Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Christmas in the Creuse

French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse St-Martin-Ste-Catherine eglise
The nativity scene in the village of St-Martin-Ste-Catherine in the Creuse


Christmas in the Creuse

 

It was a genius of an idea. A spur of the moment change of plan that immediately felt so perfect it actually ignited my Christmas spirit – something that never happens in November. 

 

Let me take you back a few weeks, to early November, when Ed and Pearl were home for a weekend visit. We checked our calendars and found a weekend when they were free to dog and house sit for us, so we could escape on the bikes in the hope of catching some fine autumnal colours and exploring some more of France. Adrian, being our chief planner, had found a few accommodation options, when he stumbled upon a bargain that couldn’t be ignored. Rather than a bijou studio apartment for two, with just enough room to squeeze the folded Bromptons in, he’d found a gite that slept six people and was happy to accept dogs, for the same modest price we always search for. A quick chat with Ed and Pearl confirmed they were happy to join us there, direct from Poitiers, and have fun with Mini exploring some new walks. As we won’t all be together for Christmas or New Year, it seemed the perfect opportunity to combine a weekend away and a family pre-Christmas celebration.



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse
An evening stroll, autumn in the Creuse


 

Adrian and I arrived on the Friday, just as the sun was setting, bathing the rural landscape of rolling hills, fields of Limousin cows and autumn-leaved trees in a soft gold. The fire had been lit, adding to the warm welcome we received from Sally and Mark, who had even thought to add some Christmas decorations when we’d explained our weekend plans. We unpacked the car that was stacked to bursting with bicycles, walking boots, food, drink, clothes and the dog, before setting off along the lane for a quick evening stroll. Mini met the resident dogs who were as welcoming as their owners, and they all got on just fine once the ritual bottom sniffing had been attended to.

 

When Ed and Pearl arrived, it was quickly decided that Pearl would be our weekend fire chief. While our heating has always been of the push-button boiler variety, her parents have a woodburning stove and all Adrian and I had succeeded in doing so far, was either letting it go out or, poking it and stoking it, thus filling the room with smoke. With Pearl in charge, we were nice and toasty. 



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse Brompton
Setting off for 70km on the Bromptons


 

Once the morning fog had lifted on Saturday, Adrian and I set off for a 70km ride on the Bromptons, exploring an area where the cycling was hilly enough to be challenging, but the autumn colours were stunning and the scenery was gorgeous. We are used to rural French cycling, following the back roads between villages and rarely being bothered by traffic, but the Creuse took quiet, lost lane cycling to a whole new level. It was as if we were the only ones in the world, as village after village slumbered behind closed shutters. Luckily there were cows to keep us company, lots of cows. Their gentle eyes lifted from the seriousness of grass chewing and followed us past their fields, their chestnut colouring blending perfectly with the trees and hedges framing the landscape.



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse chemins de St Jacques camino
The scallop shell that marks the Camino pilgrimage routes

 

Once again fate had thrown us onto the path of one of the French Caminos, the long-distance pilgrimage routes that cross France heading towards Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. This time it was the route from Vézelay that then heads through Limoges and Bergerac on its way to St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees. So many of our adventures cross the camino, the call to follow it becomes stronger each time.



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse 16th Century frescoes
The 16th Century frescoes in St-Martin-Ste-Catherine


 

As the afternoon drew on, we realised it wasn’t just us who were thinking of Christmas. A pause to rest our legs and look at the sixteenth century frescoes in the rather damp and crumbly church in St-Martin-Ste-Catherine, revealed the nativity scene tucked under the altar, ready for the first Sunday of Advent. The figurines were chipped and worn, no doubt touched by many hands over the years, the manger empty and waiting for its Christmas Day arrival. It was about this time that I began to doubt myself. Daylight was fading fast; the air had become noticeably colder and my legs were tiring with each pedal stroke. What 51-year-old fool thinks she can cycle 70km in an afternoon and then prepare a special four course feast for dinner? That fool would be me! 



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse
A family festive feast


 

It was dark before we returned, but the chatter over aperos soon revived me enough to put together my Christmas flavours risotto; chicken, pumpkin, mushrooms and cranberries, served with side dishes of spicy red cabbage (prepared in advance) and sautéed lardons, leeks and walnuts – the leeks were a good substitute for the Brussels sprouts that didn’t look very appetising when we shopped. We dined like kings, pausing between courses to play games like Boggle, Uno and Head Bandz as the music played and the fire crackled in the background. Ed was our chief entertainer and when I could no longer sit upright, we sprawled on the sofas as he played his guitar.



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse
The gite


  

The gite had everything we needed, including an enclosed garden, endless walks that took in views of the lake, woodlands and fields, and cosy, comfortable beds topped with soft flannelette sheets and heavy, down-filled duvets. The icing on the cake was that it was owned by an Australian ex-pro road cyclist who was happy to talk about cycling and share his knowledge of the local routes. A weekend here was not long enough. For more information you can contact them by email: s.fenner@ftptraining.com



French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse
Sunrise from the bedroom window


 

Life has been turned on its head a number of times since the summer and sometimes you just need to stop the madness for a moment. This weekend gave me the chance to reset my head and experience the sunrise from another bedroom window, and it’s always good to see things from a different angle.

 

Thanks for the fun and great memories. You guys are the best.

 

French Village Diaries family Christmas in the Creuse
My family - an autumn walk in the Creuse

 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Book review of Christmas on the Riviera by Jennifer Bohnet

French Village Diaries book review Christmas on the Riviera Jennifer Bohnet
Christmas on the Riviera Jennifer Bohnet


Christmas on the Riviera by Jennifer Bohnet 

 

As a toddler Elodie Jacques was abandoned by her mother and left in the care of her French grandmother, Gabriella in Dartmouth, Devon.

 

Now 24 years old, Elodie struggles to reconcile the deep anger for the mother she has never since seen.

 

When Gabriella unexpectedly announces she wants the two of them to spend Christmas and her 70th birthday in her home town of Juan-les-Pins in the South of France Elodie is thrilled.

 

Gabriella meanwhile has her own ulterior motives for wanting to return after 40 years, a daunting homecoming potentially filled with memories, secrets and recriminations.

 

With Juan-les-Pins pulsing with lights, decorations and the festive spirit, Christmas promises to be filled with fun. But when Elodie learns there is the possibility that her long absent mother may join them she hides her feelings behind a show of indifference and animosity.

 

Will there be the reconciliation that Gabriella longs for - or will the spirit of Christmas fail to work its magic?



French Village Diaries book review Christmas on the Riviera Jennifer Bohnet
Christmas on the Riviera by Jennifer Bohnet

 

My Review

Having been a big fan of Jennifer Bohnet’s novels for many years, I couldn’t wait to dive into her latest, set on the Riviera and with a sprinkling of festive magic. I wasn’t disappointed, this is another cosy read that wrapped me up in the lives of the strong female characters.

 

Gabriella and her family have reached a point in their lives where change is afoot. Having shut away her memories of growing up in France, it is now time to return to her roots and confront her childhood home in the south of France. For her granddaughter Elodie, now feels the right time to change the direction her life is going in, but she needs to discover the where and how. For Gabriella's estranged daughter, it is time to discover if there is still a place for her in her family, despite the mistakes she’s made over the years.

 

This is a strong emotional read where settling past traumas and tentatively taking steps to new beginnings hold their own alongside Christmas friendship and the promise of romance, all with the backdrop of festive cheer on the Riviera. There are a lot of emotions for each of the women to come to terms with, but I especially enjoyed discovering the secrets hidden in their pasts. 


As the true romantic I am, I was hoping for happy ever afters – it is almost Christmas after all – but I shall say no more and let you discover what happens this Christmas on the Riviera. 

 

If you are looking for something special to read, with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie, treat yourself to Christmas on the Riviera, I’m sure you will love it. If you are quick, the kindle UK price is only 99p, don’t miss out.

 

Purchase Links 



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French Village Diaries book review Christmas on the Riviera Jennifer Bohnet
Jennifer Bohnen


Author Bio

 

Jennifer Bohnet is the bestselling author of over 12 women’s fiction titles, including Villa of Sun and Secrets and A Riviera Retreat. She is originally from the West Country but now lives in the wilds of rural Brittany, France.

 

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French Village Diaries book review Christmas on the Riviera Jennifer Bohnet
Christmas on the Riviera by Jennifer Bohnet


Monday, November 21, 2022

Destiny's dating game

French Village Diaries destiny's dating game
Calm skies on Saturday morning's bike ride


Last week was quite a week with one thing and another, which made me appreciate the quiet weekend we had, before we launched ourselves into another busy week. 

 

It was a weekend of reflection for us, as exactly six years ago today we lost Adrian’s Dad to a stroke, and this is the first time the anniversary has matched that weekend, day for day. I can’t help but look back and remember what we were doing that Friday when the phone call came. How it felt to leave Adrian at La Rochelle airport to head to the UK, alone, while I spent the drive home preparing what I would say to Ed when I collected him from lycée. For Ed and I, the weekend was spent waiting for messages or video calls. For Adrian, his Mum and the rest of the family, it was spent at the hospital. Then the heart-breaking call on the Monday morning to say his Dad had died.

 

Do you ever wonder how destiny works? and how it is we end up where we do? and how some people we meet come and go, but bonds are formed with others? I do, and I usually enjoy discovering patterns or coincidences, especially when they involve dates and numbers. 

 

Back in the 1990’s we were living in Reading, Berkshire and I was commuting into the City of London for work. One of my younger colleagues lived on the Essex coast, so if we hadn’t have found ourselves working in the same small team, it is safe to say we would never have met. Over the years our lives became intrinsically entwined by shared memorable dates. The first coincidence was that she and Adrian share a birthday. Then, she got married on our first wedding anniversary and to top off the hat trick, her third son was born on my 37th birthday. With lives in different countries, we might not see each other regularly, but we will always have those celebratory dates in common and we keep in touch, through Facebook. They are a sporty family too and didn’t hesitate to help us clock up the kilometres for the charity event set up in memory of our nephew Ben in the summer of 2020.



French Village Diaries destiny's dating game
Autumn colours in the old vineyards


 

Destiny has been playing the dating game with me again this week, minus the smiles of birthdays and weddings. Exactly two months on from losing my Dad to liver cancer, a good friend in the village was admitted into the palliative care unit at our local hospital, also battling liver cancer. On Friday, her three children arrived at her bedside, exactly as Adrian had done for his Dad on Friday 18th November 2016. Our thoughts and hearts have been with them all this weekend and destiny’s hat trick was the news that she died peacefully in her sleep this morning. 

 

Whilst news like this is always a shock, my coincidence alarm was on high alert and I would be lying if I said a little bit of me hadn’t been expecting the early morning message from her son. I'm not sure what to make about these crazy coincidences, but I am glad destiny put us in the same small French village and that I was able do what I could to help her navigate this beast of an illness with the added complication of medical appointments in a foreign language.

 

RIP Sue 21/11/22. A lovely lady and a good friend. 

 

In memory of David 21/11/16. The best father-in-law, who welcomed me into his family with a smile and one or two glasses of vin chaud.

 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

11th November, villages and towns remember

French Village Diaries 11th November, village and towns remember
11th November 2022 in our village


We have now been home from the UK for two weeks. Two rather busy weeks, but without work at the château it has been good to have a variety of things to fill my days with.

 

I can vividly remember our first autumn in France, eighteen years ago. September had been hot, with misty mornings turning into afternoons with temperatures hitting 32º. October was mild, as was the beginning of November. However, as the 11th of November arrived, so did the cold northerly winds, the air became glacial and winter began to bite. This is a pattern that has repeated itself many times over the years. On Thursday, we awoke to mist. It was much colder than Wednesday and our bike ride out of the village to the egg farm wasn’t fun. The air was heavy with moisture and each pedal stroke felt like the mist was pushing against us and progress was slow. We arrived back home soaked from the water droplets that had seeped into every fibre of our clothing and unlike the September misty mornings, this didn’t lift to reveal sunny skies. The chill it brought with it remained, and the house felt cold. I thought the mid-November weather change had arrived, but just to prove Mother Nature has the final say, yesterday and today have been warm and sunny, lunch-in-the-garden days.



French Village Diaries 11th November, village and towns remember
Reading For the Fallen.
Merci Françoise pour cette photo

 

Yesterday, the 11th November, was Remembrance Day, and a public holiday here in France. It was lovely to catch up with our neighbours and friends outside the salle des fêtes and take part in the memorial service. The maire read out a letter from the government before one of the children laid the floral wreath and then Adrian and I laid our Royal British Legion poppy wreath before reciting the famous verse from For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon, in English (Adrian) and French (me).

 

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

 

We will remember them.

 

French Village Diaries 11th November, village and towns remember
Lantern des Morts, Pierre Levée cemetery, Poitiers


Growing up, attending this ceremony was something Ed always did, without question, from the age of four. Imagine how proud I was when he sent me a few photos from the local ceremony he’d attended on Friday morning from the Pierre Levée cemetery in Poitiers. It was a slightly larger event than our village one, with a number of dignitaries laying floral wreaths at the foot of the lantern des morts that stands tall and proud in the cemetery, the rows of French and German First World War graves standing silently behind it. As in our village, the council try to involve the younger generation in the ceremony, with each wreath being presented to the person laying it by a younger person from the crowd and Ed was selected to hand the President of the Conseil Départemental de la Vienne his wreath. Well done Ed, but I think Adrian and I deserve a “parenting pat on the back moment” too for bringing him up to realise how important these ceremonies are, and how we must remember the fallen.

 

Today the sun is still with us, so a bike ride with friends to market was a great start to the day. Coffees, croissants, a few chores in town ticked off and lots of laughs and chatter. Buoyed up by a morning outdoors, this afternoon was also spent in the garden, cutting back the fennel and hollyhocks, tidying the daisies and mowing the lawn (maybe for the final time). The doors and windows have been open all afternoon, the washing is out, Ed and Pearl (who arrived last night) have walked the dog, as well as catching up with their friends for lunch out and the back garden looks much tidier. This evening we will enjoy family time together and maybe even aperos in the garden.

 


  

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The magic of French markets

French Village Diaries the magic of French markets Chef-Boutonne
At the Saturday morning market in Chef-Boutonne


It’s early November and the Saturday morning market in Chef-Boutonne may be quieter than it’s been all summer, with the weekly live music sessions all but a faded memory, but it still has an important role to play for the locals. 

 

It has become a regular thing for our friends to cycle down to market and enjoy a catch-up chat, a coffee, and a croissant, but it was something that for us had to fit in around Saturdays working at the château. Now that the château’s doors are firmly closed until next March, and all I can do is keep my fingers crossed all winter, in the hope there will still be a need for an extra pair of hands and a bilingual tongue, it does mean I’ve now got more time to enjoy the market.

 

Typically, our friends had other plans for today; a social lunch at the village pizza restaurant, which we’d declined as we’d pigged out on burgers, chips and a café gourmand dessert selection in Poitiers with Ed and Pearl yesterday. This, coupled with hardly any kilometres cycled this week meant a pizza lunch wasn’t calorie-compatible with our regime. Plus, the weather, which had been wet and wild yesterday morning, was calm and sunny today, meaning we didn’t want to miss out on a bike ride into market.



French Village Diaries the magic of French markets Chef-Boutonne
Poitiers catch-up with Ed and Pearl


 

Within ten minutes of arriving, and before we’d even made it to the boulangerie for croissants to accompany our coffees, we had chatted to ten different people. They were a mix of French and English, some were friends from our village, some were people I’ve got to know from working at the library or the château, and others were just acquaintances. Mostly it was a quick bonjour, followed by a few words to catch up on life before another friendly face pulled them, or us, into a new conversation. One friend who we hadn’t seen for ages, joined us on the terrace of the bar and over a coffee in the sun we found the time for a catch up that has eluded us all summer. It couldn’t have been better planned, even if we’d tried.

 

It was our final encounter that was the most unexpected. As we sipped coffees and tried to capture every crumb of flaky croissant, a man approached our table, asking if I was Jacqui Brown. With a little trepidation, I confirmed that I was, and he then thanked me for the last blog post I’d written, saying how much he’d enjoyed it. Woah! Thank you, sir. Every friendly face we met this morning made my day, your kind words were the icing on the cake and just emphasised the magic of a morning spent at a French market. 


That feeling of belonging, of community and the deep-rooted tradition that French people have been making the time for each other like this for generations. It is humbling to think this is now part of my life too.



French Village Diaries the magic of French markets Chef-Boutonne
Weekend fun on the Brompton


 

Even with a strong headwind for the seven-kilometre return, I couldn’t help grinning as my legs turned the pedals and my lungs filled with fresh air.

It was nothing short of a perfect start to the weekend, although we did miss the usual banter from our cycling buddies. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Time is a funny thing

French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint Melle
Early morning light in Melle, Deux-Sevres


Time is a funny thing

 

Before the blackbirds began their pre-dawn chorus this morning, we were both up, showered and breakfasted. I’d rummaged in the freezer for a soup for lunch and a quick peek outside revealed just how dark it is before the village streetlights flicker into life. The washing machine and dishwasher had both run before the overnight cheaper electric ended at seven o’clock and the washing was hung out, albeit in the dark. 



French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint
Fresh off the ferry in Dieppe


 

We have only been home from the UK for a few days, so we lost an hour last Friday lunchtime as our ferry crossed into French time. We then gained an hour in the early hours of Sunday morning as we said goodbye to European summertime and our early start today was because Adrian is working with clients from Abu Dhabi who are three hours ahead of us, or four hours ahead of the UK. By the time the village church bells rang the midday Angelus, his working day was almost over, even if our body clocks had no idea whether it was lunchtime, dinnertime or siesta time. 

 

One thing I do know is that I need to make time for my yoga class this evening, even if it means more juggling of mealtimes. Time spent in the UK meant time away from the yoga mat, and yesterday was an off-the-scale busy day that saw us leave the house before seven thirty in the morning (for Adrian’s annual fasting blood test in Melle), followed by my last day at the Château, and I didn’t get home until fifteen minutes before my quarter to nine (in the evening) class was due to begin. Funnily enough I opted for time with Adrian, dinner, and a glass of wine, instead of yoga.

 

Halloween

When we arrived in France eighteen years ago, Halloween was low key. Our village had a few enthusiastic mums and lots of elderly mamies keen to see the dressed-up little ones and ply them with sweets. Everyone met outside the village hall early in the afternoon and together with our little monsters we would traipse around the streets filling up on bonbons. Long before darkness had fallen, we were all safely home where the fatigue of a long afternoon walking, fought against the inevitable sugar-rush from the Carambars. Time has moved on; Ed has grown up and I’ve realised just how out of touch I am with Halloween. 



French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint Chateau de Javarzay
A hidden pumpkin at Château de Javarzay


 

A few months ago, Halloween at the Château de Javarzay was mentioned. Should we close the season on a high with something special on Halloween for the children? It falls during the school holidays here in France and from November, the château will be closed until next spring. The answer was a unanimous YES. We found Halloween colouring sheets, all featuring castles with turrets and towers, just like our château. Decorations were hung in the entrance, and we teamed up with the library to end the day with a fun story time for the four-to-six-year-olds. Following on from the success of our Easter egg hunt, we hid twenty numbered paper pumpkins in and around the château, and each group were given an answer sheet to fill in where they’d found the pumpkins. Sweets and colouring sheets were given to all successful hunters. 



French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint Chateau de Javarzay
Halloween at the Château de Javarzay


 

I was expecting a slow trickle of families throughout the afternoon, the children dressed up in simple outfits, like Ed and his friends had over fifteen years ago. I was wrong. From the moment we opened the doors at two o’clock, until we cashed up at half past six and let the librarians take over, we were inundated with families and groups. There were witches, devils, skeletons, mad scientists, super heroes and more, plus it wasn’t just the children who were dressed up, the mums and dads had 100% entered into the spirit of Halloween with outfits, face paints and accessories. It proved to be one of our busiest days of the season with the only downside being we massively underestimated the quantity of sweets needed. Some of our visitors had driven over an hour just to join in our Halloween experience and although it was an activity aimed at the children, there were plenty of triumphant parent faces too when they’d successfully found all the pumpkins, especially our golden pumpkin. We had so many positive comments on the château visit and the fun they’d had, I was blown away.



French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint
Our village cemetery on Toussaint

 

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, today is a public holiday in France for Toussaint, All Saints’ Day and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, a day to remember those we have lost. Nothing quite says Autumn to me like the carpet of flowering chrysanthemums we see outside florists and garden centres, destined to add colour to the cemeteries here in France. Family members will have made time over the last few days to tidy graves and leave their potted chrysanthemums to remember their loved ones. 


French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint
A carpet of chrysanthemums


Our UK visit was for Dad’s funeral, which despite the circumstances, was a day filled with family, friends and a lot of laughter, just as he would have wanted it to be. Ed was nothing short of awesome as he played the guitar and sang one of Dad’s favourite Irish songs during the service and we couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s certainly come a long way since the timid little pumpkin of 2004, not too keen on scary costumes and always the last one in the doorstep sweetie grab. How time flies.


French Village Diaries Time is a funny thing Halloween in France Toussaint
Our little pumpkin 2006