Mont St Michel by night

I recently visited Mont St Michel for the third time, this time staying two nights on the island. It’s always difficult to know whether to say “I stayed on the Mont”, “I stayed on the island” or something else, because the former sounds like I’ve been exposed to the elements in the style of a Spartan baby, and the second isn’t really accurate as it’s (still) not really an island, although it’s obvious that the new walkway is having some positive effect on reducing the silting of the bay.

Anyway, at night, and early in the morning, Mont St Michel is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, because there are no roads and therefore no cars. It’s ironic, therefore, that I had the worst two nights’ of sleep I’ve ever had in a hotel room – entirely as a result of the traffic.

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Yes, this really was the colour of the sunset.

The problem with hotel rooms on MSM is that you never know quite where you’re going to be sleeping, because the bedrooms are scattered around the village in what are referred to as “Annexes”. Mine was, at first glance, a beautiful large room in an ancient building, with, of course, a stunning backdrop – which is actually even more impressive after dark.

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My bedroom windows.

As you can tell by the angle of this picture, it was pretty close to the village wall. It was also situated over La Grande Rue, which meant that it was fairly noisy during the daytime. But I had thought it’d be quiet at night after the (other) tourists had mainly gone home.

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La Grande Rue, about 10.30 pm.

However, it turned out that despite the hideous price of hotel rooms in/on/at Mont St Michel, the owners haven’t invested in either internal or external noise insulation. This meant that I could hear every word exchanged between the couple in the next room – although they weren’t talking loudly – until midnight, followed by his snoring. As I’d planned to get up early the next day to go out with my camera this was slightly annoying, but I went to sleep anyway. Meanwhile, Mont St Michel carried on being magnificent in the darkness.

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I can’t imagine why the French call it “La Merveille”…

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My first inkling of the real problem with having a room over La Grande Rue came at 5.45 the next morning. And it’s an obvious one, if you think about it. The site gets not far short of 3 million visitors a year, and many of them want to eat or stay there. This means that vast quantities of food and laundry have to be brought in and out – up a street far too narrow for delivery trucks. This means that deliveries have to be done using trolley type things. Trolley type things that make a terrible noise, whether full or empty, when running at high speed over ancient cobbles.

I got up, looked out to see what was going on, swore a lot, both at the racket and the rain, and went back to bed. After about another hour I fell asleep again, and thus my early morning was abandoned.

The next night, however, the trolleys began at 4.20 am… This led to more swearing, but this time I also got up and watched what was going on.

First came the laundry sorters. There were at least two of them, and they spent most of their time having a very loud conversation, presumably in case the noise of the trolleys hadn’t quite woken everyone in the village.

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Then there was a forklift truck with a motor that made an extremely menacing howling sound, taking food supplies further into the village for the restaurants.

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It also got up to quite a respectable speed on the way back down the street, when it was empty.

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Eventually the laundry men were finished, departing with a train of trolleys each. They must have pretty strong muscles to go with their voices, because as I know from my time as a femme de ménage in a French hotel, full laundry bags are far from light.

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There was a brief period of quiet, and I wondered whether to make myself a cup of tea or to try to get back to sleep. But the night’s entertainment hadn’t finished. The dulcet tones of “cardboard box being kicked along medieval ramparts” came next, culminating in it being booted down the steps opposite and along the street by a man who for some reason made me think of Enrico Caruso.

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By now, it was about 6ish and I was beginning to think that was it, but of course the reason why Caruso was out indulging in a spot of pre-dawn box-booting was that the binmen were coming.

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These guys also had a loud conversation, probably about the Health and Safety rules they were infringing, as they had a vast amount of rubbish in the trailer thing they were pulling behind the forklift, and indeed when they finally moved off one guy had to steady it from behind. Although quite what he’d have done if it really had tried to escape, I’m not sure.

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As I watched their lights disappear under the archway to the right, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to bed.

Then the next set of trolleys full of food arrived…

The moral of this story is always, but always, travel with a set of really good earplugs.


 

Oh, and just in case you’re thinking “But how much noise can a trolley really make?”, here’s one of them in action. Yes, it really did sound like this.

 

 

Magic is not age-related

Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.

I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.

I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.

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The Isle of Man – not exactly a battlefield, to look at it.

I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.

Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.

In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.

Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.

I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.

But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.

I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.

The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)

The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.

I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.

I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.

I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.

And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.

But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.

Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.

Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.

But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.

I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.

So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.

Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.

So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.

Or maybe you’ve just never opened your eyes to what’s really going on in the world around you. Because you clearly haven’t noticed it, but many of our generation have been soldiers too.

How to build audience loyalty: a lesson from Sam Peters

isbn9781473214750A few weeks ago, I listened to an audiobook – “From Darkest Skies”, by Sam Peters – and  enjoyed it so much I immediately emailed the author about it. This is extremely rare for me. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it in nearly seven years of Audible membership.

It’s an SF book, but in practice it’s very much in the noir genre. On a particularly inhospitable planet, someone’s up to no good, and it’s down to the hero, Keon Rause, to work out exactly what and exactly who. And do either of these answers involve his dead wife? She says not.

Sam Peters’ worldbuilding is enviably complete, and the planet Magenta’s hideous weather and back-breaking gravity feel real right from the start. And to aid him in his sleuthing, Keon has probably the most realistic team of characters that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, all of whom come across as real, rounded people, especially in the version narrated by Peter Noble.

One of these characters in particular was the reason I wrote to the author. Voiced as though he comes from the north of England somewhere (Burnley? Bolton?), Bix Rangesh is a total nightmare to work with – he doesn’t stick to procedure, he’s got no respect for authority and he’s far too familiar with the various players in the Magentan underworld. But he also gets results, and clearly whenever Bix is around it’s party time, whether you felt like having a party or not. Increasingly, as the book went on, I found myself worrying that he was going to be killed off. Yeah, he’s that good.

So I wrote to Sam Peters and said, essentially, ‘nice job, thanks for Bix, glad he’s not dead’.

And I didn’t get a reply.

Now, I know that authors are busy people. I gather that “From Darkest Skies” has already been optioned for TV, which is pretty good going for a début novel. And there are a couple of sequels planned. But I did think I’d get a standard “Thank you”.

However, what with the weather and renovation, this hasn’t been uppermost in my thoughts, and I was still intending to download the audiobook of the next installment as soon as it arrives on Audible.

Then yesterday, I did get a reply.

A reply to me, personally, referencing something I’d said in my email, from Bix Rangesh himself!

I actually have, in my inbox, a little piece of original Sam Peters writing! How cool is that?

Anyway, it turns out that the next book in the series, “From Distant Stars” is out for pre-order now from Amazon. Personally, I’m going to hang on for the audio version because it’s so fabulous, but I’ve pre-ordered the paperback version anyway, because according to Bix, “pre-orders totally make a difference to some algorithmy stuff”.

So if you like SF but you only read paper books, buy “From Darkest Skies” and I’ll send you my copy of the second one as soon as it arrives (this time next year).

And if you’re really into audiobooks, buy that instead. In either case, you won’t regret it!

Orion books page for “From Darkest Skies”

Audible page for “From Darkest Skies”

 

 

 

The antibiotic myth

 

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There’s a programme on the radio this morning about the history of antibiotics. It was quite interesting while they were talking about the discovery of penicillin, but I’ve just had to turn it off.

Because, as I knew they would, they’ve got to the bit about antibiotic resistance all being our fault. “People became addicted to antibiotics” is how they phrased it.

By which they mean the following dialogue, which I know you recognise because you’ve played the part of the villain many many times:

Patient: Doctor, I have a cold and I really need antibiotics to cure it.

Doctor: I’m very sorry, but antibiotics don’t work against colds so they’re really not appropriate. I suggest you take an over the counter painkiller, drink plenty of liquid and rest.

Patient (threateningly): But I insist on having antibiotics! If you don’t give me antibiotics now, I’m going to get very very angry!

Doctor (cringing): No, no, please don’t hurt me! Here! (scribbles prescription and hurls it across the desk at the ravening patient)

 

I don’t know what the point of this myth is – although my cynical side tells me that it’s to distract us from the agricultural use of antibiotics which mean that most of us are being subject to constant low-level doses whether we want to or not – but isn’t it about time that the media stopped blaming antibiotic resistance on ordinary people? If there’s ever been over-prescribing of antibiotics for inappropriate uses, surely that’s down to the people doing the prescription, not the poor bloody patients?

Crême brulée! Or how to get the best dessert in a French restaurant

It’s occurred to me in recent weeks that there’s more going on than you think when you’re offered dessert in a French restaurant.

Now, I’m talking here about the kind of restaurant where they don’t print a menu – but of course you already know to avoid those, don’t you? The most this sort of place has is a chalk board with the menu du jour scribbled on it. But the menu du jour usually only lists the first two courses. So the available desserts always come as something of a surprise, and you really have to get your tactics right when it comes to choosing one.

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If you’re very specific about what constitutes a dessert, then you may already be limited to a couple of choices. If you want something chocolatey, you’re not likely to be offered more than mousse or fondant au chocolat. So that’s easy. If you’re a pie-eater, then you probably don’t even that much choice in large swathes of France – here in Normandy and in many other areas it’s always apple. Although where I used to live in the Limousin my other half got so blasé about the prune tart he now so desperately craves that he would only eat it if all the other variants (pear, apricot, peach etc. etc.) had run out. But even there he did once play an extremely good trump card in the dessert menu game and was rewarded with a piece of mirabelle tart, which he still reminisces about to this day.

Anyway, the way the dessert game goes is this. The waiter/waitress will sidle up and begin the manoeuvres with the traditional “Vous prenez un dessert ?” To which, of course, the only response is “Yes”, even if you already feel like your stomach is bursting, because once again this is a particular type of restaurant and the chances are that the price you’re paying includes dessert – and quite possibly coffee too.

The starting position thus established, the waiter/waitress is once again forced to make the first move. They rattle off the list of desserts. If your French isn’t good, or if they’ve got an impenetrable accent or a bad cold, you may have to put yourself in a disadvantageous position by asking them to repeat the list. Or you may – as I often do – simply panic at the plethora of choices and end up going for the first thing you’ll definitely like, only to hear something much nicer being offered to the next table five minutes later.

However, there’s an interesting thing about dessert menus, which I’ve only recently managed to formulate. If you wait right until the very end…. and then beyond it, you may just be offered the secret dessert.

Of course it’s not a secret to the restaurant staff, because it’s often the one they’ve squirrelled away for their own delectation later in the afternoon when you’ve all been turfed out full of boring old fromage blanc and îles flottantes. But they will offer it to you, if you can keep your nerve.

It has to be said at this point that the hidden dessert may actually be something that’s no nicer than the other things on offer. But you’ve got, in my estimation, a 30% chance of it being something absolutely stunning.

This happened to me recently (and the discerning reader will note that this was clearly not in Normandy). The exchange went something like this:

Waiter: “J’ai mousse au chocolat, tarte au pomme, crême caramel, îles flottantes, tarte à la pêche, baba au rhum, de la glâce, des sorbets…”

Me: (maintaining an expectant silence) …

Waiter: (faltering) “Et (sighs)… j’ai également une tarte bon accueil.”

Me: (brightening) “Et c’est quoi ?”

And the Tarte bon accueil (created by and named after the restaurant) turned out to be an indescribably good concoction of egg and mystery that tasted rather like the smell of an old French farmhouse, with added sugar. Smoky, acrid, sweet and fabulous. One to go on the list of Top desserts I have unearthed along with the Tarte délice au rhubarbe that I ate precisely once, about 12 years ago, and can still taste.

Today, however, I was outplayed by the waitress and patronne of the restaurant, who cleverly played the Age card just at the perfect moment:

“Il y a mousse au chocolat, crême brulée, tarte au pomme, fondant au chocolat avec crême anglaise, buche glacé…” Here she looked a little nervous and I really thought I had her – until she continued, with a slight quaver in her voice, “mais je ne me souviens pas de quelle saveur…” Then she came to a stop.

Only the Cruelty card would have trumped this, and I really didn’t have the heart to play it. A simple “C’est tout?” or even a suitably timed sigh might have worked, but she really is extremely elderly and I worry every time I visit the establishment that she’ll have retired, the place will have closed down, and that I’ll then have one less venue where I can hone my dessert hunting skills. So I caved and had the fondant au chocolat. And very nice it was too.

Just… probably not as nice as the dessert she had tucked away in the fridge to eat later.

Death of a lion: Fluff – 2005-2017

In 2005, as now, we were renovating in France. Renovating is horrible, hard work, and when you’re making it up as you go you need to stop and think often, ideally with an alcoholic beverage for company. Our place for stopping and thinking was the bar in the village 2 kilometres away.

One day, as we were setting off for the bar, Geoff said, “Let’s go a different way”. “OK”, I said, “I know a road I’ve been meaning to drive along to see if it’d be nice for a bicycle ride”.

And a few minutes later, as we drove along that new road, we passed three kittens playing on the grass verge. We carried on for about another 100 metres, expecting to see a house that they could have strayed from. There wasn’t one. They’d been dumped there, probably only a few minutes before.

I reversed the car, and the smallest kitten, a long-haired ginger ball of fur with a sweet face, came pottering straight up to Geoff and readily agreed to be picked up. Geoff brought the kitten to me in the car and went back to try to capture the others. The fluffy kitten immediately began exploring the car.

And so Fluff came into our lives.

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Fluff not long after we found him.

We did – eventually – capture the other two kittens, one tabby and one a short-haired ginger, both bigger and clearly more suspicious of people than their little brother. All three of them lived with us for a while until we found a nice new home for Tabby and Ginger (later renamed Tiger Tim and Citron). But by that time we simply couldn’t give Fluff up.

He was the smallest of the three, with tiny little teeth like plastic needles, and it took him ages to eat his food. His brothers would have finished a whole bowl each by the time he’d gummed his way through three mouthfuls, and he’d want to stop eating and go and play with them. In the end we used to have to lift him up to the newly-installed kitchen counter, still wrapped in protective plastic, and feed him separately, just to make sure he’d eaten enough.

This summer, I took a video of Fluff, now 12, eating some prawns off a plate on the kitchen floor. In one minute, he manages to ineptly eat about two-thirds of a prawn, scattering bits everywhere. He just never really got the hang of eating quickly.

He also never stopped being nosy.

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Fluff wasn’t the only nosy one in the household.

Fortunately, he had ample opportunities to indulge his curiosity. He lived in ten different homes in two countries, and spent nights in many hotel rooms in between. He crossed Europe in a 7.5 tonne truck in the worst storm for 40 years, and visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo – twice. He took the overnight ferry across the Baltic several times, and thoroughly enjoyed gawping at the sea. He stared very hard at people on bicycles and children in prams. He made it quite clear that he didn’t approve of the Netherlands, or Denmark, to the point that future crossings of Europe were always planned to avoid both countries.

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Watching the motorway, central Germany.

Although he was free range for the first 18 months of his life, once we moved away from that part of France he became mainly an indoor cat, being walked on a lead twice a day. Walking a cat is actually quite restful, although you rarely cover very large distances. I went through quite a lot of audiobooks while meandering slowly around the garden as Fluff sniffed at things and, occasionally, rolled in deer poo. By summer 2017, he’d got to the point where he could largely be walked without the lead.

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The lion prowls the savannah. Sweden, summer 2017.

Everyone’s reaction on meeting Fluff was the same: “What a lovely cat!” “What a magnificent tail!” “Est-il un Persan ?” “Oh, isn’t he beautiful?” And he was, indeed, very attractive. No matter how grubby he got outdoors he always seemed to be clean again within minutes of coming back in.

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My afternoon nap on the office sofa quickly became *our* afternoon nap.

But it was his sweet, playful nature that really stood out. He was naughty, sometimes. He was even bad tempered on very rare occasions. But mostly he was an enormously entertaining character, joining in with our conversations, demanding his walks, periodically jumping out from behind the furniture and grabbing us by the knees, tying himself into impossible positions while asleep and still insisting on playtime every day even at the age of 12. And he certainly took in a lot of information from his (too small) box next to my computer as I dictated translations while he snoozed.

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He was always ready to join in a conversation.

He used to invent new games and expect us to learn the rules, and mostly we did – though I never quite understood what I was supposed to do when he was hiding under the table by the door.

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One of our last walks together.

When he died, two weeks ago today, almost completely out of the blue, it was a truly enormous blow. Of course it’s nice to be able to have the windows open, not to have fur all over everything and for us both to be able to plan to travel at the same time. But that’s a poor exchange for losing such a loving and amusing companion.

We had one final journey together. We took him back to that village in the Limousin where he’d first lived with us, and laid him to rest in a beautiful, peaceful spot facing the sunset.

He will, naturally, be much missed.

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Butter update

Apparently there’s a butter shortage in Europe at the moment, and it’s predicted that it’s only going to get worse. The reasons are here, in an article which also contains the title “Slow churn”, which must have amused the author  no end (it amused me, but I freely admit to being sad).

I gather that the shortage has reached crisis levels in some parts of the continent already, but here in Normandy the only obvious effect is that there are several big apologetic signs in the butter section – which to my eyes is just as fully stocked as ever. Mind you, I’m used to Swedish levels of butter, so more than three different types of the golden stuff still make me giddy.

However, I did buy two packets today just in case, thereby helping to increase the panic. You’re welcome.

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