The Leaf, the Witch and the Hedgehog (A “neighborly” autumn tale)

The old lady across the road stares at me with autumn acrimony, holding me in her leafy gaze as I turn into my driveway. Like an old witch she shakes her broom at me and utters a seasonal curse. She used to scare me, now I know she is just totally mad – the madness of having time on your hands and very little to worry about. Some people call it retirement.

It’s all about leaves, my leaves, or those that fall from the maple tree in my front garden – the branches overhang the street and … in summer the old lady parks her car, on my side of the street, under my tree, under the vast leafy canopy that offers shady respite from the warm sun.

In autumn she leaves notes in my letterbox asking me to perform a « neighbourly gesture » and sweep up the leaves.

« All your leaves end up on my side of the street and they blow into my garden, and I’m too old to sweep them up. »

She is happy enough about her summer parking space, but when leaves fall in the fall.

Occasionally she sweeps the leaves from her side of the street back over to my side of the street, but they all blow back to her side, so she started sweeping the leaves into my front garden and then – in an escalation of « leaf wars », she would bag up the leaves from my tree that had fallen into her garden and come to dump them in my garden.

So, I raked and swept and shredded and filled my composter until it choked, then I picked up, bagged up and loaded up the car with bags of leaves to take to the local garden dumpster, and I returned home to find more leaves and I returned home to find the old witch sweeping up leaves, cursing as the wind whirled up and blew away the piles of leaves she had so carefully heaped up, ready for despatch into my garden. She cursed the wind again, angrily shaking her broom at the sky. I thought about saying hello, but she just flew off.

I did my neighbourly duty and swept and raked and shredded again and decided to call it a day when the day called it night and the sun slowly yawned, swallowing the light and the kind of dusty autumn dusk hazed in.

Bags and more bags and nowhere to store them and an evil idea comes to mind – to creep out in the middle of the night and hump my bags across the street and empty them over the witch’s fence. That is cruel, and with Halloween upon us, this is no time to upset anyone endowed with dark magical powers

So, as every year, leaves and more leaves, composted, shredded, bagged up and disposed of, save those last leaves – piled up at the end of my garden. A place of winter « residence » for our visiting hedgehogs. They nestle down deep in the leafy mountain and have done so every winter for the last ten years

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Road Trip from Cabourg to Quiberon

Last leg of our road trip along the north and north western coast of France. From the English Channel at Cabourg to the shores of he Atlantic on the Quiberon Peninsula – from Normandy to Britanny, via the Mont St Michel.

Month St Michel

On the tourist road to Quiberon, another vital stopover on the tourist trail – the standing stones at Carnac – miles of menhirs dating from 5000BC and no one knows what they are there, other than to attract tourists.

Standing Stones at Carnac

The Road to the Stones

Stone-spotting tourists

And on to Quiberon – a popular family holiday resort at he end of the Quiberon peninsula – who says peninsula also says one road in and the same road out – huge traffic jams and a lengthy wait for the delights of Quiberon

Quiberon

Black and Whire Quiberon

On the beach in Quiberon

And from Quiberon we head home to an empty fridge, empty bank account, utility bills and mountains o lessons to prepare before heading back to school. We’ll be back next year.

Heading For the Normandy Beaches

French holiday road trip from Calais to Cabourg.

We leave the UK from Dover; which is a town so unpleasant and sinister that it makes a great place to leave from – always better to start a journey from some from somewhere so awful that anywhere else is better – the somewhere else is Calais – on the opposite side of the English Channel – another miserable port town – in the news over the past few years for the vast number of migrants, in and around the town. From Algeria to Afghanistan, they come in their hundreds with one singular intention – to cross to the UK and make a life there. In between there lies the Channel – only 23 miles wide between Calais and Dover. The immigrants will try any way to get across, hopping on lorries, hiding in trailers, walking through the Channel Tunnel – any risk is worth the risk for the promise of a new life in Britain. Escaping war torn countries, or grinding poverty in the lands thy called home, they cross Europe, last stop Calais, waiting to take their chance in a chance crossing. For years, the migrants were huddled in an illegal camp knob as “The Jungle” – that was dismantled by the authorities and the migrants were “dispersed” to other parts of France, but many just headed back, intent on crossing to Britain. The migrants err around the town, along the highways into Calais or on the car parks of petrol station or lay bys on the roads into Calais. They have become such a familiar sight that what was once “shocking” is now commonplace.

On the road out of he port, mile upon mile of high wire mesh fences surmounted with rolls of  razor wire to stop the migrant eating into the port. The once sedate Channel Ferry port now looks like a prison camp.

From Calais, we head to our destination of Cabourg – a small family seaside resort on the Normandy coast, near Caen, very popular with Parisians. Welcome to Cabourg – revel in the nostalgia of what the seaside looked like a generation ago.. Along this stretch the Normandy coast is all slong, windswept,sandy beaches with iconic beach huts.

Beach huts in Cabourg

Cabourg beach front with a sepia finish

Sandcastles in Cabourg

Low tide in Cabourg

Once in Normandy – A pilgrimage to the Normandy landing beaches and a viitto the Bayeux Tapestry. Today it is raining, his is definitely not a beach day and every tourist in Normandy has headed to a museum. Lines of wet tourists snake their way around the entrance to the Arromanches museum. No pre booking by Internet, you just wait in the rain. At Bayeux, the queues are o great that they have had to close the museum.

Waiting in line in Arromanches

Rainy day for the beach

Rainy beach misery

On the Beach in Arromanches

Next leg from Cabourg to Lorient

Small Day Hot Town Blues- No Road Trip this Summer

“I got those small day hot town blues baby …”

Yep, temperatures are starting to soar again on this, another weekend for the great French summer getaway. All routes to the sea have been at gridlock all day, with police and the national road authorities describing driven conditions as “black” – meaning just don’t leave home today if you want to get anywhere soon.

Small town, hot day, I am reminded of all those songs about spending a long hot summer “kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town,” – My dreary small town favorites – that Tom Petty classic “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – slow summer in a hermetic tupperware kind of town. For urban boredom – the Jam song “That’s Entertainment.”

Your soul i screaming for adventure but your bank balance is telling you to stay home. No titles on these, just your judgement. “Small Day, Hot Town.” or “No Road Trip this Summer” – it is 35°c and all you want is shade or a week by the sea. You need release.

You need to get away “Autres destimations” – written on every mail box in France – that slot where you post letters to other places where you want to be. Those places that others send you postcards from, wishing that you were there, and you wish you were

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No road trip this summer. Your car ain’t fit for tripping.

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If you can’t afford a garage, you’ve just gotta keep the car in the garage.

No money to get away, you gotta look closer to home for your place in or out of the sun.

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Of Satellite TV, Advertising, Barbecues, German supermarkets French Wine, Napoleon, British Bangers and the Metric System

I love my satellite TV – over 300 channels and I can still say (hand on heart) that there is nothing to watch of en evening. Take out the news channels, the plethora of religious channels, the shopping channels and TV reality channels – there isn’t much choice left, BUT, I do get British TV. I have a direct window on British news, views and contemporary culture . I can enjoy some excellent drama and also follow my favourite soap operas. Best of all, (and the best indicator of social and economic trends) I get all the ads –

British ads are so different from the French TV commercials. They are funnier, quirkier and far more professional than their French equivalents – There is nothing better tan the humble TV commercial to highlight the cultural divide between France and Britain.

On this, the hottest weekend of the year so far, when common sense would dictate that we all crawl under a stone rather than stand outside in the blazing sun, the good folks don my street are all firing up their barbecues. Midday was the sound of popping corks, as neighbours « unplugged » their rosé wine, and come early afternoon – following a long aperitif, the air was thick with the irresistible odour of sizzling meat.

I daresay this scene is being repeated across the Channel – everywhere in the UK is enjoying unseasonably warm weather – And on both sides of the water, there will be people crawling in to work tomorrow morning with hangovers and red raw flesh burned by the sun – Yes folks, never get too drunk on a hot day like today, and never snooze off in the sun for a drunken post BBQ nap.

Back at the commercial break, I am watching an ad for that German discount supermarket with an unpronounceable name – Lidl –

The ad is doing the hard sell on BBQ goodies. I am told that at Sainsbury’s supermarket, a good bottle of French Champagne will set me back £30, BUT for the same price at Lidl, I can get a second rate bottle of French fizz, a bottle of French white and French Rosé wine, several slices of Italian ham and a Moroccan cous cous, all for £29,95. Now I am not sure that the advertisers have actually understood what a cous cous really is, and they perhaps mean Taboulé – notwithstanding that’s quite a bit of food and booze for just under thirty quid and it’s all FRENCH – Oh thank you European Single Market. Oh thank you EU trade deals. Oh thank you EU. On this, the day before Britain sends a delegation to Brussels, to being Brexit negotiations. AH, all those European garden party goodies. How much will they cost after Brexit? Food for thought indeed. BUT if you are enjoying beer, burgers and sausages – yes they might be British bangers made at your local butcher’s, but they were made in regulation with EU-inspired food and hygiene norms. As for that beer, are you sure it isn’t a continental lager ? Perhaps from Belgium?

And that was a tenuous link into my next rant which takes you (dear reader) to Belgium) and the small village of Watterlot, known to the Brits as Waterloo.

Before we head to the site of the famous battle though, a quick final word on TV ads – you would never get that Lidl ad on French TV. Under national French TV regulations it is illegal to advertise alcohol on TV.

Off to Waterloo, which was a battle that gave its name to a London mainline train station and the 1974 Eurovision- winning ABBA song.

Napoleon cartoon wih more than a littlle hint of Mr Stallone

So the Brits named a station after a victory against Napoleon, well the French did the same – Austerlitz train station in Paris, named after old Bonaparte’s December 1805 victory over a Russian/Austrian army under the command of Czar Alexander 1st (Austerlitz is situated in the boundaries of the modern Czech republic)

Now we have a phrase in French –«  C’est son Waterloo » – meaning that it is a person’s last heroic but futile stand. Ironically (more Brexit) Britain begins Brexit negotiations tomorrow (Monday 19th June) in the Belgium capital of Brussels, just 30 kilometres from the battlefield of Waterloo. Will this be the British Waterloo – in the French sense ?

Napoleon – love him or hate him – left us a few daily reminders. He was the guy who introduced the metric system to France and eventually to Europe. I noticed this week, after the tragic events at Grenfell House in northwest London, all the journalists, fire fighters and assorted experts were giving their measurements in metres.

Back t the weather – on Sunday June 18th 1815 it was raining and the battlefield was heavy going for the cavalry. On Sunday June 18th, afternoon temperatures in my corner of France hit the 34°c mark. On the Friday night BBC London News bulletin, a very voluptuous lady informed viewers that Saturday temperatures would hit a 32°c high – no more Fahrenheit on the BBC, although wind speeds are still given in miles per hour.

Meanwhile back at the Lidl advert, the bottle sizes are being quoted in centilitres and the weights are in grammes and t is all for French wine. Perhaps Napoleon did win in the long run.

Okay – time to sign off and uncork a bottle of French Rosé. Later on, I’ll be having my Father’s day treat of a juicy Aberdeen Angus steak with good old Mc Cain oven chips made in the Netherlands.

Before I go, this Sunday is polling day in the second round of French parliamentary elections – this isn’t one to bet on, Emmanuel Macron’s « La République en Marche » party is set to wipe the board a forecast puts him at over 400 seats in the 570 seat French parliament. I can’t help thinking of a recently elected British prime minister who would love a similar majority – no snuggling up to the nasty Unionists.

Of course, voter turnout has been low, everyone here is too busy at the BBQ to go and vote.

Ok it is officially wine time.

Cheers

PTSkiD or Getting Off a Mountainside with Fred and Ginger and Nancy

SLIP SLIDING AWAY

Slip slidin’ away

Slip slidin’ away

You know the nearer your destination

The more you’re slip slidin’ away

Lying flat on my back, arms spread out, staring up at the blazing sun – crucifixion position, numb with cold and rigid with fear – « nailed » to this steep freezing cold, ice-covered mountainside. What a punishment. What have I done to deserve this?

I should have read the signs. I was doing fine on the green run, lazily sliding along on my skis, on the wide and almost flat slope, and then, I took the wrong turning and ended up on the red run; a steep, near-vertical run all bumpy and lumpy and … this was my ski version of the wall of death

My ski buddies implored me to go slow, to zig zag, and above all, « Don’t look down » – but once I hit the slope – a giant whoosh, I lost my footing, fell, lost my skis and poles and went rolling 100 metres down the mountain side, first on my arse, then on my back, wondering if this was my last moment, until, miraculously I came to a halt. And in my slippery wake, I had brought down two friends, who like me slid down the mountain. They lay « intertwined » all bodies and skis a few metres away.

All the while, I could hear whoops of laughter from above – as skiers on the chair lift guffawed at our slippery antics and filmed us on their Smartphones. Just how many people are now watching my fall, slide and dented pride on social media sites?

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NOTHING’S IMPOSSIBLE

Now you’re down, nothing to do but get up and get off this bloody mountain side, like the old song – « Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. » – but, here I am, rigid with fear. I would like to just glide off the mountain, Fred and Ginger style, after all …

Nothing’s impossible, I have found

For when my chin is on the ground.

I pick myself up,

Dust myself off

And start all over again.

Don’t lose your confidence

If you slip

Be grateful for a pleasant trip

And pick yourself up,

Dust yourself off

And start all over again.

I’ve started singing the song. I like the irony of the lyrics in my current situation. Obviously when Dorothy Fields penned these words back in 1936*, she didn’t have dorsally prostrate skiers in mind

My ski friends implore me to stand up, put my skis on and follow them down the mountain.

« NO WAY ! » I scream in the near hysterical scream of all those helpless with fear. I just want to lie hear and have someone come rescue me before I freeze

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Calm down and think. Just how I’m going to get off this f***ing mountain. I certainly ain’t skiing down, besides, my skis and poles are still 100 metres up the slope. There are just two solutions: I can either try and slide down on my arse or my back , perhaps using my arms and legs as some kind on brake, or, I can just get up and walk off.

Considering the first solution … well my 100 metre arse/back slide was actually pretty fast and I’m not sure that I will be able to control my speed. I’m getting these kind of slapstick cartoon clichés, whereby rolling down the mountain, I’ll turn into a giant snowball, picking up other skiers in my wake before finally crashing into the chalet at the bottom of the ski run. The second solution, therefore seems far more achievable, except I am rigid with fear still pinned/nailed down to this mountainside by what is no more than a self-induced, advanced neurotic state that I will now refer to as Post Traumatic Ski DisorderPTSkiD – something that I will suffer from for the rest of the holidays, to the point that putting on skis, and standing at the top of a run makes me want to be physically sick.

 

THESE BOOTS AIN’T MADE FOR WALKING

Fred and Ginger are one thing. I won’t be waltzing off this mountain, but now that some kind skier has retrieved my ski poles, then I’ll be walking off. I manage to stand up and now ; it is with Nancy Sinatra in my head that I precariously step and «sideways tip toe » my way down the rest of the slope. I look ridiculous. I don’t give a f***, there is nothing broken and … well a quick word on ski boots – they sure as hell ain’t made for walking.

So, I lived to tell the tale of my ski misfortune, but , unlike the song …

Don’t lose your confidence

If you slip

Be grateful for a pleasant trip

… actually getting your confidence back is one hell of a job.

ROOM 101

The next day, I get a mild panic attack in the cable car, that disgorges a crowd of keen skiers at the very top of a mountain, all with the one sole purpose, sliding down to the bottom on two lengths of laminated wood. What is the appeal? I used to like this. I used to be a reasonable skier at my own basic level and this morning’s run is hardly the stuff of Olympian downhill difficulty. The keen kamikaze skiers have all swished off down tortuous, semi suicidal black runs, and I am about to take a long lazy meandering green run that slithers like a dead snake on Valium. Nothing to fear, besides, I’ve already done this run, but, I’m sweating and shaking as I clamp on my skis, I want to be physically sick, and as the slow run starts, I just block.

A complete loss of confidence, you are there and not there and cannot move. « Get me the F*** outta here ! »

« One must confront one’s fear to overcome one’s fear. » This is the line my mum’s therapist used to spin her to get her back behind the wheel after a minor car accident – it never worked. I’m not a fan of this kind of therapy – I find it more Orwellian – Winston Smith in Room 101 – well that is how I feel right now.

In the end, my friends get me down the slope – but I still fall ten times in the process, and after this hapless and hopeless run, I feel useless, incapable, surplus to requirements and a burden on my ski friends. Dented pride is one thing, this is far more.

I can blame this on my skiiing. However when I ski on real snow, I’m not such a bad once-a-year, holiday skier

I can blame this on the poor quality snow, that isn’t really snow, but the recycled, manufactured stuff, blown across the slopes by snow machines and lying in a sparse covering like frozen icing sugar on a frozen mountain side. I haven’t been skiing, I have been ice skating with skis.

I can blame this on me. I hate taking risks, I hate leaving my comfort zone. I like to navigate in calm, shallow and familiar waters. It’s always alarm bells, panic stations and abandon ship when an ice cube sized iceberg « looms » on the horizon.

Hey, I’ll just do it like to song says

Don’t lose your confidence

If you slip

Be grateful for a pleasant trip

You gotta slip once to know how not to slip again.

*Pick Yourself Up – Music by Jerome Kern and Lyrics by Dorothy Field – featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in he 1936 musical « Swing Time. »