Thursday, 30 April 2015

A lot to get used to

This is the view from my front door looking up to the front of our property. The bushes are lavendar that line the path we created. The building top left is a double height barn we use as a wood store and garage. The plan is to concrete the floor ( it is currently an earth floor) and put in a mezzanine floor to provide a workshop for P. We have been snowed in three times in five years. Once we get out onto the proper road they have drainage ditches either side. When it snows you cannot tell what is ditch and what is road. The minor roads are not gritted. Our friendly farmer pushes a bale of straw up our access road with his tractor so we can walk out. It used to worry me to be so cut off but I am now used to it. The freezer and pantry are kept well stocked.
I am slowly learning to be more self sufficient but it is a steep learning curve. The French culture is something I doubt I will ever get my head  round. It is the reason why I often feel I cannot hack it.
It is a socialist set up with no help for new business. People come out of the pharmacy with a carrier bag of drugs. There is no competition. A large supermarket recently applied to sell basic drugs, non prescription and were told no as it was unfair to the pharmacies. Amazon was not allowed to deliver books free as it was deemed unfair to bookshops.
There is a big red book called code de travail that protects workers rights it makes it impossible for a small business to employ anyone. When you sell your house you leave stuff in it up to a year after you have moved. Bizarre or what! They do not make way for emergency vehicles and are happy to tap the car in front and behind to get into a space. We had this done to us whilst I was sitting in the car, it was saved by the fact it had a tow bar and a bull bar. When buying new number plates the shop told me to have metal as the plastic ones get broken so often.
Do not get me started on food. I recently called a restaurant to ask if they could cope with me being vegetarian, oui, oui I was told. Starter grated carrot with a boiled egg, main mashed potato with grilled tomatoes. For the same price as the full menu.
I don't want to be totally negative so will stop there but there is so much more. I will tell more in other posts.
The country is lovely as is our part of it. It is easy to lead a simple life. But give me a good English pub anyday.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

my animals

I had always been a cat person. I have had cats ever since I left home and my husband knew the cats came with me. Once the children arrived we did talk about a dog but our lives did not suit having one. I will never take on an animal I cannot fully look after. We were a busy house, often out so it would not be fair.
Once we moved here and had retired it became a possibility. Then P had a short spell of contract work in the UK which meant I was on my own. P suggested we get a dog. The situation here for unwanted dogs and cats is heart breaking. The numbers are managed by putting down healthy animals. So it had to be a rescue dog. I trawled the internet and found Bruno. His mother had been rescued by an English expat charity and within a week had given birth to six puppies. Bruno and a girl went to an elderly couple but only lasted a week and were back at the centre. He was never small even at 8 weeks but I could carry him. It was love at first sight. We were told he was a Heinz 57 but he did have the look of a Boxer. I did lots of research on how to train him and eventually started going to obedience and agility class every week. He grew rapidly! The trainer was brilliant and I knew it was us that needed traing rather than Bruno. He was hard work but she kept telling us that he would calm down by 18 months. We had him done at 6 months as requested by the charity and did the class for a year. It was the trainer who told us he was a Boxer/Mastiff cross! Thanks to her he is now a lovely dog. He does push it sometimes and can  bully when he wants something. He will do anything for a biscuit which made him very easy to train. Our trainer runs a kennel too which we use from time to time. I spoke to her about adopting another dog and she agreed it would work. She rescues dogs too and along came Frank. She had saved him and two others when she dame upon a French man drowning a litter. She homed two. As is her way she went to check on Frank and found he had a broken tail. The short story is he came home with her. He was 3 months old! He is a Teckel/Yorkie cross. She kept him a few weeks to be sure there were no problems with his behaviour and socialised him with big dogs. He was 4 months when he came home and right now Bruno is next to me on the sofa with Frank asleep on his back! Bruno is 47kgs and Frank is 5kgs and they are devoted to each other. I adore them both!
My snowy bengal cat Suki copes with them and happily lives in the house. My brown spotted bengal Lola lives outside as does my adopted cat Humbug. They now have an outdoor house where they eat and can sleep if they want. Humbug mostly lives with the chickens and Lola roams the fields mostly sleeping in a barn. They are great mousers!
The dogs and cats have a lovely life here with loads of space away from roads. I have to keep away from adverts for other animals as I know I could end up with more that I could cope with!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

My fledgling orchard

This is at the back of the house. The big tree is an old French golden delicious tree. When we bought the place it was overgrown and laced with brambles. It took a couple of years of pruning which was nerve racking for a townie. I looked up what to do! Last year it fruited well and by the amount of blossom on it will do so again this year. Very close to it is a pear tree just coming into blossom. I have planted two plums, Gala apple, four different pears, Bramley apple and quince. Along with the strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants it keeps us in jam and bottled fruit until the next harvest. I also have a big old Damson tree that gives me loads of jam. At the front of the house is a large Elder so I make Elder flower cordial. Along with the rosehip syrup I make this gives us all the soft drinks we need.
All our neighbours are dairy farmers one of whom we are very friendly with. We buy our wood and straw from him. I plan, at some stage to ask to buy milk direct from him. I would like to make some cheese. This will have to wait until my kitchen is finished though so is one for the future.
When this was a fully working farm, the family planted a variety of apple trees and made Calvados. When we bought this place they gave us a bottle of the Calvados that had been made here. Once a year the remaining family turn up to see what we have done. Last summer the old girl, who had come here as a young bride, visited to see our Gite. She remembered milking cows in the barn that is now our Gite and loved what we had done. Since the family sold the farm there were two other owners before us but nothing was done to improve things. She was so happy to see the place being cared for. She died shortly after that last visit and I think she had wanted to say goodbye to the place she had loved. Relatives came from all over France and came here to see the place once more. There were cousins who had stayed over summers. It was obviously a happy place despite the sad times, not least of all two world wars. We are still in touch with family who live locally and they will no doubt appear again in the summer.
There are times when I really struggle with living here. I try to think of the family who built this and how hard it was for them. It helps keep things in perspective.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Ditching chemicals

for me this is a big one. I have long felt it is not good to consume or cover ourselves with chemicals. The problem was it felt like I would be going back to the dark ages. I started googling different things and was amazed at what I found. The biggest surprise was that most of the ideas came from Americans. I had not thought of them being very green. I bought a book, the naturally clean house, and so it began. It took some time to gather what I needed and I still have a long way to go. The first thing I changed was no more bubble bath, something I was addicted to. Then I stopped using the dishwasher. Chemicals and expense. Then fabric softener went along with the tumble dryer. If I cannot dry things outside it goes in front of the Esse. I have what I need to make cleaners but haven't got around to it yet.
Next came the biggest revolution of all....Eileen54 mentioned 'no poo'. Back to google and I read all about going without hair products. I washed my hair every other day and had it coloured every five weeks. What a lot of chemicals. I am now over two weeks with no shampoo. I have also done my first rinse with black walnut hull powder to cover the grey. I plan to wash my hair with water and rinse with the walnut powder twice a week. Watch this space.
Then I found a great to make natural beauty products. She also has a section about colouring hair. I have what I need now to make moisturiser, foundation powder and lip colour. I just need a quiet day to try making it all.
The final thing so far is soap. The liquid soap has gone as have the makeup remover wipes. I currently use dove soap to remove makeup and wash me but will swap to castille soap asap. I have bought ceramic soap dishes and put bars of soap by all sinks. A fraction of the cost and no chemicals. With castille soap I can remelt the ends to make new bars.
There are many more things I can do and I will get there. It suits my ethos not to line the pockets of big corporations, saves money and is better for the environment....a bit of card and paper rather than a plastic bottle.
So that is where I am now. I will update as I start new things.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

It is THAT time of forms

...and the air is blue. P is brilliant and deals with all this stuff. From the moment we arrived here we have done things properly and above board. There are many expats who operate under the radar but we cannot. Due to our business we are on a special regime, all managed online and we declare every quarter what we have earned and pay 26 per cent in tax. On top of this we fill in an annual form to declare our private pensions and the rental income from our English house. The thing is the form does not allow for the fact we pay the tax on our rental in England. So every year we get a big tax demand. We then gather all the paperwork and visit our tax office. We always see the same lady who brings out a dusty box labelled 'anglais' and does a lot of sighing. I do feel for her but we conduct the interview in French as she does not speak a word of English. She always says they are in the wrong then spends ages looking at the computer and writing on bits of paper. Eventually she arrives at a number and somehow we always have a hefty bill, despite what they pay back. Last year we had a large refund, then this year we had to pay it all back. We were told we would get two letters, one in March and one in June with a final date for payment. A week later we had a letter to say we were due another large refund. The March letter never arrived. Now we have a section that asks about rental property but we think it is just for French property. It means another trip to the tax office!
The lady will look heavenward when she sees us and will drag her dusty box from the depths of the cupboard and settle down to sort us out. Whatever she tells us will be incorrect a week later and yet again we will leave feeling she has no idea what she is doing. We will wait for the demand but not be surprised if it never arrives. We will continue to put money away each month to pay our tax and if a refund comes we put it away too against another demand. So we have a fund to cover our tax incase it should be asked for. Above all we will make sure we are at the office well before 12 as France stops for lunch!

The geese arrive

These are my pair of White geese on our pond. This area is fenced in with the duck den and goose hall on the left. I will add more pictures when the rain allows me outside. The geese are my newest addition. In the past I was frightened of geese thinking them aggressive. The gander is very protective of his mate, especially when she is laying her egg but I have picked him up. It would seem they are ok with their carer! The ducks were all round the feeders when I took this picture so I will ensure they are in the next picture.
The goose eggs are lovely, big white ones. I had been leaving her eggs in the nest in the hope she would sit but not so far. She is not yet a year old so maybe she is too young to go broody.
I have removed the duck eggs too as they had been there some time and I didn't want to risk bad eggs. They are also showing no sign of broodiness. In the past I have hatched ducklings with an incubator but took the decision last year to leave it to nature. It was so lovely having ducklings around. Some I helped to hatch and taught them to swim in the kitchen sink. They progressed to a paddling pool before going to the pond. They were Rouen ducks, my favourite. Sadly, I went through a very depressed stage and was desperate to go back to England so gave away all my ducks. I regret it immensely and keep looking for more Rouen ducks. I have Alylesbury ducks now and two Mallards. I could do with another Drake really as I have one to six girls. The search continues.
The ducks are a pleasure to watch but I am amazed the species continues as they are so careless with their young. The eggs are never hidden either. Mrs goose covers her eggs with straw before leaving the house.
So I hope to get some fluffy tiddlers this year but do think it likely.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

So what about self sufficiency?

First you must understand that being a former townie I am on a steep learning curve! I have always made my own cakes as it saved money when the children were young. A never ending supply of other  kids coming to tea! I did a fair amount of cooking from scratch too although have to confess to the use of chicken nuggets and potato waffles. I made biscuits and sweets too. At this point I should point out I am vegetarian.
So we landed in France with little knowledge of the language and a great deal less money. No pre prepared stuff here!
Fairly early on I bought four hens and a cockeral, Buff Orpingtons because they cannot fly and are docile. I knew nothing about keeping chickens but all information can be found by google. Today I have three cockerals and nine hens. I still have one of my original girls. Each year we have had chicks which has kept the flock going. So far this year none of the girls looks broody so I may get some more hens from the market. I have been thinking for a while of not replacing theboys when they exit and just stay with hybrid market hens that lay an egg each day and never go broody. I have had problems with foxes and it is heartbreaking. I no longer give the chickens names. They are for eggs only of course. I also now have ducks and geese, again just for eggs. I am happy handling them all and love having them roaming the garden.
I planted fruit trees to add to what was already here....apples, pears, cherries, plums, damson and quince. I have also put in a Bramley apple tree which has yet to fruit.
I have a veg patch with raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants. This year I have planted main crop potatoes, red onions, peas, butternut squash, courgette, cabbage and cauliflower. I plan to increase this each year. I am very keen to establish herbs.
Since moving here I have not bought bought a jar of jam. Every Autumn I make jam, jelly and bottle fruit.
I cheat with a machine but I make the bread for us. We do buy baguettes though which I eventually want to make.
I am currently on a mission to have only clean food. Nothing made in a big factory. I am largely succeeding. Everything here is seasonal which helps but I want to grow more of my own. Not just for the health benefits but it reduces my weekly shop.
So all in all I have come a long way really but I am very aware I have more to do. I care very much about our planet and want to do my bit in my corner. It is very much easier to lead a simple life here living among dairy farmers.

Friday, 24 April 2015

First stage of becoming green

As I have said, when we bought this property it was liveable but derelict. Once we had the staircase in and knocked down the downstairs bedroom walls we put in a heat exchanger. This provides our hot  water via solar tubes. We put the tank under the stairs and planned to build a cloakroom around it       ( this we have now done). There is a small electric pump to move the water around. This works very well and has an immersion heater for when it has been cloudy all day. The solar tubes give us loads of hot water virtually free! At the same time we installed a wood burning Esse into the enormous fireplace it what is now the kitchen. It took a while to get used to this but now I would hate to use a conventional oven. There was an enclosed fireplace it what was the salle de vie but is now a lounge/ diner. We removed the pink concrete case and found a lovely granite fireplace beneath. We have a face carved into the stone on one side. We built a stone plinth, topped it with flagstones and installed an efficient cast iron wood burner. The oven and the fire are our only heat. With the downstairs still un insulated it gets very cold in winter.
Sadly we are not self sufficient for wood so buy it from a neighbor farmer. It feels expensive but is far cheaper than our fuel bills for our modern house in the UK.
We then looked at the sanitation. The single toilet emptied into a concrete tank at the back of the house that our farmer neighbour emptied to fertilise his land! Everything else dumped in the field below us. I often saw my bubble bath floating in the breeze! This could not continue so we started our search. We found a thing called a micro station that we really wanted so went to talk to our maire. He advised us to install it straight away as he approved of the system and was currently the inspector of the fosse septic. We had to use a firm in the village and had to go with the brand they wanted. This was not a problem for us. Our garden looked like the somme for a week! Whilst the digger was on site they dug me a pond! Our microstation  needs no chemicals and works from natural bacteria being pumped through three very big chambers. What comes out of the end is clean water that is piped into a nearby stream. It is currently emptied about every three years but will need doing more often when the gites are all occupied. We now have to get a certificate for official emptying and another for official disposal that the contractor gets. This has to be kept on file for our next inspection! The French love paperwork.
So that was the beginning of becoming green, done our first year here in 2010.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Ooh errr

totally new to this idea! Have always been a fan of paper but in line with my new green image I need to save a few trees! Please bear with me as I get used to how this works.
So, who am I? A middle aged women with middle aged spread, grandmother of three, mother of three and married to the man I met when I was sixteen! Something to celebrate do you not think?
I qualified as an SRN in 1978, the same year I married. I took early retirement at the age of 50 and moved to Normandy in France. And there the adventure began!
I was a townie with all mod cons. Two pedigree cats and a large disposable income. We bought an almost derelict farm built in 1832 in 2007. A main house and a collection of barns, big and small. With this came an acre of land. Along with waist high weeds, brambles and ivy.
We did a bit on our house, converted the upstairs hay loft into two bedrooms and bathrooms and putting in a staircase. We formed the kitchen from three bedrooms and removed the kitchen from the lounge. We have a wealth of big oak beams which I love. We removed the downstairs bathroom that will one day be a study come craft room. Then the French government decided early retiree expats were not allowed access to the health system. So phase two began. We had to create a business and pay enough tax to get cover. After a lot of work, money and angst last year we launched Gite number one. It opened in May and we had fourteen weeks booked! The Gite is a small ( but beautifully formed) one bedroomed place for couples ( and up to two dogs). This is one end of a large cow barn and milking parlour. This year we have 17 weeks booked. The rest of the barn is well on the way to becoming two more small Gites. Our business is born!
The other side of this is how much I have changed! I will talk about this in later blogs.
I hope this will be of interest to someone. There are so many blogs around now. I will sort out some pictures too if I can work out how.