29 August 2006

Forbidden Fruit?

The terracotta-tiled floor in my study is normally awash with dogs when I’m working at the computer: fluffy dogs, smooth-coated dogs, large and small dogs but always exceedingly lazy dogs. Yes, the door to the garden is open all day but as we know, dogs need people, and people – well, right-minded people, that is – need dogs. So these lazy canines lie at my feet and wait for me to go into the garden and then they deign to follow me.

But not for the last few days. I sit here and there’s not a dog to be seen in the house - and why? I get up, look out of the window, and there they all are – scavenging under le figuer. Some sit there waiting patiently for a fig to fall and fall they do because I can’t reach the top of the tree to gather the ripe fruit. One dog even jumps up and pulls the fruit off the lower branches.

This fig tree is magnificent, probably over a hundred years old and is one of the many joys of life here. I love everything about this beautiful old fig – the bare twisting winter branches, that first bursting bud in spring, the leaves, which once they appear, you can almost see grow bigger by the minute until you have shade aplenty to protect you from the burning summer sun. And then August comes and with it the fruit, swelling and changing colour, softening and suddenly, one day you notice a perfect fig, ripe for the picking. As Dickens wrote, ’Train up a fig tree in the way it will go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it.’

Noria, Rosie and Maddie searching for fallen fruit
The land here belonged to my neighbour, Agnès, before it was sold to the people who built what is now my home. More than anything, she and her mother missed the fig tree and so we all get excited as we get into August and know it won’t be long before we’ll be scoffing the first of the luscious fruit.

If it rains when the figs are ripening it can cause the fruit to split but this year, with almost no rain, the fruit is perfect. I worried we’d get no fruit this year because we didn't even have spring rains, but this tree never lets us down except when it takes a rest every three or four years: its roots are so wide and so deep it’s probably not affected by lack of rain. What a wonder the fig is – as is the olive - my two favourite trees in the Mediterranean. Only this year, archaeologists discovered cultivated figs in an 11,400-year-old house in Jericho, leading scientists to believe that the fig was the first cultivated crop, 1000 years before wheat and rye.

Funny how trees summon up a place. Figs and olives say ‘Mediterranean’ to me. The gum or eucalyptus tree is Australia: how I loved those trees when I lived in Tasmania, and later Queensland - but that’s another story.

And there are less cicadelles this year. These look like tiny moths but are in fact a type of cigale (cicada) whose larvae cover plants and trees with a sticky froth – in fact, their spittle and excrement – charming, eh? The adults and the larvae suck the sap and will eventually weaken any plant or tree. Some people spray against it but the cicadelle only flies off to the next tree or the next garden, so what’s the point? Anyway, en principe, I never spray. If a plant or tree can’t manage on its own, then, tant pis, plant something else that can. Normally, so long as a tree or plant has sufficient food and water it will withstand the cicadelle. Perhaps not true for vines but then the only vines I have produce a few paltry bunches of very tiny grapes and they get eaten by the birds or tree rats long before I get near them. The best non-toxic deterrent against the cicadelle is to spray the insects and larvae with a sharp burst of water from the hosepipe – of course they come back but it helps.

Rox ever hopeful
I used to think the dogs would get upset stomachs (read diarrhoea if you need more specifics) but they don’t, so I’ve stopped trying to beat them to the fallen figs: after all, they are full of vitamins, good for us and doubtless good for dogs too.

It’s time to go down to the garden and pick today’s crop before even more hit the ground with a soft splosh...

24 August 2006


Nicolas and Shadow
One of my favourite blogs is French Word a Day. It's written by Kristin, an American, married to a Frenchman and living in the Var with their two children. Every few days Kristin sends out her blog featuring a French word and its definition, along with notes on her life and always a beautiful photograph. Highly recommended whether you are a beginner in French or have been living here for years. You can even listen to one of her children speak the word. And she's also the author of the recently published, 'Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the south of France.' I love it. You can buy this from Amazon. com or Amazon. co.uk.

Recently the family bought a puppy, a golden retriever, so the word of the day was chiot (puppy)…and also chiotte. You can read that particular entry here.

We all know that un chiot is a male puppy, so une chiotte must be a female puppy – n’est-ce pas? After all, un chien is a male dog and une chienne is a female dog. Logical, yes? NO!

Reading Kristin’s blog reminded me of the day, some years ago, when I judged a prestigious dog show at Le Blanc in the centre of France – no less a show than the National Elevage of the Old English Sheepdog Club of France. I had to take the microphone after each class to explain my placings and to this day no one in the Old English Sheepdog world in France has ever told me that chiotte doesn’t mean female puppy.

I discovered my faux pas about four years ago when I went with my neighbour, Agnès, to help her choose a puppy – also a golden retriever like Kristin’s - to be called Shadow. We were talking about puppies and I noticed that Nicolas, her teenage son, was smirking in the background. He couldn’t stop and eventually I asked Agnès why he was giggling. ‘Be quiet, Nicolas,’ she said, ‘stop that.’ But he didn’t and I asked again and she explained that chiotte is rather impoli (rude) and she'd not wanted to tell me. 'So what does it mean?’ I asked. Rather sheepishly she said it was a rude word for the W.C. Later I looked it up in the dictionary and see the exact translation is ‘bog’ or 'john.' And now I learn from Kristin that it also means that wonderfully refined word 'crapper.'

From then on I made Agnès promise to tell me when I made a mistake in French…let’s hope she has…

16 August 2006

Not another rescue dog!

The dogs are barking, not that there are many here at Pension Milou at the moment, as I’m still recovering from my fall and Doc says - NO dogs. Of course I’m not obeying her but I only have a few small easy ones. I’m doing OK, lying flat on my back for much of the day and with Lou, the French bulldog, playing Nurse Fuzzy Wuzzy on the bed with me. The dogs don’t stop their noise so I put on the support belt the doctor prescribed and walk slowly to the gate. The daughter and grown-up grand-daughter of my neighbour, Monsieur Cocular, are standing there and with them, attached to a piece of rope, is the thinnest pointer I’ve ever seen. Marie-Christine is trying to hold onto a bag of dog food and the dog is tearing into it as if she’s not eaten in weeks.

Marie-Christine tells me she found the dog stuck in thick brambles, unable to move, under the autoroute. She tells me how difficult it was to get her out and points out the scratches and dried up drops of blood on her arms and legs. She asks if I know to whom she belongs. I don’t. ‘Perhaps she’s one of the hunters’ dogs,’ I say but looking at her again I think she’s probably too old. Marie-Christine says she doesn’t know what to do with her and asks if I can help.

The pointer looks like an abandoned dog to me and she too is scratched from her ordeal in the brambles and has what looks like a large tumour on one side. I well know the refuges are full: indeed, there isn’t a Menton refuge anymore. There should be. It’s a law in France that any town over a certain size – certainly Menton is well over that size - must have a refuge. We used to have one way up in the Fossan but it was closed down because neighbours complained of noise, which is a bit rich when you know that the refuge and the dogs were there long before anyone bought land and built on it. Since then there has been no land available for a refuge. No one wants a refuge near them.

The Monaco refuge, the SPA de Monaco, has a similar problem. It’s located in Eze, which is in France - between the Principality of Monaco and Nice but is funded by Monaco. You’d think all good and proper, wouldn’t you? Well, no, the dogs, whilst well cared for, live in very cramped quarters and are never ever taken out for walks. This is because anything that causes more barking than the basics of cleaning and feeding has to be avoided. The place isn’t big enough for the number of dogs incarcerated there and there is no way they can expand on the present premises due to lack of space and again there are neighbours who complain. This refuge was built many years ago, it’s has out-of-date facilities and it’s simply overcrowded. There is money to build a new refuge but every time the marvellous Jan, the Scottish lady who runs it, manages to find a piece of land, permission is refused by the commune that owns it. Princesse Antoinette, sister of the late Prince Rainier, started the refuge all those years ago, and you’d think land could be found with that sort of influences. But no. Jan found land in Castellar, a village above Menton, and permission was refused. They found land above Gorbio, my village, and permission was refused. It was felt that when the runs were washed down, there would be urine run-off into the water system. Indeed, someone went up to the hills above the village and put a dye into the water table and it did indeed filter down into the water supply. Sounds a bit like Manon des Sources, doesn’t it? In fact, plans have been drawn up for a new refuge for Monaco which include a completely sealed water run-off that goes back, via a pump, into a tank to be cleaned and re-cycled but nothing would convince the Mayor and his team and so a large fat NO came back.

So, no refuge in Menton and an overcrowded one in Eze and a needy dog standing before me. The last thing I want is another Rescue dog. I had three and then Columbo had to be put to sleep. Now I have Bimbo (re-named Beau) and Rox – all three came from a refuge and believe me, I sure don’t want another one at the moment. But what can I do? I look after dogs - that's my metier and my conscience is working overtime, dammit. I take the rope lead and tell my neighbours I’ll let them know what happens.

I take the dog downstairs (I don’t want her mixing with the others in case she has a disease or perhaps has fleas or ticks). I get her a big bowl of water and put down a dish of dog food, which she scoffs in an instant. I’ve a feeling I’ve just taken in yet another unwanted dog. Oh dear.

Nevertheless I call the police and they tell me that yes, there is a dog missing from Gorbio village. I call the number I've been given and it turns out it is the owner of the bar in the village but no, it’s not his dog. He’s lost a male dog. The one I have here is female. I ask if he knows about a pointer missing from the village but he doesn’t.

Maybe Carla, who looks after dogs like me, will know what to do? She lives in the commune of Gorbio too. I call her and she tells me she’s seen several notices for missing dogs way over on the back roads that lead to Weldon, a big hard-ware store in Menton. She also tells me there is a notice in the Weldon store itself for a missing dog but she hadn’t noted the breed. I call Weldon, it’s almost closing time, but they tell me they threw out the notice two or three weeks ago and no, they don’t remember what breed of dog it was.

I want to go and find the notices Carla saw on the back roads but I’m not allowed to drive until my back is healed and that’s a long way off. Carla tells me she is really busy but will go and look in the morning. I call my neighbour, Agnes, who lives in the house below me and she says she is happy to go and look at the notices right away. What a star she is. When she gets back, her news is no better - no, none of the dogs fit the description of the thin pointer. Someone has lost a shih tzu, someone a German shepherd, someone else a Brittany spaniel. Goodness, where on earth have these dogs disappeared to?

I wonder if perhaps the pointer has a tattoo. It's the law in France that all dogs must be tattooed or micro-chipped but not all are. Success! Why didn’t I think of this before? It’s hard to read the number and she won’t keep still. I probably wouldn’t either if I’d been stuck in brambles, frightened and with no food or water for goodness knows how long, and a stranger is trying to look at the inside flap of my ear. Anyway we get there eventually: 5 of the 6 letters are legible, one is debatable. I note down the probable letters and numbers.

I call my vet and Sylvie, her assistant answers. She tells me I should call the afore-mentioned SPA in Monaco and they will look up the owner of the dog on their computer. It’s now way past closing time and I assume I won’t get an answer but Sylvie said there is always someone in charge at this refuge and indeed there is. The lady takes my name and number and says she’ll ring me back.

Only 15 minutes later the phone rings and I have a name and phone number. Whoopee! I call the number I’ve been given and a female voice answers. She sounds familiar but I can’t quite place her but she recognises my voice – well that’s not difficult with my accent when speaking French. It’s Crystelle, the factrice (post lady). I know she lives in the village with her husband and baby son but I never knew she had a dog. She says she’ll drive down right away.

Crystelle arrives, takes one look at her dog and bursts into tears. ‘She went missing last night,’ she tells me, ‘and we’ve looked everywhere in the village for her. ' I tell her my neighbours fed her and so did I and venture to ask why she is so thin if she only went missing last night. ‘Oh you mustn’t feed her,’ she tells me. 'She is diabetic, epileptic and has cancer and because of the diabetes we have to keep her thin to keep her alive.’ I apologise of course but say she looked and acted like a starving dog. She tells me she is always hungry because of the diabetes.

So, a happy ending and accomplished very quickly too. I have to say I’m relieved. I’m simply not ready to take in yet another Rescue dog. Not yet anyway…

04 August 2006

Gardening can seriously damage your health

Wednesday, 19th July 2006

Today I’m gardening for the gardener. Bit like cleaning up for the cleaning lady, except I don’t have one of those either. This garden has been in the too-hard-basket for a while now and a friend in the village has suggested her gardener might like a few hours a week and he’s due to start tomorrow. Because I didn’t cut back in late spring this year, the garden is overgrown and so I worry he’ll pull out perfectly good plants along with the mauvaises herbes. My plants are like babies, many grown from seed or cuttings – well, you get the message.

This garden has to be the most difficult I’ve ever encountered. I live on a steep hillside and the land is terraced on ten different levels. Much of it was covered in a thirteen-year growth of brambles when I first moved in. This took took three years to eradicate. The main area at the back of the house is now divided into two separate gardens, each fenced with gates. The lower one, which consists of 6 terraces, is for the dogs, the higher one is for me to grow what I want – or rather what nature will allow me to grow on the stony soil here. There’s also a small area of garden at the front of the house with a covered terrace overlooking the Mediterranean and yet another on the opposite side of the track as you walk down to the house. Below all this is common land, never to be built on, with the River Calf way below, bubbling its way over massive rocks and fallen trees and on down the valley to the sea.

Some of the terraces are 7 feet high, some lower, with the soil (what there is of it) retained by old dry stone walls. This whole valley was laid out in olive groves and market gardens in years gone by. Now only the olives remain. The walls were in a dreadful mess when I bought the place seven years ago, tumbled by the sangliers (wild boars) but slowly over the years, a Calabrian miracle worker, Giovanni, working a few hours a week, has rebuilt them for me. I used to work as builder’s labourer lugging rocks to wherever he was working – well those that weren't too heavy, that is.

What makes the garden so difficult is the lugging. You can’t get a wheelbarrow up and down the narrow steps. When you prune you have to lug the cuttings up to the compost heap or way down the track to the bonfire. When you plant, you need engrais (manure) which you have to bring up from the cave way down below and of course all the garden tools need to be carried up and taken back down when you've finished the day's work. All this is particularly difficult for me because many years ago I had a head-on car crash in a narrow Kentish lane. A butterfly farmer hit me whilst driving too fast to get his butterflies to Dover. I did nothing about the resulting whiplash injury (yes, I know, how stupid can you get?) and so now I have an arthritic neck because it set out of alignment. I’ve learned what I can and can’t do and if I’m careful I get thru a day with no pain. A full watering can is impossible; half full is just fine. The simple movement of digging into hard ground with a trowel gives me hell the next day yet I can dig with a full sized garden fork. I take glucosamine sulphate with chondroitin – it helps – but enough is enough and now I know I need someone to help me in the garden.

View from the terrace
On the higher garden, and that’s where I’m working today, there are some old olive trees and half a dozen plums that once every year or so give a massive crop then they go back to sleep for a few more years. I’ve planted a couple of avocadoes and an apricot and amongst them, day lilies, echium, lavenders, rosemary, convolvulus cneonorum, all plants that do well in the Mediterranean. And lots of succulents, agaves and yuccas.

My bible is Heidi Gildemeister’s ‘Mediterranean Gardening, a Waterwise Approach.’ She talks about gardening with spring and autumn rains only. That says it all really. You can forget a pretty English garden here. Go with the flow I say. If something dies, tant pis, plant something else. If a plant takes too much water, don’t bother – put in something that is happy with spring and autumn rains only, because that’s about all we get here, except this year we hardly had any spring rain and it’s a worry. Even the 100-year-old fig in the lower garden is looking thirsty and dropping leaves and I’ve not seen that before at this time of year.

It’s 6.30 in the morning and the dogs and I have had breakfast. I reckon I’ve two hours before it gets too hot to lug a sheet of heavy prunings down the track to where I’ll burn in October. Bonfires are forbidden until then - hardly surprising in this heat. It will be 32 degrees today. I work hard and am making progress. I clear two terraces, I cut back plumbago, euphorbia, pull weeds, prune ballota (another good plant for this climate) trim thyme, romarin, clear around the agapanthus currently standing tall and showing off their beautiful azure umbels.
I’m standing on a particularly narrow terrace, only 18 inches wide, and I lean over to pull out some invasive Tree of Heaven seedlings. Suddenly I’m over-balancing. I try to grab something but there’s nothing there. I’m falling, falling, then wham; I land on my back on the edge of a stone step. I’ve fallen nearly six feet. I can hardly breathe. I know I’m in awful pain. I’m hurt somewhere to the right of the spine and above the hipbone. I don’t even try and move. All I can think about is the dogs. If I’ve broken my back, how will I manage the dogs? There are 8 dogs in the lower garden. I can hear them playing.

It takes me about 15 minutes to get into a position where I can get up off the ground and somehow I do. Very slowly I walk. Lordy, this hurts. I get up the steps to the track, walk up a bit and try to bend over to pick up the sheet holding the cuttings. The pain is unbelievable. I crash to the ground and can’t move. Now I know I need help.

Giovanni, who rebuilt the drystone walls, with Ziggy
I edge my hand down to my pocket and pull out my portable telephone. I call my neighbour and ask her to come up to me and please to bring some ice with her. Agnès is a neighbour and now a friend who lives in the house below me at the end of the track we share. We look out for each other. I often go and sit with her mother who corrects my French and giggles like a kid even though she’s 80 and in poor health. I adore Madame Pinelli.

I wait. I know it will take Agnès a while to get up to me. She has bad knees and can only walk slowly up the track. I hear my other neighbour’s sheep. Monsieur Cocular must be about to feed them. He’s 90 years old and spends most of his day walking around our little quartier, cutting leaves off the olive trees and gathering different herbage to feed his beloved sheep. He doesn’t rear them to eat: they are his pets and when they die he buries them way up on the hillside. We live only eleven kilometres from Monte Carlo and here is an old man with pet sheep living under the motorway. Monsieur Cocular lives for his sheep and when they die I hate to think what he’ll do with his day. I fear he’ll give up.

Agnès arrives and hands me a calico bag filled with ice. I explain what has happened, and put the ice where the pain is at its worst. I wait a while, try to move but I can’t. Agnès tries to help me but I know the pain is too much for me. She calls the doctor from my portable phone and is told I need to go to the hospital for a radio (x-ray) and to call the Pompiers. In France, when you need an ambulance, you call the Fire Brigade. I tell her not to call the Pompiers yet. I tell her I must get down to the house; I must get the dogs in from the garden and shut away. I need to shut the volets (shutters) and windows and put on the air-conditioning. I need to know the dogs are safe and secure before I can leave. The dogs come first – they have to. I feel faint, I want to vomit but don’t. I need to drink something sweet to give me the strength to try and get up. I ask Agnès to get me some water, perhaps to put sugar in it. She asks if orange juice will do. Yes, I say, yes please.

Poor Agnès. She needs to go all the way down the steep track again to get me a drink but I know I’ll not be able to move without it. She returns with her 18-year-old son. I drink deeply and then I somehow get myself in a position that is the least painful to lift myself off ground. Agnès and Nicolas help me down to the house. I direct operations – I can’t do anything else. Between them they put dogs behind the baby gates – into the bedroom, into the bathroom, into the kitchen, into the study, some in the living room. They close the shutters and windows. I slowly walk into the study and bedroom and turn on the air-conditioning and turn off my computer. It’s time to phone the Pompiers.

We go out onto the terrace and wait. Agnès suggests I sit down and I try but it’s too painful. I stand leaning slightly and supporting myself on the back of a chair. I’ve realised that I can’t bend from the waist, so sitting is agony. Standing is best and lying down even better.

The ambulance arrives with three men. Three seems excessive and if I wasn’t feeling so lousy I’d appreciate these virile specimens of French manhood. What is it about men in uniform? I give Agnès my keys and she tells me she’ll collect me from the hospital later – well, provided I’m OK that is. My mind is racing as to what I’ll do if I can’t get back within a few hours to tend to the dogs but I have a plan – there’s always a plan for that and it’s my friend Carla. Carla would have to come and take the dogs to her place. She cares for dogs much in the same way as I do but I know Carla is busy and…well I won’t think about it. Surely I’ll be OK. Surely this is just a bad bruise?

With the help of dishy Pompier number three, I find a way to lie down on the gurney in the back of the ambulance. Two of the men are up front and this one remains in back with me. We take off up the track and it’s bumpy and they need to go fast to get up the steep hill. The jolting hurts like hell. The pompier is kind, ‘Are you OK?’ he asks each time I wince in pain. Once we are on the Route de Gorbio, I settle down and for a moment, even though, I’m in pain, I’m enjoying the luxury. The mattress is comfortable. I’m looking out of the ambulance thru high set windows and I see the valley as I’ve never seen it before. I see houses I’ve never noticed, I see a hawk hovering, and I see the trail of a plane from Nice airport. The sky is that perfect Mediterranean blue. I should be off to the beach for the day and instead I’m going to the hospital but this ride feels, for a fleeting moment, like luxury so I lie back and enjoy it.

Solanum Jasminoides - Potato Vine
Once we arrive at the hospital, they get the gurney out on wheels, so smooth, I barely feel a thing. A couple of nurses surround me; one takes my blood pressure, the other presses a needle into my finger to draw blood. A secretary has difficulty with my name. Bennett is normally spelled Bennet or Benet in France and I forget to tell her but eventually it’s sorted.

They help me off with my shorts. I apologise, embarrassed, ‘I’m not wearing culottes', (panties) I say, 'it’s too hot.’ What did Mother always say? Always wear clean knickers in case you get involved in an accident. Oh dear...They cover me with a thin white cloth – the shorts have disappeared.

A doctor examines me and after a while the gurney is pushed into the x-ray area. It’s a warm corridor. I wait for about half an hour and I long for water. Someone comes along and tells me the x-ray machine is en panne (broken) and I will have to wait. I ask for water. She says she can’t give me anything to drink in case I’ve fractured a bone.

I lie there looking at the ceiling. Grey, plastic, strip lights. A nurse, one of the first two I saw, comes up and brings her smile with her. She apologises for the delay. I ask her for water. 'Don’t you worry,' she says, 'I’ll bring you some water,' and she calls me ‘Ma belle.’ Life seems much brighter. ‘Ma belle’ - I savour the words in my head.

A young girl appears. She is in charge of the x-ray machine and tells me she doesn't know when it will be mended. Another half an hour passes and we are ready to roll. It's not easy. I need to get myself from the gurney to the flat metal plate I need to lie on - there is no one to help me. Bloody painful it is but it gets worse because she wants me in peculiar positions. She calls out from the next room. I don’t hear her words through the buzz of the machinery. She comes into the room. ‘I told you not to breathe.’ She glares. Chastised I stop breathing. Each time she takes a picture, she yells out ‘Ne respirez pas.’ I barely hear but I guess she’s saying the same thing and what I’m saying to myself is, ’Don’t fall down the hillside again, Jilly!’

We’re done. I get myself back onto the gurney. The young girl appears, tucks a large envelope by my feet, hands me my shorts and I’m pushed back into the corridor to await the doctor. I ask the girl if I’ve broken any bones. ‘I’m not allowed to say,’ she says. I want to look but I can’t reach down to get the envelope.

Echium candicans - Pride of Madeira
The doctor arrives and tells me nothing is broken. Oh Happy Day! She writes me a prescription for painkillers and anti-inflammatories and tells me I should be all right in three or four days. A nurse comes along and gives me two painkillers. Tells me to drink lots of the water she gives me – ‘They’ll work quicker,’ she says.

What a relief! No broken back. I can go home. I can feed the dogs. Life is OK again. I call Agnes and she arranges to come and collect me. I get myself off the gurney; walk slowly and painfully down the passageway to pay at the office. I show my Carte Vitale, I give the document showing my Mutuelle (additional medical insurance). I ask how much? Nothing to pay, I’m told. It’s all taken care of. Vive la France and their wonderful health system.

PS. The pain gets worse and after nine days I take myself off to the doctor. She sends me for new x-rays and it turns out I have four fractures in the lower back and a fissure in the pubic bone. No wonder it hurt so much to drive. I wonder why this wasn't found on the day of the accident but remember how rushed the young girl was and anyway we can't put that wrong right. Now I have to lie flat on my back for 45 days. I can get up to fix food and of course I’m forbidden to take any dogs although I still have a few here but I have to cancel most of the August intake.

Hemerocallis - Daylily
And the new gardener? He did 10 hours over a few days – he dug up perfectly good plants, he weeded the place to within an inch of its life – exposing precious soil on the banks which will fall in the slightest wind and certainly when it eventually rains. I tell him I think it’s too hot to work and perhaps I’ll call him again in September but I won’t. If he was the last gardener in the world I’d not let him loose on my land. Back to the drawing board.
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