Friday, 24 June 2016

On being European

I'm slowly trying to work through how I feel about the whole Brexit thing. I am never normally prone to anything very political, and even less so to speaking about it publicly (I come from a gene pool where political things were a private matter and my own mother chided me for asking how she would vote, back in the 70s - that might even have been for the 1975 referendum). But this has bowled me over, and something tells me I will feel better for getting it off my chest.

I don't think I realised until today just how European I really feel, deep inside. And now, today, I think I feel more European than British. It did always feel, although there's nothing foreign in my roots, that there was a little frisson about Europe and yet despite its excitement, it felt like home. I am old enough to just about remember going into the Common Market, and even at that tender age, it felt a thrilling thing to be part of. Back then it was all about 'going to the continent' for a really exotic holiday, and counting the bottles of wine to make sure you hadn't gone over the duty free limit. We would do trips to France or to Belgium, sometimes to Holland, and I remember the grey and the gloom descending on me as we reached the ferry to go home. We'd wait for hours to get through border control. It also always seemed to be raining when we got back to British shores.

Growing up keen on learning languages in the 80s meant that my education exposed me to an enormous buzz about Europe. The Single European Act in 1986, a six-year programme culminating in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, integrating Europe, was frequently something to be discussed. I embarked on A levels in languages and there was talk of how much work would be soon available to anyone multi-lingual. As a language student I had my year abroad: 3 months in Germany, 9 months in Belgium, very much the most European place you could imagine, and I felt the full force of the joy of Europe. Friends and I would nip over the borders, around an hour away, to buy cheaper CDs in Maastricht, and cheaper cigarettes in Aachen, and we would see countless people doing the opposite journeys for something that may have been better value in Belgium. It was the European dream.

I ignored it for a few years while other things took over, but my European passion has slowly and subconsciously been waving its little hand in my direction more and more in the last few years. And today, for the first time, I realise that when I sit here at home, taking apart pieces of foreign texts and trying to piece them back together again in my own language, making sure there are no holes for the water in the Channel to seep through, my head is actually in Europe, not in Short Lane at all.

We have a van that we got, more than anything, for bring back all the lovely things we find in Europe.  A few weeks ago we brought back cases and cases of wine, more cheese than any one family could need, jams, sweets, biscuits, chocolate... and we took a day trip over the border to Belgium so that I could indulge my passion for Kriek beer and Cuberdon sweets. On the day we went there, I left our passports behind in France but as usual, to my everlasting joy, we drove full pelt through a dilapidated unmanned border control, from circa 1990.

Maybe I have absorbed so much of this that I am Europe itself. Am I the perfect age to feel European? The worst of it is that today I can't help but feel a little bit broken.

It's ironic that the children's sports day at school has been blighted today by the same rain clouds that used to bring me that gloom coming back onto British soil in the 70s and 80s. Wonder how much longer we'll be needing that van for once we're back to the duty free limit days.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Remarkable Monsieur Raybaut

I have a lot of trouble writing on here these days; since I've started stitching words together instead of textiles, I seem to have used up any writing impetus I have before I get this far. But I wanted to tell you a little story...

We came to Menton, in France but so close to Italy that it almost could be, just for a few days, warming our bones after what feels like the longest winter for a long time. I could show you a few pretty pictures before I get down to the nitty gritty, couldn't I?

After a long day travelling - a relatively simple one, but any travel with children turns into what feels like a longer day than it should be - we are ensconced on a bus from Nice Airport to the end of our road in Menton. The journey is a memorable one, one that makes us crane our necks and move from one side of the bus to the other, to take everything in: tunnels, hills and ravines, ramshackle houses on impossibly steep slopes with terraced gardens, a landscape made of green with terracotta, yellow and red tones against an occasional backdrop of the bluest sea. Suddenly the atmosphere changes and we are into Monaco: built up, swankier, cleaner, shinier, more sterile, and there are shouts from the boy by my side, pointing out of the window: "Lamborghini!" "Maserati!" and "Ferrari!". The bus weaves down the hills to views of obscenely large boats and shop windows sparsely arranged with items but no price tags, then it winds back up the hills again. The paintwork gets a bit more flaky and faded, the houses have more space and we realise we are back in France. As the bus gets back down to the next stretch of coastline and our destination, my heart starts to sink about getting everyone fed; we will get there after six, will the shops be open? Will a meal out go well or will we all be too tired? Will the children get grumpy and misbehave, in the way no French children ever seem to? Will it be a disaster?

We finally arrive in the street where our apartment is, oranges rolling on the pavement, fallen from the trees lining the road, and we prepare to meet the owner. Last time we came here, he was away in Moscow, where the mother of his child came from, and someone else let us in, so, after countless messages where I have become aware that this is no ordinary holiday apartment owner, it is good to finally meet Monsieur Raybaut.

We go inside after the children have been vigorously kissed and hugged, and he is hopping from one foot to the other with excitement to show us what has changed since last time and more importantly what he's prepared for us. There on the table - he is so animated I can't get a word in - lie two loaves of bread, a whole Coulommiers cheese, a log of goat's cheese, a bowl of home-made rice salad, a plate of goose rillettes (unctuous pâté made by cooking the meat slowly, slowly, slowly in its own fat), surrounded by cornichons arranged like the rays a small child would draw around the sun, a big slice of courgette tart, a bowl of fruit and a rather lovely salad he's made with eggs, potatoes, olives, apples and peppers, all in a mustardy dressing, and hidden under a layer of lettuce so it's a complete surprise when I start to serve it. I have visions of exactly how the Russian woman must have been seduced. The tablecloth is strewn artistically with leaves from the garden, kumquats and sprigs of jasmine heady with fragrance that becomes sickly after the first hour.  "And that's not all, come and see!" he takes my hand and shows me the bottle of champagne, another of Perrier and incongruously a pack of four vanilla soya yoghurts and a box of raspberry wafers. Then before I know it, he has charmed me into paying 40 euros to hire the sheets that he told me last week were included in the rental price.

The next morning is a rainy one, and we stay where we are for most of it, reaching for the pack of cards. Just before lunch there is a knock on the door, and there he is... "I was out shopping and I thought you ought to try this, it's really special, artisanal, you know, made by hand by an old man, even older than me, you can't always get them, and he had just two, so one for me, and one for you... but if you don't like it, don't throw it away, keep it for me..." He fumbles in his bag, too busy talking to concentrate, "just boil it for twenty minutes, it's wonderful with some lentils" and produces a monstrous garlic sausage. "I thought you'd like it, because I know you're interested in food... " - this is where I notice he's got familiar and is calling me "tu" instead of "vous". Interesting that someone would think of me when they saw a fat saucisson and then start getting on first-name terms. There is more: "I have something else in mind too, I will come back, I am thinking of something local, something sweet, that the children will love" then he starts telling me about a restaurant far up in the hills that he loves, "but you need a car, I could take you all there on Tuesday evening maybe". Eventually he goes, and with some misgivings (I was looking forward to finishing his mountain of food this lunchtime so I could start eating some holiday food of my own choice) I start to boil the sausage, hoping desperately that it will be bearable, and that it will go with all the leftovers.

It looks puny here but let me explain that the plate is a full-sized dinner plate and the sausage has a girth larger than my children's arms. Thankfully it is perfectly edible, quite tasty even, but we only manage a third, and the remainder and my misgivings go back in the fridge for another day. What will he come with next? What excuse can we make about Tuesday night? Or am I being mean? Or too English?

The next morning I nip out for some breakfast for us all, pains aux raisins and brioches au sucre, and on my return, outside the front door, is a big cake box, and a note asking me to check out his book on French Amazon (he's written in English "ON THE TOP 100 WORLD! by L'Express"): Les Corps Indécents, or literally "The Indecent Bodies". I remember him emailing me about this before, four years ago when we last came, and when we see him later he describes it as "adult, very romantic, but proper" although I distinctly remember a front cover photo of a naked couple playing "Chase me chase me" in front of an onion-domed church. I am vaguely interested still, as I know that for my MA, I have to find an untranslated 10 000-word text for an extended analysis and translation, not sure this is the one though...

The box contains two of the biggest slices of cake I've ever seen, dusted with plenty of icing sugar and stuffed to the gunnels with an inch-thick layer of crème patissière mixed with whipped cream. If you took the top layer of cake off, they would make classic comedy custard pies to push into someone's face. When I ask Monsieur Raybaut what they are, he mutters something about Saint-Tropez in between the subjects he actually wanted to talk about and it turns out after some research that they are slices of Tarte Tropézienne - allegedly given its name by Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s.

Again the picture doesn't do it justice (I must start using a coin to show the scale in photos); the box is so full I have to dismantle it to get the slices out, and when I've cut each slice into two so the four of us each have a piece, they are still larger than any piece of cake I'd serve. It is though delicious, in the way that a cool cream cake after a hot day can feel intensely refreshing and light (although all sensation of lightness disappeared after it was all gone and we felt a little queasy).

Tuesday evening has now been and gone, and rather thankfully after a tiring day with no proper excuse up our sleeves, Monsieur Raybaut had forgotten about taking us up into the hills to his favourite restaurant, although he does say he will cook for us the next time we come. I feel a vague need to repay him, although in all probability the 40 euros I paid for the sheets approximates to the amount of food and drink he has given us. As we get ready to leave, we talk about his 11-year-old son in Moscow, and he moves on quickly, concerned about what the future holds for him and his fragile family spaced so many miles apart: "I worry, you know, about all these Muslims in Europe..." and as he starts on a monologue, I am saddened. I am reminded of the reviews I read of his book, which was not all French and Russian lovers. In his words that I found online, he had covered in his novel all the themes that were important to him, citing John Lennon and the purity of love. Others, however, had noticed his worries over what happens to an indigenous population when it is engulfed by outsiders. The book had apparently lost popularity after becoming associated with the French National Front, to his great surprise. Maybe this explains the barbed wire and security cameras along the fences around our apartment. There we were, getting so happy, salivating together talking about food, the pissaladière, a beautiful onion and anchovy tart from Nice, and socca, a local chickpea flour pancake, and suddenly I am looking into a dark chasm. Go back to the food, Monsieur Raybaut. Every time.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Part One

I've been meaning to write for a while. Other things have taken over. In fact now I should be finishing off an essay, but it just had to wait. I had plans for a recipe for you. I was thinking about my butternut squash and chorizo stew. I even took photos...

But that was autumn, and this isn't. Then a couple of weeks later I made the loveliest tarte tatin, the alchemy of a little bit too much salted butter and sugar in a cast-iron pan with Egremont Russet apples, and all-butter puff pastry. I took step-by-step photos to show you...

Then I got sucked into a translation instead and never got round to it. The moment had passed. 

So now I'm going to grab you by the horns and tell you about something quickly, before it slips away again. I had a moment of great honour earlier. A good friend of mine asked me if I could help out with a photo of the Nailsea Choral Society for a magazine. It was a bit daunting: 80 people, squeezed into one shot, while I was up a ladder (don't like heights, don't do ladders), all under the impression that I was a photographer instead of silly old me. I did my best but nerves got the better of me and in my hurry to be done, I did still cut a couple of them off in their prime.

It was then suggested that I could mooch around taking some informal shots while they got on with their evening. Phew. So I started. And then they opened their mouths, all at once, and a noise came out. When was the last time you heard a sound so beautiful, so glorious, so all-enveloping, that it made your eyes well up? 

It wasn't until I got home that I realised my handbag was excessively heavy. I was cursing the children for handing me all their rubbish and making me carry everything under the sun. Then I saw someone lovely from the choral society had sneaked in a tin of glittery beautiful fragrant brownies. 

And in other news... my translation course is great. Scary, exhilarating, daunting, yes. But rewarding, more than anything I've done for ages. And more me. Someone today told me my eyes were shining when I talked about it. And what more affirmation could you want from life than to know that you are doing The Right Thing? Just one marked piece back so far, and 74%. Life feels good.

Sunday, 11 October 2015


It's been a funny old few weeks. Things haven't been quite right for some time now. In August I came back from France to land with a bump deep into a foul mood. The weather was colder and I went into denial about the summer ending. The children went back to school just a little bit too happily, which always makes me feel a tad inadequate as a parent. There were a few other bits and pieces that all collided to make life harder than it should be. I've had a couple of times when I even became the scary tearful lady for no particular reason - I guess you need to take yourself away from public view when random strangers ask if you are OK. Apart from anything else, I was desperately impatient for my translation course to start, and then it did start and the Fear began. A course where you put all your work online for all the world to see... the dilemma: do you go first, at the risk that if you've got the wrong end of the stick, everyone will know what an idiot you are? Or do you wait to see what everyone else has done, only to find that somebody else has made the one good point you had in your head, and you've got nothing else intelligent to say? The Fear of finding that every time you sit down for an hour with your translation theory textbook, you nod off. There have been a couple of moments when I really didn't understand a word that people were saying and I've felt like jacking it all in, but eventually I realised it was a Good Thing that it was all online and nobody could spot me despairing and googling "collocation" and "calque" so that I could catch up. And it's doubly a Good Thing because, just as others can look at the rubbish I've cobbled together and bluffed, and pass their judgement, so can I with their work, and actually mine's not too bad. Maybe my brain isn't smaller than theirs after all.

Fast forward a week or two and it's better. When I was last in the world of academia, more years ago than I can believe, beers and boys got in the way a little too often and the work was a side issue, something dull that you just had to do every so often, a bit like cleaning your teeth and eating breakfast. So it's very strange now to really look forward to the next assignment being posted online, and there's nothing lovelier than curling up on the sofa before bedtime, pondering the perfect turn of phrase, or considering whether you can quote Schleiermacher in your next work. This is turning into my idea of relaxation. Maybe I've turned into a geek.

And oddly, after weeks of fighting the weather, of wearing sandals way longer than was sensible, of sunning myself whenever possible with a textbook in my hand, in the hope of charging those batteries up as much as possible before it was too late, I find myself today finally ready to welcome the autumn. The first family foray out into proper autumnal scenes, and actually, I'd forgotten that I rather like it.

I can do it.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Dragon...

Or... Number Two in an occasional series, entitled "Life Feels Better When You've Made Something" (remember the knickers a couple of months ago?!). Things haven't been easy recently. I won't go into it too much, mostly out of sympathy for the friends who tell me I get a bit gloomy here sometimes. But let's just say the children went back to school and I fell down a deep dark hole, and the sides of the hole that I've explored so far seem to be made of rubble that avalanches downwards on a daily basis.

I feel curiously redundant. My translation course starts in another ten days, and it feels like I am waiting for the rest of my life to start. I have busied myself with lots of odd small projects that have been hanging over me for a while, but nothing has done the trick. I haven't felt the urge to make any art for quite some time (although for the first time it feels possible today that something like that might happen next week, especially in view of the fact I've sold a couple of pictures in the Blue Room in Nailsea recently).

Ten years ago tomorrow I had my first baby. It makes me feel pretty old. As I do each year, I asked what sort of birthday cake he would like. I was horrified when he asked for a dragon. He wasn't impressed when I suggested a round cake with a picture of a dragon on the top.

I loathe making proper birthday cakes, where the taste of the cake is irrelevant and it is more sculpture than cuisine, and the cloying scent of pounds and pounds of fondant icing in garish colours makes me vaguely queasy. I always find there is a point in the process where I have to fight back the tears, as the reality of it is so different from the vision in my head. I am reminded of a quote I saw yesterday by Elizabeth Gilbert: "Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism". For me it's romance and birthday cake design.

I also have big problems with rolling out vast expanses of fondant icing, as it always sticks to the table. So scales seemed a good idea, little tiny scales I could make with my fingers and not a rolling pin in sight. They seemed a very good idea, until I realised just how long it was taking. An hour passed and I had only managed the tail. But there was something so intensely pleasing about the process and the way the dragon started to appear before my eyes. It took on a life force of its own. A cloud started to lift. Everything else just had to wait. And he is so so pleased with his dragon cake. If ever in life he doubts that I love him, I will forever be able to show him a picture of this cake.

Life always always ALWAYS feels better when I've made something.

Monday, 31 August 2015

A journey through a house...

Well, here I am again, back from our annual jaunt to Brittany. The fourth year in the same place. Well actually the fifth one, if you include the first time we found the beach, on a grumpy morning when we just took a little trip in the hope of finding a pretty beach with sand, but also with shells and pebbles and interesting things to pick up, and also with rock pools and places to explore with a bucket and a net. We found it quite by accident, when I wondered why we should bother driving any further when we had just passed a little car park and a signpost marked "Plage". It had all that we wanted - the sand, the shells, the rock pools - and more. And I found the house online, when we were back home. A few months later, once we'd booked it and had all the details we'd ever need, it was impervious to every web search I tried and has been ever since, as if it was meant to be just for us. Never to be seen again.

This year things were a little different. I had always booked it through the daughter, who was the only one in the family who had an email address. But the driving force behind the house was the old man, every year proud of a new purchase he'd made for the house: some bright deckchairs, a Miele hoover that he was really pleased with. Last year he sat downstairs while his wife busied herself with the bed making when we arrived, and told me of a problem he had with his lungs. This year when I booked, his daughter told me he had an oxygen canister, but that the family would ensure the house would be ready for us. This year it was the daughter who I finally met for the first time. Monsieur Corentin Volant had died back in May and the three offspring were deliberating over what to do with the house. It was clear, although unspoken, that this was the last time we could book it.

I have happier memories of this place than I've ever had of anywhere else. The most glorious spot in all the universe. I've spoken before here of my penchant for rolling out of bed in the morning, pulling on a swimming costume and running outside to float in the sea, alone in the world (although this year for the first time I had a swimming buddy sometimes, a lady from four houses away who liked to come for a chat whilst we were bobbing up and down, a lady dismal at the thought of returning to her Paris job after four weeks of this). A spot for the best skies, the most surprising of sunsets, the clearest blue water on a fine day. Langoustines from the harbour, or a buttery beautiful something for breakfast, sitting outside, masters of our own beach. Learning to guess what the time might be in the night according to how close the sea sounds. This is a place that has inspired so much art. So I had a few days of utter sadness about this being our last trip here.

Then our next-door neighbour, Rolland, the judge from Vannes, had a quiet word with husband. Rolland quite likes practising a little English with husband. Rolland said the family were thinking of selling the house, and that he and his wife would very much like us as neighbours; we should leave the family our address and make our feelings known. He suggested a price that was shockingly low for such a location, something that would be nearer three times that amount in this country, and it was actually an amount that would be feasible.

A great big daydream starts; one that goes on for days and days. A whole summer there? Easter? Even Christmas? Lettings - of course, it could pay for itself fairly quickly. In my dreams, I have enrolled the children in the sailing school round the corner by lunchtime, and there is talk of retirement. Not to mention the fact that once I'm up and running as a translator, I could think of getting work both sides of the channel.

I probably need to point out here that this house is actually a really horrible house. It looks great from the outside; it is big with four bedrooms; but it needs a complete overhaul. There was a fascination with floral wallpaper that bordered on obsession among some of the French a few years ago and here it is taken to an extreme. They papered over the walls. They papered over the ceilings. They papered over the panels in the doors. They papered over the panels in the doors of the fitted wardrobes, and inside the wardrobes. They papered over the fusebox. Every light fitting would need to be changed in the interests of good taste. The kitchen is truly awful, completely unworkable and even smells rather nasty for no visible reason. So much work to do, and would I be strong enough to deal with French workmen to get things done, quite possibly in my absence?

And of course the details... yes, we would need someone trustworthy on the spot if lettings were to be part of the dream, and yes, that would cost. Yes, it takes us a ridiculously long time to get there just once a year, and quite a bit of money. Yes, only one person in our family speaks any French at all. And yes, a few months ago we talked of needing to stretch further afield and branch out a bit with our holidays in the future.

But warts and all, love being blind and all that, the daydream envelopes us. This is a proper head versus heart job. After a week of seductive weather, I am pleased when the forecast is for a few days of torrential rain, high winds and gloom. It will be a good test, to see whether we could cope in midwinter. When the rain finally starts, we look after the house as if it is our own, rushing to pull everything inside and shut everything firmly. If it had hatches, we would have battened them down. The lovely shutters will have to do, rusty and stiff though their hinges are. The six flashing lighthouses that I've always loved counting from the bedroom window have a new significance in this weather. We check the doors for leaks. I head to bed and the sounds of the rain and the wind against the shutters, and the sea crashing, make me feel like I'm on a boat, but beautifully the house keeps firm and solid and warm. The weather stays mean, and we find places to go that are fine for rainy days, and when we are in the house, the children get adept at playing cards with us and we eat more gateau breton than is good for us.

On the third stormy night, I hear the waves, the clattering shutters, the howling wind and am back in the boat in my head. Then I realise I am being woken incessantly not by the storm but by a fidgeting, sighing, tutting husband and when I ask what's wrong, the words "TOO BLOODY LOUD" fill the room with fury as he stomps off to find earplugs. This house can never be ours.


We know all this, of course we do. I cry when we leave, and a heavy weight gathers in the top of my chest as we drive away, which is still there if I feel for it. And yet we find ourselves talking about the next time.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The big picture

And breathe. We are getting into our summer groove. Breakfast happens around two hours later than on a school day, we take things at our own pace and gradually there are more and more beautiful moments, the kind that I had hoped for when I had a baby in my belly. Every year I dread the summer holidays; every year it comes good.

Daughter asks if I will lie with her in bed one evening, the room lit by fairy lights, a girl fragrant, warm and soft after her bath. We spend the next ten minutes taking turns inflating our cheeks and letting the other squeeze the air out. I pass her her book and she happily immerses herself in it. A minute or two later she looks over at me and says "Isn't this lovely?". And it is; she is quite right.

All sitting round the kitchen table, colouring, cutting, glueing, making. And a new version of a scene that has been played many times at that table: boy draws and draws, gets cross that something is not as good as the vision he had in his head, and roars from frustration, starts again. After the third roar, I suggest that if it's making him really cross, maybe it might be good to have a break and do something else. The new ending: "No Mum, I'm persevering". Ten minutes later he interrupts my cooking to show me the final version, the one he's pleased with.

Playing in the woods, gathering leaves, sticks, finding treasure: bones, pieces of china, a piece of rock sparkling with crystals. Going home, stripping off muddy clothes, gulping down drinks, a big washing up bowl full of soapy water for cleaning feet in and also for scrubbing the treasure until it's glistening.

And in the spare time, I finally manage to succeed. I send an email to apologise that the quilt will be another week, that there are so many loose ends of threads to sew in and that time is so short. That evening I check it all over and am surprised to see they are almost all done; the quilt is so huge that it hasn't been possible to view the whole thing as I'm going along. A reminder to look at the big picture more often.