Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day

The sky was grey this morning, overcast but high, not oppressive, and the air was still, chill and silent.  A perfect morning for a walk.

I see something new every time I retrace an old path.   This sheltering rock formation had escaped my notice, despite being right by the path.   A tunnel, almost closed at the far end, but you can see a patch of green through the hole at the back.

This spring is often dry, or just a damp muddy patch in Summer, but today its soprano chuckle was the only thing breaking the silence, and its ripples the only movement.

The french for stepping stones is pas japonais, because of the one-step-at-a-time way they are usually tackled.  Despite the fact that the river seemed quite low, the water was running over some of the stones, though not all.  I crossed them anyway, my sturdy walking boots giving their usual confident grip.

A bit farther along and the path becomes wooded.  And there, peeping out of the undergrowth, the only wildflower I saw all along the walk.  A lonely Periwinkle says "hi".

There's a big mill beside the river, and they have recently made a veg patch out of what I take to be a small piece of flood plain.  In any case, I can't imagine that it doesn't flood when the river's high.   The winter leeks are refusing to be beaten down by the frosts.   The line of shrubs at the back will separate the veggies from the footpath.

On into the village of Saulges, and I notice that the place has been decorated with occasional straw bales.  I wonder why.

The homeward part of the walk takes me past a small farm.  These geese made it past Chistmas, at least, but seem to be hostile.   Perhaps it's a "You bastards ate our Cedric" kind of thing.

The lime kiln has been renovated, and the cottage next to it has been pretteyed up and weatherproofed, even if it isn't habitable.  There's always something new, and I notice that the top of the wall now has pansies and primroses on it.

I had always assumed that no-one was interested in this little garden, but I am proved wrong.  It has been decorated with Christmassy baubles and ribbons.  Perhaps there's a house hidden behind the trees that I've never noticed.

Thursday, 18 December 2014


We got this helpful little sheet in the post the other day, explaining to us how there are 35, yes 35 different organisations that manage the retirement pensions in France, depending on the type of work you do.   One of them, Agirc, is, according to Le Parisien, not far from bancruptcy.

The one that we're obliged to pay into is RSI, (about half-way down the list) on account of running the gîte, payments that cover the non-insured parts of our healthcare and retirement pension if we ever get one.

Perhaps a little simplification is in order?  Not that I like to mention things like debt crises, government overspend, or anything.

Stop press:  Today (26th December), Le Parisien reports that a joint report from the Finance Office and the Social Affairs Office concludes that more than 1.7 billion euros could be saved every year by economies including reducing the number of organisations involved.  No shit, Sherlock.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The dark side

Had a trip to England to visit friends and swap pressies.   Nice time had by all; a pleasant break.

Though I'm wondering if I'm becoming a bit of a miserable old git.  Twice this break I was accused, in a joking fashion of course, and in the best possible taste,  of being somewhat towards the pessimistic side of things.

The first example was a josh from a good friend that I won't bore you with here.  The second was a gentle chiding from the wife in Marks & Sparks.  The conversation was about these products on sale, called Winter Diffusers (whatever they might be).

Me:  "Oh, look, Winter Diffusers..... now you can enjoy snow, ice, misery and chaos in the comfort of your own living room"
Wifey:  "Or you can marry Mark and it all happens automatically"

Having made a mental note to try to take a more positive slant on life in general, I have to record a failure on the ferry coming home:

Wifey:  "Oh look, we're on a higher deck than usual, deck 9"
Me:  "Hmm, harder to get out if we capsize."

I think I'd better get a grip here.   Marvin the Paranoid Android has nothing on me.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Zen musings

Recently I read a book on Zen culture by Thomas Hoover.   I think it was an Amazon Kindle freebie, since it's not a subject that I would spend money on at the moment.   It seems to cover the subject quite well, in so far as I can judge.  It looks at the political context of the rise of Zen,and then examines the impact on architecture, poetry, pottery, etc.   According to that book, the following haiku is famous:

       An ancient pond
       A frog jumps in
       The sound of water.

Our old cat was not big, but was fearless and took no crap from anyone or anything.   A bit of a thug, if we're being honest.   He was one of a litter abandoned at the vet, last to get given away because he was the most ill.  With a combination of cat flu, and a chlamidial eye infection, his eyes were glued shut in the mornings, but this did not stop him from exploring the kitchen counter whilst being cleaned, until he fell off.

We had a small pond in our old house, it supported a small population of newts, frogs and goldfish, and would tend to get covered in water-weed from springtime onwards.  The first time we took the cat outside, he started exploring with speed and enthusiasm, until, since he had not yet learnt the implications of the different shade of the pond weed from the grass, there was a little 'splash' and he had to be fished out and dried off.

The combination of these random thoughts, whilst driving home the other day, led to the following haiku masterpiece:

     A recent pond
     A cat falls in
     The sound of anger.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Last day

Our last day in Boston started with the standard breakfast in the hotel, then we wandered into town to find some good coffee.  We trolled around the water front, and made our way via the posh district, then through Boston Park with its fat squirrels, to check out the cinema.

The cinema was showing Interstellar in the iMax, and it so happened that the next showing was in ten minutes so we went straight in for the 11 o' clock showing.   A ripping yarn in the normal Hollywood tradition, but what is it about Hollywood and black holes? "Oh look, there's an event horizon, let's go in see what's there".

This left us looking for lunch at 2:30 and we went to the place we had earmarked for our last, special meal, to see if they would serve us at 3 o' clock when we got there.  Well of course they would, this isn't France, you know.   Very nice it was too.  The restaurant, The Chart House was an old customs house so the waiter told us some of the stories relating to its history.  It has some rather fine American Eagles, too.

It was getting dark by the time we left, and we took a taxi back to the hotel to wind down and pack for the trip the next day.   It was the next morning that Anita noticed I had left my hat at the restaurant.  I'm not sure that on a strictly logical basis, it's worth the time and the 16 dollar taxi ride to fetch it, but then, you can't abandon an old friend, can you?

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Praise for Brookstone

The internet gives plenty of opportunity for comparing prices of the same goods offered in different countries, and the trip to the USA presented the opportunity to take advantage of this knowledge.

I am hooked on the Ryobi One+ range of portable power tools.   During my most recent DIY project, I found that I was transferring batteries between different tools all the time, so I resolved to get some more batteries.  99 euros each battery in France, 99 dollars for two in the USA.  No contest.   The tools themselves are cheaper too, and I got myself a jig saw and an impact driver.  Both less than half European price.

The nice thing about all of that of course, in these days of equality, is that I can now apply feminine logic on my own behalf.  In the airport on the way back, I was browsing the tech shops and saw (and tested) a nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones.   I bought them with the money I saved on the other stuff.

But what's this?  Dismay!  After very little use, one of the ear cushions has split, revealing the blue sponge underneath.  It didn't even last as long as the batteries!  So I looked up the vendors, Brookstone, on the web and got in touch.   The conversation went like this (I paraphrase):

   The phones I bought last week are broken.  Can you send me a new ear cushion?
   We don't repair those.  Got your receipt?
   Yes, here it is, and a picture of the fault.
   Well we don't repair them, and don't replace them outside the USA.  Want your money back?

Top marks, given the situation.  I have now invested 6 euros on a pair of standard replacement ear cushions, just to see if I can fix them.  Meanwhile of course, the phones still actually work.   So I am confident, in future situations, travelling or not, that Brookstone is a good outfit to buy from.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Boston Symphony

We went to a concert in the Boston Symphony Hall.  The orchestra played "Offertorium" by Sofia Gubaidulina, and Sibelius' second symphony.

Never having heard of Gubaidulina, I looked up the piece on Spotify and YouTube, and was prepared to be disappointed.  The piece is based on the theme from Bach's Music Offering, that is taken apart and then put together backwards.  It was in fact a lot better in live performance than the reocrdings I saw and heard, and if I concentrated hard, I could just about work out what was going on.  I think it might grow on me if I can find a well-recorded version and play it through a decent stereo rather than my PC.

I like Sibelius' symphonies, no problem.

The hall itself was attractive, big in the normal way of these things, comfortable and with good views.  Though I was surprised to see a disposal box for sharps in the gents' toilets.  Perhaps that's more of a requirement for staff safety than anything else.

One thing that I did notice was the casual way the orchestra arrived.  We got there early, and I watched as a flutist ambled on to the stage, practiced the hard bits, then ambled off again.  A harpist did the same.  As the start time approached the orchestra arrived at random, and it was only when the conductor arrived, and the violin soloist, that things started to look organised.   Even in our little concerts at the music school, the band arrive at the same time, in file, to take our seats together.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Coffee americano

As I have noted, most coffee served in the USA is pretty awful; weak, acid and not much caffeine.  This trike serving freshly ground coffee reminded me of one that I saw in Paris a while back that served excellent coffee, and the queue at this one, during the morning commuter rush, no less, promised a decent brew.  We were not disappointed; it was by far the best coffee we had during our stay.   The guy running it was chatty and friendly too.

And I've added another pic of tree leaves, because I like it.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Housing market newsflash!

We interrupt this review of Boston tourism to bring you developing news on the hedgehog accommodation front.  (Cue: dramatic music....)

My annual attempts at growing fig trees from cuttings has resulted, at last, in two small trees that survived last winter in my conservatory.  One is now with Leo, the other I have planted out.  It's against a wall since this is the warmest place I can find for it, and I put wood shreddings all around it to help keep the roots from freezing too much.  And as a final touch I surrounded it with a makeshift cold frame, just to help.

This combination, is, apparently, ideal for hedgehog hibernation, and one has taken advantage of the access through the gaps in the cold frame and built a nest in the wood chippings between the tree and the wall.

I'm not sure what hedgehogs use for currency, but clearly I'm going to have to extract my Land Value Tax in the form of slug and snail control services.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Boston harbour

We took a spontaneous boat trip around Boston harbour.  We had a perfect day, not too cool, and with clear blue skies. On the boat we were regaled with tales of the heroic Yankees (Hooray!) versus the dastardly British (Boo!)

The main stopping-off point is the USS Constitution, the oldest comissioned boat in the world.   In order to maintain this status she has to sail a short cruise and carry out a gun drill each year.  The museum alongside details the history of the naval docks there, and in particular of rope-making, the docks supplying the rope for all of the US navy for a number of years.

Boston is kind to the pedestrian tourist; you can walk everywhere and the city centre is not too big.   There are plenty of historic buildings, and Quincy Market, although a bit touristy, is still worth a visit.  We were lucky with the weather: the great wave of cold that is dumping the snow we're seeing on the news arrived about 12 hours after our departure.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Workshop and workmanship

Dick has a small workshop in town not far from his house.  It's got all the normal security systems you might expect for a place that has some expensive cars in it.  He puts a lot of time and effort into the bodywork and engines to come out with a product that is world-class.

I must admit I wouldn't mind having a workshop like his, though I'd probably use mine for woodwork or carpentry.

But although the painted cars are rather fine, my attention was caught by this bit of bodywork on what is still a metallic shell with primer on.   They have lowered the cabin roof and reduced the size of the rear window, by cutting through the metal about halfway up the window, taking a slice out and welding it back together.  On the outside there is not the slightest hint of a join that I could see.  The picture of the inside of the cabin shows the line of the weld quite clearly.  Nice work.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Hosts in Tyngsborough

We stayed with friends Dick and Judy; here they are outside their house.  Dick is into cars, he does "hot-rodding" and Judy is into miniatures.  Anita and Judy went off to a minis show while Dick and I lazed around and did occasional car things, watched television, read.

This is Dick's souped-up 1936 Ford Phaeton.  We took it out for a drive, but only when Dick was certain that the roads were dry so it wouldn't get wet or dirty.  It goes well :)  Later, we worked together to replace the foot-operated headlamp dip switch that had broken, and I learnt something: bolts that have a little bit of thread removed from the end are easier to get into fiddly places than bolts that have the thread all the way to the end, because the unthreaded bit helps to hold the bolt in place while you turn it to engage the thread.  I never knew that.

Monday, 17 November 2014


I, like many others, believed, in the 80s and 90s, that the british NHS was "the envy of the world".   That is, until someone took a hard look at numbers like cancer recovery rates, 5-year survival probabilities from heart attack, etc., and compared them with figures from the USA and elsewhere.

The french similarly have a firm conviction that their cuisine is the best in the world, a perception that does not stand up to my experiences in England and abroad.   During our recent trip to Boston, we ate out for most of our meals, and every one was, without exception, excellent, good value, and big.

Even the straightforward unpretentious 50s style diner (a breakfast and a lunch) served well-spiced potato fries, crisp bacon, and a cheese omelette done to perfection, with unlimited coffee.  (The french and most other nations have it over the americans for coffee.  US coffee is almost all dreadful outside of the specialist shops)

And I am convinced that no-one does steak like the americans.  You get a slab of meat of your choice, cooked to perfection according to your specification, spiced and seasoned appropriately, and tender.  Compared to this, the average french offering is, well, average.   I have never had a steak in France, in all my recent time here, as good as any of those I had in the USA.

There is some snobbery, to be sure.  I think perhaps that the perception is that quality is incompatible with quantity.  So in France you might get a couple of prawns on a plate, scattered about with some decorative garden weeds, and a bit of sauce on top or dotted artfully around the vacant areas of plate.  It all looks very fancy. In the states you get an enormous heap of prawns that taste just as good or better, with the sauce in a separate dish since there is no room for it on the plate.    This huge plate of delicious nachos in the picture was a starter....

I wonder if reality will arive at some point.  The french are wondering why their "best-in-the-world" wine is not selling well outside of their borders.  Perhaps when the tourism starts dropping off on account of the food, people will take notice.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

New England tree colours

New England is famous for its autumnal tree colours.  Although we missed the main display, there was still much pleasure to be had.   A recent storm had stripped many trees, but there were plenty left to display their colours.   I particularly liked the way the matt green pines contrasted with the brighter foliage, but I was never able to capture this well enough in a photo.

We were staying with friends who live near the Merrimack river.   I did a walk along it, snapping some pics, as well as taking a few as we were kindly ferried about the area by our hosts.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

London at 36,000 feet

We flew with Aer Lingus from Paris Charles de Gaule to Boston via Dublin.  I was impressed that we could clear US customs and immigration at Dublin airport - it gives you something to do while you're waiting, and makes for much less hassle at the other end.

Our chatty immigration guy explained to me that my mulitcoloured, multiple re-entry visa for the USA that I had since I was about 19 was invalidated in 2004 and can't be used any more.  Shame, not that I used it much when I could.

Our flight into Dublin took us over the south side of London at 36,000 feet, and you could see the famous landmarks spread out below.  This photo from my phone doesn't give the view justice; the sunlight was bright, the scene was detailed.   In the picture you can see Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James's Park, and, on the South side of the river, Battersea Park.  To the east, just in front of the wing, is the big Eastenders meander in the Thames.  Click to enlarge.

A couple of minutes later I watched miniature aeroplanes taking off from Heathrow, and then we were on past the new competition rowing lake at Dorney.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The mayor's walk

We got to know our village mayor quite well during the gîte restoration project.   He's retired now; he didn't stand again at the last election.  Being (I think) in his late 70s now, and having had a megatuple heart bypass op in the not too distant past, he is taking life easy.  I think he's earned it.

We met him on the road past our house the other day, he was taking a constitutional walk, these being extremely good for heart recovery and general health.  During our chat, he described his route to us.  Just over 6 kilometres, and with sections of it that I don't know at all, so I decided to trace his steps yesterday.   Mild weather, threatening autumnal skies, breezy.  Here's some pics.

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