Archive for July, 2012

Week two – no internet

We spent the second week of our holiday in St. Gengoux Le National. The entire area is only serviced withEdgeand what there is only flittered in and out of the town intermittently. So, I kept notes and the entire second week follows on below. ;-(

Saturday

We managed to get packed up and ‘out’ by just after 9.15am today and set off in the rain for Saint Gengoux le National, in Burgundy. Despite my fears about travelling on a national ‘fete’ day, we saw very little traffic but passed through several interesting towns that were celebrating the day.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about Bastille Day that causes so much excitement, but they do like to put on a show over here. We stopped off in one town [Château-Chinon] where they were parading up and down and dancing exactly like Morris Men. Some of the dancers were wearing stilts, some were not and some of the stilt dancers were dressed sheep – bless ‘em. In Autun, where we’d hoped to stop and have a coffee (had we not had one in Chateau Chinon) we thought about lunch, but it was pouring down, so we gave it a miss. However, we did manage to see a troop of Roman soldiers marching through the upper part of town!

Lunch was therefore al fresco at the first place we found where it wasn’t raining, wasn’t windy, had some sunshine and moderate toilet facilities.

We arrived at our destination two hours early, so we had a walk around and then drove to the next town [Cormatin] and had another walk around – this town was much busier and parking was a feat!

The gite is excellent in many ways. Its downsides (so far) are the amount of flies outside on the terrace and the number of towels we’ve been left. Neither are big problems, but niggly when you’re tired. Chicken in Ratatouille Soup for tea, with spuds and buttered yellow beans and broccoli.

Sunday

A nice light shone through the bedroom window this morning, promising a nice day – it lied, but it was a nice thought. The gite has two terraces; one, just by the entrance will be ideal for eating breakfast as it catches the early morning sun, but this morning, the bedroom had caught the sun then hidden it! We ate indoors.

When we went out for a walk later, we had to wear our full ‘warm’ gear. I wore the one long-sleeved shirt I’d brought with me, long pants and my raincoat as is was so cold. Sharon was similarly attired – luckily, as it began to pour down as we started walking though the main street, where a flea market (vide grenier) was taking place. We tried again after lunch and had a good bit more success as the clouds gradually moved away and left the late afternoon warm and cozy.

We spent a good bit of the late afternoon on the main terrace – half covered decking that goes from front to back of the house. This particular piece of deck is south facing and captures pretty much all of the afternoon and evening sun – which was very pleasant. I started to read Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses last night – finished it today!

We had mustard pork steak for tea with sauté Lyonnaise potatoes and buttered yellow beans with broccoli.

Monday

We’d decided yesterday that we should venture out today and do a little supermarket shopping and buy some diesel – we probably have enough but we have to fill the tank right up and I don’t want to have to fill up on Friday and then add just a few litres on Saturday.

So we decided to visit Tournus and Cluny, each one about 15 miles away, probably a 45-50 mile round trip. Surely there would be a big supermarché in one of those towns (there wasn’t).

Tournus is a little way north of Macon; I’ve passed it lots of times en route to the south on the now prohibitively expensive A6 but until today, had never been. It’s not a pretty town – it’s old, but not pretty. Except the riverside, the riverside looks like it’s had some attention and it does look and feel nice; it reminded me of the Glasgow Clydeside/City centre waterfront. We drove on to Cluny.

If I had access to the Internet as I write this (I don’t) I would write so much more about the town. IT IS pretty and it does have a nice atmosphere. It’s just a little off my beaten track so I’d never heard of it before. It is very old and there is lots of roman ‘stuff’ here. We spent quite a few hours here, walking around, eating lunch al fresco, and doing some shopping – in an ATAC (another new one for me!).

We came back and strolled around Saint Gengoux before coming back for a sit-down and read on the still sunny back terrace. We had a 5% fat, shop-bought (very tasty) burger for tea, with salad – lovely. Why oh why, can’t we but radishes at home like we can here? Still with it’s greenery, in huge bunches, hot, crisp and peppery – Mmmmm.

Tuesday

Tuesday is market day in Saint Gengoux le National, so after breakfast (we were in no hurry) we walked into the centre and ‘did’ the market. The market took up quite a bit of the town, with the main road being closed to traffic and we saw all the usual stalls we would expect to find in a French market, except those selling live animals and those ‘own grown’ stalls we always see in Normandy. An elderly lady or gent would be sat on a chair with one or two bowls of homegrown produce for sale. We’ve seen all sorts: cabbage, beans, strawberries, onions, redcurrants, potatoes etc. But no such stalls were to be seen here.

After lunch I went for a walk. Sharon wasn’t feeling well, so I went on my own. I’d decided on day-1 that I would tackle the huge cairn on top of an adjacent hill. It turned out that the cairn was in fact a statue of the Madonna set on top of a cairn-like concrete mound and which could be seen for miles around. The views were terrific, not as far reaching as those from Sancerre but pretty good nevertheless.

And that was that, apart from tea we did pretty much nothing else except read in the late afternoon and evening sun. Finished no wonder I take a drink’ by Laura Marney.

Tea was a tin of Tartiflette! Ok – tinned food, so what? I’d never seen this tinned product before and wanted once and for all to see the difference between Tartiflette and Dauphinoise!  To be honest, I’ve only ever seen tartiflette on the menu at the tapas bar in Slaithwaite before, so it hadn’t really been part of my ‘ken’. Yet, on this year’s visit to France I’ve seen it on a number of menus and even ate it with lunch in Cluny. It seems to be dauphinoise without the cheese and with lardons of bacon added instead. I doctored it by adding some chopped up saucisson and then, just before serving, adding a piece of dry bread topped with camembert to create a crunchy top. Mmmmm again.

Wednesday

Another gorgeous day! We’re not too far from the Montchannin TGV station here so we set off after breakfast to check it out. I’d been curious to know what the frequency and cost of a trip to Paris (or Avignon) might be. Well, although there were adverts for €35 1st Class trips to Paris, there were no similar returns and not that much availability this week. It would have cost us €320 to go at 10:36am on Friday and come back 19:30ish – too much! But worth a look on ‘t’internet if we stay close to a TGV station again.

We then drove on to Chalon sur Saone. We didn’t like. Hard to say why, but lack of public loos, poor food and well – not sure, we were back in Saint Gengoux by mid-afternoon. We had a coffee in the other bar (the green bar) and just like the other (the red bar); they took money off us at service time. I find this distasteful in France, it’s not normal but it’s the third bar this fortnight!

Tarte flambé for tea, with salad and lashings of beer 😉

Today was the first time we’ve eaten all three meals al fresco. Nice and hot…

Thursday

Today was much cloudier so after breakfast we went for a walk. It wasn’t cold but was certainly cooler than yesterday. We arrived back in the village just before 12:30pm closing time – even the boulangeries close then!

I decided that I was a big boy now and that I would ‘brave’ the boucherie rather than buying tea at the supermarket (which has a pretty poor selection anyway). I wouldn’t have gone in if no one else had been queuing but by being behind others, I was able to acclimatise to the ‘French’ being spoken. I’d decided that I wanted two veal cutlets, I could see the joint they would come from, but worried that I had enough cash! I had €20-30 with me, but two of those beauties could have easily cost €20 on their own – however, we never see veal at home and we’ve not been ‘out’ much this holiday … Anyway, the guy in front of me asked for a veal escalope and when I saw where the butcher cut it from, I decided that that was what I would ask for – two veal escalopes instead. By the time it was my turn I’d heard and remembered enough ‘French’ to buy the escalopes and two quiche d’epinard without a problem. Whayayyy!

We walked again in the afternoon, had a coffee on the main street and came back to read. I decided this morning that I was getting through ‘Breaking Dawn’ too fast so I picked a book (my third this week!) from the gite library: “Piece of My Heart”, by Peter Robinison. As write this I’m a third of the way through … touch and go whether I finish it. (I did – 24 hours!)

Guess what tea was! (with penne pasta and tomato sauce concocted from our lunchtime soup).

Friday

I’ll write up the end of our holiday later – when we’ve caught up with all the ‘stuff’ returning from holiday presents us with.

et maintenant nous avon terminé

Well, by the time I post this, we will have finished our week-long course at the Coeur de France school of languages in Sancerre.

Although I’m beginning to write this the night before we finish, I know I can say that I have enjoyed it. It has been hard work – although we both slipped into English much more than we should have, I reckon that we’ve learned a lot. Certainly, much of the vocabulary I already have has not been utilised, so once I manage to revise and absorb everything I’ve learned this week – I should be a little more conversant (ha ha) with the French language.

My problem has been, and remains, listening. Understanding what has been said to me – mainly by shopkeepers – is still a little hard. However, I am understanding much, much more than I did.

Earlier in the week, we visited a chévererie [see blog post] and bought three crottins. Last night (Mercredi) we had the youngest – jeunne – for tea, crumbled onto a salad. I also tried grilling the oldest – affine – and managed to create a lovely golden colour on the top of it, but it still didn’t melt through. Apparently, when left long enough, it becomes as hard as Parmesan and no less tasty (even my failed attempt to melt it was tres tres tasty!)

Today (Jeudi) we visited the market in Saint Satur, which is just at the bottom of the hill from Sancerre. It is a small but busy market with long queues at most of the vegetable stores. Queuing to make our purchases (on behalf of the teacher) allowed me to ‘listen’ to the questions and responses being made, which was both informative and enlightening. I bought a ‘fine’ piece of Morbier and on instruction from the teacher, Sharon bought twelve apricots and three peaches 🙂

Thursday night was spent with a teacher and two small families. The nine of us prepared and cooked dinner together, which despite my earlier reservations, went well. The menu included amuse gueule, prepared by the youngsters (consisted of dried apricots stuffed with Roquefort cheese and pieces of crottin de chevre); Quiche Lorraine (prepared by one of the mums), Clafoutis aux cerises (made by me and the missus) and chocolate mousse made by another couple (but interfered with by me).

I’ve never made clafoutis before, so the fact that it came out tasty and looking good was a great sensation! The mousse had lost all of its volume and consisted of nothing more than eggs, butter and chocolate – but ‘boy’ did it taste good! The company was good and we had a pleasant time, despite me earlier reservations.

We’re off on our way to St. Gengoux-les-National tomorrow (Saturday) for a rest and for our real holiday. We’re told that we will have NO INTERNET – this may be the last post for a while.

Our last day at school was concluded successfully and we said our goodbyes some hours ago now.

On reflection, I have not covered any more this week than I’ve covered on previously unsuccessful attempts at learning the language: the difference has been that we have covered two terms work in a week – without having to wait a week between each bit. We also had individual, pointed and firm instruction, with mistakes being picked up immediately – according to need. Today (Friday) we touched on past tense and future tense as well as practicing dialogue and getting involved in longer/deeper conversation.

I’ve enjoyed my week here and despite her absolute lack of any French at the outset – I think that Sharon has too. At least she’s smiling 🙂

More info at:

http://www.coeurdefrance.com/

Jeudi

The week has got colder day by day.

We arrived on Saturday in bright sunshine, but each day has seen a deterioration in the weather.

It still hasn’t rained (much) but it’s noticeably colder, especially as we didn’t pack our usual summer-at-home gear. Brrr.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop us visiting the market in St. Satur this morning, as part of our class, to exercise our speaking and listening skills. It is surprising how much you do understand, when the teacher is saying “listen – he saying ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z‘, and look – she’s asking such and such a thing.”

By now, we are expanding our speech and conjugating our verbs – now, that’s a ball-ache!

At least here, our teacher did not start by saying that there are regular verbs and irregular verbs (and then concentrating on the irregular as has happened in previous classes that I’ve attended in the UK); instead she taught us ‘to be‘ and ‘to have‘ simply as two important verbs that needed conjugating, as part of the class’s development. When she eventually (day three) introduced the conjugation of verbs as a subject we realised that those two (être and avoir) were in fact irregulars, along with the just recently introduced aller. But it was not a big thing – simply “you must remember these.

We’re attending a cook-in tonight! One teacher and six students (a family of four and the two of us) will prepare and eat dinner together.  I’d not realised that when I booked us in. I’d thought we were just going somewhere to eat and that there would be conversation at the table. It’s bad enough doing that (I am not  great conversationalist in English, never mind my poor French) but to also have to prepare it – with others – fills me with dread.

Remember my original trade – knocking up eight meals is nothing, but knocking up eight meals with seven others contributing? …… AND talking French too … I need to lie down 😉

un Crottin de Chavignol

Tuesday was hard work. We had booked in for the ‘optional’ group pronunciation class at 8.30am and followed that immediately with our personal 9.00am – 12.15pm course-class.

There are just the two of us in our own classes and we progress at a pace that suits us – yet it’s evident that there is such a lot to learn. We spent most of the afternoon just revising and re-writing what we’d done in the morning. Today, Wednesday we’ve already done a group pronunciation class but we’re not expected back ‘in’ until 13.30pm.

So that’s more revision then …

Our apartment, provided by the school (at a cost) is on the edge of town, overlooking the valley which surrounds Sancerre. It consists of a large entrance lobby that runs through the entire building, with a small w.c. off to the right and then a large bath/shower room with windows open to the fairly busy road. We keep them and their shutters closed.

At the back, there are room-wide windows to the kitchen/living room giving us the very open aspect over this part of France. [Cher – 18]. sandwiched between the bathroom and the living room is the airy bedroom, which has large windows that open into the living room! This allows us to have natural light in the bedroom and lots of evening sunlight right through until sundown. Lovely.

There was an organised trip on Tuesday evening; we all drove en convoy to a chèvrerie about 10k away. The region is famous for its goat’s cheese and has its own AOC mark. The farm was interesting enough and may have looked cruel to some as the goats were being herded onto a moving merry-go-round milking machine.

However, the goats seemed happy enough (eager in fact) to queue up and be relieved of their heavy looking burden when their time came around.

The cheeses themselves are delightful. We were given three to taste and although all of the evening’s explanations went right over my head, I think they were ‘freshly made’ (jeune), ‘about two weeks old’ (bleuté) and ‘finished – mature’ (affiné) – who knows. At least one of these will be devoured tonight 🙂

We had pizza for tea, not bad to say the one guy was serving everyone as well as cooking the food (as well as take-aways). The dessert was crap though. Anyway – back to it …

 

Early classes

On Monday evening we drove to Cosne Sur Loire (known locally as Cone) to pick up an emergency triangle and ‘an’ emergency vest!

Our professeur’ Marianne had phoned AVIS on our behalf, as none of the numbers we had been given could/would go through.

We later realised that they were not accessible from the UK – and although we are in France we have UK based phones! It beggars belief then, that they give you (us) those numbers? After all, they expect you to have a mobile phone with you in the car, because they require your mobile phone number on the contract.

It was a such a palaver: Marianne had to insist on being put through to AVIS at Lyon airport and then to further insist that they arranged for the goods to be available for collection at the nearest agency and that they take full responsibility for the lack of legally required ‘stuff’ [I wasn’t convinced by this agreement, but …] whilst we drove there.

Then today, Tuesday, I finally received a reply from AVIS to the email (marked URGENT) I sent on Saturday. Well, it was cc of that email, which they had forwarded (finally) to AVIS Europe.

At 5.45pm tonight AVIS Europe rang me to say that I shouldn’t worry, it was their problem and that they would be the one who would get into trouble (fined) – AND – if I felt unsafe without the kit, I should buy it and they would give me the money upon the car’s return! As if!

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand has already done. AVIS.

More holiday later …

Je suis un élève à l’école de langues à Sancerre

Classes start this afternoon but we’ve just returned from an informal meeting with the teachers and other students, at the school itself.

My head hurts 😉

The school specialises in immersive language learning, so despite my meagre and hitherto untested french vocabulary, we only heard french being spoken. This afternoon we will have over three hours of it

Still, that’s what I wanted; to finally be able to listen and converse in french, so that I might be able to better understand what’s being said to me and that I might better make myself understood whenever I’m over here.

Sharon and I will have classes together – just the two of us and a teacher, so that should be OK. There are plenty of other students though, mainly from Canada or the USA, all being taught in their family units. This sort of makes socialising difficult as they (like us I suppose) gain confidence from being in those family groups. We’ll see how the week pans out.

We’ve signed up for a number of out-of-class activities too, which will add variety to the course. Watch this space.At the time of writing, we are still no further on with our AVIS rental car problem. We have spoken to UK AVIS and they have said that they will also try to contact the AVIS-Lyon airport – but we get no answer from the published number, or the extra number given by the UK. Neither have we yet had a reply from our emails.

We cannot drive the car right now because it is illegal!

AVIS did not provide the necessary yellow vests or the emergency triangle required  by French law. There are no ‘recommended’ spare light bulbs, there is no recommended first aid kit or any sign of the recommended fire extinguisher.

Stop Press – Breathalyser also requiredhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18662555 (thanks James)

POOR SHOW AVIS.

en Route a’ Sancerre

There’s not a right lot can happen on that day of your holiday which has been planned to be the day you spend driving. Sure enough, we set off from our hotel just outside Lyon and drove to Sancerre without too much incident.

‘Geoffrey’ got us around Lyon and on the right motorway, heading for Macon, where we turned off to cross-country and head up into Burgundy. The most exciting bit of this part of the trip was our first use of Telepeage. Sharon had bought the kit last year and this was the first time we’d had chance to try it out. It’s absolutely brilliant! When you reach a French motorway ‘toll’ (peage) booth, the queue for Telepeage is always the shortest and quickest and so it was. Simply drive up to the barrier, it recognises you and up the barrier goes. No credit card, cash or non-English speaking chaps or chapettes to deal with. In years gone by I’ve queued for hours (actually and on aggregate) at the peage near Villfranche – it’s a real bottleneck (bouchon) there (and next Saturday, Fete National will be one of the worst days!)From Macon it was pretty much just us and the odd Frenchman out for a Satuday drive. Blissfully empty roads with no stress at all until we hit Sancerre, which I’m sure, can be more easily approached, but Geoffrey decided we could climb the steep hill via the narrowest of winding roads – Grrr. Still, what a pretty town! We’ve not seen much of it just yet; but it is very old, has very narrow streets, lots of bars and restaurants – and importantly, Boulangeries.

We have just written to Avis, our car rental folks, to tell them that they have provided us with none of the essential emergency kit in the Citreon C4 they have loaned us. These are demanded by French law! We are now driving illegally!!!

Anyway, we’re here now and it looks delightful. Our apartment is very French, with magnificent views across the valley. The town is slightly above us and we will go and explore that shortly. But for now, it’s just good to be here.