Thursday, 25 August 2016

The trouble with bikes

Another week on and we are on the Île de Ré. This is a beautiful - although a tad overpopulated in August - island, all hollyhocks and terracotta-roofed shacks with shutters in Farrow and Ball colours, local markets in every village offering the best of French produce on your doorstep and people sat outside bars at all hours drinking the local wines. Ramshackle shutters and rusty bikes. It's idyllic. Just wait till I find my camera cable to show you.

And I've been facing a demon. The other thing about the Île de Ré is that almost everyone goes around on a bike. Now it's a shameful thing to admit, but I only learned to ride a bike about 5 years ago, at a time when the eldest child started talking about it. I had a vision of us learning together, and then family bike rides, whirring along together happily, and certainly not the reality where the family whirred off and I clanked to a halt, beaten by a complete lack of confidence and an inability to believe I could actually pass anyone without crashing into them or falling off, the afternoon ending invariably with hot tears of fury and my poor bike being thrown onto the grass in despair.

Over the years people have tried to persuade me that I could overcome this; just a bit more practice and I'd be there. I'd love to believe it. It's true that I often look upon cycling friends with some envy, but it's in the same way as I feel envious of birds for being able to fly: they're just a different species to me. The world of feeling safe on a road, of being competent enough to lift a hand off the handlebars to indicate, is a million miles away. And actually that's fine. I've had years and years of skirting around biking conversations, of making up excuses, of finding a different way of getting about, and so the thought of being mobile on something two-wheeled feels utterly alien.

But the images I saw of this place, this beautiful island, persuaded me that I really needed to come here, and that the ideal thing to do what be to hire a tandem, as well as bring the children's bikes. It is too big an island for walking, and it would be too slovenly to drive everywhere. So we have a big beast of a thing, a masterpiece of archaic French fabrication, with enormous fat saddles and a rather nasty French superiority complex. Before I'd seen it, I had visions of growing to love it, our trusty steed, but I'm not sure this is happening. I wish it had a name, but like farm animals heading for the slaughterhouse, I'm not sure it would be wise.

It is in so many ways an abusive relationship: why would I ever fall in love with something that every time it looks at me, it reminds me of my failure and ineptitude... this contraption with its smug bell and smirking handlebars laughs in my face, clipping me with something sharp every time I try to manhandle it, and then looks away coyly, denying all knowledge. Every day, no matter what I do, it brands me with the Mark of Idiocy for all to see, a right calf black with oily chain marks; some days I look like I've been run over. And then there's the constant physical abuse. Every evening, shifting position tenderly on the sofa, I remember that this is the pain I had in my mind when I recently translated the sentence about examining for bruising and lacerations in "how to care for rape victims" for a French charity. This is clearly not a love story.

And yet I have to admit that were it not for this two-wheeled, two-seated cantankerous beast, there are things I would never have seen or experienced, and the joy of a cool breeze on a 33-degree day as we are freewheeling so fast that the children get out of earshot is hard to beat. I've seen acres of grapevines, with birds of prey hovering overhead, waiting for something interesting to eat, such as a rabbit that races across the path ahead. I've been on cycle paths with eery still salt marshes on either side, and nothing else for miles. I've passed shacks overlooking the sea masquerading as restaurants selling just one thing, with tables and wineglasses set out around their own oyster beds. I've been to every branch of La Martinière, the island's top ice cream producer, officially ranked among France's top 5 ice cream makers, and tried everything from local melon, to raspberry and red pepper, to caramelised potato flavour (although all my bravery was used up on the bike so I didn't have any spare for the oyster and caviar ice cream). And there is a joy about having cycled 12 miles and therefore feeling entitled to order up a big plate of fruits de mer for lunch to give me strength for the journey home.

Maybe it's not all over for the bike yet. Although I do need some similar incentives to make me want to keep going when I get home.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The same but different

I’ve left a cable at home. Only a very short cable of little consequence, but it’s not with me, and I feel a little lost without it. It’s the cable that lets me download photos from my camera to a computer, so that I can put them on here or put them on Facebook. It makes me feel a little dislocated that I can’t do that, but it also forces me to be a little more balanced and to remember the important stuff of life. But being the vacuous, self-absorbed person that I am, I can’t let a holiday go by without mouthing off in some way about it to anyone who will listen, and so, after a breakfast on the beach of boulangerie brioche, unctuous salty Breton butter, raspberry and black cherry jam, I sit here typing, in the hope that my words can conjure up the pictures I wanted to show you.

In any case, so far the photos I’ve taken are nearly identical to the ones I took this time last year, so here by some internet magic are a few glimpses. Some things have though changed. We thought we’d never be able to come back here after the old man died last year, but one of the daughters has taken on the mantle and is busying herself with letting the house out and slowly renovating it. Some new furniture has arrived, and some fripperies: new light fittings, a clock, coat hooks and some splashes of bold modern art to replace the fading prints of dark floral still lives, semi-religious portraits and holographic landscapes. The art would work, would fit in perfectly, except that it clashes terribly with the wallpaper that hasn’t gone yet.

Worryingly our perfect house, this house of my dreams where I hope to spend every summer for eternity, this secret house that I’ve always told people about without giving away too many details, in case they book it when I want it, is now on Airbnb. This makes me feel a little sullied; don’t they know it’s my house? I don’t want to read what other people have thought of my house. I don’t really want to believe that anyone else has ever stayed here. I remember once years ago feeling indignant at the sight of a German hair gel tube in the bathroom bin.

But apart from this, life goes on. This time it's only for a week as we're being devils and trying something new next week, adding a sense of urgency to our love of this place. The sea comes up and goes down; my early morning swim revives me and when it’s too hot, or I'm frustrated with stubborn children, a dip makes me feel calmer. I wander alone through the water, hermit crabs and unknown creatures racing out of the way, leaving a trail of sand-disturbed cloud in the water; I float on my back looking up at the cloudless sky. We have the mornings to ourselves, the beach a magical secret, and then French people of all ages come along after their lunch, from 3 o’clock onwards, to leave at 7 o’clock when their dinner beckons. The beach is a great equalizer: all in swimwear, no bulges disguised, all of us unable to walk elegantly over the narrow shelly section on the way to the sea where we wince and hobble. We spend all day outside, the salt drying on us, making a lick of the lips after a juicy peach all the more surprising. I have a simple lunch of bread and cheese then realise that I've got seven different sorts of cheese on my plate. The langoustines are still great and the cakes still more buttery, sweet and salty than the cakes anywhere else. Life isn't bad.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Life, death, positivity and talking

I often wonder why I write a blog. It happened at first because I wanted to sell some art and it was a shout for publicity. But it's evolved over the years and became a more random unravelling of my thoughts. I sometimes do it just to get something off my chest and work it through (very occasionally not having a clue of the ending when I start typing) for a bit of catharsis: for example my European rant recently. Sometimes it's because I've made something to eat that's been so good that I want everyone else in the world to make it too. Sometimes it's more of a diary. Sometimes it's pretty pointless. A holiday story. An excuse for a photo. Sometimes I imagine that I'm talking just to certain people. Sometimes I forget that other people may read, and am embarrassed when people I don't know very well talk to me about it. Sometimes it's just for me, but it's fine if you want to read it too. The truth is that I never know who reads it, and I'll never know who thinks it's rubbish, and who likes it. And actually that's fine.

I've thought about this more often recently. Last week I found out that a fellow translation student had died of cancer. It sounds sad, and of course it is, and I was moved by the news. Which is understandable until I tell you that I never met her. Never spoke to her. Never even exchanged emails. But she - and until I came on the scene, only she - had made use of the university's translation MA blogspace. She too had used it in different ways, over the course of several years: sometimes to discuss theorists and talk about how frustrated she was with some of the theories on translation being argued over, sometimes to work out a structure for an essay or a learning log, sometimes to voice her fears on returning to academia after years away from it. From her comments it was clear she was a little bothered that nobody else joined her. And after a couple of months I did join her, just the once, writing a little frippery, carefully avoiding anything academic to ensure I didn't end up looking stupid in front of any tutors, but instead going for a piece about how, in my limited experience, linguists tend to be rather quiet and, like her, bemoaned the fact that on our university online forum hardly anyone types anything, wondering how annoying I must be to the quiet ones. She agreed in her next - and final - entry, a few weeks later, and urged everyone to 'feed back, emote, speak, ponder, mull over, chew the cud...', and like me, talked about the awkwardness of feeling that you are doing a lot more talking (or writing) than anyone else.

After the news of her death, it turned out that quite a few people, including me, wrote emails or comments to the tutor and most said the same thing: that they had read her blog, and it had been a very real source of comfort, of inspiration and hope in a dark hour when you have a deadline looming.

I wonder if she knew that?

I've said it on here before, and I'll probably say it again, but the end of the school year always feels like my New Year's Eve, my time to take stock and think about how far I've come. Often - as with New Year's Eve, it feels a maudlin time of 'another year gone, nothing changed' but this year I feel more positive than I've felt for a long time. After a fulfilling year studying, I now spend my spare time weaving words together in voluntary translations for a French charity, deep in the details of severe malnutrition, refugee crises, epidemic management, gender-based violence and how to examine and interview rape victims. It's sometimes gory and gritty, but here in my lovely warm house, surrounded by all the food I could ever need, and people who care for me, it's made me feel more fortunate than ever before. And I want to tell people about it. I feel like me again. And one of the things I'm thinking about more and more is that we need to acknowledge the good things more, or nobody will know how good they are, until it's too late.

It's good to talk.

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.