31 August 2014

Celebrity Travel Experiences

Well, I’m definitely not a celebrity but I do read what other people do for holidays and what they think. I’ve always wanted to do this, so here goes.........

What’s Your Next Trip?
Probably London for a reunion with my London based pals or with ex work colleagues. These ‘reunions’ have been going on for over twenty years so it’s nice to keep them going. It’s always nice going back to London where I worked for over twenty years. There’s always a buzz and some of the buildings which have sprung up since my last visit are amazing.

Just as I remember it
Most Memorable Travel Destination?
The Bahamas without a doubt. It was a paid for holiday by my company which made it even more memorable. The hotel was amazing and one of the trips laid on was to a true deserted island where we were left for the day (with food and drink). I just remember the palm trees leaning out over the beach like you see in brochures and films and the clarity of the water was incredible.  I also remember being told to negotiate when buying anything from the local vendors  and when I tried I was told to ‘**** off honky *******’ which was memorable.

Anywhere Else You Remember?
I also went to the Big Island of Hawaii which again was stunning.

What Was It Like?
Very exotic but not far from the luxury hotel was a small town which could have been anywhere with people going about their everyday business.

Recommend Three Things to Do There
Definitely try and swim with turtles in the sea. They are beautiful, graceful and peaceful creatures. Go on a trip to the volacanoes where unless you are very unlucky, you will be able to get quite close to running molten lava, an astonishing sight, and try and do some fishing if you are in to that sort of thing as the variety and colours of the fish is incredible.

Your Earliest Childhood Travel Memory
We didn’t have much money as a family when I was young but my dad was a train driver so got free train travel for the whole family and we used to get the train from Glasgow down to Margate on the south coast of England. I must have been eight or nine years old.

Stunning Venice
Does Travel Inspire You?
It can and should do. Most of my travel was on business and the old cliché of being in places which you cannot recall are absolutely true. I’ve been to cities where it was airport, hotel, business meeting (in the hotel), back to the airport and home. I still have no idea where I was! But travelling to places like Paris and especially Venice is truly inspiring. The art and history in Paris cannot fail to inspire you whilst being in Venice, despite the crowds is like nothing else on earth.

Ideal Travel Companion?
Now, I’m afraid I would probably say my iPad but when I was holidaying every year, there was nothing better than going away with a group of friends and family. I still remember groups of ten or so all sitting around a table in a Greek taverna, spending hours over a dinner of local specialities.

Where Do You Feel Most At Home?
At home in our villa in France. It’s like a holiday every day now I’m retired. We can see the Med, overlook a huge valley and we have skiing only thirty minutes away. The scenery is stunning, the local villages and restaurants are wonderful and it’s simply paradise.

What Was Your Worst Trip?
I cannot honestly recall a ‘worst trip’ although when we went as a family on our honeymoon (I re-married late) the plane left Nice 26 hours late. We were put up overnight in an airport hotel which was truly awful and when we eventually arrived in Florida at midnight, there was no hire car waiting for us and after managing to get someone come out and get us a car, we were stopped at the first bridge we tried to cross and a toll of $1 was demanded and the lady would not let us cross unless I filled in reams of forms.

Best Hotel?

I think the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo which most people can only dream of going to. It was a business trip when I was a fledgling salesman and I’d been put up in the old Lowes Hotel for a week but they became overbooked and bizarrely they moved me to the Hotel de Paris. The room was like something out of a French palace and the breakfast delivered to the room was to die for.

Incidentally, on that trip when I arrived at Nice airport and had to get to Monaco, there were two options, taxi and helicopter. I thought that the company would baulk at a helicopter fare so endured a one hour taxi trip only to find out that the fares for both modes of travel were the same. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Most Disappointing Travel Experience?
Can I mention two? The first was another business reward trip for myself and my wife to Vail in Colorado for a luxury skiing/spa trip. When I got to the airport I realised my passport was missing and the trip was off. I got real grief from my wife but nothing like the amount of flak I got from my directors who had paid a fortune for the holiday.

On another reward trip, where previous years they had gone on Kenyan Safaris or to Bali, this trip was a cruise around the Med starting from Nice! The boat, despite being fabulous, called at all  our local ports and the road based days out were to all the places we knew well.

What Do You Never Travel Without?

I’m afraid it’s my iPad. It does everything. I have my eBooks, my stored articles which I’ve still to read and given Wifi, I can keep in touch with the family and maybe just as importantly, my stockbroker.

29 August 2014

It's A Dog's Life

Well, I’ve been here in this new house for about 3 weeks now and boy, are things different. For a start, there’s two furry things which I think are called ‘cats’ and they don’t half bully me but now I’m learning how to growl, they’re backing off. All I’ve got to do now is chase them in a direction which means they have to choose between my fangs and the pool and I’m made. I guess they’ll choose the pool and I can’t wait for that cause whilst my hair gets wet and I don’t mind it too much, they’ve got fur and I’ve heard that they don’t like it when their fur gets wet. We’ll see.

And then there’s the food. In my last place I used to try and find scraps and indeed visit the nearby restaurant where sympathetic diners would throw me some lamb bones but now, I’m fed these biscuit things. The cats get biscuit things as well and boy they must be as bored as me. I mean every time the trunk is opened and I know it’s feeding time, all I get is a tiny portion of croquettes I think they’re called. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have them than nothing – but for every meal! Sometimes I get thrown a small piece of meat and it’s so good I feel like my taste buds are bursting. And whilst I gobble up my dinner in seconds, the cats merely nibble at theirs and then wander off. I’ve tried helping them out but my master doesn’t like me eating the cats’ food and yet, if for any reason I leave some of mine, the cats are almost encouraged to eat it which I think is very unfair.

And I’ve also had a smack or two. In my last place I could wee anywhere but my new master doesn’t seem to like me doing ‘my business’ in his bedroom. Indeed, last week he ran from the room into the toilet making strange noises and when he came back a funny colour, he gave me a whack on my nose and said something about not doing my business on his ‘shagpile’ whatever that is. 

But whilst he is quite strict with me; no licking on the face, no jumping up, sitting down when he tells me etc, he does love me. I’ve heard him tell people on this thing that rings and he talks into it that I am adorable. When I sit on his lap at his computer thing, he’s got a picture of a big black dog which I think was called ‘Shadow’ and I guess that must’ve been his last dog and it must’ve been a good dog cause he looks me in the eyes and says that if I turn out to be half the dog Shadow was that’ll do him just fine. So, I’m trying to learn everything he tells me as quickly as I can but I am still a puppy and sometimes I get so excited that I just have to jump up, or lick someone’s face or even do a wee on the carpet.

I think though that my master was very proud of me last week. We went down to a river and when he paddled across to the other side, I felt I just had to jump in and try and join him but it was strange because as soon as I hit the water and despite doing my doggie paddle as fast as I could I was carried away and all I could see was my master running after me as I headed for a very deep pool. Thankfully, he managed to grab my collar and drag me out but he said something like ‘drowned rat’ and ‘Shadow never did that’ so I don’t know if that was a good idea of mine or not. Anyway, I didn’t get a smack so I must’ve been a brave doggie.

But I don’t think I was a brave doggie when I got ticked off during my first week in my new house. I mean, I’m taken away from my mummy and my sister at our farm in the mountains. My name is changed from Blackie, which I thought was ok given I’m black, to a poncy name like Elsa which is supposedly the name of a lion in a film my mistress cries at a lot. I’m not allowed to chew things any more and so when I grabbed this Birkenstock thing and chewed it up, my mistress wasn’t at all happy.

But, on the whole, things are a lot better here but time will tell. I’ll provide an update when things have settled down a bit. I can’t wait to tell you about chasing the cats into the pool.

17 July 2013

Golf and Girls and Eating Sandwiches in the Car Park

Muirfield Clubhouse
There’s a lot of debate going on at the moment about Muirfield Golf Club or, as it rather grandly pronounces itself, ‘The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’. It is, of course this week, the stage of the British Open Golf tournament, or again, just as grandly titled, as we invented the game, The Open. The web site says that a single round of golf in 2012 was £195 ! Let me say that again - £195! What the cost is this year when it’s hosting The Open is anybody’s guess.

The debate is over its treatment of women, and in particular, women golfers. But before the facts which may appal the more enlightened among us, let me tell you about the one and only time I played golf at Muirfield.

It was back in the early eighties and I’d not long joined IBM in Glasgow. One day the office was virtually empty and when I asked the secretary where everybody was, she replied, ‘Oh they’ve all gone off to play golf at Muirfield.’  
That day was a nightmare with every telephone enquiry coming in my direction and I vowed that it would never happen again. I got myself a set of golf clubs and a trolly and practised in the local park and the next time there was a golf outing to Muirfield, I was up for it.

Now somebody really should have warned me that Muirfield is no place for the beginner. I lost several balls, ended up in bunkers so deep, it was difficult to see daylight and the rough was so rough, I even lost my trolly when I left it to go and look for yet another lost ball.
One of the nicer parts of the course

All in all, it was a rather difficult day but I had a nice shower, changed into the mandatory jacket and tie and settled down for a nice post-game dinner.

I had just started to eat when I noticed that the only girl who had come along to play (and she was a very good player) was not in the dining room. From memory her name was Evelyn and when I asked where she was, I was told, ‘eating her sandwiches in the car park.’

I thought this was a joke but when I enquired further, I was informed that whilst ladies could play at Muirfield, there were no facilities for them and they were expressly forbidden from entering the bars or the clubhouse. Poor Evelyn couldn’t even have a shower and yes, she was sitting in her car in the car park, eating her sandwiches.

Now, those golfers among us will know about Augusta National Golf Club in the US where the club's exclusive membership policies have drawn criticism, particularly its refusal to admit black members until 1990, a former policy requiring all caddies to be black and its refusal to allow women to join. In August 2012, it admitted its first two female members, Condoleezza Rice (former US Secretary of State) and Darla Moore (a banker and philanthropist). 

Now, Augusta is about as conservative an organisation as you’ll find on this planet but Muirfield beats it. It still does not admit lady members and despite scouring their web site, the only reference I could find to female players is that, ‘at the west end of the clubhouse near the entrance gates is a small, ladies' Locker Room’. It does not state that ladies will NOT be admitted to the Clubhouse.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s Prime Minister by any other name, will not be attending The Open castigating the all-male clubhouse environment. Salmond, who is a keen golf fan, told the BBC: "I just think it's indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that's open to all.’

So this week as Muirfield hosts the most prestigious golf tournament in the world, they will accept thousands of pounds from female spectators. They will be allowed to spend even more money in the tents and temporary eating establishments but after The Open ends and Muirfield returns to ‘normal’, the women will have to resume their normal place – in the car park eating their sandwiches.

3 July 2013

Strimming is Good for You

Actually, it’s not strimming, it’s called débroussailleusing which is quite a mouthful.

With foot high grass growing through thick brambles and bushes galore, a normal strimmer just wouldn’t be up to the job, so a bushcutter, which is the English term for the tool, is called for. At £650, it’s not a cheap piece of equipment but it’s the only way to do the job. Yes, I could get in local labour but they would probably charge about £1,000 a time and therefore it’s good financial sense for me to do it and, as I’ve recently found, it’s good exercise too.

Take this morning. I was up at 4am as usual and sat on the sofa for an hour or so reading the papers on-line. I went back to bed but when I woke at 8am my back was killing me. It’s the sofa – I’m sure it is. It’s too wide to sit on comfortably and so when I had had breakfast I looked forlornly at the terraces and decided that today would be a no-bushcutting day. My back was just too sore. But, an hour later my back eased up a bit and I decided to go for it.

Dressed in long, thick jeans, a full sleeved sweater, long, woollen socks, wellingtons, a smog mask and a tea towel wrapped around my face, it was not clothing for 25 degrees and full sun. Then I had to add the full body harness, a hard hat with face guard and I was ready to bushcut.

Bushcutting, I have to say, is not for the faint-hearted.  The device weighs 8.5 kilos (hence the body harness) and if that doesn’t sound heavy, try humping one around for an hour at a time on ground frequently sloping at 45 degrees. Then there’s the stones, thorns and bits of wood it throws up, hence the hard hat and face guard.

But, and here’s the thing, swinging it around as it cuts is exactly the same exercise a doctor told me to do years ago when my back first started acting up. ‘You need to stand with your legs apart and swing your arms around, swivelling at the waist’, he said.
The Metal Blade

And so now as the thorns fly and the stones thrown up by the metal blade try to cut my legs in two, I swing away thinking I’m saving a fortune not only on professional gardeners but also on the osteopath all my mates go to!  

1 July 2013

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

As readers of my blog will know, Tan and Angie have departed, and before the new tenants move in, I’ve been doing up the house. Like the ‘Hotel Inspector’ on TV, I have an unwavering belief that my tenants should move into a perfect dwelling and should have absolutely no cause for complaint.

Typical French Water Heater
Wandering down into the cave for the first time in over a year (a cave is a cellar by any other name) I noticed that the hot water boiler had sprung a leak and decided on the spot that a new one was required. A quick review of the internet, a visit to the DIY store and I was dragging a brand new Ballon Chaud L’eau home in my trailer.

Now, whilst I am happy to try most DIY tasks, fitting a new hot water boiler looked somewhat challenging but with a bag full of tools and pipe connections, instructions in French and a confident, but delusional belief in my own abilities, I set about removing the old boiler and fitting the new.

Actually, fitting the new boiler was simplicity itsself compared to removing the old one which had obviously had the house built around it. It weighed so much, even when empty of water that the only way it could be ‘removed’ was to topple it (it’s about 6 feet tall) and then roll it into a corner of the cave.

New boiler fitted, all water and electrical connections made, I went up into the house and switched the power and water back on then rushed back downstairs to the cave to admire my work. I had asked Guy who was assisting me to cry out if anything looked amiss and he hadn't. As I descended the stairs I felt triumphant.

Guy hadn't cried out because he was agog at the fact that water was squirting everywhere and there was a serious ‘burning’ smell with the occasional spark lighting up the gloomy cellar. Eventually snapping out of his hypnotic state, he suggested in a rather understated way that something wasn’t quite right, so everything was switched off again and a rather reluctant call to my friendly plumber/electrician was made. I feared the worst.

‘Merde’ was his first reaction. ‘Merde, merde’ was his second reaction. I got the distinct impression not all was well. A couple of hundred euros later, everything was fixed and apart from the old boiler still lying in the corner, the cave now looks like a habitable room once more rather than a downstairs swimming pool! A new boiler ? It seemed like a good idea at the time!

The next job was the oven. I’d told Angie when she was leaving to forget about cleaning it as I was an
‘expert’ at removing oven doors and cleaning the glass. I was – I’d already taken it off several months previously to give it a good clean but this time not everything went to plan. After a litre of Mr Muscle and several hours of cleaning the glass both internally and externally, I was refitting it when it slipped and shattered on the stone kitchen tiles!

I was amazed at my reaction – no swearing, not even a 'Merde'! It was probably stunned shock and a realisation that I’d just dropped a couple of hundred euros, but it was worse than that, I couldn’t get a new door/glass replacement anywhere so had to hot-foot it down to the local electrical shop and buy a brand new oven.

Oven fitted, I relaxed and reflected that cleaning that glass had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Then I spotted a couple selling a brand new American fridge/freezer on the internet. The existing fridge/freezer in ‘Angie’s’ house was working fine but at 20 years old, it was only a matter of time before it failed and being an advocate of pre-planning rather than post-failure panic, I contacted the vendors to enquire about the fridge.

Now this was a brand new fridge, not even unwrapped and being sold for half price. I couldn’t resist it but still put in a cheeky lower offer by e-mail.

The lady who was selling it told me my offer was too low but a day later called to say I could have it after all. She’d seen my blog, had obviously warmed to some of my ‘themes’ and was happy with my ridiculously low offer.

Standard Size ?
She was selling the fridge because after buying it she realised it would not fit into their village house which was being renovated. ‘Her loss, my gain’. I thought, ‘How can people be so stupid as to buy a major kitchen appliance and not measure the available space’.

I dragged the 116 kilo device back home in the trailer, eventually got a couple of my mates to move it into position and found ………………… that it wouldn’t fit! When did kitchen appliances stop being a standard size ?

I’ve now spent the last 2 weeks dismantling half the kitchen to get the fridge to fit! Buying that fridge had seemed like a good idea at the time!   

28 June 2013

A Tale of Two Parties

It’s been a social marathon over the last few weeks. After several months of total social isolation (because of the weather I should add, not because I’ve suddenly become unpopular), the parties are now coming thick and fast, and from all directions.

Last weekend was a case in point. After the party renowned for it’s coffee (see previous blog), there were a few days grace before it started again – with a vengeance.

First was a ‘going away do’ for Vence’s local Anglican Rector. Father Ken Letts has been doing the business in St Hugh’s for the last 23 years and is now heading back to his native Australia. Unfortunately, just as he announced his departure, his wife became seriously ill and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed for her recovery nevertheless, Father Ken was in attendance at a lunch held in his honour in Les Templiers, a rather up-market restaurant in Vence. 
Les Templiers Terrace 

Rather hung over from a party the previous evening, with the location and hosts unrecollectable, I turned up at Les Templiers looking well brushed up. It always amazes me that when I look at myself in the mirror on the morning after a party, I would immediately, and without argument, condemn myself to a morgue, but after 30 minutes under a razor and a hot shower, boy, do I look good – which is a relative term, obviously.

As soon as I’d entered the restaurant, a glass of champers was thrust into my hand and the booze never stopped from that moment on. For a church ‘do’, it was amazing.  A couple I know (Nigel and Helen, who run a wine business in the area), had obviously supplied the drinks and given the price I’d paid, they’d probably supplied it at cost. It never stopped and they had to literally drag me away from the rosé champagne to sit down for lunch.

Now, this might be a godly congregation with an average age of well over 70, but it seems that all religious thoughts go out of the window when the booze flows and a youngster like me is in attendance! I hadn’t even made it to the table before a pair of hands were clasping my buttocks. I didn’t look round in order to spare the miscreant embarrassment (I know who she was) but thoughts of inappropriate rampant sexist behaviour briefly crossed my mind before I thought ’what the hell’ and let her get on with it.

Extricating my bum from this lady’s grasp, I sat down, and as widely rumoured on the terrace, I was to be seated next to a churchy lady, whose name shall not be mentioned to spare her any embarrassment.

Now Andrea is a lovely lady and it appears that my faux pas with her had obviously spread throughout the congregation and the jokers had decided to seat us together to try and ‘get things moving’. For those not in the know, a few weeks previously  I had sent my wife a rather risqué e-mail, actually it was downright horny, but I had actually sent it to the wrong person on my contact list and it arrived at Andrea’s inbox!

To say I was horrified is a complete understatement but Andrea was very understanding and was very gracious in asking if I had any more e-mails of a similar nature!

And so lunch continued, the booze flowed relentlessly and eulogies galore were rightly addressed to Father Ken. Finally, after a delicious lunch we went back outside to finish the champers which was still available and it was there that I was ‘accosted’ again. ‘If only I was 40 years younger’ was whispered into my ear by a lady who then gave me 200 cigarettes – a bribe? An inducement?    

Now, at this juncture, I would like to point out that my wife is very understanding in these matters, recognising that ‘the blue rinse brigade’ need a sort of outlet for their sexual frustrations and she seems to regard it as a service to the church to offer me up as some sort of ritual sacrifice. Anyway, I got my bum felt, complete attention from Andrea, a nice compliment and 200 cigarettes, so I’m not complaining.  
The Blue Rinse Brigade

The lunch finished about 5.30pm, we went home and whilst J had a nap (she calls them ‘power’ naps !!) I went straight next door to a party being held by our Swedish neighbours.

Matz was 40 and had invited 30+ guests from Sweden and had invited me and J on the basis that it would be better to invite us than have us complain about the noise!

Now I don’t wish to sound sexist, but if ever any of my male readers get invited to a Swedish party – GO! The women, all of them, young and old alike were utterly stunning. Some were so stunningly beautiful that it was difficult to look at them when they were talking to you. Guys will know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, the food was amazing, champers flowed (again) and the host had flown in an apparently popular Swedish rock band to play for his guests.

As I sat down to dinner and a archetypal Swedish blonde insisted on talking to me with her face inches from mine (quite disconcerting actually) and I was telling her about the fact that living in France would be much better without the French and as she was questioning my ‘neighbourliness’, the police arrived having been called by an irate French neighbour, promptly told the band to pack up, fined the host Matz for making too much noise and that was that!  

I think I’ll stick to church parties in the future!

5 June 2013

And the Coffee Was Crap .......

The Civet
Actually, the coffee was shit but as I now post my blog on some august sites and they would not allow language such as I have just used in the title, we’ll stick to 'crap' for the time being.

Now normally we’d be in the middle of the BBQ season by now but the weather down here has been so bad that last Saturday (1st June) was our first of the year. Inevitably, as we sat gorging on burgers, prawns and merguez sausages and drinking lashings of champagne and rosé, the rain came down, but luckily we were sat under a canopy of oak trees so we stayed quite dry.

But as the weather is finally changing for the better and just like London buses, the invitations are now coming in thick and fast (it’s difficult being so popular !) and so tonight we were invited down to the house of a couple we’ve met a couple of times. It wasn’t a BBQ but a balcony soirée in a domaine just off the main road along the coast.

For the uninitiated, a domaine is a guarded commune where there are gates, guards, lifts, garages and horrendously expensive service charges and although inside, the apartment was very nice, from the outside it was a building the UK authorities would have pulled down years ago.

When you travel along the main coastal motorway (A8) from the west towards Nice, you get to an arched bridge which crosses the autoroute. If people could stop at this point they would as the bridge majestically frames Nice, the famous bay, the bright blue sea and encapsulates the Cȏte d’Azur in a single, stunning image. 

However, as you pass under this bridge heading towards the most popular part of the Provence coastline and are transfixed by the view, three large, very large blocks of flats come into focus. Huge, 13-floor anonymous, office-like buildings which in any UK town would be given over to asylum seekers, homeless 16 year olds with three kids or drug addicts, in fact anybody who just wants a roof over their head and isn't worried about the architecture. The only thing which differentiates these housing blocks from those in the UK are the matching sun shades on each balcony and the grounds which are immaculate, nevertheless, the buildings are a blot on the landscape and that’s not just my view, but also the view of the host (Steen) who hated his apartment from the outside but loved the inside.

As soon as we arrived I could tell we were in Scandinavian company. The host, after all is Swedish and all the guests I introduced myself to were from Sweden, Norway or Denmark…….. and they were all old. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a ‘do’ where I’ve been the youngest, but here, I was the youngest almost by a generation. OK, Julie is a few years younger than me but quite a few of the guests thought we were the host’s kids !! Embarrassing ? Oui !

Anyway, it turned out a pleasant evening with the various guests asking me what school I went to, what sort of music I listened to and whether I was old enough to be demolishing the bottle of rosé I was getting stuck into.

Of course, being xenophobic and stereotypical about Scandinavian fish eaters, I was waiting for the pickled herring and smoked eel to be brought out but I was pleasantly surprised by the normal nibbles of cheese, bread, saucisson, humous etc. It was all very nice, especially when the hot samosas, spring rolls and prawn balls arrived.

And then, after a couple of hours or so, the guests started to leave - one by one, or two by two as most were couples. Then J wanted to go. I’m certain she was looking at her watch and was working out that if we left at that point we’d get into the restaurants in Vence for a slap-up meal but I needed a coffee and as if by magic, the coffee cups appeared – result !

Our hostess, Wendy, then declared that what she was about to serve was the world’s most expensive coffee. Working on the basis that she’d obviously been shopping in our local Gallerie Lafayette, which only the super rich use for their weekly food shopping, I looked forward to a Carte Noir Supreme or even a special Nescafé but no, this WAS the world’s most expensive coffee called Kopi Luwak. Ever heard of it ? No, neither had I.

‘OK Wendy, so what’s so special about Kopi Luwak then’, I asked.

‘It’s monkey shit’, she replied.

‘Nah’, said I.

‘No really, Kopi Luwak is made from coffee beans passed through the digestive system of an Indonesian animal, but it's more like a cat than a monkey.  The digested beans don't really get mixed with the animal’s excrement though, the animal processes the beans and excretes them whole, unscratched, and without dung. The animal is a palm civet, a dark brown tree-dwelling cat-like creature found throughout Southeast Asia. The scientific name is paradoxurus hermaphroditus.’

According to the Manila Coffee House, the palm civet just happens to like to ingest the ripest and reddest coffee beans, which also happen to be the ones best for brewing.  The cat eats the outer covering of the beans in the same way that is accomplished by de-pulping machines.  Something happens to the beans in the journey through the cat's intestines that gives it a flavor that is celebrated by coffee drinkers.   

‘Another cup Tom’ said our hostess.

‘No thanks Wendy’, I’ll stick to Carte Noir I said as I headed rapidly towards the loo.

21 April 2013

French ? Never, Never, Never

Well, Tan,Angie and the kids have moved out. They’ve been renting our next door house for 6 and a half years and it’s the end of an era.

It was back around November time when Tan sold his house in London and we started discussing him buying the house but unfortunately we couldn’t agree on the price and so they gave me notice that they would be moving. They found a house to buy about a mile from where we currently are and they finally moved on March 25th.

In an effort not to appear over keen to replace them with new tenants, I waited until they gave me the keys back and then put details of the house on AngloInfo, our local web site for people who want to buy things, rent things and look for tradesmen.

I was inundated with replies with several people showing interest and quite a few wanting to view. One guy even said he would be flying his wife over from London specifically to see the house – I’d put quite a few pictures of it on the website.

And then a young French couple phoned me. They hadn’t seen the advert on AngloInfo but had heard at the school gates that Tan and Angie were moving and so came round to view on the Saturday, only a few days after Tan and his family had moved out.

Now, I’d always said I would not rent, or even sell to French people. It might sound slightly, or even, overtly zenophobic but I’d heard that French people can be extremely difficult to deal with, indeed, there are numerous stories about their zeal to sue, make things difficult and generally cause trouble if there is the slightest problem, but this couple seemed nice, reasonable, and the fact that Delphine would look amazing in a bikini sunning herself by the pool, had absolutely no influence on my decision and so after a quick tour of the house they said it seemed to meet their expectations and would be in touch.. The following day, the Sunday, they re-appeared and after another tour of the house they said they would take it – it was ideal for their requirements.

I was, of course delighted. To rent the house only a few days after Tan and Angie had moved out was a real bonus and so we shook on the deal. Eric, the husband, then said, ‘real Frenchmen don’t shake hands on a deal, we look each other in the eyes’, and that’s what we did. Eric then requested that I move all the furniture out of the house as he wanted it completely empty. In response I said I would take the house off the market, do a few things to the house and would be pleased to welcome them next door.

Then I had the difficult job of calling prospective viewers and telling them the house had been rented, specifically the Glaswegian guy who had flown his wife in to view it on the Monday. It was not a nice call to make but he understood and was gracious in defeat.

Over the next week or so, I replaced the oven and even fitted a new hot water boiler (that’s another story), moved all the furniture out and renovated both bathrooms and tidied up the garden. The house was looking amazing if I say so myself.
And so in the week I was expecting Eric and Delphine to move in, I got a call from them saying they’d seen another house and had chosen that one and wouldn’t be moving in after all.

If I had been able to reach down the phone and grab them by the throat I would have done. In the end, I simply cut them off and refused to take their calls. I was spitting blood.

Now I know that circumstances change and they might have found a better, cheaper, more appropriate house, but to stand there and request that we look each other in the eyes as we shook on the deal, and then pull out knowing I would now have to re-advertise and had lost a month’s rent was beyond even my widely acknowledged levels of patience.

And so, sadly, my faith in human nature has been restored. I WILL NOT RENT TO FRENCH people. No way!

The lesson was that I should have taken a cheque as deposit but cheques can be easily cancelled and I would not have been in any position to reclaim the money so I am now re-advertising the house in the forlorn hope that the Glaswegian guy will renew his interest.  

C’east la vie and as I’ve said many times before, France would be a lovely place if it wasn’t for the French !

23 October 2012

Kenyan Kids - Julie's Latest Trip

You can read all about Julie's latest trip to Kenya in the Kenyan Kids website at the bottom of the 'News' section.This link should take you there - well, at least to the News section ...............


12 October 2012

Shadow - An Obituary

Shadow - in better days
I know that obituaries usually come out very soon after the death of someone but it’s only now, several weeks after Shadow’s death, that I can bring myself to write this tribute to him and for those of you who are wondering why I am writing a tribute to a dog, well Shadow touched the lives of everybody who came into contact with him and therefore I am neither embarrassed nor being over sentimental in penning this.

I arrived in France not long after Shadow had turned one. Julie had sent me a few pictures of this straggly mutt looking through the kitchen window so I knew that as well as taking some responsibility for a three year old girl and a five year old boy, I would also have a dog.

Until I turned up at the door, Shadow had been the alpha dog but as soon as I appeared he settled into a lesser role respecting my new position as head of the household. He instantly became my friend, showing me around the terraces where he buried his bones and the carcasses of rabbits he’d caught.
But he was a strange dog. He never chased after a ball and when we went to the river he had to be encouraged to take a swim.  First thing in the morning he would wander down to the road at the bottom of the terraces to see all his doggy pals and invariably be led astray by them, ripping open people’s bin bags and coming back proudly holding a stale baguette in his jaws.

If this was a minor problem, it was nothing compared to when we took in a stray husky which we called Harry. Harry immediately decided he was now the alpha male and took to sleeping stretched out on one of the sofas in the lounge, with Shadow copying him by lying in an identical pose on the other sofa, something Shadow had never done in his life before. Destruction then began with Harry ripping things apart, digging up plants in the garden and worse of all, leading Shadow three miles along the busy road into the village where they would run about in the traffic.

After several trips to the dog pound where the police would deposit ‘stray’ dogs, and many euros in fines later, Harry was deposited with a family down the coast and Shadow’s life returned to normal.

It was about three years ago, when Shadow was eleven that the symptoms of his illness first began to show. He became lethargic, never moving from the house except when he needed to ‘go, except when Tan and Angie had a party when he would wander over and enjoy the company of the kids who were playing. His appetite never dimmed but he started to lose hair, he got lesions on his nose and put on weight. The initial diagnosis by our local vet was an under-active thyroid and so Shadow was put on a liquid medication which had to be squirted down his throat three times a day, something which he detested.

A year later and with no improvement in his condition, we took Shadow to another vet where they diagnosed the incurable dog disease Lieshmaniosis. By this time, his back legs had started to shake as he walked around and more lesions had appeared on his joints. Despite this, he was still quite active although he liked nothing better than to lie in the sun inside our lounge.
He even loved the cats

The vet put Shadow on a medication called Allopurinol which is a human medicine used for the treatment of gout and he seemed to improve but as the time passed his legs became more and more infirm and so he was then given another treatment, this time to alleviate the arthritis which most large dogs eventually suffer from.

It was only six months ago when we took Shadow for his latest check-up. By this time, his lesions had gone and he was now quite active, returning to his daily routine of strolling down to see his pals. We were encouraged by this but always with the nagging knowledge that the Liesmaniosis, caused by the infection of sand flies,  was always present and could strike at any time.

It was when Julie was in Kenya earlier this year that Shadow suddenly went down hill. One day he was fine, the next, the Saturday, he could not move – his legs had gone. He simply laid in his favourite place in the lounge and did everything there – and I mean everything! All very distressing and looking into his eyes, I’m sure he felt he’d lost any semblance of dignity.

On the Sunday, he rallied and I carried him outside so he could ‘do his business’ in the grass and he actually walked around and then back into the house.

On the Monday morning when I awoke, he was in a bad way. I tried to make him as comfortable as possible but then he had what I can only describe as the doggy equivalent of someone having an epileptic fit. It was extremely distressing and I thought that he would not survive but once again he rallied – he seemed to know that Julie and Kitty were returning from Kenya that morning and he wanted to hang on.

As soon as I returned from the airport, it was clear to the family that Shadow’s time had come and we lifted him into the jeep for what we all knew would be his last journey. He used to love sitting in the back of the jeep knowing there was some adventure in the offing, but this time, his head was on the carpet with a resigned look in his eyes. Julie laid in the back with him and as we passed David and Sarah’s house where his friend Charlie lived, Julie said Shadow struggled to raise his head to look for his playmate.

The sadness in his eyes - Shadow was ill
At the vets the mood was sombre, even amongst those whose lives involve euthanising beloved pets every day of the week. They couldn’t have been more sympathetic.

Shadow was lifted into the surgery and the vet administered a strong anesthetic which apparently relieved him of his final breath within seconds, although a few minutes later his eyes were still looking at me. I’m sure I saw a tear in the eyes of the nurse although I can’t be sure as I was crying my eyes out at the time.

The vet asked if we wanted Shadow’s ashes but when we heard the alternative, his remains being scattered at sea, we chose that and left for a very sad journey home.

A week later, a letter of sympathy arrived from the vet. A nice touch.

We all miss you Shadow.  

9 October 2012

A Fishy Tale - Actually, Two Fishy Tales

I’ve been meaning to start my blog again, not on a daily basis as it’s too onerous but when I’ve got something important or interesting to say ….. so here goes…..

My friend, Pastor Pete (he is actually a retired vicar) and I are fishing buddies and a couple of weeks ago he took me to a restaurant where you sit on a terrace beside the river, have lunch and watch huge chub swimming no more than a couple of feet from the tables. As keen fishermen we salivated over the prospect of trying to catch some of these fish but it appeared that the only place in the river where they congregated was beside the restaurant.

Pete threw in some bread, as did quite a few of the other diners, but the chub just pushed it around and were not at all interested. I came to the conclusion that the fish were sick to the back gills (!!) of bread so I took a piece of my kidney cooked in red wine sauce, threw it in and it was like a piranha feeding frenzy – we had the solution – we had the bait!

Pete suggested we go back in a week or so, on a Monday when the restaurant is closed, and try this new bait but unfortunately I had guests (thanks Neil, Sophie et al) and had to refuse the invitation. I’ve still to find out how Pete and his son did that Monday. Watch this space. 

The real story for the blog though is a real mystery fishy tale.

My friends have a house about a mile away and in their drive there is a freshwater spring. In order to clear any obstructions which might cause the spring to overflow, a foot square inspection trap has been fitted and it was in this trap that they found a rather exotic looking fish a few months ago. Unfortunately, the fish was dead and I didn’t get to see it but a few weeks ago, Sarah said another, live fish was swimming about in the trap, so armed with a net and a large container, I was down there like a shot.

I caught the fish (not too difficult when it only has a foot square to swim in !) and was staggered. Now, I could probably recognize any fresh or saltwater fish you put in front of me but this fish amazed me. About 2 inches long, it was yellow, with dark spots and a blueish tinge. I had an idea what it was but my brain told me it couldn’t possibly be what I thought it was.

I took it home and after the water equalized, I let it go in my own fish pond. I then got onto the internet to do some research.

Very similar to the mystery fish
I looked at every possible fish which resembled the one I’d just caught and came to the conclusion that it was a cichlid, an aquarium warm water fish from the Rift Valley Lakes in Kenya, but why would a cichlid be swimming in a cold water spring? Where had it come from?

Sarah thought a passing bird might have dropped it in the trap as it flew past but apart from the fact about where a bird would get a cichlid there was the inescapable view that ok, maybe one bird might drop a fish into the trap, but two. It wasn’t possible.

I got onto Google Earth. Above Sarah’s house there is a chateau. Not a chateau with turrets as English people would think of, just a big fancy house, owned by a Lord Drayson – him of motor racing fame, not the guy who designs vacuum cleaners - he's Dyson !

In front of the house there appears to be a large ornamental lake and it occurred to me that Lord Drayson might actually keep exotic fish in it, and one, or two, might have escaped through a sluice or something, but warm water cichlids ?

I found a contact point on the internet for Sarah’s neighbour and sent him a nice e-mail explaining the situation, but when I read it back, it sounded like a stupid joke which maybe explains why I have not had a reply.

Anyway, the fish has not been seen since I put it into my pond. I don’t think it has died as it would have floated to the surface so I assume it’s down there in the depths somewhere.

A fishy mystery indeed !

15 February 2012

Seven Meals or One ?

What would you rather have, seven meals in the local village brasserie or one fancy-dan meal at a Michelin starred restaurant?

Me? I'd always have the seven meals (for two) as I regard eating out as a social event rather than a stomach-filling one and following a visit to our nearest Michelin priced restaurant, I'm still happy with the choice I'd make.

I took J to Les Bacchenales (http://lesbacchanales.com/) for Valentines Day. Actually, I took her on the 13th as the restaurant on the night itself was fully booked. I'd been wanting to visit Bacchenales for a couple of years as Christophe, the owner/chef had had a small establishment of the same name in Tourrettes a few years ago and had moved to bigger, and pricier premises, had achieved his first star and apparently the food was very good.

The restaurant is based in a large villa just five minutes outside of Vence our nearest town and there were two things I was particularly keen to see; the decor which I was sure would be clean, modern and functional, and how Christophe presented his food. In Tourrettes, virtually every course was sprinkled with edible flower petals which gave the dishes a very colourful feel, possibly to give the impression that there was more on the plate than there actually was.

I had joked that we might have to go for a burger afterwards as my memory was that whilst his food was very good, there wasn't much of it on the plate - true nouvelle cuisine! I needn't have worried.

Christophe himself took my reservation (his wife used to be a friend of J's when they lived in the village, hence the use of his christian name) and suggested a timing of 7.30pm but when we arrived, the dining room was empty, obviously he was trying to stagger the amount of work his waiters, of whom there were many, had to do at any given time.

However, before we get to the meal itself, I had asked J to 'dress up' for dinner and true to form she appeared in her fox fur (the RSCPCA is not one of her chosen charities !). We drove into Vence and I entered our local Best Western, a small, indistinct little hotel on the edge of town.

'Oh, how nice', she said in a voice which betrayed her utter disappointment.
Christophe at work

After parking the car and really trying to convince her that we were indeed going out for Valentines Day in a Best Western, I relented and drove on to Les Bacchenales.

A nice log fire was burning and as soon as we were seated, a waiter presented a bottle of sparkling water, persuaded us to have the house cocktail (apple juice, champagne and candied rose petals) and pointed out the menu which was fixed and which I was reluctant to look at it as I was sure, fish would feature prominently. And it did.

Another waiter appeared and produced hot bread sticks with a dish of parsley pesto and parmesan which was a nice appetiser. Then another waiter provided us with two small bowls (like sake bowls) and announced that the three minute white specs were a special type of lard. He then proceeded to pour a thick beef soup into the bowls and pointed out that the accompanying spoons had a black truffle butter on them which should be stirred into the soup.

Then the confusion began. The spoons were almost flat and any attempt to try and 'spoon' the soup out of the bowls ended with dribbles going everywhere. Should we just drink out of the bowls? I did, and J followed my lead but it was clear later on when other diners started their meal that the spoons should indeed have been used!

Neither of these dishes (according to J) were on the menu which I still hadn't looked at - there was no point. What was going to be served, would be served. If fish arrived, I would do my best to eat it, after all it was costing me a small fortune.

Then the fish arrived. A melange (mixture) of monkfish, prawn meat and clams, surrounded by sweet red onion petals and a small amount of salad leaves. Now I have eaten monkfish and prawns before but generally I choose not to. I also adore clam chowder but have never eaten a clam out of its shell.

The monkfish and prawn seemed hardly cooked but I ate it and I even tried a clam before depositing the rest on J's plate. Thankfully I was able to wash down the clam taste with some nice white wine. As my cousin Sue would say, 'what are you like'.

I sat back enjoying the log fire and the quiet, reserved ambience thinking that I could now relax - the fish course was gone, but Christophe appeared at the table and proudly announced that the next course was Corsican Sea Bream. Aaaaaagh!

Actually, it wasn't at all bad. A meaty fish sprinkled with small cubed radish. I ate it. I wasn't too keen, I have to say, but I ate it. It's amazing what you'll do when you know it's costing the equivalent of a monthly wage of one of J's teachers in Kenya.

More white wine and then the main course was produced - a small piece of fillet steak poached in beetroot stock and resting on beetroot crisps and something else I didn't recognise the look or taste of. The meat looked distinctly uncooked but it was the colour of the beetroot which had made it look raw. Despite the fact that the knives were so blunt they were unable to cut the meat cleanly, it was so tender that the merest pressure caused it to fall apart - it was delicious, especially when washed down with a nice glass of claret.

A long wait then ensued before dessert arrived and I have to say, I have absolutely no idea what it was. J didn't know either - even after we'd eaten it. It tasted like a toffee base with cream and more flowery 'stuff' but whilst I quite liked the taste of it, my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that I had no idea what I was eating.

Flower petals !!!
Finally, we refused coffee but petit fours were placed on the table - ah, something I could recognise - chocolate truffles and apple candy.

As we drove home, I reflected on the fact that I am quite obviously a total pleb. I love good food but given a choice of a homemade quiche and frites in the Midi or a meal at Les Bacchenales, I know which I would go for, every time. Seven times actually!


23 January 2012

Orange - A One Man band

So I’m doing some remedial work on a villa that I, sorry, J, looks after (see blog post ‘The Anal Banker’ (http://tomsfrenchblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/anal-banker-and-i-said-banker.html). I go round at 7.45am as Orange (France Telecom to you and me) have said they’ll be there between 8am and 1pm to fix the faulty telephone line.

Nobody there so I start clearing up after a flood a few weeks ago  - a bit of painting, scrubbing and washing and then I notice a guy wandering around outside. ‘France Telecom ?’, I ask him.

‘No’ was the answer, so I left him to it but I did notice that he was paying particular attention to the telephone pole straight across from the front door. I went back to my scrubbing.

A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. ‘I am here to fix your telephone’, he said and with that he jumped back in his van and I didn’t see him again for 20 minutes.

I was intrigued but it turned out that Orange must sub-contract faults to another company and here he was – Orange by any other name!

Once he came back, he asked me how many ‘prises’ (telephone sockets) there were in the house. ‘No idea’, I said. ‘I’m only the handyman.’ He looked around then went back outside, moved his truck into position and got himself on one of these little hoist platforms, moved up the pole, had a good look around and then, not to my surprise, said, ‘no faults out here.’

Back into the house he asked if ‘we’ had a loft space. ‘No idea, I’m only the handyman’, I said once again, but looking around I spotted a panel in the ceiling at the end of the hall.

‘Have you got any ladders’, he asked.

As it happened I had picked up some ladders from the garage earlier to paint the ceiling, so I showed them to him.

‘No use’, he said.

I thought that was it but he went outside and came back in with a set of really high-tech ladders and asked me to open the loft, which I did only to be covered by multiple rat droppings and a rat-poison block!

I looked at him and he looked at me. I got the distinct impression there was something wrong. ‘What’s the problem’, I asked him.

‘I can’t climb the ladders unless you hold them’, he said.

So, as I was thinking why they send single people out (note: not sexist) to fix things which are generally high up when they are not allowed to climb ladders but then remembering we’re in France, he convinced me to hold the ladders whilst he climbed up into the loft space.

There then followed what I assumed to be a string of profanities before he climbed back down the ladders. ‘Not good’, he said.

He took his ladders outside, put them up against the guttering (with me holding them) and wandered around the roof before exclaiming, ‘I’ve found it’.

He was almost beside himself with self-satisfaction. I could see from the ground that the telephone wire had chaffed itself against the chimney and that was the problem.

Back down the ladder, into his van and a 50 metre length of cable appeared.

After a long Franglais conversation, I worked out that he now wanted me to go into the loft space and wait whilst he threaded the new cable through the roof tiles. I felt like I should say that he needed to hold the ladders for me but as he was now bounding up his own set outside I let it pass and climbed into the loft.

He had instructed me where to go but with no visible floor (it was under 6 inches of insulation), I was a bit tentative in case I ended up going through the ceiling (floor – whatever) but I could hear him shouting at me so I scurried across, throwing up clouds of fibres which started me off sneezing and scratching.

Eventually, we got the new cable to the correct place and he carried on with his work whilst I went back down to ground level.

Rather than come back down from the loft he proceeded to ask me something in (technical ) French which later transpired to be, ‘could you take my test meter and see if there is a current on the two wires which are for the phone.’

Now, my French might be ok in a bistro but this was a bit much for me so he had to lower himself down from the loft and do his own test.

It worked! He even phoned the house number to prove it and such was the look of self satisfaction on his little face that I felt compelled to congratulate him.

Then it was the paperwork.

J had already warned me that if the fault was deemed to be the house owners, there would be a hefty bill so I tentatively asked whose fault it was.

‘50/50’ was the response.

‘Ah, OK – here’s a bottle of Chablis for you’, I said, using the old trick of seducing a Frenchman with a decent bottle of plonk.

‘Ah, that’s very good of you’, he said, ‘but I am not allowed to accept gifts but thinking about it, it’s not your fault at all – the bill will be zero.’

Result! I put the Chablis back in my bag, said goodbye and went and had a shower (I was still scratching like mad), but not before he said, ‘you have a three week (three weeks !!!!) guarantee on my work – call  this number if there’s a problem.’

The moral of the story – say you’re afraid of heights, allergic to loft insulation and always offer bottle of wine to a tradesman! 

23 December 2011

Boy's Lunches

Despite having retired over four years ago, I still attend the traditional boy’s festive lunches for the companies I used to work for, IBM and BT.

The BT South of France Xmas Lunch comprises three or four attendees (it was only three this year) and is traditionally held in the New Punjab curry house in Grasse.

Now before you cry ‘sacrilege’, I suspect, Ashley, Ian and myself are so fed up with French food by the time Christmas comes around, we deserve something a little more ‘piquant’.

Normally, the three of us are the only diners in the New Punjab apart from maybe a visiting British couple who happen to stumble across the restaurant which is very well hidden, but this year, the place was full – full of French Xmas partygoers. I say ‘partygoers’, but in fact, it was all very sedate with the nearest the lunchtime revelers got to anything approaching a normal, dare I say, British company do, was when they ordered a round of non-alcoholic cocktails! Vive la difference!

My next festive outing was somewhat further afield, in London for the traditional IBM Boy’s Lunch. There’s a couple of points to make about this; (a) it is most definitely a ‘Boy’s Lunch’ and although the behaviour has ‘settled down’ over the last few years, females would find the constant chatter about sport, economics and fine wines, difficult to cope with, and (b) the lunches have been going strong for thirty years or more so it is a well established routine – meet up, drinks, lunch, more drinks, sometimes dinner and then, strangely enough, more drinks. 
The Famous Long Room at Lords
I didn’t make it last year, as paying around £500-£600 for a lunch (including flights and hotels) is extravagant even by a London banker’s standards, but this year, I decided that the venue simply could not be missed – it was being held in the historic and iconic Long Room at Lords Cricket Ground.

My mate Mick who was organizing the tickets had sent an e-mail saying the dress code was ‘lounge suits’ but dragging a suit all the way to London was a non-starter as far as I was concerned and so I turned up in a smart, but nevertheless, non-dress code sports jacket and slacks which was a bit of a faux pas on my part as I reckon I was the only one in the room not dressed to the required code.

You might be getting the impression at this point that it was a rather posh do and indeed I got that impression myself, as almost as soon as we had sat down to eat, after a champagne welcoming, there was a short speech and a request for ‘my Lords, ladies and gentlemen’ to stand for the loyal toast.
Lords Pavillion

Lunch itself was a fairly standard affair with various members of our table trying to ‘seduce’ the waitress into bringing us more than our allocated wine ration which she steadfastly refused to do and so copious additional bottles were ordered at an exorbitant price.

Once lunch had finished, Mick took us on a tour of the Pavillion and even managed to get us into the player’s dressing rooms which is where I made quite a discovery, well, for me at least.

At Lords, the acknowledged ‘home of cricket’, when a batsmen scores over 99 runs his name is etched onto a board and bowlers who take five or more wickets or ten or more wickets also have their names etched onto a board. Now these boards containing the names of the greatest cricketers who have graced Lords are frequently shown on TV but I was amazed to find that the boards are actually on the walls of the respective dressing rooms. What an inspiration for those cricketers going out to bat or bowl to see the names of their countrymen on the walls of the greatest cricket ground in the world.

Alistair Cook and the Boards
After staggering out of Lords and into a cab, it was off into the City to find a pub where my mates could drink ales and stouts whilst I stuck to my white wine.

At some stage in the evening, remembering J was alone in the hotel back in Kilburn, I said my goodbyes and the next thing I remember was sleeping on the floor of the hotel bedroom with a king size bed nearby – what a waste!

It was a great trip, made all the more special by being able to wander around the Lords Pavillion where cricket officiandos would give their right arm to be.  

9 December 2011

Julie's Latest Trip To Kenya

I am including a Newsletter which Julie sent out to her friends and donors. You may not have seen it.

Kenyan Kids News – November 2011

This newsletter aims to give an account of how some of your generous donations were used on my latest trip to Kenya. I apologise in advance for its length but I wanted to portray how seriously I take the stewardship of each and every one of your donations. Big or small, every centime does count and makes a huge difference to the life of one or many. Whether your money has been used for a small hand out or a larger hand up, the details are all below. Please accept a big personal, thank you and a warm hug from everyone mentioned in the newsletter.

Monday, 31st October

My plan today was to try and find a bank that would consider giving me an account – just as I had wanted to be legally registered in France I wanted to have similar ‘accountability’ in Kenya too. However, as we were waiting in the queue, Moses glanced down at my leg and remarked that the mozzies had made a meal of me last night. As I glanced down to look at my legs, the first thing that came to mind was a dot-to-dot page in a children's colouring book except these little red dots were too numerous to count. He looked at me - I looked at him. "It's bed bugs, isn't it?" I said. So, with all thoughts of banking forgotten, we returned back to Covenant Home and set about spraying my room with enough poison to kill a small elephant. In spite of being provided with a new mattress and even new sheets (thank you Pat), these little blighters hide in skirting boards and any dark little crevice during the day, only to come out at night, climb into bed with you and yum, you know the rest. Oh it's nice to be accepted – I feel like a proper visitor now, not just a tourist!

Tuesday, 1st November was spent visiting some of the Standard Eight (i.e. end of primary years) kids in schools who are getting ready to take their exams in a week’s time.

In the picture on the right is Jackson, one of the many kids the Isaiah Trust support, gratefully accepting a giant greetings card wishing everyone success in their forthcoming exams.

For those in boarding school, we took some ‘presents’ to help get them through until the end of term. Gifts ranged from toiletries for the girls, weetabix, bread, hot chocolate powder, soap, toothpaste and brushes, shoe polish, pencils and washing soap. It means a great deal to these kids that we take the time to visit them especially as most of their friends have parents who visit on a regular basis and they do not.

That evening, it was wonderful to see old friends again at the Isaiah Trust Kachok Outreach programme next to the rubbish tips. How I love cuddling the smallest children - their little hands full of bread (and biscuits if they are lucky) clutching on to a mug of sweet, milky African tea or juice. This always costs a little money but is so worthwhile as the photo below shows – thank you to all who donated.

We went back to Covenant (http://www.covenanthome.co.uk) to meet with Moses’s little daughter Vashni who had developed a serious case of malaria. Usually with Malaria, all that is needed is a three day course of tablets but whatever the strain of malaria poor Vashni got, it was not giving up easily.

Vashni is like any talkative 2-year-old, running around rather than walking, smiling, singing, reaching up your leg for a cuddle. It was obvious how poorly she was - she didn’t speak, she didn’t even whinge, she just flopped about, fell asleep anywhere she could, in a lap, a chair and refused even the slightest drink of water. As her mum gave her paracetamol to try and bring her temperature down, she just vomited it back up. Not responding to anything at home, she was taken to hospital where they diagnosed Malaria and also Septicaemia.

A 3-day course of intravenous injections was recommended and when she came back to the Covenant I was amazed to see my bedroom turned efficiently into a hospital room. Fortunately, we have a qualified Doctor who lives here. Collins is one of Pat’s original boys of whom she is enormously proud and with one phone call he agreed to come to help at the end of his usual fourteen hour day (of a 7 day week).

Collins prepared the vaccination and then hung the drip from the curtain rail while I held little Vashni and tried to calm her. Most of us know what hysterical 2 year olds can be like and for me it brought back memories from a long time ago. The crying is okay but it’s the sobs that upset me. Anyway, like any child of her age, exhaustion set in after approximately 60 seconds and she fell asleep across my lap. Still sitting on the edge of the chair, not daring to move in case I disturbed her, I recalled those days of nighttime childhood illnesses and how much mummies sacrifice their own sleep and wellbeing for the sake of their child.

As you can see Vashni (left) was one of the lucky ones – she has both parents and they were able to get the treatment she needed but, for the majority of families I see, any medication cost equates to approximately half a day’s salary and is unaffordable.
This wasn’t the only time I was able to help just during this short trip - one of the boys came to find me at Covenant Home, worried about his 10 year old sister who’d been ill and unresponsive for two days. We were able to get her medical help and a routine test for Typhoid, which, if left untreated could easily have caused her premature death.

Towards the end of the first week, we handed out the first batch of football shirts donated by my stepson Steve’s friends on his Face Book page, Footie Kits for Kenyan Kids. Fourteen year old Philip and Washington were delighted with their shirts. Philip in particular is football mad and Captain of the school team at the local Catholic run primary school. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos of them wearing the shirts as the nun drew the line at them getting undressed in her office. The rest of the shirts were put to one side to take up to the village children in Namatotoa as shown in the first photo in the newsletter. I hope those of you who donated clothes can recognise some of them in the first photo in this newsletter.

Home visits have always been an important part of my trip and this time I had been invited to visit Phoebe who is a widow living in one room in the Nyalenda slums. We visited her to see if we could help repair her roof as rainwater was streaming in. The side of the bed is just visible behind the curtain - she shares this space with three of her surviving children and her 7-year-old orphaned granddaughter. Phoebe lost another three of her children during infancy and her eldest daughter died of HIV when she was 28. Phoebe is only 51.

Ramanos was the next family on our list. Ramanos used to have a little business but he can no longer afford to purchase items of stock to sell out of this tiny room.

Constantly in arrears with his rent (the equivalent of £10 per month), he and his children are regular attendees at Kachok where they benefit from the bread and juice available. Widowed a few years ago, Ramanos searches to find any work he can but struggles to care for and feed his 5 children.

Saturday, 5th November saw us on our way to Siaya to visit Cosmas’s (an ex homeless tip dweller who is rehabilitated now) home village with a view to checking out his little land plot to see if we could put a little structure up for him so he could resettle there.
Whenever we head North West from Kisumu, we usually pass through Luanda and have the opportunity to stop off at its street market where we buy fresh pineapples, water melons, tiny bananas and some sesame seeds, which are mixed with brown sugar and shaped into small rounds - sticky burnt sugar flavour and delicious. Always on the lookout for a bargain, I stepped forward to see what was being sold by the cup full - it was that local delicacy, white ants (left). With no time to shout, 'I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here', I had little choice as some were poured into the palm of my hand to try them...salty, and a bit like tiny chewy potato chips. The wings do stick in your teeth though...

Sunday evening, 6th November and I need to write an overdue letter to my husband:

Darling Thomas, missing you like mad but just thought I’d let you know that I am going to do what I do best tomorrow – shopping! Now before you get too worried, I do have to say that it’s not the usual designer shopping spree of old, in fact, I could do with your help. Please advise where can I get 2 lorry loads of red soil? And then there is the rest; 2 wheelbarrows, 2 spades, 3 trowels, 1 broom, 2 watering cans, 1 oil can, 2 litres of lubricating oil, 2 hoe (what is the plural of hoe, hoes? – any more and it will sound like Christmas has come early, ho ho ho), 5 pairs of gum boots (non designer and men’s sizes), 5 protective helmets, 5 pairs of overalls, enough polythene roll to cover a small house (shall we get ever fashionable black or see thru?), 20 litres of ‘dirty’ oil (where is your brother Robert when we need a delivery) and last but not least 40 bags of cement. And if the shop even thinks of charging me for carrier bags, then I will throw a wobbly! Your ever loving wife xxx

This is the brick-making machine that has been funded by Kenyan Kids donors. You can see that all the guys were very excited about it and continued working on the bricks even as it grew dark. As I understand it, you mix a bit of cement with a bit of red soil, attach a lever (a bit like one half of a seesaw), then compress it and hey presto, a brick comes out the other end. This machine is our first big purchase. When I first saw it, I was keen to ask Moses, 'Do you really think it will build a house?' He looked at me, shook his head in his serious way and said, “No, Julie, it will not build a house.” I took a sharp intake of breath thinking about my donor’s hard-earned contributions. He continued: “I believe it will build a city”!

Wednesday 9th November

The saddest part of this trip was learning the news about Easter Lily. After my last visit, I shared with you the story of the abandoned Easter baby (left) that came to our notice whilst visiting the maternity unit of the District Hospital. At the time, I asked Pat who runs Covenant Home if she would be willing to take the baby in and she agreed immediately. However about two weeks later, I received an email from Pat telling me, "Baby Lily's parents turned up and claimed her. What the story was we don't know, we were just told it was a domestic problem which has now been sorted."

During those intervening weeks and touched by Lily's story Angela, of Le Petit Cabanon, knitted Lily the most beautiful blanket (right) which I had brought with me this trip. Moses was very keen that we should find Lily's parents and take the blanket (inscribed with her name) to her even though several weeks had passed. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be and as we sat in the Sister's office she explained that she checked her files and Easter Lily had again been admitted. "It seems the parents split up again but this time, the mother brought her in." There was a pause: "I am sorry, we lost her".

Perhaps we'll never know what really happened in Easter Lily's short life. I could only compare her to Moses’s daughter Vashni who had been desperately ill earlier on in the week. Some families can afford medication and some cannot. Easter Lily had slipped through the net. As we walked back to the car I not only wept for her, but for all the children whose lives are lost in situations that would be unthinkable to us within our ‘comfortable’ existence.

Shortly afterwards, Angela of Le Petit Cabanon (http://www.justgiving.com/kraftedforkenyankids2) apologised on Facebook that her Saturday Krafted for Kenyan Kids Fair fund raising had only secured a meagre amount. I had to remind her that it certainly wasn't meagre by African standards; just 50 centimes, 50 pence worth of medication could possibly have saved that child's life. In our Western world, losing a child becomes a statistic that we cannot/don't want to absorb. For me, the reality of losing that precious child drives me on to help the next one and the next one so please help where you can.

It’s impossible to stay sad for too long as one situation quickly moves into another. Immediately after hearing the sad news about Easter Lily, we visited Dorcas, an elderly grandmother who cares for seven orphaned grandchildren. It's always a pleasure to visit Dorcas who is always full of smiles. This woman usually has tremendous energy but since last time, I noticed that she appeared to be slowing down and getting more tired. One of the problems Dorcas faces is having to walk over 50 minutes, each way, to collect clean water. Perhaps to some that doesn’t sound all that bad but consider that the last 20 minutes of her road has the steepness of our road leading up to the Courmettes and that’s a difficult steep path for any of us to walk.

I regularly complain about the time my son spends in the shower but imagine when every drop of water for use in the house has to be carried. Dorcas can manage to carry around 10 litres of water at a time. Think how you struggle with a 6-pack of water bottles, transferring it from supermarket trolley to car boot yet Dorcas (aged 70+) manages to carry more than that and up a steep hill in 32 degree heat.

As we sat chatting, we wondered how we could help when the heavens suddenly opened. As if by magic, we were prompted to wonder if there was some way we could harvest the rainwater from the roof and channel it into gutters and on into the house. This huge amount of rainfall would more than provide her and her family with a source of clean water. We came away feeling pleased that we had managed to find and fund a solution that would be a huge help to Dorcas and her family in the future.

Thursday evening, 10th November was our regular trip to the Kachok Outreach programme and we were able to provide a nutritious meal of chapatis and beans to more than 50 children and adults. There is rarely a better sight than a hungry child with a plateful of nutritious food in front of them.
The rain stayed away and were concerned that so many of the little ones arrive barefoot so we also handed out more than twenty pairs of flip flops – everyone was so grateful and we are reminded yet again how the smallest item can help.

Friday, 11th November
Originally we were planning to leave for Namatotoa on Thursday but as Moses is always so busy we had to delay the trip to Friday giving me a few free hours. We eventually got on the road at 6:00 pm for the two hour journey, north to Namatotoa. The car was packed with Nakumat (supermarket) shopping, Moses’s guitar, my bedding, camping lights, mosquito repellent, disinfectant and microbe activators for the African loo, snacks for the journey, biscuits and sweeties for the many kids we would see in the tiny rural village and a defrosting chicken for our one-pan risotto supper.

The journey always takes me back to family holidays when so many are uncomfortably packed into the car but we sang and giggled and bumped along the uneven road surfaces until we eventually arrived and were greeted in pitch blackness by Pastor Pete and his wife, Moses’s sister Agneta and his half brother, Vincent who had both travelled 3 hours by Matatu (mini bus) from Kitale.

Happy faces on the road under Pat’s best new quilt
It must have been well after midnight by the time the ‘risotto’ had been prepared for all of us on the single ring gas stove. In the simple three-roomed house, the two girls shared the smallest room, Moses, Anton and Vincent slept on the living room floor and I shared the double bed with Agneta.

It was only during my second trip that I was invited to visit Moses’s home village. That first morning as I walked along the narrow, rutted paths through the sugar cane and maize fields, I felt a strong sense of ‘coming home’. It was a strange sensation to experience, especially to someone who loves her home comforts but I simply felt enveloped in a peace and tranquillity that I have rarely experienced before.

Each time I visit Namatotoa, I am struck by more details. This morning as I passed by the straw mud huts, I saw the smoke curling from charcoal being cured in mud bonfires and many barefoot ragged children, bare bottomed babies being carried by children who were 4 or maybe 5 years old themselves.

If a child cried, the mother would lift the child to her breast and anyone who has breast fed their own child could not fail to be moved by what I saw. In the Western developed world, the mother’s breast is full, rounded and nurturing to the child. The breasts these children were trying to latch on to resembled empty sacks yet still the child would grasp and pull at the nipple with both hands receiving little but a small amount of comfort.

The majority of the children hung back shyly hiding around corners or behind their mother’s legs in the doorway to the darkened interior. Maybe this kind of poverty does exist in Kisumu town but I hadn’t noticed it. Here the poverty of a whole village was presented to me in bright sunlight. A 2 year old’s feet hardened through lack of shoes having learnt to walk on maize and sugar cane husks, strange markings on their scalps which I later found out to be ring worm. Swollen bellies and distended tummy buttons, skin rashes and ingrained dirt on both mothers and their children.

Still, they came outside to see who the Mzungu (foreigner) was. For many, there appears to be no hope in their spirit. Their eyes were glassy as if fixed on something (or nothing) a long way off in the distance.
On my last Sunday as I sat amongst these villagers and we shared a meal of meat and rice, I knew the time was perfect to begin our project. We shouldn’t wait a minute longer.

Before my departure the next day, I stood amongst the sugar cane and spread out the blue print of our nursery. I was joined by some small children whose mother had no choice but to leave them alone for the whole day whilst she’d gone in search of work. Who was feeding these children while she was away? I thought of 7 year old Rosa who had lost the sight of one eye whilst play fighting in the sugar cane fields. Who was looking after these little ones in the absence of any adults?

Rosa (left) still has a happy smile following the operation which Kenyan Kids helped to fund.

The trip from which I returned on the 17th November had been my fourth visit to Kenya in just over 18 months. During those visits my time has been spent exploring the different areas with an objective of trying to get an understanding of the impact poverty has on this particular region. To me the challenge of Africa is its diversity of problems and trying to get to the root causes is confusing. All too easily, you can become so overwhelmed that you then, quite probably, decide to do nothing. For me, each visit unearthed yet another issue. It could be street boys living rough and high on glue, young girls being trafficked at bus stations - having little choice but to turn to prostitution, families destroyed and decimated by HIV/Aids which has taken away a generation of young parents. No education, no care and certainly not a glimmer of hope in this wasted society. All too often, it is the elderly grandparents, barely able to look after themselves, who attempt to become the carers of orphan children.

Sickness is rife everywhere. I remember the first time I came across a child with malaria. I was shocked but became even more horrified when I realised the pittance it would cost to actually cure that child simply by administering a three-day course of tablets. Illnesses we rarely hear about in our world, like Typhoid and TB, lost some of their fear to me as they are a daily and commonplace reality for the people around me.
I felt the ‘root’ cause of all problems could be positively impacted with education.

When I was introduced to the inhabitants of Namatotoa, it soon became apparent that children were being left by the wayside, both physically in terms of abandonment and neglect through lack of schooling. It is these children who, uneducated, run away to the big towns. There they arrive at the bus depots and end up on the streets either victims of trafficking or addicted to glue (because this takes away the pain of hunger and cold).
A previous attempt to start a nursery school in the village was thwarted because funds were too scarce but that was before I met Moses and before Kenyan Kids came into existence, Now, if we can provide a simple structure of a school building these village kids can start to be educated and their carers can go out and find local employment.

Coincidentally I met a pastor friend of our Moses, a Bishop Sebastian who lives close by Namatotoa. As he was speaking to me he showed me a small, wispy seedling and said: "Julie, this is like your ministry. Things start small." Then he took his shovel and carefully unearthed the huge heart of the plant below (right). “I want you to transplant this in your village and always remember, as this seedling grows so will your ministry.” At the time, I was too choked up to make any kind of response other than a hurried thank you.

The next day, as I poured over the blueprints for the nursery school, I knew that what we were looking at was real and achievable so the school is now our top priority. How we will raise funds for the school is still a bit of a mystery but then isn’t that the fun of it? Thanks to your generosity we already have purchased a brick-making machine. Now I know we can progress brick by brick and when we have enough bricks, we will buy a door or a window. 

Local labour will be used to build it, parents who can’t pay towards school fees will be asked to prepare food for the children or bring in wood for the kitchen fire. It’s not all about money but bringing a community together – both the African community and the community of people here in the South of France, in Cyprus, the UK and anywhere caring people, who really want to make a difference are located. The vision is there. Help us by being part of it, whether by buying one brick at a time or by providing one mug of porridge for a malnourished child. Let’s try and give these children what we give our own children - ‘A chance for a lifetime’. With heartfelt thanks - Julie

Standing in the small sugar cane field I know our dreams can become a reality if we all work together.

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