The Key to Good Memories


The letterbox to our french house is, like most french letterboxes, fixed to the gate or railings facing over the road. On a sunny day, fetching the letters is a pleasant amble across the garden, tiny key in hand, to open it up and retrieve the contents whilst on rainy days the letters sit there the majority of the day until a brave soul risks the raindrops to go and collect them.

Our postman is a miserable man, at odds with the world, and despite many a cheery bonjour and a little bit of chitchat on our part, he remains resolutely a man of grunts – jabbing his finger on his computerized tablet where we should sign for parcels if one arrives as if he’s convinced we are foreigners without a word of french between us, and only miming exaggeratedly will do. Every time I take his stylus to sign, I say, in perfectly reasonable french, ” oh, would you like me to sign just here”, and every time a grunt, a few more jabs of the finger, and the next time, a repetition of the entire process.

I’m thankful though that despite this depressing state of affairs, not all our mail is boring and cheerless. Sometimes newsy letters and postcards come our way which give us the motivation to pick up the key to go and empty it.

A couple of weeks ago a quite extraordinary letter arrived in our letterbox. In the typical french cursive script, an elderly lady had put pen to paper to tell us how she’d discovered quite by chance that some English people had to come to live in this house, and how she wondered if she could pass by and pay a visit during the month of September on the occasion of her sister’s birthday. With the letter she included a photo of our front steps and it was evident that as a young girl she’d had a close connection with the house.Without hesitation we replied that they could come together the following Thursday.

And so it was that at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon the doorbell rang, and outside on the pavement stood three elderly ladies holding a bouquet of roses and three jars of homemade jam in a little wicker basket.

It was a lovely sunny day so we sat at the garden table whilst the younger of the three sisters told us how they, and their elder brother had been born and grew up with their parents in the house that they rented until the owner had decided he wanted to move back in himself.The owner in their day was none other than the elderly gentleman from whom we’d bought the house four years ago. The sisters had fifteen years of happy memories to share, and a handful of photographs of them taken over the years in various places in the house and garden. Their father had even stood on the balcony of the house watching the allied planes flying over Rouen in the Second World War and seen the terrible bombardments with his own eyes whilst the rest of the family took refuge in the shelter with their neighbours at the end of the garden.

We gave the three sisters a tour of the house, and at frequent moments they exclaimed in equal measure at how nothing had changed, or how doors or walls had moved position, and shared little anecdotes as they passed from room to room.

Inevitably, as we returned to the garden table for a cup of tea, we hatched up a plan to retake all the photos again, same sister, same location, same pose, and by the end of the afternoon we were in fits of giggles manipulating arms and legs round waists and shoulders, sitting, standing, reclining, and even with the correct tilt of the heads!

At last the final photo of the youngest sister leaning out of her old bedroom window on the top floor,

-“you know the way”, said “husband a la maison”, and she catapulted herself up the two flights of stairs with all the spriteliness of her fifteen year-old self.

Eventually with a sigh the sisters prepared to leave, and as they did so, the youngest sister explained how, at the age of fifteen, so disappointed to be leaving the house she’d grown up in so happily, she had, in a fit of passion decided to take a small part of the house with her as a momento. Running to the washroom in the cellar she’d pinched the enormous metal key from the lock and hidden it in her pocket.

She gave a wistful smile and drew the very same key out of her bag and ceremoniously handed it back to us, happy that four more children were growing up and enjoying the house just as they had,

..and that the spirit of the house was just as before.

Seventy-two years after it was last turned in the lock, the key is back home, bringing with it a wealth of incredible memories.

In which I ditched my husband in favour of a Frenchman!


Yesterday I abandoned my husband in favour of a Frenchman. And while you might be pausing to gasp at my cavalier approach to marriage, love him though I might, after 25 years the “Je ne sais quoi” of a Frenchman has a certain allure compared to all the charms and foibles I have come to know and ” love” so well of my current husband.

Yesterday the opportunity suddenly presented itself, and I might say a man very high up in french society gave me a helping hand to land a Frenchman and perhaps he will fulfill all my wildest dreams of what the perfect man is all about.

Firstly let’s talk style! French men are reassuringly chic, elegant and a great many of theme are dashingly tall. Not for them the Anglo Saxon scruffy t-shirts and thigh- pocketed shorts filled with the kitchen sink of essential items, spanners, hammers, keys, bank-cards, a newspaper, a water bottle and a tube of polo mints just in case they find themselves suddenly deposited in the middle of nowhere and need survival equipment to get them though to the following day,

No!

Frenchmen are so chic and organized that the polo mints are already waiting at the arrival destination along with perhaps a small understated bouquet of flowers, and a bottle of wine on ice, and any surplus extras are carried along in a chic leather “man-bag”, which only french men seem to be able to carry off with any style. Somehow french men seem to look cool and uncreased even on the hottest day, and though the famous pocketed shorts are in all the stores, but I’ve never seen any of them wear them, or perhaps the pockets simply don’t stand out because french men have been raised to know that filling these pockets with half a survival kit “n’est pas de rigueur.”

Husband Britannique commented to me the other day, when walking though town in un- pocketed shorts that people were staring at him- well yes, I said, with those shorts we can see your legs, and we woman appreciate ” des jolis jambes” just like men!

French men are serious about their work. Leaving home as I do frequently just after 6am, I am often surprised to see just how many cars are on the road and how many are off to work, particularly heading towards Paris, but even those who work locally are often at work by 8. While they put their all into the working day with impressive diligence, they put as much effort into their free time. It’s not for nothing that the french have so many national holidays and these are organized and planned long in advance. In the weeks preceding the long weekends and family holidays french people know exactly where they are going, houses are rented by the sea, kids can be deposited with the extended family allowing for a “weekend à deux”, or all the parents, cousins and grandparents get together for a “moment familial”, and the destination is the topic of conversation long in advance with friends and colleagues. For if the french enjoy talking about one thing, it’s “terroir”, the region and the gastronomy that goes with it. A perfect weekend revolves around companionship, beautiful scenery and good foods and wine – and most importantly getting there without a bouchon- hours in the traffic!

And finally of course the language! Who wouldn’t buckle at the knees at the sound of a few flattering words whispered into the ear in perfect french! French men are not shy of a few well intentioned romantic gestures, and seem to reputedly have far less difficulty communicating them compared to their Anglo-saxon counterparts. “Je t’aime” sounds so much more wonderful than “I love you”!

So who was it who introduced me to my new Frenchman? None other than the department of Immigration who have been keeping a watchful eye on me for the last two years. They’d had me and Husband Britannique into their offices several times over the past months, austensibly to check that we were entirely compatible. In a “Green Card” moment they’d invited us in separately to the ” bureau” to see if Husband Britannique’s answers corresponded with mine. Needless to say he failed on the face-cream! Clearly they came to the conclusion after a few more months thought that I’d be better off with a Frenchman. I am very excited about this new “je ne sais quoi” and wonder how it will turn out.

And so in my letterbox yesterday morning a letter was waiting from the french Immigration office stating incredibly that my Mr had become a Monsieur, and I was now married to a Frenchman!

I am hoping that this new man will be everything I am dreaming of.

It is understandably a little perturbing that the French Immigration office has also decided that my Husband Britannique would be better off with a french wife.

Ooh la la la!

A week in the life…


This morning I was expecting to be up and early for a new experience- giving a bike tour of the city of Rouen. On Saturday afternoon I perfected the route, out on my own in glorious sunshine, wheeling my way along the river quay, past the many boats moored there, before climbing slowly up to the prefecture and passing the church of Joan of Arc nearby.enjoying the flower sellers in the street,and the Gros Horloge,and taking a pit stop in the cool of the abbey of St Ouen, an often missed, but gem of a monument, which easily competes with the cathedral for it’s light and perfect symmetry.But at 6 this morning a great crack of thunder and the rain came pouring down. I was prepared for the eventual soaking but by 9 the clients had cancelled and I now find myself with a free day!

I was thinking what an lovely week this has been for variety, which is perhaps what makes this job as good as it is.

When I’m not in Rouen, my “office” can be found generally with a wonderful view!

On Thursday this was my office at “Giverny”, the famous home and garden of Claude Monet.Then on Friday I met a boat at Les Andelys to walk up to Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s fortress at the top of the cliff. It was tough sitting waiting for the boat to come in!Later that afternoon we took a closer inspection of a tributary of the river.

and I have Jay and Betty to thank for immortalizing it for posterity!

On Saturday I was up again at the crack of dawn to head of to the Château of La Roche Guyon, a castle that spans the centuries from its early dwelling in the year 260 with troglodyte caves dug deep into the cliffs to its 18th century extensions. We just had enough time to climb to the 12 century donjon (keep) some 350 steps above the river and to take in the view.Even if I did have considerable difficulty getting some of the clients to come down again!

On Sunday another walking tour of Rouen before heading out yesterday to the Château Vascoeuil for an evening of cocktails and music in this historic building and art centre, home to over sixty sculptures in its gardens, including several of Dali.Tomorrow I shall head off to see my favorite dogs, Bêtise and Huge, two border collies who mind the ecological lawn mowers, the flock of 100 sheep at the award-winning cider farm, Duclos Fougeray.It’s all go! But never let it be said that I don’t like heading to the office because I really don’t mind the view!

Which view would you chose to have from your office?

Sunny days and stormy evenings in Normandy


Two massive cracks of thunder and suddenly the rain has started pelting down. I’m lucky to have just got in in time from gathering flowers for the vase on the table in the hall.

This time of year is particularly lovely in France and my peonies have chosen to flower plant by plant, one after another, the length of the month of May. And now the Lupins and the fragrant roses are also putting on a blousy show, but their scent is nevertheless having a hard time outdoing the Mock Orange.Beds that we’re uncultivated last year and were planted with flowers bought from a flower stall near my sister’s hospice at the time of each of my frequent visits are now growing strongly and producing their first blooms. I particularly love the white peony which has given four beautiful flowers in its first year.I have taken refuge in the conservatory which is a hive of activity, though not of the floral kind just yet. Husband ‘a la Maison’ is busy restoring all our windows and the conservatory is the ideal location to work from. One day soon we want to restore the conservatory itself, but it’s a large and daunting job.You can see the pane of glass carefully set aside and the frame being scraped back to its original wood. The deep reveals of our windows mean that the windows have been protected from the worst of the elements for over a hundred years and there’s not a trace of rot. So far the balcony french windows are all completed and this is this year’s second set of ordinary windows. Only two more sets to go after this and all the windows will have been restored and repainted.

I’m taking refuge from the rain and thanking it for doing the evening watering for us. The thunder is a constant rumble with frequent flashes of lightening. It must be nearly overhead. When it stops I will have to go out again and shake the Peonies heads as the rain has filled the blooms since I came inside and they’re drooping so low with the weight of the water that their heads are nearly touching the ground.But on dry days our new outdoor tap is doing a great job keeping everything watered.If it wasn’t raining I would be lounging in a hammock enjoying the garden, but the conservatory is the next best place and at least when the storm passes over we may have a cooler, less sticky night.Have a great week!

Brocante Finds and Wisteria.


A perfect day off involves a morning wandering through an old french market followed by a lazy lunch and afternoon in the garden. The month of May is perfect for indulging because there are so many state holidays that the french people have become experts at avoiding going to work where at all possible. This week the national holiday, which unlike in the UK where it always falls on a Monday, relies on its date, and has fallen not only on Tuesday, Victoire (victory day) the 8th of May, but also on Thursday, the 10th of May which is Ascension.

The idea of having a weekend and then returning to work for Monday only to have a national holiday on Tuesday is so ridiculous to any Frenchman, that a nationally recognized “pont”, or “bridge” is put into action. Monday becomes a bridge from Sunday to Tuesday and effectively no one works that day either. Since Thursday is also a national holiday, Friday becomes a bridge to the following weekend and no one works that day either. But of course we can’t stop there, because Wednesday also becomes a bridge from Tuesday to Thursday. Pretty impossible to work that day too, and before you know it there’s a 9 day holiday in the middle of May!

As the month of May comes round, everyone visibly relaxes. The first of May, the fête de travail, is also a national holiday as is the 20th and 21st of May for Pentecost. A fabulous month for everyone, made better still under sunny blue skies.

A few months ago at the far end of our local Sunday market we came across a stall holder packing up for his long anticipated lunch, and jumbled in amongst the bric à brac of his antique stall was an old tap, a decorative brass collar and the old over arch of a grand wrought iron gate. Perhaps the over arch was from an old Château, or an old manoir. We shall never know, but for a scant amount of money we heaved it onto our shoulders and carted it with the old tap and collar off to the car. They sat in a rather forlorn state over winter and this spring the tap was attached to the old brass decorative collar and mounted onto a piece of shaped stone against the conservatory wall. The old over arch was scraped clean and repainted and then modified in width to sit over our rather more diminutive gate.Two summers ago we had bought a small wisteria plant to grow up the side of the house where ivy used to grow. Last summer we knew that if we didn’t find a framework for it to grow over quickly, it would become very difficult to manage. While the stems of the Wisteria were still in hibernation we pushed them through the gate overarch and waited to see how it would look.It’s been wonderful coming in and out of the garden this month and breathing in the scent as we pass. Having an outside garden tap at last has made short work of the watering! Next year we may have to cut back yet more of the ivy as the wisteria vigorously winds it’s way the length of the garden railings. I can only anticipate how heavenly the scent will be next year, and hope there will be even more days off and “ponts” to look forward in which to enjoy it!Have a wonderful “end of week”!

Flour Sack Bed.


There was a time when sack cloth was a sign of penitence. But there’s nothing remotely punitive as far as I’m concerned about my latest makeover, quite the opposite in fact, and now I look forward to the end of the day when I can enjoy the comfort of it.

Sadly, a while ago, an American friend sold up and headed back to the USA and in consequence was trying to find homes for some of her larger pieces of furniture. I was only to happy to take her bed off her hands.

The old upholstery on her Louis XVI bed had a few large watermarks and we both agreed that it needed recovering, and I promised myself that I would do it when I could. It’s taken a while but finally during this years downtime from the tourist season I seized my chance.

Here it is in its original state, with its dark wood and faintly floral yellow cloth.And below with a the inner face of the foot of the bed half done and an ( unfinished) quick coat of Little Green Company “Slaked Lime Dark”.

I was really fortunate that the structure and basic padding underneath was in very good condition and only the top upholstery needed changing.

Choosing a hardwearing fabric was quite a problem because my black and linen toile curtains were difficult to coordinate with, but I love old grain sacks, so you can imagine how happy I was when I fell upon this old french black and natural flour-sack cloth, (even if “Husband Chez Nous” says it looks as if the bed has been run over by a tractor). Grain sack has too loose a weave, but flour sack is altogether softer and closer weft, which also means it isn’t scratchy when leaning against it. And that’s important considering how much I like to read in bed.

The greatest difficulty has been the thickness of the cloth, especially when it gathers up on the inward curves of the frame. But all things considered I’m pleased with the result.I was lucky to find a very good colour match for the edge detail to hide the tacks. I spent a while trying to find the french word for this kind of edging “ribbon”. “Double cord”, pronounced “doo- bluh cord”, who’d have thought!

Pleasant dreams everyone!

Narnia awaits in Normandy.


I woke up this morning to a thick blanket of snow. It rarely snows in Normandy, so this morning I eagerly dragged my snow boots out from their hiding place and went to explore our quarter, enjoying the crunching sounds underfoot, and the silence of the deserted streets.

Narnia’s lamppost was standing in the middle of someone’s garden behind large iron gates, unfairly out of reach of anyone desperately searching the wardrobe and their way home!

So I set off again to enjoy my neighborhood from its new perspective.

The church of St Andre beckoned from the end of the allée of soft snow.

It was clinging on, even on the nobbles of the freshly pollarded trees. These strikingly architectural forms are so resolutely french and I love their shapes both in the height summer as in the coldest of winters.

When winter beckons we call our local wood merchant for our annual delivery of logs. Three stères of wood will get us through the average winter with the fire burning merrily most days. I like the fact that the french have their own particular measurement for a cubic meter of wood, and that it comes readily chopped to the right dimensions after the wood merchant has come to the fireplace to measure the hearth. Often he tells me which trees he’s lopped, and precisely where my stères have come from. One year the pollarded trees of the main boulevard in the city, another, from a sustainable forest several kilometers away.

Our local architecture is so quintessentially french.

A bus had tried to make it through, and broken down, leaving only a narrow space for a passing truck. They were making heavy weather of the manœuvre so I left them to it!

There was nothing moving at the square by the church.

And I hurried on, now and then pulling out my camera.

Despite being close to the centre of the city, our quarter has a country feel with narrow lanes and steep slopes. Here and there are some lovely houses tucked away behind their imposing gates.

And the odd bijou one as well!

But looking forward to a warm fire and a cup of hot chocolate I turned for home taking a few last pictures on the way.

Have a lovely day!