Thoughts from a Sun Lounger Part 8

I don’t think there is any nicer feeling than to take a dip in a swimming pool and then after a few lengths, return to your sun lounger and lie there peacefully while the hot sun dries your body. You can feel little rivulets of water dripping away and in time the sun will gradually dry you. It’s almost like a sort of rebirth or at least a refreshing of the soul.

The only sounds in this remote French hamlet where we are staying are the gentle breeze swaying through the branches of a nearby tree, some bird song and the occasional drone of a far away car or tractor. I love the silence of the French countryside and silence is one of those commodities that is sadly missing in 21st century UK. It is something that is hard to find, yet here in the country, silence is as free as the fresh air.

Lying on my sun bed under the hot sun and a clear blue sky is just a wonderful feeling and after a short while those sun lounger thoughts begin to flow.

Work.

Now work is not something I usually think about when I’m on holiday, in fact nothing could be further from my thoughts. However, I mentioned a while back how I had lost my status as a Deputy Manager and that demotion, especially after some pretty good work that I had delivered was very upsetting. The application form in which I had to apply (sorry, re apply) used some common competencies derived from the civil service, things like ‘communicating and influencing’ and ‘delivering at pace’ and although my application was a failure, I decided to use my competency answers in another application, this time for a position in the civil service at the DWP. (Department for Work and Pensions.) Lo and behold this time I was deemed worthy of an interview which was surprising considering how those exact answers spelt failure at my actual place of work.

The interview was set for a time during my holidays so I e-mailed the DWP telling them of my holiday predicament and they agreed to interview me the day before I left for France. Okay, fine so far. A big problem though was a sudden attack of constipation, (readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip this paragraph!) something that has only happened to me once before but now, only two days before my interview I was desperate for a bowel movement but nothing was happening. So, I finished my night shift, went home for a sleep and then managed to wake up in time to get ready. No bowel movement had presented itself and I was feeling desperate, horrible scenarios kept coming to mind where in the middle of my interview I would have to say, ‘excuse me, I’ve got to go’ and then rush out!

Suddenly, at the eleventh hour, my bodily plumbing got itself into gear and my bowels were happily evacuated, leaving me free to turn up at the appointed time for my interview free of any personal worries. All the new people I met were lovely and friendly and my two interviewers put me at ease with some friendly chat and then I answered all their questions pretty well. On one occasion I felt myself stumbling but my interviewers gave me a little prompt in the right direction and all seemed to go pretty well. Whether I will get a job offer remains to be seen but I left the UK feeling upbeat and happy.

Tea.

Tea of course comes mainly from Asia however it just so happens that tea is absolutely fundamental to England and the English. What we would do without a tea break or afternoon tea I really do not know. When tea supplies dry up it could spell the end of the British Empire -what’s left of it of course. As usual Liz and I have come to France with a substantial supply of tea bags because life without tea for any sensible Englishman is unacceptable. The thing is tea doesn’t taste quite the same here as it does in the UK. Ah, you are thinking, it’s probably the milk. No, because we brought English milk with us, frozen in small bottles. Perhaps then it’s the water. The water certainly tastes alright when you drink it from the tap or chilled straight from the fridge, then again some things just do not travel, perhaps tea is one of them. Cheese is probably another because come September, Liz and I will take the remnants of our french cheeses back to the UK and on some cold and chilly September evening we will lay out a cheeseboard and wonder why it doesn’t taste as good as it did on a warm french evening.

Bread.

Here in France I do try to eat healthily, much more than I do in the UK. I’ve have had no cakes or biscuits or chocolate but I do like my bread. Here in France bread is vital to any french meal. Shops may close on Sundays and bank holidays but one place which will always be open, come what may, is the boulangerie. I remember once a few years back discussing food with one of my work colleagues. The lady in question was a rather large lady who had discovered dieting with what I can only describe as a religious fervour and when I mentioned that I always ate heathily at work she looked at my sandwich and said ‘healthy, eating bread!’

She eyed my sandwich as if I had been eating a great big fry up with a pizza on the side. Bread is natural and healthy, isn’t it? At least I always thought so but it turned out that her diet forbade the eating of bread because it was full of calories, whatever they are. Personally I think that bread, proper fresh bread is one of the great food experiences you can have. Bread with cheese, bread with your meal so you can mop up any juices or sauces from your food, bread as a snack or part of a starter. Toast for breakfast. Yes, I’m sorry, I stand with the French, bread is indispensable.

Fish and Chips.

Ok, you might be surprised to see this here, especially as we are currently in France but the other night we fancied a night out and we noticed that down in the nearby village of Parçay Les Pins there was a special fish and chips night at the local restaurant. Well, what could this be, we thought. Clearly it was going to be nothing like proper fish and chips but some French approximation of the dish. Anyway, what the heck we thought, it’s only a ten minute drive so we’ll give it a go.

Off we drive and we pull up at the restaurant, well it looked more of a cafe but there were a few token French couples (so we thought) about so we went in, I had my French already prepared, bonsoir and une table pour deux and so on and the hostess greeted me, not in French but in an unexpected southern English accent. Not only was she English but so were the bar staff and also all the customers. It appeared that her fish and chip night drew in all the local English for miles around. Anyway, the beer was nice and cool, just right for a hot summer’s evening. The fish was ok, not up to the Fylde coast standard but ok although the chips were a little crisp and I do prefer slightly softer chips. A number of authentic Frenchmen passed by wondering what are this lot doing out at this time of night (it was well past 7 PM) and a good time was had by all.

Think we might try for some more authentic French food next time. . .

Facebook.

I’m not a great Facebooker. I have a page there and it’s nice to post now and then and see what reactions my friends have when once again I ‘check in’ to one of the many restaurants in Lytham St Annes. It’s also nice to take a look and see what is happening back home, well sometimes anyway.

The other day I clicked onto Facebook and sadly the first item I saw was a video showing some youths attacking a middle aged chap who had asked them to watch out for his car when they were larking about somewhere. It was sad, very sad to see that sort of mentality, especially when here in the Loire we encountered something very different. In a quiet lane in a lay by, we found a table laden with fruit and vegetables for sale. No one was around just a note asking any potential buyers to take what they wanted and leave the money, the payment, in a tin left on the table. Simple trusting faith in one’s fellow man that put the youths in that dreadful video to shame. Still, one day, I am sure they will meet their comeuppance.

The Chinese Guys.

Once, many years ago when I was a bus conductor working the night shift on Manchester’s buses, a wonderful example of comeuppance  or karma, presented itself to me. We used to pick up these three regular Chinese guys who took the night bus from Altrincham into Manchester City centre. They got on about eleven or midnight and returned from Manchester about three or four in the morning. None of them spoke English but the spokesman would show me three fingers and would say something that approximated three, and would present the exact fare for three to Manchester. I took the money and gave them their tickets and they carried on into town. The first time I came across these guys I mentioned them to the driver and he explained they were three regulars who went into town every week to gamble in the casino.

One night I picked them up as usual and they paid for three fares and exited the bus in Manchester. Later, earlier than normal, maybe about two am, one of the three boarded for the return journey. When I approached he said one and produced the exact fare for one. I asked ‘what has happened to your mates?’ but was met with an unintelligible stream of Chinese. Clearly it hadn’t been a successful night in the casino for this fellow.

Three other guys boarded in Manchester, all the worse for wear with drink but they paid their money and all was ok. As we trundled back towards Altrincham, I noticed that these guys were annoying the Chinaman, throwing bits of paper at him and calling him names. My way of dealing with trouble on the bus was always to use a bit of humour and try to get the drunken idiots on my side. So, I sidled over to the young guys and said, ‘do me a favour, don’t upset Kwai Chang Caine!’ They all laughed, we had a little bit of banter together and I thought, job done, situation defused! Later, they decided to have some more fun and started again on the Chinese guy again so he decided to move to the upper deck. The young guys followed him upstairs and my driver, looking into the periscope where he could see upstairs said to me, ‘something’s going on up there, you’d better take a look.’

I went upstairs and the three youngsters were taunting the Chinese guy and I could see the time for humour had gone, these fellows had to be sorted. Things were getting rowdy and I called for my driver to stop. Look fellas, I said, this is out of order, leave this guy alone. Things had escalated and it looked like a fight was about to start. I remember the youths charging towards me but the Chinese guy calmly pushed me aside and proceeded to wipe the floor with the youths using some expert kung fu or jujitsu or whatever. The three of them charged downstairs shouting for the driver to let them out, which he did without any persuasion and we continued without further incident.

When we reached Altrincham bus station, the Chinese guy shook hands with me, said something profound in Chinese and was gone.

After that, every time I saw those Chinese guys they came aboard, asked for three, held up three fingers but always gave me money for four. I always tried to give them the money back but they wouldn’t have it. It was their way of giving me a tip I suppose.

Anyway, it is my profound wish that one day, the violent and nasty youths from that video will get on board the bus to Manchester and pick a fight with those Chinese guys. I just hope I am there to video it!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977 and is available from Amazon. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Northern France, Video and a Supermarket Car Park

As you read this Liz and I will be making our way back to France for our proper summer holiday. The excursion in our motorhome a few weeks ago was mainly to attend a French wedding but it was also a chance to do a little exploring. In northern France the landscape is littered with many reminders of past conflicts but one you will come across time and time again are the many immaculate cemeteries maintained by the War Graves Commission. The price of world war comes heavy.

I won’t say too much about the trip because all my thoughts and observations are mostly in the video below.

It was a sad but moving experience, especially seeing so many graves of unknown soldiers. One particular gravestone I went in search of was the grave of Wilfred Owen, the famous Great War poet. He is buried in the small cemetery in the village of Ors and lost his life only a matter of days before the end of the conflict.

I do love the sweet satisfaction of putting together a short video but I often wonder if is it better to write my narration first and then put my video together to fit the words or just make the video and write the narration later. In actual fact the end result was a bit of both.

My ‘action cam’ video camera packed up during the trip, or at least I thought it had. Back home in the UK I plugged it into my laptop and realised that at some point I had left the camera running endlessly and all the space on the memory card had been swallowed up. For this next trip I have taken the plunge and got myself a ‘proper’ GoPro camera, a much more sophisticated version of the cheap action cam I have been using. I was a little disappointed to find that this version, despite the GoPro reputation and extra price tag, does not have a viewing screen in the rear of the camera. After further inspection of the manual I see that the device has an ‘app’ which you can download to your smartphone and see exactly what is being filmed and operate your camera remotely. Check back here in a few weeks to see whether I managed to shoot anything interesting or if I come back with another memory card full to the brim with exciting footage of the car park at Intermarche.

I shot a whole lot of in-car footage last year in France and put it all together in yet another video. I did the narration armed with a few notes and just rambled on into the microphone. On reflection I might have been better writing out a proper script but you can make your own mind up by checking out the video below.

Anyway, we are all packed, ready to return to France this time in a car rather than a motorhome so I hope that by next week I should have some more sun lounger thoughts to share with you. Our previous trip to France in a motorhome was fun but there was always that sense of travelling but never arriving. Still, maybe that’s the essence of a road trip, at least according to that old saying it’s better to travel than to arrive. This time we hope to arrive at our rented villa in the Loire sometime on Saturday afternoon. I can see it all now: A quick flurry of unpacking, a refreshing dip in the pool, the decanting of the red wine, that agreeable hiss as our steaks are slapped on the barbecue . . bring it on!


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Motorhomes, Weddings and the Curse of Mobile Wi-Fi!

Holidaying in a motorhome is a great adventure; the open road, the open country, the sense of freedom, the feeling of self reliance. The joy of stopping where and whenever you like and switching on the gas, making tea and watching the sausages sizzle satisfyingly in the frying pan. Believe me, it’s a great feeling.

The flip side is baking in the 90 degree plus heat of a French summer and finding that your motorhome provides no shelter, in fact, it’s even hotter inside than outside.

The good thing though is that you can drive away, find a nearby lake or plan d’eau, park up and jump straight into the cool water.

On this eleven day trip we have meandered slowly through the towns and villages of north-eastern France. On our first night we parked up outside our favourite French restaurant in Zutkerque, Le Mas Fleuri, where we ate and drank heartily of the simple but wonderful food they serve. Monsieur Le Patron assured us that he would open his doors at 8 in the morning so we could avail ourselves of his restaurant toilets. What a lovely gesture indeed.

The next evening we arrived in Berny-Rivière and visited another old watering hole, Chez Micheline, where we had a superb pâté to start with and for me a rather tame pizza which was a poor choice on my part. It was the night when the French won the World Cup and they drove around beeping their car horns and waving excitedly back at us when we beeped ours. The TV in the restaurant bar was tuned naturally to the football station and everyone there was clearly overjoyed. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Grave of Wilfrid Owen, Ors, France.

Travelling through north-eastern France you cannot help but recognise many of the names on the road signs. Cambrai, Arras, the Marne, Verdun and so on, all are famous names from the First World War and as you travel further, it is inevitable that you will see signs for military cemeteries. The country is littered with these cemeteries, some huge and impressive and some small but all quiet, silent and filled with a sadness for a generation lost in the carnage of war. At each one we visited there are many graves labeled simply ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ Soldiers whose remains were unrecognisable in death, their documents and serial numbers blown to pieces in one of the many artillery bombardments on the Western Front.

We went to the village of Ors to find the grave of Wilfred Owen, one of the outstanding poets of the First World War. He is buried in the village cemetery at Ors where there are a number of soldiers’ graves. It was sad to see that he died on the 4th of November, 1918, only a matter of days before the armistice. He was only 25 years old and interestingly for me, was a member of the Manchester Regiment. Manchester of course being my home town. We left Ors saddened by the events of a hundred years ago.

One interesting aspect of using a motorhome is how you become aware of your consumables, not only power but water. Power was not a great problem due to our solar panel but water was an issue, especially as we drank more and more in the high temperatures. It was great to find that in France, motorhomes are welcome in many places and there are plenty of municipal motorhome sites where you can dump waste water, empty your toilet and top up your drinking water.

On our first stop at one of these sites we set about our first toilet emptying. I successfully removed the toilet container, emptied it, swilled it out, added some fresh water and the toilet liquid that helps break down the waste. It was all a little pongy but not too bad. The next day when we were preparing to leave, a French motorhome arrived next to us. We murmured a few bonjours at each other and the French driver set about emptying his toilet, however we weren’t prepared for the horrendous stench of what smelled like the entire contents of a Paris suburb being flushed away. We rapidly battened down the hatches and fled.

The one disaster of this holiday was our mobile internet connection. I had got myself a mobile router arranged and a data SIM courtesy of Three.co.uk. I tried everything out in the UK and everything seemed OK. Fast forward to France and nothing worked. In desperation I made an expensive call to the Three network and when I finally got through they assured me my SIM was registered OK, roaming was set up so everything should work, only it didn’t. Next step was to buy a French data SIM card, slip it into my router and hope for the best. Did that work? No. We tried the SIM in Liz’s iPad and finally got a connection. The router was at fault then. Back in the UK I had a moaning email all ready to complain to the manufacturer but then I thought I’d have one last try. Going through the instructions once again using a magnifying glass -they were written in very tiny type for some reason- I noticed a password I hadn’t seen earlier, typed it in and my little wi-fi router finally connected. If you happened to be on the Fylde coast that day and heard a piercing scream, well you can perhaps guess who was responsible.

The objective of our trip to France was the wedding of Liz’s nephew Michael to his bride Anaïs in Alsace. The wedding venue was high on the top of a mountain, well it seemed like a mountain to me. Actually it was a very big hill accessible only by a mountain track normally used only by goats. It was a bit of a scary trip uphill but we somehow made it and a very nice time was had by all. The bride and groom made their vows, a number of speeches were forthcoming, happily for me there were even a few in English. A great deal of alcohol was consumed as was a large barbecue consisting of three medium sized pigs and a small lamb and plenty of salad and wine. This being France a halt was called during the proceedings for the serving of the cheese then after a suitable period the music and dancing commenced.

The Bride and Groom watch a special dance performed by their guests.

At the wedding one surreal event occurred which I must tell you about but first I need to introduce this week’s classic film which is Romancing the Stone. Not a classic in the same sense as Casablanca perhaps but still a pretty good film, well worth watching the next time it comes up on TV. If you’ve not seen the film it stars Michael Douglas as Jack Colton, an American adventurer in Colombia who is helping out novelist Joan Wilder, played by Kathleen Turner, whose sister has been kidnapped by a nasty drug cartel. At one point in the film the couple are lost in an unfriendly village full of aggressive gun-toting individuals. They are directed to the house of one fellow in an attempt to get transportation. Negotiations are going decidedly nowhere and fingers are on triggers when the gang boss eyes the novelist and asks ‘Joan Wilder? Are you Joan Wilder the novelist?’

OK, fast forward to France at the wedding on the top of the mountain and Michael, the groom if you remember, introduces me to one of his French friends and this fellow does a double take and asks ‘Steve? Steve Higgins, writer and blogger?’ I was so surprised I nearly tripped backwards and went splat right into the buffet table. I mean writing a blog post every week hardly makes you famous does it?

Anyway, when I had calmed down it turned out that many moons ago Laurent, as the French chap was called, and I had both commented on some long forgotten family Facebook thread and he had checked out my profile and found my Facebook writers’ page titled ‘Steve Higgins writer and blogger‘. ‘Have you read Floating in Space?’ I asked. ‘I will when the french version is available’ he replied.  Yes, he might have to wait a while for that one!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Adventures with an Action Cam

One of the great web sites of the modern digital age has to be Ebay. I spend a lot of time there, idly searching cyberspace for things that I want and sometimes, things that I don’t even know that I want. Do you ever look at your purchases and think, why did I buy that? Did I really want that? Was it just an impulse buy? It’s much easier to put something down if you are actually in a shop and say to yourself, ‘I really don’t need that’ than it is on the Internet.

Having said that I have picked up quite a few bargains on Ebay. We wont go into the numerous leather jackets, shirts and shoes that I have bought online and that don’t fit me even though they are clearly marked XXL and that when tried on, it becomes apparent that a dwarf pygmy wouldn’t fit into them, let alone someone of my considerable bulk. XXL it seems to me, is a term open to interpretation.

One thing that I did buy on Ebay and that I have had lots of fun-filled hours with is my action cam. My action cam is only a cheap one, made in China, and it’s a cheap copy of the much more expensive Go-Pro camera and only cost £20 compared to the huge cost of a proper Go-Pro camera. Mine does the job and takes some interesting pictures strapped to my bike handlebars or on my car window or wherever I choose to stick it.

On our recent holiday to France I spent a lot of time filming through the car window on our way down south from St Annes in Lancashire to Folkestone for the shuttle over to Calais and then on down through France to our rented gite in the rural Cher region in central France. There were, of course, the usual problems endemic to shooting ‘live’ action. The battery ran out at various crucial moments of interest and on other occasions I didn’t pause it properly so I shot an endless half hour of hum drum motorway and then, when we arrived at somewhere very lovely and photogenic I pressed the record button to begin filming but actually paused a recording I didn’t realise was already in progress. C’est la vie as the French say.

On my YouTube page I now have three short action cam films. A Trip Around the Block on my bicycle, my first foray into action cam film making. Second, a short underwater film of me taking a swim, not in the blue seas of the Mediterranean or some exotic fish filled lake but actually in our holiday swimming pool. Yes, I know what you are thinking but the lure of messing about with a video camera underwater was just too much! Anyway, now, coming to a computer screen near you, in colour and with the added attraction of a special written commentary spoken and verbally crucified by me, I give you, A French Journey . .

In case you didn’t catch this on an earlier post, check out this cycling video:

And last but not least, here’s my underwater video:


If you liked this post, why not try my book, Floating in Space? Click the links at the top of the page for more information. Click the picture below to go straight to amazon!

Return Journey

All holidays end, and eventually, no matter how wonderful a time you have had, you have to return home and go back to work. It’s sad to think that when I’m back at my desk, some other lucky fellow will be in my villa, sipping wine on my patio, and relaxing. At least he won’t be using my glass, because I bought my glass at a vide grenier and brought it home to the UK so, to the guy relaxing on my patio -get yer own glass mate!

Liz and I finished our holiday in France by motoring from the Cher department to the much lovelier Loire region and stayed for a few days in one of our favourite french towns, Doué la Fontaine.

It was nice to see our old friends again. We visited Julie, the landlady of a small bar in Doué. The bar is rarely busy and Julie runs the place herself. On the day we visited, she wasn’t feeling too well but what can she do she asks; she must work as there is no one else to open up. I have to say, I did consider eating there but earlier, as we walked around the market, we found a small bar offering a 13 Euro three course menu, including wine, so we sauntered round there to find a hidden gem of a bar that we had not noticed on any of our numerous previous trips to the town.

Julie’s bar in Doué La Fontaine

The lunch was lovely, if a little too big for someone who has never taken lunch seriously. A sandwich is my usual lunchtime fare but this lovely lunch kept me going for the rest of the day.

After a few days we had to say goodbye to Doué and set off for our rendezvous with the ferry at Caen. We did some serene motoring travelling north but as I was worried about time we jumped onto the autoroute to make better headway. After a good run we stopped at the services for some refreshments. French services, Aires as they call them, are much, much nicer than the packed UK versions. French Aires are like quiet restful picnic areas, some have petrol and all the other facilities of UK services but others are just small picnic areas. The one we stopped at was unusually busy. Rarely have I ever seen more than a few cars and wagons at the services but at these there must have been fifteen to twenty cars.

At the toilets themselves, one of the cubicles was closed for repairs and the other was engaged so I had to use the urinals. French men clearly do not need privacy because many urinals are open to the gaze of passersby, sometimes with a small modesty screen, other times not. Both urinals were in use but as I approached, one became free and as I opened up my trousers the one to my left became free also. Happy days I thought because for some reason, I always find it difficult having a communal wee. Just as I was ready to release my waters, someone stood at the free urinal to my left and my hoped for flow was stemmed before it had even started. ‘Come on’ I said to myself, ‘have a wee and get it over with!’ The more I tried the harder it seemed to be. My fellow urinal user was also having the same problem as I had not heard the tell-tale sound of his waters flowing either. He must have been trying hard because after a few moments he issued a loud and unexpected fart!. He was obviously flustered and mumbled a hasty ‘sorry about that.’ I detected a southern english accent and mumbled OK in what I thought was a french accent, not wanting him to think I was english as I felt that if he thought I was French he might be less embarrassed. (Yes, I don’t understand that either but that was my thought process.) Just then, the happy trickle of my waters finally began to flow.

A typical French aire. Looks busy doesn’t it?

We were early for our appointment with the ferry but what with passport checks and the inevitable stopping and starting the time passed quickly.

One nice way to travel on a ferry is to take the night crossing so you can freshen up, have a nice meal and perhaps the odd glass of wine and then sleep during the crossing, waking up in Portsmouth ready for the long trip up north. I’ve always rather liked that coming the other way, England towards France. It’s nice to wake up in France of a morning, all fresh and ready to drive through the Gallic countryside. Waking up in Portsmouth ready to face the morning rush hour is not always a good thing. On this trip we arrived in the UK at nine thirty in the evening. The weather kept mostly dry and we had a good run until the A34 we were travelling on was unexpectedly closed before we met with the M40. Ah, the nightmare of night-time road works!

The diversion took us back partly along the way we had had already travelled and on to the M40 from a different direction. Later as we ventured further up north we encountered signs for ‘DELAYS J15 – J16 M6’. Delays, at one in the morning? Surely not? Surely yes because after a while, when our three lanes became only one due to road works’ closures, we joined a sad and slow-moving convoy creeping forward in first gear. Oh well, good job it wasn’t a night journey in the other direction, hoping to pick up a night ferry to France. I could just imagine us sitting on the quayside having missed the boat!

C’est la vie!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information or the icon below to go straight to amazon!

Thoughts from a Sun Lounger (Part 5)

I absolutely love it when the sun is shining and those golden rays burn down out of a clear blue sky. You get up out of the swimming pool and flop down on the sun lounger and as you do, all your worries slip quietly away, just as the water from the pool drips off you and the sun dries your body. Yes, it’s the time of year for some more ‘thoughts from a sun lounger’.

Out of Office.

Finishing work for your holidays, even for a part timer like me, is always a great experience and nothing lately has given me more pleasure than setting up my ‘out of office’ message on my computer at work last week. It said ‘I am out of office until September 15th’ although what I actually meant was ‘send me all the emails you want because I don’t give a flying monkeys about any of them until September 15th!’.

New technology, don’t you just love it?

Once again Liz and I are off to France for our summer holidays. The journey down to Folkestone from Lancashire via the M55, M6, M1, M25 and M20 was actually not too bad. The only problem was that we arrived early at the Euro Tunnel terminal at Folkestone and it sent us into a false sense of security. Well, that is my excuse for leaving the terminal shops late, getting stuck in the queue at passport control and missing our shuttle! Oh well, everything turned out OK in the end. We arrived at our hotel in good time, checked in and had our first taste of French cuisine with the hotel’s plat du jour; beef stew and chips! They say French food is so good but to a great extent it’s a case of chips (frites actually) with everything!

Action Cams.

Driving down from the UK to France I decided to stick my action cam on the window and see if it is worth comparing driving on English as opposed to French roads. There’s no comparison, the French roads came out tops, even in roadworks. What I liked about stopping at some temporary lights in France was that on the lights, under the red stop signal was a countdown timer, telling you how many seconds you had left under the red light. Great idea! Pity my camera had run out of battery power just then . .

Bank Holidays.

They have bank holidays over here in France, just like in the UK. Well actually, not like in the UK but they do have bank holidays. In the UK we are, mostly, pretty sensible people. A typical bank holiday might be on a Friday for instance, which follows on quite nicely to Saturday and Sunday. Another bank holiday might be on a Monday, which again follows on quite nicely from Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes we even go one better, bank holidays on a Friday and a Monday, making a rather lovely weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

What do the French do, something similar you might think? No. They will have a bank holiday on a Tuesday which does not follow on, to, or from the weekend at all. Maybe the French book a day off on the Monday or perhaps just throw a sickie in? Maybe they just go in to work on Monday then have a day off for the bank holiday. One day in, one day off, not a bad system really I suppose . . .

The Tabac.

The tabac is a great French idea. It’s a tobacco shop, mixed up with a bar -and I mean a bar like the vault of an old English pub, where the men go to play cards and pool and so on. In France they also sometimes throw a news agents and/or a corner shop into the mix so the end result is a place where you can go for a drink, buy cigarettes, get a newspaper and return home with a few groceries.

You must admit, it’s a great idea but would it work in the UK? You can imagine the situation.  The wife happens to mention to the husband, sitting in the lounge watching sport, that they are a little short on potatoes for the coming Sunday dinner. The husband jumps up; “need some spuds love? Well, I’ll just nip down to the local shop and get you some!”

He comes back hours later with a newspaper, a carrier bag containing three carrots, a turnip and an onion. He is casually singing ‘show me the way to go home’ and as he stumbles into the house he asks nonchalantly, ‘is dinner ready yet love?’

Yes, perhaps that wouldn’t work in England after all. Another thing that won’t work in the UK any more are things like those last few comments above. What is the problem? Well it’s gender bias! Yes, of course, I am sure you are thinking. Gender bias -the reason why UK TV advertisers can no longer show cosy home scenes where Dad comes home from work and Mum is getting the tea ready! They are gender bias and showing a totally incorrect representation of UK home life to poor susceptible young girls who may want to reject conventional home life and become a fireman (sorry, fireperson) or even a young man who wants to do something that, well, something that a girl would normally do!

Just hang on a minute while I re write the above and change it so it’s the guy who sends the wife out to the tabac and she comes home drunk with the wrong items. On the other hand, get real you crazy gender bias people!

The Sandwicherie.

I came a cross a new word this year in France. The sandwicherie. Yes, as the name suggests it’s a place where you can get sandwiches. I like that word, it rolls off the tongue well, it’s a little like Pizzeria, a place that serves pizzas or, actually I can’t think of another example but I’m sure you get my drift.

While in France this year I have also invented a new word, a new French word but whether it will catch on, I’m not sure. Sometimes when I’m struggling in French I sometimes try an English word with a French accent. You know, something like menu, café, salade, boutique, table and so on. In fact, if you look into it, there are quite a few words we share with the French. Quick tip: Don’t try the French word preservatif, thinking it’s the same as preservative in English. The French word means condom!

Anyway, back to my new word, it’s possiblement! It didn’t quite work when I tried it on an unsuspecting Frenchman, in fact, he gave me a rather strange look but at least it stopped him mythering me to buy something off his stall at a vide grenier! ‘Some bottle tops Monsieur? Some used phone cards?’ ‘Un moment; possiblement . .

Tea.

Tea is one of those great British inventions and institutions that we, the Brits, have exported to the four corners of the world. Personally I never travel outside of the UK without a stack of teabags in my suitcase because morning, noon and afternoon, I need my tea. What would four o’clock in the afternoon be without afternoon tea? A steaming hot cuppa, a cheese sarnie, a chocolate digestive and the TV tuned to some classic TV: You can’t beat it but what have those pesky Frenchmen done with our tea? Look in any French supermarché and you will find tea, ready-made in a plastic bottle in the chilled compartments! Sacré bleu is all I can say!


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Cheese, Wine, and a few other French Reflections.

It’s probably only natural that when, after a lovely holiday in France, thoughts often linger on those now gone idyllic days sipping wine and relaxing with a crusty french loaf and some fromage.

Tea.
I do love my tea. It is one of the great British contributions to world culture. What sort of a world would it be without a tea break? Dear me, I shudder to think. Naturally, Liz had us well stocked with PG Tips for our french trip. The French are a nation of coffee drinkers but they do also drink tea. In fact, you can find bottles of tea in the chilled area of every french supermarket. Chilled tea? Yes, chilled bottles of tea! Still, what can you expect from the nation that gave us frogs legs . .?

As I settle back into work, those long lazy days out in the french countryside seem as if they happened years ago.  Five o’clock was a nice part of the day. A final swim in the pool then Liz would start preparing the salad while I cranked up the barbecue and topped up the decanter with some nice french red.

dining

Wine, salad, bread, just waiting for the barbeque!

Wine.
I do love the cheap french red from supermarkets like Intermarché. A nice quaffable smooth red like a merlot is perfect for an evening.  In the supermarkets here, as you can probably imagine, there is an excellent selection and it comes in all shapes and sizes. There are wine boxes, bottles, cartons and even plastic bottles of the cheap rough table wine. I like an after dinner glass of port and there is a good choice of ports in the shops too. In France this year I picked up quite a few bottles for transportation back to the UK and I also discovered a nice white port. One interesting thing I have noticed whilst scouring the shelves of French supermarkets, there is a huge whisky collection in every french supermarket I have visited. All imported from the UK of course but brandy, a product of France, seems to be very scarce indeed and, when finally found, rather expensive.
After the kebabs and burgers, or whatever meat we have grilled over the coals, a short intermission is in order before the arrival of the cheese.

Cheese.
I do like my french cheese and the usual fromage course after a meal here is always a delight. Cheese is a different experience in France. In the warm evening the cheese softens and is spread easily on a slice of crusty french bread. The french themselves prefer to tear their bread but we English of course are more civilised and slice it before buttering.
Here are three of my favourite French cheeses;

    Rondelé
Not something I’ve ever seen in the UK, Rondelé is a sort of light cheese which comes in various varieties but the one I favour is Rondelé Bleu. A light almost whipped cheese with a not too powerful blue cheese flavour. Lovely on some crusty french bread or on a cracker.

    Cœur De Lion Coulommiers.
Not sure if I’ve seen this in the UK. This is a lovely, creamy soft cheese, perfect when it has melted slightly in the warmth of a summer evening. Not as strong as camembert but not as mild as a brie. Lovely.

    Chaume.
A very tasty cheese, rather like Saint Paulin which I have seen in supermarkets in the UK. It has a firm, pliable texture but is much creamier than the aforementioned Saint Paulin.

MicrolightI’m not a great fruit eater but in France I do like a small pear or something after a meal. Then it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the evening as the sun begins to go down. At about six thirty to seven o’clock the local microlight drones past overhead. I can sort of imagine him looking down and thinking ‘there’s that English couple again, still supping wine!’

Bonsoir monsieur, until next year! À l’année prochaine!


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Swimming pools, Pubs, and the March of Time.

swimming poolThe Swimming Pool.

Time changes everything. Even in this remote (well, remote-ish) part of the world (the Cher region of France, as I write this) there are changes. The great thing about this gîte is the rather lovely pool which last year was open to the elements with a large patio but has now been covered by an enclosure, an abri as they call it here. It keeps the water warmer and means that the pool is useable in the cooler parts of the year. It also means that the pool complies with all the bureaucracy that goes with having a pool in France. Every pool must be protected against the accidental falling in of children so a small fence has to encircle the pool to keep wandering and unescorted children out of the water. We used to rent a place in the Loire which had a sort of concertina cover, which was in sections, one fitting into the other which could be all pushed completely back, opening up the pool in hot weather. Sacré Bleu! Said the French bureaucrats, This cannot be possible! That pool soon had the mandatory fence erected covering the exits. The owner was a little surprised when we pointed out that when the concertina covering was pushed back the fence could be bypassed. Mon Dieu! The next day we found that parts of the concertina had been screwed down, meaning it could only be opened within the fenced area. C’est la vie!

Photo by the author.

This is how the pool looked last year

Health and safety has reared its ugly head here too. There is a metal hand rail that leads one down into the pool but of course when it is hot -this year in the 90’s and hotter- the metal handrail gets . . hot! One of the previous tenants complained so the owners added a sort of padding, wrapped around the rail to protect one’s hands and fingers in the hot weather. (Note to self: exposed metal gets hot in 90 degrees plus!)

It’s funny now to think back to the first ever pool I swam in. Well, swam isn’t exactly the right word as I couldn’t swim then. I’m talking about when I was a schoolboy at Sharston school in Wythenshawe, Manchester many years ago. Every Monday, I think it was, we walked down to the baths at Sharston and our teacher sent our small group of non swimmers down to the shallow end, issued us with a polystyrene float and that was the last we saw of him till the end of the lesson. He spent all his time with the ‘advanced’ swimmers down at the deep end and at the end of the year he expressed himself very dissatisfied with our group as we hadn’t progressed to the ‘advanced’ stage. I wonder sometimes, if he had ever thought why we hadn’t progressed? Did it ever enter into his tiny mind for one minute that my schoolmates and I had no idea how to progress, how to become swimmers when apart from being handed a float, we actually had no swimming tuition at all? Strange that.

sharston

Sharston Baths

One year, at the end of the term, our teacher was so disappointed with our group that he took us up to the deep end where our more advanced schoolmates were doing their swimming proficiency medals. They had to jump into the deep end wearing pyjamas, undress, and then pick up a weight from the deep end. It was so very, very, easy that even we, the non swimmers could do it, he said. That was how I was compelled to jump in at the deep end wearing pyjamas, hanging onto a very long wooden pole with our swimming teacher holding the other end. I grappled about underwater for the weight and couldn’t find it. Not surprising really with my eyes shut. I couldn’t get the pyjamas off. Not surprising either as I hung onto the pole with both hands as if my life depended on it -which it did actually- and when finally dragged spluttering and choking to the surface, I was beached on the side of the pool like a stranded whale. My non swimming pals escorted me back to the shallow end like a hero. I must have been a sort of hero, to them, although inside I was a gibbering wreck, although I do remember thinking that if, by some strange chance I had come into contact with the weight at the bottom of the pool, I would have seriously considered whacking our teacher over the head with it!

I’m not a great swimmer but I finally learned to swim, after a fashion, in the warm waters off the South of France many years ago and as for my swimming teacher, Mr George, thanks for not completely drowning me!

Sharston.

Some years later the local planners decided to run the M56 Sharston bypass right through the centre of Sharston. A deep trench was cut, completely obliterating Sharston High street and its shops and businesses.  (Interesting idea that: Bypassing a place by completely obliterating it!) Some years afterwards Sharston Pool was knocked down too, as was Sharston Highways depot where my Dad used to work, and my old school, Sharston High, as was the school of our arch enemies, St John Vianney’s Catholic school round the corner. Yes, times indeed change.

Towards the top of Sharston, where Princess Parkway begins, is an area known as Royal Thorn. A pub bearing that same name used to stand there and an even older pub stood on the site in earlier days. Apparently the name dates back to the 16th century. The Royal Thorn was demolished a number of years ago though I still remember Sunday afternoon walks round the area which culminated in a drink in the large gardens to the rear of the pub. I, as a child, used to get a lemonade and a packet of crisps and would occasionally run to see the steam trains passing by.

sharston-hotelThe Sharston Hotel, once a local landmark is also gone. In its place stands an empty, unused, rather unattractive building.

The Salisbury.

Recently I was rather shocked to find, via Facebook, that an old haunt of mine, the Salisbury, a pub right by Oxford Road Station in Manchester, is in danger of demolition! Times move on, clearly, and the life of the city centre must change but why do we have to destroy those wonderful places of years gone by if it is not really, really, necessary? Shouldn’t the face of a great town like Manchester adequately reflect the past as well as the future?

The Salisbury

The Salisbury is a lovely old pub and one that I remember from my youth. In the mid seventies I left school and started work at the Refuge Assurance company on Oxford Rd and spent many a lunchtime and early evening at the Salisbury. I visited the pub last year and clearly a refurb has been done but happily it was a sympathetic refurb and the pub looks very, very similar to how it looked in the seventies. The stone flagged floor is still there. The food serving area has moved, in fact the bar has moved a little and the end of the pub, where my old office workmates and I used to congregate is now either an office or a private area but substantially, the pub looks pretty similar to how it used to look. On the outside, the pub is exactly the same as it always looked, and every time I see it, it is almost like the past, welcoming me back again.

Manchester city council, please, please don’t knock this pub down!

Thanks to the Facebook Wythenshawe page for the old pics of Sharston.


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Fast food, slow food, and French food

macweblogoIn the late 1930s a fellow called Patrick McDonald opened a fast food stand in California selling mainly hot dogs. Later, his sons took the business over and realising hamburgers were their top selling item they decided to revamp the entire operation, focusing on quick service and snack food that was served literally ‘fast’.

They reopened with their new concept in 1948 calling their fast food establishment simply ‘McDonalds.’ They franchised their operation and other ‘McDonalds’ started springing up over California and Arizona. In 1954 a man called Ray Kroc bought up the franchise for the rest of the United States and in 1961 he bought out the McDonald brothers for 2.7 million dollars. He then went on to build the McDonalds Corporation bigger and bigger and to export the McDonald restaurants all over the world. Even to France.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

Now, as a great lover of France and the french way of life, well, some of the french ways of life that is, it’s always been a great source of interest to me to see how the french would accept the fast food concept. As much as I love the french way of eating, the entree, plat, dessert et fromage, and plenty of bread, I do feel that french cusine is a little over rated. The fact of the matter is, some of the things that the french like to eat, well, they are just a little bit odd.

If you think about it, you can perhaps imagine ancient man many thousands of years ago. Picture him now, taking a good look at something like a cow for instance and thinking, “you know, bet there’s some tasty meat on that animal. I could slaughter it, cut a thick wedge of meat off, slap it on a griddle over the fire, some salt and pepper and bet it would taste lovely!” Yes, that’s thinking that I can understand, especially later when that same ancient man refined his original idea by adding a baked potato or a few chips to the meal and maybe even a side salad.

The ancestors of today’s frenchmen must have thought in a different way, well different to us anglo saxons that is. Just imagine some ancient frenchman in the same situation but instead of checking out the cow he has his eyes on a frog, hopping merrily about and croaking, as they do, and he begins to think like this: “Hey, wonder if I killed that frog, chopped its legs off and cooked them in a little garlic, what would they be like?” A thought that would never occur to any right minded Englishman in a million years! Imagine another frenchman, coming out of his cave on a damp morning and noticing a lot of snails wandering about in his back garden: “Hey, why don’t I cook those with some shallots and garlic?” he thinks. “What a great idea!” Wrong! Crazy idea! Take another look at that cow Monsieur!

Anyway, getting back to McDonalds. In Saumur, one of my favourite french towns, Liz and I dropped in to the local McDonalds  for a quick snack before making our way up north towards Calais. I think we ordered something from the breakfast menu like a bacon and egg McMuffin. Well, the trays behind the counter that are usually stacked with hot food were not stacked with anything so the staff asked us to settle down in a booth and take advantage of the free wi-fi and that they would bring our food over in a moment.

After a while, one of the staff came over, there was some sort of further delay so did we want another tea anglais on the house while we waited? OK. Eventually, after I had checked all my e-mails, started off a couple of blog posts and re written part of ‘Floating in Space‘ (ok, slight exaggeration) our food eventually arrived. After visiting McDonalds Saumur a few times I have found that this occurance is not unusual. In fact, it’s quite normal but the french seem happy with the situation and I think I know why: They do not understand the concept of fast food at all!

It’s the same in a french restaurant. They leave you for ages reading the menu as if it was ‘War and Peace.’ It’s not! Anyone can read the menu and decide what to have within five minutes. Oh and what about a drinks order while we wait? Oh no. The french waiter likes to give you plenty of time to choose. When you finally give the waiter your order, things go at a pace reasonably similar to that of a UK restaurant but then at the end when you are waiting and waiting for the bill, don’t they realise you have finished and actually want to leave?

The french like to savour the whole eating experience, even the reading of the menu and while I do agree with that initial concept, the french sometimes take it a little too far. No, the french food experience is not fast food, it’s slow food!


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Reflections on a French Holiday.

refelctionsAs I come towards the end of my French holiday it’s perhaps a good time to sit and reflect about France and the French people. I do love the quiet of the French countryside. It seems to me that in the hustle and bustle of the small islands that make up the United Kingdom it is harder than ever to find a little peace and quiet. Perhaps up there in the Scottish Highlands peace can be found, or even in the Lake District but in places like urban Manchester, silence is hard to find.

The French departments, similar I suppose to English counties, date from Napoleonic times and there are ninety six departments in France today which are further subdivided into cantons. Here in the Cher region, to the south of Paris are some lovely rural communities. Still and quiet villages, almost haunting in their silence can be found everywhere.

What I’ve always liked in France is the simple tabac. As the name suggests it’s a place where you can get your tobacco and in some places it is also combined with a presse so you can also pick up a newspaper. One thing you will always find in the tabac though is a bar, similar to the vault of an old English pub where French men chat and drink coffee, sip wine or a pastis. In the village where Liz and I are staying, Germigny l’Exempt, there is a small sell-everything shop, a combination epicerie, depot de pain (the lady owner explained carefully that they are not a boulangerie, but a pain depot) and of course, a bar! An interesting combination. You can imagine the situation if a similar establishment was available in England: The wife happens to mention to the husband, sitting in the lounge watching sport that they are a little short on veggies for the coming Sunday dinner. The husband jumps up; “need some vegetables love? Well, I’ll just nip down to the local shop and get you some!” And have a few beers while he’s there no doubt! Frenchmen, at least those of the rural Cher countryside, are clearly made differently here because I’ve yet to see anyone in that bar!

Last Friday night, Liz and I went down to a nearby town, La Guerche sur l’Aubois, and had a meal out. The only place open appeared to be a rather nice looking pizza place so we went in. There were only two other diners and at the small bar –this was Friday evening remember- were two or three French guys chatting. We had our pizza, had a beer at the bar and by nine pm they were ushering us out! What do the French do ‘au weekend’? I don’t know but it’s certainly not a beer and a pizza! One really nice thing about that bar though, every time a new customer came in, he said hello to all at the bar and shook hands with everyone in turn, including Liz and I, two English strangers. As for eating out though, that is something the rural French do of a lunchtime, not an evening. Shops close in France twelve till two while hungry Frenchmen go to the nearest bistro or restaurant for lunch.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

At every restaurant or bar serving food you will always see a sign for the ‘plat du jour’ or the dish of the day and one thing I love about French restaurants is their menu deals. You might see something like, for instance, a starter, the plat du jour, and then fromage (cheese) to finish. I do so much prefer small courses to one big meal!

The great thing about France is the wine and my personal rule about French wine is this –buy the cheapest, it’s always the best but then, I like my wine cheap and cheerful. In Intermarche, the Asda of France, you can buy a ten litre box of merlot for about 17 euros, that’s about £13 in UK money, an absolute bargain. Forget expensive French wines, a nice quaffable French red does it for me every time!

Another thing about the French, especially regarding drink. You’d think that France, the country that created brandy would be a haven of cheap brandy, after all, this is where the drink is made! Sadly that isn’t the case, in fact, brandy in France always looks to me to be pretty expensive. However when you come to whisky, a product of Great Britain, there seems to be an incredibly vast choice, far bigger than you would find in the UK. Perhaps the French are a nation of secret whisky drinkers!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

One final observation about the French. We’ve spent many a weekend on this holiday visiting brocantes and vide greniers, flea markets and car boot sales to you and we see so many stalls selling beer bottle tops. Here is a quick flash for any frenchman selling bottle tops; No one is going to buy them! Well, not me at least!

Anyway, as you the reader reads this blog we’ll have left the Cher region and will be motoring serenely across to the Loire for a few days before making our way back to the UK and home. One final reflection about holidays. Why is it that I’ve packed so many things for this trip and used so few? All my clothes were worked out in advance, polo shirts for the fetes and brocontes, smart shorts for being seen in public and scruffy shorts for private use. I also brought along both jeans and trousers, which I have worn exactly once each. Despite all this planning and thought, the fact of the matter is that I have spent most of this holiday in the same scruffy old vest and the same scruffy old pair of shorts. If I’d really thought about it, I could have significantly reduced the amount of clothing and saved some space for . . . more cheap wine!


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