Now what? Life in rural Ariege

Burblings about adjusting to life in the deep south west of France or "la France profonde" as they call it here and the challenges of restoring a ramshackle collection of tumbledown buildings. I mainly write about local festivals, events and celebrations and, most of all, the weekly ritual of combing vide greniers and brocantes for pre-loved vintage treasures.

6 December 2012

Today is F day

We have been waiting for today for many months. It is a milestone in our restoration project and between ourselves we have been calling it F day. Floor Day. Today is the day our "new barn" floor was to be poured. There have been many, many weeks work prior to today. Foundations have been poured, beams laid, all the piping and electrics have been run, the polystyrene insulating panels have been fitted and heavy metal grillage has been fitted supported on plastic "chairs" or spacers to position it perfectly in the centre of the concrete.

This morning our floor was fully prepped and ready to be poured.

We had already had a setback 2 days ago when we discovered that an essential piece of equipment we needed for today had been stolen. Jeff and Peter spent yesterday trying to replace the missing item and were forced to hire one so that we could proceed today.

It was a misty, cold, damp morning and only 3 degrees. Our regular team duly arrived sporting wellies ready to spread the structural cement to the requisite depth. Soon-to-be-published author Paul (right) was shod in navy blue wellies, Harry in Hunter green, Gareth in brown while Peter took a curious approach by having his jeans outside his wellies. "It's sexy" he told me.

Then the fun began. The pump we had ordered arrived as did the cheery red, white and blue cement mixer.

So far, so good. The team are great. The cement was good. The timing was good. But the pump was ludicrous. Not what we had ordered, it towered over our barn as the operative tried to poke it through the window opening.

OK, so it was possible to pump the cement into the building but the problem was that the flexible tube on the end of the pump was not even long enough to reach to the middle of the floor. This meant an unacceptable loading on the floor which could have overloaded the polystyrene panels and dislodged or even broken them. Jeff had no option but to cancel the pour.

The clammy mists hadn't lifted when we abandoned the site to return the hired equipment.

Today was F Day.
F2 Day will hopefully be before Christmas. 

27 November 2012

Relax, this isn't going to hurt...

We've been living in France for over 2 years now and, I have to confess, there has been a shadowy anxiety lurking in the back of my mind the whole time... what if I have to go to a dentist here? Now, please don't think I'm terrified of dentists. No, it's just that the day before we left to start our new life here in France I was forced to have an emergency dental appointment due to excrucitating pain. My Polish dentist advised that the source of my pain was an impacted and infected wisdom tooth. It will have to come out, I was told. Small snagette that I was leaving the country and not able to join the long, long NHS waiting list for an appointment at the Portsmouth hospital. "It will flare up again" she told me. And she was right, it did. Luckily I was offered incredibly strong pain killers by a friend at the time who had a rather impressive list of ailments and consequently access to an extensive range of  prescription medicines. Since then I have lived in fear, waiting for another bout of pain. And last week I could feel it beginning. I was being woken every night by the sensation of being repeatedly punched in the face. I had no alternative. I had to go to a French dentist.

Here is where my luck really came in. I mentioned this to fellow Camon residents I am proud to call friends who immediately suggested I go to their dentist in Limoux. They made an appointment for me and offered to go with me. I can't say I was relishing this trip but amongst friends it was less terrifying that it might have been.

My impressions of the rather drab exterior of the building were not improved by the deserted reception desk and the bland waiting room area with strategically positioned CCTV cameras. Just as I was at the point of suggesting we leave we were summoned into the dentist's room. All 4 of us! I didn't know what to look at first: the state of art treatment chair and equipment, the impressive artwork on the walls, the scultures or the dentist's medals for running the New York marathon. I focussed my attention on Cassandra Einstein's lovely sunflower painting rather than the toothbrush collage or the nude statues on pillars at the end of the office.

Dr. Bac's sunflowers with Bach music by Cassandra Einstein. A welcome distraction in the dentist's surgery


After a brief examination the dentist said I needed to have a panoramic X-ray before he could diagnose the problem. Phew, I thought. This is where we all go home and open a bottle or two of vin rouge and try this again in a couple of weeks. I was wrong though. He phoned the Radiographie clinic and asked if they could see me now. They could, so we dutifully trooped around the corner and took up residence in the waiting room. In under 5 minutes I was being instructed to remove my earrings and not to move once inside the X-ray equipment. Back in the waiting room I had barely sat down before I was handed an envelope containing my X-ray.

Back at the dental surgery my dentist quickly pinpointed the problem: I had a large infection under a tooth. Not a problem with my wisdom tooth at all and no need for surgery. Phew, I thought. This is where he prescribes strong painkillers and an antibiotic and I get to go home and open a bottle or two of vin rouge. Wrong! Back in the chair he treated me with NO painkillers. No fuss. No waiting. And no pain during or after the procedure. Simply amazing.

I was still quaking as we started to leave the office. My lovely dentist opened a side door and ushered us all upstairs to his apartment to meet his wife and share a glass of wine and nibbles in his astonishing home. I have to say NHS dental treatment was never like this!

I've got a follow-up appointment this week and I have honestly never looked forward to going to the dentist so much. Vive la difference!

11 November 2012

Remembrance Day

Today at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month les Camonais, the villagers of Camon, assembled in front of the monument des morts to remember those killed fighting for France. Members of the Paras based at nearby Pamiers marched solemnly into position while our Maire read the same statement that was being read out in all communes the length and bredth of France paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. A little girl laid a wreath on the monument and after a one minute silence we all adjourned to the salle des fetes for a glass of blanquette de Limoux and canapes.

It has been a busy day in Camon as there was also the annual vide grenier in the cloisters of the Abbaye Chateau. Hardy stallholders braved the persistent drizzle and, of course, I was out early rummaging for stock for Histoires and Couturesse. In many ways it was a disappointing day for me as I only found one item but it is startling appropriate to the date.

This is a wooden sewing kit that was issued to French soldiers during WW1. It was commonly called a honey dipper because of the shape of the 4 thread holders.

The handle unscrews to reveal a stilleto spike, now a little rusty, and the base of the handle also unscrews to reveal 2 original needles.

It is so poignant to be photographing, measuring and listing this item today in Couturesse. I hope it finds a new and appreciative home soon.

26 July 2012

Le quack pack

We have company at our rural gite in Morbihan, Brittany, this week. 4 ducks we have collectively called "le quack pack" stop by chez nous morning and evening to see if there is any stale bread / veggies / salad to be had.

They follow us around quacking to each other, seemingly fascinated by our strange rituals. Antonia was the subject of attention as she pegged out the washing.

A stern look from Graeme sent them on their way back to work this morning.

And it is quite a job they have. They are the mill pond clearance squad. Weed eating is their speciality and there is a lot of weed to eat here!

Just time for a quick siesta then it's back to work. Nice work if you can get it.

24 June 2012

The Afterlife

During my stock hunting trips for Histoires I often uncover the "histoire" or story of items I am purchasing. I sometimes find out who made them, when they made or some other anecdote associated with the item. Once they pass through my shop and have been shipped to far flung corners of the world I usually do not hear much more than how much the client loved them. Occasionally however I hear back about how the items have been used and, to me, this is quite fascinating.

Take for example this linen and crochet hand made curtain

It was purchased by an advertising agency in New York and was used in a lingerie advert. It probably wasn't the most eye-catching part of the advert but at least it got a bit part!

A client in Cincinnati bought this chenille yarn specifically for tying fishing flies

The candy pink 1950s tiered petticoat was bought by the photographer and model for use in their photography. Thanks to them for permission to use their photograph

The wonderful 18th century handwritten document was purchased by an advertising agency in Las Vegas and was also used as a photographic prop

And this card of mid century navy blue buttons were just the right colour and shape (and nationality!) for my client to "restore" her vintage Jeanne Lanvin coat.

Reused, repurposed, upcycled... they live on. Their histoire continues...

31 May 2012

Summer holiday

We had a great week in Spain, returning to the gorgeous resort of Benicassim after discovering it last year.

We shunned the pool and the Mediterranean, prefering to swim in thermal pools in the mountains.

We learned how to cook an authentic Spanish paella

We visited the amazing fort at Peniscola which was famously used in the film "El Cid"

We paused to look at the padlocks locked together by lovers on the bridge below the fort

We ate fideua within the fortified walls overlooking the glorious beach. I now have a favourite tree in Peniscola. I wonder how many people it has shaded from the sun, I hope I will see it again next year.

15 May 2012

Please come in

We have recently put our wonderful village house in Camon onto the market and a couple of weeks ago our agent immobilier wired an "A vendre" board to our downpipe. Since then there has been silence from our agents but clamouring within the village.

 Camon is a medieval bastide village and is one of the 100 most beautiful villages in France

The locus of most village activity is the tiny epicerie / depot de pain run by Camonaise born and bred Madame Dumay. Almost as soon as the for sale sign had appeared she told me that a local man might be interested in purchasing it for his son and that another village family had friends in Lille who would love to buy a maison secondaire in Camon. Fair enough I thought to myself. The local interest has ramped up in the last couple of days with another Camon resident ringing the doorbell asking to be shown around the house. Apparently he has a friend in Toulouse who holidays regularly in Camon and would like his own property here. At the end of the guided tour he thanked me and told me he would tell his friend all about it. Amazingly he phoned me the following evening to tell me his Toulousan friend was not interested as Camon is too far!!! A rather elaborate ruse to have a nosey around our house I thought to myself.

Please do come in - just knock on the door!

It hasn't stopped there though. Standing on the doorstep yesterday were the formidible pair of Madame Dumay and her elderly auntie (who already lives in the village). Tiny Tantie wanted to look around the house and proceeded to admire everything in her line of vision starting with Jeff's pot in the entrance hall

 what a beautiful pot!

She read the silver labels on our decanters wanting to know how to pronounce "sherry", she sat on the sofa and stroked it lovingly. She climbed all the stairs to see every part of the house. "elephants" she exclaimed delightedly in the downstairs cloakroom, in the bathroom and in the ensuite.

spot the elephants!

Finally having shown her over the whole property she insisted that I come to see her house.

I was given the full guided tour and dutifully admired the collection of stuffed sanglier, deer and pike heads. I cooed over her grandmothers copper pans and admired the paintings of cathar castles on the walls.

The strangest thing for me is that if this happened in Britain I would be annoyed by this time wasting and the constant stream of curious villagers. Here, however, it makes me smile. I love the elaborate "I have a friend" excuses. I'm just waiting for the doorbell to ring again... better do the washing up.

13 May 2012


My last vide grenier at Lavelanet yesterday yielded some surprising finds. The items that impressed me the most were this lovely pair of antique distilling jars with hand carved cork lids


I couldn't help but think about the mobile still that we discovered in Léran last year. We had heard about its existance and had to go and take look. The directions were straightforward enough: walk out of the village over the bridge towards the Chateau, then take the footpath along the left river bank, cross over the next bridge and you should be able to see it. I must confess I did not have a clear idea of what a mobile distillery actually looks like, but correctly guessed that it was the metal shack on wheels surrounded by logs and fermenting barrels of fruit that was belching out smoke. Évidemment! And what a curiousity it was.


Monsieur Maury is the third generation of Maury distillers. His father and grandfather before him supplied local villagers with rather strong hooch distilled from their own fruit.

Monsieur Maury popped the lid off a blue barrel to show us the fermenting plums which were almost ready to put into the wood-fired still. He explained that the sugar in the fruit starts to turn to alcohol during the fermentation process. The fermented fruit is then placed into the still above the wood burner and the distilling process cunningly concentrates the alcohol. The innocent looking clear liquid that was dripping very, very slowly into the white enamel bucket you can see above (just to the left of the large blue barrel) is usually in the region of 84 – 86 percent proof.

Goutez un peu”, he suggested, proffering a tiny brass spoonful of today's moonshine.

Obviously in the interests of research I agreed. And WOW was it strong.

only 84 per cent proof?”, I spluttered, struggling for breath and wondering if my liver would ever forgive me for this latest atrocity.

C'est pas si fort”, laughed Monsieur Maury


So this is all the kit you'll need for the mother of all home-brew. I can see a possible alternative use for our old trailer, a couple of accro props and a bucket...

This mobile still was in Léran for nearly 2 weeks before moving onto another Ariege village. I'm still hoping that when Monsieur Maury's still is in our locality I'll have tired of making fruit jam and compote and will have sufficient left-over fruit to transform into firewater. Better start to rest my liver in preparation.

Bottoms up!

30 April 2012

What lies within?

First of all I must tell you that I love boxes. I really do love boxes. Just ask my mother how every Christmas as a small child I was far more interested in unwrapping and playing with the box rather than playing with the contents.

I'm slightly different nowadays. A closed box has to be opened. I spy an attractive box - and this is most boxes to me - and I have to lift the lid to know what lies within. Sometimes they are empty. Sometimes they hold random items. Frequently they conceal treasure.

This box caught my eye at my favourite brocante this morning. It's a basic cardboard box but with embellishments. Somebody has glued paper to the lid, attached handmade lace bows and sewn on buttons. Surely a box like this has to contain something precious?

And it did. Lengths of broderie anglaise lace carefully removed from old petticoats, lovingly hemmed and stored in this pretty box.

Hand worked crochet lace, beige linen mats trimmed with white cotton crochet lace from the 1940s, a wonderful crocheted dress yoke.

A black satin clutch from the 1950s still in it's original box, along with a lovely hand done cutwork dresser scarf (under the box).

And my favourite item - a tiny hand made crochet drawstring pouch containing over 100 mother of pearl buttons.

The contents of the box will be appearing in Histoires. The box itself will stay with me.

9 April 2012

Omlette de Paques

We had intended to attend the annual village event to celebrate Easter last year but it was unfortunately cancelled due to inclement weather. In time-honoured local tradition the villagers gather to consume large amounts of omlette, local cheeses and red wine on Easter Monday and I was rather afraid that this year would also be a wash-out. Our local "animatrice", Emilie V, had told me rather assertively that it would not rain this year. And she was right!

We assembled on the voie verte (literally the "green way" which is the disused railway line that has been turned over to non motorised usage - you can walk or ride bikes and horses but no motorbikes, cars or trains!) and unloaded our picnic hampers of plates and cutlery while the feast was cooked and served by village ladies.

The dapper gent sporting an artfully knotted torchon is our esteemed Maire, Monsieur Huillet!

As the temperature rose and more wine was consumed Pat also donned a tea towel. Her style was more Laurence of Arabia rather than Donald McGill

Chapeau envy even gripped Jeff who succumbed to wearing my very pink, very floppy straw hat

And the food just kept on coming... pate and bread, followed by pasta salad with tuna, onions and olives. The omlette itself was varied - some had lardons, some had onions and I even managed to get a "nature" egg flavoured omlette. Then there were large platefuls of local Bethmale cheeses - vraiment bon. And to finish tarte aux pommes decorated with sugar roses, leaves and little birdies. Finally basketfuls of chocolate eggs for everyone, not just the kiddies. I really can't remember a more enjoyable Easter.

6 April 2012

My Downton Abbey moment

During my recent spell in the UK I managed to get along to my favourite auction house which holds cattle and chicken sales during the week and every Friday night at 6pm has a "general sale". A huge container of beautiful 20th century buttons, ranging from tiny Edwardian shoe buttons to 1970s plastic ones, caught my eye. The only problem was they didn't have a lot number! The auctioneer made an excutive decision and popped them into a huge box of rather mediocre linens. I let out an audible groan as I really did not want to bid on doilies and tray cloths just to secure my button booty. Oh well, I reasoned, see where the bidding goes. I really, really wanted that treasure trove of buttons.

Luckily for me I managed to outbid the competition and went home with a car load of linen and my precious buttons. So what exactly had I bought? I confess I had not closely examined the linens as I thought they looked pretty dull. And sure enough I pulled out tray cloth after doily after crochet mat and put them straight into a charity bag.

Then I reached a layer of aged tissue paper. Lifting off the first layer of paper revealed this:

This is an Edwardian maid's uniform. It has this amazing organdi handmade apron with pleated bib top and pin tucks and ladderwork detailing at the hemline. It has wide waist straps that form the most wonderful plump bow when tied

There were also 2 head bands and the original black velvet ribbon that would fasten over the top of the maid's head.

The name of the master is sewn inside the waistband of the apron and stamped on the head bands. Underneath this maid's uniform was another organdi apron with a simpler headband. Beneath this one was a scullery maid's uniform - a simple cotton apron with a handmade cap that would totally cover the hair while the maid performed cooking and cleaning duties. Beneath this apron was a simple cotton cook's apron.

I still get a massive thrill from finding something so totally unexpected in the most unlikely places. Who knows who wore these aprons. They have been heavily repaired and have clear signs of many years of use. I hope to pass these on to someone who will display or just occasionally admire them. Now where's my Downton Abbey DVD?

15 March 2012

It's not like that in Britain

We have thought and uttered this phrase aloud many times over the 2 years we have been living in Ariege. There have been times when la vie Francaise has been extremely frustrating. The banking system is convoluted. Internet shopping is made unnecessarily difficult by the lack of pricing, product information and an apparent necessity to have your order confirmed by phone instead of merely completing your transaction on line. We have been caught out by the religiously observed 2 hour lunch break and have been physically ushered out of stores and builders' merchants at 12:30 on the dot unable to complete our shopping. "It's not like that in Britain" we have muttered.

Now that we are back in Britain for a while we are profiting from the 24 hour shopping culture, ordering goods online without difficulty and we have not had to physically enter a bank once. In many ways everyday things seem to run smoother here. Or so I thought until yesterday.

Yesterday we drove into Salisbury and parked in a central car park. I could not help but notice how expensive it is to park your car. Parking is almost always free in France. Oh well, no choice but to buy the overpriced ticket. The parking meter only took coins. And only certain coins, and moreover not any of the coins we unearthed by raking through our purses and pockets. Luckily there is the facility to pay using your mobile phone. "It's easy and fast" the display board promised us. Jeff dutifully dialled the number, entered our car registration number on his phone and waited for the call back from Parking HQ to take our payment. Yes, you've guessed it - we waited and waited and no call back.

Luckily we spied a man wearing a hi-visibility jacket. Well he's got to be an attendant hasn't he? Jeff approached him and asked if the phone pay system ever actually worked. He didn't know. He wasn't the "Parking Ambassador". Yes that's right, they're not called Car Park Attendants or Wardens anymore, they are Parking Ambassadors. I'd had enough by now.

I volunteered to trek to the distant shops at the far side of the car park to get some change. Jeff stood guard by the car to beg the Parking Ambassador not to issue a penalty ticket while I ambled around a shop mentally calculating how much I needed to spend on an item to get adequate change from a £10 note. Clutching some moth repellant and £6 in assorted coinage I trudged back to the car and nearly 15 minutes after arriving we could leave the car park. It all felt quite French!!

Largin' it in Southsea

This blog post was published last year. I'm adding it here because, well, it's still apparent this year.

I spend several weeks back in Southsea every year over the summer and each time I notice something different about the people, the area and about Britain in general. Having spent nearly a year in France the thing I noticed almost immediately is that here in the UK there are many, many fat people. If there is such a thing as a “typical” person in France, Mr, Mrs, Miss and Master “average Ariège” is small, lean and certainly not fat. Here the converse seems to be true. And it is apparently not restricted to one or other gender, age group or even social class (if I can use this outdated and inappropriate term).

I was aware that there is an acknowledged obesity problem in the UK but just dismissed this as Daily Mail style hyper sensationalism. Surely with the constant media pounding you receive about eating 5-a-day, the importance of an active lifestyle and the apparently universal popularity of TV cookery programmes, the nation should be eating healthier, exercising more and consequently becoming slimmer, not fatter.

A walk along Southsea seafront from Castle Field to Gunwharf Quays on Sunday was enough to convince me that your average Brit is in pretty poor physical shape. It was a beautiful day and as part of the military celebration weekend there was a “Love Southsea” festival. I decided to take a look at the festivities and was assailed by the sight of an extremely well-upholstered young lady bedecked in a bright orange floaty belly-dancer outfit with matching orange platform shoes performing a fan dance. Yes, a fan dance. Her audience of OAP's reclining in deckchairs appeared only slightly entertained as she strutted her ample stuff and coyly concealed parts of her generous anatomy with two bright yellow fans before whipping her skirt off with a Bucks Fizz style flourish. My impression was that she was a novelty act based on the never-to-be-forgotten Roly Polys so I kept on walking past the stately parade of veterans which was immediately followed by hordes of rowdy bikers.

I could not help but notice that there were large numbers of, what I can only describe as, overweight people in the throngs. Substantial mothers pushing prams containing tubby babies. Overly plump school age children waddling slowly along. Big, loud teenagers leaning on bus shelters and slouching along the seafront. Older men with T shirts stretched tightly over their “Jeremy Clarkson” tribute stomachs. Even elderly wide-hipped ladies leaning heavily on walking sticks or using zimmer frames to support their bulk. Blimey, Britain has got big.

I discovered further proof of this observation, should it be needed, this morning. As I have flown out from France I have very few clothes with me and I certainly did not think to bring old clothes to clean and paint in. As I now urgently require some cheap, lightweight and ultimately disposable clothing I decided to comb the local charity shops. There are 3 on a 100 yard stretch of Albert Road close to where I am living. The first yielded nothing suitable and when I entered the second one I realised why. The vast majority of the unwanted clothing on sale is a UK size 14 or larger. The problem for me is that I am a size 10. Admittedly a foray to the more central charity shops did yield the requisite clothing and the rather stunning bonus item of a Calvin Klein leather jacket.

It's too small for me”, the shop assistant had sighed.

Tant mieux pour moi! Sometimes it's pretty good not being average.

The original post had an image of Jeremy Clarkson on a beach here but I've removed it because it was just TOO gross. Here instead is a photo I took last year of Pompey lass

OK in the interests of gender equality here's the original image of JC