lundi 20 avril 2015

W is for Who Am I?

W is for Who Am I

I was pondering my next online Scrabble move, when up popped the question “How far are you from postal code 40000 in France at the moment?” My options were: This is where I am; I’m nearby; I’m far away; I don’t know where it is. The last one, definitely. A quick Google search revealed postal code 40000 is Landes, which is a good few hours’ drive away. But who wanted to know, and why? The answer, in fairly small print, was revealed as: “Your response will be used by Facebook to improve your experience”. As I didn’t respond, how my experience will be improved will forever remain a mystery.

Then, up popped a picture of a pushchair urging me to “acheter maintenant” (buy now). I think the computer has me mixed up with someone else. Probably the person who is interested in the Vampire Diaries necklaces that are forever appearing on my screen.

I confess I recently did a few of those mindless quizzes that are somehow quite addictive. One revealed that I was a “lively and outgoing 75 year old”. You see, I said it was confusing me with someone else. However, it did add that, “With your general knowledge, you can’t help but show other people up”. At last, they have something correct! Less so when it comes to my 60s nickname, which is, apparently, Johnny.


A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing the Marks & Spencer website and paused briefly at a very nice cardigan. A message has just flashed up, urging me to buy that very cardigan. OK, you win. I’ll get it. I click “buy now”. “Sorry, this product is out of stock”.

samedi 4 avril 2015

D is for Dandelions

I’ve got a lovely bunch of dandelions


Having been mocked for my support of the apostrophe and membership of the Apostrophe Protection Society (http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/), I have decided to turn my attention to the dandelion. The first question is, who first settled on what is a flower and what is a weed? According to Wikipedia, “A weed is a plant that is considered by the user of the term to be a nuisance.” I have decided to embrace the dandelion. This is not, of course, because we have so many growing on the lawn from Spring onwards that I had to do something drastic. Everyone loves buttercups, primroses and daffodils, so what’s not to love about the dandelion? They are yellow too.

Search for “dandelion” on the Internet and the first hits will tell you how to kill and get rid of them. However, The University of Maryland Medical Centre’s site maintains: “While many people think of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as a pesky weed, herbalists consider it a valuable herb that can be used as a food and medicine. Dandelion is a rich source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. Dandelion leaves are used to add flavour to salads, sandwiches, and teas. The roots are used in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make wines.”

I have a recipe for some very tasty dandelion jam. We give it to unsuspecting guests who eat it with enthusiasm — even after we tell them what it is.

The dandelion has a bad press here in France too, although dandelion salad is more widely available and you can actually buy dandelions in some markets. The French for dandelion is “pisenlit”, literally wet the bed. This is probably because the plants are a gentle diuretic — the leaves and roots stimulate the kidneys to cleanse the blood and recycle nutrients. Country folk reportedly enjoy dandelions as a spring tonic because they help clear the skin after winter and improve general health. Only the other day I saw a French lady gathering up a bunch of dandelions along the road. I wish I'd had the courage to ask her what she was going to do with them.

I have decided to join The Dandelion Appreciation Society, whose website insists that its members love dandelions and that the plant has “somehow become the quintessential scapegoat for all that is considered to be a ‘weed’ in the world of the sterile toxic green lawn.” It adds: “ We are here to help educate to the contrary. Dandelions are one of the most beautiful and useful plants on the planet.” That’s music to my ears! (http://www.thedandelionappreciationsociety.org/)

The website includes recipes — I can’t wait to try the dandelion flower fritters.
There are also poems and a plethora of dandelion trivia. It will cost me $12 to join.

Incidentally, here’s a tip when it comes to real weeds. If a French person points to something in our garden and tells us it’s a weed, we inform them that it’s a prized bloom in English gardens. And if an English visitor indicates a weed, we say it’s a plant that’s found in all the best French flowerbeds. (English visitors, however, tend to act somewhat unilaterally and will pull it up anyway.)

As my friend Chris from Spain pointed out, “The dandelion has its medicinal properties but it is also such fun when you are young — I spent many an hour puffing the seeds and telling the time from the puffs!” And according to Angela, who lives in Holland, “Dandelions are called horse flowers here, no idea why because as far as I remember, horses aren’t particularly keen on dandelions.”

Now it has been revealed that dandelions can help save our bees. They are, apparently, the bees’ most important spring flower, along with hazelnut catkins so don’t kill those dandelions on your lawn. Let them flower a while before you pick them to make jam or a salad. For bees, dandelion pollen is moderately nutritious and the nectar is abundant. It doesn’t normally produce a “surplus”, i.e. enough nectar to produce honey above and beyond what the bees will use for themselves, so you won’t generally see dandelion honey for sale, but it gives the bees a huge boost and adds to the health and wellbeing of the hive.

So, admit it, dandelions are actually quite pretty, aren’t they…?

Dandelion flower jam

Ingredients:
250 g dandelion flowers
1 1/2 litres water
750 g sugar for each 1 litre juice
1 lemon juice
2 oranges

Method:

Wash the oranges and cut into pieces without peeling them. Wash
the dandelion flowers and dry them in a soft cloth. Cook them in
the water with the oranges for an hour then strain. Measure the
juice, and then add the lemon juice and the appropriate weight of
sugar. Cook a further hour. Cool before putting into jars. It should set OK, 
but if it still looks runny at the end of the cooking time, add some vegetarian gelatin.


·      The dandelion is the only flower that represents the three celestial bodies of the sun, moon and stars. The yellow flower resembles the sun, the puff ball resembles the moon and the dispersing seeds resemble the stars.
·      The dandelion flower opens to greet the morning and closes in the evening to go to sleep.
·      Dandelions have one of the longest flowering seasons of any plant.
·      Seeds are often carried as many as five miles from their origin!
·      The name dandelion comes from the French “dent de lion” — lion’s tooth, which refers to its serrated leaves.





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.