Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rainbow threads among the gold

Rainbow over the vineyards

An evening thunderstorm conspired with the setting sun to play a golden light over the farm. The rain had cleared away but lightning still crackled on every horizon. All these photos were taken in the space of fifteen minutes after 8pm –a few are stitched together: the first from five photos taken towards the south encompassing a rainbow backlight by lightning, and the last has dramatically different exposure levels blending in the middle of one of the trees at the head of our driveway.

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P5303252P5303263Brent heads home

Saturday, May 28, 2011

1226 posts later

Michael & Munson
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The first blog post was made on this day in 2005, just after landing in London with Bondi. Munson made his first appearance around the third anniversary in 2008.

Today was a simple affair, a trip to Lectoure markets with Gustav for fresh vegetables - where I found the hedgehog bell shown, marking the visit from le petit hérisson last month; and some more cherry picking on the farm.

And so we go into El Loco & El Lobo year seven…

Friday, May 27, 2011

BORDEAUX

The last time Gustav visited the farm, he expressed a desire to see the Atlantic Ocean, which is about three hours’ drive away. My first inclination was to head towards Biarritz, placing us close to the Spanish border, and thus putting San Sebastian in easy reach. A return through the Pyrenees would cap off the trip nicely.

With only a rental car at my disposal this week, this put paid to taking Munson and/or any overnight stays that would soften the driving time. The days are long enough now to make the trip doable in a single day, but wet weather was forecast all around the south coast for the next few days. I remember San Sebastian as being a particularly drizzly city, so unlike our neck of the Gers, a forecast of rain was more likely to stick.

The other option was to go to Bordeaux and look for a quickly accessible beach. I’ve driven past Bordeaux a couple of times but never scheduled time for even a quick survey. Once home to Neanderthals, it now capital of Aquitaine and head of the world’s most famous wine-growing region, and I really should have gotten there a little sooner!

Taking the motorway, our journey was bang on two hours from farm to a carpark on the edge of the River Gironde. I crossed the mouth of the Gironde by car- ferry back in 2005 – looking back in the blog I see I had telegrammatically-brief entries as internet access was extremely limited. So here is a picture from that time which I’ve not posted before: 20051203 Bondi in Bordeaux

This was one of our first stops after leaving San Sebastian, and Bondi was really happy playing the on sand at the estuary mouth until the ferry came along. Bordeaux is not actually by the sea, but ocean liners can reach the city along the river. Italian and German submarines were stationed there during WWII.
Grosse Cloche (Great Bell Gate)  Gustav, hot cholocate and muffins

Passing on foot through the bell gate La Grosse Cloche, we entered the old eighteenth-century heart of the city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The marshy soil by the Gironde prevents tall buildings from being erected so Bordeaux has sprawled to become France’s largest city in area. The old city is very pedestrian-friendly with some of the longest shopping streets in Europe. A rain-shower and a muffin-filled window display sent us hurrying into a big friendly-looking bakery/cafe called Karl for bowls of hot chocolate and the muffins.

P5263190  Rue Leopold
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P5263192-93_stitch Bordeaux
After some walking around the interesting narrower streets, the city opens out into wider spaces such as the enormous Place des Quinconces with its fountains (below) in a 12 hectare (31 acres) setting.
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The fountain sculptures and their fantastic sea-horses were dismantled and sold for cost of raw materials in 1942; the pieces only re-assembled and returned to their original place in 1985.
2011-05-26 Bordeaux   Grand Crohot

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After 3 hours of wandering, we returned to a Thai kitchen that my stomach had mentally bookmarked near the bell gate. I’ve been having Thai food dreams after nearly a year away from Sydney, and a big Pad-Thai noodle dish filled that gastronomical hole in my diet for the time being.
2011-05-26 Bordeaux   Grand Crohot1

The closest ocean beach was Grand Crohot at Cap Ferret about 45 minutes beyond Bordeaux. It’s not a very scenic drive: motorway decorated by whitebox supermarkets and hardware stores, interspersed with drab functional holiday houses. Most of the coastline down to Spain is a long stretch of sand with little to distinguish one “beach” from another. It’s still too cold to swim in the Atlantic waters, ill-advised in any case with the very strong off-shore currents. A junior surfing class was just finishing up as we arrived, and we didn’t stay more than thirty minutes as a wind was picking up and there was nowhere to shelter from flying sand. Gustav had enough time to wade in Atlantic waters for the first time and collect shells and stones for his mum back in Sweden.

For our return drive we passed through the Parc Naturel des Landes de Gascogne – a huge area south of Bordeaux – but this was a rather sad affair with great swathes of over-felled forest and little to see but the back of the slow vehicles in front of us. Even the motorway was more interesting!

I’m looking forward to returning to Bordeaux (with Munson I hope) for a longer appreciation of its treasures.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Checking your lac toes tolerance

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We may be in the middle of a drought, but the lake at Lupiac is sparkling and the water temperature is perfect.

Cherries!

 

2011-05-24 Cherry picking

A couple of the cherry trees next to the driveway are hanging heavily with their fruit. The birds have picked off most of the accessible cherries on the nearer tree (the ones that Jean and the kids didn’t nab first), and the remaining tree is heavily fortified by blackberry thorns. Undeterred, Gustav and I haul a ladder down through the undergrowth and collect a large bowl full of gorgeous sweet cerises.
Munson and the giant cherry Munson and the giant cherry #2
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Munson is not usually interested by fruit, but a bright red cherry or two rolling around the floor tempted him enough to gingerly sniff and lick them before despatching them whole. With a tongue like his, I’m sure he could tie a knot in the stem, but that’s beyond my teaching capacity.

The cherry red theme was carried over into dinner – chicken with sweet potato mash and a liberal supply of grilled capsicums.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Auch and about

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My car’s out for the count indefinitely – it’s a diesel fuel pump issue, and short of an expensive replacement can’t be fixed locally. So it’s going to be shipped off to another town 50km away for more specialised treatment. In the meantime I have a guest for the week – Gustav returns from Sweden – and that means a couple of awkwardly timed visits to Toulouse airport.

I looked to get a rental car in Auch – doing it online 2 hours in advance saves 50 euro or so, so I scramble for the computer when Jean suggests a groceries trip and lock one in for the week. Munson’s in full pre-summer moult right now so he won’t be riding anywhere in it, but at least Gustav won’t be tied to the farm for the week.

The car I booked, a little Renault Twingo, wasn’t available due to a late return, so I’ve been upgraded for free to a Renault Scenic, a newer model of the car I drove around Europe in with Bondi. I get a bit of a shock when I’m in the seat: it has a card-key and push-button ignition – all well and good – but the lack of a handbrake freaks me out. There’s an electronic parking-brake and that’s it. Extracting the car from a parallel-parked position on a busy street while learning the subtleties of the car’s brake and transmission is more awkward than I would like.

I looked through the car’s manual: this clearly shows a real hand-brake and has nothing about the electronic system.  Once home I went online to find out how the bloody thing was suppose to work. It’s a fiddly business and the user accounts I read online made me dread parking or being caught at a stop light on a slope.

Friday, May 20, 2011

May Fever

France drought
source: http://www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/11005_carte_limitation_eau_16_05.pdf

The drought conditions in France have caused water restrictions to be placed on many departments, including the Gers (#32: the lowermost orange-shaded area). Rain clouds have formed nearby us and then dispersed or marched away without shedding their load onto our parched fields. With nothing to wash out the air, the pollen-count is up again, so I’m back indoors most of the day. I took Munson out for a fifteen minute run and rabbit-sniff this morning, and it took about 90 minutes for my eyes to clear again !

On other fronts I’ve had very mixed news. My car seems to be out for the count indefinitely with a faulty diesel injection pump. Repair options and expertise are widely dispersed around the region, so haulage costs to transfer to a new garage have to be factored in. There are no good options for my wallet. Brent has been super helpful sorting out some of the mechanical options with several garagistes as I’m not great with those matters even in English.

The best news for the week was that I successfully exchanged my Australian driver’s license for a French permis de conduire. Any non-EU person residing in France must complete this exchange (if from an approved country) in their first 12 months of residency. Without an EU-issued driving license you can’t be insured in France after that time and would have to take a full French theory and practical driving exam.

Jean drove me into Auch on Wednesday so I could hand my documents in at the prefecture. When I tried submitting them by post a few months ago, they were sent back after several weeks with a long letter explaining the deficiencies in my application. I didn’t want to risk another long turnaround, so figured that a personal visit would strip at least two weeks off the process. I was very fortunate in a) not having any queue, and b) having all my papers approved immediately at the desk. To my surprise I was told that my license would be available for pickup within the hour. French licenses are flimsy part-laminated cardboard affairs – just one design amongst 110 different versions throughout the EU. A standard license format will begin to be deployed over the next twenty(!) years. It was very pleasing to leave Auch, permis in hand - would that I had a functioning car to celebrate in!
peasNow that I’m in the final two months of my first year in France, I can apply to renew my visa. I’ll be off to the mayor’s office within the week to start that process. If I’m not mistaken, I’ll then get a proper carte de séjour (residency card) rather than using the stickers in my passport as proof of residency.
Till then, I’m home, enjoying the peas and quiet.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It all started on vendredi la treizième

It all started on Friday the 13th as I was heading off to Auch to file papers to exchange my Australian driver’s licence for a French one.  I backed out of the garage, turned towards the driveway and the car stopped. And wouldn’t start. There was also a small black kitten – Griff – running around the car.

I checked a few suggestions on the internet, one of which was to turn the engine over for a minute or two.  When I tried that, it drained the battery somewhere between the “minute” and the “or two”.

The problem – I’m told – was most likely with the fuel filter or the injection hoses, but to access those one needs to remove a cover screwed down with both a regular bolt and some torx. I don’t have any torx wrenches so I went back inside, took off my nice visit-the-prefecture clothes and took a deep breath. No major progress was going to be made today.

Later that day I accompanied Jean on a shopping trip to Eauze and bought a set of wrenches. Back at the farm, Brent removed the engine cover and found lots of corn kernels,  pellets of rat poo and other bits and pieces that said rat had dragged back into the engine to feast on. There was also signs of the rat having chewed on the hood lining and who knows what else.

The battery was recharged overnight, and after cleaning out corn and poo, I reaffixed it to the engine. The car started instantly this time. It now being Saturday there was nowhere to go. We had three brief rain showers – the first in many weeks – but that was it for the weekend’s excitement. Over the weekend I tested the engine start a few more times and let it idle a few minutes to convince myself it was still OK.

Today, Monday morning, I’m back in my nice clothes (ie I have shoes on and a shirt with buttons) and I drive off for Auch a little after 9am. About 10km away from home, the engine starts to cut out and I drift into a relatively safe spot on the side of the road.

A passing car picked me up and took me to the closest garage – we weren’t optimistic as nothing much is open on a Monday around here. That garage, which claimed to service Opel cars on its website showed no interest in helping. I asked my kind rescuers to drop me in the centre of town to make further enquiries. I went to the local gendarmerie and asked for their assistance. They found the details of a (the?) local towing service – also tied to a garage closed on Mondays – and very nicely drove me to that garage.

The car was picked up and taken back to the garage, but I will have to wait until middle of tomorrow when they’re open again and had a chance to look at it.

90 minutes after I set out, I was back at the farm. Nice clothes and folder of paperwork on hold once more.

So I’ve taken the chance to finish all the blog-posts that I was too hayfeverish to complete over recent weeks. They’ve all been poste below. My symptoms are much improved, but I still can’t spend too much time outside without my eyes stinging. At least when I’m indoors  my darling air purifier keeps me in a less aggravated state than I’ve been in for the past six weeks.

I made this heart for you Bunny-eye view of malamute at top of hole

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kittens 101

Mike, Munson and the powder-blue eyes of Greyskull

Introducing Greyskull and Gryff(indor), barncats-to-be.

The two boy kittens were donated to the farm by the mayor (one of our near neighbours) a few days ago. They’ve been living in one of the barns, adjusting to this big smelly world of cows, straw, and the noisy young Munsoneers who christened them. The grey one is actually called Greycute, but he has such a He-Man ferocity to his hiss that I think Greyskull suits him better.

Munson himself is not yet accustomed to living with cats so I’ve kept him away from their general vicinity.  Back in Sydney the neighbourhood cats used to taunt him whenever he was in the yard, so he’s had a rather skewed view of them. Bondi was a bit of a cat-chaser in his youth, but settled down to live with them in confined areas.

kittens, kittens, kittens

Today I sat outside with Munson (with a good grip on his collar) while the two kittens ran around us and over us. I worked on reinforcing good behaviour from Munson using clicks and treats. Most of the time he was more concerned that the strange little puppies were trying to get into his treat tin. They in turn showed little fear at approaching Munson from any angle.

We spent a little over  half an hour doing this so Munson became used to their presence and wasn’t tempted to um… “floss” with them. I believe we made fine progress in this session, but it’s only the first of more such sessions. Please excuse the temporary invasion of kittens on the blog after getting through nearly six years without them (an internet first?).

A barrel of frogs

 frog 'n' dog


big barrel

One day last week I was in my kitchen and heard my name being taken in vain outside. There was a tractor immediately outside the window, bearing a large armagnac barrel. To be clear: a large empty armagnac barrel.

Brent donated the barrel to my home-gardening effort. It’s a bit too big to manage on my terrace, so I’ve parked it by the gate, which has been waiting for something more decorative than the pile of junk I round up each month to go la déchetterie.

The bottom of the barrel has been lined with straw – there’s no particular value in filling it all up with soil unless a tree is going in. For now it’ll just be tomato plants and herbs. It takes a couple of days for me to collect sufficient rich manured soil from the corral. It’s only about 5 wheelbarrow loads, but I can’t stay outside too long without my eyes streaming. As I dug through the corral’s compost, I keep coming across what appear to be dead frogs – I’m not sure if they’ve recently expired or they’ve been preserved in the moist soil. I dropped the first one on the side of the wheelbarrow and resumed shovelling. Turning back to the barrow, it seemed that the frog had moved a little so I took it down to the pond and dropped it into the water. There was a moment when it just looked like the frog was going to sink into the pond’s murky shallowness and then it kicked into life and swam off. All the other frogs I found were similarly revived. I showed one to Munson but he was either completely uninterested or jealous of me playing in so much lovely dirt.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We Think The World Of You

We Think the World of You DVDWe Think the World of You [1989] (1)

Back in February,  I noted that J.R. “My Dog Tulip” Ackerley’s novel We Think The World Of You was about to make an appearance on DVD.  Today, an Amazon care package delivered a copy into my depollinated retreat.

The film is from 1988 but it has the look of a TV melodrama from 1950 - the year the book was published. The malnourished look of postwar London is lit up by first rate star power in the cast: Alan Bates, Gary Oldman, Liz Smith, Frances Barber and a very beautiful German Shepherd bitch.

We Think the World of You [1989] (2)

Ackerley

Most poignant for me were the scenes of man and dog walking along the river Thames near Hammersmith Bridge, something I did time and again with Bondi during our London time 5 years ago.

My new best friend

The main pollen irritant that’s been aggravating me for several weeks seems to have dispersed in recent days. I doubt if I could tell you what day it was most days. I’ve been housebound and befuddled through most of April, barely leaving the farm except for a mandatory paperwork visit to Toulouse before Easter and a couple of quick supermarket raids.

I’ve stopped sneezing and scratching, but my eyes are still causing me a lot of grief. There’s something different around which is making my eyes sting rather than itch. It’s not a huge improvement, but the cessation of sneezing means I’m not totally drained of energy by mid-morning.

Jean made the brilliant suggestion that I get an air purifier/ioniser to clean up the air in the house. I ordered one online last week and it arrived after lunchtime today. I put it on in the corner of the room, set it for a two cycle, and forgot about it. About ninety minutes later I realised I felt sooo much better and I’ve been able to punch out a few posts here covering late April.

Welcome friendly purificateur ioniseur d’air: I wish I’d invited you sooner.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Out standing in the field

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Taking its cue from April’s record-setting warmth and lack of rain, May is rolling out one long dry day after another. The activity around the farm has been centred on fence-building so that the cattle can be  productively cycled through available pasture. Since I’ve been mostly indoors sneezing out the last of the cypress pollen, I can only watch from a distance and listen to the rumble of the tractor and hay making machinery.

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Brent invited me out into one of the closer paddocks to see the new calves that have been arriving in fits and starts. The salers have been here for nearly two months and I’ve not been up close with them since they left the corral for life outdoors. With the mirandaises, the herd has been a set of white and brown blobs moving lazily across my puffy-eyed horizon.

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The last time I was in a field with cows was when I was evading their curious attention as Bondi and I traversed Hadrian’s Wall path a few years ago. I wasn’t going out there with Munson but I was still a bit nervous. After sliding under the lower wire of the electric fence, I followed Brent out to where the newest calf, a black male saler, was being suckled. Foolishly I was under-dressed for the long grasses – no sneezes but the blades quickly irritated the skin on my legs.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Two years on

November 2005: Bondi on La Concha May 2011: Munson on my lap

Later this month, El Loco & El Lobo celebrates six years and 1200+ posts. Through the first four of those years, the blog was very much about my special relationship with Bondi. With his passing two years ago today, the lens swung to Munson, smaller in stature, but as confounding an animal as ever crushed one’s lap with the very considerable weight of his affection.

Some days I feel like I’m on a seesaw, a great weight of memories on one side, and years of possibility on the other. Both are of great comfort to me, especially on days like today when I remember helping Bondi through his last day with love and dignity.

Life: how do you do it without a malamute beside you? A funny, cuddly, cantankerous, woolly, mellow, twinkly-eyed magnificent piece of work they are.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A site neglected because of sore eyes

Oh damn sneeze that tickles down my nose and dances from nostril to nostril before taking a bow. Why tease me with endless encores, kicking dust into mine eyes with every fevered twirl?

- me ( or as Nick Mills quipped “Shakespeare with man-flu”)

For the last two weeks I’ve been somewhat house-ridden with hayfever  – I suspect some of the cypress pines  nearby are the culprits, but these are new in my experience and there may well be something else over the horizon wafting my way. Unfortunately I’ve had hayfever for over thirty years, and this is by far the worst year for symptoms that I’ve had since my English summer in  2005. On top of the new pollens, this has been a very dry spring, repeated promises of rain have either been false or delivered  a paltry few minutes of dampening sprinkles.

Ten minutes outside seems to require three hours for my eyes and sinuses to settle down, no matter what combination of medications I try … and believe me after thirty years I’ve tried everything.  My colleagues in Seattle called me “bubble boy”after I wheezed my way through my first autumn  after weeping through the usual springtime tortures. Unless I was sitting on a beach inhaling sea-breezes I had little respite. If I could afford to fly to a different hemisphere each spring I would be on a plane in a flash. If you’ve ever had a three hour sneezing  jag, you’ll know how serious I am.

Munson has been wonderfully companionable through this stretch, usually forsaking outdoor freedom to sit by me. When I give my eyes a daytime rest he thoughtfully crawls up onto the bed to check that I won’t expire before his next feeding.

I’ve a few catch-up posts to deliver  - life goes on even as I squint at it from behind closed doors. They’ll gradually appear before this post as I like to keep dates of events coordinated.

I haz chickenz (and eggz)

2011-05-03 I haz chickens and eggz

It’s not all dogs, frogs and hedgehogs here.

At  the start of April I visited the local Maisadour ( a hardware/garden/farm co-op) and placed an order for three poules pondeuses – egg laying chickens – to supplement the harem of Kevin the cock. My three red hens were accompanied by three black Sussex hens for Jean that arrived the same day. Luckily the chicken coop is at the other end of the villa from where I sleep, so even if Kevin is my loudest neighbour, it’s mainly the pond frogs who have to put up with his timetabling announcements.

It’s taking a little time for the girls to get up to speed with egg production and there’s a great variation in egg size, but even the smallest have yolks twice the size and brilliance of a typical store-bought egg.

I don’t think I’ve had so many animals at one time since I had an ant farm as a boy.

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