Friday, December 28, 2007

the first postcard


We agreed to meet for lunch in the rather camp but fun Opera Café in Avignon. I got there first and found a little room for my six oversized unattractively coloured plastic bags near the only remaining table. I had tried to disguise the presents but ‘Casa’ shrieked loud in bright green and the huge copper pan was very huge copper pan shaped. Luckily I had something small and secret for him at home.

I sat there with my glass, admiring the cotton wool covered piano, the chocolate desserts and the beautiful people, slightly shrinking from the gilded angels on my chair back, and waited for my husband. Julian arrived with two small bags, both elegant and perfectly coordinated with the restaurant’s décor in gold and orange. One of them was definitely from a chocolatier and, unless he was being clever by borrowing a chocolate bag to disguise lingerie, I knew that present was more for him than me.

We celebrate Christmas eve in the French way. We always start with oysters and champagne and then we open presents from the tree. After that we have a seafood dinner.

After a few warm ups like the obligatory socks and knickers (bamboo and organic cotton this year) I passed over the biggie. About the size of half a matchbox, I had wrapped it in lots of frills and bubble wrap so it did not look like a book or a cd or indeed a painting.

‘It’s a duane oddment!’ cried Julian when he took off the final layer and saw his ‘sourball3’.’You’d better have yours then!’

Julian passed me a distinctively postcard shaped package in delicious glittery paper, much of which was on Julian’s face as he smiled. When I unwrapped it I saw a plum and corn coloured landscape of such beauty that I burst into tears. On a card he had written something about falling in love.

‘The original postcard painting’ said Julian ‘painted on a cigar box by Claude Firmin in Avignon in 1901’

‘The year my Granny was born’ I said. We were both crying now.

It was possibly one of the nicest Christmases I have ever had.

Then, just when we thought we were full to the brim, Duane’s book arrived in the post, with an inscription from the original daily postcard painter, the Grandaddy of them all, quoting from the marvellous Annie Dillard, that made us both cry even more:

May you spend “a lifetime of days” painting the light of Provence,
Your friend,


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas menu


Interspersed with scrabulous moves and phonecalls, Julian and I spent Christmas day cooking and feasting.

THE MENU that emerged at a very slow pace, over seven hours was this:

Bloody Mary


A walk on soft moss in the blazing winter sun


Six Gillardeau oysters


Roasted langoustines with a fennel, lemon and chili salsa.


Foie gras on toast
Saussignac, Chateau Court les Mûts 2004


Velouté of Cardoons and Chestnuts


Roast venison, with red wine sauce and chanterelles.
Roasted potatoes with sage and pancetta
Green cabbage
Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Brousset 2004


Bread and butter pudding.


A good sob on the sofa in front of the film 'Once'.


What did you have?


Sunday, December 23, 2007

christmas wishes

poo system1

Putting in a new poo system is not the ideal way to prepare for Christmas. Neither is scraping around to pay unexpected bills for social charges or doing emergency plumbing. So, despite it being the season of merriment, the saga of life at Les Couguieux continues:

At a party last week our bio-dynamic accountant dipped a pancake in avocado gloop, twirled in her festive mini dress and gave us some more news to follow in the wake of the social charges bombshell: ‘Monsieur Raymond didn’t dare to tell you when he was doing your terrace but he thinks your house is going to fall down’.

That was before The Hole, I thought. The day after Alain had finished his hole - only centimetres away from the front of the house - several more cracks had appeared. It was time to take a deep breath, get another loan and believe in the stuff our bio-dynamic builder told us about houses aging like people and cracks appearing like wrinkles as it laughed and cried, not to mention all that shit about prosperity.

On Tuesday it arrived - the Alien Beastie that would transform our waste into nectar that would make flowers grow, and it was lowered into The Hole. Next to it and into its very own hole (there wasn’t much left of our infamous terrace) was lowered The Reservoir to catch the clean water not wanted by our silly parched neighbours. Julian had come up with a plan which would entail some plumbing by him but would mean we touched no-one's land but our own: We would store six months’ water in the reservoir, and in April we would attach a hose leading to Nadine’s vegetable garden which would water her chard and potatoes. Any excess we would let run out into the vines…. It was a brilliant plan but Julian had made a boo boo by confusing his naughts and, instead of it holding six months’ water, the reservoir would hold three weeks'. Ouch. That night we shared a tentative glass of bubbly with monsieur Thurin and Alain, and Alain, punctuated by Monsieur T's quips about excrement and whiskey, talked about how we would all come to his house and share a drink and meet his wife and play traditional folk music with his son. We went to bed hoping that, since the truffle price per kilo had risen to €1186, Monsieur C's interest might be peaked and he might change his mind (again).

Meanwhile, Julian has spent all day today painting two gorgeous lemons (chosen by me) with a leaf snuggling between them in such an intimate way it looks like a loin-cloth. Then, just as darkness fell and it was time to prepare to go to friends for Christmas drinks, he cursed and scraped the canvas clean. He seems to have started another under his studio lights. After an hour I think I can just hear him hum which is normally a good sign...maybe we'll make the tail end of the drinks after all.

Tomorrow is Christmas eve. Blimey. We have one natural decoration on the tree (see below). We have sent no cards or prezzies. Our Christmas gift so far is a bokashi compost bin (really cool, and if our neighbours’ veg aren’t already growing like a dream the juice from this will make sure they fatten up for next Christmas). However the house is clean and tomorrow we will go to Les Halles market in Avignon and start compiling our feast.

I wish you all a very jolly Christmas and maybe my biggest wish right now as I battle with the guilt about not having sent anyone anything, is that, for each funky poo system or bokashi bin;for each small effort we make, our planet may become a happier healthier place.

xmas baby2

Sunday, December 16, 2007

free truffles?


I was sitting in my room, a cold white vine pattern framed by the window and the new under-floor heating rounding off the jagged corners of the frost. I was working out the spaghetti junction fingerings of the cello obligato to Zerlina’s love song to Masetto, ‘Bati Bati’, and suddenly I heard water. It was neither the trickle of a fountain nor the drip of a tap. It was the gush of…

I opened the windows and looked down at Monsieur R who had been digging our hole. He was standing on the edge of a pool of red water, his hands raised above his head and his eyes were pleading:

‘Il y a de l’eau….’ he said.

I thought of what rejoicing such a sight would have inspired in the Pagnol novel, Jean de Florette. I ran down and saw that the Syndicat des Eaux (the folks that had been insisting we buy land and install a prohibitively expensive and ultimately, once the European laws come in in 2012, useless septic tank) had installed the water pipes for the hamlet underground without protecting them as they should have done with a grille, that monsieur R’s digger had yanked one of them up, dislodging it, and that now the hamlet’s water was gushing into our beloved hole. As always when these things happen, it was a Friday night.

‘We have no heating’ said Manuel, our neighbour, coming over to witness the drama.
‘And no water in either house’ added Julian. ‘Well, darling, you always wanted a swimming pool….’

We phoned for the emergency services and a truck arrived.

‘Hi Shitface’ said Monsieur R to the man with the triangular nose who, it turned out, was his cousin. The two of them got to work by torchlight.

The next morning it snowed briefly. Julian and I went for a walk and danced briefly as the slappy sleet turned to hushed flakes, and Monsieur R came over to rescue his tractor from the freeze. When we returned, we discovered the tractor wouldn’t start, which meant Julian got to drive over the Demoiselles Coiffées in a ‘cat cat’ (quatre quatre; 4X4) with a big dog in the front seat to get Monsieur R home. On the way, Monsieur R - or ‘Alaing’ to us by now – imparted some news:

‘By the way, Monsieur C senior passed. He is not happy. He does not want you running your pipes to his reservoir. You can run it to his well if you want…’

‘But that’s too far….’ said Julian. People’s ‘d’accord’ here did not seem to hold much water.

‘I know.’

‘We will get by without him. We will build our own reservoir in front of the house and fix a small pipe that Nadine can access to water her garden.’

‘Think of the flowers we could have!’ said Nadine this morning, as she stopped by for a coffee.

‘Or a car wash…’ said Julian. ‘People will be queuing all the way to Avignon.’

‘Everyone will ask where the water is coming from….’ said Nadine

‘It’ll be our secret’ I said.

‘What do you say to an evening of oysters and my home made foie gras and rye bread and champagne next week to celebrate?’ said Nadine.

‘Only if you lower it in a basket from the window in the old tradition.’ I said.

‘You know Monsieur C is ‘bête’ she said. ‘He has had that truffle orchard out there for fifteen years and there has been not a single truffle. After ten years there should be truffles but because of the drought…’

‘You mean..’ I said, thinking of the 850 euro a kilo mark the delicacies have just reached at our local green grocer. ‘..that if he took our free water we would have all free truffles sprouting up everywhere? He certainly is bête.’

'Yes' said Nadine.

'Merde alors' I said.


Friday, December 14, 2007



Monsieur R, the mayor’s brother, is set to dig the hole for our new waste water system this week. He has silky hair and large eyebrows that waggle a lot when the Rat is ranting. ‘The Rat is the sort of man’ he says, his little round eyes darting towards me, as if the presence of a woman is a comfort to him ‘that turns up on Christmas morning when my wife and I are still in our pyjamas and says he has a little job for me…’

We are standing with Monsieur R on the terrace, rows of frosty vines glinting behind us, and someone I have never seen before comes up and offers us yet another calendar, which, we have discovered, is festive French for ‘Gi’s a tenner’. I remember my neighbour’s sage advice – Give to The Three P’s: the Pompiers, the Poubelles and the Postie, and politely decline the offer. We go back to gloating over The Rat. We have, it seems, now got the authorisation of Monsieur C junior to run our clean water under the ‘chemin communal’ (‘Make as little noise about it as possible and it will be OK’, said the Mayor’s brother) and into his reservoir, thus watering their olive trees and garden. With any luck we will not touch The Rat’s land.

Later, I pick up the phone. ‘Hello, this is your neighbour speaking’ said The Rat. ‘I am here with my son and we are talking about what kind of compensation you might offer us…’

‘Excuse me Monsieur A, but I am working’ I said.

‘I thought you were going to see the lawyer tomorrow afternoon and my son and I are preparing a piece of paper…’

‘Well, yes I am going to see the lawyer, but we are looking at other possibilities…would you put your proposal in our letter box and we will look at it’

‘No, I think we should decide this ‘de vive voix’. Can I call you tomorrow? We need to talk about compensation. Are you on the maximum electricity?’

‘Goodbye Monsieur A.’

Julian and I jumped up and down saying very unsavoury things about The Rat. Having been a most unchristian rodent he will now find himself without electricity or water and with a hamlet to renovate. We offered to pay for a waste water system that would have served the whole hamlet, would have filled his ‘bassin’ and flushed his toilets, watered his pool and dealt with his droppings. He said something about not wanting to share anything because good boundaries made good friends, then he came asking to ‘share’ our electricity and drinking water. Bah.

I went to the post office to send off the last of the Christmas prints. Vincent was in a bad mood and, seeing my armful, looked over my head at the person behind me.

‘Marthe, I will take your packet first’ he said.

Vincent thrust a piece of card under the window.

‘Calendrier’ he said.

I, in turn, slid an envelope back with the gift of a print inside.

‘Tirage Numerique. Joyeux Fêtes.’


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

water anyone?

Monsieur Thurin and his stooge arrived, as they are wont to do these days, at about 4.30, just about the time Julian and I finally, after a day making and packing prints, get to work.

‘This man your neighbour, Monsieur A, he is a rat’ said Monsieur Thurin as he plonked his ample bottom on the green cushion. ‘He is a mad peasant….do you know, in return for letting you run your pipes where they have always run, do you know what he wants?’

‘What’s going on?’ I said.

‘Well, having said he was ‘d’accord’ to put the pipes under his land he is now saying that he wants nothing to do with it unless….’

‘If he wants to get nasty, we do have a right to have a water system where it is now, even though it is on his land, because the law says that if the fosse has already been there for thirty years or more...…’

‘He couldn’t give a shit about having clean water as a ‘cadeau’, what he wants is electricity and town water from your house!’

‘But he was ready to sign…’

Blimey, I thought. No wonder the rat has been charming all along. It is true that Monsieur A’s sister in law sold us our home; that she sold it in the full knowledge that we would have neither a septic tank of our own nor any land on which to put one; that Monsieur A owns the ruin next door where all our poo and porridge go; that our house was the place from which he was used to helping himself to water and electricity freely knowing his sister in law would be paying…. He is clearly very unhappy that we are here. We are the thorn in his side. On the other hand, we offered to put in a water purification system that would serve the entire hamlet, which he refused saying: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, or ‘Good boundaries make good friends’…whatever. The fact is that he is ready to offer us nothing and take everything.

'You know' said our neighbour and dear friend Manuel. 'When the mistral drops he will probably change his mind again....'

‘Even if he does, I think we’d better not touch Monsieur A’s land’ I said to Monsieur Thurin ‘but instead go through Monsieur C….’.

I phoned Monsieur C. His wife answered. I could see her with the telly hoiked up above the dining room table in the room where we had sat not three weeks ago asking if they could sell us land.

‘How’s it going?’ I asked.

‘Freshly’ she said.

I proposed, clumsily, a meeting in which we would discuss our proposition to run pipes under the ‘chemin communal’ to their garden and olive grove, and offer them access to free clean water with which they could water their trees, vegetables and crops.

‘My husband is going to hospital for tests on his heart. He will probably be in a few days…maybe you could call on Saturday?’

‘I’m so sorry Madame, I will call you another day. Do give your husband my best….’

Monsieur Thurin, hearing how difficult it was for me to explain our situation, insisted on calling the son who owns practically everything anyway.

‘Hello, I am at the Coucou - at the house of Les Anglais…..’ He started to explain the offer of pure water in exchange for…..well, nothing really, just the chance to put our pure water somewhere, when he was interrupted:

‘Oh, no, the police!’ said Monsieur C junior.

And that was it.

‘You see’ said monsieur Thurin. ‘Pure water is more shitty for the peasants. I am the son of a peasant. I know.’

And with the promise of a big bottle, nay case, of Highland malt, we let him go to his next rendez-vous.

We cracked open a bottle.

'So much for my recits' I said. 'First there were the pompiers asking for their ten euros thinly disguised as offering us a calender, then there were the poubelle men asking for their ten euros thinly disguised as offering us a calender, then the heavies arrived to talk about shit. What's for dinner?'

Sunday, December 09, 2007

in search of perfection


After many long mornings in a ripped Sergio Bellini bathrobe, and late nights after truffles and Gigondas, fuelled by his insatiable desire for perfection, and comforted by the knowledge that the grumpy wiff was asleep upstairs, Julian has redone the ‘prints’ page in time for Christmas. Now perhaps we can relax...

Except that, fuelled by my insatiable desire for perfection I am making my own translation of thirty recitatives in Don Giovanni (there's a fair amount of blah blah, and lots of scelerato, mostro, indegno and sventura), getting our adoption pre dossier together and trying to finish the first draft of a novel - all with a cat on my lap.

Luckily friends are arriving in time to stop this madness.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

fluffy progress

The vet says Baby is 'nickel';that she is three and a half months old, weighs two and a half kilos and that she is going to be HUGE!!! She has a crush on Oscar. I don't blame her.




Tuesday, December 04, 2007

which way?


Yesterday morning was market day in the small town of Mazan and, amongst the chard, oyster and cardoon sellers, we had our rendez-vous with Monsieur Thurin. Our itinerary was Mazan, Bedarrides, Althen les Paluds and Chateauneuf du Pape, and we were to be inspecting shit.

The purification station we have stumbled across may be the one that could save our – well, you fill in the word - and we were to see four examples of it in action, two of whose owners had the same problem as us: No Land.

At the first stop we greeted the proud new owner of the ‘mini station d’épuration’. He was lovingly planting little box hedges around the grey disc which covered the system, which, through four different chambers, transformed all the household’s poo and washing up liquid and olive oil and goose fat into a clear liquid good enough for irrigation.

‘Have you done any good ‘crottes’ today, Mister?’ asked Monsieur Thurin as we gaped into the first chamber.

‘Ah, an excellent dump today. My wife cooks such good food’ said the client pointing to the fourth chamber.

‘I can vouch for that’ said Monsieur Thurin ‘and she makes an excellent p’tit ponch too’. He winked.

I gazed at the second chamber where the bio-masse was starting to form. Being highly oxygenated, it was bubbling away, busy breeding bacteria to break down the matter from the first. ‘Ooh look, champagne!’ I said.

‘I have to admit know some better ones in the region’ said Monsieur Thurin.

Julian was looking at the first chamber. ‘Sir, I pronounce you in most excellent health!’

After that we visited a little man doing up his son’s mansion who was only too happy to sing the praises of his new system since it has cost him five thousand euros instead of fifty – the sum quoted for a traditional septic tank – and he could put it snug in the driveway, meanwhile watering his nearby cypresses. Then came a wine maker and, lastly, a small house in the middle of the gold-dust that is the vines of Chateauneuf du Pape.

‘The water board wrote a letter telling this guy he had to buy a hectare of Chateauneuf vines’ said Monsieur Thurin. ‘You know how much they are worth? More than constructible land for sure; would probably have cost him about two hundred thousand– all so he could soak away his excrement.’

Monsieur Thurin, we were discovering, had a scatological bent.

I thought of my recent visit to the local lawyer to whom, desperate to find a solution to our problem, I had shown the same letter. Granted, Côte du Ventoux vines don’t cost the same, but the farmers can’t be arsed about selling them anyway – not for a garden nor for a waste water system, and certainly not to ‘Les Anglais’.

Our lawyer was, at that very moment as we cruised round Provence in a Honda, and on the instruction of Madame Perrier – yes that really is the name of the woman at the water-board! - preparing three letters to the three people with land bordering on our house to ask if they would sell us a ‘bout’. If, but more realistically when they said no (the water board informed me) we would have to proceed to ‘the next step’. We were not told what ‘the next step’ would be (nightmares of having to sell the house for a piece of shit) but, as our journey continued with monsieur Thurin, we began to understand how many pockets would be lined along the way:

First of all, by 2008, all departments are supposed to have carried out controls on all private waste water systems. Because they were charging (illegally) 153€ for this ‘service’, most people (rightfully) were refusing to pay it, and so they had (illegally) stopped the controls.

In all my communications with Madame Perrier over the last two years, she had insisted that we have a soil test. Each time I replied we didn’t HAVE any soil to test, and that that was the problem, to which she just wrote again that in order to have a septic tank (that we didn’t want) we would have to have a soil test. Funny that, the test costs 1000€.

With a septic tank you need a lot of sand for the soak-away, and that sand needs to be changed every five years. There are of course back-handers going around from the sand suppliers, which means that the water board, though Monsieur Thurin presented himself as soon as he arrived in the department, ‘know absolutely nothing’ about systems that don’t need loads of sand.

(As Monsieur Thurin continued to explain, we passed one of the fancy roundabouts being built all through France. This one had some very curious iron-work and rather a lot of sand. We all nodded sagely at the implied corruption.)

And so, in a place in the world where for the last ten years there has been a drought, ignorance and corruption continue to damage the environment, and rob its folk. Our neighbour, for example, an honest peasant, did what he was told: He cut down half his olive grove to make a soak-away because his septic tank and soak-away system had to be:

. 5 m from the property
. 10 m à 15 m from any banks,
. 3 m from any trees
35 m from any wells used for food or drinking water.

If he had been better advised he could have probably saved 40,000€ and we could have shared a system that would have served the whole hamlet; a system that would not have forced him to kill his olive grove, but would have nourished it, given him toilet flushing and swimming pool water, and fed the organic garden his tenants grow. The water board, however, would have had no benefit.

We have no idea yet if we can do it. The current mayor’s brother is the guy who is supposed to dig our hole (in the terrace we have just laid, unfortunately) and we’re not yet sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. He has never heard of such a system. The old mayor, who will be presenting himself as a candidate again in the next elections, happens to be the person at the head of the water board. Then again who would trust a man named Helen?

One thing is for sure, with a system that has all the European norms in place for 2012, I am not being a good citizen any longer and lining the pockets of those who are more concerned with earning a few thousand euros for their cousin in sand than helping relieve its land from drought or save its community from ruin. Knowing all we will be doing is putting clean water into parched earth, if it can be done on our small apron of land, we will do it.

They all came round to inspect the site tonight. It was not looking as easy as we had hoped.

'I hope we can get something done by Christmas..;we really need to have a wee...' said Julian.

'And a shit, I imagine' said monsieur Thurin, his coloured hair glowing in the moonlight.

There is something about him - greasy scatalogical salesman perhaps (but then again so was Mozart) - but I like him. He's solid.

The salesman and his stoodge, and the terrassier all disappeared into the starry night. We took our washing up water out and threw it down the road.