Tuesday, 7 August 2007


The bunting is going up all over the village. From every lamp post now hangs a pennant in village colours, blue and yellow; every balcony now caparisoned like a medieval charger. All in preparation for the Medieval Fair which starts next week. Soon the jugglers, stilt walkers, musicians and fire eaters will turn up, this town another stop on the summer festival circuit in the South West.

Columns of medieval knights on horseback will process up and down the streets before thrilling us with their jousting tournaments and hordes of contented children will swarm over the market place, full of wooden mediaeval toys with not a battery in site. Music will float on the air from every public space, the sound of the drums reverberating off these ancient walls. Tourists will flock to watch, listen and feel the rhythm as the heart of the bastide beats strongly again.

However it's not the arrival of the cavalcade that I anticipate with a mixture of excitement and hesitation, it's the Other Family, due later this week. School gate friends, great company, like minded, wine swiggers, Toon Army. Their children are delightful. Often, I borrow the daughter for girlie things like baking pink fairy cakes and playing Barbies. She's a real little sweetie, though she's named after a battle maiden and more than able on her own to cope with older brothers. The son, a delightful, thoughtful boy who loves both his farmyard pets and all things mechanical, is soulmate to my elder boy.

We should all get on, there is room enough here for us all to spread out and a new cellarful of wine to lubricate any awkwardness but they've never been here before. Our family has our own history here now and love it for many reasons but will the Other Family fall in love with the village as we have done? Will they find it quaint and pretty or just run down? Quiet and peaceful, full of character or dull and boring? There is no beach, we don't even have a garden or what my sister calls a sit ootery here, it's a town house. A novelty for country friends perhaps, the sounds of the street instead of the hedgerow. Step out of our door into a road with a florist, a bakery, a photographers, a beauty parlour, the new " lovely things" shop and not forgetting the best pizza restaurant in the world just two doors away! Not too tough a stagger home then...hic!

Oh I do hope they like it...I'll let you know...

Friday, 3 August 2007

Flash Dance

Thursday, market day again.The stalls from the morning market have been cleared away and there's not so much as a lettuce leaf left on the bleached limestone of the now deserted Square. Soon the afternoon torpor sets in; the air is heavy with hardly a rustle of the leaves in the plane trees; there is just the sound of scraping chairs as the waiters in the restaurants tidy up. The shops shut for the lunchtime siesta. Where all was bustle, now it's quiet, drowsy.

In the heat of the afternoon, a few persistent tourists make the slow trek up the hill past our house to the Square to marvel at the medieval architecture. Cameras click and try to capture the history of the place in mega pixels when really it's written in every large stone, every massive Gothic arch. Shuttered windows with pretty flower boxes full of orange geraniums look down on the Square, while the swallows twitter in their nests under the huge beams which hold up the arcades. In the shaded cafes, couples linger over chilled beer and a family crowds a table top with Orangina bottles like so many skittles.

At around six in the evening though, as a little gentle wind starts to take the fierceness out of the day's warmth, the pace quickens. White vans appear and disgorge tables, chairs and a PA system. Smaller rustic vans arrive and local producers set up their stalls around the edge of the Square for tonight is the Night Market.

Soon there is a steady stream of people heading up to the Square, just as the sun is setting, the last few golden rays visible at the end of the alley which runs at right angles to our road. The western sky fades from pale blue to lightest gold, apricot to lavender as the far dark clouds reflect the last of the light. As darkness falls, there must now be a hungry crowd of about two hundred visitors, walking round the displays, tasting and testing.

It's a brilliant concept. The local farmers and vegetable growers provide the dishes, all ready to eat. Choose from grilled organic lamb, tartiflette, a potato dish with onion and salmon, kebabs made from local beef, pate de foie or pizza with country ham or goats' cheese. The nearby vineyards are represented too; taste before taking a few bottles back to your place at the big communal tables. Dessert is a delicious tarte aux pommes with a nippy eau de vie de pruneaux on the side. The children love the Nutella crepes, chocolate smeared round their mouths. Everyone is satisfied with the bargain.The guests get a memorable meal, in a wonderful setting at a reasonable price direct from the producers; they in their turn, get a wider appreciation of the quality of their home grown specialities.

In the corner, on the steps which form a little stage, a great 3-piece band belts out some good old rock and roll classics. The pretty lead singer is excellent, sounds a bit like Shakira ,while my elder son eyes the electric guitar with longing in his heart. The lady behind the huge paella pan is boogieing away, having a ball, and three little girls are making up a dance routine under the arch of the Black Prince's Tower. I get up to dance too and my boys are terminally embarrassed but I don't care. Revenge for tantrums in Sainsbury's! A couple of elderly village matrons, on their usual nightly stroll, shake their heads and move away to quieter parts.

It's getting late now as families with toddlers, finally asleep in their pushchairs, drift away. Dads carry exhausted little ones, soft pudgy arms wrapped round big strong shoulders. Older children, wired on Coke and sugar, dance and skip down the hill to their waiting cars. The music stops at eleven o'clock and even the teenagers stop comparing mobile phones and move on.

We take a detour to see the glow worms again on the dark side of the hill, little tiny green flashlights in the long grass and a magical end to the evening.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Market Day

Today is market day in our village, as it has been every Thursday since 1256. It starts gently, early in the morning and soon about 30 stalls, with pretty coloured awnings, are set up around the square.

People mill slowly about, wicker baskets over one arm, no supermarket dash here. No loud music, no raised voices, just the steady hum of commerce, merchant and customer, producer and consumer, as it's always been.The pace is sedate, time is needed to consider the price of tomatoes, select the best of this season's peaches, examine the lettuces.

So many of the same goods will have been sold here every week for centuries; local fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, flowers, and bread from the local mill. Duras and Bergerac wines are there to be sampled, direct from the men who tend the vines, a missionary gleam in their eyes as they explain the complexity of their product. Above the meat counter hang huge dried hams, while on the counter, beef from the local huge Blonde d'Aquitaine cattle and then rather too many bits of the animal kingdom I haven't seen since an anatomy class at vet school.

The stall with huge steaming pans of paella, full of fruit de mer and saffron rice, is doing a roaring trade. My children are fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the glass-sided apiary brought by the lady who sells honey in 10 different flavours. She remembers us from last year and bids the boys to help themselves from her sweetie jar, honey-flavoured of course. The man with the twinkly eyes is still selling his vast range of cheeses at a stall in the shady side of the square; his broken English encourages my fractured French and we cobble a conversation together. First Husband chooses the smelliest, bluest, runniest cheese on offer; I stick to the nutty, smooth Cantal.

Neat rows of small sacks line up on the next stall, each heaped full of dry goods. Colourful piles of peppercorns red, black, green and pink. Tumeric,dried chillis, cinnamon sticks, herbes de Provence, cardamom pods, camomile flowers, pot pourri...sweet, aromatic, pungent.

But for the locals it's as much an opportunity to catch up on conversations started last week as it is a chance to shop. The same discussion that's gone on between neighbours for centuries...of travails endured and triumphs celebrated.

Finally I have learnt to shop like a Frenchwoman. I used to stock up for a week, like you do at home from the supermarket, thrilled by the variety, scents and sounds of the market. Accustomed to fruit hard as bullets,to ripen at home, I didn't forsee that fruit and vegetables from the village market would go off so quickly, as it's sold, tooth-soft and yielding, ready to eat. Now I buy just enough for a day or two. There's always another market in the next village in a few days time.

And so in my basket goes a warm spit-roasted chicken, basted in fierce quantities of garlic, from Monsieur Le Moustache in the corner arcade, a bottle or two of the Duras, a delicious tarte aux pruneaux in filo pastry from the patissier, the cheese and a few peaches. The evening meal is sorted.

Monday, 23 July 2007

French Leave

It's pouring with rain today and so we are confined indoors here in Lot et Garonne. I didn't think it fair to write about our place in the sun while everyone in the UK was suffering from an excess of the wet stuff but as we are now sharing the deluge, here is a description of our little piece of heaven.

I first came to MFQ as a girlfriend, nearly 20 years ago. Boyfriend, now First Husband, was visiting one of his old schoolmasters and his family who holidayed here each year. In summer this part of France is like a veritable Common Room for the exhausted Domine of the education system. I was enchanted, then as now, with both boyfriend and ancient village and fortunately, both passions have survived and strengthened.

MFQ lies on the slope of a hill that tilts toward the south, houses rising in an orderly grid to the medieval church with its characteristic two spires. Looking out from the vantage point on the battlements beside the church, the countryside undulates gently like a rumpled patchwork quilt; small farms, orchards and pastures stretch as far as the eye can see, gently interspersed with patches of dark green forests and bright yellow sunflowers. Narrow, straight roads radiate from this place with here and there, what appears to be a Dinky car, moving slowly, glinting in the sun. But silently, with only the swish of the chestnut trees in the gentle breeze or the twitters of the house martins to interrupt your contemplation. Far away on the horizon a real Disneyesque castle looms, the very image of the perfect fairytale princess's home but close-up, the walls are many metres thick, glowering and impenetrable.

For we are in Aquitaine, Hundred Years War territory, and for many periods of time, in English possession. Fortified by both the English and the French, like most bastides in this part of South West France, MFQ was built to the same general plan. A central square is surrounded on four sides by strong and massive arched stone arcades with huge beams visibly supporting the half timbered houses above. In the north east corner of the square still stands the house of Edward, the Black Prince who lodged there when visiting his father, Edward III's, seneschal of Aquitaine. Once there were ramparts encircling the town; little of those remain though it is thought our house is built into some of its old foundations. Both the town, and our house, have stood for over 750 years.

Streets and alleysways criss-cross at right angles. Until about 25 years ago the alleys, carrerots, were full of centuries of debris. Where once the filles de joie plied their trade, the carrerots are now cleared and, beautifully cobbled with polished stone in arching patterns, they snake down the hill, forming perfect conduits for the occasional heavy downpour. Walk through any alley, apparently devoid of people but with the sounds of life in adjoining houses emanating all around; the clatter of pots and pans as dejeuner is prepared; animated French voices gossiping, arguing, soothing; the music school pianist running up and down her scales; a baby crying. Could be any century... then the unmistakable rhythm of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon floats ethereally overhead from next door's bedroom and we're brought back to the modern age.

It's a dreamy, tranquil place, mysterious and romantic, sometimes virtually silent and at other times, vibrant with festivals and markets. Wait for me in one of the cafes, order une grande cafe au lait and I'll be with you shortly to tell you some more...

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Never mind Dr Who and his Tardis, I was catapulted forward in time today.

The “Loads of Time” Lord arrived with his assistant , not in a Tardis, though the car was blue with some interesting silver streaks down the side. It might have been a sonic screwdriver sticking out of the front wing but to be honest it looked more like a wire coat hanger to me.

This charming, tall, imposing lordly creature picked me up with ease by way of a interspecies greeting and offered me the Galaxy. Or rather a piece of his chocolate bar.

As his assistant struggled in with the baggage extracted from the Tardis-like depths of the boot, the “What’s the Time” Lord did what only he can do. Said he would be with this Earthling for only five minutes but stretched time out to at least thirty minutes. Needing refuelled, he picked up the rock specimens scattered about my kitchen, examined them minutely and popped them in his mouth.
Save giving the left over garlic bread to the birds I thought.

Have you noticed that previous incarnations of Time Lords never knew quite where they were going and this “Heck, Is that the Time” Lord was no different. Calling on the assistance of K9 or was it Tom-Tom, we found the co-ordinates of the next place at which he and his companion were due to materialise . Honestly,even if they are thousands of years old, these boys shouldn’t be let out without their mother.

But the best was yet to come. With the aid of only some common chemicals, soap and water, the “Running out of Time” Lord was transformed in what seemed like only a moment in the great space continuum.. He was regenerated from a scruffy time traveller, in ripped jeans and with a hairstyle that only a Gallifreyan would love, to an elegant, suave Master of the Universe, clothed with the very best the distant planet Mossbros could offer.

Don’t know why he had to leave that studded antenna in his eyebrow though. Perhaps it’s to communicate with his mother. She is human after all. She’ll certainly have words with him about it.

His assistant, no less richly dressed, required special visors in order to keep his body temperature down or were they really only aviator sunglasses worn indoors to look cool?

A final adjustment of the special neckware required to endear them to those aliens from the planet Venus and they were off, into a new dimension.

Yes, the delightful just finished-A-levels son of a friend, and his mate, turned up today.
He ate, drank, showered and changed into black tie for a nearby party in the blink of an eye.
And it seems, that in only a blink of an eye, he’s grown from a darling, cuddly little boy to a handsome, confident young man.
Who needs to travel through time? It’s already going too fast.

Friday, 6 July 2007

You cannot be serious!

Younger son has been having extra tennis coaching at school which he adores. His teacher is a top coach who coached her own daughters to county standard.

She drew me aside one day.
“He’s really coming on, terrific hand, eye co-ordination,” she said.
I beamed. I was rubbish at tennis.
“But I just wanted to explain why I asked your son to step out of the class yesterday,” she continued. “ He hit a bad shot and threw his racket down.”
Her head tilted to one side, looking to me for agreement that she had done the right thing.
I bit my lip. Eight year olds having tantrums, whatever next.
“Yes ,of course,” I said sympathetically, “He must learn to be a good sport.”

I told his father about his boy’s lack of manners.
“The boy’s got it,” he said delighted.
“Got what?”
“The red mist. It’s what he needs to succeed. He won’t give up. Determination. Didn’t do McEnroe any harm anyway...”

My appeal for some fatherly advice to teach my wayward son about giving everyone a chance, sharing the ball, the importance of just taking part fell on deaf ears.

The following week, younger son won the tennis tournament. At least he thanked the umpire graciously.

Game ,set and match to testosterone?

Friday, 15 June 2007

Mother's Day

Special day today; Mum’s anniversary. 14 years since she died, way too young at 55. Another smoking statistic.

She never saw her grandchildren. Gosh how they would have been spoiled! Me too I think. I dream of going away for a weekend break with the First Husband; children with Grandma, returning to an immaculate house and everything ironed within an inch of its life! Missed opportunities...

Every year to mark the occasion, my sister ventures south and I head north and we meet up in Stratford where Mum lived, worked and ultimately died.
Now Mum was the most stylish lady, worked in fashion, always elegantly dressed and she expected her daughters to be properly turned out too. Sadly she died one day before her birthday. Typical Mum, didn’t want to add another year to her age! Glamorous to the end!

So we place flowers on her grave, my sister and I, shed a tear or two….and then go on a memorial shoe shopping expedition followed by lunch at the Dirty Duck. Mum would have loved it!

Now as I’ve said elsewhere, the scent of Ambre Solaire oil reminds me of summer, and Mum, who loved to sunbathe. Imagine our horror then when the cemetery offered us a pretty spot under a shady tree for Mum.
“Oh no,no, no, nooo,” said sister. “Not our Mum.”
So there she is, placed right in the middle of the perfectly manicured lawn, forever basking in the sunlight.

And the inscription on her headstone?
Simply “Love Always”.
She signed off every birthday card, every letter she ever sent to us, with just those words.
Nothing else needed.
Rest in Peace Mum.