Grooming grass, picturing Pionsat and Ulysse unwinding
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Now that spring is here, one of my most regular jobs, as for many people, is keeping the grass under control.

I freely acknowledge that you will by now have seen enough images of our acre of France in various states between overgrown and scalped, so here’s something different.

As well as our patch (of which I mow about 2,500 square metres), I also run up and down both sides of the road. From outside our house to the main road is a little over 200 metres, so I cut approaching 500 metres of it, after I’ve finished the main cut.
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Admit it, you’re fascinated.

Not very much happened this week. I took a (for me) early morning trip into the village with my camera, and knocked off a few library images. Nothing much was happening, and I wasn’t overly inspired. However, there is, in the middle of Pionsat, what used to be the Grand Hôtel Chabassière. I’m sure I read somewhere that it was, in the early part of the last century, an important and renowned (if not infamous) centre for the consumption of Absynthe. I have searched diligently, but cannot now find reference to that. Perhaps I imagined it.

It was in a run-down state when we arrived eight years ago, with a bicycle chained to its drain pipe. To show that nothing has changed…

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I have seen an image of the hotel as a going concern, in 1953. However, the image is for sale on a web site, and I don’t think I should display it here. However, this link will take you to it. At the bottom of that page, you can see the whole image at a better resolution. Meanwhile, here are some more of the images from that morning trip.

The A-Z blogging challenge is going rather well, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of comments I have received, and their positivity. We finish this week with Q, leaving only nine articles to go, before the challenge concludes at the end of the month. All in all, it has been a relatively productive week – even if it did leave some of us exhausted!

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Images of spring
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What a glorious week it has been. Not always sunny and not always warm, but spring is clearly with us.

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No travels this week, unless you count a trip to the pharmacy to top up on medications and a trip to the supermarket to top up on food. We have enjoyed our afternoon walks with the dogs. The part of the world that we call home really is beautiful at this time of year. Flowers are in bloom, carpeting the roadsides with colour (yeah – mostly green, but humour me on this) and, provided the insects (and Clare with her brush) do their job, heralding another good year for fruit. On a slightly less positive note, we are now firmly into grass-cutting season; on an even less positive note, the weeds, – those plants that have, according to American journalist Doug Larson, mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows – are doing even better. Even dealing with those twin negatives is enjoyable when the sun is shining, the temperature in the high teens to low twenties, the bees are buzzing, the butterflies fluttering by, the birds singing and the dogs are – never mind what the dogs are doing, suffice to say that they’re having fun, too.

Here are some pictures:

Up here in the study, life has been quite busy. My second blog, A story of stories, is busily involved in the April A-Z challenge. Tomorrow is the turn of L, A-K having been featured over the past fortnight. I shall also, over time, be posting on that blog, the occasional short story. For the time being, these will be works in progress, and may change subtly over time. One is available now. It is the first part of what will be a larger work, provisionally entitled The Gorgeous Della Jaunt. The title was inspired by our recent visit to the Gorges de la Jonte, which I mentioned last week. Another is ready to go up, but as it is also the first submission for my Novel and Short Story course, I shall allow my tutor to see it and tear it to pieces before I make it available on the site.

A couple of months ago, I joined a group called Blog Blitz. Its purpose is to support and enhance the reach of member blogs. Once every couple of weeks, the organiser selects one blog recommended by members, and one drawn at random from the membership, and fires out an email to all members (except, of course, the two specified) with a request that, on a given date, as many members as possible visit the two blogs, read them, and leave a suitable comment. Whilst we were away, it seems I was chosen – presumably the random one. Generally, I expect to receive about the same number of comments each week. None. Today, my 30th March blog entry shows 171 comments. Of these, some are my responses, but about 120 are comments from other bloggers. Some of these have chosen to follow the blog, and receive automatic notification when I post a new entry.

I have also started a photo blog, here, to which I will post, every Saturday (or more often if I feel like it – my blog, my rules) a single image. There may be a brief caption, but there will be no commentary. Images that I don’t think can stand alone without a commentary, I shall post here.

Never underestimate the determination of a Jack Russell Terrier

Never underestimate the determination of a Jack Russell Terrier

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Road trip 2 – a different route home
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I know we had planned to come back through the Ardèche mountains, but plans change. One of the benefits of our current lifestyle is that we have few strictures on our time and activities. Of course, where we make commitments, they have to be kept; had we agreed to meet someone at an agreed time and date on the Ardèche mountains, we should have been obliged, either to turn up when expected, or to change the appointment.

When looking at the options available, we found that, if we were to make our way to Béziers, on the Mediterranean coast, we could take the A75 from there to Clermont-Ferrand. That road is, as the map below shows, pretty close to a straight line and, unlike the Autoroute du soleil, toll free. The only toll on the A75 is for crossing the fabulous Millau viaduct (7.30€ for the car and 10.90€ for the camper and well worth every centime). Decision made.

We set off for Avignon on Monday morning, arriving at the caravan centre just after 3pm. It was clear that our camper wasn’t ready to be driven away; she was still in the workshop, very much giving the appearance of being worked on. The owner came out and asked us if we could come back at 5 o’clock. We went for a drive into Avignon and, because of the traffic, had no time to do anything but turn straight back. I so wanted to dance on the famous bridge!

On our return, the owner of the caravan centre explained that once he had installed the new motor for the electric step, he found that the geared cam that raises and lowers the step, had a number of broken teeth and would need to be replaced. He would place an order for that, and let us know when it arrives, so we can take the camper down to him for it to be fitted. This is becoming expensive! It was obvious to me, that he had only started looking at it on Monday, having had it for a week. Had he looked sooner, he could have let me know that it wouldn’t be complete, whereupon we could and would have delayed our journey (and hopefully found better weather, too). Were I a less level-headed kind of person, I might have offered to put him in the same condition as the geared cam.

We now await the next call. I think our next visit will be in one vehicle only – we can hire a car locally for about 30€ per day, enabling us to explore locally whilst he is doing the repair.

As intimated, we headed south from Avignon. Our first stop was La Grande Motte, in the Petite Camargue. As we were passing through the wetlands, the sun was setting very attractively, and we spotted some flamingos in the water. We stopped to appreciate the scene and, as we did, we noticed that a number of flamingos were flying around in the way that geese do prior to settling for the night. I had not been aware of flamingos in France, and had not seen them in the wild outside Africa. There was not the concentration of the birds here that I had seen in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, but it was very special nonetheless.  We stayed there until the light started to fail, then headed into La Grande Motte to find somewhere to stop for the night.

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France benefits from a lot of provision for campers. Wherever you find, at the roadside, a sign looking like a camper with a water container below it, it points to an aire de camping-car. These always allow discharge of waste water and chemical toilets, and usually allow overnight parking. Some also provide fresh water and electricity although, not unreasonably, these latter are not usually free.

We found one that cost 11€ for a night’s stop – aire camping-car les Cigales. In the middle of a number of camping and other tourist facilities, it was well frequented, but there was more than enough room for us. The car had to stay outside. Whether it will be as easy in high season, I can’t say. As well as providing fresh water and electricity, it has a good-sized amenities block that is well-equipped and well-presented. It is also well placed for exploring the area. After a good night’s sleep, we set off again, headed west along the coast, past Sète and towards Agde. We had planned to stop at Marseillan-Plage, but found that those campsites that open in April -  and there aren’t that many that do – open between 7th and 12th. We were there on 1st April. On our way from Sète to Marseillan-Plage, we had noticed an aire de camping-car that was fairly full. We returned to that aire, and found a corner where we could stop for the night. It was free, and no facilities were available, save a chemical toilet discharge point. Fresh water is available in season. As well as being free, its main advantage is that it is practically on the beach. From our camper to the beach must have been almost twenty-five metres.

We took the dogs to the beach – something to which they are not really accustomed. There were no more than about half-a-dozen people on the sand, and one dog that was running free. We let our dogs off their leads and let them run. Run? Trevor was like a thing possessed, behaving the same as the winter-born calves do, when they are first let loose in the fields in spring. Ulysse was unusually animated, too. It was marvellous to watch. We started throwing sticks for Trevor. Such was the wind, that lighter sticks had to be thrown with the wind, otherwise they behaved like boomerangs! We had two such outings in the evening, one one the next morning, before moving on to our next stop.

Our plan was to travel, on Wednesday, from Marsaillan-Plage to Le Rozier, via Millau. Le Rozier is at the confluence of the rivers Tarn and Jonte, giving good access to the Gorges du Tarn and the Gorges de la Jonte. On Thursday, given the excellent forecast, we would walk or drive to a good height and do some vulture-watching, then leave for home on Friday morning. The Gorges de la Jonte is home to large numbers of Griffon Vultures, and a healthy population of Cinereous (European Black) Vultures.  We called in at the excellent three-star Camping municipal de Brouillet at Le Rozier, and paid for two nights’ camping with electricity.

Thursday morning didn’t look too good – dull and overcast, but at least dry. We set off mid-morning intending to climb to the top of nearby Capluc Rock. The idea was to get to the fenced-off area by the cross at the very summit, and to grab some decent images of Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures and Ravens. I was carrying two cameras, one fitted with my Sigma 150-500mm lens, and a monopod. The climb started quite reasonably, a steep gravel track cutting off a large loop in the road. It then continued on the road, before heading off through the ruined village of Capluc, from where it became quite difficult. In parts, it was almost sheer, a narrow rock climb with grab ropes on the rock side, which became too dangerous to try to negotiate whilst keeping a dog on the lead with one hand. We almost reached the top, but the drizzle was making the rock slippery in places and, coupled with the general lack of light, made use of my long lens impossible. We decided to turn back. I was disappointed not to have made the top, but wouldn’t have been able to do anything whilst there and, as I didn’t have anything to prove to myself or anyone else, there seemed no point in continuing. Coming down again, aided by Trevor, who was far more sure-footed than I, was interesting, bordering on exciting! Perhaps another time, in better weather, and sans chiens.

Although we did see a number of Griffon Vultures, and one Cinereous Vulture, they were too far away to photograph with a standard lens, and there was insufficient light to use the long lens, which is wide open at f/6.3. It was also evident that the weather wasn’t going to improve, and there seemed little point in sitting in the camper in the rain all afternoon, only to stop the night and leave the next morning. We packed up and left, arriving home in plenty of time to catch the new season of Big Bang Theory on E4.

Overall, I have to say that the A75 route was very good. There are some long, steep hills that had the camper sweating a bit. There must have been five or six occasions when the temperature gauge was well into the red, and I was, on as many occasions, tempted to stop and let her cool a little. That apart, the scenery along the route is beyond spectacular. It is just a pity that Clare and I were in separate vehicles, which meant there was no-one available in either to photograph any of the scenery; there was also nowhere one could stop to take a photograph. Next time.

Inthehead2In 1975, I actively campaigned for the ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum to determine whether the UK should join the (then) European Economic Community. This was a trading group, and no-one in the UK electorate had any inkling that it would ever be any more than that. Today, it is a politico-fiscal bloc with, it seems, federalist ambitions. This is not what I campaigned for, voted for and supported.

The primary, and laudable, purpose for creating the Union was to prevent a repeat of the two world wars that blighted the first half of the twentieth century. That was the dream and, so far, it is holding good. However, it doesn’t help those member states in the Euro area, that are having financial troubles. They are having to battle their woes without the single weapon that is acknowledged as the most effective – interest rates. Ireland, Spain and Greece (as well as Cyprus, Portugal and Italy) could all possibly have addressed their woes with this tool, but weren’t permitted, as the EU-wide interest rate is set at a level that seems to best fit the stronger economies.

I am not convinced that currency/fiscal union can work without full political union; that full political union can be achieved easily across such diverse cultures; or that the current mix of national and central competences, both fiscal and political, is sustainable. That is not to suggest that I know any answers, more that I don’t fully comprehend the questions. The problem is that, as far as I can see, neither does anyone else, least of all the unelected bureaucrats who actually run the EU.

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Road trip number one.
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Last Sunday, we topped up the camper with diesel and the Twingo with petrol, and made our way south. Instead of following the autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand, a route that veers east towards Saint-Etienne to give a total journey of 477km, we stayed with the national and departmental roads via Le Puy-en-Velay and the edge of the Ardèche mountains, giving a total distance of 428km. The fuel cost for the two routes is similar, and the time taken is two hours more for the direct route that using the autoroutes. Why did we not use the autoroutes? Quite simply because the tolls for the two return journeys would have added 235€ to the cost. And we wouldn’t have seen anything like the amount of glorious scenery that we did.

When we left home, the weather was not unpleasant. By the time we approached le Puy-en-Velay, it was. Snow. Passing over the mountains, I was seriously questioning the wisdom of my decision to switch to the summer tyres on the Twingo. The snow was driving, and the temperature had fallen to -2°C. I was driving the camper, which was coping quite well, and Clare told me that the Twingo was behaving normally, so no harm was done.

We reached our destination at about 6pm. The caravan centre was closed, of course, with a very solid locked gate barring the entrance. We made our way to a camp site in a cherry orchard, just a few kilometres north of the caravan centre. The site appeared open, but deserted. We just went ahead and set ourselves up on a pitch close to the amenities. We had eaten dinner and started on the wine, when there was a knock on the door. The manager had arrived, and wondered why there were lights visible. We explained that we couldn’t find anyone to ask, but needed to camp for one night. He was happy with that, took our money and asked if we would like, as a welcome gift, a jar of honey made on the site, or a bottle of local wine. What a silly question. The wine, incidentally, was rather pleasant, and I rather fancy we shall call back for more.

On Monday morning, we went to the caravan centre, where we saw the owner and handed over the keys to the camper, with a promise to return for her the following Monday afternoon.

For the drive back, we felt that the direct route on the autoroutes, though costing about 33€ in tolls, would be worthwhile, as it would reduce the travel time by a couple of hours and keep us away from the snow. It also gave us some interesting views – all in all, a pleasant drive.

Tomorrow morning, we shall be off again. We shall take the quick route to Avignon, to arrive by mid-afternoon to pick up the camper. As the weather forecast is good, we may then head down to the Mediterranean coast for a day or two. I’m quite looking forward to that. A gentle drive back through the Ardèche mountains should bring us home again by the weekend.

Inthehead2We are permitted to vote in the local elections. We are not permitted to vote in the national or presidential contests. For reasons best known to officialdom, we vote in national elections in the constituency in which our last permanent address in UK is located – that is now Swindon, though it was Salisbury when we left. We can only do that for 15 years, after which we shall be effectively disenfranchised.

I have never understood the logic of any of this. I live in France, I pay my taxes in France and I consume services in France yet, as I am not a French citizen, I must elect my representative in another country. However, it is the way most countries work, and if I cannot participate in national politics in France, it is good that I can vote in UK, enabling my small voice to have an effect on the make-up of the UK government. However, although I shall be voting for my representative in the House of Commons, there is no prospect of the person elected actually representing me. Of what possible concern to an MP for Swindon are issues that I, as a British citizen, may face in the Auvergne? A number of countries (currently 14) devote some of their parliamentary seats to overseas constituencies (source). These representatives are elected by and represent their country’s citizens living in other countries. I can see no valid argument against that. In fact, my feelings are supported by britishexpats.com (interesting article here).

We voted. As far as I could make out, we were required to select four candidates from the list of eleven. As the population of our commune is less than 1000, there is no party list, no party politics at all; we elect individuals. I won’t say who received our votes, but our neighbour was on the list and, of the ten remaining, two are known to us. One was chosen at random. The commune has 173 registered electors, 131 of whom voted. Of that 131, eight papers were invalid. Every candidate having gained more than 85% of the votes cast, there will be no second vote. This is in contrast to much of the country. Our turnout, at 76% (71% net of invalid papers) was probably better than double the national average. As is inevitably the case, low turnout disfavours moderate politics, and allows the more extreme parties to gain greater traction than their actual popularity warrants. Simply put, people who are passionate about politics frequently hold views significantly less moderate than those held by folk who are not motivated to get out and vote. That is a basic weakness of representative democracy, and a strong argument in favour of compulsory voting. As an alternative, I wonder what would be the result of a system, whereby votes not cast, including spoiled votes, were allocated to the party currently in the majority nationally. I can see that compulsory voting might be unpopular, although 22 countries have legislated for it (source), but default voting would, at the very least, help to prevent what should be fringe parties from appearing to have massive popular support. I am sure that if I were, for example, a fringe Labour voter, and believed my vote, if not cast, would be allocated to the Conservatives, I would go out and vote. If, on the other hand, I were a Conservative voter, I may be tempted not to, knowing that my vote would default to them.

And finally…

Look who is eight today. Happy birthday, Trevor.

Look who is eight today. Happy birthday, Trevor.

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