Category: France

Retirement, but not as we know it!

This week we have been working hard, far harder than we might have chosen to had we thought about it for too long. This week we have been laying large, square, floor tiles.

This came about because, well, we like to think we are kind people and when friends have a problem, like a job that needs to be done, we try to help if we can. Our French friend, Guy, is waiting for operations on both knees and one hip whilst his wife, Noëlle, is waiting for him to lay floor tiles in their ‘salle de séjour’ or living room. So, realising that laying floor tiles is the last thing we would want to do with stiff and painful knees and a defective hip joint, us Trotts have come to the rescue.

There is a payback for us, of course, in that whilst we are staying with them in their comfortable, centrally-heated house in the countryside just north of Lyon we are fully fed with whatever Noëlle can conjure up in her plentiful kitchen. This is worth more, in my humble opinion, than forty-five square metres of ‘carrelage’ (tiling), an aching back and bruised knees. Fortunately Kate and I both like garlic, which is generously added to most things we eat, and also wine, which is generously supplied by Guy from his vast cellar beneath the house. Eggs are kindly donated by a dozen hens who run free in the garden and there are fresh vegetables as well, safely protected from the hens of course, and every day we are eating winter salad freshly picked but a few minutes before.

One of the differences we observe in houses we have either stayed in or visited in both France and Italy is the absence of fitted carpets. In both countries they seem to regard the concept of a wall to wall woven wool floor covering with some distaste; in their view it is a source of infection and a completely unnecessary complication when it comes to cleaning. On the contrary I, as an Englishman have grown up with the idea that a fitted carpet is something desirable, indeed something to be aspired to, so the unforgiving ceramic floors seemed rather strange to me at first. Whilst I can see the sense of this in a warmer climate, as in parts of Italy, where a cool surface seems a generally good idea, here in Lyon where the winters can be every bit as fierce as those in the UK this explanation seems to make little sense. The fact that we have not unduly noticed cold from these hard floors penetrating the soles of our feet is because every house we visit has had a handy stock of slippers (the French word is pantoufle) close to the front door, a variety of colours and sizes to cater for every visitor. As likely as not these are soft, backless ‘flip-flops’ and a common sound, therefore, is the whispery ‘shflipp, shflipp’ noise made as one progresses across the tiled surface.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, ‘les pantoufles’ are big business over here. Your average shoe shop will have a large and prominent display of the things, often outside on racks where they hope to catch passing trade. One such shop, situated in Italy but close to the French border so as to catch the carloads of French tourists who pile across the border each day for the slightly lower prices on food and many other items, we named ‘Pantoufle-R-Us’ for its stunning external display. And to think that all this is due to tiled floors.

Noëlle, keen to show off the new tiles as soon as possible to her distant family and also being a regular internet user, carries her small notebook computer and its integral webcam with her as she tours the house. The computer uses a wireless internet connection and she chats with the screen as she walks about, a bizarre sight, but for efficiency one cannot fault her technique. She tilts the screen so that her sister, who lives in Switzerland, can admire the tiling from afar – far better than any photograph.

Death and breasts in Lyon

Visitors to Lyon cannot avoid spotting the Basilique, a church/cathedral which dominates the largest hill overlooking the city. To climb the hill on foot is a challenge worthy of a saint but for us the crowds inside took away much of the beauty of the modern frescoed interior. It lies in the old quarter of the city whose narrow twisting streets were filled with tourists, mostly French it seemed, but all of whom seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the day.

Elsewhere dotted around the city are less remarkable but somehow intriguing statues which on careful study revealed some sort of a theme, something I just couldn’t put my finger on at the time.

Meanwhile back at the home of our hosts, Guy and Noëlle a deadly drama was being played out. A lone turtledove, one of many who share the garden with the hens, the tractors and the various assorted bits of machinery, was in full flight trying to avoid becoming dinner for a hawk, a kestrel we think. Diving towards a dark hole in its effort to escape, the dove failed to detect the window glass and with its hunter being so close behind, sadly both birds impacted with shocking thuds. The window glass survived intact but both birds fell to the ground instantly dead. Remarkably the bodies were almost unmarked externally, both birds’ eyes closed and wings folded as if asleep. Inside the house the noise of the double blows had been loud and shocking, frightening until the explanation became clear and then exciting, something so rare and bizarre had occurred that required the birds’ bodies to be posed for photos and emailed to relations abroad. Readers of this blog are saved this.

Not far away from the village of St Bernard, where we were staying, Adolf Hitler’s car rests peacefully amongst an intriguing museum collection of vehicles – cars, motorbikes and cycles going back to the dawn of the transport age. Weighing in at over four tonnes with all its armour plating, one of the toughened windows of this car bore the marks of bullets apparently fired from the gun of a German soldier. It was not immediately clear whether this was from an assassination attempt or some sort of a test of the strength of the glass but nonetheless there was a dark presence to this exhibit, somehow out of step with its surroundings. It was not there solely as a car but also as a reminder, I felt, of France’s past.

Maybe the same could be said of the Papamobile, as used by the late Pope John-Paul when he went on his holidays. Unlike with Hitler’s car, Kate was prepared to stand proudly next to this one. Of all the exhibits at this motor museum, however, our favourite of all was the ‘Tue Belle-Mere’, a three-wheel motorised tricycle designed with an open basket right up front for the mother-in-law to sit in whilst her loving relatives drove safely from behind. For those not fluent in French, ‘Tue Belle-Mere’ roughly translates as ‘mother-in-law killer’.

Regrettably our sojourn in Lyon came to an end this week and we are now back ‘home’ in Torri. The 3-hour delay on our journey back showed that even French railways can be less than perfect at times but none of this really mattered as we were warm and comfortable, the sun shone for us and we had been heavily pre-loaded with pieces of a delicious savoury tart cooked by Noëlle. We arrived back to a cooler Torri, the air feeling damp in the evening as the dew falls. This, so we have discovered, is typical of the place, something the locals refer to as ‘umido’ meaning damp, but which is really little more than moisture condensing out of the warmer air as it is cooled by the river in the valley bottom. We console ourselves that the shortest day of the year is almost with us and after this the sun will arrive earlier each day in our bedroom window.

This little eye-catcher turned more than a few heads in Ventimiglia yesterday, an off-roader with real Italian country style. Is this possibly the equivalent of the Range Rover 4×4 urban runabout seen in UK cities? I find it Interesting to speculate which of the two vehicles is the first to make it into the Lyon motor museum.

To Lyon

Saturday – Winter is here and we are learning what this means here on the Italian Riviera. This is not winter as we know it but fortunately it is more or less what we were led to expect otherwise we would not have left so much of our winter wardrobe back in Britain. Here in Torri it is rarely windy, the sun may only peep over the mountains for a few hours in the middle of the day but it warms what it touches, and during the course of our visit we have seen little rain, one day at most. We are told that his lack of rain (so far) is unusual but we are grateful to the weather gods for this. Frost is not impossible here but it must be uncommon or else the beautifully tiled roof terraces would have succumbed long ago.

My French vocabulary continues to improve. Recently added are the words for shovel, screwdriver, pickaxe, cement-mixer and pine-cone. This last word causes us much confusion as the French equivalent, ‘pomme de pin’ translates literally into English as ‘pineapple’, which is not the same thing at all. Translate this word back into French and you get ‘ananas’, at which point you have a very puzzled Frenchman on your hands and a difficult explanation to cope with. Until coming here I had successfully lived through nearly 60 years without needing to be competent in a language other than the one I learnt as a child. Now I have learnt that there is no better way to learn another language than to place yourself in the same position as that young child; surround yourself with voices you have to understand in order to survive. When I help Guy to load his trailer with all his various tools, the fresh vegetables and goodness knows what else he plans to take back to his home in Lyon, it will be another dip into the French language pool. Specialised words like rotavator, chain-saw and drill bit, to say nothing of towing bracket and jockey-wheel, just never came up during my language studies in school – I can’t imagine why.

Sunday – So much for the lack of rain. The journey to Lyon prompted the worst downpour we have experienced yet and proved to be a nightmare of a drive, the roads being awash for much of the time and visibility reduced. Back in Torri we have heard that the river has risen somewhat but it was so low anyway that this is unlikely to cause any harm.
Now in France (hence the Lyon coats of arms) my language challenge continues. Today’s word is ‘noix’ which is French for nut and and also for walnut. This is confusing as it could be interpreted that all nuts are species of walnut but like many things we just have to live with the dilemma and soldier on.

Monday – It all happens in the village of St Bernard. Guy’s chickens found their way into his woodpile, a place they found more comfortable than their own house and this morning he has been rummaging about seeking the eggs they left there. Hens are not blessed with much intelligence, it seems.
A short drive away from us is the Beaujolais wine-growing region, a necessary place for us to visit so that Guy could replenish his wine cellar. After the second wine-tasting my language skills had improved considerably and I was having no trouble at all understanding every aspect of the business of growing grapes.
From a nearby hillside we looked down on a brown landscape devoted entirely to growing grape vines, these now being absent of leaves and in the process of being pruned back to blackened stumps. It seems impossible that these twisted twigs grow enough branch and fruit each year to satisfy the growers, but obviously they do.
Tuesday – The Beaujolais region is perhaps less well-known for its tiny airport. As a former helicopter pilot himself, Guy has a dream that one day he will have his own parked in the drive of his house and it is perhaps only his pension and his wife, Noëlle, that prevent this. But an invitation from a friend to view his own recently purchased helicopter was not something to be missed.
Regrettably my spoken French vocabulary again failed me when the mechanic currently working on this machine began to speak, explaining at some speed in technical terms the various aspects of the complex systems which, one hopes, will keep this beast in the air. My own role was to appear interested without appearing dim, something at which I have become quite adept.