Chatou Brocante and Antiques

We’ve been doing a bit of work on the house again, and this time the shower-room is taking shape. There just the physical water connection, a shower screen and a mirror left to do, and when it comes to mirrors, there’s nothing better than trying to pick up an antique one, especially when the antiques faire at Chatou is on.

We’d never been to this particular fair before and so didn’t know what to expect. The brocante is laid out on a small island in the middle of the river Seine, just outside of Paris. It was mid-week so not too many people were there, but it was huge and fabulous, and there were plenty of makeshift restaurants to choose from in the middle of the day.img_1325-2

What I liked best was the artistry of some of the stands, and there was plenty that I would have loved to buy, though the mirror remained elusive!img_1310img_1311img_1326

There were so many amazing urns and cloches, but our bartering didn’t manage to get us any bargains!img_1327I so nearly went for the pineapple, but “husband chez nous” didn’t look away for long enough.. it was after all “mission mirror”!img_1316I loved this one, a grey and gilt trumeau mirror….the price was to die for too!

And after all, why have one when you can have three!img_1318-1img_1322img_1330

So many lovely things that it was hard to head home.img_1309img_1319

But since the great mirror hunt continues, there’s still the excuse to come back for more. The basin is very lonely all by itself.

Rivalling China

A couple of days ago a fellow Normandy blogger posted several photos of the early morning mist rising up over the river near her country home. The early signs of spring and the promise of a glorious day! Looking out of my dining-room window from the breakfast table, from where I have an excellent view of the hills of Mont St Aignan, I too was enjoying that low lying spring morning haze and the clear irridescent blue sky above …or so I thought!

smogphoto:My French Country Home

Ten wonderful days of sunshine and Rouen and much of northern France has been basking in temperatures reaching 20°, and after a long winter the warmth is very welcome. But our pleasure hasn’t lasted long. The warm sunny days and cold clear nights have made impossible the daily dissipation of pollution. Each day the pollution levels have augmented until last friday the readings rivalled those of Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world. That romantic mist is none other than smog, and the numbers of people seeking help for respiritory illness has spiked.

paris smogParis smog

Alerte à la pollution aux particules en Haute-Normandie.Rouen smog

On friday, along with Paris, Rouen made all public transport free, and the SNCF and RER, France’s national rail networks made local and intercity train journeys free too. The Velib (velo libre – bikes at liberty) found in special bike racks all over the two cities were also made free of charge. These gratuities were due to last until sunday night, and consequently a free rail trip to visit Paris on sunday seemed a happy bi-product of the climatic conditions. But would one really want to visit Paris at the moment? The answer for most is probably no. On friday, in Paris the pollution readings measured 180 microgrammes of particles per metre cubed where the alert is raised at 80 microgrammes per metre cubed.

cyclist in smogVelib in use but mask necessary!

By sunday night more extreme measures were put in place, and chat forums were busy denouncing or approving the measures depending on the individual standpoint. What caused the frenzy of opinions – “l’alternance de circulation”, In other words, today only cars and motorbikes with an uneven numbered number plate can circulate. No lorries are permitted at all, regardless of numberplate, and only vans used by the emergency services can cross the city. For those with an even numbered numberplate who attempt to drive in Paris and several of its suburbs, a fine of 20€. Only the press, rather bizarrely, and the police, obviously are exempt from the ban. But perhaps we should spare a thought for the police officers, who will number in the region of 700, and maintain order and issue ‘on the spot’ fines, whilst they stand all day in the thick of the smog.

police smog

While many were congratulating the government on it’s tough stance, there were of course inevitably those who critisized the measures for being politically motivated, others that warned of a potential vehicle standstill in the city as a result of spot-checks, and a large number pointing the blame towards Germany and Belgium for their recule from nuclear power and back to fossil fuels, and the increase of pollution as a result. Many were dreading the increased journey times and feared the sardine conditions on public transport. One wise-crack thanked his dad for having bought him two cars, one with an odd number-plate, the other even.


For my part, I can do pretty much everything by foot, and the jury us still out as regards the journey to university today, not so much for the distance, but for the ability to be home in time for my children and the end of the school day. Leaving the city centre yesterday for the open air lido on the plateau above the city, the air seemed pretty fresh and most people were taking advantage of the sunshine to give their ‘bronzing’ a head-start, lounging happily by the out-door pool.euroceane-mont-saint-aignan

But despite the sunshine and blue skies perhaps it wasn’t really as fresh as we really thought?


10. Décembre – Noel en neige – Christmas in the snow

I have just begun to light the fire on a regular basis. We have a great hybrid open fire/woodburning stove with a nifty slide up front so that we can watch the flames dance throughout the evening and shut it up at night to slow burn throughout the night ready for stoking in the morning! It wasn’t until the middle of the month that we finally turned on the central heating. It is hugely satisfying to have lasted so long without it, and indeed to have enjoyed the left-over wood from the last tenant. At last, mid-december it was necessary to order more wood. We ordered three steres – the unit for a metre cubed of wood and had it delivered later that week by a local guy who was able to tell us where our wood had come from – many pieces being from the pollarding of the city centre trees. It was good to know the wood was from a sustainable source and not only that but it smelt delicious and burned well! We took to foraging in the forest across the road for kindling, piling it onto our trolley and stacking it daily into the basket next to the fire to dry.

And then the snow began to fall! As we reached the penultimate week of term the roads iced over and our pathway became a death trap. I am used to the British system of gritting the roads. Here in France the system seems a little more haphazard. Our road was not gritted, despite being generally a well-used route into the city. The ploughs cleared one lane of the ring-road, and the route into the city centre and school appeared to be un-gritted! The French also have a dubious system of building basement garages on steep slopes below the bulk of the house and ours was no exception. Hence, on that first fall of snow, the whole exercise of getting the car out and making the school run was almost an impossible dream! Harry made the run, his car being further up the slope of the drive than mine, and I had only to hope that there was a brief thaw in order to pick them up again for lunch. The thaw came and at 4pm I once more set off to collect the children. Parking up, the half an hour wait was enough for the wind chill to refreeze the wet and slushy roads. Rouen is a city on a series of hills, essentially a series ravines carved out by the tributaries of the Seine. By 5pm havoc ensued, cars, including my own were simply not able to get out of parking spaces nor negotiate the tricky sloping bends and road junctions. Some cars were seen sliding sideways around cambered junctions, whilst others simply failed to stop at “Give Way” signs at a sloping junction, careering into passing cars on the main road!

Having resorted to ringing Harry at the office to help rescue the car from its icy position, we spent 10 minutes finally manoeuvring  it to the centre of the road. Being an automatic, and not  known for handling icy conditions well, it was agreed that we would have to reverse the length of this narrow one way street rather than negotiate the sharp inclined junction at the top. It was at this point that a black Renault pulled up behind us hooting loudly for us to pull over to let him pass. These are early days for my language skills, and the word “reverse” was not amongst them. The burly Frenchman was not going to give way to an obviously illiterate foreigner and eventually forced us back into the kerb, only – and to my delight- to be beaten back himself by the steep slippery inclined junction. We managed to achieve the centre of the road again and reverse our way back, barely containing our smiles as we watched him do likewise whilst all the time avoiding eye contact!

The snow lasted a month and is probably the longest duration of snow that I have encountered. The roads were generally cleared and  the children generally managed to get to school, but as the bad weather continued we wondered if we would be able to leave France for our brief trip back to the UK at Christmas.

One of the delights of the French build up to Christmas is the lack of decorations from October. Autumn remained autumn, and Christmas became Christmas mid-way through December. The department responsible for Christmas lights sent out its “technicians” during the rush hour to install the lights on the traffic lights at the main intersection, complete with “cherry-picker” to bring the traffic to a complete standstill and a multitude of mini Christmas trees were installed in various paved areas around the city garnished with a series of ostentatious fabric garlands and oversized bows in various shades of silver!

What a great Christmas – This has been the first Christmas without all the family, and as such I wasn’t sure how it would be. The snow gave on a magical quality, the tree stood in a corner looking fabulous after a few mishaps in buying the wrong sort of Christmas lights from the supermarket thanks to my missing vocabulary. Starting with a fish laden chowder, thanks to our excellent fish market, followed by a plump turkey, and finished with Christmas Pudding, thanks to our local Comptoire Irlandaise. I had every intention of making my own Christmas pudding, buying packs of sultanas and mixed peel, but I came unstuck on the suet. The French haven’t heard of suet which translates as Rognon de graisse du boeuf. Eventually I found a small butcher who knew what I wanted but only had Rognon de boeuf. I wasn’t convinced that it would work, and neither was he. So I thanked my luck when I walked into the Comptoire and discovered not only Christmas puddings, but also Golden Syrup, Marmite, and Rowntrees Jelly. Of course all were at fabulously expensive prices, and next time I shall get suet sent out from England, but we bought two puddings and two jars of mincemeat. Angus’s teacher cooked up one of the puddings for his class to try towards the end of term, which went down with mixed results, and I had a baking day and made loads of mince pies, which were taken into Harry’s work and the kids school as a little taste of England!

Peaceful and good-humoured, Christmas day continued with a fabulous snowy walk in the forest across the road, and finished with mulled wine in front of the fire and a fabulous new board game we’d bought the kids called Taxifoli – a race to drive clients round Paris with specific missions in mind – and all in French!

The weather cleared sufficiently for our brief spell in the UK. We opened up our house again, stoked up the fires and brewed up another vat of Mulled Wine for all our old friends. A fabulous round up to a busy four months in France!

8. Octobre – control technique – MOT’s

I realised, with a futile annoyance that I should have MOT’d the car before we had left England! Considering that having my car immatriculated “French style” would be straightforward, I decided to take the bull by the horns and approach Toyota in Paris for some general advice. Rather than attempting a phone call which would demonstrate huge omissions in my vocabulary, I went for the safer option of an email. Now, my written French is reasonably passable, so I sent off my request and waited. Paris was quick to reply. To pass first base I needed a “Certificate de Conformité”, which they assured me was straightforward. It was a matter of filling in a form with the chassis number, registration plate, model, fuel type and so on. Once this stage was passed I would be required to put the car in for a Control Tecnique – France’s version of a MOT and obtain a Carte Gris. The most complicated part of the process would be to have my headlights realigned to comply with France’s Volet Gauche (Left hand drive).

A few minutes later, having stuck my head inside the bonnet, I completed the form with chassis number and all other required information and sent it off to the very pleasant man in Paris. This was the point at which our relationship faltered – I promptly received an email back politely requesting that I gave the complete chassis number, as he had only received 12 digits from me. Somewhat bemused I stuck my head once more under the bonnet, but the 12 digits remained 12. From this point onwards the helpful man dug his heels in. All French cars have 16 digits, and mine would have to have the required number or it would not be recognised!

A quick call to our trusty garage in the UK clarified matters, it appeared that because my car was a Japanese import it was missing the vital four digits. Rather than being a Japanese car built for the UK market, it was a Japanese car built for Japan and imported privately once three years old. I had reached a dead end in the simplest part of the Immatriculation process. There was nothing for it but to drive it back to the UK, a month after I had left and MOT it, English style with the distinct possibility that this would be a yearly visit!

We have since discovered that having a non-french, i.e not a Renault or Citroen, car in France is a very bad idea since parts are also hugely expensive and mechanics are also not so familiar with the model to complete repairs quickly. I have also discovered that there is also a  recognised system for applying for “grey imports” which applies to my car – but I have yet to get it done. The form looks oenerous and I have yet to muster any enthusiasm to get on with it.

The children have continued to go to school without complaint! Of them all, the most optimistic has been Rory. The French children appear to have been welcoming and friendly, shaking hands, faisant les bises (kissing cheeks) and offering sweets. Rory has also been fortunate, being the sole child with an English speaking student in his class. However the good humour disguises the true nature of their emotions which are on a knife edge. There was an occasion where Rory’s classes finished an hour early at the end of the day and students were permitted to leave school early, so long as their pass card had the right code printed on it, or a parent was there to collect. Arriving early, I was forced to move the car to a proper parking space. In the meantime the students came to the gate and the Surveillant gave the nod to those whose passes were in order. Unfortunately Rory arrived at the gate in those vital minutes when I was parking the car, and was refused leave and sent to Etude. I waited the hour having unsuccessfully located him but my guilt levels ran high as I received him an hour later deeply upset and frustrated at his inability to explain that I would be outside. Such small events were to be such huge triggers for emotion.

Similarly Anabel had her mobile phone confiscated for being used in school, despite the fact that she was texting me for translation of a task she had been set. I had to explain to the very unaccommodating member of staff, that at present their mobile phone’s were a life-line to enable them to communicate and that perhaps for the first month or two a certain leniency could be accommodated since none of the staff seemed to be able to speak English in case of difficulty.

As Rory’s birthday approached, a huge fair was constructed on the quay-side of the River Seine. Lasting almost a month, the lights glittered, and the smell of the fair tantalised the children for weeks, until we suggested a birthday trip by way of a celebration. So we roared around on rollercoasters and spun in teacups under a warm evening sky, a great compromise instead of a party as we waited for our children’s friendships to establish.

Finding the cost of living prohibitively more expensive than the UK,  the need for registration with the Caisse Allocation Familiale and  Assurance Medicale were all the more urgent. With some outstanding costs still to cover thanks to the move  we were feeling the  drain on our resources. We took a two pronged attack, one contacting the London and Rouen offices to clarify the allowance situation for overseas moves  for which there seemed to be divergent views, and the second to visit the Caisse Familiale to find out what was causing such a delay with our registration. The former attack seemed to be inconclusive, the latter produced results. The Caisse Familiale, once contacted revealed that three of our birth certificates were of the short format, and unacceptable. We contacted the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the UK and ordered 3 long version certificates, and believing our work completed, sat back and waited!