They Measure Things Differently Over Here…

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DIY / french life / measurements / metric system / recurring dreams / shopping / teeth
No man, they got the metric system...

No man, they got the metric system…

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of Pulp Fiction where John Travolta explains the ‘little differences’ in Europe to Samuel L Jackson and, in discussing the name of a Quarter Pounder he says, “No man, they got the metric system…”

But whilst this may take some learning for an American, British ex-pats shouldn’t need to worry – after all, Bishop John Wilkins published a proposal for a universal decimal system of measurement in 1668 and, whilst it didn’t make it compulsory, The Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act legalised the metric system in 1896; provided you have a metric tape measure it shouldn’t be any problem at all buying goods.

Or so you’d think.

Until you look at the growing list of redundant/incorrect items in our back room. From plumbing supplies to windows there’s a whole stock of things we should return.

Take plumbing, you can use 12mm, 14mm, 16m or 20mm pipes and fittings, male and female and it all changes again if you want to swap from plastic to copper tubing and vice-versa! Some say it’s so that you can control the water pressure but I suspect it’s just to add to the variety of life. After all, our house, which is blessed with strip-your-skin-off water pressure, employs every single pipe size with no correlation to distance from water meter, floor of house or any other conceivable reason.

And we have a beautiful oak-framed window upstairs which doesn’t fit our gap although the stated measurements on the product itself are exactly to our requirements. The French just don’t measure their windows like we would – a 1000mm window will not fit in a 1m hole and, be warned, there is no logic to their measurements (or, at least, not one that we’ve found). The same is true of kitchen sinks but fortunately by the time we were purchasing one we had realised the only safe method of filling gaps is to take your own tape measure.

And finally there are interdental brushes. I like to brush between my teeth. I don’t like floss. It gives me panic-attacks and I have a recurring dream where I’m walking around town naked and it’s not the lack of clothes that bothers me but the long piece of floss that’s hanging permanently from between my teeth! After months of searching I was delighted last week when I found a pack of 4.5mm interdentals – whilst they may not squeeze between my front teeth they would, at least, be a replacement for my 5mm brushes. I should have known better. I don’t know how these brushes have been measured and I don’t have a micrometer to hand but suffice it to say that no amount of levering will even get them between my most widely spaced teeth – not without possibly dislodging a molar in the process.

So, if you’re coming to France, bring your own measuring devices and keep them with you at all times and, in the meantime, if anyone wants to send me a pack of 4mm TeePee brushes I’d be more than grateful.

Small Town Living (Part One)

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french life / neighbours / rural living
Our street... just over the bridge.

Our street… just over the bridge.

Our English home didn’t include neighbours – unless you could call the sheep, cows  or pigs that sometimes forced their heads over our garden fence, neighbours – so moving to a busy(ish) street like Roc du Pont was an unknown quantity. Our experiences of France – from previous lives to holidays etc. – meant we could imagine all other aspects of our new life but the impending arrival of les voisines was something completely new.

Pigs

previous neighbours…

And we have not been disappointed. Our neighbours are delightful; within weeks we felt like we had always lived here – we have been made to feel so welcome. From taking our early evening stroll – for which we must allow extra minutes to take into account the inevitable stops for chatting – to collecting our post from the mailbox, every simple act is blessed with the wonders of small town life. And each encounter is another lesson in my new language, perhaps I learn a new word or remember a verb from my school days that I have long-since forgotten, sometimes I realise a new subtlety of pronunciation and, more often than not, I grasp from the puzzled looks and blank eyes that my French still has some way to go.

And now that we have been here a while, the joys of neighbourhood are flourishing. Like in November when the post-office was shut (I never did find out why, it wasn’t meant to be closed) and I had to post a letter so I asked in the baker’s where best I could buy a stamp. But instead of getting directions, Fabien (our local boulangère) tried to find me one in her purse and when that didn’t work another customer – previously unknown to me – insisted that I wait whilst she ran home. And she returned with a large smile and a stamp, and she wouldn’t accept any payment. And also in November when Olivier at the bar called us his friends or when we arrived home late one evening, so that shadows were falling over the garden, including a very peculiarly shaped shadow in the flower bed; an unknown neighbour had left a huge Squash and four jars of homemade jam. We searched everywhere for a note, employed our best French to ask around and it took us weeks to locate our generous donor (who, on finally receiving our heartfelt gratitude, proceeded to supply us with yet more légumes).

On our map of the Averyon Najac is listed as one of the larger communes but it doesn’t feel that way and, for now, we are glad that our little-big town still feels like a small community.

For the love of Food

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food / markets / shopping / tripe / Uncategorized
800px-Andouillette_grillée

Andouillette

We love French food, we love the rugged look of the peppers and courgettes, we love the abundance of squash at this time of year and the lack of less seasonal fruit and veg. It makes cooking more interesting and you’re keen to make the most of the new products that appear with the change in season.

Last week we went to the market at Villefranche de Rouergue, it’s one of the larger ones that fill countless streets and this time we found a wonderful cooked meat stall. We tried a range of products – dried duck, cured sausage, pâté and duly stocked our bags with new and delicious tastes. We also spotted a lovely piece of black pudding and decided to do one of our lighter meals that night – warm black pudding, bacon and poached egg salad – with a mustard and crème fraiche sauce it really is divine. Providing the black pudding is sliced to just the right thickness so that when you fry it the fat can melt away a little. I’m not too keen on those lumps of fat which was why I was so looking forward to this boudin noir aux viandes (apologies to the stall if I’ve failed to spell that correctly).

Black pudding with meat – I assumed this meant more meat and less fat. Sometimes you should ask rather than assume.

Rob prepared and fried the black pudding whilst I attended to the sauce. He fries it to perfection and he’s also brilliant at the poached eggs. It was during the cooking, though, that he realised this black pudding was just a little bit different. And perhaps my translation was not as accurate as it could be. Or maybe my translation was correct but the butcher’s description failed to hit the mark.

The added meat was not exactly meat, or it was meat in the loosest possible terms.

I’ve eaten Andouillettes in Arras – at the Festival, I like to try new things.  Even if I don’t know what they are when I read the menu. And I eat them if I’ve ordered them, no matter how difficult – like whelks – which I ate in a lovely restaurant on the banks of the Seine.  Andouillettes are sausages without the sausage meat; only they’re not for vegetarians because what they lack in meat they make up for in tripe. Andouillettes are tripe sausage. And they are served flaming on a plate and they’re alright – a bit earthy, salty and very, very chewy. As Rick Stein once said, whilst eating chicken’s foot, one is enough.

And now I’ve eaten black pudding with added tripe. And it was not so easy to eat; lightly frying did nothing to tenderise the tripe, it was a little like hard-boiled rubber, I expect you could make bike tyres from it. This black pudding would have benefited from an hour’s boiling, then frying, then roasting and maybe also flaming in alcohol.

One was enough.

 

You get what you pay for…

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food / french life / knives / shopping

amoraWe’ve always liked knives; Rob uses them of course, for woodwork, for fencing, good sharp knives are essential in the kitchen. There’s a great line in the film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that begins, “Also, I think knives are a good idea…” I won’t continue as the language is not so suitable for this Blog. Coming to the Averyon we were very excited to be in the home of Laguoile although other knife manufacturers do exist.

In Najac we have our own artisan knife maker, he sells, he produces and he also houses his own little museum and the first weekend in October, Najac hosted its second knife fair. A treat for anyone interested in beautiful metal, wood and bone work – the steels and the handles were amazing. We would have bought something, if there hadn’t been too much choice and too much quality.

The Averyon is so renowned for its knives it even has a dedicated tourist trail.

This week we wanted a cheese knife to put with one of Rob’s cheeseboards  and were excited to see a wooden handled Laguoile with a good weightiness and not a bad size for sale at €2.99 in our local Supermarket. The wood went well with the board and, along with a good bottle of Bordeaux, would make a nice gift. We thought.

I also needed some Dijon mustard – as with everything at the moment in our new life we were ready for a delay as we scoured the multitude of choice for the best deal. As expected there were five whole shelves – a complete mini section – just for mustards. In the end I narrowed it down Amora as the mustard is served in a glass – it has a rubber, reusable lid and, once empty you are left with a wine glass. There’s a choice of glasses too. And the best part – the jar/glass cost 40cents! I had to check the bill when I got home and there it was €0.40 – I had not made a mistake. If I can only come up with enough uses for mustard over the coming weeks I’ll have a whole new set of wine glasses by Christmas for under 2 Euros!.

We were pleased with our bargains this week. The mustard and the Laguoile knife made our shopping trip worthwhile.

Until I washed the knife. And saw the ‘importe par’ on the label. And I noticed that it did not say fabrique en France on the steel – as it should.

We live in France, in the Averyon and we have just bought a fake Laguoile knife.

Which just goes to show, you get what you pay for. Or, sometimes, you don’t.

A Parcel fit for a King…

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food / french life / markets / shopping

SONY DSCWe’re lucky in our region of the Averyon to have a number of options for our food shopping. There are a huge range of supermarkets – Intermarché, E. Leclerc, HyperU – they all have loyalty cards and huge ranges of products. In town we have a fabulous baker – I visit at least daily, not just for her excellent cakes, breads, croissants but also for her patience as I try yet another little bit of French conversation. There are local dairies that sell direct, butchers, caves (selling wine not stalactites) and then there are the markets.

We love the markets, we love searching for the local stalls – the pork seller who only visits alternate weeks and sells-up within the hour, the lady with a couple of yellow chickens with long legs – heads still attached, the cheese stall with just a handful of slabs – you buy from these stalls and you know you’re getting something handmade, reared with love, food that will taste of the countryside. At Varen there is a market we try to catch every Saturday morning; there’s a huge fruit and veg stall where everyone congregates for a chat and a few smaller stalls just along the street – at the moment the local school children are selling giant squash of all varieties and homemade cakes – and there is our favourite butcher.

You have to wait ages for the butcher. You aren’t just queuing because he is popular (although he is); you’re queuing because he loves his meat and therefore you wait whilst he serves each customer, ensuring all receive his personal touch. Every piece of meat is prepared as though handling a newly hatched chicken, careful not to squeeze too hard, laid reverently upon the counter whilst trimming to perfection (no chance of a tough sinew in his steak) and then you continue to wait whilst he wraps – each parcel created as though wrapping a gift for a monarch. Paper measured with a degree of accuracy normally attributed to the finest mathematician, corners folded and tucked – he doesn’t use tape or string yet not a single item comes unwrapped in transit. Only at this point can his assistant help, arranging each portion in a bag, heaviest items first, all tucked in neatly side by side and stacked in such a way that nothing can be damaged.

Living in France means queuing to get the things you want, it means smiling whilst the wind brushes against your ankles and the sun gradually creeps over the rooftops, it means ignoring the flicker of annoyance as the elderly man from the local village joins the queue from the wrong side – you do all this because you know that piece of meat is going to taste divine and the time you spend waiting is nothing compared to the love and energy that has gone into its creation.

Plunging into Darkness…

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Uncategorized

balcony view CarolynSome things are different in France, not necessarily better or worse, just different – and becoming used to the differences is part of the settling-in.

The clocks are set differently over here, it’s not just that we’re an hour ahead but it’s skewed towards the evening. So our days last longer – perfect for sitting out with that well deserved glass of chilled wine after a morning’s cycling and an afternoon’s hard-gardening, all at 25 to 30 degrees – but it means that you can easily forget to get out of bed. We’ve always been up with the dawn kind of people (even when dawn is 5am) but it can be a bit of a problem when dawn isn’t really rearing its head until 8am.

And then there’s the Sunday morning cycling in autumn. I set off last Sunday morning, I’d spotted a route as we’d driven around – what I mean is, I’d noticed signposts pointing to towns that I recognise from other drives and decided that would make a good loop. It’s how I used to make up my rides back in England, you don’t need to worry about maps as much then; you know that you’re going to end up home. Perhaps in France I should worry about maps.

Not taking them out with me, necessarily, but maybe consulting the map before I set off. If I’d consulted the map last week I may have realised that the connecting road in question was a 5km descent of twisty road (and when I say twisty I mean bends complete over 180 degrees, one after the other) with a vertiginous drop to my right (and we cycle on the right) which plunged into the depths of the forest. And there wasn’t a guard rail. And there was a camber on the road. And the occasional ditch. And La Chasse!

The French hunt on Sundays (and probably other days too) and, as I made the descent from hell (heart racing, knuckles white, brake pads burning), I was accompanied by the sound of baying dogs… it was probably a result of the rapidly declining altitude (and the darkness of the thickening forest) but as I got further down I was no longer listening to baying hunting-hounds – now I was hearing wolves. Crazed wolves. Who would surely tear me limb-from-limb if I strayed off the path. Or stopped (to ease my brakes and knuckles). I cycled a different route today.

Some things are the same though – the French are environmentally friendly. They recycle. They conserve water and energy. They re-use. Last week I went to the toilet at one of our bigger supermarkets and it was automatic lights (just like many places in the UK). Except everyone must be taller in France. Half-way through my toileting (still seated) the lights went out. I tried waving my hands to no avail – I was too short from this position to reactivate the sensor. And I hadn’t taken note of the cubicle layout. And it was pitch black.

It was an experience.

Dear Things…

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Uncategorized
Home grown apples.

Home grown apples.

We love France (you’ve probably gathered); we love it because it offers the things we appreciate, fine wine and stunning scenery. Countless towns and villages that have retained all their quaint past whilst still never being far from the more modern sides of life – we have a wealth of different places we can visit for major outlets, our nearest being Villefranche de Rouergue but it’s also nice (and sometimes cheaper) to go further afield.

Not that our neighbours always understand this philosophy and I still haven’t been able to get the correct French words to explain why we travelled to Montauban to buy a new washing machine, printer, hoover, house windows… “C’est moin cher.” just didn’t explain it adequately to someone who would just buy from the local store five minutes out of town and I was flummoxed when it came to talking about the latest products, wider choice etc. How will I ever explain a washing machine that weighs the load to decide the optimum amount of water never mind I can programme it from my smartphone?

I thought I had everything sussed when it came to getting best deals – shopping at the markets and getting to know the locals (and where the locals shop) so that I can purchase high quality meats and vegetables (that taste of something) all for just a few euros – but I was wrong.  We don’t buy absolutely everything at the markets, we couldn’t, so we still make trips to our local supermarket – it’s a typically French one, long queues at the single checkout, people paying by cheque and a minimal amount of aisles stocking the quaintest of things – but we love it.

Last week, amongst other things, I bought a string bag with four red onions and four pieces of locally grown and cooked Confit de Canard. I could not believe the price of the duck, so much so that I checked my bill on returning home. A meal for two of ready cooked duck legs – and confit takes at least two hours cooking – and it was just €1.99, that’s Euros not pounds. And there it was, on my receipt, confirmation that that was all I was charged.

And right next to it the thing to wipe the smile off my face – that string bag of red onions – that cost €4.99! Imported from Italy.

That is why we need to be seasonal and check the price of things before we purchase. Always.

Lesson learned.

Two Weeks In…

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Uncategorized
The view whilst I type...

The view whilst I type…

Two weeks ago, on Monday 29th September, we started our new life in France.

Two weeks is normally a short time, people say the months fly by, they cannot believe it’s almost Christmas – again – and yet these two weeks have seemed like a lifetime (a heavenly one). Of course things are not perfect, indeed there are many who wouldn’t be so keen to live as we currently are (never mind the first three days when we could only have the water on for minutes at a time, given that we were so full of leaks) and yet, for us, we are living the life that we have dreamed of (and ‘pretend’ lived) for years.

We came here because we wanted a different lifestyle, one that centered around food and conversation and fresh air. And countryside. And now we are here.

There are stacks of boxes that we dare not unpack – in our old house we (as in Rob) built most of our furniture and it stayed with the house – so there is little room for our belongings. Our clothes currently reside in our upstairs living room (yes, we have two) as it used to be a bedroom and still has built-in wardrobes. The boxes make up two neat thirds to the downstairs living room with a cozy section in front of the fire with Captain’s chest and antique rocker (we can’t use the fire – we need a chimney sweep – but then it’s too hot for fires as yet, anyway). The water – all leaks repaired by us (as in Rob) – comes only in one variety: cold (but we’ve become adept at showering by bucket and jug whilst standing in our state of the art power shower cubicle) and our kitchen consists of only a hob and a sink so low that even I have to stoop (and I’m short) but we love it all.

We have our huge dining table, with candles which we light every night and we shop for food every two or three days, at various markets, getting to know the locals. And yes there are a thousand things to do but who couldn’t be happy when their workplace looks out onto trees and a castle and their neighbours already welcome them like old friends?