mardi 10 mars 2015

M is for Miscellany

M is for Miscellany

No one ever said it would be easy. Those of us of pensionable age have all received communications from the Department of Work and Pensions asking for confirmation that we are still alive and therefore entitled to receive the UK State Pension (minus fuel allowance, of course). It was not enough to write back saying, “Hey, it’s me. I’m still here,” or words to that effect. No, someone else had to verify that you are indeed alive, sign the form and apply an “official” stamp. A person of standing would not do if they didn’t have a stamp. So, like many others, we asked the nice lady in the pharmacy to sign and stamp our forms. “I’m used to it,” she said kindly. As she dispenses all our pills and potions, she could sign with confidence.

Then, I started to fill in the online order form for the bits and pieces we get from the local farmers’ cooperative. I was foiled by a jam described as gégéride-orange. I hadn’t a clue what gégéride was. I turned to my trusty friend, Google Translate and typed in “gégéride”. “Hungarian detected”, it announced, without offering a translation. After much trial and error, I discovered gégéride is another word for pasteque — watermelon.

For the past week, every time Gavin has been into the Presse to collect his newspaper or the Radio Times, he has emerged with a calendar. We now have several depicting the Tarn et Garonne — our home department — as well as our local town; the latest one contains images from the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. As my friend Ginny has done the walk, we gave that one to her. I wonder how many more they have left to give away.

I then did one of those pointless but addictive quizzes you find all over Facebook. This time it was to discover what my ideal career should have been. Something obviously went very wrong somewhere as it came up with... Bodyguard.

dimanche 1 mars 2015

S is for Shopping

S is for Shopping

What can’t the Germans and Belgians do, the British are discouraged to do, yet the French do as much as ever? The answer is, pay by cheque. There are no guarantee cards, but cheques are almost as good as cash in France, simply because it is illegal to go overdrawn at your bank without authorisation. If you do, you could be banned from the banking system for several years, which might be a tad inconvenient.

So it’s not unusual to stand behind someone paying for three apples at a market stall by cheque. A friend once gave me a cheque for the 6 Euros she owed me. Having said that, there are some garages that won’t accept cheques, but I suspect that is because no one is ever on the till. It seems we always end up getting our fuel dispensed automatically after inserting a credit card and trying to follow instructions that are about as complex as those that come with a self-assembly IKEA wardrobe.

High streets here still boast a range of small, independent shops. Hypermarkets and larger supermarkets are found out-of-town, alongside DIY stores and furniture superstores; everyone seems to co-exist in reasonable harmony.  Of course, you can never be sure anything will be open. It’s not unusual to drive 50km to a shop only to be greeted with a well-worn sign that reads “fermature exceptionelle”. The cause of the exceptional closure will never be discovered.

Whatever town or large village you visit, you can be sure to find at least one of all the following: a boulangerie, a pharmacie, a bar, a tabac and a ladies’ hairdresser. The bar invariably doubles as a PMU (betting shop), and the ladies’ hairdresser also caters for those men who aren’t put off venturing inside an establishment with a name like Chez Virginie. The pharmacie is easily recognisable by a flashing green cross outside — and the stream of people exiting laden with bulging carrier bags crammed full of pills and potions.

When you visit smaller shops especially, it is polite to say “bonjour” to everyone already there. Invariably, you will be asked whether you want your purchase — be it a biro, a box of chocolates or a tube of hemorrhoid cream — giftwrapped. Say yes, and the assistant will parcel it up with a flourish, embellish it with a pretty bow and present it to you at no extra cost. The queue of people waiting patiently behind you will nod with approval and urge you to have a bonne journée as you leave.

Hypermarkets and supermarkets sell local produce as much as possible, so your fruit, vegetables and meat has probably had a shorter journey than you. Hypermarkets are very big and sell anything and everything; you get used to standing at the checkout behind families with a patio table and four chairs or a fridge-freezer in their trolleys.

Then there are the markets. Fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, jam, meat, fish, local specialities, cheese, wine, clothes, bags, tablecloths, flowers… you name it, you can find it at the local marché. Plan well and it’s possible to visit a different one every day of the week. At our last visit to the Sunday market, we got free gifts of a bunch of parsley, a tangerine, a couple of pieces of cake and then a loyalty card from our favourite cheese stall. But remember, markets are not for the squeamish. Chickens and other poultry usually come complete with heads and feet, that tasty-looking sausage is labeled as being of the donkey variety and you spot a large poster boasting of the availability of local horsemeat. We once bought four pigs’ trotters thinking they were… actually, I’m not too sure what we thought they were. Just not pigs’ trotters.

mardi 17 février 2015

H is for Hobbies

H is for Hobbies

A new year. New skills. I have decided to learn Dutch, courtesy of FutureLearn, an offshoot of the Open University. A big attraction is that the course is free (and Dutch is the only language on offer). My decision has, however, been met with some amusement.

Alyson, a friend from my online Writing Group, Writers Abroad, wrote: “Arghh! Good luck with the Dutch, Doreen. Having lived in Holland for five years, all I learned was that they speak excellent English!” While Angela, another WA friend who has also lived in Holland, wished me “Veel success met de cursus!” What’s the problem? It sounds easy.

However, Bertine, a local Dutch friend, was worried. She cautioned: “Just a little warning. You can still unsubscribe from that Dutch course dear. That language is bound to damage your vocal cords and worse, clog up your brain. I would feel terribly guilty if I hadn’t warned you.” (Note how good her English is…)

I have also decided to take up oil painting. Janice, a member of my Women’s Group has offered to run classes. She claims she can teach anyone to paint. So Ginny and I — combined ability, zero — are going along. There are some among you who will remember my previous foray into the art world. After a day painstakingly panting a green pepper, I took my masterpiece home. “What do you think it is?” I asked Gavin. He looked worried. “Is it a frog…”

Watch this space.

lundi 2 février 2015

F is for... I forget

F is for… I forget

What do chilli, aspirin, pencil case, bubble bath, mud and car have in common? Answer? Absolutely nothing, except those of us of a certain age are expected to memorise them and recite the list – in the correct order – every day. A forgetful day and a trip to the doctor’s is in order as you may be on the rocky road to Alzheimer’s.

It’s a fate most of us fear. I saw a test online the other day and foolishly decided to take it  At the end, I was told “Your Cognitive Function test showed you performed slightly below the norm for your age” and advised me to give a pre-printed letter to my GP that mentions there may be a problem with my plasma homocysteine level. Deciding it’s best to be prepared, I went to Google Translate to find out what plasma homocysteine level is in French. It’s niveau de l'homocystéine plasmatique.

Of course I did badly I wanted to yell at Dr Rona Tutt OBE, author of said letter. It was a timed test; I was using a laptop and it’s not as easy to click on answers quickly as it is with a conventional mouse.  We’ll gloss over the fact that when I went to the site to check something, I forgot my password. I still can’t remember it but am somewhat reluctant to press the “Forgotten? Email me my password icon”.

They say that learning another language helps stave off Alzheimer’s. This is indeed true. Chatting in English, if you forget a word, you babble, “You know, it’s the thingy you find on the whatsit – the what'd’you call it”, which, incidentally my Google Translate friend refers to as the “what'd'you appellant”. In French, you can just plead ignorance and admit you’ve forgotten the word and everyone will sympathise and produce the correct one for you — without the kindly and knowing nods. On this basis, I’ve signed up to do a free course to learn Dutch.

Now, a friend has discovered some research that claims the brains of older people are slow because they know so much. People do not decline mentally with age, it just takes them longer to recall facts because they have more information in their brains, scientists believe. Much like a computer struggles as the hard drive gets full, so, too, do humans take longer to access information when their brains are full.

Aren’t we clever!

jeudi 29 janvier 2015

D is for Drawbacks

D is for Drawbacks

There can be drawbacks living in France. It seems I’m going to miss out on a Mouse Taxidermy Workshop, run by one Margot Magpie, at the Barbican in London. It costs £65, including all tools and materials, but is sold out. The price also included entry to the Magnificent Obsessions Exhibition, which I am sure is fascinating.

Margot Magpie, a taxidermy artist, introduces participants to the processes and techniques behind basic taxidermy. I could have learnt how to skin, prep, preserve, mount and position a mouse and would have been able to take home my creation. Just think of what I could do with all the mice dragged in by the cats. Publicity for the course features a stuffed, bespectacled white mouse sitting in an armchair and reading a coy of Haley’s 2007 Complete Guide to Etiquette.

I was told: “No experience is necessary to take part and all tools and materials are provided. This workshop is open to adults (over 18) only.” But, there again, how many people actually have experience in mouse taxidermy?

Reassuringly, publicity for the course stated: “All rodents are ethically sourced and were not killed specifically for these workshops.

“No dangerous chemicals will be used and all animals are disease free.

“Please be advised that this class is not for the faint hearted. There will be minimal blood and gore, but taxidermy is not for everyone.”

I do have a vision of people emerging from the course, clutching their stuffed mice and heading for the Circle Line.

The good news is there are still places on Margot’s Art of Butterfly Preservation Course, where I could learn how to preserve, handle, set, and pin my very own butterflies. I could then take my specimens home for drying and mounting. A variety of colours and shapes of ethically sourced butterflies would be available to me.

There is a book on Amazon called Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit (Illustrated Edition). It’s £6.40, but there are only six left in stock. Who needs Margot Magpie! But you can also look at Margot’s blog, entitled Of Corpse (

I’m afraid all I can think of is poor old Paddington being chased by a taxidermist in the film!