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

03 October 2006

Dem bones, dem bones

Maddie, Penny & Beau

The rain’s gone and the sun is shining, the sky is that perfect Mediterranean blue with the odd powder puff of cloud here and there - and the dogs – well, most of them (we won’t mention Beau) have stopped peeing in the house. All is well in my world. Time to see if my bones have healed.

My neighbour drives me to the x-ray clinic. It’s seven weeks since I fell two metres and landed on my back on the edge of a stone step. You can read about that stupidity in the posting called ‘Gardening can seriously damage your health.’ As we drive down the Route de Gorbio it’s as if I’ve suddenly landed on a film set – lights, action, music. Seven weeks is too long to be stuck in one place. Every bend in the road brings a new vista: the sea, the port of Menton, the blue leaves of the olives glinting in the sunlight, the colours, the smells, it’s almost overwhelming. What must a guy newly out of prison feel?

The x-rays show the fissure in the pubic bone has healed but the four broken bones in my lower back (spurs off the spine) haven’t and each one is now floating at least an inch from where it should be. The doc at the clinic says provided there is no pain, it won’t matter. But it is painful. I wear a corset and that helps a little - it also gives me a nifty waist. I walk from the clinic to see my doctor who gives me an ordonnance (prescription) to see a back specialist.


I really like Dr. Lamas. She’s always to the point, and always smiling. One of the most difficult things when moving to a new country is finding a doctor, a dentist and a hairdresser, not to mention a bank and a garage you trust. It all takes time. And it isn’t just difficult in a country with a different language. I don’t remember problems when I moved to America but then I was young and probably didn’t think about it too much. Later, when I emigrated to Australia and wore my hair curly and piled up with wispy bits floating about my ears, a bit à la Brigitte Bardot (as if!) every hairdresser was appalled. ‘You’ll not want your hair like this in Australia,’ they said. I kept changing hairdressers and stuck it out for about three years but then they were right: once I moved from Tasmania to Far North Queensland, it was all too much in the heat and I had the lot chopped off.

One day, earlier this summer, Dr. Lamas paid a home visit. I was too sick with a stomach virus to drive down the valley. The fee was peanuts considering the length of journey to me. I offered her more money. She refused but said she’d love some boutures (cuttings) in the autumn. Now, I’ve a couple of dozen young plants ready for her. They need planting in her garden before the autumn rains arrive and she’ll be up soon to collect them. My sort of lady.

She shares the surgery with her ex-husband and so one or other is always on duty for home visits. One time, when my best friend Candy was visiting from America, she fell sick. The husband came on a home visit and she nearly swooned with joy. ‘Oh my,’ she croaked in her fevered state, ‘a Jean-Claude Killy look-a-like with a voice like Maurice Chevalier.’ Candy got better pretty quickly after that visit. Amazing what a dishy French doctor can do for one’s spirits. I quite expect her to fall sick on her next trip to France and I’d best make sure it’s Jean-Claude himself who comes to tend to her. Candy had a poster of J-C Killy in her room at college and she has it hanging in her garage even now. I was just happy for the brownie points I gained in offering such a service to a visiting American.

A week or so later, I get to see the back specialist who tells me that no operation is necessary, indeed possible, but that I need six months balnéothérapie. I call into the clinic in Menton where I’m directed to a dingy basement which has that very distinct swimming pool smell. Funny how smells more than any other sense, can transport you back to the past. Suddenly I’m eleven years old and shivering on the diving board at the St. Alfred Swimming Pool, an Art Deco building in Hove, Sussex, where I used to take diving lessons from Maire Hider, a competitor in the 1948 Olympics. Back to the present and to Menton and to the very sympa doctor on duty who tells me that the balnéothérapie clinic is closing at the end of the month. I ask him why and he gives that familiar French shrug. He directs me to his own office in Carnoles and tells me that rééducation (rehabilitation), without water, will be just fine. I’m not sure what to do. I know water therapy would be good but I know the nearest clinic for that is much further away and it’s often so difficult to leave the dogs for more than an hour or so.

I walk toward the address I’ve been given, ring the bell and the door is opened by a good-looking young man who is the kinésithérapeute (physiotherapist) on duty. What am I saying? He’s not just good looking, he’s a vision of perfect manhood. I look at him, a beautiful slim Frenchman in blue jeans and decide to go no further. I think of Candy’s recovery with her Jean-Claude Killy look-a-like and know I’ll be just fine, thankyou, with this gentleman. In fact, Bruno is a brilliant kiné and trés sérieux, which is how the French say 'responsible.' He’s teaching me exercises to help support the damaged area. I work hard on stomach and lower back muscles and it’s damned painful at times, but when he praises me for doing an exercise correctly, I positively purr with pleasure. And when he massages my back, I wonder what could possibly be wrong in falling two metres onto the edge of a sharp stone step.
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