front, was also quite sweet. The hotel had a restaurant downstairs and it was here that the disappointment began. The meal including one and a half bottles of wine came to 150 euros. The food, at best, was mediocre and our overpriced Corsican wine was very ordinary. As a general rule, run a mile when a restaurant serves its food on square glass coloured plates with jus drizzled around the edge. Far too much attention to how attractively the food is presented and not enough on the quality of the food. Hey ho.

Friday, January 28, 2005


Out to help a friend with a few computer problems which takes until 14.00.
Pool maintenance takes up the rest of the day. I will have to give it a good clean when we get back from Italy.

Dinner tonight was orecchiette (small earshaped pasta - my favourite) with a delicious rich tomato sauce. This was washed down with a bottle of wine, Grover Vineyards, from India (yes India as in Bangalore) which we found at the oriental supermarket yesterday. Verdict from Jan -"not bad" - but then anything over 95 octane gets a "not bad".

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Getting excited

We're off to Italy on Saturday for a bit of R&R and we are both quite excited about it. We will spend a couple of nights "on the road" before we meet my mum, who will have flown in from Liverpool, in Rome. We will all then travel down to Foggia to visit Pia and Dino, my aunt and uncle. Pia is my mum's sister.

Mum is 80 years old and has a problem traveling light. The last time she flew down here she was charged £50 for excess baggage at both ends. I talk to her before every trip to make sure that she understands that she does not have to bring towels - MUM, WE HAVE TOWELS - as well as one of those new fangled washing machines! Needless to say she totally ignores me and then complains that the airlines are trying to rip her off and swears that she will never travel with them again. She likes to point out that her friend has flown the same route with BA and it only cost £150. I lose my rag and point out that even including her excess baggage at £100 and including the £30 fare with Ryanair it is still cheaper than BA. And what's more I end up paying the whole lot!!!! Can I get her to agree - what do you think? Do you think that we will have the same conversation in Rome - I think so. Despite knowing exactly what will happen I always end up losing my temper - when will I ever learn? And to cap it all just as she is about to return home she pulls me to one side and says gently "Alex please, when are going to learn to control your temper?" Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!! It's never boring with mum around!

To Nimes in the afternoon to visit the tax office, buy dog food and goodies for Max (Jan is already feeling guilty - what is it about women and guilt - about leaving him in kennels next week) and then to the oriental supermarket to buy lots of goodies that we didn't even know we needed. Could be a scrummy dinner tonight, but then it usually is! No complaints in that department.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Windy and no normal service

Wow, the Mistral is still very strong and cold, I'll be glad when it ends. Somebody once said that the Mistral blows in multiples of three days. At this rate it won't stop for at least another two days. Yuk.

Off to St Hippolyte to pick up the new bank cards and back to the bakers in Quissac for a paillasse aux cereales and Madame also sells me a new bread with figues. She is quite formidable, but I like her, so it is difficult to refuse. We had some for lunch and it was delicious

On the subject of customer service...........I placed an order with a very large computer company on 14th January. They promise 24 hr delivery....ish. I emailed about a week later, did not receive a reply and then phoned a day after that to be told that the order was "in process". I phoned today, 12 days after I originally placed the order, to be asked for a photocopy of my ID and credit card. When I asked why someone hadn't asked for this before, Joel said that they hadn't been able to get hold of me by phone (we have the FT answering service) and when pressed about the lack of response to my email (or why they hadn't sent me an email to the address that I'd supplied as part of the ordering process) I could positively hear the Gallic shrug. Having lived in France for some years now I am beginning to realise that customer service means "you don't have to do anything unless the customer contacts you". It is not the same everywhere but in my experience I suspect the same applies to the civil service.

And bye the way, for anybody who has been following all this rubbish, the plumber has still not shown up!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Birthday boy

OK ok so it's my birthday. Why didn't you send a card or more importantly a present? Jan makes a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon (pancetta) followed by banana drop scones and maple syrup. Yummy yummy who's got a big fat tummy?

The Mistral is very strong today and has blown over the bins. We venture out to pick up all the rubbish and after a couple of minutes my hands are painfully cold. So cold that I have to stop to let the pain subside and to get some feeling back. At least it's sunny.

Montpellier in the afternoon to see the film of Phantom of the Opera. It was quite enjoyable and followed the stage production fairly faithfully. Having seen the stage version several times, the film also helped explain some of the things that were not so clear looking at the stage musical. We then waited around for an hour or so and went to eat at L'Entrecote, just off the Place de la Comedie, for arguably the best steak and chips in the world. You have got to try it. The perfect end to a birthday.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Art classes

Off to our art class this morning which has just started again. We tackle a still life, in charcoal, and are generally pleased with what we have done. OK - so you try and draw a cabbage! Jan is showing great talent and gets better each week. It's nice to meet up with friends that we haven't seen for a while.

Max is one year old today and keeps looking at me quizzically when I sing happy birthday to him. I thought that this is supposed to be a smart breed of dog! Hey ho.

I make a quick trip to the Mairie this afternoon, to chat to the mayor's all knowing, long suffering and very attractive assistant , to deposit the planning permission for the garage and to marvel at the mountains of paperwork that French bureaucracy demands that you provide at every turn. A letter that we received from the local tax office had even her baffled so she helped by calling the person concerned. We think that she sorted it out. We shall see.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Fry up

It's Sunday and we don't wake until 9.30am. That's really late for both of us. I think it has something to do with going to bed knowing that you have no pressing things to do first thing.

Jan cooks a big, heart stopping, fry up. Yum. Talking about food, my friend sent me this quote the other day:
"The trouble with eating Italian food is that 5 or 6 days later you're hungry again."

Back into the garden this afternoon but we don't last long. We are still not over the bug that has plagued us since New Year.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


I'm not actually sure what "fou fou" means but Olivier (the head dog trainer) insists that Max is "fou fou". I suspect it means scatty or daft. Don't get me wrong, Max has an excellent temperament but he also has the attention span of a goldfish. When on the lead he is obedient to a point but he is so interested in other dogs and owners that his mind continually wanders and he can be difficult to handle. I'm beginning to think that we should expose him to more dogs and more people so that his Saturday morning outings aren't quite such a novelty.

Editors Note: Foufou means scatterbrain - but I'm the editor. Well so now you know!

Friday, January 21, 2005

Hot headed

A haircut is booked for today. I'm sitting having my hair washed when the cold water pressure drops and I get scalding hot water over my scalp. When they get me back down from the ceiling a quick dosing with cold water helped put the fire out. Ouch! That hurt.

When I was younger all my hairs were numbered but now the few that are left have names. I'll have to talk very nicely to them and beg their forgiveness!

Our friend the architect shows up as agreed and brings us the plans for the garage. We will lodge them with the Mairie on Monday so that we can get building permission. Just as well really because it was constructed earlier this year. Hey ho, one less thing to worry about.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

An early start

Up at 6.00am this morning to give a friend a lift to hospital. I had no idea that there would be so many cars around. They like an early start in this part of the world. The dubious benefit to the early start however is that I buy fresh, hot, scrummy, croissants on the way back.

I have just noticed that Max has learnt how to push the sliding doors to one side and let himself out into the garden. If we could just get him to do the cooking and cleaning!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Heart in mouth

It's 10.00am and the plumber hasn't shown yet. He plans to work under the house today with his son who helps him two days a week. Today and tomorrow are crucial days if he is going to get the soil drains sorted.

It's 5.00pm - No plumber and the soil drains not sorted! Bum.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Back in the garden

What with Christmas and then our heavy colds and hacking coughs we haven't spent any time in the garden this year, so we spend a couple of hours this morning sorting things out and storing the Christmas decorations, in the loft, in the garage. The first garden task was to rebury the water pipe that Max dug up the other day. I also fashioned several sturdy pegs out of steel rod (the rod had to be heated with a blow torch before I could bend them at the top) which I then used to peg down the pipe. He can't shift that very easily............Can he?

Next we cleared and flatten the earthworks around the fruit trees prior to laying a watering system. All in all a productive day in the garden.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Back to school

We feel well enough to take Max to training. Because of the holidays, this is his first session for a month. He is his usual bouncy and friendly self with all the dogs and their owners.

Jan has written before about the similarity between dogs and their owners. There is more than a little truth here but we would have to say that it does not follow with us. Max is black, sleek, athletic and has boundless energy.....................

Friday, January 14, 2005

Hard to believe

The plumber turns up again today and we finish (we, because I can help him with simple two handed jobs and he gets more done) the pipe laying between the house and the garage. We will now have a shiny new robinet from which I can run the arrosage to Jan's new vegetable garden and the fruit trees. Does the smattering of French words please or irritate? Answers on a postcard to................

He leaves at lunch time saying that he has to go to the accountant this afternoon and will return later if he finishes early. Should I hold my breath?........I think not.

It's quiet over lunch - where's the dog? I have an overwhelming sense of dread and rush outside. Yup, Max has dug up over half the pipe that we carefully buried this morning and has started to eat the insulation. This is going to be a problem.

Thinks - solution - where's that dog/cat repellent spray we bought to stop cats, coming into the garden, and peeing on the terrace. That will sort him. I spray it liberally everywhere! I then spray a tissue with this stuff (he loves tissue) to watch him recoil in disgust.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Enough is enough

On the basis that this is the type of hacking cough that hangs around for weeks (seems to happen at roughly the same time every year) it's off to the doctor.

Dr J is tall and pretty and listens patiently, with a smile, to our joint coughing. As is usual with the French we come out with several medicines each - yippee - we will really get better now!

Apropos of nothing, have you ever stopped to consider the large number of people that frequent pharmacies - and if not why not - pay attention at the back? There is a large one on the outskirts of our local town, the nearest one to us in fact, that is always full of people. What are they all doing there? This only a small town!! Is every one ill? The owner drives an X5 - this is the business to be in!

Pharmacies are a little different to the UK inasmuch as they still dispense medicines but have shelf after shelf of dubious beauty products, weightloss programmes, anti-aging or rejuvenation products and flea control for your dog, but can you find a packet of tissues or an aerosol deodorant?

I don't believe it!! The plumber turned up this afternoon. He is very popular and has taken on more than he can deal with. He has been visiting us on and off for about two years now and the most urgent, but lousy, job requires sqeezing under the house to cut and repair merde blocked drains. It's mostly accessible but in one crucial part it is so low that I suggested that he knock a hole in the wall from the outside in order to be able to get into it. Repairing this small section of our mains drain has been going on for over a year now. His timing is uncanny, inasmuch as I'd had enough of phoning and pleading and had just decided to call someone else (he has done this before) and then he shows up out of the blue. He has a fantastic sense of my ultimate tolerance!! It might be helpful to get him to talk to Jan!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A quick trip out

We nip to Sommiere to get some fruit and visit the bank. Our preferred fruit and veg store is the primeur just next to the cave cooperative.

By chance we meet Alain (our artist neighbour) who informs us that the boucherie next door, which we have often wondered about, is the best by far in the region. So now we know!

I admit that I have been watching Celebrity Big Brother - ok so shoot me - but has anyone seen that grotesque 70 to 80 year old film stars mother? This has become a freak show. This woman, who "tells fortunes by looking at your rear end" has had so much plastic surgery that she has turned herself into an Ewok. I think her husband was the surgeon. She must have really pissed him off at some time!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Feeling better

This is starting to look like a self indulgent "how is he today" blog, but then isn't blogging self indulgent anyway?

The feeling better process is certainly helped by the sunshine. It's been a great start to the year weather wise, with an average of 14 C and 8 sunny days out of 10.

Now I remember why we moved here!

Monday, January 10, 2005

Where did it go?

Yesterday was spent mostly in bed, spaced out - a day lost.

Feeling a bit better today but not well enough to restart our art classes.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Lots of rhume

Have finally caught Jan's cold and wake with a very heavy chest and a hacking cough. Max will have to do without his training class today.

The new composter is available from the village hall so we nip down to get it. About 14 people turn up, not brilliant for a village of 400 people - but then the French are not renowned for their composting, and of course the mayor gives a short speech followed by the compost expert. A good giggle for the cynical English eye. We didn't understand a word that the mayor said but got the gist that it was about cost savings with rubbish collection - hey ho. The three (out of four) English families represented made up a diproportionate part of the audience, but then the English care much more about about their kitchen and garden waste, don't they?

Jan makes a very tasty farewell lunch (cheese and onion flan and spiced lentils - yum) and then off to the airport and a quick visit to FNAC to see what hotel guides they have for Italy. More about that later this month.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Where to start?

I've been thinking about doing this for a while, mainly after starting to help Jan edit her "Letter from Languedoc", which she sends to relatives and friends, and which she started as a means of keeping in touch after we moved here to France.

We live in a small wine growing village between Nimes and Montpellier and moved here from Windsor (England) in July 2002.

Between us we have six children (plus one grandchild), one living in Spain and the five others in the UK. We have a big dog called Max.

As I look at the dire weather warnings for the UK tonight I consider our good fortune that we were able to have lunch on the kitchen terrace today. My son has been with us for the last few days so it was good for him to be able to sit in the sun before returning to the rigours of academic life. The concept of more pleasurable weather was very instrumental in our decision to move to France and so far we have not been disappointed.

All our thoughts, at this time, must go to the unfortunate people of South East Asia and in particular for the many, many children who have lost their parents