Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cinderella and the Bonfires

I haven't grown up in a rural environment but I can certainly appreciate one. Winter in France offers the opportunity to do something that is forbidden in Auckland. Lighting fires outdoors, big fires.

In Auckland, NZ it's forbidden all year round to light fires outdoors, no matter the reason. Absolutely no rubbish fires any time. There are bylaws enforcing air quality. I've been known to dob-in the occasional neighbour who transgresses this rule and sends toxic smoke into our breathing air. CO2 emissions and all that too.

It was therefore with surprise that I watched Jean-Claude igniting ginormous bonfires on his property over the past three days. With so many trees on his property needing management there's always dead wood, fallen trees and leaves, prunings too big to be mulched but still needing to be got rid of.

Fires are forbidden from the 15th February in this area so burning has been underway solidly this week. JC's piles were huge, much taller than me and the heat was unbearable, I felt my eyes drying out immediately but it was interesting. He's make a nest of newspaper and kindling wood and slosh the diesel all over it and off she went.

The columns of smoke twisted upwards in spirals and the gorgeous reds and golds and oranges inside the inferno roared and flicked and consumed.It was dangerously beautiful.

There were two main bonfires, both very large and JC and I were kept busy stoking and feeding; tough on the back. I was wrapped up against the biting cold; cinders all over my hat and through my hair. JC had to stop from time to time to put his hands in mis trouser pockets to warm his hands, they got so painful from the temperatures not much above zero.

On the second day JC got up early, stirred the embers and started again. This morning, the third one continuously, he was at it yet again, raking and throwing twigs and stumps in the middle of his property; hot tiring work. The man has energy, fitness and more stick-at-itness than most twenty-something year-olds.


While the twigs were cooking he then started work on planting a fruit tree in his orchard. Last week it was a plum to join the figs and apples. This one might be a cherry tree to join an older one.

Digging is too heavy for me these days but I help when I can and when the mood takes me. Mucking around in gumboots with twigs and branches, standing around while clouds of bush smoke swirled over me was rather fun. My parents would never have let me do anything so 'un-girl-like'.

Right now, much smaller heaps are gently smoking like reluctant volcanoes, puffing into the clear sky and sometimes adding to the fog that comes over the valley. People have been doing this for years. It's not great for the CO2 issues but not having trees is worse.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

When friends make contact...

I often feel socially isolated here in France. Unable to get around much and still suffering from the language barrier it's hard to make friends. Of course, I consider Victoria who works with me as a friend but we rarely see each other socially. It was therefore with great warmth and pleasure that I experienced a little bit of contact this past week from people I had not expected to hear from or see.

Being Christmas, I sent out my usual Christmas newsletter from myself with a contribution from Laura to various friends and special contacts. Most responded with either a brief hello or a longer, newsier update or article of their own. Fantastic, I felt a little more reconnected. People I enjoyed in the past-I still enjoy, the miles matter little in that regard. Some friends are on their own adventures elsewhere in the world, enduring jobs they don't like, reviewing what they want to do next year, having grandchildren,looking after aging parents, my ex getting engaged, folks dropping out of the conventional 'stream' of things. I haven't heard yet from my friends back in Christchurch who are still suffering multiple major earthquakes more than 15 months from the first.

Out of the blue I received an email from Laurence. We met just over a year ago when she invited me to have dinner with her and her daughter but we'd had little contact in the interim.

There I was this week after work, catching a train to her town, Laurence meeting me at the station and driving me to her new home. It's lovely, homey, in good condition and perfect for a lovely lady in retirement. Her son still lives with her and she recently hosted a student from Germany.

The petit-fours came out of the oven, we devoured the main course and finished with fresh oranges and vanilla icecream. I admired the gingerbread house covered in lollies that a German student living nearby had made. A very convivial evening shared together completely in French.

Yesterday I received a call from Pascal in Brittany. Contact from him is extremely rare so it was lovely to hear from him and know he was thinking of me and even discussing me with his friend Pascal (2) whom I met last year. Last Christmas, as you'll recall, I spent my first Christmas in France with Pascal's family. His Mum still asks after me. They are lovely people and Pascal will always be a good friend in my heart for introducing me to the beauty of Brittany and all the laughs we shared.

This Christmas I'm spending the festive season with someone particularly special and intimate in my life. The wonderful Jean-Claude who has added so much colour and richness to this year for me. It will be quiet. His daughter and her son are here some of the time so it's a French family Christmas but without a lot of people. It's easier for me to converse like that and a rest is very welcome.

It's Christmas Eve as I write this and in JC's house one shares presents around midnight. If the kids are asleep they are woken up to unwrap what Father Christmas has delivered. Right now the tree lights are twinkling, the fire is crackling and flaming. And I think we are eating roast lamb for dinner, having had a delicious roast porc with sauce accompanied by a superb Pinot Gris for lunch. La Belle France....
Photos of Laurence and Pascal...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Preparing to hibernate

It's December and officially Winter. The temperatures are sinking down to zero and ultimately below that. So far, this season, we've had no dump of snow, not even a flake. This is great but the temperatures are still chilling.
I've got my winter duvet on my bed with a polar fleece blanket on top. The heater stays on all night. I wear my socks to bed but I'm still cold because my bed is right beside the doorway. Maybe it's time for the 'bouillotte' or hot water bottle and to go to bed fully clothed like I had to do last year. Certainly, my pyjamas are now inadequate.

During the day I look like some sort of Siberian woman or an Inuit as I make my way by bicycle to and from work. Last week I invested in a fake fur-lined hat with a flap in the front and flaps on the ear sections. Unfortunately it's not waterproof. I wear a heavy winter coat (not nearly long enough) covered by my waterproof but very thin nylon raincoat with hood, scarf and gloves.

The end result in rain is always wet knickers and legs. There are so many speed bumps and cobblestones to ride over that I have to stand on thee peddles. Each time I do that the rain wets the seat. The wind blows the rain between my legs and knees as I cycle and the mud sprays all the way up my lower legs as I negotiate broken branches and mud, mud in the near darkness. This is the alternative to getting stuck in winter traffic.

Jean-Claude has spent many weeks preparing for the winter season ahead. A winter that is so much longer and harder than those in New Zealand. He's worked very hard to chop up trees to make firewood of various sizes; kindling and logs which he stores according to diameter. When building a fire he starts with crumpled paper, then kindling, then progressively thicker logs. Pour diesel over it all, light a match and whoomph! Voila, open fire in the chimney. Cosy but inefficient and different to my log fire in Auckland. Don't they use firestarters here?

JC has mowed his extensive lawn for the last time for five months. He rides on his mover methodically cutting the grass and sucking up the leaves form all the trees. There are no leaves left now to fall. Much of nature will hibernate for months now.

Winter preparations have also included fitting winter tyres on his car. He did it himself this year as he had the time to do it. It's heavy work changing four big tyres. There are many sorts of tyres folks use here for the changing conditions.

He doesn't usually do much about Christmas Trees but this year decided to buy one so I could decorate it as I told him this is a special treat for me at Christmas-I've always done it except for last year. I can't have one at my place as I can't afford it and decorations and don't have a car to transport it in anyway so I was happy to settle for creating one at JC's place.

We chose a less expensive variety. It's the smallest once-alive tree I've decorated. The trees in NZ are very different; larger and less delicate. The smell is also rather different, less tangy here but they still all drop their needles.

In France they get wrapped in a net for you to make it easier to transport them. A great idea because the needles are rather sharp and painful. I weighted the bottom of the container with JC's collection of fossilised sea urchins that he has collected on rambles in the woods and fields over the years-that's certainly different!

We bought new fibre optic lights and some extra baubles to go along with what he already have. After a few hours I'd finished deorating it, the fire was on and as darkness grew the tree was truly festive with the tiny multi-colour lights reflected in the balls.

There's less choice of decorations and generally they are of lesser quality in France (so far that's my experience. You have to resort to a supermarket or a garden nursery to find anything. I'll be interested to see what other differences I notice this time around.