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.

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!

Les Passeurs de Lumière – Rouen Salon de Tourisme


This week Rouen represents France for the International Convention of Tourism after hotly contesting and defeating all other cities in France to welcome thousands of Tour Operators from around the world and give them a taste of France. France is the greatest tourist destination in the world and it wasn’t surprising to see the city packed with people.The weather was glorious with crystal clear blue skies and the sun beating down on Rouen’s medieval streets; a far cry from the grey gloom of recent weeks. After a charged agenda of visits yesterday, for tour operators from as far afield as China, Russia,  Australia  and the US,  the day culminated in the Passeurs de Lumière and the Convention’s “Welcome” reception.It was only at 10 in the morning that I received a call asking me to be live interpreter for Hervé Morin, President of Normandy, and ex minister of defense under Sarkozy. Forty minutes before I was due to take the podium I received the printed French discourse , and in need of speed roped in my bilingual daughter to translate while I simultaneously rewrote it out in English. Armed with my translation at the venue, the beautiful abbey St Ouen, Herve decided to ad-lib and throw out his planned speech. Thankfully  we were two interpreters, and the speech went off without a hitch.Gradually the huge abbey emptied of people.The confederation were led through the darkening streets by six wonderful ethereal white lantern horses which stopped in front of St Maclou and the cathedral of Notre Dame,also coming up close and personal in rue St Romain.

Drummers lined the streets to the Vieux Marché where the many restaurants had all created an identical menu, and the 1000 strong Convention dined around the square, with tables spilling out onto the cobbles under beautiful colored lanterns. IMG_0609[1]

IMG_0605[1]A very French feast for all the senses!

La Fête de Ventre – The Celebration of the Stomach!


“Finished already”, said my favourite cheese-monger this morning handing me a bag with a large wedge of oozing brie, for which he shook his head at any idea of payment. It was just 11, and I had already passed his market stall earlier in the morning with twenty americans in tow. He’s such a nice man that when he sees me approaching, he always lays out on the counter top the four “appelation controlé” normandy cheeses for me to talk about to whoever I may have with me. I grinned at him saying how hard it was for me to get up to meet today’s group having been enjoying myself at a dinner with friends the night before.

Even more unusually, there was no queue at the fruit and vegetable stall either, so after a shake of the hand and a cheery chat with the owners, I walked away with another bag on my arm and passed into the side road where all the real action was. Today is the annual “Celebration of the stomach”, and as always hundreds of local producers arrive in the town at the crack of dawn on saturday for the two day long festival. Not only was there every imaginable food and locally produced alcohol available, but an excellent 5 man band were wandering around filling the air with fabulous and cheerful music.

I already had a couple of spit-roasted chickens under my arm, and so what I really needed next was some freshly baked bread. There is no presarvative in french bread, and so it has to be bought fresh every day. Today there were at least three boulangers baking bread on the street in portable bread ovens and the smell was heavenly.

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But you can’t buy bread without thinking of cheese, and the local normandy cheese called Neufchatel, traditionally in the form of a heart, was not far away!

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The Neufchatel comes in varying degrees of ripeness, young smooth and white or older white with little slits in the surface. But then suddenly I noticed some brown hearts and couldn’t resist asking just how old these cheeses were. The stall owner declared that they were four months old and had the flavour of caramelised cheese. “Were they dry in the centre” asked another person. Not at all, rich and gooey in the centre, these are not cheeses for the faint-hearted!wp_20161016_002

Well only moments later I passed a stall where a huge pan of Tartiflette was bubbling away. Potatoes, onions and bacon cooked in white Savoy wine and fresh cream with a generous helping of Roblochon, a soft rind soft “appelation controlée” cheese also from the Savoy region. There was enough to feed an army.

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Having got all that I really needed, there was time just to wander through the stalls and savour what was available.

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fresh squashes and pumpkins, and fresh garden herbs.

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abundent fresh fish and shellfish.

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and hot, fresh crèpes with chocolate sauce.

wp_20161016_015Macaronswp_20161016_016choux puffs of every possible flavour,wp_20161016_017and mini cup-cakes.wp_20161016_013And then, if you weren’t already overwhelmed for choice, freshly made chocolate truffles!wp_20161016_010I passed a few more stalls selling handmade cured saucisson, some flavoured with goats cheese and others with camembert,wp_20161016_007and abundent coquilles St Jaques, (scallops)wp_20161016_006and more mussels than anyone could possibly eat!wp_20161016_031And while all this was going on all around, a chocolatier was quietly carving this chocolate sculpture.

Though judging by her grimace, the poor chocolate woman is clearly agonising about her waistline in the face of all this abundence.

And i’m not suprised really – are you?

Bon Apetite!

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Bon Apetite -Choux buns and Chouquettes


For the recipé click here:

For a few moments this morning I thought I was going to have to deal with a double booking. Not the kind where you find you are booked for two different tours in two entirely different places at the same time, but one you turn up to your destination and find that another group is already there.

This morning I led an eager group of Australians to the Atelier de Sylvie, a cookery school where they were programmed to create a profusion of profiteroles. But when we arrived, we found an equally sized group already crammed into the little cooking class. For a couple of seconds I wondered how I was going to deal with it, until the head of the first group heaved a camera onto his shoulder and with a wink and a grin called:

“Action”.

It turned out that our cooking class was going to be televised and I was dammed glad that I had thought to wash my hair this morning. Five minutes later I was miked-up and ready to translate the charming Sylvie, the owner and chef of the atelier.

WP_20160717_002The morning turned into a riotous affair, doing what the french do best, (and australian TV presenters do worst apparently), cooking and tasting delicious patisserie. In fact the presenter’s choux buns were so bad that we had to take them out of the oven twice in order for the  camera to effectively film the astonished expressions on the assembled cooks, and the grimace on the face of Sylvie!

“Il est le plus mauvais client que j’avais jamais eu dans cet atelier” she exclaimed, and the camera trained back to me to capture the translation. Struggling to contain my laughter I explained that perhaps that was better left untranslated, but no-one was having any of it:

“He’s the worst client that i’ve ever had in my atelier” I explained, and once the the camera man had finished snorting, he demanded we re-run the whole sequence. The presenter bravely bore the ridicule!

As the morning drew to a close we left the atelier, each holding a box laden with choux buns and chouquettes. (some more professionally looking than others!), calling

“Bon Apetite”, to the cameras as we went!

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For the recipé click here, and for the method, click here!

Continuing the Renovations -Attacking the Bedroom!


It occurred to me that I haven’t updated on the renovation process for a while. As with many projects, you take a huge leap forward, and then revelling in the new transformed state of things, it goes onto the back-burner, although really it isn’t finished at all. Such is the case with the master bedroom which I started a year ago and is now starting to cry for attention again. Here is the bedroom before the last owner, an elderly gentleman in his 90’s moved out.Annonce1-photo8 (1)

It’s not normal that I would seek to put my bedroom in front of those of the kids, but an unhappy chapter of events made it happen that way. Days before our moving date, on visiting the now empty house, it was immediately obvious that the house was filthy, and a quick run over with a hoover just wasn’t going to do the job. A fabulous friend of mine offered (in, I suppose, a momentary absence of sense) to help me wash the carpets with a hired machine. A back-breaking day of intense labour later, after several buckets of black water had been thrown out, the carpets were altgether a different colour, if smelling suspiciously of drying sheep!

That should have been the end of the story; only it wasn’t. By the day of arrival of all our furniture, a full week later, one carpet had stubbornly refused to dry and smelt so strongly that nothing short of leaving the door closed, and the windows wide open (it was december), night and day, protected the rest of the house from its awful stench. My bed was erected in the sitting-room, and stayed there for three months!

Then one day in march, I woke with  a spring in my step and decided that that would be the day that the carpet would be ripped up and thrown out. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the darn thing had been stuck down to the floorboards with a powerful glue.

Once the carpet was disposed of, the little old man in the ‘Bricolage’, (Do it yourself shop) recommended a glue solvant called ‘decapant’ and I set to work with a a paintbrush, spatula and the windows open as far as possible to let out the noxious fumes. A couple of days later I had finished the job, but left a few more before hiring a floor-sander (ponceuse) in case the friction of the sanding belt sparked the highly inflammable solvant residue!WP_20150217_002WP_20150217_001The sanding machine took a little getting used to, and I was thwarted early on by the fact that the sander had a miniscule cable of about half a metre, and clearly I should have an earthed extension cable (rallonge) to make the distance across the room in question to the power source. I might add that since the power supply to the house was not itself earthed, it was unsuprising that I didn’t actually have the appropriate cable, nor was I sure what good it would do, but was left to waste valuable hire time making a second journey to the bricolage.WP_20150222_001By the end of the evening, the main area of the room was transformed, and buzzing with the success of the day, heard myself eagerly agreeing with the hire company to hiring the ‘edge-sander’ to complete the job the next day when I took the drum sander back to them.

However, not all things carry on the way they are planned. Somewhere around 3am I woke with a pounding headache, and as the hours marched their way towards dawn, it occurred to me that I had succombed to the flu. Somehow I made it through the next day clinging onto a rather headstrong ‘edge-sander’, until finally, about the middle of the afternoon, I was no longer capable. The sander and I collapsed in a heap halfway across the ‘en-suite’ floor. The floor remains in the same state to this day, but thankfully I am back in one piece!

After the floor, the dismanteling of the corner cupboard, the filling of holes and the wallpapering of the walls was ease itself, although I did contend with a minor moment of anxiety and a bruise of two as my hand-sander exploded while I was at the top of the ladder smoothing down the uneven plasterwork, and I consequently went flying. I know, hand-sanders are not appropriate for plaster dust, the monsieur at the bricolage gave me quite a lecture on the subject…..after the event. My greatest find was a little ‘morceau’ of wall-paper with handpainted little birds on it. It was so pretty I wished there had been more of it to make a feature, but sadly it was so brittle that it fell apart in my hands.WP_20150128_009WP_20150128_001WP_20150222_005WP_20150128_004WP_20150222_004

Now, a few months on we have curtains, a pretty toile called ‘Charente Birds’, a little daringly in black and ‘white’. Our bed waits to be re-upholstered (whenever will I find the time!) and came from a ‘chateau sale’, my chair from the Rouen Puces (antiques fair) and upholstered by me before we moved (which was a very good idea in the circumstances considering the hefty list of things to do now we are in the house) and our wardrobe (photo to be added later) came from a wonderful organisation called Emmaus. Emmaus takes house-clearence furniture and sells it on using the unemployed and homeless as staff to create a profit and get those same people off benefits and back into employment. There are many great bargains to be found there, especially if you know what you are looking for.bedroom4

Now I’m just waiting for the motivation to tackle the windows, and  I know that they will be time-consuming and unpleasant, before finally finishing the final small area of electrical wiring and the skirings.

As for the half finished floor in the ‘en-suite’? Well the bath leaked into the sittingroom a few days ago, so it looks like that project is now on the urgent list, and it may be done sooner than we think!

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