Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Cake, according to Alice ( and Mary)

I have just put my Christmas cake in the oven. Usually, I manage to make it during the last week of October, but life has been busy since we got back to Hebden Bridge, and I missed my normal deadline.

Alice, one of the Overgate Hospice shop volunteers made this apron......the fabric is exactly the same as a duvet cover I had when I was a student ( bought from Stockport market in 1974 ). As Christmas cake making evokes so many memories for me, it seems appropriate to wear this when baking )

Since we returned from France, I have been working at the Hospice shop for 3 days a week, and have enjoyed seeing how the new Furniture and Vintage shop has been developing. It has been lovely to see staff, volunteers and some of my favourite customers again. 

Not a very good photo due to reflections....but this is Rita, a brilliant Overgate volunteer, with a dolls house....that sold very quickly after being put in the window.

What with working, seeing children and grandchildren, a few reflexology sessions, an attempt to declutter our crazily overstuffed Hebden Bridge house, a couple of concerts and some cinema trips.....well, the cake sort of got forgotten.

a quick phone snap of me with 3 of the munchkins

Anyway...it is now 40 minutes into its 4 hours 45 minute cook, so fingers are crossed all will be well.

Whenever I make my Christmas cake I am transported back to my first ever attempt. I was 39, Jess was 3, and Jodie was 13, and asked if she could help me make it. I panicked. I had never made one before, I wanted to please Jodie, but I was anxious not to upset my grandmother, Alice, who had always made my cake before. How would she take to being told her cake making skills were not required ?

I am sure I have posted about this before, but as I go through these memories on an annual basis, I have decided to post anyway.

Our compromise was that I remained on the phone to grandmother Alice throughout the whole cake making process. Each step was spoken to me over the phone, from north London, to Huddersfield. Even after it went in the oven, we had frequent checking phone calls.....and then the final removal from the oven was undertaken only when Alice was convinced my cake tester had gone into the cake and had come out again, completely clean.

Alice later admitted that she had been really relieved not to have been required to make the cake....she was 85, and had been concerned that it would have been a little too much effort and responsibility that particular year.

The cake was great, Alice helped eat it as she visited us over Christmas....and I have been in charge of Christmas cakes ever since.

However, since Alice died......another grand lady has helped me. This year, as has happened for about the last 5 or 6, Mary Berry has accompanied me through the process.

( I always wonder, if I left out that one tablespoonful of black treacle....would the cake be a disaster ? It seems so crazy, to buy a tin each year, just for that one spoonful. I always forget it's in the cupboard when I make other fruit cakes, and never remember from one Christmas to the next, where I put last year's tin )

Jodie is 35 next year...Jess will be 25.....I wonder when I will hand over the reigns.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Hanging the washing out

We all used to do it. Now, maybe not so many of us do.

My grandmother had a stunning double decker washing line, with a pulley system that required strength and skill to operate. My job was to follow her down the garden and help position the two clothes props.

I am sure I have mentioned that hanging the washing out is special here, in past posts, but I don't think have properly recorded my wash day musings before .....until today. 

Years ago, when our family rented a house in  Provence, I realised I loved hanging out the washing.

The reasons being: 

we were on holiday, and there was never much washing, as it was always too hot to wear many clothes, so it was never a chore;

I never hung anything out " at home"...too wet, too cold, too busy working ridiculous hours during the day, so washing had to be done at night etc. etc;


the view from the washing line at the rented holiday house, was stunning.

So, when we bought our house in France, I was thrilled to find that the huge monstrosity of a 4 wired washing line, behind the house, offered stunning views over the village and to the distant Pyrenees. I have refused all offers to replace my old fashioned washing wires with one of those new fangled whirly things.

The novelty value of hanging washing out has long gone. However, I rarely hang it out without thinking of my grandmother's highly engineered set up, and I always marvel at the beautiful view. 

In the summer, when it is really hot, it is possible to hang out sheets, and take them off the line as soon as you have finished hanging them. Sometimes it is too hot to hang things out and I might seek a volunteer to do it, or wait until it is cooler.

Hanging the washing out in the autumn is just lovely. I have just put a couple of machine loads on the lines, and decided the time was right to blog about it !

As I leave the house by the back door, I look up to the washing line, and the forest behind the house.

I walk up a set of steps and turn to my right and admire the view. 

The virginia creeper is turning red against the ivy covered wall below me.

I step on a carpet of wild thyme, that  sends wafts of beautiful herby scent upwards.

The story book  pine forest is to my right as I peg out the clothes, the terrace where we sit and watch the grandchildren play boules is in front of me.

The pegs are carefully stored in a now, fading peg bag, made for me by Sharon who I used to work with at the hospital in Halifax. So I always give her a thought too, and then I wander back into the house......job done, and with such pleasure.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Examen normal

I need to start this post with stating that I cannot envisage life with out our amazing NHS.

The NHS saved my life 3 years ago, and continues to keeps its careful eyes on me. I have been lucky enough to experience the NHS at its very best, where it leaps into action, saving lives, providing absolutely, the best treatment and care, and doing it brilliantly.

I will always defend it, always wanting the concept of equality of service, available to everyone, free at the point of delivery....always, always.

In this post I want to describe how I have recently experienced the health system in France.

On Tuesday this week, I visited a local GP in our village. I had been experiencing some pain in my side as it hadn't disappeared after a few days of ibuprofen/paracetamol treatment. I am very anxious about pain, after my cancer experience, and had started to lose sleep, imagining the worst. My cancer was an aggressive strain, and I know I am lucky to be alive. The thought of its return is never too far from my mind.

So, at 5.15pm on Tuesday, I saw the GP. I did have to wait in her no appointments surgery for quite a while, but I saw her, on the day I decided I needed to see a Dr.

I spent half an hour with her, talking, being listened to, being examined and then discussing with her, what it might be. As far as she was concerned there was no question that I needed blood tests, an X ray and a scan to check things out, due to my cancer history.

The next morning, a local nurse came to my house, before breakfast, to take the blood. I was informed that I would get the results the following morning, by priority mail. I did, and they indicated there was no problem.

I had to telephone the hospital to arrange the X ray and scan, which I was able to do for the following day.

At 5.00pm, 48 hours after seeing the GP, I was called into the X ray dept, 15 minutes later I was led into the scan department by the Dr who discussed the X ray results with me, as she set up the scanning equipment. 20 minutes later, I left the scan department having been told there was no problem. No cancer, no unexplained masses.......a bit of ageing of the bones possibly, but most importantly, the scan had showed up nothing of any significance.

I left the hospital an hour after arriving, 49 hours after having first seen the GP, holding a copy of my X ray, a copy of my scan and a copy of the Consultant's report on the scan.

I have to add that I also carried with me the receipt for the bill I had just paid. I have an interesting collection of receipts and bills now..... 23 euros for the GP consultation, 8 euros for the nurse's visit, 38 euros for the lab work on the blood tests and 176 euros for the X ray, the scan and the Consultant's time.

The stack of bills

I can claim most of that back through the European Health card system, but to be honest, it feels like the best 200+ euros I've ever spent. Within 48 hours, any panic I had felt, was gone.

The pain.....probably nerve damage from my surgery and from chemo...possibly some scar tissue......all of which can be coped with, and medicated for if required.

The outcome would have been the same in the UK. I do not have cancer.....but it would have taken considerably longer to calm my nerves. I actually haven't had a scan in the UK since I ended my chemotherapy, two and a half years ago. When I have questioned this, the response has always been that there is no need, if there seems to be no problem. Reassurance scans are not something that our beloved NHS is fond of. 

So....panic over, normal sleep patterns resumed. 

I am not saying this is better than the NHS. It is different, and I do not know how it works. I know that there are schemes to ensure that people who earn less do not have to pay, and that those who earn more, pay for "top up " insurance. They do not hand over piles of cash when they received their bills from each stage of the process. They hand over their insurance details.

What I cannot fathom, is how it works so efficiently.

How can I get a Drs appointment on the evening that I decide I want one ? How can I have a nurse come to my house 15 hours after it is determined I need a blood test ? How can I get a scan appointment within 24 hours ? How can I be called for my scan appointment at exactly the time I booked ? How can I get the results immediately, and take away the hard copy evidence of my " examen normal " ?

This was a good experience. I can go to my next NHS check up armed with  a scan, a report and a stack of blood test results indicating "all is well ".

I really don't know how I feel about all of this. I want the values of the NHS, the principles of the NHS, the quality of the care provided by the NHS.......but I also want the speed and efficiency that I have experienced here in France. 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Rhythms of Caunes

How can this summer be nearly over ? 

It is rentree  this week. The children of Caunes all went back to school on Tuesday, as they did all over France. My daughter, Jess, began her second year of teaching reception aged children in Liverpool, also on Tuesday, and we have started to think about putting "summer things" away. We are almost at the point of thinking about packing the house up, for our return to Yorkshire at the end of October.

I had all sorts of intentions of redirecting my blogging efforts this year. It hasn't happened. In fact, I've only written 4 blog posts since I left Yorkshire in May, and they have all been diary type posts....exactly what I was determined to move away from.

I have thought a great deal about the rhythms of life while I have been in Caunes this year. It is difficult to avoid thinking about patterns, and the regular events that have now become so familiar to us as we share our time between Yorkshire and the Minervois.

Seeing the cherries appear on the trees, and for sale by the roadside marks the start of our time here every year. I can hardly believe this is now our 4th summer here. So, the cherry conserve making takes place, and then, suddenly, apricots are in abundance and my favourite jam of the year gets made.

The marble festival in Caunes, le quatorze, Le Tour, les vendredis Classiques, les mardis in Villeneuve, our return to Yorkshire for my 4 monthly hospital check, meals at our favourite restaurant in Caunes ( La Table d'Emilie ) with friends Steve and Jane, more time walking/ cycling with Steve and Jane, what seems to have become an annual trip to Spain....with Steve and Jane, the Carcassonne festival, concerts in the quarries, the vide greniers......all these things have become important elements of our absolutely lovely life here in Caunes.

Le Quatorze
Le Tour

Trips with friends
It is great when visitors who have not visited us here before, come to stay for a while. It means we can show them around, and re-appreciate the gorgeous place in which we are lucky enough to live.

The abbey in Caunes, from our garden

Then, of course, there are the annual trips from the children and grandchildren.
Jess and Matty, who came with Matty's parents this time.

They want to go to the places they have come to love, as well as always trying to discover a few new treats. Time in the pool, the 3 bears' house, the playground in Caunes, playing on the trees by the bar, seeing the marble statues on the way to the quarry....these things have all become traditions, and will undoubtedly be things to remember for the little ones in years to come.

Liam has been driving this tractor around the pool for 4 years. The older boys could hardly reach the pedals in the first year...now they are much too big for it...but they love it.

Izzie.....a great little swimmer at 3 years old

They get more gorgeous every day.

Visiting Carcassonne.......again......It can never get to be boring.

Now, as the days have become a little cooler, and the visitors have gone, we find we are meeting for our weekly cafe des langues, inside the bar rather than outside. Mark and I are pruning and shredding to make mulch. The vendange is under way, and the Citou onion festival is on Sunday this weekend....again, for the 4th time since we came to know Caunes.

I haven't wanted to repeat posts from previous years. Sometimes it has felt that is what I would have been doing if I had spent all summer blogging.

Some things are different. Today, new people came to the cafe des langues. The boulangerie has moved 3 doors down the street. I have taken up mosaicing ( no, I realise there is no such word ). People who we regarded as aquaintances have become dear and valued friends, and believe it or not.....our French is improving !

So, the rhythm continues. Mark and I are healthy, the children are well and seem happy. The grandchildren are growing up to be fabulous individuals, and we are wallowing in enjoying it all. 
So......no real new blogging direction, yet. 

All I can produce here is just a very conscious appreciation of yet another lovely lovely period of our lives.

Jess, Mark and I

walking down into the village for a meal

Teddies waiting for children to play with.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

This year's Le Tour adventure

Mark took this photo of Jane, Steve and I, as we arrived at a col in the Pyrenees
We've just had our annual Tour de France day. This year we decided to make a real trip of it, and we stayed overnight in Massat, in the Pyrenees so we could see a mountain stage. We’ve seen flat stages through French villages, a hilly Yorkshire stage last year, and the dramatic Carcassonne depart, also last year, so this was something new.

our hotel, in Massat

The hotel was basic, but pretty and interesting. I could have done without the creepy dolls set out in the public areas,

..... and the bed could have been more comfortable and the décor in the French bathroom (which did not have a toilet) was fairly bizarre. 

However, the staff were lovely and the food was amazing.

It does look as if I am snorting this pomme sorbet with calvados, but I promise I wasn't.

The hotel was actually on the route for Le Tour, and it was incredibly cheap.

Massat is a pretty village in the Pyrenees, and it welcomed Le Tour with open arms.

There are bears in the Pyrenees...not many, but they are there.

Jane, Steve, Verity and Mark checking the Tourist information board

A fabulous brocante shop in Massat. There was so much "stuff" in it.

We sat in the café in the centre of the village, as the gendarmes argued with the café owners about table positions at the side of the road, and people began to select their viewing positions.

Mark, buying some Tour merchandise.

The barricades, ready to go up, to hold the crowd back....and keep the cafe tables off the actual route. Those black arrows on the yellow background are to show the cyclists the way to go !

We had decided on a spot just before the village. We had checked it out the day before and thought we would be able to see any breakaway that had happened due to the previous climbs, as well as the peloton, going through, just before they hit the final 2 climbs of the day. We reckoned they would not be zooming past us so fast we would not be able to pick out our heroes…but fast enough to be excited by it all.

Mark, and Jesus, waiting for the race to arrive.
It all worked to plan. We had set up by about 9.30 am, waiting for the caravan to come through at about 1pm. The waiting was nearly as good as the arrival of the caravan and then the cyclists themselves. Verity kept us informed about the progress of the race by checking Le Tour app on her phone, so we knew exactly what was going on.

Establishing shade was important
So getting those umbrellas right was crucial
We chatted, we arranged chairs in the ever moving shade, we had a pic-nic and we organised our yellow umbrellas, Sky vests and other Tour paraphernalia.

A gendarme was positioned next to us....she was required to stand all day ! It was very hot.

Mark, opening the wine, Steve, as designated driver, was very good...he did not have a drop. Others among the group did !
Waiting for the race.....after lunch, Sky jerseys set out so the boys would know who we were supporting
The caravan arrived with all its razzmatazz…..and we joined in, catching key rings, hats, wrist bands, bottles of water, juice, bags of various sizes, tee shirts and blow up pillows ( IBIS hotels advertisements).
I've seen this huge cyclist many times now....but it's still exciting......Steve was perfectly positioned to catch goodies thrown from the floats.

I don't think they threw out any pens.

We shared some of our loot with a French family who had positioned themselves nearest to us, and some Dutch supporters who had come fully equipped with their camper van.

We then awaited the real purpose of the day. A lone rider arrived, seconds ahead of the expected breakaway group.

The break away arrived
No one who could threaten the main GC riders was in the breakaway, so we know that a few minutes later, the peloton, with all our favourites, would arrive.

...and then the peloton....Froome in yellow, behind the Sky team.
We had a great view of them, as they sped past us….not too fast, as we had expected. Sky was in control of the peloton, leading the way into Massat, with yellow jersey Christopher Froome tucked safely behind them, being protected by his team.

This was the day that Froome had urine thrown at him. We did not hear about that until later. It does seem that the reporting of Le Tour questions how “clean” Froome and the Sky team are. Some Brits, of course, consider it to be just that the French never win anymore, and whoever is winning, or seems strongest these days is going to be criticised. I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than that, and after the years of Armstrong’s dreadful behaviour …not just taking the drugs, but the cruel and damaging denial that went with it for so many years….there will always be questions about outstanding performances. Froome’s performance has been outstanding.He is amazing. I believe, and hope that Sky’s brilliance has been that they have been one step ahead of others as far as the psychology, the science and the technology of cycling goes. I believed that when Wiggins was the hero, and now I think that Froome is just a superbly trained and honed athlete. I really do hope I'm right !

A great photo of Froome...provided by Steve....not sure whether he took it, or Verity did, I missed him completely, but for a change, after I had captured one image of the peloton's arrival I decided to watch the race itself rather than  through the camera lens. 

Anyway…..once again, being part of Le Tour has been a great experience. Sharing it with friends, as we did last year in Carcassonne, was a great way to do it. Who knows what we’ll do next year….there’s talk of Paris………Oh to see a Mark Cavendish win on the Champs Elysees! 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Lazy blogging

Despite best intentions, my blogging directions are still pretty vague. I know I want to keep blogging, and following others.....but I just don't seem to get around to either writing, or reading much at the moment. 

So, this is another catch up sort of blog, continuing what has been a kind of diary for me over the last 3 years. It all feels very predictable...the rhythms of the year, the vide greniers at the same venues on the same weekend each year, the cherry trees ripening, and the cherry conserve making, the cigales starting to accompany every hot afternoon......the arrival of les hirondelles.....and the blue blue skies.

We had to return to England for a couple of weeks at the end of June, for my regular hospital check up ( all is well ! ). We took advantage of some lovely English weather, and spent several days with the grandchildren. 

Izzie and Flynn

I worked a couple of shifts at the Hospice shop, and enjoyed seeing some of my favourite volunteers, staff and customers.

With Georgie at the Overgate Hospice shop

 We mooched, as it is by far the best thing to do, in our lovely Hebden Bridge, and then we spent some time in Liverpool with Jess, who ran an amazing personal best time 10K in a Race for Life event in Sefton Park. It was exactly 2 years since she ran her first ever race, a 5K Race for Life, when I removed my wig for the first time, following my chemotherapy.

2 photos, 2 years apart......

Back in Caunes again, and the summer has really got underway. Le Tour has started....into the Pyrenees today....we're going into the mountains tomorrow,to get our first ever view of a mountain stage. Les Venderedis Classiques concerts in Caunes have started, It's feu d'artifice in Carcassonne tonight, to celebrate le quatorze.....and its hot ! It has been over 30 degrees every day for ages, no rain for 5 or 6 weeks, and our figs have already started to turn purple.

Opera in the grounds of Caunes Abbey

So...all is well. We have no visitors for another 2 weeks, then lots of visitors for the duration of the school holidays. It will be good to see the grandchildren again, and to watch how their swimming and  treasure hunting skills have developed since last summer.

Mark & Clark

So, that is it, our very lovely life continues to jog along, meanwhile Greece totters, benefits are reduced for the poorest in the UK, migrants continue to risk all to arrive in our part of the world,  Scott Walker, from Wisconsin, seeks the Republican nomination for the Presidential race, alongside wanting guns to be more easily available for American citizens, Tories want to ease regulations re fox hunting and people are not  travelling abroad on holiday because of terrorism fears.

I feel very lucky. All is well in my personal world, and being cocooned in this lovely place, with so much to enjoy and look forward to, sometimes seems very unfair. On the plus side, it is wonderful to be able to share it with our family and friends who come to visit. 

How well will they all be able to swim this year ?