31 December 2006

A Guru for Christmas

It’s 5.30 in the morning and Loulou, the Jakarta street dog, is howling – just a gentle howl, but enough to say, ‘Get up, I want breakfast.’ Then they all start. Lola, the Border collie mix, is rattling the wrought iron baby gate to my bedroom. Cosmo, the French bulldog puppy, is making baby noises. Tessa, the golden retriever is jumping up and grabbing my nightdress. Hattie and Jessie are whining as only cocker spaniels can whine. I lie there for about thirty seconds but there’s no point. If I don’t get up now, someone will have puddled. Let’s face it, someone will probably have puddled anyway.

Hardy and Hamish - father and son

I throw a dressing gown over my nightdress, stick my feet in a pair of shoes and make for the door, 16 dogs running along behind me. I feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Now they are pushing and shoving, each wanting to be the first one out. I edge my way thru a sea of dogs to get the door open. Cosmo is jumping up and scratching my calves. Her claws are like needles. Lola’s barking. I tell her to stop and she doesn’t. Now all the dogs are barking. This won’t work. I can’t let barking dogs out this early in the morning - it’s simply not fair on my neighbours. I walk back to the kitchen counter to get the citronelle anti-bark collar for Lola. She’s the ringleader. She runs away. I chase her with half the dogs following me, the other half wondering why on earth I don’t open the door and NOW. Eventually I get the collar on her. I see two puddles. I don’t know who the culprits are but it’s not their fault - they’d wanted to go out, after all and anyway, there’s always a bucket of disinfectant at the ready. No big deal.

Cosmo, French bulldog puppy

I open the door and the dogs burst out as if a cannon has gone off. I cling to the door frame to avoid being knocked over in the rush. Most run across the terrace and down the steps to the garden but some wait for me. I think how nice it would be if I could simply open the door, let the dogs out and then go and make myself a cup of tea whilst they get on with their calls of nature. If only it were that simple. But there are always insecure dogs who won’t go down to the garden alone. So I go down – the puppy and Pixie, the little poodle, follow. It’s pitch black and three or four more dogs are waiting at the bottom of the steps for me to click the switch that lights up the trees in the lower garden. This is a five-star dog hotel, after all, and Monte Carlo dogs don’t ‘do’ dark.

Welcome to Pension Milou on Christmas morning.

The lower terrace leading to the garden

I’ve too many dogs. That’s how it is at Christmas. For some reason, throughout the year, it more or less works out that I don’t exceed the number of dogs allowed by my official licence – pretty amazing when you look at how many dogs are featured in the gallery of the Pension Milou website. But at Christmas, I have no choice but to turn several valued clients away. And still there are too many here.

Arthur sleeps

Time for breakfast. Most books on canine behaviour and training tell us that the human must eat first to show the dog who is boss or pack leader. Have you ever tried eating breakfast with 16 pairs of eyes glued to your every move? The dogs eat first. Organising this is no small feat in itself but once the bowls are filled according to each dog’s requirement, medication added where necessary, dogs put in various rooms so there are no arguments, it’s done and dusted in no time. Then I fix breakfast for myself. Perhaps you imagine a gently warmed croissant with confiture d'abricots, served with a steaming cup of fresh espresso and taken, sitting on the terrasse enjoying the sun come up over the Mediterranean below. The truth is I make a bowl of porridge, carry it into the study and eat it as I check my emails. Some dogs lie at my feet, others play. Yet two or three others are having a mother’s meeting, doubtless complaining about the management.

Mother's meeting: Athena and Tessa

Time to shower but first I need to move a few dog beds that pretty much cover the bathroom floor. I clear a space, put down a bathmat and take my douche. Sixteen pairs of eyes stare at me through the clear glass and when I’m done at least six tongues lick my legs, helpers in the drying process.

Cosmo and Happy

Anthony is coming to lunch. I must clean up as he’s allergic to dogs and dust. Anthony is my computer guru so he’s pretty high up on the list of Important People in my Life. He’s seen me through at least three computers and over the years has become a good friend - he even calls me 'Auntie.' Poor guy – he has to take a pile of anti-allergy pills before he so much as sets off on the journey to me and in the spring it’s even worse when the mimosas are in flower.

Today though is a treat. It’s usual for me to spend Christmas alone. Well, as alone as one can be with 16 dogs. Normally Anthony, who is Canadian, flies home to spend Christmas with his parents and takes his dog with him. He’s always had bichons, who, like poodles, don’t cause allergy problems. This year he has a new puppy called Baka. (Anthony writes Haiku and Baka means ‘clown’ or ‘fool’ in Japanese.) His parents have moved from the country to an apartment in Toronto where dogs aren’t allowed and so Anthony can't take Baka with him. As he doesn't want to leave such a young puppy behind, his parents’ loss is my gain. He's coming to Pension Milou for Christmas lunch

Anthony is a self-employed computer programmer currently writing and selling his own anti-spam software. He also owns and operates the four computers, as well as the wireless network, at Stars ‘N' Bars, a trendy American-style sports bar on the port of Monaco. Great Eggs Benedict there – I speak from experience.

Over the years, I’ve learned so much from Anthony, not least, to try and write what I mean. I’ve learned, when I ask a computer-related question, to be precise and to think logically and sequentially when I explain the problem. This has helped my writing and I’ll be forever grateful to him for this - she said, wafting off in ten different directions.

Anthony and Baka

Two hours later and the house is as clean as it’s likely to get. The floors are washed and most of the obvious surfaces are dusted. The table is ready. I’m providing the first course, Anthony is bringing the plat principal and later I discover he’s brought enough to last me a couple of meals. How many people can boast a computer guru who cooks for them? The Christmas pudding, grâce à Marks and Spencer, is a gift from BooBoo’s owners. And the wine? Another client, a wine collector (are you beginning to see the advantages of looking after other people’s dogs?) has generously given me a ‘special bottle for Christmas day.’ It’s a Château La Nerthe 2000 whose cork has been pulled to give the wine time to breathe.

We are ready. All seventeen of us await Anthony and Baka’s arrival.

- - - - - - - - -

Next week: read the story of Loulou, who was found on the streets of Jakarta.

21 December 2006

Manhattan Chien

We’re always reading in Nice-Matin about the Russian invasion of the Côte d’Azur. Russians have bought up many of the beautiful Belle Époque properties along the coast and have doubtless helped make a few real estate agents very rich. Everyone knows about the Russian billionaire with the unpronounceable name who owns Chelsea Football Club. He’s le propriétaire of the Chateau de la Croe at Cap d’Antibes, the former home of the Duke of Windsor who bought it for Wallace Simpson when he gave up the British crown for her.

Well, it so happens that not long ago I got to know of a rather special Russian émigré myself. Etienne was born in St. Petersburg, Russia to an aristocratic family but with roots going way back to his original French heritage. Etienne is a French Bulldog, who lives, not in the south of France but in New York where he’s very much the dapper young dog about town, enjoying all the good things Manhattan has to offer and playing football with his friends in the park.

Etienne, however, is more than just a bouledogue français living in New York – he's an artist’s muse. An 'artist's muse' brings to mind some voluptuous woman who has inspired an artist to heights of artistic expression. Almost nobody thinks of dogs, yet many artists' dogs have been their 'muse.' Picasso had his dachshund, Lump, who was born in Germany where his name means Rascal. Lump appears in 15 of Picasso’s multiple reinterpretations of Velázquez's masterpiece "Las Meninas.” David Hockney loves to paint his dachshunds. And of course there is William Wegman and his Weimaraners. And now there is Etienne.

Etienne, known as Eti, has a beautiful blog dedicated to him called, naturally enough, Manhattan Chien. As you’ll see, his owner, dear pack leader (PL), is a talented graphic artist who uses 40 layers of colours and textures for his paintings. I bought a framed print of Eti and it’s on the wall to the left of me as I type. On Eti's website you can read about his beginnings in Russia, there are great resources on the breed and on holistic feeding, you can watch many fascinating videos, and in the section called Manhattan Muse you can read what a rather special canine muse does all day.

But I didn't know of Manhattan Chien, until one day, thanks to the wizardry of the Internet, I found that PL had written about Pension Milou and the story of Milou's bench. It was called All the Leaves are Brown and the Sky is Gray. And how had PL found this blog? Simple - he found it because I'd written about a French bulldog in The Day Lou was Stolen.

PL and I started a correspondence. At the time, this blog’s title was shown in a simple header with a teal border and I happened to write one day that it would be nice to show a postcard, perhaps jutting out of one corner of the border. The next morning, what should arrive in my mailbox but a beautiful graphic of an old postcard – and a little later, stamps and postmarks to go along with it. No ordinary stamps, mind you, but a Pension Milou stamp depicting a spaniel and another stamp showing two champion Old English Sheepdogs I’d bred in a former life. Take a look at the top of this page.

I love New York. I spent time there in my twenties and last year I stayed for four or five days in TriBeCa, en route to the Centennial Show of the Old English Sheepdog Club of America. Who knows if one day I won’t be walking in Central Park and see, in the distance, a black masked red fawn French Bulldog who’ll come running when I call out - ‘Eti, Eti, Eti…’

Eti, on my study wall

Update on Lynda, the Tibetan spaniel, click here and scroll down page

13 December 2006

The Book End and Aunt Hilda


It’s feeding time and Lin-dha, the little Tibetan spaniel, is nowhere to be seen. I find her on a cushion in the study, pick her up and put her in les toilettes (always plural in French - I wonder why?) with her food bowl. Perhaps not the most inspirational place to eat but as most of the dogs staying at Pension Milou eat separately, the smallest goes into the loo. We might object - they don't even notice. Not all the dogs are shut away at feeding time: the fastest eaters remain in the living room on or the terrace and by the time I’ve got the last bowl down, the first one is empty. These are the vacuum cleaner dogs. Whoosh, it’s gone. Then they go around checking out each others' food bowl to make sure there isn’t the tiniest crumb left. There never is.

Lin-dha (a Chinese name that means 'beautiful and intelligent) doesn’t eat. And she hasn’t moved. This isn’t normal. I pick her up, carry her into the living area and put her down. She remains where I’ve put her. I stand her and she flops down at the rear. I don’t know if she’s hurt her leg, her back or what but then I recall the little cry she'd made when I arrived home a couple of hours ago.

Sylvie was looking after the dogs and we heard the smallest yelp, barely a squeak when Lin-dha jumped up to greet me. Sylvie bent down, picked her up and gave her a cuddle. She got a lick in return and then she put her down again. Lin-dha always jumps up, as do all the dogs, even if I’ve left them for all of five minutes whilst I walk up the track to collect le journal and le courier from the mailbox. Dogs don’t seem to think in terms of time. You get the same welcome after five minutes as you do when you’ve been gone for two hours. Dogs are always happy to see us and ask for so little in return. We feed and care for them and they love us to pieces. I know who I think gets the better bargain.

I pick her up and put her on the table and pull and prod a bit, move her legs right thru the hip joint – nothing seems to hurt her. She licks my face and wags her tail. I can’t believe anything is too badly wrong with a dog who is happily wagging her tail, yet she can’t walk. I carry her down to the garden and put her on the grass. She doesn’t budge so I leave her to see what will happen and later find she’s moved a few yards but it's obvious she’s just dragged herself there. This won’t do. I put her in my bedroom where she can be quiet and away from the other dogs. She’s not in pain and I hope that with sleep, whatever has happened will be righted by the morning.

It isn’t. It’s Sunday morning and again she won’t eat. I call the vet who tells me to give her anti-inflammatory medication. I do and by the afternoon she can walk, or rather she can just about roll along for all of two steps, then her rear flops onto the terracotta tiles. But she’s feeling better and at feeding time, she woofs down her food. She’s not right though and she will go to the vet tomorrow.

Monday arrives and we are back to square one – she won’t eat. At 7.30 I drive down to Carnoles and meet Sylvie who luckily for me lives only 5 kilometres down the valley. Sylvie is my vet’s veterinary nurse and she’ll take Lin-dha to work with her.

Later Louise, the veterinarian, calls and tells me she’s x-rayed Lin-dha. She has a slipped disk and is virtually paralysed at the rear. Because there had been a positive response to the anti-inflammatory medication the day before, she’s given her cortisone and has high hopes it will work. But it doesn’t. The only thing for little Lin-dha is an operation and for that she needs to go to Nice to Louise’s husband. He’s a brilliant veterinary surgeon – indeed it was he who removed the eardrums and repaired the damaged nerves on Beau, the refuge dog – he was on the table for four and a half hours that day.

It’s time for me to call the owner who is in England but there’s no reply. I leave messages on her UK number and at her apartment in Italy. I call a friend who knows her well and he gives me her daughter’s number in France and the phone numbers of a couple of friends. I call them all and no one can reach her anymore than I can and so eventually there is nothing to do but wait. Lin-dha can’t have an operation without the owner’s permission and there is the small matter of cost – vets in France aren't cheap. Will she agree to this?

It’s seven in the evening and still there’s been no call. The plan had been for Louise to drop Lin-dha at her husband’s surgery in Nice, ready for the operation the next day but we have no permission. I tell her to go ahead, feeling sure the owner will get in touch sometime this evening. I hope to God I’m right.

Around eight I try the number again and happily the owner has just walked in the door. She tells me that Lin-dha had a problem with her back in September – she’d jumped off a low wall and then couldn’t move for half a day. The vet has since said this is not the same thing but perhaps it shows there is a weakness in the spine, as there often is in short-legged long-backed dogs like dachshunds. Whilst Tibetan spaniels don’t have backs as long as dachshunds, nevertheless, Louise told me they can be prone to back problems.

At first, the owner isn’t sure about putting her through this operation, fearing that she’ll have back problems for the rest of her life but after a couple of phone calls to Louise, she is persuaded that there's a very good chance for her because although she is paralysed, she still has reflexes. Had her reflexes not worked, then she’d not hold out much hope. Lin-dha is only six years old and such a joyful little dog. I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed. She means a lot to her owner and I’m pretty fond of her too.

When Lin-dha first came to Pension Milou, she came with her friend Mimi. Sadly Mimi, who was a lot older, died about a year ago. They liked nothing better than sitting on the coffee table, on top of magazines, sometimes with books between them. I called them ‘the bookends.’

Mimi and Lin-dha

It’s a day later –and Lin-dha is at the surgery in Nice. She’s had an anaesthetic and a dye injected so that Dr. El Baze can locate the problem. The operation is to take two hours. Later I hear it's gone well and that it was urgent as there was a badly slipped disc with a large hernia and had he not operated quickly, there would have been deterioration in the tissues. As soon as she is well enough, she’ll come back here and I gather that will be sooner rather than later, as she is making her presence felt with rather too much barking… sounds like sweet little Lin-dha is very much on the mend.

Update:Lin-dha, two days after the operation - unable to walk...

After 3 hours on the table, she spent two days in the veterinary clinic in Nice. Then she came back here, plaster down the length of her back which covered an unimaginable number of stitches. Still paralysed, she had to be carried to the garden for the first two days and then slowly, miraculously, she learned to walk again. Now, a week later, she walks well, has difficult changing direction and still occasionally flops down, but this improves by the day. She’s now out and about in the main house, mixing with the other dogs and I lift her onto the sofa during the evening for a cuddle. All in all, a small miracle.

...a week later - walking again


Today is my aunt’s 102nd birthday. Hilda is her name. You don’t hear that name often these days. My sister, Sally, calls from England. She’s been down to visit her in the nursing home where she lives, taking wine and cake to celebrate the occasion. Several neighbours who live in the apartment building where Hilda used to live have come along to add their good wishes, but she’s not feeling too good and she tells them to go home. She and my sister talk but she won’t eat or drink anything. She’s hot and a nurse comes in and turns down the heating but Sally thinks her breathing is rather heavy. Eventually she falls asleep and Sally takes the train back home. When she arrives, she gets a call to say that our aunt was taken ill shortly after she left and sadly has died. How’s that for timing? Hilda was our mother's eldest sister, a tough old bird who'd never married. She liked to be in control and had been determined to make it to 102 – and, good for her, she did.

I last saw Hilda on her 100th birthday. She was still living in her apartment then and managing very well with regular helpers. She was excited to be getting a telegram from the Queen, which actually wasn’t a telegram at all, but a rather beautiful card. Of course she wouldn’t admit she was excited, people of her generation in England don’t show emotion but she enjoyed that day. As children and as adults, we were never allowed to kiss her. ‘We don’t kiss in our family,’ she’d say. Well, Hilda, I’m blowing you a kiss now.

04 December 2006

Interview technique

Louis, the Cavalier
Dogs who come to stay at Pension Milou live freely in the house with me, so I need to meet them first to make sure they’ll get along with others and at the same time, the owner can see how it all works here. It’s a mutual thing. There are exceptions – if a new dog needs to stay at short notice and it’s a puppy, well, what can a puppy do wrong except wreck the place, pee everywhere and keep me thoroughly amused? Today an 8-month old bouledogue français called Beebop is coming to stay. I couldn’t resist – I’m soppy about French bulldogs.

Normally, though, I have four questions:
  • If a male, is he castrated?
The majority of male dogs who come to stay belong to Brits and Americans simply because it doesn’t occur to the French to get their males ‘fixed.’ When I ask if their dog is castrated, they say,’Mais non, pourquoi?’ Ask a vet in France, especially on the macho Mediterranean, to castrate your dog and you will notice his hand moving (not literally, of course…) to protect his male bits and pieces. With a horrified expression on his face, he’ll say,‘Oh, no it’s not necessary to castrate a male - we only sterilize the females.’ I wouldn’t mind 10 euros for every time I’ve heard that. My neighbour planned on getting her dog castrated when he was 8 months old but the vet refused, saying it would ‘spoil his coat’ so now he runs around, 4 years old, endlessly mounting poor old Pepita, their spayed Berger Pyrénées. If you want your dog castrated in France, you need to be very definite about it otherwise the vet will try and talk you out of it. Or go to a lady vet. Funny that…

Who needs a dog who mounts other people’s legs, who masturbates on cushions and who smells? And here at Pension Milou, who marks his territory and who would probably get aggressive with other males too. I explain to owners that the main reason I don’t take uncastrated males is because they pee absolutely everywhere in the house. ‘Oh, but my dog is absolutely clean at home,’ they say, ‘he’d never do that.’ Of course he’s clean at home but put him in an environment with other dogs and it’s his instinct to mark territory, which means peeing on my furniture. He can’t help it and chastising him simply doesn’t work. I once had a Llasa Apso and counted the number of times I cleaned up his little tinkles against a chair, a curtain, a table leg. By the time I got to fourteen and it was only noon, I gave up. So now no uncastrated male gets past the first phone call.
  • Does the dog get along well with other dogs?
When a dog arrives for his or her interview, I keep the rest of the dogs in the house whilst I let the dog and owner through the gate and onto the terrace. The dog’s lead is removed and then the others are let out, one by one, to greet the new arrival. This can be daunting to some dogs, especially the shyer ones, as suddenly they are having their nether regions sniffed by all and sundry and understandably, some of the bitches don’t always like it. The flirts do, of course – they love it and think Christmas has come all at once. If a dog warns another dog away at this time, that’s fine. They have every right to do so. Some though, simply won’t accept the attentions of the other dogs and don’t even warn with a low growl. They snap or worse, attempt to bite. Looking after other people’s dogs is a great responsibility and I can’t risk taking these dogs. They need to get their interview technique sorted and are not accepted at Pension Milou.

En route to the garden
  • Is the dog house-trained?
Almost everyone says their dog is house-trained but it’s not always so. Some of the small Monte Carlo dogs are trained to urinate on the balcony of their apartment so when they come here, they use the terracotta tiled floor – after all, to them, it probably looks and feels the same. Or they’ll get as far as the terrace and pee. I’ve had dogs who will happily trot down to the garden – we’ll be down there for an hour playing – they’ll come back and immediately pee on the terrace or in the house – they just don’t ‘get it’ because of what they are used to. Others have been trained to pee and defecate in their owner’s shower. Words fail me here. Perhaps they should get a cat and a litter tray. Dogs need to go out and sniff all the delicious, unmentionable smells of this world – and then come home and give us a lick. Bien sûr.
  • Does the dog bark a lot?
Most dogs bark, that’s normal but there are some dogs who are happy to stand on the terrace and bark non-stop at absolutely nothing. Smaller breeds are worse than the big ones and terriers, especially, like to make their presence felt. Because the door to the terrace and garden is open all day, a continually barking dog makes life difficult because it’s simply not on to disturb the neighbours and it’s useless telling a dog to stop barking - he just barks more because he’s getting attention. I have an old and battered Bushells’ tea tin from Australia, printed with drawings of old Queenslander homes. It’s filled with coins and when I rattle it – like magic – dogs stop barking. Distraction - that’s the way to go. Some dogs go down to the bottom of the garden and we are talking down the steps, way along the lower terrace and then down several levels of garden. Holly, the beagle used to do that. Taco still does but he has special privileges 'cos he's an old man now and all of sixteen. Given the chance, he'll go down and stand and bark for hours - presumably he can smell the sangliers (wild boars) in the valley below the fencing. Really, a barking dog shouldn’t bother me, as I’m completely deaf in one ear. It’s something I recommend actually – so useful if a window rattles or you’ve a bed mate who snores – simply turn over and sleep on your good ear. Continually yapping dogs though, are a no-no.


Louis was one dog who didn’t come for interview. He couldn’t, as he was at sea with his owners, en route from Australia to the south of France. They needed to fly to the UK soon after mooring in Antibes and so planned his stay with me in advance. Louis couldn’t go to England because he’d not had the necessary blood tests and as he was a Cavalier King Charles spaniel I knew he'd be just fine here. I could have 40 Cavaliers here and not know it. They are probably the easiest dogs to look after. Give them a comfortable chair or a cushion and they’ll lie around looking beautiful. Louis was not only adorable but he was such a good-looking dog with the softest look in his lovely eyes.

Now to make the place as puppy proof as possible (fat chance) and await Beebop’s arrival. Oh dear, perhaps I should have interviewed her first?

Only kidding…

24 November 2006


Beau on the coffee table

Saturday, my day off, is when Sylvie works at Pension Milou. The idea of a Saturday off is to ‘do something' – get out and visit friends, have lunch, go to Monaco or a hill village or perhaps take a trip to Nice. But it’s not always possible. When there's a lot of dogs en pension, it difficult to get out to shop during the week and so then Saturday is simply my day to get in the week’s supplies. If they are good dogs, I can leave them because I know I’ll not come back to a wrecked house but when they are difficult, there’s no point in coming home to chaos, chewed this or that, pee everywhere. It’s not as if I go out for long – a couple of hours at most – but sometimes I think the dogs have a ‘mothers’ meeting’ when I’m gone and decide to pee all over the place to show their disapproval at being left. I bet they don’t do that at home.

Regardless of what I do on the day, the luxury of my Saturdays is thanks to Sylvie. She is my veterinarian’s assistant, which is great for starters, but more than that, she is so nice, she absolutely adores dogs, I have complete faith in her ability to look after them and when I come home, I usually find she’s washed the floors for me. Sylvie is a treasure and très sympa. Most Saturdays she bathes Beau for me. Since my fall and the resulting dodgy back, I find bathing dogs very difficult. Beau has a skin condition called seborrhoea. The Merck Veterinary Manual – a great on-line resource, by the way – says there are three types of seborrhoea: dry, oily and inflammatory, with most sufferers showing varying degrees of all three symptoms. Beau has the oily kind and without regular baths his skin and coat gets really greasy and, worse, smelly. The vet thinks this may have been caused by the many months of antibiotics he had to have, following his time in the refuge and the massive ear operation he had when he first came to live here. He seems to have a deep-seated infection, which we get under control but only for a while, and then he’ll need more antibiotics to deal with any abscesses that start up. A vicious circle really as too many antibiotics, as we know, are not good news. I’ve just started him on a new dog food – one with no additives, biologique, hypo-allergenic and hopefully this may help. If not he might do well on a raw diet but that’s tough for the other dogs to watch. I once had a Golden Retriever here whose owner brought along all her food, frozen. Each day I had to defrost half a rabbit and the Golden would eat it, head, eyes, the lot - the legs dangling out of her mouth as she chewed, and with all the other dogs looking at her though the baby gate’s wrought iron bars: tongues hanging out, drooling – it wasn’t fair.

I discovered Beau licking a foot the other day and saw that he’d yanked a toenail, exposing the quick. I hoped the nail would just fall off but it didn’t so he needed to go to the vet and have an anaesthetic to remove it. The day dawned with my having to feed the other dogs and not him. I dread those days – oh, the guilt trip a dog puts us through when we can't feed them! I let them all out into the garden, including Beau, shut the door and quickly filled various food bowls. Then I let the dogs back in, Beau running to ‘my chair’ where he always sits. I shut the others in the bedroom, bathroom, study, wherever and snuck past Beau, putting food down on towels so he wouldn’t hear the bowls rattling on the terracotta floor. Despite having had both eardrums removed, he hears surprising well and never misses hearing me say ‘biscuits’ at bedtime. My ploy seemed to work, he sat in my chair waiting for the breakfast that never came but at least he didn’t know I’d fed the others – or if he did, he kindly didn’t tell me.

Luckily, by the time we got to the vet, and probably because he’d stood all the way, the nail had half broken off and he didn’t need an anaesthetic. The vet just snipped it off without him making a murmur. Mind you, when she tried cutting his other toenails he screamed blue murder. If you’ve ever heard a Bruno de Jura yell, you’d know it. He’s now on the blue cushion on the coffee table. This is intended for the small dogs because the big dogs take up the rest of the furniture, so someone needs to tell this brute of a hound that he’s not a small dog and that he should go back to ‘his chair’ that was once ‘my chair’ and I'd like my coffee table back, please.

Sylvie’s arrived and I’m driving to Italy to collect three wrought iron baby (read doggy) gates that I’d ordered for my neighbour. At Pension Milou, every room has one of these wrought iron waist-high gates. I use them at feeding times (each dog in a different area) and I separate the dogs when a new one arrives – this until they are slowly introduced. The gates have made life much easier around here.

My neighbour’s mother, Madame Pinelli, had a bad fall in the summer and was taken to the hospital emergency department, x-rayed and was told, like me, nothing was broken. Three weeks later, the doc sent her to a clinic by ambulance, as she couldn’t walk with a leg swollen to twice its size. The x-rays showed - you guessed it - she had a fractured knee. That hospital emergency x-ray department needs to get its act together. Following the correct diagnosis she spent a month in hospital and since then has been in a Maison de Réhabilitation. Now, nearly three months after the fall and with her knee healed, she's learning to walk again. Not easy for Madame P who is 82 and overweight. She’ll be home soon and the baby gates are needed to stop Shadow, the golden retriever who belongs to her grandson, and Pepita, her own Berger de Pyrénées, jumping up at her. When I’m not too busy here I pop down to Mme Pinelli’s house and chat with her. She loves to tell tales of her life in Algeria, which she and the family left in the late '50s. Her husband, who had little education, started work at 13, spreading sardines on the beach to dry in the sun. When the family eventually got to the south of France he worked until his retirement at Restaurant La Vigie near the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, looking after the Riva speed boats that carried the rich and famous from their yachts in the harbour to the restaurant for lunch on the terrace.

How did I get to sardines in Algeria, when I’m telling you about my day off?

The port and old town of Menton

I drive across the border, through Ventimiglia to Bordighera and collect the baby gates. By the time I get back to Menton, it’s noon – not late but my back is giving me gyp. It’s driving that does it. I wear my very un-sexy black support belt but it doesn’t really help in the car.

‘Gyp?’ Do I really mean that word? Let’s digress for a moment - I lug my Shorter Oxford Dictionary off the bookshelf. It was given to me when I left Guys ‘n Dolls in the Kings Road in the 70s. It’s been through a flood in Wales, it got chewed by a puppy when I lived in Kent, and later, it survived a hurricane in Cairns, Far North Queensland.

My Shorter Oxford Dictionary

I open it and read that ‘Gyp’ means either a college servant, or it’s an offensive term for a swindler or a cheat. Nothing about the meaning I intend yet I’m sure I know this word. I look it up on-line. The truth is I don’t use my bashed up dictionary much anymore as it’s so much easier to access words on-line, but wild horses wouldn’t part me from it. I’ve loved dictionaries almost from the time I could read.

On the Internet I read: Gyp means a college servant, whose office is that of a gentleman’s valet, waiting on two or more collegians in the University of Cambridge…and he is called a gyp (vulture, Greek) because he preys upon his employer like a vulture. At Oxford they are called scouts. Gyp, you’ll be dying to know, comes from the species of black vulture (Aegypius monachus).

Elsewhere I learn that where 'Gyp' means swindler it comes from the word for gypsy which I’m told may well come from the obsolete gippo, a menial kitchen servant; which once meant a man’s short tunic, from the obsolete French jupeau. It tells me that Gyppo, as a modern derogatory term, does seem to come from gypsy, or at least, from the same source as to gyp. For instance, ‘He gypped the tax man out of his money.’ Oh really?...

And yet more information: The word gypsy or gipsy itself was given to itinerants in Britain when they arrived from continental Europe in the sixteenth century and is a contracted form of Egyptian.

Okay, okay, we don’t need this information and you don’t need to know that in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, ‘gyp’ meant ‘to take the entrails out of a herring.’

Then I find it: ‘Gyp’ (UK informal) means ‘pain or discomfort.’ ‘My knee has been giving me gyp since I started running.' Bingo! – except it’s my back and I’m not running anywhere. Just what I said in the first place. I knew, I knew that word. Whoopee, I found it!

How did we get to servants and vultures and gypsies when we were talking about my day off?


I park near the marché, cross the road, where I pass a square with a small garden that has rhubarb growing in it. Rhubarb? I didn't know rhubarb was used in decorative gardens. I wonder if anyone cuts it when it's ready to cook. I walk down to the port, find a bench and sit and look at the boats and the facade of Menton’s old town with the church steeple reaching up into an azure blue sky, dotted with clouds. To hell with the shopping - there’s enough food in the house and it won’t hurt me to open a few tins or see what’s been sitting at the back of the freezer for months.

Menton marché and close up of tiles

A car pulls up quite near to me and Ennis and Josephine get out. They used to own Riff, the little Jack Russell who died here and whose body stayed in the freezer for a few weeks before they came back to France to bury her. You can read that story here. We chat and I ask after Sheba - their new dog. Sheba has been to stay a few times – she looks rather like a Groenendael (Belgian shepherd dog) but actually she’s a cross-breed. She a beautiful creature. Josephine starts to talk, ‘It’s alright, Jilly, she’s okay now.’ ‘What?’ I say. ‘Don’t worry, she’s alright now, but we did have a terrible time.’ And then I hear the story.


Sheba was in season (en chaleur) and a local dog got in the gate. Two weeks later they took her to the vet only to learn they should have gone immediately when she could have had an injection to abort the puppies. They didn’t know. He operated, removed the foetuses and sterilized her. All stitched up, she went home, right as ninepence. A week later, Ennis found Sheba in the garden, bent over and eating something. He looked and saw, hanging out of Sheba’s stomach, a mass of intestines, and, horror, she was eating them! God knows why, but at that moment I interrupted and said, ‘Didn’t it hurt her to eat her own intestines?’ Josephine said she’d asked the vet the very same question and was told there are no nerves in intestines and so no, she wouldn’t have felt anything. You learn something useful every day, don’t you? She then said the vet had to cut away a lot of the intestines – by now, much of it had gone black. He put back what was left, stitched her up and said he really didn’t know if she would survive. This time she went home with a Victorian collar on, something she should have had after the first operation. That was all two weeks ago. Happily, Sheba is fit and well now - running around and eating normally.

Time for me to go home. I wonder what next Saturday will bring…

15 November 2006

About faces

Sophie and Dori, who don't need facelifts

A little poodle is leaving today. She's staying at Pension Milou whilst her owner has her face lifted. I think I might end up an expert on facelifts judging by the number of clients who drop their dogs off and then return a few days later with swollen, bruised faces. But yes, once the swelling has gone and the bruising disappears, they all look younger - which of course is the point although sometimes, you can tell - there's a slightly unnatural slant of the eyes, the skin is that little bit too taut, but hey, if it makes a lady feel good and she can afford it - and is brave enough - what the hell. I know I couldn't do it but I'm lucky - the dogs don't care. Dogs don't see wrinkles. If you want unconditional love, you don't need to look younger to get or keep a man - you need to get a dog! Not that I'm knocking love and marriage - when I see a good marriage, I'm all for it. Just that I don't think I was ever too good at it myself.

Madame C. arrives to collect her dog and pops in for a coffee. Covered in thick makeup to disguise the bruises and wearing massive dark glasses to hide the stitches around her eyes, she tells me it has been rather painful. I make the right noises to reassure her that it won't be long before she feels a lot better. Madame C is one nice lady and very pretty too and I can't imagine why she's put herself through all this agony.

Talking of facelifts, or any beauty treatment, reminds me of the time, maybe fifteen years ago, when I first came to live on the French Riviera. Friends, Philippa and Casper, generously gave me a birthday present of three beauty treatments at Margy's which is a well-known beauty salon in the luxurious Galerie du Métropole in Monte Carlo. You'll find top designers in the Galerie, great coffee shops and the FNAC store, which sells music, books, DVDs, telephones, cameras and everything you could want for a computer. I love FNAC - there's always an energetic buzz about the place.

I had an appointment for a facial, parked and walked across the Casino gardens to the Galerie. The waiting room, lined with beautiful old cupboards filled with her beauty products, is just inside the entrance to Margy's Beauty Salon. A couple of expensively dressed ladies were chatting, another was handing over in excess of 3,000 francs for the bag of beauty products she'd just bought. I felt a bit like a country bumpkin - after all I was working as a gardienne at the time, looking after the gardens at Casper and Philippa's Roquebrune villa. I'm sure Margy's didn't have too many gardeners who came in for facials.

I asked to use les toilettes. I suppose I was a little nervous - somehow I'd managed to get to this point in life never having had a facial and didn't know what to expect. When you've been surrounded by a dozen or so Old English Sheepdogs, as I had for much of my adult life, the last thing you are thinking about is the condition of your skin.

The loo was tiny with hardly any room between the toilet bowl and the opposite wall. As I went to sit down I leaned forward and wham! - I bashed my forehead on the edge of the glass shelf in front me. I rubbed my head, pulled myself together, did what I needed to do and wondered how larger ladies managed. They must majestically lower themselves onto the loo without ever bending forward. And if so, how do they use toilet paper? Don't let's go there - but don't you have to bend forward, at least just a little?

I was shown into a narrow, dimly lit cubicle by a striking young girl who introduced herself as Sandrine. She told me to lie down on the raised bed and proceeded to pamper me. If this is what a facial meant, I could stand a lot of it. Whilst applying the creams and potions, she told me that should I ever want a facelift she knew 'just the man in Milan.' She explained that I should go to Milan, stay for a few weeks and then, when I returned to the south of France, no one would know. I told her that if I ever had enough money for a facelift - fat chance - then I'd want the world to know about it. Actually, one of my husbands - the Australian one - offered to buy me a facelift when I got to 'a certain age.' I never took him up on it. It's bad enough having to go into hospital for an emergency. I knew I'd never be brave enough to go through pain by choice.

Sandrine then astounded me by saying she was going to Milan the following spring to 'get her eyes done.' I looked at her fresh, young and beautiful face and asked how old she was. 'I'm 26,' she said.

It was all rather marvellous until the face mask went on and suddenly, within minutes, it had set rock hard. I could hardly breath. Sandrine had left the room, saying she'd be back in twenty minutes. I tried to slow my breathing by relaxing but it wasn't easy. Believe me, I was fast going off facials by this time and when Sandrine re-appeared, I was more than happy to have her pick at a corner of the, by now, solid mask and rip it off me. It crossed my mind that at least when a death mask is made, the person doesn't feel anything. Lucky them.

No matter, I'd loved being cosseted and once it was all over, I was so relaxed I almost floated back to the car park. Opened my bag. No car keys. Panic! I turned out my bag, my pockets - definitely no keys. I must have left them in the beauty salon. I dreaded walking back there. Of course everyone had been so polite but I'd felt intimidated by the slim elegant owner. My problem, not hers. I crossed the Casino gardens and sat for a few minutes on a bench. An English bulldog, with his beautiful ugly face and wearing a rather nifty Scottish outfit, doubtless bought in one of Monaco's upmarket toilettages, waddled onto a grassed area in front of me. Interdit, of course. Dogs are not allowed on the grass. He sniffed the ground, ambled towards a tree, lifted his leg and let out one long satisfying pee. He looked at me with his skew-whiff eyes, his tongue hanging out, one tooth poking up from his undershot jaw. This was a face that needed Margy. I walked back to the salon and was told I'd have to wait as another client was in the cubicle having a massage and couldn't be interrupted. I sat in the waiting area for about 40 minutes, watching Monte Carlo ladies go about the business of paying to look beautiful. Eventually the cubicle was free and I was allowed in to look around. I searched under the table, looked under various pieces of furniture, lifted the cover on the bed - no keys.

Perhaps I'd dropped them near to the car when I first parked? Once again, I walked back to the car and this time, got down on my hands and knees to look underneath. By now, any good the facial had done had long gone. I was fraught. I was aging by the minute. How was I going to get home? How was I going to get my car out of the car park? I couldn't leave it there.

I went to the Caisse on the ground floor and asked if any keys had been handed in. They hadn't. They suggested I go to the nearby police station. I did. No keys had been handed in there either.

I walked back to Margy's. The keys simply had to be there. I wondered if they might have been swept up off the floor and just dumped by an un-thinking cleaning lady. I recalled having seen a young Philippino girl walking about with a cleaning trolley. I asked if they'd turn out the rubbish bin in the cubicle. Once again I had to sit and wait. I felt such a fool. These women surely had chauffeurs to drive them home - lost keys wouldn't enter their beautifully coiffed heads. Time was passing. I had dogs at home that needed feeding and it was getting dark.

Suddenly, Margy herself appeared and said, 'Are these what you are looking for, Madame?' There, before my eyes, was a set of keys dangling from her beautifully manicured out-stretched hand. 'We found them down the toilet bowl,' she said and then, with a look of disdain, 'They have been washed.'

03 November 2006

A school holiday dog


The vacances scolaires (school holidays) are the busiest times at Pension Milou and it’s full house at the moment with two Jack Russell terriers, a bichon, a miniature pinscher, a dachshund, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, several golden retrievers and Hattie and Tessa, who belong to a young family from La Gaude.

Hattie, the cocker spaniel, was their first dog and then, when little Charlotte was about two, along came Tessa the Menace. Tessa is a beautiful golden retriever and in some way, it’s my fault the family ended up with her. Ailsa had asked me where to buy a golden. I suggested a breeder in the mountainous hinterland of Nice who I knew had good ones – in fact I’d been up there to help my neighbour choose a pup for her son. Shadow is now 5 years old and a beautiful dog. I can hear him, right now, barking in Agnès’ driveway.


Ailsa called the man and was told that no puppies were available but that he had an 8- month old bitch for sale. She asked what I thought. ‘Good idea,’ I said, ‘no house training to do.’ And so she went and bought Tessa, who, she soon found out, wasn't house trained. The bigger problem though - and I should have known how it would be - was that Tessa hadn't been socialised. She’d been living an isolated life except for a few other dogs and so she was desperately needy when she landed on Ailsa’s doorstep. She was nervous of noise and traffic. She was destructive – she’d grab anything and tear it to shreds or worse, eat it. She grabbed your clothes when you came in, ‘Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me!’ When she came to stay at Pension Milou, food disappeared, books got chewed, papers eaten. She ate her way through two watchstraps, five dog beds, towels galore, cushions, duvets, chair covers, gardening gloves. Her poop would be multi-coloured with bits of plastic or undigested fabric. And she’d vomit the excess. And don’t even ask how many toilet rolls she got through. I thought the Andrex pup was a Labrador, so someone obviously forgot to tell Tessa she was, in fact, a golden retriever.

Tessa and Joy, the pointer

She barked incessantly and she never stopped moving. She chased around the place as if she were a car at the Monaco Grand Prix on race day. She was exasperating and exhausting but she was funny. And it was hard to tell her off – although believe me I did – because she’d just laugh in my face as if to say, ‘What me?’

Ailsa was fantastic and put in so much time, patience and perseverance with Tessa. She did everything she could, eventually taking her to a professional trainer. I think if almost anyone but Ailsa had given Tessa a home, they’d have given up and she’d be another statistic: yet another dog whose owner couldn't cope – she'd have been sent to a refuge never to be released – or worse.

In the early days, I’d get messages from Ailsa, such as: 'Tessa managed to destroy the mattress from the garden chair and get my mobile out of my bag and break the screen! If I didn't know any better I'd say she was on drugs!'

In fact, sometime later, the vet did put Tessa onto a calming drug for a while but I don't know that it made a lot of difference. I coped with Tessa for a year or so. Each time Ailsa would ‘text’ me from England. ‘Is everything OK?’ ‘What has she eaten today?’ – the phone was busy in those days.

Two-tier dogs: Tessa and Dotty, the pug

Eventually, after one particularly fraught stay, I was exhausted with Tessa and so with a heavy heart, I told Ailsa, ‘Enough is enough.’ During the next school holidays, Ailsa put Tessa and Hattie into kennels but it really didn’t work out and Hattie came out sick. Time passed, I relented, the dogs came back and miraculously since then, Tessa has been an angel.

Oh lordy, what’s that loo roll doing all over the floor? 'Tessa, leave that box of tissues ALONE!' Sorry, gotta go…


If you're interested, you can read a piece I wrote about Ailsa’s move to France at this link:


25 October 2006

Milou's bench

Milou was a beautiful black American Cocker Spaniel. He was bred at one of the top kennels in Switzerland and lived in Monte Carlo with an Italian lady who'd lived in Brazil for so long that she often spoke to Milou in Portuguese. Milou, sophisticated dog that he was, understood Italian, English, French and Portuguese.

Milou aged 4, in Roquebrune
One day in 1993, when Milou was three years old, he was brought to me by Madame Dana’s chauffeur. He booked him in for ‘about a month’ as Madame had to go into the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco for an operation. The month became a year and eventually it became obvious that Madame wasn’t going to recover. During that year, I visited her in Monaco on two or three occasions, but she would never allow me to bring Milou, saying it would upset her too much. She enjoyed, though, seeing the photos I brought along of Milou playing with other dogs.

Pierre, the chauffeur – he was a retired Monaco policeman – came over once a week and took Milou for a walk. Milou adored Pierre and went crazy with excitement when he rang the doorbell. Of course it wasn’t necessary for him to take Milou for walks but Madame wanted a report on his welfare.

One day, Pierre told me that Madame Dana was dying and that it was written into her will that any pets should be put to sleep on her death. I told him there was no way I’d ever allow this – a beautiful healthy young dog – no way, José! Fortunately, a month or so before Madame passed away, she allowed me to adopt Milou. He was four and a half by then and spent every available minute playing with a tennis ball. He was already, in my mind, 'my' dog and so, happily for me, he never left. After Madame died, Pierre, whom Milou adored, never came back and never even phoned to ask how he was doing.

With his friend Tallulah
Milou was such a happy little dog, always fun, always ready to play, took such joy in life, a terrible thief for food - chairs had to be tucked under the table else he’d be up there, finishing off the leftovers, or worse, eating our dinner before we had time to sit down. At biscuit time each night, he’d fix me with ‘that look’ (long before bedtime) telling me it was ‘time for my biscuit and NOW please.’

Candy, Milou and ball by the pool in Roquebrune
When we lived in Roquebrune, his favourite game was to nose a tennis ball into the pool and then bark and bark until someone got it out for him. We had wonderful adventures and outings. He loved going to restaurants, his favourite being Le Balico in Menton where the waiters always found a biscuit for him and put a water bowl under the table. He visited Avignon and Moustiers-Ste-Marie and toured all around Corsica one spring, leading Candy and me up the rugged mountains like the little trouper he was - and he always loved his trips to Italy.

Milou on Corsica with Candy

Milou’s temperament was exceptional, accepting as he did all the dogs who came en pension. He cuddled up to his Labrador house-mate, Flavia, and he was loved by everyone, especially his bed-buddy Candy, who shared her bed with him whenever she visited from America and never forgot to pack a tennis ball in her luggage. Milou could smell a tennis ball from a mile away!

In May 2005, just one day short of his 15th birthday, Milou went to doggy heaven. He is buried on the hillside under a beautiful rose and tucked up with his favourite tennis ball, his last gift from Candy. I've been lucky to have shared my life with many wonderful dogs including so many beautiful and much-loved Old English Sheepdogs but Milou was the 'dog of my life’ and, of course, Pension Milou was named for him.

Walking down the donkey track from the village - with Kent, our American buddy

I’ve often wondered why Milou, of all the dogs I’ve owned and loved, was so special. Perhaps it was because he shared most of the years in France with me, years that weren’t so easy at the beginning. Perhaps because after all the years with many Old English Sheepdogs, he was the only dog and so we grew close. When you have lots of dogs I think they interact as much with each other as with their owner. But really I think it’s because he was such an exceptional dog – always happy. He made me laugh out loud at his antics. It was impossible to be sad around him – he kept me going. And he was a kind, unselfish dog. I learned a lot from Milou and dammit, I miss him still.

Soaked on the Corbusier walk from Roquebrune to Monaco
On the opposite side of the valley to where I live there is a wide track cut into the forest to allow fire engines through in times of fire. It’s been designated a nature walk so is closed off to all cars and bikes. Many people walk their dogs along this track – it goes from Gorbio tennis courts all the way down the valley towards the Mediterranean, cuts around and ends up at Roquebrune tennis courts but it’s a long walk and there is nowhere to take a rest en route.

Soon after Milou’s death I asked the Maire of Gorbio if I could buy a bench for walkers in memory of Milou and asked if I could put an inscription on it. The Mayor chose a rustic bench made of halves of tree trunks, which suited the environment. He asked if I liked it and I did. He told me he’d be happy to burn any words I chose into the wood. This was in May 2005. Six months later he told me the bench had been ordered. A few months after that, he told me it had arrived but that he had yet to do the engraving. Earlier this year he stopped and said Bonjour whilst I was eating at a table outside the Beau Sejour restaurant in the village. He told me the bench had been engraved but he was waiting for someone to install it. You don’t hurry things in France!

The inscription gave me a dilemma. I’ve always loved a particular Milun Kundera quotation but it was far too long – even if I’d just used the final sentence:

Etre assis avec un chien à flanc de côteau par un belle après-midi ensoleillé rencoit a l’Eden – où ne rien faire n'était pas ennuyeux - c'était la paix ~Milan Kundera.

How could I expect anyone, even our wonderful Mayor, to engrave that lot on the back of a bench? Here’s the full quotation in English. I love it. Don’t you?

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring-- it was peace." Milan Kundera

...our link to paradise. (in the hills above Gorbio)
I needed to think of something else and I remembered an Edith Wharton quotation that seemed right. I sent both and told him he could decide which one to use.

Last week, at the Fête de la Branda, the Mayor asked me if I’d seen le banc and cheekily told me it had been in place a year. I reminded him I’d asked him about it only this last Spring. ‘Oh well,’ he said, ‘perhaps six months.’ So, finally, my Milou’s bench is in place. I must go and see it.

It’s a beautiful morning and Sheila, my friend from the village, is driving down with her dog, Taco. She picks me up by the mailbox at the top of my track. Beau, the refuge dog, comes too. We drive around to the other side of the valley and park. After the rains, small piles of rocks have fallen onto the track, pine cones are underfoot along with the spiky coverings of conkers from a lone horse chestnut tree. I didn’t know they grew in the south of France. The path twists and turns as it descends towards the Mediterranean so that we can’t see much ahead of us until we round each bend. Then, suddenly, we see the bench. Tucked into a small lay-by, it looks down towards the sea.

On Milou's bench with Beau
It’s perfect. I read the inscription:

To Milou 1990 – 2005 “My little dog: a heart-beat at my feet” ~ Edith Wharton

Well actually the Mayor missed out colon and left the ‘H’ out of Wharton but hopefully she’ll forgive us – and Milou never could spell properly.

Yes, this is good. Milou would like this bench and so do I. I sit on it and pose for a photo with Beau. We start to walk back to the car but then I remember. I walk back, take an old tennis ball out of my pocket and place it carefully under the bench…

16 October 2006

Fête de la Branda!

All the villages around here have their special Fête days. Gorbio has several but the Fête de la Branda, held in October, is my favourite.

It’s a stunning day as October days so often are on the Mediterranean. There’s a clarity to the light on fine autumn days that you don’t get with the heat haze of summer. The sky is a slightly paler version of Matisse blue, the leaves on the trees stand out almost as if they are painted on layers of glass, stuck together to make one of those glass paintings I remember seeing in my grandmother’s house as a child.

I spend my life in jeans, so I don a floaty number, throw a pink scarf around my neck, shut the dogs in the house and drive up to the village. I want to get there early, as it’s always hard to find somewhere to park the car on Fête days. I’m later than I planned and join a steady stream of cars climbing the Route de Gorbio to the village. The car park is full, people are parking anywhere. I cheat. My friend Sheila is away – I know that because I’m caring for her dog, Taco – so I drive up her hidden lane, park my car on the empty patch of land opposite her house and walk down the steep cobbled street toward the main square.

Band at the entrance to the old village

A man is selling beds - four or five large mattresses are laid out on frames on the side of the road. I wonder who on earth buys a mattress at a village fete - someone must because he’s always here. I see the veggie lady from Sospel, a beautiful village 20 kilometres above Menton. Her table displays mounds of Cœur de Bœuf tomatoes, a pile of perfectly round pumpkins and a single enormous courgette. On the ground are cages - one is jammed with live chickens, another has half a dozen quail and a few capons. Yet another has guinea pigs and near the wall she has a cage filled with big fluffy white rabbits. I hope these are for sale as pets and not for dinner. We chat for a bit. I’d bought around 30 kilos of tomatoes from her during this past summer which I made into sauce - chopped up, cooked in olive oil with a little onion and lots of basil. Several dozen little pots now sit in my freezer ready to be poured over ricotta and spinach tortellini on dark winter nights.

Guinea pigs and chickens for sale

The upper square is home to a Vide Grenier - literally ‘empty the attic.’ There must be sixty or seventy tables spread out under the plane trees, all covered with the leftovers of people’s lives. Indeed, one has some of the detritus of my life – it’s for a dog charity. I walk past rails of old clothes, tables filled with books, mis-matched wine glasses, antique jewellery, a wonky chair. I notice a beautiful hand-beaten copper bowl. I’m tempted but walk on. I’ve got too much ‘stuff’ as it is - one of those de-clutter experts you see on the television would have a field day in my house.

I walk down steep steps towards the Place – the main square. Someone has stuck notices on the wide trunk of the elm that was planted in 1713. Beyond is the buzz and energy of Fête day. A band is playing, boom boom boom, happy music.

Elm planted in 1713

The square is filled with stalls selling produits du terroir: honey, olives, cheeses, olive oil, charcuterie, tapenade, cakes, wines, socca. Socca is a speciality of the south of France and particularly of Nice. It's a sort of large flat pancake made of chickpea flour and olive oil and is cooked in a pizza oven. You season it with black pepper and it's a very cheap and nutritious way of grabbing a quick bite.

Queues for socca

I can’t wait to buy some of the produce but first I walk to the far end of the square, past the fountain, where, just in front of the archway leading up to the medieval village, stand the two alambics – beautiful copper stills. That’s what we are all here for – the Branda. Branda is the Provençal word for marc, the marc de Provence, which actually has two meanings: either the fermented grape pulp, seeds, and stems that remain after the grapes are pressed for their juice, or the actual potent distilled alcohol. The word comes from the Old French marchier, to trample. Many countries have their version of this, for instance in Italy it’s called Grappa.

François and his brother

The right to practice the ancient art of distilling the Branda passes through the same family and I watch François, who is the last bouilleur de cru of the village. He and his brother, who looks a bit like Popeye, pipe and all, work all day distilling the fiery liquid that is available to everyone. I tried this a few years ago and it’s pretty lethal stuff. I desist. I watch as they empty one of the stills and refill it with the fermented grape mush, layered with straw. The stills are heated by wood fires, vapour fills the air and wafts away above the Restaurant Beau Sejour into the hills. And from a small tap, drip by drip, the clear liquid, the Branda, falls into a blue plastic bucket.

TF1 films the still being emptied

The micro calls for the Mayor: ‘Michel, s’il te plaît. Come and meet our friends from TF1.’ TF1 is the main television channel in France and they are filming the making of the Branda. I see the Mayor, dressed in his usual jeans, amble across the Place greeting people as he goes. He’s a short, stocky man, with an attractive energy and twinkle in his eye. He’s an artist of repute and since he’s been Maire, the village now has many cultural activities. He sees me, grins, kisses me on each cheek and asks if I’ve seen the ‘banc.’ He refers to Milou’s bench and I’ll write about this in my next posting.

I wander amongst the stalls and buy bread stuffed with figs, bread with apples and walnuts. I buy muffins, a pain d’epice, a goat cheese. Then I see the olive oil man standing in a corner under the silk tree. I normally buy half a dozen bottles but with my still fragile back, can’t carry them to the car. I buy two litres but don’t explain. I should have done so – he looks disappointed. No matter, I’ll call at his house when I need more. I meet his attractive wife – these two are such gentle people. She makes the confitures they sell. Last year I bought apricot jam and a marmelade but both were full of what appeared to be sheets of clear plastic until I realised it was gelatine that hadn’t dissolved. I wonder if I should mention it but don't.

Gorbio's olive oil producer

Someone calls my name and it’s Laurence, who owns Nina, a little Jack Russell cross I look after from time to time. She is sitting at a table outside the Bar Les Terrasses with another lady, who also had a dog, an old bichon she carries around in her knapsack. Laurence, beautiful, slim and elegant invites me to join them. I order a noisette (a small espresso with a little milk added) and share the bag of muffins. Laurence tells me her son is dating the other lady’s daughter. I ask if their children plan to marry. ‘Mais non, they are only 18,’ Laurence says. But it’s obvious they are hopeful. Mothers-in-law to be perhaps? I wonder if their children know.

Wild boar

I look at my watch. I must go, get back to the dogs. It takes me half an hour to get out of the village, the cars are still nose to tail trying to get in. I read a few days later in Nice-Matin that 'Les Gendarmes distribuent des prunes.' A prune, apart from being a plum is also argot (slang) for an amende or fine. The police handed out 30 parking fines to visitors. How mean! Everyone knows it’s impossible to park in a medieval hill village. I have no doubt our Maire will have something to say to the Menton gendarmes before next year.

Bichon in bag
Related Posts with Thumbnails