Category Archives: Retirement Musings

Voluntarily into the vampire’s nest

The most annoying thing about going for blood tests is having to set the alarm earlier than usual.  As a rule, our alarm wakes us at 07:55 (tablets to take, you know) with, if we’re lucky, some soothing music followed by the news in French.  If we’re not lucky, it’s raucous music followed by the news in French.  This second possibility, of course, means that one of two things will happen: either a) we will switch off the alarm tout suit and fall straight back to sleep or b) we will switch off the alarm tout suit and actually get up.

The reason for resetting the alarm on a Blood Test Day is that the nurse is only at the health centre for thirty minutes, from 09:00 – 09:30.  Well, that’s what it says on the hours poster; it’s more like guidelines, really.  She could turn up any time between 09:15 and whenever.  All the hopefuls arrive before nine, as there are frequently quite a few people needing the service and it’s first come – first served.  Sometimes, a rueful patient will look at their watch but we all know she’ll arrive when she gets there and nothing will help this along.

So, yesterday, we duly set our alarms for Blood Test Day, rose, showered, dressed and had breakfast.  The observant amongst you will have twitched; blood test + food = no can do.  Well, I had briefly considered that but there were those in my family (who will not be the font of knowledge in the future) who assured me that fasting isn’t necessary any more, as the tests can take account of that.  Add to this the fact that the doctor hadn’t specifically reminded me to fast and they frequently do because … well … people are stupid.  We went, tummies full, to the health centre and sat in the waiting room, two people ahead of me.  The room filled up quickly and, as expected, Nurse was fashionably late.  Just before she ushered #1 into her den, I nipped in and showed her the list of tests the doctor had requested.  I should have listened to my inner voice instead of filling my inner self with food.

This morning, same routine almost exactly, although the Nurse (a different one) was unfashionably late and my tummy was growling.  Good thing I had taken the banana, which was to be consumed almost as soon as I left.  I have a tiny, invisible-to-the-naked-eye hole in my arm and slightly less blood.  Hopefully, it will be a while before my next visit to the Vampire’s Nest.

Journey to a New Life – Part Eleven (Hmmm…)

I’m not really sure how I feel about the subject of this blog.  On the one hand, it shows we are part of the village and included in its events; on the other hand, it reminds us of something that we have not yet admitted to – that we are an ageing couple.

This morning, there was a knock on the door) some people see the doorbell and some don’t) and, when I opened it, I was greeted by two smiling ladies wearing Santa hats.  They were each carrying shopping bags emblazoned with the name of one of the local supermarkets and  offered one to me, along with greetings for the season.  At first, I thought they were trying to sell me something and asked what it was they wanted to hand over into my care.  One of the ladies explained it was a gift from the commune to all the aînés (elders).  We are aînés as Hubby is over sixty-five.  I therefore smiled broadly, received the bag of goodies, exclaimed ‘Très gentil! (Very kind!) and took the bounty inside.

The bag contained a lovely selection of pâté, biscuits, brioche, chocolates, spiced bread, nibbles and – of course – a bottle of wine!  It is very warming to feel that we have not been left out, just because we’re newbies, although I suspect that no-one is omitted if they fall into any given category.

Bounteous gift due to our position as ‘elders’ in the village.

So – happy, because we have been included, or ambivalent, due to the implications of our advancing years?  Best to go with the positive for now and just enjoy the gift!

Journey to a New Life – Part Ten (A Strange History)

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Built as the mayor’s residence and office in 1908

We have lived in the house, now, for nearly four and a half months. We love it and, the more we unpack (yes, there’s still loads to do!), the more it feels like we’ve never been anywhere else.  Home, for us, really is where you hang your hat – in Dave’s case, literally.  As we’ve moved around the house, we’ve seen little things about it that make us curious.  There’s a hollow sound if you tap some parts of the ground in the drive-through bit of one of the outbuildings.  It is most likely water storage tanks, but we can’t be sure.  There’s a space in one corner of the kitchen that is covered by something going across the corner.  We think it might be the position of an original fireplace, but we can’t be sure.  There is a strange dent in the concrete floor in the cellar, which might have been used to take a wheel for a fruit press – they have a lot of apples in this part of France – but we can’t be sure.

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Cut corner in the kitchen

The house was built in 1908 and was originally the home/workplace of the village mayor. The best story we have heard originates in WWII.  We were told by someone that the then mayor hid British airmen.  We thought that was rather romantic and wanted desperately to believe it.  Our village is already enough like Nouvion (‘Allo ‘Allo up to 7:54) – a real place in Picardie, only 43km (26.7 ml) from where we live.  The idea that we might own the equivalent of the café was far too exciting to ignore.  We started asking around for more information.

The delightful 80-odd-year old lady who lives next door was born in our house.  Her grandfather was the mayor who built the house and most of her close family was born here.  She now lives in the house next door, which her grandfather built for his mother.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember very much of the war years, as she was very young.  I asked the lady a few doors up the road as well, but she doesn’t remember anything either.  It would be logical for the small children to be kept in the dark about such ‘goings on’, so we need to find the oldest person in the village.

At the recent Christmas Market – a fair really – we were chatting to one of the other English residents.  He has been here at least fourteen years and told us that the stories were true.  He has heard that, on one occasion, the leader of the Vichy for the area knocked on the door and told the mayor that he knew what went on in there but the SS were going to be making an inspection in a few days and he needed to ‘clear out’ his house.  A couple of days later, he returned and said that if the mayor didn’t deal with ‘the situation’, he would have to.  We don’t know, so far, what happened but assume that whoever was being hidden at the time was sent into the hills or to a safer place for the necessary time.

The more we learn about our house, the more we love it.  Looking forward to the next revelation.

Journey to a New Life – Part Nine (Birthdays)

So today we are celebrating the first of our birthdays since we moved here.  It was mostly just like any other birthday, apart from the fact that cards are still on their way due to not really knowing how long these things take, in reality, to make the trip.  Some did arrive, however, and were there on the breakfast table awaiting the recipient’s arrival.  Just today, of course, she decided to sleep until midday.  Actually sleep.  So we had to wait quite a while for The Ceremony of the Opening of the Cards.  There was another hold-up whilst the Birthday Girl had a Skype call with her brother and then one more whilst she ate breakfast.  To be honest, it was mostly the cup of coffee, but Special Birthday Breakfast was also there – steak, mushrooms, toast and coddled eggs (thanks again BIL).

It’s rather grounding, having a birthday in the house so soon after moving in.  The whole thing has been such an adventure that it took something as normal as this to make me realise that we are home.  It still seems a bit of a dream or an extended holiday, but this is it.  Soon it will be Christmas, then New Year and into the next cycle of birthdays and we’ll still be here.  For now, we’ll head out for that meal tonight at our favourite restaurant and …

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Journey to a New Life – Part Eight (The Christmas Market)

Well ahead of time, this event was publicised around the village and on the roads to the nearest two centres of habitation, both reasonable sized towns.  The Marché de Noël could have been anything – we are a relatively small village of something over six hundred inhabitants and I have memories of other such events in England that it wasn’t worth putting your coat on for.  We walked down to the meeting room, which is attached to the mairie, where we had been for the Over-60s meal a couple of weeks ago.  As we entered, it was clear that they took this event very seriously.  There were already some stalls in the entrance hall as you entered and   everything was tastefully decorated. The hall was laid out with some dozen or more stalls, all covered in beautifully made goods.

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Looking out from the hall into the entrance hall and towards the exit.

 

Our attention was immediately taken by the table laden with food across the hall from the entrance.  On it, there were large and small examples of a selection of regional dishes, some very local indeed.  We decided to buy a tartiflette, a simple but filling dish comprising potatoes, lardons, white wine, onions, various other seasonings and a particular cheese called reblochon. Naturally, many people will tell you that their region/town/village makes the only traditional dish.  That’s normal.

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One side of the meeting room …
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… and the other.

We did a circuit of the room, stopping a number of times and buying one or two items between us.  It was an interesting experience.  A number of people came up and greeted us, introducing themselves and saying ‘we all know about you’.  One lady – at the food stall – even said we are famous in the village.  She didn’t expand on that but we wonder if it is because we have moved in and settled, rather than just using our property as a holiday retreat.  Either way, it is clear that they (collectively) know a great deal more about us than we know about them.  We intend to remedy that situation.  I wonder if there is a ‘Who’s Who’ of Boubers?

Journey to a New Life – Part Seven (Beaujolais nouveaux)

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One type of this year’s Beaujolais nouveaux. 3.50 Euros a bottle. Very good.

Many years ago we learned of the mystical appearance of Beaujolais nouveaux onto the wine shelves. Living in England, it was frequently over priced and often nothing special. I’ve heard the same from people around the world. After a few tries, we gave up attempting to beat everyone to the shops for one, expensive bottle of a wine that might – or might not – be worth the stress and the money. Now, of course, we are in the Land of Wine and there is a different story to be told.

Last year, on a short break to France, we found a small town in which there was a very good wine shop. I suspect all wine shops are good, to be honest, but this one had the bonus of an owner who spoke English and the wine was surprisingly reasonable priced. We have also learned to trust his judgement – he once put us off buying a particular (more expensive) wine for another (cheaper) one. It was a very good wine! On this trip it was just after the new Beaujolais had come onto the market and there were tasters. I fell in love with a Beaujolais Nouveaux Villages and we took back some bottles.

This year we waited with bated breath for the new wine.  Apparently, last year was a particularly good one but we still had high hopes.  We haven’t managed to get to our favourite shop yet, but an English friend, who has been here many years, invited us to his village’s ‘do’ to welcome in the new wine.  It was good fun and the wine was excellent.  It was accompanied by barbecued herring and various filled baguettes, but the food didn’t really matter.  I suspect it was only there to soak up the alcohol – there was a lot of bread!  We actually met people we knew, as it wasn’t only folk from that village who were there

I await, with interest, reports from our English and other friends who might try some of this year’s crop, as I wonder whether the very best is not exported but kept for local consumption.  Anyway, we enjoyed our taster and will certainly be buying some of this year’s bounty.  Chin chin!  redwine

Journey to a New Life – Part Six (When the mayor knocks on your door)

At about 3:15 in the afternoon today, our doorbell rang. This was a surprise in itself, as we didn’t think it worked. However, having determined that we had, in fact, heard what we thought we had heard, I went to open the door. Standing before me was our village mayor and a woman. I assume she has something important to do as she was wearing a hi-viz gilet. The niceties were observed, accompanied by the obligatory shaking of hands, and M. Le Maire asked if they could look in our garden.

I have to say that my first thought was that we had contravened some bylaw or other and was anxious for a moment. When I asked why they needed to see our garden, he told me they were looking for guttering. Any particular guttering? I enquired. A piece about a metre or so long that might have been thrown into our property from the footpath that runs behind it. All was a little clearer although by now I was intrigued. Of course they could go and look, I responded, but I was going, too.

The mayor and his friend walked round the side of the house and up the drive. I changed my shoes and met them in the courtyard. The first thing the mayor said was that we should cut down the tree. Why? I asked. Because it overhangs the gutter of the outbuilding the other side of the courtyard from the house and the nuts would cause a blockage in the guttering. The mayor’s friend and I both looked puzzled. What nuts? I enquired. The nuts on the tree. It’s a hazelnut. More looking puzzled. It’s a magnolia, I stated, a sentence repeated by the mayor’s friend. Is it? he exclaimed. Yes, we both confirmed. Oh.

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Our garden with the church in the background.

Moving on into the garden, his first comment was a whistle and a gesture which conveyed ‘Isn’t it big?’, something I already knew. He went down into the undergrowth behind the maple and his friend went down the side, looking for the guttering. Sadly, it was not found. On enquiring, I was told it had been stolen from the church. A piece of lead guttering that size wouldn’t make much, so it’s possible it would have been used to make lead shot. There’s a lot of hunting round here. Either way, I can’t condone the theft, regardless of what the intended use was. Oh well, village life has come to our door, this time in the form of the mayor and his friend.

Journey to a New Life – Part Five (Remembrance Day)

We have never been ones to make our way to Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday in order to watch the ceremony at the Cenotaph.  We would buy our poppies and remember in our own way.  When we moved to France, and having already visited the Wellington Tunnels in Arras, we are more aware of the price that France paid over the course of two world conflicts

Today we took our place by the side of many of the French – and some English – inhabitants of our village, in order to pay tribute to the French fallen of World War I.  A programme was provided which explained where and when each part of the morning’s proceeding would take place.  At 10.30 am, there was a short service in the church.  We are not religious and have never been Catholic, so we asked the maire (mayor) if we could just sit at the back, as we wouldn’t be taking part.; we were there as a sign of respect.  He seemed genuinely taken aback and showed us to a pew at the rear of the congregation.  He even offered to drive us to the cemetery afterwards for the next part of the ceremony.  There were only a handful of people there and he explained, with a rye grin, that it wouldn’t be ‘crowded’.  As it happened, a number of people arrived as the service continued and there was a respectable congregation by the end.  One of our near neighbours – a delightful eighty-six-year-young lady with a naughty twinkle in her eye – arrived not long after we did and, after greeting us, said  ‘you’ll come and sit with me?’ in a way that suggested that was exactly what we would be doing.  So much for sitting at the back; we ended up half way down the church on the left!

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Inside the village church

The church service was not conducted by a priest, as there isn’t one permanently attached to this village and it must be assumed that every village around was having the same ceremony.  It was taken by a man and an elderly woman (no idea who they were!) both of whom, luckily, had beautifully clear voices.

From here, we drove with the maire to the cemetery, about a kilometre from the centre of the village.  Many people had already made their way there and had not attended the church service, most notably those who were quite advanced in years and needed to be driven from their homes.  The ceremony itself was very moving.  The maire asked a member of the village (presumably a dignitary – we don’t know him yet) to read a potted history of the four main battles of the Great War that were fought in the area.  It was interesting that, when numbers of troops killed or injured were mentioned, the German soldiers were included.  Some of the village children then laid cornflowers (the French equivalent of the British poppy) on each grave – there must have been about three dozen – and, as they finished the flowers they were carrying, said, ‘Mort pour la France.’ (Died for France).  This was followed by a beautiful flower arrangement being placed at the foot of the flagpole, where the French flag was flying.  We then had a minute’s silence.

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At the cemetery. Credit: Dave Harris

The next part of the morning was a ceremony at the war memorial in the village square.  We walked back down from the cemetery and, when we arrived, the maire read a message from the French Secretary of State.  Children read the names of the dead from 1914-18 and pigeons were released.  Another flower arrangement from the French was placed on the flowerbed surrounding the memorial by one of the oldest inhabitants and a young girl, as well as a poppy wreath on behalf of the British.  We listened to the French equivalent of the Last Post and retired to the meeting room at the mairie for aperitifs and nibbles.  We met a number of other English residents and rubbed shoulders with a few more of our French neighbours; we are at the point where the people we now know are beginning to introduce us to others.

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Laying flowers at the memorial. Credit: Dave Harris

It was one of those occasions when we felt very much at one with the French.  We know that England – and, particularly, many of the big, important cities – was bombed horrifically during WWII, but these people had the battle raging all about them on the ground.  The live on the edge of the Somme.  They had a vibrant partisan presence during the second world conflict, of which they are very proud.  They will never forget the debt they owe the the Commonwealth – mention was made of the British, the Canadian, the Australian and the New Zealand forces that fought on their behalf.  We are very glad that we attended and will probably do so every year.

Journey to a New Life – Part 4 (November 5th)

fireworksHere is something (else) I will not miss.  I say not miss, but there are aspects I will look back at fondly.  Today is November 5th, the traditional marking of the failed attempt to blow up Parliament and the English (Protestant) king in 1605.  As a small child, I used to hold my sparkler with trepidation, hoping it wouldn’t spit at me and cause a non-fatal injury on my hand.  Fascinated yet scared at the same time.  As a teen, the bigger and more colourful the better.  As an adult with small children, seeing the displays with new eyes through the wonder of our little ones.  We used to have combined parties with friends, making them – in effect – organised display

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Non-fatal injury

s.  Mums made the food, we all provided some of the fireworks and the dads took charge of ‘lighting the blue touch paper’.  No gender bias here!

Then someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided that fireworks had to be LOUD!  If you weren’t shaking the leaves from the trees, frightening animals and making babies cry, you were doing something wrong.  Also, Bonfire/Firework Night had to begin at least three weeks before the actual date, thereby making it indistinguishable from Halloween.

We are now in a country, like many others, that doesn’t celebrate Bonfire Night.  I stopped short once, in Italy, of explaining Bonfire Night and who the guy represents.  I didn’t think the Catholic neighbours would appreciate it.  So tonight I am hoping we won’t hear any fireworks.  It would be unlikely in the extreme, unless the local Brits had a party.  We haven’t heard about one so I’m guessing not.  Peace and quiet on November 5th for the first time in many, many years.  Unless we hear the ones from across the Channel – we’re not that far, after all.

Journey to a New Life – Part Three (Bureaucracy)

Whatever the life you lead, you will – at some time – come face to face with bureaucracy.  Unless. of course, you decide to live off the grid.  Which we haven’t.  There is no getting round it; for most of us, and in France (as in Italy, many years ago) it probably costs you and is definitely not as easy as it appear to be at first.

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Our first taste of this wondrous level of government was to convert our NHS health cover to EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) for UK nationals resident elsewhere in Europe.  For this we needed an S1 form from the International Pension Centre (IPC).  It had to be this department, as we are both receiving benefits in the form of the state pension.  We phoned the relevant office and had to speak to someone individually.  It wasn’t enough to give our names and National Insurance (Social Security in the US) numbers.  We each went through answering the questions asked by the lovely man at the other end, who was possessed of a relatively understandable Geordie accent.  Yes – the office is in Newcastle -upon-Tyne.

Then it was our daughter’s turn.  Because she no longer has paid work and no other income, she had to be ‘piggy-backed’ onto one of our applications.  As it was I who was having the conversation when this problem arose, she was added to my form.  So far, so good.  Next, we waited for the forms to arrive – around three weeks – and we dutifully took them to the ‘Assurance Maladie’, the comparable department in France.  After a short wait in an incredibly boring waiting room, the very accommodatiing man behind the desk gave us each a French form to complete and even highlighted the places where we either needed to fill in information or which told us which documents we needed.  Up to this point, we couldn’t believe our luck and took all the forms home to fill them in …  only to discover that, on the S1 forms, the name of our village was misspelled – differently on each of the forms – and that two important details on my daughter’s S1 were wrong – the spelling of her first name and her date of birth.  We could almost understand the misspelling of a French place name when dictated over the phone – almost, mind – but the other two details were straight from the records that they hold in England!  Another phone call later and the form containing the correct information was (hopefully) on its way.

As our two applications were more or less correct (apparently that little spelling mistake wouldn’t matter – we shall see) we took them back to the office, with the French ones, and placed them in the handily provided post box on the waiting room table.  And … breathe.

It might be worth pausing here to mention that people had told us a) it was a complicated process and they will always ask you for more paperwork than you have given them, b) it could take months, and c) don’t go to the office at St Pol.   At this point in the process, it didn’t feel like any of that.

Back to the real world.

Some two or three weeks after delivering the forms to the French health office, we received them back, along with a very polite accompanying letter informing us that we needed to provide other documents. See a) & c) above.  Luckily, we have digital versions of all the documents required, so we printed them out.

We have since received our daughter’s new form – correct this time – and can carry on.  We will not be taking the forms back to St Pol (See c) again) but to Arras, which is a much bigger office and, apparently, has English speaking staff, which should make the whole ‘What do you mean, we now need those documents?’ a much easier conversation to have.

No word yet on b), but we’re hoping not to make it a set.