Everybody needs good neighbours

Just in case you’re wondering where I’ve been of late, the answer is, quite simply, nowhere in particular. No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the planet, I’ve just been incredibly busy being a wife, mother, cook, cleaner, teacher and currently fair-weather gardener. We are all doing fine Chez TêteBlanche but as much as I enjoy writing about my love of gardening and our exciting life here in the French countryside, writing a blog does not harvest the fruit, nor plan English lessons, nor allow me to spend quality time with my family. The good news is, the half-term holidays are upon us, which means I have at last found some “spare” time to recount all the goings on of the past four months!

July 

July began with the invasion of sixteen little, eye patch-wearing, sword-wielding pirates in our garden, for Madeleine and Alexander’s joint birthday party. Pete obviously jumped at the chance of dressing up as Capitaine des Mers Bleus and it has to be said, I rather enjoyed making toilet roll tube telescopes with my mum and hiding cryptic, treasure hunt clues in the most unlikely of places. The day was a great success, if not a little on the hot side, with temperatures reaching 34°C. It has to be said, the English know how to throw a party! At the beginning of July each year, excitable screams of joy echo around our hamlet and as traffic jams build up on our little road, our lovely neighbours are reminded that summer is here!

The summer holidays meant we had more time to spend in the garden and as much as we love our trees, the vast summer growth prevented us from enjoying our amazing countryside vista. We decided to be brutal and with the help of our neighbour’s more powerful chainsaw, Pete cut down an old, wild cherry tree (which has produced very little since our arrival here) and two young oak trees. We now have some extra wood for future burning and the most wonderful view from the newly-installed terrace.

BEFORE

AFTER

Here’s a look at some photos taken at the beginning of the summer holidays, when everything was still a lush, green colour!

As the summer heatwave continued, the grass became paler and cracks started to appear in the ground. It’s fair to say the hosepipe has worked overtime this summer, nevertheless, despite the hot temperatures, we’ve managed to have quite a successful summer harvest, including 84 kilos of potatoes (grown in straw rows) and tonnes of cherry tomatoes (mainly from outside, as the heat proved too much for the indoor tomato plants to handle). We got two varieties of courgette, although not nearly as many as previous years and a good second harvest of outdoor peppers. This year we grew aubergines for the first time! Unfortunately, in our fourth year of vegetable-growing Chez TêteBlanche, we have still not managed to successfully grow beans, with or without the support of a teepee. Our carrots were eaten by some nocturnal visitor and we even caught two deer enjoying unripened pears straight from the tree! When the plums started falling (and we’re talking a lot of plums this year), Mum put my dad’s upturned stool to good use, making a very tasty plum gelée. Our chest freezer is full of plums, tomato sauce, pizza sauce and frozen veg, just how it should be!

August

August tends to be the month we get the most visitors Chez TêteBlanche and we were delighted to catch up with our good friends, Chef and Reeno! Wherever we’ve lived over the past thirteen years, be it in the Alps, the Haute Loire or long lost Aveyron, these two have made every effort to come and see us. Thanks for a great few days, we love you guys!

The beginning of August saw us host the annual ‘Fête des Voisins’. Each year, we take turns at hosting a get-together with nibbles and wine for everyone on the hamlet. We had initially wanted to keep it simple, but our closest neighbour had other ideas, and since he was participating in the cost of the evening, Pete, (who I remind you is a vegetarian) ended up doing a barbecue for everyone! Obviously Pete has been a vegetarian for quite a while now, but as I began adapting my recipes to suit his requirements, it just seemed natural for me to stop eating meat too. I have not eaten meat for six months now. The children still eat meat when they request it, and at school every day, but the majority of the time, they eat the same vegetarian meals as us at home. For me, vegetarianism started as a practicality but at the same time, meat was becoming less appealing to me. I have since started to become more aware of the unnecessary suffering of animals and I no longer have the desire to eat meat or fish. Now back to the party, which was a great success. We borrowed some tables and chairs from the village hall and the kids did some bunting to dress the garden. Mum proposed a glass of sangria cava on her terrace and then we moved to the tables under the trees where it was shady. I think we were about eighteen people altogether. After the barbecue, we plugged the hosepipe into the water slide and let the kids cool off in the garden. It was a nice evening and it gave us chance to catch up with some of the neighbours we rarely see. Some have a second home here and only come in the summer months or at weekends, others we pass when driving, but rarely stop for more than a quick chat. Being the last house on a hamlet of eight houses, we don’t always see our neighbours, unless we choose to go out of our way, so it’s ideal for us.

When you choose a new house to live in or land to build on, you can’t possibly know in advance what your neighbours are like (unless they’re friends/family of course). You might have a first impression of someone but you only really get to know your neighbours when you’ve lived there a while. We have been really lucky here, we get on with everyone. We are beginning to understand their traits of character, their interests and hobbies and even their occasional annoyances. It is nice knowing you have somebody to call on if you ever have a problem, and likewise, I am pretty sure our neighbours feel they can ask a favour of us when they need it. So if having neighbours is so great, why then did we decide for our week’s summer break to take ourselves off to somewhere even more rural than here?!

When friends and family come out to visit us, they often tell us how much they love the place we live, but that they couldn’t imagine staying here for longer periods of time. Why? Because, although in our eyes we are a thriving hamlet of eight houses, we are a 4km drive away from the nearest village and 10km away from the nearest town. People are used to being within walking distance of local commodities and so in comparison, this truly is “rural living”. For the last week of August, instead of joining the crowds of people heading for the beach, we went north, in the opposite direction and rented a rural gite surrounded by vineyards, high up in Le Fel, near the Aveyron/Cantal border. On the agenda was walking, meditation, home-cooked vegetarian food and more importantly, spending quality time as a family. We were only 1.5 hours from our house, but wow, were we rural. It took us ten minutes by car just to get down the hill from our gite, the nearest big hypermarket was 50 minutes away and luckily we didn’t have a medical emergency because that was also the location of the nearest hospital! But what we did have was peace and tranquility, total relaxation before going back to work/school, oh and not to mention all this:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As beautiful as it was, it was once again nice to return home to our now, “not so rural” hamlet in South West France, and to share tales of our “oh so rural” holiday with our dear neighbour over a glass of wine.

September – October

Our hamlet has been bursting with activity lately, with the completed sale of a plot of land and the beginning of a new build on it, the arrival of new neighbours (whom we have yet to meet) and the extension of an existing house due to the arrival of a new baby. Word must have got out that we Whiteheads throw amazing parties and know how to look after our neighbours. We should be fine here, at the end of the road, surrounded by agricultural land which is, for the moment and hopefully forever, non-constructible!

September began at a slow pace and I found I didn’t have as many English lessons as usual. With the kids back at school, I needed to come up with some ideas to raise money and fast! Mum and I decided we would do another Christmas market in the village after all, but this time limit our workload to creative crafts that actually sell! I am going to do black and white slates and canvases but with a local flair:

Not two weeks later and I was inundated with teaching work proposals: a temporary yet full time post as a supply teacher in a high school and an immersion course next July in Rodez. I accepted both. My two week contract in the school has been extended indefinitely, which is great as it means we can start putting money back into the house renovation, with the next job being Alexander’s bedroom. It does, however, mean I have little time for arts and crafts. It’s all about finding the right balance…some weeks I have little or no work which means work on the house comes to a stop, but I get to spend a lot of time with my family…other weeks I seem to be working like mad, but it means we can put money aside for a future holiday, or pay that ever-increasing fuel bill! Freelance English-teaching is not exactly a steady income but it is something I enjoy very much, and so, financially-speaking, we have learned to just go with the flow, spending within our means and saving whenever possible. As you are probably aware by now, for us, money is not the be-all and end-all..but a little goes a long way.

Highlights this October have included: autumn woodland walks, looking for mushrooms; our naturalisation ceremony at the Préfecture in Rodez and spending Halloween with the kids carving out a pumpkin from the garden and watching the new Ghostbusters movie.

Advertisements

Lost in thought

May – June 2018

When was the last time you really set aside some time for yourself, just yourself? I recently got some quality time to spend on my own, quite by accident and it has done me the world of good. A change to the school timetable, where I am currently teaching, meant I had six whole hours to pass in-between lessons in a beautiful little town by the river Lot. When I grumbled to my husband about having so much time ‘to kill’ when I am always run off my feet at home, he soon made me realise that I shouldn’t be ‘killing’ time (what a terrible expression anyway), but instead using it to my advantage. It is so true, we sometimes become so caught up in our home/work life and its demands, that we neglect our own well-being, which starts to descend further and further down the priority ladder.

So, how exactly did I spend this ‘extra’ time I’m so unaccustomed to appreciating? I took a leisurely walk down by the river, admiring the allotments, followed by a picnic, under the willow tree of a ‘shared garden’ and finally I meditated, observed, listened and noticed everything, like I was experiencing it for the first time. We take so much for granted and become so lost in our thoughts that we often miss EVERYTHING! I didn’t see the time pass and I had a very enjoyable and peaceful afternoon. Maybe you should try it too!

 

How many times have you been driving your car and become so carried away with your thoughts that you actually forgot you were driving and find you have no recollection of the travelled distance? It tends to happen to me on a familiar route, a country road in which I know every twist and turn…except for the unexpected hazards that could arrive at any moment when I’m lost in thought and not concentrating on the matter at hand! I have recently been making a conscious effort to drive mindfully, but it doesn’t just have to be about driving. Everything we do can be carried out with care and attention if we just put our wavering mind to it!

The beginning of May began with a week’s camping holiday in Argelès Plage, on the Mediterranean Coast, about 20km from the Spanish border. The weather was generally warm and fine but we were glad we chose a campsite with a good indoor pool complex, as it is where we spent most of our time. On the way there, we had a night’s stopover near Nant, not far from the Millau viaduct, and my surprise for the return trip was a guided tour of the Lérab Ling Buddhist Temple (and vegetarian meal in the company of the Buddhist community). The temple was pretty spectacular and the tofu was the best I’ve ever tasted! Here are a few pictures taken throughout the holiday:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

When we returned home, we soon got back to work in the garden. Pete got quite a surprise when he stumbled across a nest of baby hedgehogs in our straw pile. After a couple of very quick photos, we put back the straw so as not to disturb them and got a new bale delivered by a local farmer. I’ve since seen them scavenging around the garden with their mother, so they seem to be doing well and are a welcome addition to our garden, although the slugs and snails might disagree!

The wet weather spell that followed caused us some concern with our reed beds, which had stagnant water in the filter tanks that just wouldn’t drain away. It turns out our soil has more clay in it than anticipated and the run-off area must be lengthened. This means our garden will have to be dug up again, although the work will not be carried out until early autumn, before the heavy rain returns. The water eventually drained away when the hot weather came, but we were a little concerned about mosquitoes.

The most exciting work to be carried out was the installation of my parents’ new terrace. The plan is to eventually extend it to run the whole length of the house, but for the time being, we don’t have the finances (or time) to complete it! It took Pete two full days to build, which is pretty impressive. He just shrugs and humbly tells me it’s no big deal, after all, making wooden terraces is what he does for a living.

Here’s his progress, from beginning to end:

The school holidays are nearly upon us, the garden is starting to take shape and the sangria cava is flowing, what more could you want? Maybe an England v France final in the world cup and it might just be the perfect summer!

Cheers!

As busy as a bee

March – April 2018

Just caught this friendly neighbour poking her face through our garden fence

Such a busy time of year but a very rewarding one, the arrival of Spring brings with it a sense of hope and optimism for a successful year of permaculture-living Chez TêteBlanche. It always astounds me how quickly nature re-awakens after several months of cold, damp slumber, and within a few short days, the entire landscape is rejuvenated, and we are surrounded by a lush, green palette that is bursting with activity.

Here, in the Aveyron, the tractors re-emerge from their sheds and we are blessed with the delightful countryside smell of muck spreading! The birds seem to sing louder than ever, and after a cold winter spell, the warmth of the sun on your face reassures you that there is no other place you’d rather be right now than in your very own garden, surrounded by the people you love, enjoying the place you’ve created through your relatively recent relationship with nature.

Of course, this is all said in hindsight, because the beginning of March didn’t start too positively in our polytunnel. As the weather began to get warmer, I, mistakenly, moved my delicate seedlings from our bathroom windowsill to the polytunnel, where I felt they would be safe from frost. It was my first mistake of the year and all my beautiful ‘Big Daddy’ and cherry tomato plants perished. My neighbour buys all his vegetable plants from the garden centre when they are already established, and he is forever scoffing at me for wasting so much time with my seeds, but I just love the idea of growing something from scratch and having that connection with nature. I never mentioned the tomato plants I’d lost, instead I reordered some more seeds and started again. I did, however, buy two grafted tomato plants, for an earlier harvest and also, to see if they are actually worth the extra money. I’m not convinced at this point in time, purely for financial reasons. Surely eating your own tomatoes from plants you’ve nurtured from seed has to be a more economically-viable option, doesn’t it? I’m pretty sure the tomatoes taste sweeter too!

‘Perpetual’ spinach

The rest of the polytunnel is doing pretty well, the soil is looking good and we recently put up the shading to prevent any leaves from scorching. The ‘perpetual’ spinach plants were growing in massive clumps and so I split them at the roots and successfully managed to replant them, which now means we have an abundance of fresh spinach, with huge leaves. We also have plenty of lettuces (some I grow from seed, others I buy from Villefranche market now and again, as they come in a nice size for transplanting in the warm polytunnel).

Extended potato bed

Outside the polytunnel, Pete has enlarged the bed we grew our sweetcorn in last year, so we can grow potatoes there this year. Last year, I bought them early and attempted to chit them myself in the polytunnel, which failed miserably. I ended up buying some already chitted potatoes, ready-to-plant, at the last minute and due to a surplus of stock, I saved money, too, thanks to a clearance ‘two for one’ offer. Possibly mistake number two of mine this year was holding back from buying ready to chit potatoes when they were all on promotion in early March. The trouble is, when the time came for planting, I found nearly all the garden centre shelves were empty and I ended up paying more than expected for some ready-to-plant, disease-resistant potatoes. Only time will tell if they will be worth the extra money. It must be said that only a week after planting them, green leaves were already poking through the soil, which is pretty fast growth.

My neighbour absolutely hates us using straw on the garden and is forever telling us to stop using it as a mulch, heaven forbid growing potatoes in it! The first year we used BRF wood chipings on our potato bed, which didn’t work. The second year we used straw, with much success, and last year, giving our knowledgeable neighbour the benefit of the doubt, we tried out the traditional soil method. After quite a lot of back-breaking digging in soil for a lower yield of potatoes, Pete and I agreed that straw is the only way for us! Having heavily mulched the garden with straw and humanure compost over the winter, you can definitely see the advantages now. There are few weeds and the nutrient-rich soil is thriving with earthworms.

With some wood to spare, Pete kindly built a wooden frame around the asparagus bed, which will now become our first raised bed. The plan is to eventually put wooden frames around the rest of the beds, but wood and time are in short supply at the moment. It is our third year of asparagus growing and we were delighted to see green asparagus sprouting up through the straw. The big difference this year is that now the crowns are established, we can actually harvest it and eat it! Yum.

We also decided that in order to gain more growing space and to make it easier to cut the grass, we would make one large bed, instead of having two, long beds, running parallel with the polytunnel. Pete removed the top layer of grass, which we re-laid around the reed beds, to make the area level.

Another garden project was the rockery, which involved unearthing huge amounts of buried iron and plastic (left by the previous owners) and digging up what seemed to be hundreds of nettle roots! We found an old tin barrel in the ground but it had been filled with concrete and therefore, impossible to move. We’ve decided we’ll have to give it a lick of paint and make a feature of it.

In a previous post, I recently hinted at wanting a pond in the garden. I researched the necessary material and decided that cost-wise, a pond wasn’t exactly high up on our list of priorities. I quickly dismissed the idea, preferring to hold out for a natural swimming pool in years to come. However, I did come up with a cost-efficient compromise, using the materials we already had…a bog garden of course! A bog garden is perfect if you already have an area of the garden that is naturally damp. If not, you can make one from scratch, but we already had the perfect spot and the hard work had already been done by the landscapers who installed the reed beds last year. The purified water that is filtered out of our reed bed sewage system provides a border-section of our land with irrigation all year round. To create this run-off area, a channel was dug, and then gravel and soil was put back in. A year later and the grass has grown back, so I simply removed the top level of turf, turned it upside down and put it back. I put stones around to make strimming easier and added a bag of soil. It only took about half a day to do, from start to finish, including the planting and I got the idea entirely from Wikihow: How to make a bog garden. Here are some photos, and a look at the plants I bought online:

Here’s a selection of recent garden photos, proving that spring has sprung Chez TêteBlanche:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking back at all these photos, I’m quite impressed that I found the time to juggle the garden with a day trip to the Gouffre de Padirac caves in the Lot (well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area), catch up with family who came over from the UK (even if it was for a flying visit), not to mention starting a full time supply teaching job in two middle schools in Aveyron. Needless to say, I was absolutely shattered by the time the April school holidays started! Although it was good experience, I have since decided that it isn’t feasible to work in two different schools, the commute and early start times left me with very little time to do anything else. Trying to do this, while running my own teaching business and being a mother/wife was just too much. I’ve been lucky enough to renew a short term contract for one of the two schools, which may be extended until the summer holidays. It means I’m only working two days a week, on a part time contract, in a nice school, and can still keep on top of my private lessons, housework, gardening and cooking…etc. I’m still a busy bee, just without the stress I had three weeks ago!

We now have a week’s family holiday at the beach to look forward to in May and I might even find the time to paint some pebbles while I’m there!

Brrr

January / February 2018

It’s the end of February and like many, we are experiencing extremely cold ‘Beast from the East’ temperatures. On a day like this, there’s only one thing for it…sit at the computer, in front of a roaring fire with a warm cup of cocoa and tell you what’s been going on over the past two months.

First of all, I’ve decided to change the way I write my blog posts and from now on, it won’t be done on a monthly basis. Rather than time dictating what I write, I would prefer to write when I have the time, providing more detailed accounts of the goings on at Chez TêteBlanche. More often than not, during the quiet months, I tend to have loads of free time to write very little, while some months are so jam-packed with activity, I don’t have time to write at all. I’m sure you get the picture.

If the freezing temperatures have dominated this month, January must have been the wettest month for a long time. The small, outdoor chicken run was quickly transformed into a slippy mud-bath, which can’t have been a very appealing playground for our chickens. Last year, we got some new neighbours on the hamlet and with them came their two, beloved English setters, who quickly decided that chasing our free-ranging chickens around the garden was their ideal afternoon entertainment. It made us more hesitant of letting the chickens out and as the colder weather set in, we tended to leave them in the safety of their small, now muddy pen. Our main project for January was, therefore, extending the chicken run.

Here are some photos taken before the extension:

And after:

Despite this extra space, we noticed that our cockerel, Norman was getting hen-pecked and his comb was starting to bleed. We can only assume the hens were bored and so we put an old tractor tyre to good use and filled it with what the French call ‘BRF’ (Ramial Chipped Wood). The chickens love taking a dust bath in it, as you can see.

By increasing the size of the pen, the number of eggs has subsequently increased from one or two eggs to three or four a day, despite the cold weather. The extended pen is also large enough to provide the chickens with shade from one of our hazelnut trees and the plan is to plant an ornamental Buddleia tree just outside the pen, which will attract butterflies to our garden and make the chicken house more appealing to the eye. Apparently chickens tend not to eat Buddleia leaves or flowers so it seemed an obvious choice. It’s amazing how many common plants and flowers are actually poisonous to chickens when you do the research. Check out this page from Backyardchickens.com for further details.

At the last chicken count, we had one cockerel and five hens. One poorly hen didn’t make it through to 2018 and died in a box of straw in our living room on New Year’s Eve, and a second hen died of old age only last week. This week, we introduced five new Rhode Island Red chickens to the pen. They are a different breed to our White Sussex and despite a little rivalry to begin with, they seem to be settling in just fine. You can spend hours reading forums online looking for answers and you will always get conflicting ideas. Some people say you should avoid putting chickens of a different breed and age together…we say we’ll give it a go for ourselves and see what happens.

So why the change from White Sussex to Rhode Island Red? The latter are undoubtedly the best egg-layers and we primarily chose the White Sussex as they were a good all-round bird for both eggs and meat. As yet, we have not killed nor eaten any of them and it is highly unlikely we will in the future. What? A homesteading family that won’t eat their own meat? Incredible as it sounds, there has been a dramatic change of ethos Chez TêteBlanche of late. Pete has taken what I consider to be a huge step and become a vegetarian. A positive consequence of this lifestyle change on the children and myself is a considerable reduction in our meat intake (although we are far from going the whole hog, pardon the pun!). Pete is paving the way for our family to live without causing animal suffering, with our main agenda here being love and compassion, Buddhist principles that tie in considerably well with those of permaculture:

Care for the earth, Care for people, and Fair share.

To explain briefly, through meditation, I believe Pete has established a deep connection with our planet and beyond and I hope that we, as a family, can follow suit. Pete has been meditating for over two years and our two children already meditate for 10 minutes each evening. I strongly believe that if we combine everything we initially set out to achieve through permaculture-living and take it to a spiritual level, we will, ultimately, find the right place and balance in life. If you want a quick reminder of our permaculture objectives, check out this old post of mine from April 2016 : The Here and Now

Elsewhere in the garden, spring preparation has been starting to take place. During the rainy January days, I took shelter in the poly tunnel, washing out old plant pots, preparing the soil with humanure compost and building frames for peas and mange-tout.

At the end of January and throughout February (before the deep freeze), I sowed the following seeds in pots:

  • Big Daddy tomatoes
  • Italian cherry tomatoes
  • Bird Eye demon chilli
  • Devil’s tongue chilli pepper
  • Black Beauty aubergine
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels Sprouts

Peas, mange-tout and radish, I sowed directly in the soil. The cold February temperatures may have delayed germination but I have had some successes, notably from keeping the most delicate seeds (such as tomatoes) indoors, on the south-facing bathroom windowsill to be precise. A smart move, I assure you.

In the garden, I used some more BRF wood chippings to finish the garden area I started last year:

BEFORE

AFTER

And I am currently doing a rockery, although it’s a slow process as I have to dig out loads of nettle roots and unearth buried bits of iron and metal (left by the previous owners). I’ll show you some photos in the next post when it’s hopefully finished.

Other ongoing projects of mine include the illustrations for a children’s book I wrote almost two years ago, which I intend to self publish, and trying to find a part time job. My English lessons are still going well but some months are busy, some less so, so a reliable monthly income wouldn’t go amiss.

Other February news includes a local newspaper article we featured in regarding life in Aveyron for English people and the Brexit (click on the below link to read the article…in French, of course) and I couldn’t possibly leave without telling you that the four of us have recently been granted French nationality, after a long long wait! We are now learning the words to the Marseillaise as we await our invitation to a naturalisation ceremony and a letter from our President, Monsieur Macron! Vive la France!

Article le villefranchois

Happy New Year

December 2017

I am quite aware that my blog posts are becoming shorter each month and I am taking longer and longer to publish them. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, it’s just that I seem to have been lacking inspiration of late and as the trees and plants go into hibernation mode, it appears I do too. Winter is always a difficult time to write, especially when beautiful, crisp mornings are replaced by endless days of rain and drizzle. I am not actively working in the garden and I think this has a huge mental impact on everyday life. When the weather is wet and cold and there is no sign of life in the garden, it is very difficult at times to motivate myself into doing anything at all. I start to question if we have actually made any progress here, whether it was the right thing to do, and are we actually happy? Negative thoughts are quick to consume me and I am left with doubt for the future. So, why on earth would I want to share all this negativity with you, at a time when a new year is about to begin, and everyone should by cheerful and optimistic?

I spoke to my husband last night about how I had reached a point in writing my blog where I didn’t have anything positive or interesting to share. He quickly made me realise that in these modern times, the majority of people who post online are so preoccupied with creating false impressions of how fantastic their lives are, they lose touch with reality and the true joys of living. It is so true, the rise of social media, selfies and smart phones have led to people constantly bombarding us with how great their lives are, how much money they have and how beautiful they look. Temporary happiness now comes in the form of a ‘like’ button! Pete told me that in order to continue my blog, I need to write from the heart, be honest and true to myself, and not write for the purpose of pleasing others.

So, here goes…

Don’t assume, for one minute, that living out here amongst the rolling Aveyron hills is all sweetness and light, because it isn’t. We have our ups and our downs, like any other family.

December began in such a positive light. Chez TêteBlanche was bursting at the seams with Christmas crafts for the village market: decorative wine bottles with led lights; miniature Christmas trees decorated with festive chocolates for the dinner table; painted nativity scene plaques; hand-painted Christmas mobiles and tree decorations… In fact, out Christmas market stall was quite successful. We made some extra cash before Christmas and I have taken a couple of orders for some Compolibat plaques, which went down very well with the locals. We quickly figured out which items were popular (notably story stones, owl plaques and candlesticks) and which items were less regarded (fairy doors and fabric wreaths) so that if we decide to do it again next year, we can optimise our sales.

Back at home, the kitchen cupboards were fully stocked with chocolates and fizz, and all the other necessary ingredients to make our typically English Christmas dinner one to remember. Now it is all over, I can quite safely say that it is a Christmas I would much rather forget, for one by one, like fallen soldiers, all five of us in the house came down with a terrible case of the flu. On a brighter note, due to a subsequent lack of appetite and taste, we still have a cupboard full of chocolates and alcohol to get through, and for once, this Christmas we all lost weight as opposed to piling on the pounds! After a rough ten days of fatigue, aching muscles, chest infections and fevers, I am pleased to say that we are all on the mend now and the worst is over.

Which is more than can be said for one of our hens. Being poorly over Christmas has meant we have paid less attention than normal to our chickens and we have only recently noticed that yet another has come down with vent gleet. Today is New Year’s Eve and it is the first day of sun we have seen in a long time. Feeling ready to brave the outdoors after days spent huddled around the fire, Pete and I gave the hen a warm bath this morning and we spring-cleaned the chicken house. How poetic it all sounds, yet when you consider taking on the joys of homesteading, nobody mentions that it might involve you massaging a hen’s backside in soapy water in order to remove rotting faeces from her feathers, or shovelling stinking chicken poo into a wheelbarrow when you still have the shivers from a recent flu virus. Nope, quite often than not, we concentrate way too much on the glorified side of country-living and fail to mention the knitty-gritty, but it’s always there, and its bloody hard work this quiet life in the country!

As December draws to a close, I have swept all signs of negativity under the carpet. I can look back at 2017 and feel proud of what we have accomplished.

The children are doing well at school and are effortlessly bilingual. I have a strong relationship with my parents, who are now close by. Our house is becoming a home and as we enter our fourth year here, we are constantly making improvements. We have a better understanding of our land and what can be improved next year, and I have a strong man beside me, who helps me to live in the present moment and reinforces the idea of being mindful in everything I do. Take the weekly shop for example. Yes, there are times when I might have bought frozen pizza instead of making it myself or cooked frozen supermarket veg rather than picking it fresh from the garden, but nobody is perfect, despite what they might try to portray. What is important, Pete reminds me, is to consciously try to make the right compassionate choices in life. Tempting though it is for me to buy a cheap pack of chicken when money is tight, the likelihood is that those chickens suffered in appalling battery-farm conditions and the better option would be to go without chicken at all until we can afford to buy it free-range. The price of chicken in France fluctuates all the time but there are generally commercial offers for free-range chicken every month or so. An alternative solution would be to rear our own chickens for meat, something we have always liked the idea of, but never followed up. We do have plans to expand our chicken run to accommodate more chickens next year, so this could finally be an option for us.

Reflecting on the past year leaves me with optimism for the next. We have plans to add some colour in the form of flower beds next year. The introduction of a climbing Wisteria and geranium hanging baskets in the summer made our front door appear much more welcoming, so the plan is to create a relaxing area around the other side of the house, where we can enjoy the longer evening sun amongst a variety of cottage garden flowers. I wouldn’t mind a little pond too, but it might involve some digging on Pete’s part so I haven’t mentioned it to him as yet!

Of course, we haven’t forgotten about the fruit and vegetables. I generally tend to get carried away ordering seeds at the beginning of the year and have this awful tendency to sow them too early. This year, I am going to make a constructive growing plan, concentrating more on the staple veg that we eat regularly, such as potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, spinach and swiss chard and try not to get carried away growing tonnes of brassicas such as cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, many of which are eaten by pests or left to rot. Instead I will grow a smaller amount of brassicas and try to look after them better, with the aid of neem oil (a 2017 discovery of mine). Although our polytunnel has provided us with fresh lettuce well into December, I need to stagger my lettuce growing more, to ensure a steady yield throughout the year, particularly when it’s really hot. My neighbour has promised to help me increase my green bean and tomato yields, and after trying the back-breaking traditional method of potato-growing, we are reverting back, without hesitation, to our initial straw-grown potato method next year.

So, what began this blog post as a downward spiral of self-pity has once again been transformed into a positive reflection of the past year, with high hopes for 2018. Please don’t believe everything you read or see online, concentrate on living the dream rather than trying to share it on social media. Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future, just be honest, true and kind, live in the moment, all the time.

I sincerely wish you all the very best for 2018. Happy New Year!

Christmas crafts

November 2017

For the past few weeks, I have been a little preoccupied, to say the least, making crafts with my mum to sell at the village Christmas market. I remember feeling a bit let down by last year’s Christmas markets which weren’t exactly festive, just lots of stalls selling expensive handbags, homemade chocolates, conserves, pottery and plants. After a quick tour of the aisles, I left feeling not so merry, with not even a glass of vin chaud in sight to lift my spirits. I was not going to let it happen again. This year, our Christmas market preparations started back in September, when my auntie introduced us to Posca. These all-surface, water-based Posca pens have allowed me to unleash my creativity and express myself through vibrant colour. And for my canvas…wood, porcelain, slate, glass, I’ve tried the lot! Take a look:

While I’ve been busy painting pebbles, my mum has been making wreaths, knitting snowmen, decorating wine bottles, dressing candlesticks…the list is endless. It is an awful lot of hard work, for what might be very little profit, but we have been enjoying ourselves, getting in the Christmas spirit and spending some quality mother-daughter time together. Compolibat Christmas market is being held on Sunday 10th December…I’ll let you know how we get on.

Obviously juggling all this crafting with my English lessons has left precious little time for anything else. The garden looks most untidy and the freezing temperatures have meant we have been indoors with the fire blazing all day long. Our two steres of wood, delivered locally, might not even see us through to Christmas at this rate!

Still, we are all in good health and good spirits. Let the Christmas countdown commence…

A composting loo with a view

October 2017

We have, at last, an upstairs bathroom! What began life as a temporary green house for sowing seeds, then became a spare room for guests, then a bedroom for our two children and finally, it has evolved into a family-sized bathroom, complete with composting toilet.

Inspiration came from various images found online and we loved the idea of ‘old meets new’. It’s a rustic bathroom with a touch of modernity, maybe not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to ours and I’ll explain why in the rest of this post.

We had a blank canvas to work with and since we had no intention of installing a flush toilet, we were not restricted by waste pipes. There was plenty of room for a bathtub, but this is an unnecessary luxury for a house that’s trying to save water and be eco-friendly so was never on the agenda.

Here is a list of our initial requirements:

  • a compost toilet (due to the success of our downstairs composting loo, it was a must for upstairs, even if it’s a bit more effort to empty the bucket!)
  • a walk-in shower (for the ease of showering the kids and a luxury for us, when you have been brought up showering in baths)
  • rustic furniture (made-to-measure by Pete)
  • rustic pipework for shower (copper or brass, for example)
  • a rustic sink unit (wine barrel or wooden work bench)
  • lino flooring (due to the uneven floorboards, tiling was never an option)
  • house plants (to create a relaxing oasis and make the most of this rather large, south-facing room).

Here’s a look at some of the images that inspired us and how they are reflected in our bathroom:

 

SHOWER
Although all the shower components were purchased separately,
the walk-in shower, as a whole, is the most expensive item in our bathroom,
totaling nearly 70% of our bathroom expenditure.
I wasn’t willing to compromise on this particular ‘luxury’!
I loved the patchwork tiles as soon as I saw them in an online picture (see above)
and managed to track them down from a tile supplier in Toulouse.
They cost us more than we initially intended but we don’t regret our purchase,
at least not at the moment.
Perhaps we might in twenty years’ time when our children ask
what possessed us to buy such ghastly, out-dated tiles!

 

STORAGE SHELVES
Our shelves are removable to provide access to the pipework in case of any leaks.
My dad did all the plumbing…so far so good!

 

SINK AND UNIT
I initially wanted to incorporate the sink into an old wooden barrel
(we even bought the barrel second-hand) but it would have been too high for the kids to reach
and so we decided on a stone sink, with a waterfall, bamboo-style tap.
The sink unit was designed and made entirely by Pete
and began life as an old fireplace mantel,
a beautiful piece of wood given to us by one of Pete’s friends,
who was renovating his house…I wonder if he regrets giving it away now!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

DRESSING TABLE
We bought the mirror second-hand for a bargain 12€
and Pete framed it with pallet wood, before making my dressing table (his own design).
It is very large and extremely heavy, but our generous-sized bathroom can take it.
It’s just missing a stool. Hint hint!

 

COMPOST TOILET
The design of our second composting toilet differs from the first
as the sawdust is stored in a removable bucket, to the side of the toilet.
This means we simply remove the bucket and take it to the shed to refill it with sawdust,
plus the kids can reach it easier than the downstairs one which is built-in behind the toilet.
For added privacy, there is a screen with a floating shelf (for one of the plants)
and it hides the toilet from view when you walk into the bathroom.
I guess not many people have a toilet with a view!


PLANTS

I carefully researched plants that thrive in humid and light conditions
and this is what I came up with:

Areca palm – the largest plant in our bathroom which is very easy to look after and impressive to look at.

Aloe vera – a useful plant to have in the house (which I bought last year and brought up from the lounge).

Snake plant – a hardy plant that filters toxins from the air.

 

 

 

Peace lily – a striking flower that also purifies the air (it is not kept in direct sunlight).

Umbrella plant – it wasn’t chosen specifically for the bathroom but it was beginning to suffer in the lounge so I brought it up to the bathroom and it has since picked up.

Zamioculas (Emerald Palm) – my favourite plant that is nice to look at, easy to look after and doesn’t need much watering.

 

 

I am still on the look-out for a fern and an orchid, but I’ll see how I get on keeping these ones alive first.

FIXTURES AND FITTINGS
Once we had decided to get a black shower and black taps,
it seemed we needed a bit more black here and there to bring it all together,
so we went for a rustic lantern light and a cubic suspension light
(chosen because they both take E27 lightbulbs,
which we got for free earlier in the year from mesampoulesgratuites.fr).

 

COLOUR SCHEME
The paint was chosen in accordance with the tiles, four different colours for four walls,
but a bit of thought went into them all the same.
The vibrant yellow represents the sun
and brightens up the bathroom with a Mediterranean feel.
The pastel brown wall represents the earth and soil
and reconfirms our connection to it.
The pale blue wall represents water
and the pastel green wall represents life (renewal, nature, energy).

 

So what exactly did it all cost?

Upstairs bathroom costs – Sep/Oct 2017

Item Supplier Costs €
Tile glue Carro Discount 25
Patchwork tiles Comptoir Toulousain Carrelage 204
Mastic Bricorama 4
Shower base Cdiscount 260
Shower Ebay 170
Shower plug and overflow Amazon 23
Shower screen Ebay 200
Sink Groupon 70
Sink tap, siphon and plug Amazon 56
Large mirror Le BonCoin 12
Black mirror and hooks Ikea 31
Paint Deco Troc 34
3 Buckets Ebay 30
Plants Point Vert 25
Hinges Bricorama 18
Lino Bricorama 77
Ceiling light Amazon 19
Lantern light Amazon 42
1300 €uro

 

 

Labour (carried out at weekends by Pete) and all the wood for around the window, shower base, shelves, sink unit, dressing table and compost toilet was Free (with a capital ‘F’)!

A lot of thought went into this bathroom and I think Pete has done an amazing job. I particular love taking a shower while enjoying the view of the countryside. There are no curtains at the windows and no shower curtain to protect our modesty. Protect it from whom? Out here, in our countryside retreat, there is nobody. Just us, an average family of four, trying our best to live a happy, sustainable life, and my parents, who now live with us full-time and have at last started calling it ‘Home’.