Monday, November 29, 2010

Canine lounge-voguing

Yesterday morning I found myself out in the vineyards with Munson, uprooting poles in the heroic manner of Paul Bunyan and Babe. Heroic because it was only2 C andand I must also underline this: I was so keen to get out there I forgot to have my morning coffee. How brave and foolhardy is that?

It was below zero when I let Munson out for his ablutions this morning, a heavy frost draping the fields. So I went back inside and made sure I had a coffee, then I went out again with the cutters to do some more work. Mêmé asked if this was doing great things for my biceps – it is beyond that – I have biceratops!! OK that was a lame dinosaur joke, but I am now strong enough to avoid having sand kicked in my face. Except of course when Munson is digging up another rabbit hole, which is how he spent the morning.

He was really really exhausted when we got back to the villa for lunch. I didn’t realise how much so until I turned around to this sight:

Munson as Proust

Or from another angle:


Canine lounge-voguing doesn’t work for everyone:


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Out for a Sunday Troll

Dovre stove

As part of Brent’s “Project Warm”, we drove across the Gers to inspect, and ultimately buy a used wood-burning stove.  I’m brought along for all the jobs which require the team of Brute Force and Ignorance. Brent says that I’m Brute Force, but only Ignorance would say that.

The stove is a Dovre from Norway with a Three Billy Goats Gruff motif. It’s been nicknamed Fremont, because the bridge has a troll underneath.

Friday, November 26, 2010

AUCH J’aime mon chien, j’aime ma ville… et je ramasse!

Munson by river Gers  et je ramasse!

A busy day in Auch, the departmental capital of the Gers. First order of business was at the prefecture, changing the address for my car registration. It’s one of those things you’d prefer to do online in a minute, rather than paying for a 70km round-trip and using up an entire morning. Most frustrating was queuing up to hand in my change of address form, and then being given a receipt… I then had to queue again (for a longer period) to hand that receipt to the adjacent fonctionnaire for her to drop it into her inbox. The new address sticker arrives in the mail sometime later.

I was able to use my time after that a bit more profitably – a pair of overalls for farm work (especially the vineyard poles – no more choosing which dirty clothing to wear that day), and a nice woolly robe for my evenings in front of the fire. I’m sure that my fashion paparazzi stalker Jean will reveal all on Flickr, showing I’m too sexy for the catwalk in New York, Milan and Courrensan. Speaking of Jean, I dropped into the hospital to see her and baby Zélie, both of whom were luxuriating in the warmth of the maternity room. Munson was subsequently rewarded with a walk around central Auch and down by the river Gers.

The last week has been an interesting one for collecting new French terms.

  • accordage:  piano tuning – learnt in conversation when arranging my piano delivery
  • tronçonneuse: chain-saw – we’re using one to chop up the fence-posts for firewood. For the francochallenged, the ç is pronounced as an s.
  • ramasser: to collect or pick-up (see sign in picture above) – sometimes used instead of draguer – to pick up via seduction, or to dredge. A pick-up artist is un dragueur or une dragueuse

Now, back to the farm for more of l'enlèvement de poteaux.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

La plus que lente


The piano has finally made it from the salle de degustation over to the villa. I arranged for a truck with hydraulic lift and a large-wheeled dolly/chariot to get it up the steps. Two of us deadlifted the 300kg (660lb) beast onto dolly, rolled it onto the truck for the 100 metre road trip to its new resting place. Of course just as we had to negotiate that most difficult part of the journey, the morning’s icy rain returned with great force. Fortunately, levering the trolley up eight wide steps proved to be much easier than I would have guessed and so that was over and done with within five minutes of getting the piano out of the truck.

Even after the long journey from Australia and then sitting in the cold salle, it’s retained its tuning pretty nicely. Sadly the QuietTime MIDI unit that allows me to get digital music from it also seems to have expired. It’s served me faithfully for 12 years and two equatorial crossings, so I’ll contact the PianoDisc folks to see if I can upgrade it in place myself.

Munson’s happy to resume his position near the piano. It’s another familiar element from the old country to properly ease him into this new home. We have been away from Australia for 5 months now, but it’s only now that I can aim for a new equilibrium in our life together.

ÉAUZE : Armagnac alchemy

IMG_0206  IMG_0202

Thursday is market day in Éauze. Today there was a little extra to see – a marketing pavilion for Armagnac producers and a display of mobile stills, what they call l’alambic Armagnacais. That reminds me of the alchemist’s alembic for transmutation, now more commonly known as a retort in a chemist’s laboratory.

I wanted to explore these a bit more after I’d finished collecting groceries from the regular market stalls, but an icy rain set in which seemed to thrill no one but a certain Arctic companion who just wanted to dance in the streets.



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Je suis un lumberjacques

IMG_0183 I have an (almost) regular exercise regimen now. After breakfast, I put on my boots and gloves, grab my cutters and a handful of dog treats, and head off to the vines. Moving from blogging to logging is definitely a great muscle-toner and Munson absolutely loves hanging around as I work.

Removing the poles – which vary from about 15 to 40kg – is a brutal process, the exercise somewhere on the work-spectrum between pole-dancing and bear-hugging 800 recalcitrant cacti. Some of the poles are only supported by the wires threaded through them, while others seem to be rooted more firmly than a 200 year old sequoia. For the most part, a bit of wiggling, pushing and rocking the pole in the wet ground is enough to loosen it, and then a twist or upward heave drags it clear and I can throw it down for later collection in the pick-up.
Munson often runs up and down the vineyard paths like a mad shuttle on a loom of wire and gnarled trunks. More often than not he has a face full of rabbit hole, a white-tailed corkscrew submerged for minutes at a time, perhaps trying to inhale a rabbit from the other end of its hole.

When he does wander a little bit further, I call him back (using “come!”, not his name) and reward him with a treat, reinforcing the benefit of not getting too far out of my sight. For the time being he won’t be allowed out unsupervised – I’m not really expecting him to wander far from the houses – but some positive reinforcement is well-timed to build on the extra close bonding time we had while I managed his short illness. Like Bondi, Munson has quickly figured out when I’m trying to help him with an ailment. Unlike Bondi, he thinks that brushing his fur is an assassination attempt.

Square malamute in a round hole #1  Square malamute in a round hole #2PB231025

With the day’s rabbit-sniffing and vineyard shuttling done, Munson is loving the afternoon babysitting I’m doing till Jean’s home from hospital with Zélie. Munson provides a comic warm-up act, and then once the fire is running, and the kids are settled before the Disney Ingmar Bergman film du-jour, he walks around to kiss them, and then curls up as close to (or on) them as permissible.

2010-11-23 Vines

Monday, November 22, 2010


2010-11-22 Vines

Another afternoon in the vineyards, but it’s a solo turn today ( Munson’s cheery accompaniment notwithstanding ). Jean’s left for the hospital in Auch, and after Brent’s gotten the Munsoneers off to school, and I’ve driven him to the hospital and now we have the farm to ourselves.

I’ve worked up my own technique for pulling out the vine-poles, zigzagging up a pair of rows as if lacing a pair of boots. It just takes about 45 minutes and quite a bit more grunting to do this particular pair.

I’ve set my alarm to remind myself to pick the Munsoneers up when the schoolbus arrives. About two minutes before the yellow bus pulls up at the entrance to the farm, I get a message from Brent that they have a new girl, and so I have the pleasure of telling the Munsoneers (and the bus-driver) that they have a new sister Zélie.

I have a few hours of babysitting to do, and it’s easiest to just have everyone in the villa where I can keep them warm and supervised at the same time. Ranging in age from 3 to 8, they’re the perfect age for being introduced to the works of Ingmar Bergman, so I slip The Seventh Seal into the DVD player. If this goes well, we should be able to progress to Cries and Whispers by the end of the week. If not, then it’ll be Pixar’s Up.

Death in pink spectacles, contemplates her next chess move

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mauvaise with buttons

Mauve With Buttons

Jean has been rather taken by the knitted sweaters that I’ve been parading this week, mostly the result of a jumper-per-year effort during the 80s. I put down my needles about ten years ago, defeated by an over-ambitious project to overlay an Art Deco motif onto a rotated basket-weave effect, the Spruce Goose of sweaters. Tormented by dye-lot mismatches and an unfortunate tension issue that made it look as if the wearer had a dark green wool-mohair colostomy bag, I did a quick fix-up and despatched the resulting Frankensweater into a clothing bin for the homeless.

This particular garment in tweed was my fourth sweater, and my first with cable-stitch, which was really much easier than it looks. It's from Patons Book 834 "Heathermoor for Men" - yes I still have the pattern! I'm guessing it dates from 1988.

The Quest for Firewood

Into the wood(s)

Quattro – that’s the code for Jean & Brent’s fourth baby - and prospective recruit to the Munsoneers - is due tomorrow, so Brent is pressing firmly forward on Project Warm ( when two project managers marry there’s a lot of code-word baggage) to ensure that Quattro arrives in a not-too-freezing Gascon farmhouse. Most of the windows have now been replaced, a new wood-burning stove installed, and now a small layby of ex-vineyard poles is accumulating. Ah yes, but we still need a good bit of kindling!

So it’s down to one of the out-buildings where a good supply of very dry and partly ant-eaten wooden planks is propped against a wall. Making kindling means angling a plank against a broken cinder-block and jumping on it. And then moving it half a metre and jumping again. And again. Next plank. Jump. Jump.

Meanwhile, Munson has discovered that a rabbit is hiding amongst the planks and spends an hour sniffing around them, completely disinterested in my jumping, banging and snapping.

With the ute half filled, it’s brought back up to the villa for closer storage. Munson is still sure that a rabbit is hiding amongst the broken remains of the wood…

Wabbit season  Wabbit season

Friday, November 19, 2010

Back in the saddle

IMG_0132 IMG_0133

It took a day or so for Munson to regain his appetite but his energy level increased quite rapidly. Spending this time watching his urine for signs of blood, I could see we were in the clear. I didn’t allow him to run around off-leash until today (making at-a-distance urinalysis a bit easier), his sudden weight loss signalling to me at least that he needed some gentler recovery time.

This down time coincided with the lighting of the fireplaces and an urgent need to procure firewood to feed them. There’s some days’ worth of available wood lying around the farm, but the big resource is several hectares of vineyard fence posts. The vineyard lease is being transferred elsewhere by the tenants, so they are required to remove all the vines from this location. In practice this means ripping it all up and burning it.

Each row of the vineyard has an acacia pole every five metres with several wires running along to support the branches. Brent and Jean had spent a morning out ripping out some of the poles, and Brent took me out to show me his method for separating poles and placing them for subsequent pickup in the utility truck. Each row has about 40 poles to remove. Multiplying that out by the acreage of vines, we can potentially collect enough firewood to see both houses through five winters.

Munson’s hanging out with us now, very intent on imbibing something from the dried remnants of grape bunches left over from the vendanges in early October.

In the evening I can now put on the ug slippers and perch before that fireplace – Munson’s first experience of a real winter is going to be very full featured!

PB191000 PB191001

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I’m pleased to report that Munson’s improved greatly today. He’s been as active as I’ll allow and beginning with a few dry biscuits, has regained some of his appetite.

Now, if only someone could tell me where the movers put the carousel dish from my microwave oven.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lost and found

PB120960The last three days are not ones I particularly want to replay, but since I’ve promised a few people an update, here goes…

On Friday morning I saw Munson and Smeggs playing in the yard outside my window as usual. Usually Munson comes back to try his chances at licking the breakfast plate but he didn’t show.  I went outside a little while later and called out for him. He and Smeggs are often chasing rabbits and are back pretty quickly when I start calling.


I go for a walk around the edge of the farm, and also take a drive over towards the nearest cluster of houses. Still nothing. I drive in the opposite direction to a farm bordering a large bit of woodland. I manage to inadvertently approach both a deer and a hare, who suddenly bolt from their frozen position. They’re not likely to be hanging around with two silly dogs sniffing around.

I figure they’re busy with all that chasing around and will come back when they’re tired and a little hungry. At 1.30pm I see Smeggs has returned … without Munson. Now I’m a little worried.

I spend the afternoon hunting and calling, sweeping the area in increasing distance, meeting some neighbours for the first time as I explain my search and hand out my contact information. I keep wishing that Smeggs would emulate Lassie and lead me to Munson, but she just seems confused and distracted … especially by rabbit scent.

Facing the Pyrenees

As dusk approaches I realise there is little more I can do and sit at the top of our long driveway, trying to breathe through my worry. It’s been a really stunning day otherwise: I can see patches of snow on the lower slopes of the Pyrènées 150km away.

PB120978 The sun burns itself out in orange and pink. Click the camera. Don’t worry. Click again. Keep calm. Click. Click. Click. Feeling empty, agitated and unfocused I go inside and try to find some mechanical clean-up or unpacking job to distract me.



Some time after 7 – at least 8 hours after I started looking for him  - a small truck drives up to the main house but it’s too dark to see who it is. From my kitchen window, I get the gist of some discussion with the kids so I figure it’s the parent of a schoolmate. I can’t remember what I was trying to do, so I grab my flashlight and go to see what’s up. Lucy cries out “Michael! They’ve got Munson!”  The little storm brewing up inside me dissipates. He’s in the back of the truck – looking groggy and dirty. Too tired to do more than acknowledge me with a small flick of the tail and pressing the bridge of his nose into my hand. He had been found six hours earlier on another farm, but when he had been taken to the local vet, they had failed to find him in their records even though they had his microchip (puce-électronique – electronic flea!) number and a name-tag to look up.

Bundling him up in my arms – he doesn’t complain, he’s like a sack of potatoes – I carry him inside. He’s got all manner of muck on him from snout to tail, so it’s definitely bathtime. This he’s not keen on – he just resists soundlessly.


Finally I get him in, he patiently lets me remove the muck, some ticks are rinsed away. He crawls onto his bed, curling into a tight ball. I give him periodic gentle reassurance, but he’s just wrecked.

The next two days show little improvement. He’s drinking but showing no interest in food. I take him for very short walks, but his legs are quite shaky. On Sunday he passes some blood in his urine which makes me think he’s banged a kidney. He hasn’t made a noise since he came home. I’m missing him talking to me, reproaching me, cajoling me.

First thing Monday I book him into the veterinary clinic for the afternoon. He’s passed more blood in the night. There’s a little bit of a smile. but he’s still tired and hasn’t even licked the yoghurt pot I left by his mattress.

Around noon I’m chatting with Mark, the electrician working on the main house, and mention Munson’s state. He immediately pronounced “piroplasmosis – get him to the vet ASAP”. 

At the clinic, I weigh Munson – he’s lost 10% of his hitherto completely stable 45 kg. The vet takes a blood sample and identifies the parasite Babesia canis aka piroplasma canis along with the associated anemia. He’s given one injection to kill the parasite, and another to deal with immune system reactions.

Munson - monday evening

Usually the dog will show improvement within 12 –24 hours (it’s barely 9 hours now) and may require a second dose. While Munson is still reluctant to do much more than lie down somewhere familiar, he has no problem jumping in and out of the car, or on and off the bed. He’s done a couple of laps around the lounge this evening, and yes, licked a yoghurt pot. Best of all, he’s even courting belly rubs and just woo-ed me for pulling some hair tufts from his flanks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The week’s wrap-up

What day is it? So much to do each day that I usually  fall asleep as soon as I get to bed. Everything (except the piano) has now been moved into the villa, and has been unpacked into its new position. OK, so I have a few dozen boxes of books to shelve but that’s easy work once I’ve agonised over which room which bookcase goes into and which subject matter lives in which room. I’ve moved some of these books around the world so many times I’ve thought of retitling this blog The Gypsy Librarian, especially since El Bibliotecario y El Lobo just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Up at the big house they’ve been having a big week replacing most of the crappy old windows and doors with new ones that are double-glazed and properly sealed. They’ve had the shutters closed for a month just to keep the heat in. Now there’s this transparent glass stuff that you can see through for proper neighbour stalking…. but that stalking works both ways, as I found when looking through Jean’s Flickr stream, where she’d captured the scene of all three dogs intercepting me in the driveway

 Michael Doolittle conversing with Smeggs, Munson & Tosca

Yesterday phone and internet were laid on (yay!) . I was a bit grumpy in the morning when the technician booked for 8-10am failed to show. Around 1pm I reached someone at Orange ( French Telecom ) to find out what was happening. The customer service guy was rather hilarious: “This is France, what do you expect? …. What are we going to do?”. I don’t think his second question was rhetorical. Later I wondered if this was a script to placate silly foreigners, but I have enough problems with English language phone support to chase that thought further… Fortunately the technician drove up to the house at exactly that point so questions of rhetoric could be put aside.


The late afternoon was spent slicing up and folding the plastic wrap my furniture had been bound in for four months so I could stuff it in the car and take it to the déchèterie (waste/recycling centre). Although I’d packed the rear and front passenger seats to the ceiling, Munson still managed to crawl in and cocoon himself in the wrapping. He seemed really happy to be there.

IMG_0055 IMG_0057

Ending on a sombre note:  I hope these pictures of Munson provide a scrap of cheer for my friend Julian in Copenhagen, with whom Bondi and I stayed toward the end of our European loop in 2007. His lovely dog Cindy passed today – he writes:

No price can be placed on such devotion, no label attached, it is private and personal, to be cherished and appreciated. I can only hope that I did what was best for her.

Looking up from where I write now, I see Bondi’s ashes on the mantle over the fireplace, beside one of my father’s swimming trophies. There are almost certainly a few of his hairs floating out of the bottom of my sofas and packing boxes. Even more certainly, there is no way of stopping the right one from squeezing in through all the detritus and making themselves comfortable in your heart.

Ah ... let the right one slip in
Slip in
Slip in
And when at last it does
I'd say you were within your rights to bite
The right one and say, "what kept you so long ?"
"What kept you so long ?"
Oh ...

- Morrissey, Let the right one slip in

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Resume the position

PB070935When you move to a new hemisphere, you don’t see water going down the plug in a different direction – especially if you have a malamute, in which case it’ll probably be so clogged up with hair that it doesn’t go down at all.

More importantly, there is no reason to change which end of the sofa you sleep on when said sofa is finally unwrapped and placed in front of a promising-looking fireplace.

The next nest

Mike on the doorstep - picture by Jean

Back from our travels a week now, and also marking four months since leaving Sydney. No sooner had we returned to the farm, than we were waving off the tenants from la maison deuxieme, and preparing to shift all my boxes to there from the salle de degustation we’d been camping in for some weeks. Smeggs is beyond overjoyed to have Munson to play with again, while Tosca has slimmed down as she’s discovered her inner rodent hunter.

The diet and lifestyle here are paying off for me too – in these four months I’ve shed 5kg (11lb) that crept on while I was moping about last year, and can barely keep my pants aloft even with a belt on. Dish of the week was Brent’s sanglier stew which unfortunately didn’t find favour with anyone but Brent or myself, although Jean did slip into cries of Wild Boars!  a la Duran Duran.

As of this writing almost everything is in, unpacked and being nudged into position. The last two dozen book boxes and piano are all that remain to shift. With eight steps to elevate the piano, which will require significant manpower, I may just pay some movers to get the job done quickly.

photo 5Yesterday I found myself in the salle playing Chopin and Tchaikovsky dance music -  as I watched the twirling reflections of Jean and the kids in the black lacquer of the piano. Pulling out The Teddy Bear’s Picnic or The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy inevitably had young Minty demanding an encore.





I’m always amazed by what I find when unwrapping stuff that has been “professionally” packed, items that had been unnecessarily split into three boxes or boxes simply grossly mislabelled. Seeing the random items from different rooms that have been wrapped together puts me in the mind to develop a new benchmark for insanity. – why does one wrap a serrated knife up with sunglasses, or envelop a paper pamphlet in six layers of butcher’s paper? Imagine having eight to ten large bookshelves, and not discovering the bag of shelf pins until you’re halfway through the box labelled crystalware from another part of the house. A couple of boxes with nothing valuable or fragile in them were half full of scrunched up wrapping paper.  The unnecessary increase in volume probably cost me an additional $1-2000 in shipping fees. Anyway, live and learn.

I’ve moved house so many times in my life that I become a bit of a machine when house-setup occurs. Just getting rid of all the boxes and packing material is a big psychological boost, and motivates you towards finding a home for everything very quickly.

I’ve had a day or two running around organising transfer of utilities to my name. Apparently the house hasn’t had a telephone connection for three years after a storm brought down the line, so I’m looking forward to having that repaired this week and the internet connection going live.

Munson seems quite happy with the new quarters, especially that he can now go back to sleeping on a familiar rug or sofa. I’m sleeping properly in my own bed for the first time since leaving Sydney, waking to find Munson hovering by the bed, waiting to be invited up for a belly scratch.