Sunday, 30 June 2013

Visits and Visitors

It's been a strange week - one of those weird time-warps when the days seem to have gone by in a flash, and yet last Sunday feels like a lifetime away.
Perhaps it's because the weather has been so strange - some perfect, still, hot summer days and others of constant, despondent mizzle or gusty winds.
Sometimes my wwoofers, Olivia and Marie Christine, have wwoofed, at others they have sat in the kitchen knitting, or curled up in their tiny sitting room watching movies, drizzle misting the window panes.
But despite all, we have taken advantage of every good moment and got a lot done. 

And in between the endless gardening, it's been a week of visits and visitors.

On Monday I went with a friend to see Elizabeth Temple's stunning garden at Salthill in Donegal.
I first went last year, and have been longing to go again, and introduce another garden-fanatic to its joys.
More of that anon, but for any garden lover visiting the north west of Ireland, it is a must-see.

Part of the beautiful gardens at Salthill

One of Salthill's many lovely roses - possibly Abram Darby?

An old friend from England came over for a couple of days. He's thinking of buying a holiday house here, so he and the In-Charge spent happy hours cruising around Donegal and Sligo, looking at possible properties.
His family come from Donegal, and he loves coming back.
It was nice to see him, and catch up, although this time he didn't bring his gorgeous wife and children.

Some German friends, on their annual holiday in Ireland, came to re-visit our garden.
It is always nice to see our garden through someone else's eyes.
It makes me appreciate how much we have achieved over the years, and how lovely it is.
On my own, I tend to fasten on the goosegrass sticking out of the astilbe, the weeds that - since yesterday - have started springing in a newly cleared bed, the shrubs that I still haven't pruned...
Despite the hours of work, the list never gets any shorter.
But the Germans claimed not to see any of those things and took a host of photos.
Here are a few of them:
 Frau Speckle

The prince of the lily pond (still un-kissed)

Our lovely sycamore tree


My beautiful Model Dog

They also invited us to supper, our German friends, and - taking the wwoofers with us - we spent a happy evening in their holiday cottage, eating, drinking, chatting and watching the sun slowly sink into Enniscrone bay.
Summer, lovely summer.

More friends - family really - came another day to look at the garden and have tea with us, which forced us, once again, to down tools.
'We gardeners don't make the most of our gardens,' Sylvia said to me as we wandered around, comparing notes on this year's flowers. 'We spend so many hours working, but not enough just sitting - soaking it up.'
How right she is.

In one of Elizabeth Goudge's books, I once read that the elderly matriarch of the family had a seat in her garden 'at every place one might possibly wish to sit down', and - as far as the budget allows - I have tried to follow suit. But despite that, I rarely drift from bench to bench.
I'm more like a hen - head down, bottom up in one of the beds - but in my case, not pecking, just weeding, weeding, weeding.

On the way to the airport to drop our friend off for his flight home, the In-Charge took the girls to Foxford Woollen Mills, and they came home with big smiles on their faces and big carrier bags of scarves and blankets - prized souvenirs of their Irish trip.
And then yesterday it was the Strandhill Show.

I think Strandhill is probably the first of the local summer Shows, and Beltra is probably the last, at the beginning of September. I don't always go to them (I'm often head down, bottom up) but Beltra Country Market had taken a few tables in the craft marquee, so, after another morning of miserable mizzle, the wwoofers and I headed off at lunchtime.
Happily the sun came out as we drove around the coast, and by the time we arrived at the grounds of the once beautiful Lisheen house, it had turned into a hot, summer afternoon, perfect for a parish show - or fete as it would be called in England.

Poor Lisheen

I don't think we sold a vast amount, but everyone enjoyed themselves enormously.

Fabulous seaside setting for a gymkhana

Prize winning cakes

Someone brought their pet birds. I've never seen a Canary before

Anxiously awaiting the results of the dog show

In the craft marquee

When we got home that evening, it was to find the In-Charge entertaining some unexpected visitors - a couple of our own age. Apparently she and her sister had lived in our house for a summer when she was 10. Their parents had gone to Sweden on a three month internship, leaving them in the care of a country Rector and his wife. It was so interesting to hear her recollections of our 'secret garden' - apparently a complete wilderness in those days; to know that the time she spent here has become an idyllic memory; and to learn that coming back after all these years hadn't been a disappointment.
We loved meeting them both. They are, in a way, another little piece of our jigsaw, another of the limitless secrets our house has been coaxed into revealing.

A week of visitors.
And only one has been unwelcome.
The fox has called - twice. He must steal in like a shadow over the garden fence.
We have lost two of our hens this week, a sad waste of feathers at the bottom of the orchard our only clue as to their fate.

There are some visitors you can do without.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Daring to Bare

I hardly needed my alarm clock to wake me at cock-crow this morning.
A savage wind had already woken me several times as dawn crept in.
Here we are at the solstice, the longest day of the year, and Irish bonfire night - all crammed into one summer weekend - and you would think it was mid autumn.
I think it's my fault. A few days ago I wrote that it was hot and dry and wonderful. Needless to say, it started to rain the next day.

As I hauled myself reluctantly out of bed, I wondered whether the lads from the marquee company would even try to put the tent up on the beach. How would they ever fasten it down?
I had visions of a kind of marquee-shaped hot air balloon gusting across Donegal Bay with various people dangling from ropes. I tried to quell such negative (but graphic) thoughts, grabbed the flapjacks, my winter coat, hat and wellies, and headed out the door.
Marie Christine - one of our wwoofers -  was waiting by the car, despite the appalling hour and weather.

We were off to help at the 4th annual skinny dip to raise money for cancer research.

After last year's Dip in the Nip, I no longer had romantic visions of driving into the dawn, which was just as well, as nothing was visible on the horizon except low grey cloud hanging like soggy fleece, obliterating everything.
But to my amazement, when we got to the beach, a half-erected marquee met our eyes, with - yikes - men clinging to ropes...

I was instantly and efficiently directed to a parking slot and from that moment, everything fell into place with oiled ease. Before the tent was even fully up, it was filled with tables, portable gas rings, boilers, catering flasks full of piping hot coffee and tea, not to mention endless tins of flapjacks and buttered scones.

Talentui Organics  face and body oils

In a separate corner we laid out Talentui organic soaps and oils, cards and crafts - including lovely little pottery dishes with Dip in the Nip 2013 hand printed on the bottom. Our resident potter had made them with clay from the next bay along the coast, each one different.

The sea, the sea - caught in a bowl. Marie-Christine chose this one

Beltra Country Market was in full swing.

Dip in the Nip's inventor and organiser then informed us that everyone had recommended cancellation. The Irish Coast Guards, The Irish Surf Association and Life Guards, even I think the County Council, not to mention all those sane enough to be still in their beds, snug and warm.
Glancing out at the wild, messy ocean, and listening to the wind battering the tent, it wasn't hard to apply the logic.
But the suggestion that people ought not to fulfil the morning's purpose was met with loud boo-ing, and within minutes the men and couples had headed off to their stations at the far end of the beach, and a stream of pink wigs and dressing gowns was flowing down after them, if not eagerly, at least with determination. Marie and I took a few minutes off our tea-lady duties to watch as they gathered for a photo, away down the strand, before flinging their dressing-gowns off and racing towards the sea.


Looks like the men and the women could be going head-to-head this year

High up where we stood beside the tents, we watched items of clothing dancing along the sand like Disney characters. A pink wig somersaulted towards us like tumbleweed, followed a moment later by a t-shirt, flapping through the air like a strange, pink bird.

We never saw them again, but it wasn't long before the Dippers started to reappear, eager to wrap their numb fingers around a hot drink.
'It's warmer in the sea than on the beach,' they said.
I could believe them.

But it was warm in the tent too. Not because the temperature was higher, but because everyone was there for the same reason, and everyone was in it together, dippers and helpers alike - trying to raise money that might save a life, or to commemorate a loved one, to support someone suffering from a horrible disease, to forge new hope.
The air was filled with friendship and laughter. Despite the innate sadness of the cause, it buzzed with life and love.

There were no wishing trees this year, the wind was too strong.
But as Marie and I left, I saw that the car park was full of pink feathers, torn from boas and now settling into the sand and gravel like confetti.
Each one a silent prayer.

I am sad to see that sections of this post have been randomly used in an article about Dip in the Nip in the online publication, Sligo Today - without prior permission or acknowledgement as to the source.

The post I wrote after this same event last year, Nippy Dipping in the Briney, has been the second most popular post on my blog, ever.
You can read it here if you would like to.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Les Sticks and Les Flics

Like most women, I am not obsessed with my weight.
I just think about it all the time.
I don't do much about it, admittedly, but I think about it.
And, happily, being completely indifferent to fashion, the resurgence of spray-on jeans has neither sparked any desire to be a la mode nor impinged on my physical comfort.

I don't suppose you have to be stick-thin to carry off the spray-on look, but I'm sure it helps.
Paris is stick thin.
I don't think I have ever seen so many wafer-women anywhere.
I don't know how they manage to walk about - some of them on sky-scraper heels as well.
How do they do it? And in Paris of all places, where every second shop is a boulangerie, and the ones in between sell wine or cheese, or chocolate, or some other epicurean delight.

When it came to our Essential Paris List, the In-Charge and I were as one.

'Matchsticks!' said I.
'Toothpicks!' said he, but then, 'Spaghettini,' he corrected himself.

We noticed it on our first day. Sitting in a cafe, the In-Charge suddenly said: 'There isn't a pick of flesh on that.'
The last time he'd said that was when we collected SuperModelTeenQueen from her foster home (and that was after three weeks of intensive feeding), so I turned, expecting to see a starving stray.
I suppose she could have been a starving stray, but her clothes didn't fit the bill, and she certainly wasn't either canine or feline.

We got quite competitive in the end.
'Her legs are thinner than the ones you saw yesterday!'
'There go the skinniest pins in Paris!'
We were too busy gawping to record the best of the super-mince, but one or two slipped through by accident.


Anyway, you don't want to be caught snapping girls' legs every time they totter past.
You might attract the wrong kind of attention.
You might be arrested. It could happen.
Les flics were very near the top of both our EP lists. We've never seen so many in our life.

Admittedly, we were staying close to the Ile de la Cite, upon which resides - apart from Notre Dame - the Prefecture de Police, so we knew instantly if anything was going down in any quartier of the city, as fleets of vans stuffed with armed officers would go screaming out, sirens wailing, regardless of the snarled up traffic they left in their wake.

We went to Giverny one Sunday, and when we got off the train at Gare St Lazare on our return, it was to find the area around the Opera closed off, and phalanxes of cops in riot gear lining the streets, shoulder to shoulder.
Excitement, excitement!

Don't you love the irony? Or perhaps not - are they, like Irish Gards, just guardians of the peace...

I immediately ducked behind one of their riot shields to ask what was happening, and found that we had missed a massive manifestation, during which, apparently, 1,000,000 people from all over France had gathered in Paris to protest against the legalisation of gay marriage.

The French, as everyone knows, are always ready to storm the barricades, take to the streets, blockade ports with trucks or find some way of making their feelings known.
Good for the French.
And shame on us for being too apathetic for follow suit.

The police are everywhere in Paris. They are present, in van-loads, at any disturbance, they are on foot, on motorbikes, on rollerblades, on horseback. They are in mufti, they are in uniform, they are in riot gear and   you are definitely going to come off worst in any encounter with their protective clothing.
And, of course, they are armed.
But equally Paris is also full of buskers, beggars, illegal traders and more - none of whom look harassed.
Being a law-abiding tourist with no axe to grind, I don't have an opinion about either police numbers or presence, but I found myself wondering how the French feel. Secure or scrutinised?

One of the funniest moments of our holiday happened in the Tourist Office near Pyramides.
While waiting for a leaflet at the desk, I overheard an elderly American woman talking to the official at the next desk.
'Well,' she said, waving her arms expressively. 'I don't know about that. All I can say is, I'd feel much happier if there were more police on the street!'

We burst into laughter and had to leave immediately.
But for the rest of our stay, one of us only had to say: 'Well, all I can say is, I'd be happier...'

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Summer Time, But The Living Ain't Easy

It's dry, it's sunny, it's hot.
It's unbelievable.
June - for once - is doing what is says on the tin.
We must have brought a little bit of Paris back in our bags.

I'm even getting a bit of a tan - a farmer's tan, that is, which ends where the clothes begin.
I've been working non-stop in the garden, along with our lovely French Canadian wwoofers, Olivia and Marie Christine.
They've been slaving away, as you can see.

Knit, knit, knit...

In fact, they're practically on their knees.

But then, wwoofing is exhausting work.

However, it only takes a quick look round the garden to see just how hard they really have been working, bless their cotton socks.
They've weeded, edged grass, dug beds, pruned, cleared paths and carted endless barrow-loads of garden rubbish away .

See how hard we've all been working.

The dogs, on the other hand, have played tag with the girls, chased each other, chewed bones and tried to chew each other's teeth.
TeenQueen has done a good deal of walking about in the flower beds.
Admonishment runs off her like water off a duck's back.
But they haven't done a whole lot of sleeping in the garden.

Perhaps that's because it's extremely noisy. And I don't mean the digger rumbling in the field outside.
Every bird in the west seems to be nesting somewhere in our patch, and the orchard is full of young rooks. Half of them are learning how to take off and land , the others are being initiated into the joys of digging for leather-jackets. Its a raucous business.
But the swallows outdo them easily. They have got their young ones out on the bean arches, and in between loud singing and flying lessons, there are noisy feeding sessions.
It's a sound, I have to say, that makes my summer.

Me! Me! Me!

We sit around the table at supper almost too tired to talk.
Well, Olivia's never too tired to talk.
And Marie Christine enjoys a good natter.
Come to that, I'm not often too tired to talk myself.
In fact, now I think about it, there are only two family members who are so fast asleep they don't talk at supper.
The ones who didn't do any work in the garden at all - unless you count burying bones in the compost heap as work, that is. 

Model Dog and the TeenQueen hard at work as usual, chewing each other's teeth

Sunday, 16 June 2013

To Market, To Market...Parisian Style

It is Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning in Paris you might, or you might not go to Mass, depending on your personal persuasion.
However, you will, most definitely, go to the market.
And why wouldn't you?
After all, food must be put on the table, on Sunday of all days.

The French do, of course, go to the market on other days of the week, it's not just a weekend treat.
The market is central to life in most European countries.

And naturally, when in Rome...or Paris...
Needless to say, markets was pretty high on our mutual list of 'Essential Paris'
Like most people, we are addicts. We spent hours wandering around in a daze.

Although I must confess, I didn't buy much food in the market.
I know, I know - 'What an eejit!' I hear you cry. 'How could you not?'

The trouble is, I never know where to begin.
We'd have ended up loading our baskets at every stall and staggering home with enough food to feed a small country.

I mean, where do you start?
Shall we just pig out on a multitudinous variety of breads for the day?

Or seafood.
Make seafood sandwiches? 
Seafood salads? 

But then, what about the charcuterie?

Or maybe it would be simpler to buy dinner ready made, and just choose some veg to go with it?
Or salad?

Or fruit?
Perhaps we should just stick to fruit today?

After all, cherries are my absolute, absolute favourite, and at home they each have names and are necessarily sold individually.

Decisions, decisions.
Why not have a few more nibbles while we make up our minds?

I expect other people are more decisive than I am. They'd head straight for their favourite stall and wham-bam, purchase made, lunch in the bag.
I'm not good at that kind of thing.
And anyway, it's not long before I'm pretty full from too much sampling.

My excuse is that I haven't been brought up the French way.
The French head to the market, view everything slightly cynically; poke, prod and finally shrug with Gallic finesse, point to something with a 'Well, I suppose it's better than nothing' expression, and then walk off smug in the certain knowledge that they have the best possible meal tucked in their basket. 

How very civilised the French are.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Le Retour

It's been a long time since I sharpened the end of my finger, licked it, and jotted down a few words.
I'm sorry about that.
Life, as everyone knows, sometimes takes over.

And now suddenly it's June. Blazing June even - at the moment, anyway.
I can only really believe it is June because it was my birthday on Friday. (As I'm going backwards these days, 'Bring 'em on!' is all I can say.)
But more exciting even than a backwards-birthday, is that we have just returned from Paris.

La Conciergerie

I love Paris.
I daresay that's a bit of a cliche, because who - in their right mind - doesn't?
I don't find the Parisians unbearable, or, generally, rude. The city never ceases to thrill me, and no matter how often we were to visit, I'd never get bored.
However, I did have to part with both my kidneys on this trip - Paris has become even more shockingly expensive than before. But on the plus side, life back home seems much cheaper by comparison. And in a country that never seems cheap, that's quite a bonus, even if it's short lived.

As for coming back to blazing sunshine - well, that's even more of a bonus.
Sitting in the courtyard with a glass of wine, I can almost trick myself into thinking I'm still on the Ile St Louis.
Or heading home across Le Petit Pont.
Well, if I close my eyes, that is.

Notre Dame from the garden of Julian le Pauvre

As we were walking down towards the Seine from the Opera a few days ago, I idly asked the In-Charge what 10 individual words he would pick to sum up our time in Paris.
I guess everyone plays these games.
Our favourite is when we visit an exhibition or gallery or museum, we both afterwards have to say which item/artwork we have walked out with under one arm.
Sometimes we have to allow ourselves two. (Each)

The Opera

My question in Paris wasn't that easy to answer, and we discussed it all the way down to the Pont des Arts. Inevitably, while we had some overlaps, we also came up with some different answers.

'€€€€€€€kkk !' was the In-Charge's immediate response, and - with the kidney-removal-scars still fairly raw - I had to agree; although my first thought was 'Pounds, Pounds, Pounds, Pounds, Pounds!'
(Why did no one remind me that the average person's visit to Paris will result in The Kilo-a-Day-Weight-Enhancement-Effect?)

So my standing on the Pont des Arts didn't help it any.
These days it is bowed down with padlocks, and one wonders how heavy they are en masse, and if or when the poor old bridge might sink beneath the grey-green-but-not-greasy waters of the Seine.

Pont des Arts looking towards Ile de la Cite

Apparently the Pont des Arts is where you place a padlock with your life partner (should you feel so inclined), but if the padlock is for your lover, then you should go to the Pont de l'Archevêché. 
Just a hint, if you're heading to Paris...
The padlocks were all removed in 2010 and although everyone blamed the City Council, it turned out they were taken by a student from the nearby École des Beaux-Arts to create a sculpture.
I feel the sculpture ought to be on public display on the Left Bank.
Perhaps it is, but we didn't see it.

Padlocks on the Pont des Arts

Anyway, we still haven't finalised our list, but I shall keep you posted.
Not today. 
While the sun is shining, I feel it behoves me to sit in the courtyard, close my eyes and have another sip of wine.
At least this glass won't cost my liver... (Ha ha)